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Fishermen furious at No 10 plan to tie up half of Britain's trawlers
By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent

The Independent
26th March 2004

Downing Street proposals to confine nearly half of Britain's fishing fleet to port sparked a dispute between environmentalists and fishermen yesterday about the true state of the nation's fish stocks.

Fishing industry leaders rejected government proposals yesterday to scrap 13 per cent of the boats fishing for cod, haddock and other white fish and to stop 30 per cent of the remaining vessels from putting to sea for four years until stocks have recovered.

Fishermen, Scottish MPs and the Tories poured scorn on No 10's proposals and claimed the Government's analysis of the threat to fish was exaggerated, and "full of inaccuracies."

Scientists advising the European Union have warned that at least two-thirds of fish stocks in the North Atlantic are below sustainable levels, a claim backed by wildlife protection bodies. The WWF welcomed the proposals to slim down the UK fishing fleet. The charity also urged consumers to think about varying their diet to protect cod and monkfish, a deep-sea fish which takes years to mature, and consider eating fish such as herring which are not under threat.

But a war of words broke out between fishermen and their supporters and the Government after Downing Street was accused of getting its figures wrong over the level of fish stocks and the number of boats in the whitefish fleet.

The Scottish National Party accused Downing Street of grossly underepresenting the number of jobs dependent on the fishing industry in Scotland. The report said 13,500 people were in "fisheries-dependent jobs" but the SNP said a recent inquiry by the Royal Society of Edinburgh found there were more than 40,000 jobs linked to fishing.

The Government's figures on the number of boats currently fishing for plaice, cod and monkfish were also the subject of dispute. The Government said more than 500 boats were in the whitefish fleet but experts say many of those boats are pursuing prawns, which are not endangered and some experts argue could be fished more vigorously. They say the true number of boats that catch only cod, plaice, monkfish and other whitefish is limited to 180.

The SNP accused No. 10 of knowing nothing about the fishing industry and of miscalculating "the number of whitefish boats wildly".

"These extraordinary blunders by the policy wonks in Downing Street totally destroys the credibility of this report," said Alex Salmond, MP for Banff and Buchan. "They have miscounted jobs, boats and fish. I suspect Colonel Gaddafi in the desert sun probably knows more about Scottish fishing than the Prime Minister's unit."

The report also provoked a dispute about the reason for the decline of fish populations off Britain's coasts. The nation's penchant for cod and chips may not be to blame for the shrinking catch, many argued, but because cod have been migrating north into cooler waters.

The Tories are adamant that the EU's common fisheries policy, which sets quotas for fishermen on the amounts they can catch, is largely to blame. John Whittingdale MP, shadow Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, said the EU policy was leading to millions of tons of fish being dumped dead into the sea, because they exceed the quotas.

What else could be done to preserve fish stocks?

Cod farming

Britain's first cod farm was recently set up at Vidlin Voe in the Shetlands. It is hoped that 14,000 fish, or about 40 tons, will be harvested this summer at Vidlin, building to an eventual 2,000 tons a year.

No take zones

The first "no take zone" was established off Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel in January last year. By banning all fishing in specific areas, safe areas for fish are created and so stocks recover.

Artificial reefs

Conservationists are planning to build an artificial reef at Lamlash Bay in Arran to revive a once-prolific in-shore fishery. The reef will provide a home for small fish, shellfish and algae.

Larger mesh sizes

There have been plans to force those fishing around the British coast to adopt larger mesh sizes to allow young fish to escape, thereby allowing fish populations to regenerate.

James Burleigh