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 Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 18:38 GMT
Q&A: Fishing dispute
Fishermen across Europe are furious after European Union ministers agree a deal which will require a 45% cut in cod fishing quotas. BBC environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee looks at the issues behind the argument.

Why does the EU want a cut in cod fishing?

The European Agriculture and Fisheries Council have been meeting in Brussels to set the fish quotas for next year.

This annual pre-Christmas round of fishing negotiations is nothing new - politicians, journalists and environmentalists are used to trying to stay awake through the night as the negotiators battle it out for the best deal for their respective countries.

That, at least, is often what it has come down to in the past, with environmental groups saying that every year the scientists' warnings of depleting fish stocks have been ignored.

For the last year or so, however, the scientific advisers to the EU have been saying only really drastic action this time is going to avert total collapse of some species.

The advice from ICES - the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea - was to ban fishing in 2003 for North Sea cod.

It also recommended a ban on fishing for any other stock which takes cod as a by-catch, and this was backed up by the Commission's own scientific committee.

How real is the threat to fish stocks?

Officials are convinced that unless action is taken this year, there really will be nothing left to fish in the future - and cod and other species could become extinct, with all the environmental consequences that could bring.

According to a policy paper from the RSPB, 77% of North Sea stocks are outside safe biological limits (which means that new generations of young fish are no longer sufficient to sustain the spawning stock).

Off the west coast of Ireland, the figure is 100%, and it is scarcely better in the Western Approaches: 91%.

The Scottish Executive quotes even worse figures for the North Sea - they say 18 of 21 commercial stocks -86% - are outside safe biological limits.

Are there any precedents for a fishing ban?

In 1992 the Canadian Government imposed a total cod fishing ban in Newfoundland.

Originally a vastly rich source of cod, nearly half a century of industrial fishing, which had taken over from smaller scale methods more sympathetic to the marine ecology of the area, had sent stocks into freefall.

The economic consequences were huge. The population in fishing areas reduced dramatically as people moved in search of other work, but were unable to sell their houses.

Some fishing has continued, as shellfish moved in to take the place of the cod. But ten years on, fish stocks have not recovered.

Are there any alternatives to a ban?

The scientists say no - fishing for other species will still have an impact, as cod can be caught as an unintended by-product of such fishing.

There are more environmentally sympathetic ways of fishing, but the scientists say the only way to have a chance of shoring up stocks is to simply stop.

What will be the impact on European fisherman?

They say thousands of jobs will be lost and boats scrapped, and entire communities destroyed - the sort of thing that happened in Newfoundland.

Scottish fishing leaders say as many as 20,000 jobs in Scotland alone could be at risk.

But other commentators say the situation is not as bleak as that for some.

In Scotland, for example, much of the fish processing done is of fish that comes from far further afield than Scotland.

But there's no doubt that many who have invested hundreds of thousands in boats and equipment could find that they will be unable to use it if the EU Commission's proposals are accepted, and they will be looking for a significant compensation plan in that eventuality.

The scientists and environmentalists say, however, that if fishing continues at its current levels, these boats will soon be left idle anyway, as there'll be nothing left to fish.

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