Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

EU faces battle over fish quotas

A Scottish fisherman in North Atlantic
Jobs in Scottish fishing communities are at risk as the industry shrinks

EU fisheries ministers have begun an annual round of talks to decide the quantities of fish which can be caught from Europe's seas in 2009.

The ministers, under pressure from environmentalists, are considering changes that could limit discards - the practice of throwing fish overboard.

Fish are commonly thrown back into the sea, dead or alive, because quotas have already been exceeded.

The quota for North Sea cod is expected to be raised by 30%.

Critics say the practice of discarding is ridiculous and morally reprehensible, as many fish stocks are in decline and fisheries are shrinking.

The ministers are expected to place new restrictions on catches of skate and rays, as well as to maintain strict rules on landing Atlantic anchovies and sand eels, the BBC's Chris Mason reports from Brussels.

European fishing fleet 2006 - pie chart

Thousands of jobs have been lost in Europe's fisheries in the last 10 years - including 4,000 in the UK.

Many say stringent regulations imposed by the EU are to blame.

But environmental groups say stocks such as cod, tuna and herring have been fished almost to extinction in some European waters. They say the regulations, which represent a compromise between the industry's outlook and scientific advice, are dangerously complacent.

The environmental lobby group Greenpeace claims that unless Europe's remaining fishing fleet is cut in half, the industry has no long-term future.

Some 2,000 jobs are thought to be at risk in Scottish ports such as Stornoway and Oban because of a proposal from the European Commission to make prawn fishermen modify their nets so they do not catch cod and haddock by accident.

The Commission says North Sea cod has benefited from "the good 2005 intake of young fish", allowing an increase in catches to be proposed in agreement with Norway.

Stocks of hake continue to grow, "demonstrating the benefits of long-term planning", the Commission says.

But it notes that some other stocks, such as herring, are "in many areas in an extremely poor condition", and it proposes cuts of at least 25% for those types.

The Conservatives' fisheries spokesman in the European Parliament, Struan Stevenson MEP, called on the EU to "ban fish discards immediately, so that a million tonnes of fish is not thrown back into the sea".

He criticised the Commission's proposed system of kilowatt-day ceilings for cod fisheries, which would replace the days-at-sea system applied in 2008.

"The introduction of a kilowatt-day system - a highly complex method of linking engine power to the number of hours fished - on top of the other plethora of controls already in place will not provide the solution to our difficulties," he said.

Graphic showing Europe's fish stocks in 2006
Map shows proportion of fish types that is overfished (red) and types within safe biological limits (blue). Number in circle is number of fish stocks assessed in each region. Circle size corresponds to magnitude of regional catch. Data source: ICES and GFCM (international maritime organisations).

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