BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European fisheries ministers have agreed minor cuts to quotas for some vulnerable deep-sea fish and more stringent measures to protect rare sharks.
The European Union is trying to nurse its fish stocks back to health after decades of over-exploitation. Deep-sea fish are particularly vulnerable as they reproduce so slowly.
The ministers' decision late on Monday affected just 80 million euros ($104 million) worth of fish, but was seen as an important test case in a series of bruising encounters with European Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki.
Damanaki, who started her political career in a 1973 uprising against the then Greek dictatorship, has pledged to put the long-term health of fisheries ahead of short-term profits.
Earlier this month, fishing nations led by France rejected her advice that bluefin tuna catches should be halved to give the species a fair chance of survival. In the event, quotas were cut by 4 percent.
At Monday's meeting, catch quotas for deep-sea sharks were set at zero, with zero tolerance from 2012 for the sale of sharks netted while trawling for other species.
But conservationists, including WWF and the Pew group, said many sharks would still be scooped up accidentally, then dumped overboard, particularly by French and Spanish boats trawling the deep seabed northwest of Scotland and Ireland.
The Atlantic's main scientific authority, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), says all northeast Atlantic deep-sea species are fished beyond safe biological limits.
Ministers admitted that the ICES advice, and that of the EU's own experts, was worrying.
"Both advices indicate that most deep-sea stocks are in a precarious situation, and that fishing opportunities for those stocks, in order to assure their sustainability, should be reduced," they said in a statement.
But worries about the livelihoods of fishermen -- mainly French, Spanish and Portuguese -- prevented deeper quota cuts.
"In spite of several years of commitments to the U.N. to manage deep-sea fisheries sustainably, EU ministers failed to deliver," said Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
"Deep-sea fishing will continue at more or less the same level as in recent years to the detriment of deep-sea species and ecosystems," said Gianni, who was a deep-sea trawlerman off California before the industry declined in the 90s.
The ministers agreed to curb important deep-sea fisheries on the eastern continental slopes of the Atlantic in 2011-12: by up to 7.5 percent annually for black scabbardfish and 13 percent for roundnose grenadiers. Quotas for forkbeards and blue ling were unchanged.
Fishermen land about 40,000 tonnes a year of about 70 species of deep-sea fish from the northeast Atlantic, representing about 1.2 percent of total EU fishing.
Ministers agreed to continue a ban on fishing for orange roughy, a vulnerable, sluggish red fish that can live for more than 100 years.
The orange roughy fishery only became commercialised about 25 years ago, as depletion of inshore species forced fishermen to search further offshore with new technology.
(Reporting by Pete Harrison; editing by Rex Merrifield and Kevin Liffey)
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