The European Union is to consider sanctions against Faroe and Iceland as the dispute over mackerel quotas intensifies.
At the ongoing fisheries council in Brussels, EU fisheries minister Maria Damanaki said she would look into regulations which could result in imports and landings from the two countries being banned in response to their continued refusal to comply with international catch limits.
Talks in Copenhagen between Faroe, the EU and Norway over quota allocations broke down last week. Iceland had already abandoned the negotiations.
Chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association Ian Gatt said that while he was supportive of Ms Damanaki’s statement, it was vital to “convert words into action”.
Mr Gatt said: “Any punitive action should not be taken lightly but the irresponsible behaviour of Iceland and the Faroes is threatening a valuable stock of fish that has been carefully looked after and sustainably harvested by our fishing fleet.”
Scottish fisheries secretary Richard Lochhead also backed the commissioner, but said action must be taken to safeguard what, at a value to the economy of £135 million in 2009, was Scotland’s most valuable stock.
Speaking in Brussels, where he is attending the council, Mr Lochhead said: “We were extremely frustrated by last week’s breakdown in mackerel talks. Once again we face the prospect of Iceland and the Faroes setting their own inflated unilateral quotas next year, which don’t adhere to scientific advice and are motivated by short-term gain.
“We need Iceland and the Faroes to be willing to negotiate reasonably. Salt is rubbed in to the wound by the fact the Faroes have gone ahead with a back-hand deal to sell their mackerel quota to Russia.
“That’s why I am pleased that commissioner Damanaki has confirmed she will endeavour to take strong action and put in place the necessary tools to apply meaningful sanctions. We cannot reward reckless behaviour and I urge the EU to translate the commissioner’s words into decisive action.
“Last year total landings of North Atlantic Mackerel were worth in excess of £500 million – and in Scotland mackerel directly supports around 2,500 jobs. The valuable mackerel stock has been sustainably managed for the past 10 years by Scottish fishermen, as well as others across the EU and Norway. Firm action is needed or the irresponsible practices of Iceland and the Faroes may lead to the demise of the fishery.”
The mackerel quotas have been in dispute since July, when Faroe and Iceland decided unilaterally to set mackerel quotas outside the recommended limit agreed by other European countries to manage the stock.
Faroe set a quota for mackerel of 85,000 tonnes for this year, more than three times itsr previous total allowable catch (TAC), and Iceland declared a quota of 130,000 tonnes.
Meanwhile, final negotiations for quota for other species in 2011 are being discussed at the council.
So far there are proposed cuts of eight per cent for North Sea prawns, North Sea haddock is in line for a five per cent cut and cod is set to be reduced by 20 per cent.
There will be the provision for fishermen to catch extra cod equal to 12 per cent of the reduced TAC (total allowable catch) if they participate in the trial “catch quota” scheme, where boats land all the cod they catch.
Mr Lochhead has hit back at claims the government has not done enough to safeguard the position of Scottish fishermen at the meeting.
He said: “At this council my key aim is to strike the right balance between stock conservation and ensuring Scotland’s fishing industry remains commercially viable, as we continue to move towards more sustainable fishing practices.
“As ever, we will be conducting these negotiations against a very challenging background not least the bizarre machinations of the Common Fisheries Policy as well as some difficult scientific advice.
“Through last week’s agreement between the EU and Norway, some decisions on vital stocks have already been taken.
“We were able to minimise reductions in landings for the Scottish industry, while securing an expansion of our catch quota scheme. Unlike traditional quotas, catch quotas allow for all fish caught to be landed and fishermen can earn more from their catch without wasteful discards.
“Even while working within the discredited Common Fisheries Policy, I am committed to seeking the best deal possible for Scotland. I will be fighting hard for our fishermen this week, including pressing for a fundamental review of the Cod Recovery Plan. While these negotiations will be challenging, I believe the sacrifices made by Scottish fishermen should be recognised and rewarded.”