Scotland politics

Scottish fishermen fear 'power struggle' could derail EU talks

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Media captionPeterhead is a busy fishing port, heavily reliant on the industry

It's the time of the year that fishermen fear, as their fate for the following 12 months is decided.

The annual talks of the European Council of Ministers to determine quotas and days at sea next year begin this week.

Usually it ends with some quotas being up and others down and politicians from across the European Union heading home to declare that they "did their best" for their industry.

But this year a "power struggle" is threatening to derail the negotiations, even before they begin.

Since the Lisbon Treaty became law in 2009, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been given a greater say, and this year they seem keen to exercise that right.

In previous talks the European Commission has made its recommendations based, to some degree, on the long-term cod recovery plan.

The policy means a year-on-year reduction in the amount of time skippers can spend out of the harbours.

In December, fisheries ministers from each member state gather to decide between them whether to accept or reject the recommendations and ultimately set quotas.

Concessions have been made for putting conservation measures in place, such as special nets or CCTV on boats.

Although agreed just before Christmas, the "days at sea" decision does not come into affect until February.

But if a decision is not taken by the Council, cuts will kick in automatically.

'Want to fish'

Skipper of the Budding Rose in Peterhead, Peter Bruce, feels the council should be changing the course of the recovery plan because stocks appear plentiful.

He told BBC Scotland: "We're fishermen and we want to fish.

Image caption The Budding Rose returned from its latest trip with 700 boxes of fish for the market

"Some of the boats have only done about 100 days this year.

"They're speaking about cuts next year again, the fleet can't take it."

On the quayside, the catching and selling of this precious natural resource never stops.

The Budding Rose has just returned from a fishing ground 50 miles to the east of Shetland with 700 boxes of fish for market, but Mr Bruce said he did not have to look hard to find fish.

He said: "We've never seen so much fish as we're catching this year.

"We're going out there trip after trip, filling up the boat and the fishermen can't understand it.

"We should be getting increases in the cod next year, not decreases."

'Good solution'

One possible outcome of these talks is that the Council does decide to set next year's allocation of days at sea.

But some legal experts are warning that the European Parliament could then take the Council of Ministers to court over the issue.

That process would not conclude by February, when the automatic cuts come in.

The European Commission said: "It is important that a good solution is found for the cod plan so fishermen are ready for the next season."

Scottish Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead said: "We must not be held hostage by the legal knots which EU policies have tied themselves up in."

He said he would be pressing for a "common sense" deal.

Scottish Fishermen's Federation chief executive Bertie Armstrong said: "We need this to finish now, everyone agrees that, but we are watching, regrettably, an arm wrestle or power struggle which is nothing to do with fisheries management but who has got the power to do what to whom."

These could be the most controversial annual fishing talks yet.

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