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Europe

An Easter Tradition Under Threat?

Fish for Easter at the end of the fasting period has long been a tradition in Germany. But overfishing and new EU fishing limits could make seafood a rare delight on German dinner tables.

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Bremerhaven's fish market in northern Germany

Mackerel, herring and salmon all count among the healthiest of foods -- they contain iodine, they're vitamin rich and they're low in cholesterol. Some types of fish only contain one calorie per gram and are thus recommended for light spring cooking. Unfortunately, the statistics belie what should be a dining trend -- at least in Germany. According to Germany's fishing industry association, appetites for the fresh catch of the day are declining.

The percentage of sales of fresh fish in the sector continue to decrease. "Close to half of all fish products are now sold by discount stores," said Matthias Keller, business manager of the industry association. "These days, you can't find any fresh fish there -- just frozen fish, preserved fish, canned fish or marinades." He's referring to products including finger foods like fish in dill sauce, rolled pickled herring, grilled herring or salmon that's been pressed into blocks and deep frozen.

Salmon -- the bellwether of an industry

Fischsortierung in Bremerhaven

Fish are processed at an auction house in Bremerhaven.

Salmon is the most caught and most sold fish on the German market -- it's the primary fish used in fish sticks, a fast food staple in many homes. In 2002, more than 333,000 tons of salmon were caught and processed for the German market alone. One-third of the fish were caught in the North Sea, with the rest coming from Russian and American waters. By comparison, only 5,000 tons of halibut were sold in 2002.

But salmon is more than the No. 1 sold fish product in Germany -- followed by herring, tuna, mackerel and pike fish -- it's also a barometer of the overall fishing industry in the country. The price per kilogram for salmon is also the measurement of developments in the entire market. According to the Bremerhaven-based firm Isey Fischimport GmbH, the current price for raw salmon products is €1.50 ($1.63) -- roughly the same as the price it drew last year.

The threat of overfishing

It's also a bad time for fish stocks around the word. Some of the most economically important fish are currently threatened. Cod stocks in the North Sea, for example, have sunk during the past 20 years by more than 50 percent. Now, Europe is planning to save the remaining stocks by imposing dramatic fishing limits. EU Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler called at the end of 2002 for an 80 percent reduction in fishing of cod in all European waters as well as implementing strict controls to ensure the policy isn't violated.

"We have a moral duty not to let these stocks disappear, as well as a social duty to protect our coastal areas most dependent on fisheries," Fischler said in November. At the time, he pointed to the fishing crisis in Canada to strengthen his argument. Along Canada's east coast, the cod population has virtually disappeared as a result of overfishing, which also resulted in mass unemployment as jobs were lost in the industry. Fischler is also proposing additional fishing reductions. Under the plan, fishers should pull in 80 percent less haddock, 75 percent fewer whiting, 40 percent less plaice and 30 percent less sole.

Under optimal circumstances, fish stocks have shown themselves adept at regenerating quickly in the North and Baltic seas. Still, Fischler's plans will be politically difficult to implement. In order to allow stocks to regenerate in Europe, the EU has negotiated with West African countries to exploit their vast stocks. But by sending large European fishing companies in, local fishers there could be threatened. And imposing serious limits on fishing in Europe will lead to higher unemployment, which is sure to gain few votes for Brussels. He's under tremendous pressure -- fisheries in Spain, Portugal and France are all demanding that Brussels find new fishing grounds to replace what they're losing here. As a result, the EU is subsidizing efforts to negotiate deals in waters outside the European Union's jurisdiction.

A new threat for deep water fish

Some fear the new restrictions could increase demand for fish varieties like the hoki, orange roughy, alfonsino, the Patagonian tooth fish or the thorn shark, that live in deep seas that aren't covered by international water rights -- thus preventing the enforcement of fishing restrictions. There's a grave potential of a fishing free-for-all.

The results could be devastating. Some of these fish can live as long as 50 years or more. They produce relatively few offspring per year and stocks can only regenerate very slowly. Even small amounts of commercial fishing of these stocks for quickly turn into overfishing.

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