The policy that got away: John Lichfield trawls the muddy waters of fish wars and suggests a new tack

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FISH wars] Navy blamed] Government blamed] Brussels blamed] Spanish blamed] Cornish blamed] Fish blamed]

Beware of arguments with fishermen, or about fishermen. You enter a world of rolling moral and logical decks where everyone is right, and everyone is wrong. Before judging the protagonists in the Biscay tuna war, and the many other fish wars, remember this. They - the fishermen, governments, naval officers - are trying to steer by, or navigate around, well-intentioned Euro-

pean and international fisheries rules that do not make sense.

Most reasonable fish people can agree on two things: there are too many fishermen on the sea and not enough fish in it. Existing rules, especially the EU Common Fisheries Policy, incline towards efforts to increase the number of fish. This amounts to an attempt to squeeze fish paste back into the tube. It would be more sensible - although politically hazardous - to reduce the number of fishing boats: in other words, set quotas of fishermen, not fish.

Fishing is an activity in which Portilloesque 'market' arguments will not float. The more unrestricted the competition, the sooner all the fish worth eating will be swept from the sea. Fishermen are the last hunter-gatherers of industrial society. It is idle to expect them to regulate themselves. But this is one business in which government regulation - if sensible and equable - can increase prosperity. If EU waters were more rationally managed, the number of fish - and eventually the number of fishing and on-shore processing jobs - could increase.

There is a seductive argument, beloved of Labour's Austin Mitchell, that Britain should run its own fisheries policy and eject all foreign vessels from our waters. Something like two-thirds of all fish landed from EU waters are caught within the British 200-mile limit. But Mr Mitchell might as well set out to clean the air over his own back garden. Sea fish migrate. There is little sense in restricting catches of grown-up fish in UK waters if their children are being massacred in Dutch or German waters. Fishing is a quintessentially international issue.

A new approach is needed to European, and international, fisheries policy: an enforceable way of allocating catches between a reduced number of licensed boats, in a way that will conserve fish and traditional fishing communities (in Spain, Cornwall, France or Scotland). If the Cornish fishermen had not been deprived of traditional catches of hake and cod (partly by competition from large, modern, far-ranging Spanish boats) they would not be sailing deep into the Atlantic after tuna traditionally taken by the smaller Spanish hook-and-line boats.

A dozen years ago, I sat late into the night in Brussels and Luxembourg (in the company of sleepy journalists and jovially grumpy Scottish fishermen) as Peter Walker and other ministers negotiated the EU Common Fisheries Policy. Eventually, in land- locked Luxembourg in 1983, politicians and officials hailed themselves as the saviours of European fish stocks. Fishermen were 'nae so shoor'. And, of course, the fishermen were right.

There have been some successes: haddock and herring stocks, once threatened with extinction, seem to have recovered well. But, on the whole, the CFP has not reversed the decline in eastern Atlantic and North Sea fish numbers.

The policy seeks to conserve fish by restricting the overall annual catch of the most sought-after species. Brussels then divides the catch into national quotas, according, supposedly, to historic fishing patterns and the needs of fish-dependent communities. But it does not limit catches: it limits landings, or rather legal landings. It forces fishermen who catch more than their quota - often difficult to avoid - to dump mortally wounded fish back into the sea (which does not help conserve stocks).

Beyond that, all fishing nations accuse each other of evading the rules and landing 'black' fish. And the quotas have not worked as they were supposed to, in any case. From the start, the scientific figures were subject to political tampering, with governments each year negotiating upwards the overall permitted catch.

Eleven years after the CFP was negotiated, one year after it was marginally renegotiated, one in four fishing boats in the European Union is surplus to reasonable requirements. In theory, the EU wants to reduce boat numbers by as much as 40 per cent in eight years; in practise, no one is willing to sign up for such a painful policy.

We need to cut through these Gordian nets with a complete re- negotiation of the CFP to reduce fishing capacity in a way that most fishermen can accept is fair.

This cannot just be a question of cutting boat numbers or tonnage. Advances in technology - from shoal-finding sonar to light- weight, nylon nets - mean that smaller, modern vessels can catch more than older, larger ones.

A sensible policy might look like this: clear targets for fish catches; decisions on how many vessels of various nationalities, sizes and catching capacities might net that amount of fish; the selling of licences with catch quotas attached; preference to existing fishermen in traditional fishing communities; restrictions on the use of ecologically unsound gear; use of the proceeds from licences to buy out or retrain other fishermen.

The franchises to fish should be sold at reasonable rates with resale of licences allowed within limits: the licences would be tied to particular kinds of fishing, from particular ports, by particular kinds of boats.

Enforcing such a policy would be no sinecure; but it would be easier, and more transparent, than the present mess; it is simpler to tell whether a boat is licensed than to check whether it has exceeded its quota. The existing CFP is due to be renegotiated in 2002. But this may be too long to wait. Forget the old adage: there are not plenty more fish in the sea.