Europe angles for a solution to dwindling fish stocks

The EU this week considers reducing harvests of cod and other species, as fishermen protest.

As Jose Deza Castro steers his small, scruffy fishing boat out of the sheltered harbor here, he scarcely needs to look out of the window to find his way.

Not only has he has done this thousands of times before; can also count on a bank of computer screens just behind the wheel, flashing constantly changing information about his location, depth, and direction.

And when he lets his nets out, those screens will tell him exactly where to find the shoals of sardines and anchovies that he is hunting. The nets rarely come up empty.

"When I started going to sea we had none of this," Mr. Deza Castro says, gesturing with a work-scarred hand at the high-tech display on the bridge. "We fished only about three months a year, when the moon was right, and we followed our instincts to find the fish. Now we fish all year, and we know where the sardines are."

With fishing boats from Scotland to Portugal using the latest fish-finding devices, from sonar to spotter planes, many popular fish are nearing commercial extinction, experts warn. And they fear that European fisheries ministers, meeting this week in Brussels in a last-ditch effort to save the cod, may in fact sacrifice the fish's future to satisfy angry fishermen at home.

At stake, warned Franz Fischler, the European Union's agriculture and fisheries boss this week, is "the demise of some of our most important stocks, and with them the future of our fishing industry."

Without radical and immediate action to curb fishing in European waters, he warned, fishermen would suffer the same fate as their colleagues in Canada, who overfished the Grand Banks so badly that cod fishing has been banned there since 1992.

That would spell an end to one of the mainstays of European cuisine.

Goodbye, bacalhau

English fish and chips would never be the same again, and the Portuguese would lose their beloved national dish of bacalhau, orsalt cod.

The parlous state of cod stocks, Mr. Fischler said, is emblematic of "a failed fisheries policy, marked by years of excessive catch quotas, continued failure to heed scientists' warnings, industry overcapacity, the use of public money to maintain unsustainable levels of fishing pressure, and the failure to enforce proper controls."

But moves to reform the European Union's fisheries policy, under debate by ministers this week, have met with fierce resistance from fishermen.

"Our reaction to the EU proposals is completely negative," says Alain Parres, head of EuropĂȘche, the Europewide federation of fishermen's associations.

Mr. Parres maintains that "the current policies are fine; they just need to be better enforced."

Experts do not agree.

Fishermen in European Union waters caught only 70 percent of the cod they were entitled to in 2000, the experts point out, because they could not find any more, and stocks are below 20 percent of their potential.

It's not just cod

"Cod stocks are the worst, but other whitefish are in a bad state, too," says Hans Larsen, a scientist with the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) in Copenhagen, which provides its estimates to the EU.

Nor has the European Union's fisheries policy achieved another of its aims - to protect jobs in the industry. Eighty-thousand fishermen have given up the sea over the past decade, leaving only 220,000 still fishing.

"Politicians should accept that they have made a complete mess of setting quotas in the past and hand over responsibility to an independent body that takes more notice of scientific advice," said Karl Wagner, head of the World Wildlife Fund's European Fisheries Campaign.

National governments, however, which set annual quotas in secret negotiations such as those under way this week, are reluctant to give up their powers to defend their fleets, which makes it hard for Fischler to reduce the number of boats fishing, another of his goals.

The EU provides funds to encourage the scrapping of fishing boats - to reduce an estimated overcapacity of 40 percent - but it also hands out money to modernize old boats and to construct new ones.

"It makes no sense to distribute money with one hand to scrap boats and to finance the construction of new ones with the other," Fischler said during the ministerial meeting opened Monday as he explained his plan to end subsidies that pay for greater catches.

Fishermen fear that will put their future in jeopardy, but they are more immediately worried about the EU's plan to cut catches radically now.

The European Commission, the EU's executive body, initially proposed reducing cod catches by 80 percent in some waters - already less than the total ban recommended by ICES - but has backed down to a 65 percent cut in the face of opposition from powerful fishing nations such as France and Spain.

Livelihoods in peril

Even that, complains Mr. Parres, would spell destruction for many fishing communities, since fishermen could not meet their overheads with such low catches.

"The proposal is unrealistic from a socioeconomic point of view," he argues.

"If fishing ended, whole regions would be turned into wastelands," Mr. Parres warns, because so many people in coastal areas depend on fishing fleets for their living.

Parres has suggested a less radical approach, challenging the European Union's fish estimates and seeking fewer cuts over a longer period to help stocks recover.

"Perhaps some fish are in difficulty, but to say that our resources are in danger is dishonest," he says. "Why not try to restore them over a 10-year period?"

Scientists, however, are insistent. "You can argue about the precision of our estimates, but the general conclusion about cod is extremely well founded," says Mr. Larsen. "And without drastic measures, you don't see recovery. Even with very harsh measures there is no guarantee that stocks will recover."

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