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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 18:39 GMT
Analysis: The EU fisheries dilemma
Trawlers in harbour   BBC
Ready for sea: But there are now too many boats
Alex Kirby

In their now traditional pre-Christmas cliffhanger meeting, European Union fisheries ministers have agreed new catch quotas.

They sat up all night to do so, but that is an established part of the tradition.

Europe's fishing communities face a cheerless Christmas, and Europe's remaining fish will hardly be more secure.

This year, once again, critics are complaining that the EU's common fisheries policy is simply not working.

The critics are right. But the policy's repeated failure is not the fault of the politicians alone.

It would defy the wisdom of Solomon to devise a policy capable of dealing with creatures as unpredictable as fish.

Double jeopardy

Their breeding success can fluctuate from year to year. The UK's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) cites North Sea herring as a warning.

The herring stock collapsed in the 1970s, and Cefas found that when the weight of mature fish fell below about 700,000 tonnes in any year, a diminishing number of young fish was produced.

There's a total absence of any incentive to behave in an environmentally responsible way

Brendan May, Marine Stewardship Council
The result in such a situation, Cefas says, is a vicious circle: "Not only is the size of the stock reduced by too high a level of exploitation, but there are fewer juvenile fish to replace those that are caught, and stock levels are likely to fall even lower."

Just as serious is the fact that fish are no respecters of national boundaries.

They swim where they want. In that sense, they are one of the global commons, owned by no nation, and with nobody accepting responsibility for them.

Brendan May, chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, says: "Fishermen are not anti-conservation. But they often fear that what they conserve, somebody else will take.

"For as long as it has been profitable to over-exploit, there have been no incentives to fish in a way which allows the environment, and therefore the fishing industry, to prosper."

Mackerel catch   BBC
Fishermen are chasing dwindling shoals
Mr May told BBC News Online: "The common fisheries policy is right in one sense: you have to treat common resources with common solutions.

"Those who argue that it should not be a common policy are several apples short of a picnic.

"But there's a total absence of any incentive to behave in an environmentally responsible way, and that's the heart of this problem.

Global exploiter

"The EU's fisheries policy is the laughing stock of the world. The market allows people to sell what they've overfished.

"The price of fish always goes up when stocks go down. Prices will rise for stocks that are known to be unsustainable.

"EU fisheries policy outside Europe is pretty shameful - having exploited its own resources to the point of exhaustion, it then goes to places like West Africa to pillage other people's."

Tray of fish and chips   PA
Fish and chips - for the few
And there are still too many boats trying to catch too few fish.

WWF, the global environment campaign, said the EU ministers had gone some way towards its own position by proposing a 20% increase in the money needed for decommissioning fishing boats.

With the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, WWF is supporting an international demonstration project designed to test a new conservation strategy.

Seed corn

It is to be launched in 2002 in the Celtic Sea, southwest of England, and will include zones closed temporarily to fishing, where the stocks can recover.

Sarah Jones of WWF said full-scale fisheries recovery programmes would cost the UK only tens of millions of pounds now, but would yield hundreds of millions when the stocks were back to strength.

She told BBC News Online: "We want the government to back the demonstration project, funding research and paying to allow crews to tie up and stay in harbour, or even decommissioning boats."

See also:

18 Dec 01 | Europe
Europe slashes fishing quotas
18 Dec 01 | Europe
Q&A: Europe's fishing row
17 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
EU fisheries 'face collapse'
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