By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union fisheries ministers hammered out a 2013 quota deal on Thursday which they said struck a compromise between protecting over-exploited stocks such as haddock and plaice and safeguarding fishermen's livelihoods.
Ministers agreed to limit the cuts to catches proposed by the European Commission in several North East Atlantic fisheries such as haddock, herring and plaice, but conservation groups accused them of ignoring data on fish stock sustainability.
French Fisheries Minister Frederic Cuvillier welcomed the "balanced deal" reached after two days of quota haggling in Brussels.
"This agreement provides the basis for truly sustainable fishing in the European Union, backed up by indisputable scientific advice," he said in a statement.
A proposed 55 percent cut in haddock quotas in the Irish Sea, Channel and Bay of Biscay was cut back to 15 percent, while North Sea plaice catches would fall by 25 percent next year rather than the 35 percent proposed by the Commission.
EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said the final deal was not as ambitious as the Commission's original proposal, but described the outcome as satisfactory.
She welcomed a huge improvement in scientific data on stock levels, which meant the bloc had clear advice on catch levels for 85 percent of fish species in 2013, compared with just 39 percent for this year.
The European Parliament has repeatedly backed the idea of fixing quotas on the basis of long-term management plans for the most important stocks.
However, conservation groups accused ministers of ignoring scientific advice for about half of all fish species covered by the quotas, resulting in catch limits being set above levels that guarantee long-term viability.
"Fisheries ministers are not taking scientific advice into account in their decision-making," conservation group WWF said in a statement.
"As a result every year, just before Christmas, it's a 'fisheries frenzy' where ministers spend days arguing about how much fish can be caught."
The European Union has the third largest fisheries sector in the world after China and Peru, with more than 80,000 EU-registered vessels trawling the oceans.
Europe's leading fishing nations are Spain, France, Britain and Denmark, which jointly account for about half of all EU catches.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)