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Tempest in a fishnet

A hardy Pacific Northwest fisherman of our acquaintance once told us that only a Scandinavian could get truly excited about a trawler full of cod, herring , or mackerel. If one adds that only Scandinavians and Englishmen (and a few other maritime folks like Newfoundlanders) could get so enthused, one begins to understand the goings-on of late in the North Sea, where Denmark and Britain are engaged in a long-running dispute over fishing rights.

The controversy - with Denmark now going to court to challenge Britain's banning of Danish fishing boats from within 12 miles of the British coastline - is not without its comic overtones.

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The scene earlier this month, when an armed British gunboat sent a boarding party aboard a Danish trawler that had entered within the 12-mile limit to fish for sprats, resembled not so much a modern naval patrol mission as a scene out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Despite the humor, the dispute has serious implications. There is need to ensure that it does not swell into a larger breach among NATO's Northern European nations and undermine the very concept of the European Economic Community. The idea, after all, was to weld divergent European economic and political interests into a larger sense of mutuality and shared prosperity so as to avoid the nationalistic conflicts that have marked much of the continent's history. Many Europeans, unfortunately, including the Danes and British, remain ambivalent about the EEC.

In the fisheries dispute, compromise is in order. Nine members of the EEC (excluding Denmark, also a member), accepted a fishing agreement late last year that cut back the Danish portion of the North Sea catch and rejected a Treaty of Rome provision and a 1970 agreement giving North Sea fishermen the right to fish up to the beaches of every nation beginning in 1983.

Yet the new policy was put into place not by majority vote, as would seem to have been required under EEC procedures, but by allowing each nation to impose ''national'' measures - i.e. quotas. Britain was allowed the largest quota, 36 percent of the total North Sea catch.

Certainly Denmark's quota (set at 23.5 percent) added up to less of a reduction in catch than for either France or West Germany, although slightly more than for Britain. Nor can it be overlooked that Danish fishermen have tended to overfish the North Atlantic in recent years despite the need for conservation to replenish stocks. Britain, for its part, has been opposed to allowing majority votes by the EEC.

By taking their case to the EEC's court of justice, the Danes have wisely decided to work through regular legal channels. That in itself is an affirmation of the concept of European community which must not be subverted - and certainly not, if our Scandinavian friend from the Pacific Northwest will forgive us, by a herring, mackerel, or cod.

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