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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Europe's seas in crisis
By Paul Henley
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Black Spot Sea Breams
Azores' fish like the Black Spot Sea Bream could soon disappear

Sustaining Europe's fishing industries is one of the greatest challenges the European Union faces, with a surplus of fishermen and dwindling fish stocks plunging it deeper and deeper into crisis.

Environmentally and economically, the results of overfishing are already proving disastrous.

Several species of fish are on the brink of collapse. Fishing communities across Europe, including in the UK, have seen their livelihoods destroyed.

And now scientists, environmentalists and, crucially, some fishermen, are calling for radical new measures.

In Norway and the Azores fishing has a vital role in the economy and the way of life

The seas of the Portuguese Azores Islands, in the mid-Atlantic, and of the west of Norway are both critical gauges of how to manage sustainable fisheries.

In The Azores, a delicate balance between nature and commerce - which has been the hallmark of fishing there for centuries - could be lost overnight, with the opening up of waters to foreign fishing fleets.

In Norway, fishermen are currently reaping the substantial rewards of some of the world's strictest conservation measures, including a 10-year ban on herring fishing enforced there in the early 70s.

Success stories like these are few and far between in modern fishing. It is interesting to note that both were achieved outside the control of the European Union and its Common Fisheries Policy.

New competition

Jose Marquez is skipper of one of the Azores' boats on the island of San Miguel.

If the EU wants to come here and destroy everything then I do not want to belong to the EU
Azores Fisherman Jose Marquez

He is bitter that a grace-period granted to the islands when Portugal joined the EU is about to run out, and that from the start of August, his hand-drawn lines of hooks will have to compete with the vast nets and 80km-long fishing lines of foreign vessels, notably the Spanish.

"I know how to do responsible fishing," he said, "but if the EU wants to come here and destroy everything by opening it up to foreign boats, then I do not want to belong to the EU at all."

The Azores is a unique case. It does not have a continental shelf, and its deep-sea fish are extremely vulnerable because they live for up to 200 years.

In some cases, the fish are not able to breed until they are 30-years-old.

Numbered days

Professor Callum Roberts, of the University of York, compared letting in the large foreign boats to "mining" the fish stocks.

He said they will never recover.

Azores Fisheries Minister Marcello Pamplona
There are political interests at play here
Azores Fisheries Minister Marcelo Pamplona

He has done "back-of-an-envelope calculations" which he said suggests the Azores stocks will effectively be gone in 18 days to 3 months of the seas being opened up to the rest of the EU.

In the meantime, he is advising the Azorians in a court case they are bringing against the European Commission in Brussels.

The Commission itself insists safeguards will be in place to make sure the fish stocks are not threatened and that local advice on the management of resources is not being ignored.

But it adds that the seas of the Azores cannot be allowed to belong exclusively to the islanders.

Azores Minister of Fisheries Marcelo Pamplona has claimed: "There are political interests at play here, allowing in vessels that have already depleted their own waters... It will be a disaster for generations to come."

Sea police

Norway is another place in Europe where fishing has long played a vital role in the economy and the way of life.

Norway polices its exclusive 200-mile zone with vigour.

It single-handedly saved the cod in the northern waters of the Barents Sea with an uncompromising fishing ban.

Inge Halstensen, fishing boat owner
If we had just carried on, we would have emptied the sea
Inge Halstensen, fishing vessel owner

It has done the same with another key stock, the herring, which spawns along its west coast.

The country's fishermen paid a heavy price in the 70s, when the herring ban was in place and they simply had to go after other species or go out of business.

Now, according to Ole Misund, of the Marine Research Institute in Bergen which advises the industry, "being a herring fishermen on the west coast can mean a comfortable living; it is a lucrative business now that stocks are high again."

Inge Halstensen, the owner of several high-tech herring fishing vessels from the port of Austevoll in the fjords, remembers the lean years of the ban as a "disaster" for the industry.

But he also said he understood the need to cut back and learn an important lesson: "If we had just carried on, we would have emptied the sea.

"You cannot just stand up against nature when it is against you. You have to wait... and see if it comes on your team again."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents, Crossing Europe was broadcast on Thursday, 1 July, 2004 at 1100 BST.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 5 July 2004, at 2030 BST.

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