Estonian vessels wait at a watery EU border

  • 2000-04-13
  • By Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN - Fishermen aboard six Estonian vessels would probably agree: Crossing imaginary borders in the oceans and seas of the world is at times no smoother sailing than passing through any customs controls on solid earth.

The vessels, which departed from Estonian shores nearly two weeks ago, have been stranded at sea on the maritime border of the European Union because they have not secured the proper permits from Brussels to fish for cod.

Estonia and the EU fisheries commission have an agreement to exchange fishing quotas, and contracts between the two entities are usually arranged in October, with mutual permission granted by January of each year. But this year, negotiations were postponed until March, according to Environment Ministry fishery resources specialist Enno Kobakene.

A contract was signed on March 15, said Kobakene, and was nearing the final stages of conferral, but dawdling bureaucracy in processing the paperwork, including the required endorsement of the list of ships, apparently proved too much for the private fishing companies that decided to depart anyway.

"It is the error of the captains that they left before they got the official permits," he said. "But it is totally human, since they haven't had work for so long. . .It is not a big problem because they are not that far away."

Now the EU fisheries commission has promised to grant permission as quickly as possible, but no exact date for the resolution has been set.

Officials at the fishing companies involved, including Lavreshin, were reluctant to comment on the situation, citing a small fishing community in which outcry could damage relations.

Only seven vessels from Estonia are allowed to enter EU waters at a time, although the Environment Ministry applied for an entry permit for nine ships.

There were originally seven vessels stuck at the border, but one returned to Estonia. Most of the others continue to wait in the Danish port of Bornholm. Kobakene estimated there are 30-35 people aboard, since each vessel usually has five to six crewmembers.

Regulations on fishing in EU waters have tightened during the past 10 years because of threatened reserves.

"Border guards follow the quotas very strictly," said Kobakene.

Estonia has sold quotas to the EU for fishing of Baltic sprat and dwarf herring. In return, at talks in mid-March Brussels sold Estonia the right to catch 600 tons of cod in EU waters, where it is more abundant. Rules for cod fishing are notoriously rigid.

The Baltic Sea has seen its own environmental devastation. During each of the past two years, the total catch in Estonian waters has dropped by 15 percent because of overfishing. Estonian ships are also not exempt from quotas in their own waters.