RIGA - Bowing to pressure from the fishing industry, the European Council of Fisheries Ministers meeting in Luxembourg Oct. 23 set aside longterm health and sustainability concerns surrounding the Baltic Sea cod stocks and agreed to weaker cuts in catch quotas for 2008.
Fishing quotas for "eastern" Baltic cod are to be cut by just 5 percent, to 38,765 tons, and for "western" Baltic cod by 28 percent, to 19,221 tons. The European Commission originally wanted cuts of 23 percent for eastern cod and 33 percent for the western variety, in order to rebuild dwindling stocks.
Fisheries ministers assert that despite the poor biological condition of the cod populations, a combination of cuts in the fishing limits together with a reduction of allowable "days at sea" for the fishing boats should ensure both more sustainable fisheries and better application of the rules.
For eastern cod, days at sea, or days fleets are allowed to be fishing, are to be reduced by 20 percent to 178 days, while for western cod days at sea will be cut by 10 percent to 223 days.
The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, based upon scientific evidence, urged a complete ban on the eastern fisheries and a 50 percent reduction of catches for western cod.
"With this agreement, the EU has clearly failed to meet its commitment to stop over-fishing cod in the Baltic sea," asserted Inger Naslund, spokesman for the environmental group WWF in speaking with the AP news agency. He added that "The adjustments that have been made 's in catch quotas and more sustainable fishing methods 's have failed to halt the decline in Baltic cod numbers."
European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Joe Borg says "This is a balanced agreement, which respects the scientific advice we have received, and paves the way for the full implementation of the management plan agreed by Council in June."
Baltic countries agreed to reduce the number of days fishermen could hunt for cod, and Borg said this could lead to progress in restoring balance in northern waters. He also said member nations had to step up the fight against illegal fishing. Poland, for example, is suspected of over-fishing and underreporting its cod catches this year.
Warsaw's position, reports AFP, has irritated its fellow Baltic neighbors, including Germany, Sweden and above all, Denmark, which are reluctant to be hit with big quota cutbacks due to what they see as Polish over-fishing.
The EU Commission had taken action against Poland this year to ban it from fishing cod after it learned that Polish fishermen caught 18,000 tons of cod in the first half of the year, but only registered 6,000 tons. Poland however has refused to obey the ban.
Warsaw said it will present an action plan to the commission, and will reinforce controls on its fishing fleets, while promising to respect future closures of fisheries ordered by Brussels.
According to the WWF, around 50 percent of all cod fishing in the Baltic sea is illegal. That amounts to around 22,000 tons each year, according to Germany's Federal Ministry for Agriculture, reports Deutsche Welle.
German fishermen say the EU needs to introduce more effective controls and inspections to counter illegal fishing rather than cut quotas for legal catches.
"If illegal fishing was reduced by half, there would be no problems with cod stocks," said Lothar Fischer, board member of the German Coastal Fishing Association. The proposed cuts make it apparent that the "EU doesn't trust its own control mechanisms," he said.
Environmental experts say that part of the problem is the division of checks and balances between the EU and the member states on fishing. EU member states themselves carry out inspections of fishing stocks by checking fish hauls at harbors or reviewing fishing fleets while at sea. Brussels, on the other hand, only checks if member states fulfill their responsibilities.