Overfishing still major problem despite EU warnings

OVERFISHING continues to be a major problem in the EU - some stocks are threatened with extinction - and Ireland had one of the worst records for 2004, according to the EU.

The European Court of Justice has recently ruled against Ireland, along with Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Finland and Sweden for overshooting quotas.

Cod stocks in the North Sea and Irish Sea are even lower than scientists expected and it will take several years before there can be any real hope of recovery, says the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which co-ordinates marine research in the North Atlantic.

With a small number of Irish fishermen under fire this week from Marine Minister Noel Dempsey for fishing illegally, or ignoring fishing quotas, EU member states are being urged to step up their efforts to prevent overfishing.

More than two-thirds of the infringement procedures pending against member states relate to cases of overfishing.

For a country such as Ireland, the tricky question remains - how to balance conservation stocks with the survival of coastal fishing communities. Because regulation of the fishing industry is not working satisfactorily, fishermen are being forced to break the rules in order to make a living.

All this despite a warning last month from Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg that failure to enforce fisheries measures works against the interests of fishermen as it leads to overfishing, depleted fish stocks, smaller catches and shrinking incomes.

Scientists are strongly critical of the EU for failing to act firmly enough and reaching political compromises while stocks continue to decline.

Last month, EU statistics showed Ireland and Spain have the worst records for exceeding agreed fishing limits and for monitoring European fishing quota restrictions.

The EU report followed an EU agreement in December on another round of fisheries restrictions, in response to grim warnings about collapsing fish stocks from the ICES, which recommended the complete closure of the worst-hit fishing grounds.

But, fisheries ministers compromised and agreed instead to a 15% reduction in cod fishing in the North Sea, Irish Sea and off the west of Scotland.

The report also said the proper management of the number of days boats are allowed to put to sea was crucial to preventing overfishing.

“Regrettably, reporting in this area continues to deteriorate... France, Ireland and Portugal failed, for the third year running, to transmit any data about their fleets’ fishing effort.”

The EU Commission has complained that many years of cutbacks have failed to deliver the expected resurgence of stocks because annual quota limits are not adhered to.

“The winners are those who cheat and can make a lot of money. The losers are the fishermen who abide by the rules. The message is loud and clear - the member states must do more to ensure fisheries rules are respected,” Mr Borg declared.

Penalties are severe for those caught, but Lorcan Ó Cinnéide of the Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation claims our fishermen are operating under a ‘jackboot system’ compared to most other member states.

Quoting EU figures, he said the average fine in Finland was €282, in Portugal €588, and in Spain €3,202. Yet, he said, Irish fishermen, were being hit with fines averaging up to €25,000.

“These are the figures in the latest EU report for analysis of fines imposed in 2003, so the Government cannot claim that these are invented figures,” Mr Ó Cinnéide said.

Meanwhile, international experts now say 75% of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited, or overfished. If nothing is done to stop the squandering of stocks, life in the oceans faces collapse and millions of people could starve.

Brendan May, chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, says: “The current mess and appalling mismanagement of the world’s largest renewable food source is a consequence of the European Union’s repeated refusal to follow scientific advice.”

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