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Allister continues fight for eel fishermen in Brussels

30 January 2006

Today the Fisheries Committee in the European Parliament is debating a Commission proposal to extend Brussels' control to inland eel fisheries.  The effect of the proposal would be to ban eel fishing on fifteen days per month unless and until there was in place a management plan to permit escapement of 40% of mature eels so that they might go out to sea to spawn.  Whereas the Toome and Bann fishery is so managed as to secure a high level of escape for mature eels, the prospect of ever increasing Brussels' control of the industry poses a threat which Mr Allister is anxious to avert.

During the Committee, the DUP MEP raised four major issues:

1. The legal basis for the proposed Regulation.  Article 10 of the draft Regulation proposes that the provisions concerning control and enforcement of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) should also apply to all eel fisheries and eel products.  Mr Allister made the point that the eel industry is either river or estuary based and so clearly should be beyond the reach of the CFP.  "Inland fisheries are not a competence of the EU, yet here we have a proposal for a full-blown EU Regulation, as if it were a Brussels' competence.  Why, asked the MEP, is the CFP being extended by stealth?"

2. In setting the 40% escapement target, the Regulation (Article 6), speaks of that being based on the best estimate of potential escapement in the absence of human activities affecting the fishing stock.  Clearly the act of fishing itself is ignored as a human activity affecting the baseline level of stock, but is the positive of human re-stocking also excluded in estimating the historic biomass?  Mr Allister explained, "I ask that because in Lough Neagh, the largest commercial wild eel fishery in Europe, there has been concerted re-stocking over the last 20 years by those who manage that fishery."  Mr Allister therefore asked for an assurance that their laudable efforts will not be counted against them by boosting the benchmark against which the 40% target will be measured.

3. The MEP attacked what he called "the rash proposal" for an immediate fifteen day closure in every month as being poorly thought out, particularly from the perspective of socio-economic consequences.  The yellow/brown eel fishery on Lough Neagh exports live eels every day during the season to its market in Holland.  A complete closure for half of every month would simply result in a collapse of the market, declared Mr Allister.  "Such would be utter folly.  Why is the Commission bringing forward proposals which could cripple a vibrant local industry which provides over 300 jobs?" asked the MEP.

4. Mr Allister expressed disappointment at the failure of the proposal to address adequately the biggest single drain on eel stocks in Europe, namely, the huge trade in glass eels to Asia.  Last year it was estimated that 90 tonnes were exported to Asia, 30 tonnes used for eel farming and only 5 tonnes for re-stocking.  Mr Allister said that by failing to radically address the exporting of the future of our industry to Asia, this proposal had entirely the wrong focus.  "Instead of putting the whole attack on the fishing effort, would it not be better to address the export problem and thereby reduce the price for indigenous re-stocking and so allow European stocks to be replenished?" asked the MEP.  Mr Allister also said that it was imperative that under the European Fisheries Fund (EFF), aid was made available for re-stocking and he asked the Commission for a commitment in that regard.


Notes to editors:

1. Eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Western Central Atlantic Ocean.  The larvae drift and swim into river mouths all over Europe and Northern Africa, from where they migrate upstream to spend most of their lives.  Eventually the oldest eels will migrate downstream and across the Atlantic when they will spawn once and die.

2. The smallest eels (glass eels and elvers) are fished for stocking and on-growing in aquaculture, whilst older eels (brown eels and silver eels) are fished directly for food.  In Northern Ireland, most are exported to Europe as part of a 5 million industry.

3. Lough Neagh and the Lower River Bann support the largest remaining wild eel fishery in Europe.  The system produces 25% of the total recorded EU wild catch.

4. Fishing rights to all eel life stages are owned by the Lough Neagh Fishermen's Cooperative Society (LNFCS).  The fishery is well managed and restricts annual catch of brown eels to 400-500 T and the catch of silver eels to 100-150 T.  The escape of silver eels for spawning is at least equivalent to the catch because of the maintenance of a generous gap at the weirs where fishing is prohibited and thereby escape for spawning is guaranteed.

5. The Lough Neagh operation supports up to 130 boats each with a crew of two men and thus some 300 families may derive and depend on income from the fishery.

6. As natural decline in the recruitment of elvers to the Lough has been observed, the LNFCS has purchased 73 million glass eels for stocking purposes over the last 20 years and, at the same time, has regulated its industry through licensing and quota imposition.

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