Tuesday, December 18, 2007

EU ministers open debating marathon on fish quotas

Reuters: EU fisheries ministers kicked off their annual negotiating marathon on Tuesday on setting next year's catch quotas as Europe's fisheries chief offered some first concessions on volumes in an attempt to secure a deal. Cod, as ever, occupied top place on the ministerial menu as EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg diluted his recommendations for quota cuts of 25 percent for most trawling waters back to 20 percent. Even so, vessels would still have fewer days at sea to hunt for cod, if Borg gets his way in the final negotiations.

Scientists have warned for years that cod is so seriously overfished in EU waters that it runs the risk of extinction due to stock collapse. In October, they called for the EU to set next year's catch at less than half of 2006 levels. This year, however, is rather different since there are small signs of improvement in one particular year-class of cod in the North Sea, where Borg wants an 11 percent increase in the 2008 quota over last year.

Environment groups have attacked the idea of increasing a cod quota while the species' recovery still seems so precarious. "Europe cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past by fishing cod at the first signs of recovery," said Carol Phua, fisheries policy officer at conservation group WWF.…

The Commission, the EU's executive arm, has defended this by saying it also wants to cut numbers of cod fished as a by-catch with other species and also reduce the amounts of young cod scooped up but then thrown back in the sea, known as discards.

Initial reactions to Borg's proposed compromise agreement were lukewarm as countries haggled to get the best deal for their national fishing industries. EU officials attending the closed-doors meeting cited Britain, Denmark, France, Ireland and Spain as having particular complaints about the catch proposals. "It's the usual shopping-lists (of national demands) but the Commissioner is being quite firm. Cod will be quite difficult -- and reducing days at sea was very unpopular," one said.

Borg also watered down some of his proposed quota cuts for species such as haddock, sole and plaice and offered a slew of technical changes to general fisheries rules relating to areas such as net mesh sizes and types of permitted fishing tackle.

During the year, national fleets gradually fill their catch allowances and are then ordered to stop fishing for particular species in a designated area. Many EU states exceed their allowances anyway so the Commission proposes more quota cuts. The meeting is expected to run into the night, with a deal likely early on Wednesday, officials say.

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