Raf Casert and Barry Hatton

BRUSSELS: Half a century ago, a cook would chop a cod in half because it was simply too big to fit in the oven. Today, most fit easily in the frying pan.

Blame the decimation of the dinner plate on industrial overfishing of Europe’s once plentiful waters. On Thursday, though, the European Union backed landmark legislation that could well prevent the commercial extinction of some of the continent’s favorite fish.

European parliamentarian Chris Davies didn’t have to think twice about whether this was the best news for fish in decades. “Unquestionably yes. It is a complete change of thought,” he said.

Environmental groups haven’t been as upbeat in years. “This is a historic deal. It has a commitment to rebuild fish stocks and a legally-binding target to end overfishing,” said Uta Bellion of The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization.

The plan — backed by representatives of EU member states, the European Parliament and the executive commission — compels the fishing industry to respect scientific advice on overfishing, to vastly reduce the amount of healthy fish thrown back into the sea, and to protect sensitive areas at sea. Ideas that now look like no-brainers were unthinkable for years.

“If we carried on, potentially 90 percent of all fish stocks would be unsustainable and at risk within the next decade,” said Davies, a British Liberal Democrat who led the push for change.

Alarmist as it may sound, disastrous stock collapses have happened before. Overfishing off Canada’s maritime provinces exhausted the world’s richest cod grounds and the stocks are still in a desperate state.

Sylvie Vandercruys, who runs the Vimar fish restaurant close to where the breakthrough deal was brokered in Brussels, is dealing with the 21st century problems of a fish that has been a staple for 1,000 years in some EU nations.

North Sea stocks of cod, the emblematic fish in the Atlantic EU waters, have declined by roughly 75 percent over three decades and special campaigns to revive the species have long struggled. It stands as an example for many other species.

Under the new plan, overfishing should end by 2015 for most species and by 2020 for all stocks, with a ban on approving catch quotas that are not in line with scientific advice.

“The next generation will have stocks to fish that are in a better state than that they are now,” said Irish Marine Minister Simon Coveney, who represented the 27 EU nations at the talks.

The plan still needs the approval of the member states and the European Parliament, but since they were intensely involved in the negotiations that is not expected to be a problem.

Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, though, said there is still a tough road ahead. “The next problem: Is the scientific advice going to be on the money,” he said. “We are still learning through trial and error.”