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09:00 - 01 March 2004

A claim by Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett that "greed" is endangering the fish stocks of the future was angrily rejected by Westcountry fishermen yesterday.

They said the Government was wrong in its assessment of fish stocks and the consequent danger to future numbers of fish.

They said the scientific evidence on which predictions were based was flawed.

Mrs Beckett said that the collapse of fish stocks had gone from being a "distant nightmare to a present reality". She said that was why she supported the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which runs a certification programme for well-managed fisheries including mackerel handliners in the Westcountry, as the only global way to ensure there would be fish for future generations.

Mrs Beckett's warning was made with nine former Environment Secretaries including current Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Conservative leader Michael Howard and Lord Heseltine.

Their letter to yesterday's Sunday Times said the MSC was making a real difference and ended: "Please help to make sure there will be fish forever and that we don't let today's greed destroy tomorrow's stock."

But Chris Venmore, the chairman of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee, said the letter was "downright untrue".

"Politicians are the ones who have ruined the fishing industry," he said.

"The problem is the Common Fisheries Policy, which has devastated fishing stocks more than anything else."

Roger Nowell, who fishes out of Newlyn, said fishermen would be angry at the idea that they were being greedy. "You can argue with ministers about this until you are blue in the face. They are completely wrong in their assessment of fish stocks, certainly in the Westcountry.

"I have been fishing for 20 years and fish stocks are very healthy indeed. Scientists have been on our boats for a while and they want to put more on, but the fishing technology they use is flawed," he said.

Another declaration that is likely to have Westcountry trawlermen seething later this week will come from Prince Charles, who on Thursday will make a speech urging consumers to stop eating Britain's traditional fish and chip meals if they contain threatened species such as cod, hake and halibut.

Roger Nowell said: "Ninety per cent of the fish people eat in this country is caught by foreign boats and then imported back to Britain. I don't think the Prince understands."