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EU Debates Reducing Fishing Fleets - 2002-06-11

European Union fisheries ministers are discussing a proposal to reduce the size of Europe's fishing fleets, slash subsidies, and save stocks that scientists argue are close to extinction. Spain and other southern European nations are vowing to fight the plan.

EU Fisheries Commissioner Franz Fischler says the 15-country bloc's fishing fleet is twice as big as it should be in a time of shrinking stocks. He says overfishing is not only depleting those stocks but causing 8,000 fishermen to lose their jobs every year.

Mr. Fischler's proposed solution would cut the number of fishing vessels by 8.5 percent and redirect subsidies from building new vessels or updating old ones to creating alternative jobs for fishermen. He also suggested improved management of fish stocks.

Mr. Fischler commented that, if things go on as they are, the situation will be unsustainable. "The present fishing policy is, let us say it very frankly, a failure," he said, "So, therefore, it has to be changed."

Mr. Fischler suggested that the crux of the problem is that there are too many subsidized vessels chasing too few fish in such places as the Mediterranean and the North Sea.

"We need a real reform," he continued, "We have to urgently reduce the pressure on fish stocks. We have to stop the madness of subsidizing the building of vessels that threaten fish stocks and fishermen's jobs."

While Mr. Fischler and the European Commission argue that fishing as an industry will die out unless cutbacks are made, southern European governments find it politically impossible to let some fishermen lose their jobs now in order to save other jobs in the future.

Spain has the biggest fishing industry in Europe, with some 18,000 vessels. It also collects $550 million in annual fishing subsidies from the European Union. It is determined to protect both its industry and its subsidies.

Spain's position is supported by France, Greece, Italy and Portugal.

Britain's fisheries minister, Elliot Morley, supports the commission's plan, saying his country has already taken tough measures to cope with the situation.

"We have reduced our own fleet by around 10 percent in total terms in the last year. And we believe that other countries should face up to the kind of tough decisions that we have faced up to in the UK, because if there is not proper management of fish stocks, there will be no fishing industry."

A new EU fisheries policy is supposed to go into effect at the beginning of next year. But it needs the approval of EU member governments, which are so far deadlocked over the issue.