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Moroccan fishermen say Spain is depleting fish stocks

Moroccan fishermen accuse their Spanish neighbors of depleting fish stocks by over-fishing  

AGADIRAS, Morocco (CNN) -- Here in Agadiras on Morocco's Atlantic coast, as the catch of the day is sold, it's clear less is coming from the sea.

"It's difficult - it's in the hands of God," says fish buyer, Mohammed Chrouat. "Sometimes there's enough to get buy - other times, there's nothing."

Agadiras has 300 deep-sea fishing vessels and 400 coastal fishing vessels -- but they often have to stay in port for two months at a time to allow fish stocks to recover.

And when this Moroccan fleet does set sail, it is in direct competition with Spain. A fishing agreement between the EU and Morocco allowed trawlers from any of the 15 member states to fish in these waters. But Spain, closest geographically, is the one that netted most from the deal.

Moroccan fishermen accuse their Spanish neighbors of depleting fish stocks by over-fishing, an accusation the EU rejects.

"I think it's a little bit odd to blame Europe for all this because European vessels haven't been fishing in Moroccan waters now for eighteen months," says Gregor Kreuzhuber, European Commission spokesman.

Once-famous for their freshness, now Essaouira sardines must be shipped from hours away  

The Spanish fishing industry says its boats are all stuck at port, unable to do their job. But Morocco says Spanish fisherman still fish there illegally.

The EU says it is eager to negotiate a new agreement but is not willing to put more money in it.

"The Moroccan demands are exaggerated," Kreuzhuber says. "We can't pay that much money for little fish, to put it bluntly. And on the other hand I think this would be a missed opportunity for Morocco."

Morocco wants to triple the amount of money in the agreement, arguing the present deal of $80 million over three years was hardly enough for the fishing industry to survive. Morocco says this is a problem since more than a million people depend on the fishing industry, in a country suffering unemployment more than twice the European average.

In this sardine-canning factory a little further south in Essaouira, 700 women still get seasonal work. But it is unclear how much longer this will last. Many of them support families since their husbands are unemployed.

And the industry says its reputation for fresh sardines is on the line. Once, the famous Essaouira sardines were delivered within hours of being caught.

Hundreds of deep-sea fishing vessels in Agadiras, Morocco must stay in port for two months at a time to allow fish stocks to recover  

"Now we are obliged to go south to Tantan to get the fish," says cannery manager, Mustafa al-Shariff. "It's far. To obtain quality, we need to get stocks from closer ports."

In the Mediterranean port of Tangiers, there are similar worries about depleted fishing grounds.

"Terrible, terrible, terrible," is how one fishing boat owner in Tangiers describes the situation. "There simply aren't enough fish for us Moroccans. The Spanish have emptied the waters."

Trying to stop over-fishing, but making matters worse for the industry, the government has stopped granting new licenses to Moroccan fishermen. Longer term, the Moroccan government wants a global partnership with Europe.

"The ending of the agreement doesn't mean the ending of cooperation between Morocco and Europe," says Mohammed Briouig of the Ministry of Fisheries in Essaouira.

Beyond the economic loss, the government is also worried about the ecological damage of seas with less and less. For now, however, the fishermen have no choice but to try and live off what is available.

Kingdom of Morocco (in English and French)
Le secteur des peches maritimes (in French)
The European Union On-Line

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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