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Save the fish and feed the people, says EU fisheries chief

14 july 2011, 10:55
"Our children will have fish," says Europe's fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki, the Greek official behind an ambitious plan released Wednesday to replenish withering fish stocks within four years, AFP reports.

Under a scheme upsetting big fishing states France and Spain even before its release, the Greek commissioner is proposing the novel idea of fishermen trading quotas at the national level.

"If it's business as usual, in 10 years only eight out of 136 stocks will be healthy," she told AFP on the basis of assessments that 75 percent of European Union stocks are overfished.

"I'm not an environmentalist, I'm not a fisherman, my job is to find a balance so that we can fish in the future, so our children will have fish."

Damanaki's overarching aim is to have stocks delivering a "maximum sustainable yield" by "no later than 2015."

To do this, she wants markets essentially to achieve what politicians cannot -- to hack back the size of Europe's fishing fleet, already decimated in many coastal areas by reforms allowing big Spanish or French boats to roam well beyond their traditional waters.

Reducing the size of the world's third biggest fishing power -- after China and Peru -- will take place by introducing individual quotas, or "concessions", that a fisherman can sell off to the highest bidder should he wish to throw in the net.

Similar systems of concessions have enabled Denmark to reduce its fleet by 30 percent in four years and have kept the fishing sector healthy in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Norway, she said. Europe's fleet capacity falls around two percent per year.

"Transferable fishing concessions ... should contribute to industry-induced fleet reductions and improved economic performance," the proposal states, a euphemism for more painful downsizing for trawlermen.

Small boats under 12 metres (yards) will be exempt if the EU member states choose to do so, the plans underline.

Damanaki said previous schemes subsidising the scrapping of vessels had failed to produce results and that tight economic times meant there were no longer such funds available.

"In the last decades we gave away millions of euros in taxpayers money to the fishing industry to build bigger vessels and now we give millions of euros away because they cannot cope."

With no sustainable future left for two-thirds of the industry "are we going to subsidize them forever?" she asked.

She has also warned that future fishing quotas will be lowered systematically in the absence of reliable scientitic data from EU states on stock sustainability.

Where there was no data or clear scientific recommendations on the state of stocks the European Commission would apply the principle of precaution, which means a drop in quotas, starting next year.

Possibly, one of her most controversial ideas is to end the practice of throwing fish that "should not be caught in the first place" back into the sea, a practise known as discards.

That will mean helping to fund storage facilities, for example, while also bringing in an "obligation to land all catches of specified stocks," that is to count them towards their catch quotas whether or not they find hungry markets.

"We're thinking of introducing a new system ... so the fish which is not sold can be given to poor people," she said. "We don't want to throw back fish to the sea."

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