MADRID (AFP) — Fishermen from Portugal, Italy and Europe's largest fleet, Spain, began open-ended national strikes Friday, adding to growing continent-wide protests at the soaring price of fuel.
French fisherman have already been on strike for two weeks, disrupting cross-Channel ferry traffic and blocking oil facilities.
Organisers of the actions in Portugal and Spain claimed a 100 percent response to the strike call, whilst more than 10,000 Italian fishermen joined the strike, according to unions.
"Compliance is total. The entire Spanish coast is at a halt," said Jose Caparros, a spokesman for the fishing industry in Barcelona.
The rapid rise in the 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.
"This is the worst crisis in the industry in 100 years," said Javier Garat, the secretary general of the Spanish Fisheries Confederation.
The snowballing protests appeared to be having some effect, as a Spanish government official announced that Spain, France, Italy and Portugal would jointly propose an EU fund to help the fishermen hardest hit by the price rises.
The proposal will be presented at a meeting of the four countries in Madrid next week.
However the EU Commission on Friday demanded the power if necessary to reduce existing fish quotas, a proposal likely to further anger the fishing industry.
Currently, annual variations are only allowed to go up or down by 15 percent, but starting from 2009 the commission would like to be able to lower quotas by more than 25 percent for species or zones particularly at risk of overfishing.
Several thousand fishermen from across Spain, as well as some from France, Italy and Scotland, also 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.
In Portugal, "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."
Between 11,000 to 12,000 Italian fishermen also went on strike, according to Alessandra Fabri, spokeswoman of the largest fishing union, Federcoopesca.
Italy's Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia meanwhile promised a series of measures for his country's fishermen to mitigate the soaring price they pay for diesel.
The measures are due to be unveiled in the next few days, after contacting his opposite numbers in other EU countries to inform them of the moves, Zaia said.
"Extraordinary, concerted action is needed at European level," he added, pointing to a June 23 meeting of EU ministers to discuss the crisis.
In France, which has been at the vanguard of the protests, trawlers staged an eight-hour blockade of the Channel port of Le Havre and also sought to close an oil depot on the Mediterranean coast.
The European Commission had said Thursday it was "following the evolving situation very closely so as to be able to respond as necessary."
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."
EU member states can currently give fishermen a subsidy of up to 30,000 euros (47,000 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 100 million euros in immediate aid.
On land, Bulgarian bus drivers held a one-hour stoppage, whilst the country's truck drivers were into the fourth day of their protests, following similar demonstrations by English and Welsh truckers earlier this week.
In France, the National Truck Drivers' Federation (FNTR) said there would be protests in five regions on Saturday and Monday, whilst the National Taxi Drivers Federatoin (FNAT), meeting in La Rochelle, warned of "new, widespread protests" if there was not a reduction in fuel taxes for their members.
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