The European Commission's radical new plans for cutting back on fishing to conserve dangerously depleted fish stocks have been greeted with anger in some EU countries but with a cautious welcome in others, reports Alan Osborn.

On the face of it the plans are surprisingly harsh. Brussels says the fishing effort must be cut by up to 60%, meaning the withdrawal of some 8,600 vessels representing 8.5% of the total number of ships and 18% of present fishing tonnage.

There is to be no more public aid for building new vessels or improving existing ones. Instead the €460.6m (US$436.0m) saved will be used to help fishermen to retrain for other jobs.

This is grim news for fishermen and those directly associated with fishing but the first thing to be said is that anybody in the industry should have seen it coming years ago. Those that did, such as the UK, Sweden, Denmark and the northern EU countries in general can now afford to be more relaxed, knowing that for them the worst is already over.

By contrast, southern European countries have continued to claim, and receive, construction and modernisation grants over the past ten years and now face correspondingly savage cuts in their excessively large fleets.

Little burden for food manufacturers

The second point is that for the European food manufacturing industry the proposed reforms are neither inappropriate nor particular burdensome. Antony Burgmans, chairman of Unilever, one of the world's largest manufacturers of fish products, said earlier this month [June] that "the decisive steps taken by the Commission to reform the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) represent the only means of securing a viable future for Europe's fishing industry."

One reason for the more forward-looking approach taken by business is that food manufacturers need to look ahead to ensure supplies of fish in the long-term, and without conservation now there may simply be none in future. But another point is that even now the CFP and its consequences have only a limited effect on the availability, and to some extent the price, of fish to processors.

Geoffrey Molloy, chairman of the UK Association of Frozen Food Producers, says that more than two thirds of all the fish consumed in Britain, by consumers and industry, is imported from non-EU countries not affected by the CFP and this rises to 80% for cod and other white fish. Much the same holds good for other EU countries.

"The domestic catch affects the fresh markets, such as the direct sales to fishmongers which are a diminishing part of the total trade, but they too can supplement with imports. As long as there are adequate world supplies there's no real danger to the market in Europe," Molloy told just-food.com. In the immediate future, "the CFP cuts are not going to be so drastic for us."

Indeed, or the EU as a whole, as imports of fisheries products have exceeded exports for many years "and this is likely to go on for a long while yet," said Catherine Bunyan, European Commission fisheries spokeswoman. In 1999 the EU imported 3.5 million tonnes of fish valued at some €8.7bn, with the biggest EU importers being Germany, Denmark, Spain, France and the Netherlands. The main exporters to the EU are Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Russia and the Pacific countries.

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Will increased demand outside the EU push up prices?

That said, it is true that fish stocks have been falling worldwide and there is a constant effort to bring in measures to sustain and rebuild stocks. This has been going on for some time and one does not sense that it is as pressing as in EU waters where over-fishing of cod and other species has led to near-critical stock depletion. Nevertheless there must be fears that increased demand for fish from non-EU countries may eventually force up prices.

Could aquaculture, or fish farming, be developed on a local, or even a EU-wide, basis to improve the Union's domestic supplies? Somewhat surprisingly, the Commission's reform plans say little about fish farming as an actual source of fish for industry and consumers, recognising it merely as "a valuable alternative source of employment in coastal areas as well as offering quality fisheries products to consumers."

This may be because fish farming is already highly developed - world production of farmed fish has doubled in the past 15 years and some 31% of the total fish produced in the EU now comes from aquaculture. In Finland and Greece the share is actually greater than that of landings.

But it is also true that not all species lend themselves to farmed production. Trout and Atlantic salmon are raised successfully on farms but for cod and other white fish the economics of farm production have not been very impressive so far. Little change in this may be expected unless import prices rise spectacularly, and that does not seem to be on the cards yet awhile.  

By Alan Osborn, just-food.com correspondent