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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 02:44 GMT 03:44 UK
EU fisheries policy 'an outrage'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Fish on slab   Alex Kirby
Plenty on sale, but few fish left in the sea
The UK's premier scientific body has now thrown its weight behind efforts to save Europe's declining fish stocks.

The Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science, says European Union politicians are gambling with the health of the remaining European fish.

It accuses the politicians of ignoring sound science in continuing to set catch quotas above sustainable levels.

The society criticises the system of subsidies for the fishing industry, and says fisheries policy is an outrage.

In a submission to the consultation by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit on UK Fisheries, the society says Europe's fish stocks are on the brink of collapse.

The evidence is pretty desperate
Professor Patrick Bateson, Royal Society
Cod and haddock are now less than half their strength 30 years ago, with North Sea cod at their lowest recorded level. Yet EU ministers are agreeing higher quotas for the fleets than the scientists suggest are safe, the submission says.

Professor Patrick Bateson, vice-president of the society, said: "Current fishing practice is unsustainable.

Out of sight

"Too many fish are being taken from the sea, leaving too few adult fish to reproduce and rebuild the stocks.

Cod in ice   Alex Kirby
Cod remain in huge demand
"If such widespread destruction of a natural resource were happening on the land where we could see it, there would be outrage and condemnation. But because it is happening in our oceans it is all too easy to ignore.

"The wrangling over quotas by EU fisheries ministers risks making the situation worse. The level of reduction that is adopted is often less than required, due to lobbying by the fishing industry and disputes between different countries.

"Unless real action to restrain fishing is taken now there could be nothing left to fish in the future."

The submission says recent recovery plans for exploited stocks are "steps in the right direction", but says they have been critically weakened by delays in implementing them.

Safe haven for fish

The society wants conservation methods made more enforceable, and traditional catch quotas replaced by controls on fishing effort, for example by limiting the number of days boats spend at sea and the type of equipment they use.

Boats in harbour   Alex Kirby
Russia and Norway now supply much of western Europe's fish
It thinks satellite monitoring could be used to monitor days at sea, and also suggests introducing "no-take" marine reserves or national parks of the sea.

It says: "Evidence suggests marine reserves can be a powerful tool to help rebuild stocks and habitats damaged by fishing. Overall abundance of fish is 3.7 times higher than outside the reserves."

It argues as well for the ending of UK Government subsidies to the fishing industry: "Subsidies provide funds for new vessels and gear, so further encourage over-exploitation. Transitional aid should be introduced as quotas are reduced."

Credibility gap

Many UK fishing crews dispute the scientists' findings, saying their continuing big catches show there are still plenty of fish.

Professor Bateson told BBC News Online: "It's tough for the crews, really tough. But if you take the wonderful Newfoundland fishery, the industry said that was fine, and then it collapsed.

"The people on the boats have no ability to assess the stocks scientifically. That's the job of the scientists, who have no axe to grind and who are finding this decline.

"We should listen to the scientists. There's no good reason for thinking the crews are right, and the evidence is pretty desperate. And this has all happened before."

Overfishing threat grows
02 Oct 03  |  Science/Nature
North Sea cod reach new low
28 Aug 03  |  Science/Nature

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