Northern Ireland

Fight to keep Northern Ireland's fish quotas begins in Brussels

fishing boat
Image caption The amount of time the Northern Ireland fleet is allowed to fish has been reduced in recent years

The future of local fishing communities is at stake as EU ministers begin their annual negotiation in Brussels over catches for next year.

Prawns represent the most important catch for fishermen along the County Down coast and there was a sense of shock when the commission proposed a 19% reduction in landings for 2012.

The negotiating process starts with the European Commission producing a set of proposals based on the latest scientific advice.

Fisheries Minister Michelle O'Neill said she will reject the plan to curb prawn catches and believes she can demonstrate that the fishery can sustain the current level of landings.

Cod though will be the complicating factor.

Despite a recovery plan lasting more than a decade now, including the closure of spawning grounds each spring, Irish sea cod stocks remain under pressure.

Threat

The European Commission has responded by proposing a zero cod catch in 2012.

For the handful of remaining whitefish boats working out of local harbours the zero cod quota threatens their future.

Skippers insist it is simply not possible to catch other whitefish species like haddock without also taking cod.

Without significant movement on the cod issue, the commission proposal may prove the final straw for Northern Ireland's four remaining whitefish boats.

And the cod factor also affects the prawn fleet.

These boats too typically catch some cod as they trawl the muddy bottom of the Irish Sea.

Go back to the commission's proposal for a 19% reduction in prawn landings and it now becomes clear that its proposal is really based on the cod by-catch, rather than any real worry about prawn stocks.

Conservation

Then there is the key question of days at sea and the amount of time the Northern Ireland fleet is allowed to fish.

Over recent years local boats have been rewarded with additional days at sea for fitting nets and gear which help with fish conservation.

Fishemen's leaders though now fear the commission is planning to reduce the number of extra days they have been awarded.

The outcome of the December fisheries council is always a compromise, but a zero cod quota and a 19% reduction in prawn landings represent a tough starting point for Michelle O'Neill and the rest of the Northern Ireland delegation in Brussels.

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