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Brussels: EU Fleet Two-Thirds Bigger Than The Sea Can Offer

Drastic cuts in the European fishing fleet are needed, the EU Commission warned Wednesday, launching a consultation exercise to overhaul a sector which it said is making profits and fish stocks disappear.

A raft of ideas are included in a consultative green paper formally adopted by the EU executive on Wednesday.

“Nine out of ten fish stocks are exploited beyond their capacity to regenerate,” EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg said as he presented the paper in Brussels.

The report describes 30 percent of stocks as already “outside safe biological limits,” meaning they may not be able to replenish.

However Borg refused to put an overall figure on the fishing capacity cuts required, saying it varied from one area or species to another.

He did say that cod, hake and bluefin tuna stocks were among the most depleted and threatened.
Already two-thirds of the fish on Europe’s table is imported, Borg said, with the community’s fishing fleet now two-thirds bigger than the sea can offer in resources.

While seeking to fix more long-term methods to tackle the growing problem of overfishing, the Green Paper on reforming the European Union's fisheries policy risks inflaming discontent which has already led to French fishermen crippling English Channel ports with a three-day blockade last week.

The current Common Fisheries policy, last overhauled in 2002, “has not worked well enough” to prevent the problems seen now, the report admits.

One remedy which the commission would like the EU member states to consider is to liberalize the quota system to encourage sustainable fishing.

Under the current system, EU nations haggle at the end of each year on how to share out fishing quotas among themselves that are then distributed among their national fishing fleets.

Brussels is now leaning towards a system already used in Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Iceland whereby governments hand out “individual and transferable” quotas to fishermen on a one off basis.

These can then be bought and sold on the private market.

Supporters of this kind of system say it encourages fishing boats to operate in a more responsible manner, aware that the stocks of fish they are managing are their nest-egg, for when they retire and sell up for instance.

Some EU nations including Denmark and the Netherlands, are in favor of the tradable quotas scheme.

However others, notably France, oppose the idea of turning fisheries into another vehicle for the speculators.

At the same time the commission wants to retain “coastal, small-scale and recreation fishermen alongside larger industries,” by using different management schemes with more of a social focus.

Given the period of reflection till the end of the year, to be followed by the EU executive drawing up concrete measures and those being agreed, any radical overhaul is unlikely to happen before 2013.

While welcoming the spotlight on the issue, environmental groups warned that too little was being considered, too late.

“Unfortunately many precious years have been lost through low performing policy,” said Xavier Pastor, executive director of Oceana-Europe, listing a litany of woes including unmanaged overcapacity, poor environmental compliance, low profitability of the EU fisheries industry, “perverse subsidies and incentives” and unsustainable loss of biodiversity