BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union fisheries ministers agreed on Tuesday night to new catch quotas for next year, but environmental groups said the limits were still too high and would fail to end decades of overfishing.
The agreement was the first time ministers set catch levels on the basis of scientific advice in line with a new fisheries policy agreed last year, however not all the recommendations were followed.
While the quotas for mackerel and herring were reduced, cod and sole catches were kept at the same level or not cut by nearly as much as scientists had suggested.
Ministers also agreed to end the controversial practice of throwing unwanted fish back into the sea. From 2015, fishermen will have to keep all unwanted catches on board and count them towards their quotas.
Under the reformed common fisheries policy the EU committed to putting all fish stocks on a sustainable footing by 2015 where possible, or 2020 at the latest.
"We have succeeded in increasing the number of stocks that are now managed at sustainable levels," said Maritime Affairs Commissioner Karmenu Vella.
Where ministers ignored scientific advice, they were asked to show how the original proposal would have jeopardized the social and economic sustainability of the fishing fleets involved.
Environmental campaigners said the ministers had ignored the scientists too often and had given no evidence of a plan to end overfishing in the near future.
"Although catches will be reduced for several stocks, it is totally unjustifiable that fisheries ministers ignored 56 percent of the scientific advice," said Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of conservation group Oceana.
For example, ministers agreed a 5 percent increase in the total allowable catches for North Sea cod whereas scientists had advised a 20 percent cut, according to Pew, a scientific organization.
"Fish stocks and fishing communities are put at risk when ministers disregard the agreed policy and continue to legislate overfishing," said Uta Bellion, director of Pew's European marine program.
Ministers also ignored a recommended 60 percent cut to catches of Eastern Channel sole, opting instead for a 28 percent reduction.
The new catches will apply from Jan. 1.
Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Crispian Balmer