BRUSSELS The European Union's executive will propose plans to rescue the bloc's over-exploited fish stocks next week, with the aim of achieving sustainability by 2015, draft proposals seen by Reuters show.
The plan is part of proposals to reform the EU's common fisheries policy, including 615 million euros ($887 million) a year in associated EU subsidies for the sector, which are due to be adopted by the European Commission on July 13.
The EU has the third largest fisheries sector in the world after China and Peru, and landed 6.4 million tonnes of fish worth 8.2 billion euros in 2007 -- the last year for which EU statistics were available.
With more than 80,000 EU-registered vessels competing to land Europe's dwindling fish stocks, rows over fishing quotas regularly break out between major fishing nations such as Spain, Denmark, France and Britain.
In an echo of the so called "cod wars" of the 1950s and 1970s, Iceland's bid to joint the European Union has been complicated by its decision to raise mackerel fishing quotas, putting it into conflict with Britain, Ireland and others.
The Commission has warned that three-quarters of EU fish stocks are currently exploited at unsustainable levels, and between 30 and 40 percent of the EU's fishing fleet is not making enough money to remain in business in the long-term.
A reduction in fishing for a few years would allow stocks to recover to a level where fishermen can catch and earn more than today, without depleting the resource in the long-term -- a level known as "maximum sustainable yield," the Commission says.
To achieve this, the Commission will propose an end to the annual horse-trading between EU governments over fishing quotas, which in the past has resulted in catch limits being set above the maximum levels recommended by scientists.
Instead, EU governments should jointly agree "multi-annual" plans based on expert advice that fix quotas for one or more fish stocks for several years at a time to avoid overfishing, the draft proposal says.
"The objective is to see an end to overfishing in Europe, and move to a situation where we fish only as much as the seas will allow us," one Commission official told Reuters.
"This is not an agenda for enlightened environmentalists, but one that seeks to address a key economic question for fishermen and EU society at large," the official said.
But with 400,000 people employed in EU fishing and processing industries, the sector wields considerable political power in some EU countries, which as a result have opposed previous efforts by Brussels to reduce catches.
National support is crucial if the Commission plans are to succeed, as EU governments must approve the proposals jointly with lawmakers before they become law.
Another proposal is for a system of "transferable fishing concessions" for larger vessels, designed to allow fishermen to sell their quotas to other EU operators and thus reduce the overall size of the fleet, according to the Commission.
But environmental groups said transferable concessions must be accompanied by ambitious targets to reduce catches in order to drive meaningful reductions in fleet size, alongside other incentives to reduce the current over capacity.
"The EU's ambition to recover fish stocks will fall flat on its face unless it slims down its bloated fleet, just like a resolution to lose weight counts for little unless you start exercising and eating less," said Greenpeace's EU fisheries policy director Saskia Richartz.
(Reporting by Charlie Dunmore; Editing by Jon Boyle)