Questions & Answers

The scientists who advise the European Union on fish quotas have released a report calling for a ban on cod fishing in the North Sea, the Irish Sea and west of Scotland.


Falling cod stocks have prompted fears

Who are these scientists and why do they want a ban on cod fishing?

They belong to ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) which is the organisation that coordinates and promotes scientific investigation in the North Atlantic.

ICES scientists from 19 member countries conduct their research through more than 100 working groups, and they are the main source of advice for the EU when it comes to deciding fish quotas.

Does the EU always act on their advice?

No. ICES has a strong voice, but the EU Fisheries Council only reaches decisions after prolonged discussions – and political considerations usually play a major role.

Last year, EU fishing ministers clinched a deal on further fishing quotas to avoid the collapse of cod stocks.

But they refused to sanction the ban on cod fishing in the North Sea, Irish Sea and west of Scotland which ICES had urged for the second year running.

How real is the threat to fish stocks?

Scientists say that we simply cannot carry on fishing in British waters at the level that we are doing at present.

They say despite attempts at reducing fishing quotas, and a decommissioning programme for fishing boats, cod stocks are still declining, and are now at such low levels that only a complete ban will save them from total collapse.

According to ICES, there is still no clear sign that cod stocks in the North Sea, Irish Sea and west of Scotland are making a recovery. Cod stocks in the North Sea alone total about 46,000 tonnes – less than a third of the recommended minimum of 150,000 tonnes.

And it is not just cod. ICES are also asking for zero hake catches in the waters of southern Biscay and sharp cuts for plaice and sandeels.

Fishermen say they are still finding and catching plenty of fish, and the scientists are being over-pessimistic. If there were so few cod, say some campaigners, fishing vessels would not continue to see cod caught by mistake in their catch.

Indeed, some campaigners for fishermen say there are signs that cod populations may actually be increasing.

But several scientists think this could be partly due to “hyper-aggregation” – the tendency of a hunted population to crowd together for safety, providing easy targets for the crews.

Are there any precedents for a fishing ban?

In 1992, the Canadian Government imposed a total cod fishing ban off Newfoundland.

Its once vast, rich stocks of cod had been sent into freefall when industrial fishing methods took over from the smaller scale practices that had gone before.

The economic consequences were huge. The population in fishing areas reduced dramatically as people moved in search of other work. Property values plummeted as people trying to migrate out of the region attempted to sell their houses.

Some fishing has continued, as shellfish moved in to take the place of the cod. But fish stocks have still not recovered.

Are there alternatives to a ban?

The scientists say no – the fishing effort on stocks is still too high and under-reporting of cod catches makes it difficult to get a true picture of stocks.

However, fishermen argue that scientists do not work closely enough with fishermen and don’t fully understand the real state of stocks. They argue that cod stocks are robust enough to deal with a continued catch.

What will be the impact on fishermen?

Jobs have already been lost and boats scrapped as a result of fish quota reductions, say fishermen. Some fear that whole communities could be destroyed if the current situation continues.

Campaigners warn that fishermen could be forced into militant action if the British fleet gets cut again in 2005.

What happens next?

From now, it is a question of horse trading by EU fisheries ministers at the Fisheries Council meetings, with the big decisions to be made in December.

This annual pre-Christmas round of fishing negotiations is nothing new – politicians, journalists and environmentalists are used to trying to stay awake through the night as the negotiators battle it out for the best deal for their respective countries.

If previous meetings are anything to go by, however, not all member states will have the political stomach to agree to go home and start dismantling their fishing fleets in 2005.


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