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Last Updated: Monday, 20 December, 2004, 16:41 GMT
UK 'wrong to reject EC fish plan'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News website environment correspondent

Trawler at sea   PA
The fishing industry doubts the scientists' advice

The UK's fishing policy in European waters is mistaken, a Conservative former fisheries minister believes.

The European Commission has proposed closing parts of the North and Irish Seas and off western Scotland to save the seriously depleted stocks of cod.

The Fisheries Minister, Ben Bradshaw, says he will oppose the plans when all EU fisheries ministers meet on Tuesday.

But John Gummer, who did the job from 1989 to 1993, says Mr Bradshaw has been misled and should support the closures.

'Starting to work'

This year's EU Fisheries Council, starting in Brussels on 21 December, will decide how much fishing should be allowed in 2005.

On 16 December, Mr Bradshaw told BBC News there were "glimmers of a cod recovery": his officials say the decommissioning of UK boats and the restrictions on the days they can spend at sea have helped the improvement in stocks.

All over the world we've underestimated the speed at which fish stocks have become depleted, and that's the trap Mr Bradshaw has fallen into
John Gummer MP
Mr Bradshaw said: "The cod recovery plan we introduced has been in place for just two years; it's entailed considerable pain.

"There are now signs of recovery, and so I think this is not the year for introducing closed areas. As they're currently proposed, we can't support them."

Mr Gummer is now a backbench Conservative MP, and chairs the board of the Marine Stewardship Council.

Cod packed in ice   A Kirby
Cod are in trouble, but some other fish are thriving
He told the BBC News website: "I think the government is being misled again. It should have supported the tough European line

"Whenever there's an effective suggestion for improving the situation, there's a huge tendency for a pull-back which comes from the fishing industry.

"The problem with the EU's common fisheries policy is not that it's common - it has to be that - but that the ministers represent the fishermen, not the fish.

"And the fishermen whose interests they're talking about are today's, not tomorrow's.

"All over the world we've underestimated the speed at which fish stocks have become depleted, and that's the trap Mr Bradshaw has fallen into."

No sign of change

Europe's fish have been fought over for years by scientists who argue for cautiously low catches, or none at all, and politicians who say they must keep the fishing ports in business.

Hans Lassen heads the advisory programme at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), a scientific body which promotes marine research in the North Atlantic.

Macduff harbour   A Kirby
Ports like Macduff in Scotland could be badly hit
He told the BBC: "The UK's belief that fisheries present 'a mixed picture' is entirely in line with our assessment.

"In the North Sea, cod and whiting, both demersal (bottom-dwelling) species, are doing badly, and there are problems with plaice. But haddock are doing fairly well, and so are herring and mackerel.

"We haven't been able to demonstrate the improvement in cod stocks the UK says its recovery plan has begun to deliver.

"It's a bit of a shot in the dark, from our perspective. We haven't seen the decline in cod mortality we'd like, so we are maintaining our advice on zero catches."

Ices called in October for a ban on cod fishing in the North Sea, the Irish Sea and west of Scotland in 2005.

Mr Lassen said there was quite a lot of agreement between the scientists and the policy makers on how many fish there were in the sea, though not necessarily on the conclusions to draw.

He said: "I'm reasonably optimistic for the future. There does seem to be a political will on the part of Brussels and the UK to try to address the issues, definitely more than there was in the 1980s."

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