Fishing dispute enters stormy waters

The international fishing rights war is scheduled to move into the High Court this summer.

The timetable has been drawn up for a major legal battle to take place over a multi-million pound compensation claim by Spanish fishermen.

The fishermen have already won a ruling from the European Court of Justice that they were unlawfully banned from "quota hopping" by the UK government.

The controversial claim, which has infuriated fishermen's leaders in the UK, particularly in the South West, involves the owners of more than 90 Spanish vessels.

Fisheries Minister Tony Baldry has already made it clear that, irrespective of the view of the European Court, the claims by the Spaniards that they are entitled to compensation will be strongly resisted by the UK government.

He has warned that the UK will seek far-reaching EU treaty changes to end quota hopping, under which foreign vessels register in the UK and can then take part in the national quota catch.

The Labour party agrees with the Government that action has to be taken over the quota hopping dispute. Shadow Agriculture Minister Dr Gavin Strang has also gone on record as saying that the case serves as a very clear signal for the need for change to the Common Fisheries Policy.

The action is scheduled to be heard in June or July and is expected to take up to 10 days. It promises to be a complex battle. David Vaughan QC, who is representing many of the Spanish fishermen, admitted to Mr Justice Collins, who will hear the action, that it was a case that had "difficulty written all over it".

Vaughan said the owners of 97 vessels had probably lost around a million pounds each over the period of a year during which they were prevented from fishing, after the Government introduced its 1988 Merchant Shipping Act to stamp out quota-hopping practices.

A pre-trial review of the case has been set for February.