Ban on North sea cod fishing

Paul Brown and Andrew Osborn in Brussels
Thursday January 25, 2001

A 40,000 square mile swath of the North sea, almost a fifth of its entire area, will be off limits to cod, haddock and whiting fishermen this spring as part of a desperate attempt to ensure the cod stock is not wiped out, the European commission announced yesterday.

It is far more sweeping than the original proposals put for ward in December and will be the first time that parts of the North sea have been closed for fishing - putting many trawlermen out of work. Officials argued that the measure was essential if there was to be any cod left in the North sea next year.

Industrial fishing, which takes juvenile fish to feed salmon farms and to make animal feed, has also been banned in most areas although the Danes have been allowed a small fishery in their own waters.

Gregor Kreuzhuber for the EU said: "If we don't implement drastic measures now there will be no fish left next year. There is no way round this. This is a critical situation."

An area from north of Scotland to the east of England will be closed to trawlermen who take cod, haddock and whiting in the same nets. Cod stocks have fallen to their lowest levels in the last hundred years and quotas for the white fish were cut by as much as 40% by EU fisheries ministers last month.

Supplies to consumers will not be hit by the ban because the big buyers get most of their fish from outside the North sea. Today they are launching the Frozen at Sea Fillets Association to restore confidence in the industry.

The North sea ban will last from mid-February until the end of April - the crucial spawning period for cod and will be rigorously policed. Some fishermen will be allowed into the so-called "controlled zone" - namely those on the look out for species which swim at higher levels such as mackerel. But they will have to put up with on-board observers making sure that they do not catch any cod.

Commission officials said yesterday that they were also considering bringing in a similar scheme for hake and made it clear that shutting off large parts of the North sea for cod fishermen could be an annual event. A five-year plan for stock recovery is being developed and will be put to ministers in June. If stocks recover the North sea could produce more than 10 times as many fish as were caught last year.

Norway, which manages North sea fishing along with the EU, has already agreed to the plan which also includes other emergency measures such as forcing fishermen to apply for special permits and reporting what they catch in greater detail.

The UK has been heavily involved in negotiations. "I welcome this conservation initiative. Taken together with the big cuts in cod fishing effort agreed at December's fisheries council in Brussels this is the most significant conservation measure since the common fisheries policy was set up in 1983," said fisheries minister Elliot Morley.

Other measures such as forcing fishermen to use special meshed nets, which allow juvenile cod to escape, are likely to be agreed shortly, he added.

But Mike Park, chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producers' Association, claimed the plan was too harsh and called for government compensation.

"If the fleet were affluent just now, this measure would seem fine. But the fleet is just managing to exist at the moment. By the end of April we are going to see several casualties in the industry."

WWF joined the fishermen in asking for compensation to tide the fleet over. It said: "We feel for the fishermen but this is a positive step in the right direction."

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