Ministers have been praised for setting fishing quotas closer to sustainable levels but criticised for failing to follow scientific advice for every species.
European quotas were in many cases reduced for most fish species where scientists had urged a reduction but ‘too often’ the cuts were seen by conservationists as too small.
There was, nevertheless, a recognition that while some quotas should be lower to meet conservation demands, the agreed catch levels were closer than in previous years to being considered sustainable.
The UK government hailed the deal reached at the summit of European fisheries ministers as “good for both the health of our seas and the UK fishing industry”.
Advice on what catches would be sustainable was given by scientists from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). The European Commission made recommendations to ministers that were based on the scientific advice.
Speaking from Brussels, Richard Benyon, the UK fisheries minister, said: “I am delighted that we were able to secure the best possible deal for the UK fishing industry.
“I always enter these discussions clear in my mind that any decisions on quotas, or days spent at sea, need to be based on three clear principles; following scientific advice, fishing sustainability and the need for continued discard reduction. We stuck to these principles throughout.”
He was particularly pleased to avoid a 20 per cent cut in the South West’s megrim quota, to have reduced the cut in megrim off the west of Scotland from a recommended 40 per cent to just 7 per cent, and to have kept the cut in Celtic Sea haddock to 15 per cent instead of the 43 per cent recommended by scientists.
He welcomed the decision by European fisheries ministers to increase the plaice quota in the Channel by 26 per cent, and the Channel’s sole quota by 6 per cent. There was an 18 per cent rise in the West of Scotland nephrops quota and 6 per cent in the Irish Sea, a 29 per cent rise in whiting quota in the Celtic Sea and a 5 per cent rise for herring in the Irish Sea.
Debbie Crockard, of the Marine Conservation Society which issues guidance to consumers on fish stocks, said that overall the deal reached on quotas was “pretty positive”.
However, she added: “There still appears to be a high proportion of quotas set above ICES advice – however most quotas seem to be reduced on last year where a reduction has been recommended – which is a step towards sustainability, but only a step.
“Where the scientific advice is not met there may be underlying reasons why – including high levels of discarding which may be exacerbated by heavily reduced quotas.
“What is severely lacking in the decisions from the council is the logic behind their decisions. The lack of transparency in the quota talks is undoubtedly one of its major failings.”
Discard levels can be driven up by quota cuts because fishermen will toss back fish, usually dead, for which they need but have no quota. If Common Fisheries Policy reforms are approved later this year the problem will be largely overcome because discards will be banned.
Ms Crockard said the freezing of the megrim quota for the South West was achieved against scientific advice which urged a 20 per cent reduction. Similarly, the increase in nephrops quota for the Irish Sea went against the scientific recommendation.
Seas at Risk, a coalition of marine campaign groups, was disappointed at the frequency at which ministers chose to set quotas at levels higher than scientists had recommended. Of the 64 fisheries for which the European Union has exclusive control over, 41 of them had catch levels agreed that were higher than urged by scientists.
The campaign group cited North Sea cod, haddock off the west of Scotland and off the Faroes, southern hake in Iberian waters, and sole in the Irish Sea and Bay of Biscay as being among those for with catches were set too high.
Monica Verbeek, executive director of Seas at Risk, said: “While the amount of stocks that are harvested at sustainable levels is gradually increasing, it is disappointing that for many stocks fishing levels were determined by politics rather than science, even though scientific advice was available for more stocks than ever.”
Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation was relieved that several proposed cuts had been reduced.
He said: “Considerable credit has to go to the Scottish and UK Governments for their negotiating stance, which has ensured that a common-sense approach on fisheries management based on the science has been adopted.
“Fishing effort in Scotland has been slashed by almost 70 per cent over the last 10 years and we were quite simply at a stage where the fleet could not sustain any more cuts. The package of measures agreed brings a degree of stability for the Scottish fleet in 2013.”