Leading Article: Too many fishers on the sea

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The great fish finger war of '95 is difficult to take seriously: shots fired, trawlers arrested, warships ordered to sea, pompous exchanges in the House of Commons, European-Canadian contacts frozen - all for the right to trawl for an obscure kind of fish among the icebergs of the North Atlantic. But this, remember, is the latest in a long line of piscine squabbles: fish geo-politics will be a recurring theme of the Nineties.

The issues in dispute 300 miles east of Newfoundland are (as always with fish politics) as slippery as a trawler's deck. The Canadians have no right to pass domestic laws and enforce them in international waters: Tory MPs who cheered Canada may remember that Britain fought two Cod Wars in the 1970s to assert that principle. On the other hand, the vast Spanish fleet, as large as all other European Union fleets combined, is notoriously ill-disciplined. The Spanish owners' threat yesterday to send all their deep-water vessels lumbering into the disputed zone was stupidly unhelpful. The once bountiful cod and flounder stocks of the Grand Banks have already been hoovered up (mostly by American boats). The EU should be more sensitive to Canadian anxieties about the remaining stocks of turbot (or, as stubborn European fish experts insist, Greenland Halibut).

The rights and wrongs of the wider issues are more easily grasped. We are fighting with the Canadians over turbot because stocks of the fish we prefer to eat are at desperately low levels. The combination of failed international control policies, increased boat numbers and hi-tech trawling - sonar spotting of fish shoals, powerful engines and huge lightweight nets - have scoured the seven seas of cod, haddock and tuna. According to the UN, 70 per cent of world fish stocks are endangered, the number of fishing boats in the world has doubled in the past 20 years, and the EU has 40 per cent more vessels than its stocks can sustain.

Fish respect no national limits; they must be conserved and managed internationally. Fisheries ministers from 80 nations will meet in Rome next week to discuss a voluntary code for protection of the remaining stocks. A voluntary code, if enforced by national or EU laws, would be a step forward. But a fundamental change of approach is also needed.

International fisheries policies - including the EU Common Fisheries Policy - have had some successes. But mostly they have failed. They have failed because they have been based on the principle of restricting overall catches and dividing them into national catch quotas. This is almost impossible to enforce. It has proved as effective as squeezing fish paste back into the tube. Some sort of overall catch limits are essential but they must be enforced by limiting, and licensing, the numbers of boats: in other words, by establishing quotas of fishermen, not quotas of fish.