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Everybody cheats

Posted by Richard Friday, December 03, 2004

The Times today offers a story which will get the juices of every red-blooded British Eurosceptic going. One can imagine Colonel Blimp of Cheltenham spluttering, "damn dagos", over his breakfast tea as he reads the headline: "Spain guilty of ignoring fishing rules for 7 years."

What The Times retails, through its Brussels correspondent, Rory Watson, is a judgment from the European Court of Justice, which has ruled that Spain has systematically ignored the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and allowed its fleet to overfish endangered species such as cod for seven years.

In a clear-cut judgment, the Spanish government has been condemned for failing to ensure that quotas for different species were obeyed, for not organising proper catch inspections, for failing to ban fishing once quotas were exhausted, and for not imposing penalties on skippers caught ignoring the rules.

The Luxembourg-based judges concluded that these basic elements of the common fisheries policy (CFP) had been broken every year between 1990 and 1997. Spanish vessels had caught almost 10,000 tonnes more than allowed during the seven years. The fish came from 17 different stocks, including cod, mackerel, monkfish and halibut.

Writes Watson, "The ruling endorses the views of many in the Scottish fishing industry that Spain does not police the CFP’s rules as rigorously as other EU member states."

However, before basking in a warm glow of moral superiority, it is as well to remember that in November last year Britain too faced censure from the commission for not complying fully with "conservation" measures and other aspects of the CFP.

The British government was criticised for not devoting sufficient resources and energy to checking landings and ensuring the law is fully enforced, while fishermen were accused of misreporting catches by recording fish subject to strict quotas such as saithe, code, hake and monkfish as less threatened species, namely ling, greater forkbeard, tusk and dogfish.

The truth is, in fact, that everybody cheats. The Scottish cheat, English fishermen cheat, the French cheat, the Portuguese cheat, and so do the Danes, the Belgians, the Germans and everybody else. It is no so much who does it but who gets caught that makes the headlines.

The reason, of course, why everybody cheats is because we have an insane fisheries management system called the CFP, which actually encourages and rewards cheating, and punishes those who obey the rules.

Fishermen, who have enormous investments in vessels and gear, with their livelihoods and lives at stake (27 British registered fishing vessels were reported lost last year, and 11 men died), simply play the system, and take from it what they can.

An illustration of the perverse effects of the CFP management system comes oddly enough from the Falklands where, prior to 1984, the fishery was largely unregulated, and chaos reigned. Since then, it has been brought under national control, run by the Falklands government with the assistance of the British, and it has become one of the best-regulated and most profitable fisheries in the world.

Yet, it is here that the largest number of vessels that exploit the fishery are Spanish, chasing the huge annual crop of squid, which are sold in Vigo, Spain, otherwise known as the world capital of illegal fishing. In the Falklands, the Spanish obey the rules, co-operate freely with the authorities and are the largest investors in the region, bringing prosperity to themselves and the islanders.

Something of this was rehearsed in the House of Commons yesterday, in the annual fisheries debate which, as predicted on this Blog has been completely ignored by the mainstream media.

Yet, by Commons standards, it was a good debate, not least for the contribution from Owen Paterson, the Conservative shadow fisheries minister, who outlined the flaws in the CFP and promised, in the next few days, a fully-worked up alternative policy.

Even at 48 A4 pages (once downloaded), the debate is worth a read by anyone who is genuinely interested in an example of why the European Union is such a disaster for all those who have the misfortune to be involved with it.