Spain, France in showdown over future of European fishing
A showdown was taking shape Wednesday between the two major fishing nations of the EU, Spain and France, in talks over how to tackle overfishing and the future of the sector.
Spain, which has Europe's largest fishing fleet, backed the establishment of a European market for fishing rights at an informal meeting of European Union fisheries ministers held in Vigo, the country's largest fishing port.
Such a system would allow fishing companies to buy fishing catch quotas assigned to other companies.
"Today fishing is one of those sectors where we do not apply all the rules of the internal market," said Javier Garat, the secretary general of Spanish fishermen's federation Cepesca.
But the idea of transferable quotas was rejected by most other EU nations led by France at the two-day talks which wrap up on Wednesday and which are aimed at hammering out a new Common Fisheries Policy for the 27-nation bloc.
Even nations like the Netherlands, Denmark and Estonia which already have such a system at the national level opposed setting up an EU-wide system for fear that powerful foreign companies could appropriate their quotas.
EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said transferable fishing quotas could be "a good tool to fight overcapacity at the national level" as long as it is accompanied by safeguards to prevent excessive concentration.
In Denmark the quota transfer market led to a 30-percent reduction in the size of the country's fishing fleet over three years, according to the European Commission. Estonia and the Netherlands also had positive results.
Damanaki said the EU hopes to complete a reform of its Common Fisheries Policy, which it launched in 2008, by the end of next year.
She said the bloc needs a "turning point" for its policy because of "overfishing and overcapacity of the European fleet".
Spain is also pushing for a special regime for small fishing vessels that make up 71 percent of its fleet.
Spanish Agriculture and Marine Affairs Minister Elena Espinosa, whose country holds the rotating six-month presidency of the EU, said ministers had agreed on the need to "establish a difference between small-scale fisheries and industrial fisheries".
But there was no agreement on how to define the two with France skeptical about the usefulness of a single definition at the European level since the sector is different from one country to another.
"That would create a windfall in some countries" to the detriment of others which do not have the same fleet structure, a French negotiator at the gathering said.
A few blocks from the ministerial meeting, amid boxes of cod and prawns, a fisherman named Alex who is in his 30s said he did not expect "any good" to come from the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.
"We have never seen any improvement, things have only gotten worse," he said, adding since he has seen more and more trawlers disappear since he began fishing 17 years ago.
The EU reviews and reforms its Common Fisheries Policy every 10 years.
Previous reforms by the EU, which has the third largest fishing fleet on the planet, of its policy have always fallen short of maintaining fish stocks, according to environmental group Greenpeace.
Two Greenpeace ultralight aircraft pulling banners that read "EU: Save Our Seas" flew over the site of the gathering on Wednesday.
Earlier this week environmental group Greenpeace charged that Spain's fishing fleet is using massive EU subsidies to "plunder" the oceans of the world.
About 400 Spanish vessels, representing more than half of the country's gross tonnage, fish outside the EU for at least 90 percent of their time, it said in a new report.
© 2010 AFP