Richard North, 06/12/2004  

The front page of The Daily Telegraph today sports an "exclusive" by Charles Clover headed "Health advice to eat more fish 'is threatening stocks'".

It trails the impending publication (due out tomorrow) by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution following "an 18-month investigation of over-fishing", and retails one of 60 recommendations for "radical change" in Government policy to emerge from the report.

That recommendation is that government advice that people should eat two portions of fish a week should be scrapped because rising consumption could destroy depleted fishing grounds.

Clover also builds in another "scoop". The Prince of Wales has been prevailed upon to lend his name to an op-ed in the Telegraph, where he endorses the Royal Commission's call for urgent action to protect the marine environment and future food supplies.

Edging into dangerous political territory, he singles out for particular criticism the "appalling" destruction of dolphins and porpoises by trawlers catching bass in the Channel as an example of the multiple failures of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy.

This, in fact, is an example of a humiliating rebuff delivered by the commission to fisheries minister Ben "Rear Admiral" Bradshaw. After he and his predecessor Elliot Morely had committed to stopping high-speed pair trawling for Bass on the Western Approaches - cited as the cause of the carnage – Bradshaw went cap in hand to the commission asking for a ban, only to have his entreaties rejected on the grounds of "insufficient proof of damage' See links, here, here and here.

Returning to the Clover story, however, he still buys in to the oft-repeated canard of "over-fishing" causing the problems, citing the Royal Commission, which argues that "the Treasury must face up to the Government's responsibility for allowing over-fishing and pay fishermen off when they are put out of business by such recovery measures."

We will examine to Commission's report with interest but, on the basis of today's report, it looks very much as if the Commission is ignoring that huge "elephant in the room" – the European Union – which dictates which fishing vessels have access to UK waters, under the doctrine of "equal access".

Nevertheless, Clover is beginning to show some understanding some of the issues. Writing of the EU commission's attempt to preserve Cod stocks – by closing down whole fisheries, in which mixed stocks of Cod and Haddock abound - for the first time he makes reference to selective fishing, offering the hesitant criticism that it is not clear whether the EU commission has any intention of recommending selective methods that are used in other countries to catch haddock without catching cod.

This is something that the commission has been notoriously slow to accept, yet techniques are available – and well-proven – which allow fishermen to "surgically extract" Haddock in mixed fisheries, without touching the Cod.

The Prince of Wales hints at this dereliction, writing that "The most generous interpretation that can be put on the present situation is that we are just about managing the inexorable decline of our fisheries."

He adds that no one could be unmoved by the desperate consequences for fishermen and their families. But he is "confident that, with decisive action and proper long-term management, it should be possible to achieve greater numbers of fish and higher catches."

That is true. It is entirely possible to both increase catches and end up with an increased biomass, given good fisheries management techniques. But those techniques are never going to be applied as long as UK waters come under the leaden jurisdiction of the CFP.

Next week, on 13 December, the Conservative Party is to publish its proposals for a detailed fisheries management system, under national and local control, to replace the CFP, thus honouring Michael Howard’s commitment that a Conservative government will repatriate the CFP. This may prove the last hope for UK fisheries, before the damage done by the EU becomes irreparable.

Without giving too much away, it will place the responsibility for the decline in fish stocks squarely at the feet of the current management - the European Union. Watch this space.

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