British ministers presented a united front yesterday to head off European plans that could have effectively shut down much of one of the country's main fishing grounds off the West coast of Scotland.
At the same time, in an early sign that depleted stocks of cod in the North Sea are slowly beginning to recover, they welcomed a decision yesterday to allow catches to increase by 30 per cent from this year's levels.During the annual Brussels fish quota negotiations, the European Commission had originally called for a widespread ban off the West of Scotland to give dwindling stocks of cod, haddock and whiting time to recover.
Going into the talks, critics, while accepting the need to protect whitefish stocks, gave warning that the heavy-handed measures proposed by the Commission would prevent fishermen from landing their staple catch of prawns.
These are in plentiful supply and, with a value of £45 million, are a vital input into the whole coastal economy, providing indirect employment for ice manufacturers, processors and haulage companies. After 24 hours of talks, ministers and fishing industry representatives persuaded Joe Borg, the Fisheries Commissioner, to adopt another tack.
Later, Richard Lochhead, the Scottish Fisheries Secretary, said: “The future of the West Coast fishing communities dominated this week's negotiations and there will be huge relief that proposals to close the grounds have been successfully resisted.”
Huw Irranca-Davies, the Fisheries Minister, who led the British delegation that also included Michelle Gildernew, the Northern Irish Agriculture Minister, paid tribute to the teamwork of his fellow ministers and officials from the devolved administrations as they fought for their top priority.
“Everyone worked together for a fair deal that safeguards fish stocks, maintains a sustainable fishing industry and protects the marine environment,” he said.
The Scottish Tories said that the original proposals from the Commission had been ill thought-out and that the deal on strict conservation measures was the right way forward.
The alternative plan for the West of Scotland is based on initiatives that the Scottish fleet has been pioneering in the North Sea as part of cod recovery measures, and which are now being gradually introduced into other European waters.
These include selective fishing gear with larger nets to allow small fish to escape, and real time closures, forcing vessels to go to other waters as soon as they discover juveniles or spawning stock in areas they intended to fish.
While welcoming the change in the conservation measures, Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, which includes many prawn trawlers, gave a warning of the challenges ahead. “In the North Sea, there are possible rewards in this, as it gives the potential for fishermen to catch less and land more,” he said.
However, he added that the challenges would be greater off the West Coast of Scotland since there were fewer fish and fishermen faced additional closures and the expense of buying more selective gear.
In addition to the increase in next year's cod catches, yesterday's agreement also provides British fishermen with a 32 per cent increase in their mackerel quota, 13 per cent more North Sea plaice and 8 per cent more monkfish. However, the industry is unhappy at the 5 per cent cut in the prawn quota, which it considers unjustified, and will use scientific evidence next year to press for an increase in monkfish and anglerfish catches.
The Scottish government added that although the deal would be tough to implement for some vessels, the important point for Scotland's top five commercial stocks was that fishermen would be able to catch more than, or the same as, the amount that they were permitted to land last year.Political catch of the year saves Scots fishermen