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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2006, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Europe's cod puzzle hard to crack
By Stephen Mulvey
EU reporter, BBC News

Two-thirds of available cod is taken from the North Sea every year
Every year since 2001, the European Union's scientific advisers have urged a complete halt to cod fishing in the North Sea.

Every year European fisheries ministers have discarded the advice, and set quotas ranging from 49,000 tonnes in 2001 to 23,000 tonnes in 2006.

The scientists say a zero catch is necessary to allow overfished cod stocks to revive. The politicians say fishing communities cannot be put out of work overnight.

But what everyone now agrees is that a recovery plan adopted in 2004 - intended to bring about an annual 30% increase in adult cod without a complete ban on fishing - is not working.


The plan combines low catches - at least compared with quotas of 100,000 tonnes and more in the 1990s - and restrictions on the number of days fishing boats can spend at sea.

2001: 48,600 tonnes
2002: 49,300
2003: 27,300
2004: 27,300
2005: 27,300
2006: 23,200
Source: ICES

But the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) says that 60% of available cod are still being removed from the North Sea every year, leaving too few behind for the stock to rebuild.

This compares with 35% in 1965.

"The cod recovery plan has failed in its objectives because the reductions in catch and effort were smaller than those required for recovery," says a report from the EU's Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries.

They are sort of in denial - everyone says stocks are collapsing and yet they set quotas every year
Carol Phua, WWF
The question is whether EU fisheries ministers will now bite the bullet and agree to a zero catch when they meet in December to decide a quota for 2007.

"I would like to think that they will finally get the message, but it is more likely that they won't," says Carol Phua of WWF Europe.

"They pay millions of euros to ICES for this advice and they don't take it. They are sort of in denial. Everyone says stocks are collapsing and yet they set quotas every year."


According to European Commission fisheries spokeswoman Mireille Thom the root of the problem is the fact that it is not possible to catch an abundant North Sea fish such as haddock, without catching cod as well.

Even if you don't want to catch it, you cannot help it when you are catching haddock or whiting or plaice, given the fishing gear we have today
Mireille Thom, European Commission
"Obviously if we want to give stock the best chance of recovery, the best thing is to stop fishing - but that is in an ideal world, and because cod is found in many, many fisheries, it's not very realistic," she says.

"Even if you don't want to catch it, you cannot help it when you are catching haddock or whiting or plaice, given the fishing gear we have today."

This is why the Commission has, in recent years, suggested ministers set minimal quotas rather than imposing complete bans.

But WWF would still like to see a complete ban on targeted cod fishing, with a small quota allowed for bycatch.

This would at least make a symbolic point, though Martin Pastoors of ICES says there is already very little targeted cod fishing in the North Sea.

What nobody knows at present is exactly how much cod is removed from the sea, per ton of haddock or whiting caught.

Ecosystem management

ICES advises the European Union to "consider the implications" of a high haddock quota for cod, says Martin Pastoors, but cannot help out with figures.

"We are supposed to be moving towards ecosystem-based management, but ICES looks at stock levels, it does not look enough at interaction between different parts of the ecosystem," says Carol Phua.

"The Commission needs to focus on the wider issue of the entire marine system being degraded - cod is a very important predator - but it's another level of complexity nobody wants to deal with."

One area where Mr Pastoors reports some progress is the problem of unreported fishing, or poaching.

In the North Sea and two other fishing zones known as Skagerrak and the Eastern Channel, ICES estimates that 50,000 tonnes of cod was removed in 2005 - compared with an official quota of 29,000 tonnes.

Some of these fish may have been discarded, either because they were too small to land legally - less than 35cm long - or because the quota had already been fulfilled.

Some or all of the rest will have been landed illegally.

But Mr Pastoors says enforcement has been improving in the last few years - one bright spot on a gloomy horizon.

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