France calls for rethink of quotas

France will use its presidency of the European Union later this year to call for a rethink the trade bloc’s system of fishing quotas, President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Saturday.

The annual quotas are designed to prevent stocks of species like cod collapsing due to overfishing, but trawlermen complain the controls and high fuel costs lead to increasing hardship.

“France will hold the presidency of the European Union from July 1 to December 31 and this is an opportunity to put quotas behind us,” Sarkozy told 200-300 fishermen in northern France.

“We need a much more flexible solution than quotas, regardless of the species and location involved,” he said.

“It is not scientists versus fishermen. Fishing is global and fishermen are the first to defend their resource.”

In November, Sarkozy clashed with fishermen in a heated dockside exchange at a fishing port in western France, but turned jeers to applause with an offer of emergency aid.

France last week finalized a package of 310 million euros in aid to help the industry deal with high fuel prices.

Fishermen however blocked the cross-Channel ferry ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer for several hours on Tuesday.

The EU’s fishing catch quotas were last set on December 19.

The bloc’s 27 nations agreed to water down the European fisheries chief’s proposals for the preservation of species whose stocks are floundering at precariously low levels.

Cod quotas for 2008 were set 18 percent lower than 2007 in most trawling areas, apart from the North Sea where scientists had indicated a slight improvement in fish numbers.

The EU’s executive Commission had wanted a cut of 25 percent in most cod quotas for 2008.

Sarkozy said on Saturday he wanted “a very detailed and strong discussion with the Commission on the question of quotas,” starting as early as the end of this month.

Scientists have said for years cod is so seriously overfished in European Union waters that there is a risk of extinction due to stock collapse. In October, they called for the EU to set the 2008 catch at less than half of 2006 levels.

In December, the EU’s financial watchdog issued a report saying the bloc had no real idea of how many fish its national fleets catch each year and was also failing to clamp down hard on vessels that exceeded national quotas.