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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
End of the line for fishing?
Trawler in Lowestoft
All tied up and nowhere to go
British deep sea fishing is in crisis. It's not a labour or territorial dispute; it's the simple lack of fish. The chances are that the last fish supper you ate was with a fish that had been flown into the country. Why?

Fish have been landed, sorted and sold around Britain's coastal towns for generations.

But now, trawlers, nets and fishermen are increasingly lying idle.

Cod, a fish that has become an endangered species
Fish merchants keep watch over empty markets as they mull over thoughts of better days before entry to the, then, EEC and the "selling out" of their fishing rights.

The Common Fisheries Policy has always stuck in their gullets.

The industry is in decline with collapsing fish stocks. It has been a mess for years. But the EU is seeking to change the policy soon.

Can the EU get it right this time?

Negotiations on the common fisheries rules take place every 10 years. Reforms, this time round, are due to be announced very soon, after years of rowing have forced delays.

None the less, the former king of the fish supper - the cod - is now an endangered species.

The fishing industry is not blameless.

Trawlermen have shot themselves in the foot over many years too. They have extensively used small mesh nets that catch young fish, leaving poor breeding stock.

Combined with nature striking an added blow, with sea temperatures being unsuitable for breeding, the end result has seen the steep demise of the cod.

Fish and Chips
That quaintly British diet is in danger

Politicians fail fishermen

After the lapse in fishing during the World War II, fish stocks became plentiful. The UK fishing industry enjoyed prosperity.

But in the early 70's, Ted Heath's government took British fishing into stormy waters with membership of the Common Market.

At the last minute, the existing six EEC members established their new Common Fisheries Policy, which, in essence, allowed open fishing around all coastal waters.

Britain's fishing industry has always been an emotive subject - one of the top British negotiating officials commented: "The fishing issue is economic peanuts, but political dynamite."

James Prior, the chief negotiator, lit the touch-paper in the hope of retaining a 12-mile exclusion zone, but Edward Heath curbed his actions, accepting a six-mile zone instead.

Herring on a rack
Fishermen are changing their catch
Norway was negotiating their entry to the EEC at the same time. But they decided to withdraw in order to protect their fish stocks. This was additional bad news for Britain.

A Cod War

Worse was to follow. Iceland decided to establish a 200-mile exclusion zone to protect its fish stocks. A vicious stand off with Britain became a repeat of the previous two "Cod Wars".

British Trawlers were forced to fish even closer to home.

Faced with dwindling stocks and increased trawler numbers from EEC members, there was a collective blaming of the Soviet "factory ships" for dwindling numbers of fish.

But this proved to be a "Red Herring".

The EEC's fishing policy was flawed. It portrayed fishing in the same way as making steel or growing potatoes - the higher the production or total catch, the better.

Trawler in the North Sea
Fishing has never been an easy living
There was little or no planning for the future. Fish stocks were treated as limitless. Whilst scientists' warnings of diminishing stocks were largely ignored, their expertise on improving fishing techniques was eagerly grasped.

Politicians were lobbied by fishing communities to keep quotas high and everyone seemed blind to the fact of impending doom for the fishing industry.

Ironically, when catch quotas and net mesh restrictions were eventually imposed, trawler-men reacted with contempt.

It was common practice when trawlers had landed their quota, further catches would be made and sold through a fish "black market". This illegal practice was almost impossible to police.

One of the last nails in the fishing boat coffin was Britain's blinkered eating habit. Chips would not be quite right with any other fish other than cod. The stocks have rapidly plunged even further.

So what now?

The European Union has a thorny problem to resolve. Do they keep the fishing industry infrastructure in tact, with nothing to fish or, do they take draconian action to save fish for the future?

As the saying goes: "You can't please all of the people all of the time."

part of the Why Did We Do That? series, on BBC Radio 4

Donny Cole, Fish Trader
"It's a crazy situation"
Dr Joe Horwood, Government Fisheries Laboratory
"For the last 20 years, the level of fishing has been much too high"
Lord Prior from the Heath Government
"There was considerable antagonism between the fishing industry and the laboratory"
Lord Prior
"The EEC's fishing policy resulted in the fish stocks being virtually annihilated"
Hugh Simms, trawler owner
"The black fish market developed very, very quickly"
See also:

01 May 02 | Science/Nature
22 Mar 02 | Europe
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