After more than eight years of arduous talks, the European fishing dispute appears to be over. Governments in the European Community (EC) hailed their joint fishing agreement a major achievement - and a sign of unity. But some experts say the compromise is only a temporary respite in an otherwise gloomy outlook for Europe's fishing industry.
The new joint system, finally agreed to last week, has brought to an end for the time being years of wrangling between France, Britain, and more recently Denmark over protection of dwindling fishing fleets and stocks.
Central to the compromise is the limits placed on how many fish each EC country can catch.
The catch quotas were calculated to diminish the overfishing that has dangerously depleted fish stocks in most European waters and caused a drastic attrition among the fishermen. Negotiations had begun in earnest in 1975 following the so-called ''cod war'' between Iceland and its neighbors over fishing rights. Reaching agreement on the quotas and access to each others' waters was difficult, but considered necessary to avoid further regional disputes.
The fishing policy may have only limited impact because it covers only the North Sea, and not the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. Nevertheless the North Sea is Europe's richest fishing waters.
The main governments involved, seeking to put the best face on the new agreement, called the accord a major breakthrough.
It is the first major new policy in the EC in years and joins other agreements in agriculture, steel, monetary stability, research, and a number of other areas. And the agreement is considered a welcome sign of the member countries' willingness to work together.
Danish Prime Minister Poul Schluter described it as ''a tremendous achievement.''
British Agriculture Minister Peter Walker told the House of Commons the same week that the pact was ''good for Europe and good for Britain.'' He added that it provided ''the basis upon which the fishing industry can obtain a secure future.''
Another major protagonist in the lengthy debate, the French maritime minister , Louis Le Pensec, called it ''a welcome marriage after a stormy 10-year engagement.''
Over the years, the controversy had been primarily over clashing British and French interests. Britain sought to protect its waters from mainly French and Danish fishing boats. When France and Britain finally settled their differences on this issue about a year ago, Denmark blocked agreement because it felt the others had accorded it too small a catch quota. Last week, Denmark accepted the terms offered after it was given special promises that its interests would be protected.
Under the final agreement British fishermen obtained 29.2 percent of the total quota, Denmark 25.8 percent, France 15.2 percent, Germany 11.5 percent, Holland 11 percent, Ireland 4.4 percent, and Belgium 2.9 percent.
While governments rejoiced, however, fishing organizations and some of their representatives did not hide their skepticism. Especially outspoken were the Danish, Irish, and Scottish fishermen.
Kent Kirk, the Danish fisherman and European parliamentarian whose dramatic foray into British waters and subsequent arrest last month highlighted his compatriots' discontent, said the accord was ''politically wrong'' but probably needed at this time to allow an adjustment of the industry.
In Scotland, Bob Roberts, the head of the Scottish Fisherman's Association said there were still too many vessels chasing too few fish.
One sign of the industry's problems is the drastic attrition among European fishermen. The many fishing villages that dot the coastlines of Brittany, Scotland, Ireland, and other shores have been declining in recent years. If the towns are fortunate, pleasure yachts replace the fishing boats.
Another problem, said Nigel Atkins, of the British National Federation of Fisherman's Organizations, is that England and Wales urgently need to modernize their fleets. More than half of the vessels are more than 26 years old.
However, one aspect of the new joint policy is aimed at providing financial assistance for such modernization with a $250 million fund over the next three years. A small new force of EC inspectors will also assure that rules concerning catch quotas and fish-net sizes, among others, are respected.