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EU: Environmentalists Criticize New Fishing Rules

Environmentalists are up in arms following a European Union ruling last week that rejected a proposed ban on commercial deep-sea fishing in the North Sea. Fishermen welcomed the ruling, saying it would help them after years of economic hard times. But marine-life experts claim the EU yielded to pressure from the fishing lobby. They say the deal favors overfishing, which could threaten the global food supply. And they say that the decision may even jeopardize the livelihood of fishermen.

London, 29 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, the EU Council of Ministers rejected a European Commission proposal to toughen commercial fishing regulations, including a ban on all fishing in some areas.

British fishing fleets' representatives are pleased, saying they have suffered enough in recent years. Doug Beveridge, assistant chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organizations, told RFE/RL: "Part of the restrictions that have been imposed over the last two or three years has been a significant reduction in the number of vessels. There has been an increase in mesh size, and there has been a days-at-sea regime. They all point to a 60 percent reduction in mortality in cod, but the commission wanted to press ahead with further ill-considered and ill-founded restrictions."

Beveridge added it was "unfortunate" that similar restrictions had also been proposed by the British Royal Commission on Pollution two weeks before the EU meeting. "They were looking at it from a slightly different perspective, and had an oversimplistic approach," he said. "We did speak to the [European] Commission quite intensively about it. One of the problems with the Royal Commission report is that if it were imposed and applied the way they set it out, we would be back into that framework of the one-size-fits-all blunt approach from Brussels."

The European Commission had originally sought deep restrictions in North Sea fishing, including a 60 percent cut in herring, 34 percent for cod, and 27 percent for mackerel, as well as a complete ban on fishing in some areas.

But Beveridge claimed such a conservation approach is not necessary. He said fishermen alone have adopted measures that have increased cod stocks over the last two years.

Marine experts, however, disagree. Tom Eddy, secretary to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, told RFE/RL: "I think that's wishful thinking. We've heard something about stocks recovering by 20 percent. But as they are only 10 percent of what they should be, that really means that's 12 percent of the natural level. That's tiny, and it doesn't actually help the fishing industry to be struggling with fish stocks down."
Sparholt called the fishing industry's approach "short-sighted and even suicidal."

Eddy said banning fishing to allow stocks to return is "the best way forward" in many areas including between Norway, Britain, Ireland, France, and Spain. He said such a step would also be in the long-term interests of fishermen.

Others note that the creation of fisheries in various parts of the world has brought about positive results. Henrik Sparholt, a fisheries scientist at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea in Copenhagen, said: "The closed areas are actually quite effective management measures. We have some closed areas in the North Sea for juvenile herring, for Norway pout, and industrial fisheries for plaice and for mackerel outside the North Sea. They have implemented closed areas now for cod in the Baltic I have seen today. So it's a powerful tool."

Sparholt called the fishing industry's approach "short-sighted and even suicidal." He said it could lead to a total depletion of many popular fish stocks. "They're really not following the advice we have given of no fishing on that stock in 2005, the critical stocks -- cod in the North Sea," he said. "It's so low now that it's unknown whether it's able to reproduce itself in sufficient amount. So there is a high risk of kind of economic collapse of the stock."

Eddy, meanwhile, sees an even more serious threat to the fish stocks. "Ultimately, there won't be an industry, because it's not sustainable, and some fishing industries are simply moving from one fishery to another across the world using up the fish and moving on," Eddy said. "You can do that for a few decades, but eventually it will be pretty disastrous. You don't have to imagine it. You just need to go to North America, where there has been no cod on the Grand Banks for about 10 years or more. And that was the most prolific cod fishery in the world."

Sparholt said stock management might have worked 30 years ago, but not now. He said in the most heavily fished seas, only a total ban can bring back stocks.