European proposals to cut fishing quotas have been labelled “gratuitous violence” against Northern Ireland fishermen, who could face job losses.
The stark warning came as Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill began negotiations in Brussels, where the commission is attempting to cut fishing quotas for 2012.
She said she was preparing to “put the science on the table” to protect Northern Ireland's fishermen and was getting ready for a “tough negotiation”.
“I'm interested in ensuring that in 10, 20 or 30 years time we have a sustainable fishery they can go out and fish in — that they can have an income from,” the minister said.
Ms O’Neill said the cuts the commission want to impose were disproportionate to that type of risk, saying that scientific examinations had found that prawn and herring stocks “are really good”.
The commission wants to cut the number of days fishermen can spend at sea, as well as end cod fishing and cut catches of white fish by 25%.
This would see the end of the last five white fishing boats in Northern Ireland.
It also wants to cut prawn fishing by 19%, which Dick James, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation, said would result in a loss of £4m to £5m to the local fishing industry.
Prawns represent the most important catch for fishermen along the Co Down coast.
Similarly he said the proposed 25% cut to herring quotas would see £400,000 to £500,000 of losses. “The scientists say there is more herring in the Irish sea than they have seen in over a decade,” he said.
Mr James said it would be “a waiting game” to see what the minister comes out of negotiations with.
“Sense would tell you that they can’t do all they [the Commission] propose. There’s no need for it, it’s gratuitous violence if you like,” he said.
“The scientists and data doesn’t back up the need for what the commissioner is proposing.
“If there’s logic in the politics of Europe than I would hope many of these proposals won’t happen.”
Kilkeel fisherman Trevor McKee, who has been catching cod for more than 30 years, said: “We believe there is more cod in the Irish Sea than there has been for years because of what we see when we go to sea and because of what we catch.
“Unfortunately, our data is treated as anecdotal.”
Mr McKee said he believes that by working with Brussels scientists, he and other local cod fishermen could prove plenty of cod remain in local waters.
South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said she has urged UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon to listen to the concerns of local fishermen.
She said further cuts and restrictions “could jeopardise an industry that is an integral part of our economy”.
“The science simply does not support many of the draconian measures being proposed — particularly the unjustified plans to cut catch limits,” she said.
The talks in Brussels will take place over several days.
Story so far
The Agriculture and Fisheries Council meets every year in Brussels — among its major decisions is setting the fishing quotas for EU countries. It is proposing to cut herring quotas by 25% from the 5,280 tonnes fishermen are currently allowed to catch in Northern Ireland. Prawn quotas could be slashed by 19% from the 21,759 tonnes currently allowed. And cod fishing could be dropped altogether from the current 505 tonnes to zero. In 2009 there were 654 fishermen working in Northern Ireland. It is thought that such significant cuts to fishing quotas would lead to major job losses in the industry.