Protesters demanding the return of fishing policy to national governments took the campaign to Brussels today at the start of talks on more restrictions for the beleaguered UK fleet.
A 162,500-signature petition was handed in as fisheries ministers gathered to thrash out proposals including the closure of large areas of the North and Irish Seas to give severely-depleted white fish stocks a chance to replenish.
The European Commission says the move is essential in the wake of scientific advice on the desperate state of cod supplies.
UK fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw and the Scottish environment minister Ross Finnie told the talks today that closing vital fishing grounds was an extreme reaction which would devastate the UK industry, particularly the Scottish and northern fleets.
“We do not rule out closing fishing grounds in the North Sea in the medium to long term – but not this year,” said Mr Bradshaw.
The annual dispute over EU fishing has revived the call for the Common Fisheries Policy – under which Europe’s fishing waters and catch quotas are carved up – to be scrapped.
The message was conveyed to the talks by members of the United Fishing Industry Alliance, set up last year to campaign for “freedom from the Common Fisheries Policy“.
The Alliance wants control of fisheries management to be returned to national governments, in line with the terms of the Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill currently before the UK House of Commons.
The Bill is an attempt to repatriate UK fisheries policy to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Westminster.
The petition was handed to the Scottish Parliament by the Cod Crusaders Campaign last Thursday.
Today it was passed on to MEP Ian Hudgton.
He promised to see it gets into the hands of Europe’s new fisheries commissioner Joe Borg, whose first annual fishing proposals have produced the inevitable scrabble for the best national deal out of the available stocks.
The Commission blames the continuing shortage of cod stocks on the race by governments for extra quotas and on the failure of national authorities to police fishing limits properly.
But Mr Finnie insisted the UK was totally committed to fish conservation measures, which are already beginning to work under the existing cod recovery programme.
He said: “We are not suggesting backing from conservation, but that does not mean the setting of disproportionate restrictions.”
Mr Bradshaw and Mr Finnie are arguing at the talks for better enforcement and control measures, and a recognition that cod stocks are recovering in some areas, whatever the scientists are telling Brussels.
Mr Bradshaw is unhappy that the views of the first Regional Advisory Council held in Edinburgh has been ignored in the Commission’s proposals.
A series of such councils was set up to give fishermen a more direct say in the annual fish catch planning.
The Commission insists it is listening to the fishermen, but says it must balance their livelihoods with the need to ensure long-term supply of fish.
“Without fish, there is no fishing,” said a Commission spokesman.
The closure of cod fishing grounds seemed set to be rejected as the talks began today – an early rebuff for Mr Borg, just getting to grips with the high emotions the management of EU fishing waters provokes.