European fishing fleets strike over fuel prices

MADRID (AFP) - Spanish fishermen launched a national strike Friday, adding the weight of Europe's largest fishing fleet to growing protests over soaring fuel prices, alongside counterparts in Italy and Portugal. The action came after more than two weeks of protests by French fishermen who have blocked access to oil facilities and severely disrupted cross-Channel ferry traffic to push their call for financial assistance to offset fuel costs. Organisers of the action in Spain claimed a 100 percent response to the strike call. "Compliance is total. The entire Spanish coast is at a halt," said Jose Caparros, a spokesman for the fishing industry in Barcelona. Several thousand fishermen from across Spain, as well as some of their counterparts from France, Italy and Scotland, protested outside the Ministry of Agriculture in Madrid, where they handed out 20 tonnes of fresh fish to alert the public to the problems they faced. "This is the worst crisis in the industry in 100 years," said Javier Gavat, the secretary general of the Spanish Fisheries Confederation, which is seeking talks with the government. "We are demanding a workable plan with short, medium and long-term measures." The meteoric rise of the international price of oil has pushed up the cost of marine diesel by around 30 percent since the beginning of the year, causing trawler owners to warn they face bankruptcy without increased subsidies. In Portugal, a similar strike call also drew a strong response. "No single boat has gone out," said Antonio Macedo, leader of the national federation of fishing unions. Antonio Miguel Cunha, from the association of Portuguese trawler owners, said the action would continue until a fair resolution had been reached. "From now on, there will be no fresh fish," Macedo said. "The only fresh fish on sale Friday in the whole of Portugal is dated from Thursday." The European Commission said Thursday it was willing to show more flexibility towards assistance for the fishing industry. "The commission is following the evolving situation very closely so as to be able to respond as necessary," the EU's executive arm said in a statement. "This includes a readiness to work with member states ... to allow more targeted spending at this difficult time, and to effect an analysis of the fish supply chain to investigate price inflexibilities," it added. However, EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg stressed that fuel subsidies were not an answer to the industry and would only exacerbate overcapacity in the face of dwindling stocks. "Fuel subsidies, besides being illegal, would do absolutely nothing to deal with the underlying problems," he said. "On the contrary, they would serve only to perpetuate the problems of the sector and make the crash even greater when it comes." Italian fishermen also went on strike, vowing to stay in port until Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia agreed to meet with them. "We estimate at between 11,000 and 12,000 the number of fishermen on strike," said Alessandra Fabri, spokeswoman of the largest fishing union, Federcoopesca. "The action is being observed in the Marche and Molise" regions on Italy's central and southern Adriatic coast, she told AFP. Rome's Lazio region also saw strike action, with fishermen in Anzio occupying parts of the port and unfurling protest banners on their boats. In France, which has been at the vanguard of the protests, trawlers blocked the Channel port of Le Havre and also sought to close an oil depot on the Mediterranean coast before police moved in to clear the demonstrators. EU member states can currently give fishermen a subsidy of up to 30,000 euros (47,167 dollars) over a three-year period without seeking European Commission approval. But French and Spanish fishermen consider this too low and have demanded additional help. The French government last week announced 100m euros ($173m) in immediate aid.

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