Scientists call for drastic cuts in EU cod fishing

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BRUSSELS, Oct 16 (Reuters) Europe's trawlermen should cut back drastically next year on trawling for cod in the North Sea and aim to take less than half their 2006 catch from the sea, a group of international scientists said today.

Cod, one of Europe's most threatened species due to years of chronic overfishing, has long risked a collapse in numbers. But matters seem to have improved slightly, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) said.

''Our scientific surveys show that the number of young fish has increased, although only to half of the long-term average,'' said Martin Pastoors, chairman of the ICES' main committee on compiling scientific advice on fish stocks and numbers.

But this, combined with evidence that recent EU controls on restricted catches and time that vessels spend at sea were helping raise fish numbers, was still not enough, Pastoors said.

''We recommend constraining catches in 2008 to less than 50 per cent of the 2006 catches. And this should include measures to constrain discards and illegal catches,'' he said.

''This should give these young fish the opportunity to grow and to reproduce and thereby to contribute to the recovery of this important fish stock,'' Pastoors said in a statement.

European Commission fisheries experts use the advice compiled by Denmark-based ICES to calculate quotas for each commercial species for the following year that are then presented to EU ministers for approval.

Reacting to the preliminary ICES advice, to be finalised on Friday, the EU's fisheries chief gave a strong indication that the more encouraging signs would not lead to increased cod quotas to be allocated around national fishing fleets in 2007.

''The worst thing we could do at this stage would be to slacken our efforts by trying to cash in immediately on the first positive signs. This would be the quickest road to ruin,'' EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg said in a statement.

ICES recommended large quota cuts for blue whiting, a small member of the cod family most abundant in the northeast Atlantic, due to a much lower supply of young fish.

For anchovy in the Bay of Biscay, the subject of a row between France, Spain and Commission experts, numbers were so poor that there should be a complete fishing ban, it said.

But other species living in European waters were faring better, ICES said. Norway pout, for example, had recovered substantially after several years of fishing bans, it said.

REUTERS RSA AS0843

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