SO far, so good must be the verdict on this year's EU fish talks.
There are two positive results for the Scottish fishing industry: an increase of 18% in the quota for west of Scotland prawns and a smaller-than-proposed cut in the haddock quota of 30% instead of 48%.
But talk of successful negotiation is premature. The key question for next year is what level of cod catch will be permitted and that must wait for talks between the EU and Norway in January. Europe's Cod Recovery Plan, agreed in Brussels in 2008, includes further automatic cuts in days at sea for Scottish fishermen.
Despite an increase in cod stocks, this would reduce the amount that can be taken from the North Sea by 20% next year. However, fisheries ministers from a number of EU states want to end the automatic system and it looks as though that will now be up for discussion.
This is timely. Quotas have succeeded in conserving stocks (cod numbers having more than doubled in the last six years) but are highly contentious. They have also had disastrous consequence of fishing vessels which have exceeded their quota dumping dead fish back into the sea.
This disgusting and wasteful practice has rightly caused a public outcry and measures such as changing net size to allow smaller fish or the wrong species to escape have reduced the discards. For far too long the scandal of discards has been accepted by MEPs as an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of the quota system. With the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) up for renewal, the time for change has arrived.
One factor is that in Europe, although quotas relate to total allowable catch, monitoring is of fish landed rather than fish caught. The vast European fishing industry is composed of a complex variation in type of fisheries, size of boats and species and value of fish. A one-size-fits-all approach to regulation is doomed to failure. That would apply to a blanket ban on discards but a move towards regarding no discards as the norm could produce the change in practice that leads to effective reduction.
Scottish fishermen can claim credit for taking measures that have made the greatest decrease in cod discards in Europe. That ought to count in their favour in the new negotiations in which quotas due to be cut by 20%. Success will be a deal which enshrines conservation measures without leading to greater discards.
Despite recognition of the problem, the CFP with its Alice-in-Wonderland disregard for practical consequences remains largely unreformed. The waste of millions of tonnes of fish and continued loss of livelihoods in the fishing industry cannot go on.
Fish is an important source of healthy natural food which we have a duty to conserve for future generations. That will not be achieved without reform of the CFP to ensure it is effective, enforceable and adequately policed.
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