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 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 14:08 GMT
EU's trying fish talks
Fishing boat
Fishermen complain their needs are being ignored
Angus Roxburgh

The annual European Union fisheries negotiations - whose outcome this year could have a devastating impact on fishing communities, particularly in Scotland - are strange affairs.

Like all EU councils, they are attended only by the commissioner and the 15 member states' ministers, plus their advisers and experts.

The commission proposes, the council of fisheries ministers disposes.

Graph showing North Sea cod stocks from 1963
Cod is known as cabillaud in France, kabeljau in Germany and torsk in Denmark, Sweden and Norway
North Sea stocks are so low, they could collapse if fishing is not suspended
The EU is proposing an 80% cut in cod fishing

But more than at any other EU meeting, the spectre of the real people whose lives will be affected by the ministers' decisions hangs over the talks.

All week they have been here, a host of men with sea-wrinkled faces, smart suits donned for these high-powered international negotiations, even if they can only observe them from afar - mainly from the lobby of the Europa Hotel, 100 metres down the road.

There they gather in huddles to pore over baffling documents, full of tables and grids and jargon, produced by bureaucrats in the European Commission.

The fishermen, to their disgust, do not actually take part in the talks. They are here to follow, advise and lobby.

The ministers appear at intervals, often looking uncomfortable from their bruising encounters with commission officials bent on drastic quota cuts, and bring the latest documents and (usually bad) news to the fishermen.

Endurance trial

The Europa does good business at this time of year - coffees in the morning, beers at night.

As the talks drag on through the traditional all-night session before agreement is reached, cigarettes are also consumed in prodigious quantities.

World Wildlife Fund protest in Brussels
WWF staged a protest against overfishing

This week - the longest fish council any can remember - has been a trial of endurance and patience.

The fishermen came expecting the worst.

The commission wanted a total closure of North Sea fisheries in an attempt to save endangered cod stocks.

On Monday morning, there was momentary relief.

The first "compromise", produced by the commission together with the Danish presidency, suggested a decision on quota cuts could be put off until March, and not implemented until July.

The proposed cuts, it was clear, would still be massive, but at least there would be time to gather more evidence to persuade the commission that cod was less endangered than had been feared.

But by evening gloom set in again.

For the six months until July, the commission was proposing tying up fishing boats in port for three weeks out of four - in exchange for quotas reduced by "only" 65%.

'The enemy'

The Europa was in uproar. How could any business survive on a quarter of its normal turnover?

Mike Park of the Scottish White Fish Producers' Association said it confirmed their suspicion that the commission regarded fishermen as "the enemy".

They haven't a clue - I don't suppose they've ever been on a fishing boat in their lives

A fisherman in Brussels

"The industry is running high on emotion," he said. "We're keeping our emotions in check. But if need be we're prepared to man the barricades."

The men are studying the small print of the commission papers.

"Look at this," says one. "The tie-up scheme applies to boats using nets with a minimum 100-millimetre mesh.

"So if you use a smaller mesh, you can go out and fish. That's plain daft. It means you catch more juvenile fish - exactly what they're trying to protect!

"They haven't a clue. I don't suppose they've ever been on a fishing boat in their lives."

'Save the fish'

Tuesday brings some light relief.

The conservation organisation, WWF, has set up a lighthouse opposite the council building, with signs demanding an end to overfishing.

For years, scientific advice has been ignored, they say, and quotas agreed that were too high. The result - catastrophe.

Time to stop fishing, and save the fish.

"What about the bloody fishermen?" says one of a group of men who have wandered over from the Europa.

The conservationists and fishermen do have common ground.

Both agree that the Common Fisheries Policy has been an abject failure.

On Wednesday, the WWF has another stunt. With TV cameras present, they play a silly card game which, they say, is about as sensible as the existing way of setting fish quotas.

On the margins

As for the fishermen, they watch the talks progress with fear and disgust.

The only successful management of fisheries in the world, they say, is where fishermen are at the heart of the management process.

But here they are on the outside looking in.

They meet the ministers, they warn them of the consequences if they agree to the commission's proposals, and then stand back as the ministers go in to do battle.

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16 Dec 02 | Europe
16 Dec 02 | Science/Nature
28 May 02 | Science/Nature
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