Leading Article: Turning fishnets into stockings

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The Independent Online
At last the great fish war between the European Union and Canada is petering out. Harsh words and intemperate deeds have characterised the behaviour of both sides during the dispute. It is time to put that aside.

There has been fault on both sides. European - and in particular, Spanish - vessels have been guilty of overfishing and breaking the rules. The Canadians, by acting outside their own territorial waters to seize a ship, have played fast and loose with international law. Britain has tried to stay equidistant between both, with strong domestic pressure to pull out of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy and go it alone.

That was always a sideshow. The important objective is fish conservation, whether off the Grand Banks or in the world's other great fisheries. Because fish do not respect national boundaries, what is needed is international co-operation - and Britain's objective should be to get the EU to take that on board.

The bottom line is that there are too many boats chasing too few fish. If the environmental arguments about fisheries co-operation don't persuade governments to act to limit fishing, the economic ones should. According to estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the global losses caused by excess capacity in the fishing industry now amount to $15-30bn a year.

The size of fishing fleets is not an accident: government policy across the world, especially in Europe, helps to boost the fishing effort. The result is that boats are tied up all over the world doing nothing, fishermen are impoverished and angry, yet still fish stocks decline.

International law has developed in this area, but there is still some way to go. The North-West Atlantic Fisheries Organisation has proved an uncertain tool for managing the region, or for handling the present dispute. There could well be a role for the UN. On Wednesday it finished a conference dealing with fish stocks that straddle borders and its results should be turned into a legally binding agreement.

There also needs to be action within the EU to clean up the dreadful mess which passes for a Common Fisheries Policy. John Major has a report on his desk from Sir Crispin Tickell, who heads a panel advising him on environmental matters. The report recommends more cash to help reduce the industry, the creation of no-go areas where stocks would be safe and tighter enforcement of restrictions.

An endorsement of this approach would be a start to solving a problem that can otherwise only get worse. Better to take on the issue now, in the meeting rooms of Brussels, than risk more clashes on the high seas, more diminution of stocks and, perhaps, an eventual loss of life.