EU ministers approve fishing capacity deal

Countries agree minimal capacity cuts; compromise attacked by UK, environmental NGOs

EU fisheries ministers have agreed a compromise proposal aimed at trimming the size of the European Union's fishing fleet to reflect dwindling marine fish stocks in its waters. Adopted by 13 of the EU's 15 member states in Brussels yesterday, the plan will allow EU funding for countries to replace fishing vessels on a one-to-one basis, but will force them to scrap 30% more vessels than they build if member states fail to adhere to a pre-agreed schedule of fleet restructuring.

Under the EU's fourth "multiannual guidance programme" (MAGP) for fisheries, EU countries have agreed to replace old ships without exceeding fleet size limits, which vary annually but tend towards a reduction in vessel numbers. Member states draw heavily on the community's structural funds to achieve the modernisation.

At issue in yesterday's ministerial meeting was the question of attaching conditions to the new package of structural funds until the current MAGP ends in 2001. As a measure to reduce fishing capacity, the European Commission had proposed that any new ship bought with EU funds should be accompanied by the scrapping of the equivalent of 1.3 ships - which would lead to a 30% reduction beyond MAPG commitments in the portion of the fleet funded by the EU.

The proposal caused such division among member states that yesterday's meeting was the fourth attempt by ministers to reach agreement. The UK and Denmark had argued for the funding to be linked to a 50% reduction in fleet size, while Italy and the Netherlands argued that no conditions should be attached to the EU money.

Under today's compromise, countries meeting their MAPG targets will be eligible for structural funds on a one-to-one vessel replacement basis. Only countries that fail to stick to their MAGP restructuring programme will be subject to the 30% reduction figure in order to get EU funding.

The compromise failed to win over the UK, which voted against it. "Public funds should not be used for fleet development when there are insufficient fish to go round," an environment ministry official said today. However, he welcomed the introduction of a penalty system for countries not sticking to MAGP targets as an "important point of principle." The Netherlands also voted against the deal because its failure to meet MAGP targets means it will be subject to the 30% clause.

The deal has angered environmental organisations. Euan Dunn of the UK conservation organisation the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the plan "would do very little to restore to restore the balance between fleet capacity and dwindling fish stocks, or to address the problem of 'technical creep'," where vessels' increasing efficiency wipes out gains made by scrapping programmes. "The Fisheries Council has decided it will be overfishing as usual," said Julie Cator of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, tel: +44 1767 680 551; WWF European Unit, tel: +32 2 743 8800.

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