Cod quotas reduced to an all-time low

Future bleak for British fishermen as emergency measures taken to rescue dwindling North Sea stocks on the brink of extinction

Andrew Osborn in Brussels
Friday December 15, 2000
The Guardian

The government bowed to the inevitable last night and agreed to endorse the biggest cuts in North Sea cod quotas ever seen in a controversial decision which it acknowledges will put hundreds of UK fishermen out of work.

However, last night at a marathon meeting of EU fisheries ministers in Brussels the UK was continuing to hold out for less swingeing catch quotas for other species such as haddock and whiting.

But for the British fishermen who trawl for cod the future is bleak - quotas for next year are set to be slashed by 40% to just 48,600 tonnes, down from this year's figure of 81,000 tonnes which is already a historic low.

Although the meeting was far from over last night UK officials confirmed that a deal on cod was already done - all that remained was to agree quotas for other species such as North Sea prawns which the EC wants to cut by 20%.

Elliot Morley, the UK's fisheries minister, told the Guardian: "We're now ready to go along with the European commission's proposals on cod. We accept that there is a proper scientific case for a cod recovery programme since stocks are in such a dire state."

North Sea cod stocks have dwindled to their lowest levels since records began in 1963 and are now on the brink of extinction thanks to overfishing.

There are an estimated 70,000 tonnes of adult cod in the North Sea compared with a figure of 250,000 tonnes in the 1960s. The minimum stock level to guarantee the species' survival is 150,000 tonnes.

But Mr Morley argued last night that the EC's proposed cuts in catches for other species were unacceptable to the UK.

"We think that the commission has gone beyond scientific advice for a number of other species using an across the board kind of approach."

"I'm not trying to argue up the quotas simply to get more fish but some of these cuts are not scientifically justified."

The EC was last night also pressing for a 74% cut for hake catches next year together with a 56% cutback in cod caught off the west of Scotland and a 35% cut on west of Scotland whiting.

Cod have become so scarce in the North Sea that a special recovery programme of the kind put in place for the Irish Sea would have to be agreed. That would involve the total closure of spawning areas at key times to protect breeding and young fish.

Barry Deas, head of Britain's National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, admitted that the decisions would wreak havoc upon the UK's already hard-pressed fishing industry.

"It looks very bleak at this stage. Plans would be utterly disastrous. There are so many vessels that are already barely economically viable."

The EC insisted last night, however, that there was no choice if cod and other stocks are not to collapse altogether and said that member states were holding out for more modest quota cuts despite the seriousness of the situation.

"There's a lack of understanding that we have to cut so-called associated species, which are caught together with cod. Some member states want to decouple these quotas and this is completely unacceptable to us," spokesman Gregor Kreuzhuber argued.

Industry leaders have already warned that the cuts will put hundreds of fishermen out of work and acknowledge that many of those left in the business will have to be made to spend far fewer days at sea chasing an ever-dwindling number of fish.

Britain's fish and chip industry is also likely to find it more difficult to buy cod although much of what it sells is sourced from countries outside the EU.

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