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EU: Proposals Dismay Fishermen Amid Talk Of Conservation Crisis

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Commission in Brussels has issued proposals for a radical reform of the EU's fishing industry. If adopted, the program will lead to heavy job losses among salt-water fishermen around the Union. But the Commission says that conservation is necessary if the industry is to have any future at all.

Prague, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Whether one cuts one's own throat slowly or quickly, the end result is the same.

That seems to be the choice facing the European Union's fishermen. The slow way to die is to continue fishing at the present level, so that fish stocks are eventually depleted and the waters empty. The quick way is to drastically reduce permitted fishing rates, which would mean that thousands of fishermen would lose their jobs.

These are the stark terms in which the problem is being seen following the publication this week of the European Commission's proposals for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. The proposals demand, as a conservation measure, a cut in the time trawlers spend at sea of between 30 and 60 percent, depending on the fish species and region involved.

It's estimated that such cuts would mean that the EU fishing fleet would be reduced by as many as 8,000 boats.

The EU's agriculture and fisheries commissioner, Franz Fischler, says "it's make-or-break time" and that his proposals are not meant to kill the industry, but on the contrary to secure a future for it. A spokeswoman for Fischler, Kathleen Bunyan, says: "It's a crisis, we have already had to put emergency plans in place for North Sea cod and hake, because the scientific advice is that if we continue [to fish] the way we are there is serious danger of extinction [of these species]."

The commission plans have brought a sharp reaction from Spain, the EU's biggest fishing nation, as well as Portugal. The Spanish government cast doubts on the scientific data that the commission was using, and the Portuguese government spoke about the death of its fishing fleet. The spokesman for the Spanish Fishing Ministry, Fernando Martin, also said in Madrid: "We think that the proposal of the EU is very bad because it runs counter to the interest of fishermen in Spain and around the European Union."

Reports say Spain, the current EU president, has been putting pressure on the commission to dilute the reforms -- something which has sparked allegations that Spain is trying to interfere in the commission's policy formulation. The chief bureaucrat in the fisheries directorate in Brussels, Steffen Smidt, was sacked at 24-hour notice last month. He was the main architect of the radical new proposals, and there are allegations that his hasty departure was at the instigation of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Not all fishermen see the commission's proposals in such a negative light, however. Speaking for Belgian fishermen, Marc Aspeslagh of the European Association of Fish Producers says: "We are not blind, we don't wear dark glasses, we don't look at ourselves only. We try to get ourselves into the mind of the European [officials'] idea, and in a certain way we can understand what the commission is trying to do."

But Aspeslagh goes on to say that his sector still finds the commission proposals unfair. That's because of the nature of the fishing the Belgians do -- namely, for flatfish. In the hunt for plaice, turbot, and sole, their trawlers use beam nets, meaning nets strung out beside the vessel on big booms. These sweep the sea bed and entrap almost everything in their way, indiscriminately. Aspeslagh acknowledges that this type of trawling is disliked by environmentalists, and he says: "When you fish for flatfish, you always have [unintentional] by-catches. Now, some of the species which are in the by-catches, are lately reduced in number drastically."

Cod, for instance, is caught as part of the by-catch, and as cod is protected, flatfishermen are now being excluded from certain areas which are set aside for cod regeneration. And the list of restrictions is growing, so that the number of areas open to flatfish boats is diminishing -- even though there is no shortage of flatfish species.

Ireland is also an EU fishing nation, with nearly 5,000 active professional fishermen. The head of the Irish Fishermen's Organization, Frank Doyle, says that full comment on the commission's proposals will have to wait until the details are known. But he says: "The trouble with all of this is that it is very difficult to reach a balance between conserving [fish] stocks and conserving fishermen and conserving fleets. Because if you do conserve stocks you will have the fleet dismantled in the meantime, [and] then you will have the problem of trying to rebuild subsequently, which is extremely difficult. So [the policy] must be fairly finely tuned as to how balances can be achieved in the immediate, medium, and long term."

In Ireland and Spain -- as, indeed, in most of Western Europe -- fishing remains largely a family business, and families around the EU are now worried about their economic future. The commission's proposals appear certain to run into formal opposition from some of the EU member states.

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