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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May, 2005, 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK
Fishing industry looks to future
By Will Smale
BBC business reporter in Newlyn, Cornwall

Fishing boat in Newlyn harbour
Newlyn is home to England's largest fishing fleet
Judging by the doom-and-gloom press coverage which usually hits the UK fishing industry, you might assume that the seas around the Britain are now virtually devoid of fish.

Such has been the extent of historic over-fishing, we are told, that ordering certain species of fish in a restaurant ought to be a guilty pleasure.

But while stocks of North Sea cod are undoubtedly at very low levels, the situation in other parts of the UK is much rosier. Stocks of some other fish are at high levels and actually rising.

This is the case in the pretty seaside town of Newlyn in Cornwall, home to England's largest fishing fleet, which fishes off the South West coast of England.

In Newlyn, quotas for monkfish - a delicacy in high demand - have increased this year, and fishermen, scientists and environmentalists generally agree that fishing stocks off south-west England are in a healthy and sustainable condition.

Andy Wheeler from the Cornish Fish Producers Association (CFPO), the co-operative that represents fishermen in the region, puts this down to a number of factors.

"The water temperature here is higher than the North Sea - thanks to the Gulf Stream - so we have much more diversity of fish," he says.

"While you have three or four main species in the North Sea, we have 20 to 25 here, which does make things easier."

Scientific co-operation

But in addition to the advantage of having many more types of fish to catch, the 200-plus Newlyn fishermen have also taken matters into their own hands to ensure the long-term health of their fish stocks.

Unfortunately for cod, it tastes much better than it looks

Firstly the size of their fleet has been greatly reduced over the past decade, and for the past two years they have worked as closely as possible with official scientists from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

"Annual fishing quotes are set by the EU every year just before Christmas, determined by scientific information from ICES on fishing stocks," Mr Wheeler says.

"Historically this has always caused of lot of antagonism from our members, who felt the scientists didn't know the real picture and that fishing stocks were actually much greater.

"For the last two years our members have taken the ICES scientists out on their boats and there is a lot more co-operation.

"You will always have grumbles, but we now feel that quotas are a lot more accurate."

Michael Nowell, 35, has been fishing from Newlyn since he was 16.

He and his brother Stephen own their own boat and are specialists in fishing for the much-prized Dover sole.

"It has improved a lot in the last three years, there are less boats than there used to be, and plenty of fish up in the Bristol Channel," says Mr Nowell.

European grumbles

Yet other Newlyn fishermen remain unhappy, saying the EU still underestimates the health of fishing stocks off the South West coast.

Official fishing areas around the UK

"We are made to feel like criminals before we even go out to sea," says Shaun Edwards, 42.

"The quotas are too tight, the authorities haven't got a clue. What is the future for the industry?"

One major bug-bear for UK fishermen, be they in Newlyn or those in the North Sea, is what they see as the unfairness of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the agreement which the UK signed up to when it joined the European Economic Community (the precursor to today's European Union) in 1974.

Under the CFP, overseas fishing fleets can actually catch more of certain fish in areas of UK waters than British fishermen.

For example, French fishermen can take nine times more cod from the North Cornwall coast than the Cornish fleet, a figure set in stone whatever the overall annual quota for the fishing area.

Critics say this is patently unfair and caused by the UK signing up to a very poor fishing deal because of its desperation to join the then-EEC long after its inception.

To defenders of the CFP, it simply reflects the fact that overseas fleets have long fished in UK waters.

Long term

Mr Wheeler takes a philosophical view.

Andy Wheeler from the Cornish Fish Producers Association
Andy Wheeler is optimistic about the future for Cornish fishermen

"The CFP does cause a lot of anger and a number of fishermen would prefer to be outside.

"But we've had it now for 30 years and you have to make the best of it."

Putting grumbles against the CFP to one-side, Mr Wheeler believes the Newlyn fishing fleet has a bright future.

"We are quite optimistic down here in terms of quantities being caught, and we are working hard for the long term.

"Our challenges are to get the best quotas we can, maintain healthy fishing stocks, and modernise our fleet."

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