BRUSSELS Europe's new fisheries chief opened her first fishing quota talks on Monday, saying tougher measures were needed to bring species back from danger to more commercially viable levels.
About 60 percent of European Union fish stocks are outside safe biological limits, but fishing nations continue to catch around 34 percent more than scientists say is sustainable.
Experts say a lull in fishing for a few years would allow populations to recover to a level where fishermen can harvest much more than they do today, and make bigger profits, without depleting the resource in the longterm -- a level known as "maximum sustainable yield."
Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said she wanted to get fisheries back to that level by 2015.
"I want to be clear that the quota levels set must respect all the European Union's commitments to sustainability," she said in a statement.
But her efforts will be hampered by widespread illegal fishing, a lack of visibility on the state of many stocks and hard bargaining by coastal communities hit by the economic crisis.
Some of the most opaque regions are the Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea and the west of Scotland.
"As in 2008, many stocks are depleted and there are widespread problems with recording of catches and other data such that the state of the resources could not be assessed in 29 out of 48 stocks," said a European Commission report, setting the scene for consultations on 2011 quotas.
"Out of 18 stocks where maximum sustainable yield could be assessed, 13 were overfished," it added.
MACKEREL SWIM INTO TROUBLE
Washington-based think-tank the Pew Environment Group welcomed Damanki's strategy but said it fell short on protection for deep sea fisheries.
"For deep-sea fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic, the scientific advice is that all species, including endangered species of deep-sea sharks, are outside safe biological limits," said Uta Bellion of the Pew group.
Meanwhile, in the seas off Portugal and Spain, quotas are still being set 55 percent above the levels advised by fisheries scientists, pushing southern hake and anchovy outside safe biological limits, the Commission said in its report
This year, migratory mackerel is also under threat having altered its traditional routes to head into Icelandic waters, where it is being heavily exploited by a country still hurting from its own financial crisis.
No fishing agreement has been reached on north Atlantic mackerel by the countries that manage the fishery -- Russia, Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands, and the EU -- and catches could be 40 percent higher in 2011 than is sustainable, the Commission warned.
(Reporting by Pete Harrison, editing by Michael Taylor)