This was a different kind of December Council in a number of important ways. Many delegations…
Sunday Times Condemns Drift Net Ban
Cut this crazy EU dragnet or our herring fishermen are lost
Steve Perham is the last of a line of herring fishermen stretching back 1,000 years. He fishes under sail and oar out of a 15ft boat from the port of Clovelly in north Devon. There are four boats now, three of them using motors. Once there were dozens setting their drift nets for the shoals of spawning herring that crowd into the bay between Michaelmas and Christmas.
The Covelly herring fishery is probably the most ecological sustainable fishing operation in Britain, one of the smallest of many artisan fisheries round the coast for mullet, bass, sole and, more controversially, salmon and sea trout. With the last two, anglers contend they should get more of the catch, but no one disputes the fishing is well managed. The herring was badly managed up to the 1970s, in the day of Perham's father, when the entire European herring fishery was closed because of overfishing by industrial boats.
The herring came back and fishing fully reopened in 1984 but buyers had lost their taste for the "silver darling". Perham now sells mostly to pensioners who remember how to cook the oily fish that are about the healthiest meal you can get.
Herring are delicious soused in mild vinegar or flattened and fried the Scottish way in pinhead oatmeal. But few remember. Our charity was discussing how to help to market the Clovelly herring because it is caught within the north Devon biosphere reserve, which includes the marine nature reserve of Lundy. It illustrates perfectly how conservationists and fishermen can share objectives.
Then, just over a week ago, came the bombshell. Perham said the European Commission was proposing a ban on all drift net fisheries. Yes, that would include the Clovelly fishery, which catches no more than 10tons of herring a year, and the Thames Blackwater fishery, the first one to be given an eco-label by the Marine Stewardship Council. I couldn't believe that what was proposed was an unqualified ban a proposal that affects the livelihoods of 250 vessels, or 4.5% of the British fleet. Then I found it was true. What was the justification for the ban, proposed from January 1 next year? The commission says it is stop the Incidental by-catch of endangered species, marine mammals, sea turtles and sea birds.
We have heard about "walls of death" nets used to catch swordfish and tuna in the Mediterranean and the Pacific a few years ago. Nets more than 1 1/2 miles long were banned by the UN in the early 1990s because of the by catch of whales, dolphins, turtles and sharks. It is well known that fishermen in Italy and France continued to use illegal drifts nets while sometimes claiming subsidies for phasing them out. That is all rather a long way from Clovelly.
Perham fishes 16 separate lengths of net 35 yards long. He says the seals wait until he shoots his nets and then come and skillfully pick out the trapped herring, to his frustration. They are far too practised at this to be caught themselves. his colleague John Ball says the only by-catch is the occasional mackerel and whiting.
The fact that the Clovelly-fishermen stay with their nets is likely to scare off any seal or ultra-shy porpoise long before it could get entangled. Not so, rapid pair - trawling (which uses tow vessels) for bass with fast industrial boats or untended bottom - set gillnets both of which have been blamed for killing porpoises and dolphins.
That was the view of the British fishing and conservation organisations I spoke to. The fishermen described these small fisheries as the "stone in the arch" of fishermen's livelihoods. Sidney Holt , the doyen of fisheries' scientists who is also revered by conservationists for his work on saving the whale, furnished an explosive quote. Holt described the Brussels proposal as "completely mad". All fishing gear had unintended catches, he said, the problem was how to avoid them: "Flat bans of broad types of widely used gear - that's crazy, misguided and possibly malicious." The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs voiced "concerns".
The irony is that this ridiculous policy has been unleashed upon Europe's most ecologically friendly fishermen by the great Maria Damanaki, the outgoing Greek fisheries commissioner, whose determination let to a necessary and radical reform of Europe's fisheries policies. What was she thinking? My theory is that things look very different from the Mediterranean where drift nets kill endangered dolphins and monk seals and 90% of fish stocks are overexploited. A drift-net ban might make sense there but not in the rest of Europe. Maybe she thought there was a case for big departing gesture that would necessarily be modified by ministers and the European parliament.
I disagree. This will be a massive distraction from the vital but difficult task she has already set in motion of banning the discarding of perfectly good fish. This is like invading Iraq as well as Afghanistan. I implore Damanki, whom I admire hugely, to drop this misconceived general ban now before it undermines her legacy and instead to target legal proceedings against the countries - France and Italy - that have turned a blind eye to illegal fishing.
EU ban snares fishermen
A European Union ban on drift netting, designed to save millions of seabirds, turtles and dolphins from Mediterranean Industrial fishing vessels, will wipe out of some of Britain's most sustainable fisheries, expert warn.
Maria Damanaki, the EU fisheries commissioner, wants a complete ban from January 1, 2015. Large drift nets - known as "curtains of death" because they hang in the water - kill anything that gets tangled in them, including seals, dolphins and birds. Britain has 250 vessels that use small drift nets to catch herring, mackerel, bass and mullet, and have an insignificant by-catch. But the EU proposal is so tightly drawn that they would also be outlawed.
Steve Perham, the last British fisherman to set drift nets using sail and oar, said: "If such fishing has been going 1,000 years it must be fairly sustainable."
Damanaki said: "Drift nets destroy marine wildlife and threaten sustainable fisheries. I am convinced that the only way to eradicate this once and for all is to have clear rules which leave no room for interpretation."