The UK has hailed an EU fisheries deal on catches for next year as good for the fishing industry and good for “the health of our seas”.

The fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, emerged from marathon talks just before dawn after fending off a range of quota cuts on the grounds that the need for more reductions was not backed by scientific evidence.

Under the deal sealed after three days of negotiations, catch levels for some white fish stocks off the west of Scotland, the Channel and Irish Sea actually increase, while the scale of cutbacks proposed by the European commission for others has been whittled down.

EU ministers also resisted plans to further reduce the limited number of fishing days at sea, part of continuing stock conservation measures.

But the key issue of cod catch levels next year remained unresolved, pending EU fish talks with Norway in January.

That means the threat of a 20% reduction in cod quotas for 2013 is still on the table.

Benyon declared: “This has been my third year attending these frustrating negotiations and I am delighted that we were able to secure the best possible deal for the UK fishing industry.

“The current Cod Recovery Plan has failed to deliver. It was one of my priorities to ensure that days at sea for fishermen would remain the same next year and that is exactly what has been achieved.”

He added: “I always enter these discussions clear in my mind that any decisions on quotas, or days spent at sea, need to be based on three clear principles: following scientific advice, fishing sustainability and the need for continued discard reduction. We stuck to these principles throughout.”

The annual quota-fixing talks became the usual battle between belt-tightening cutbacks demanded by the commission on the basis of scientific evidence of dwindling stocks and ministers’ determination to keep beleaguered fishing communities afloat – economically and literally.

This year Benyon and other ministers seized on signs of stock recovery in some areas and argued successfully that, in some cases, the scientific evidence for reductions was inadequate or outdated.

Benyon in particular warned that unjustified cutbacks would only contribute to an increase in the practice by fleets of “discarding” – throwing edible fish back into the sea, dead, to avoid illegally landing catches exceeding quotas.

The issue has been widely publicised across the UK by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose Hugh’s Fish Fight campaign against wasting fish through discarding has been endorsed by celebrities including Sir Richard Branson, Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais.

Euro MPs added to pressure for change by voting on Tuesday for a ban on throwing away perfectly good fish as part of sweeping reform of the current controversial Common Fisheries Policy.

Before returning to London, Benyon insisted he would continue the fight to prevent cod catch cuts in the January talks between the EU and key fishing partner Norway.

He said he would continue challenging the European commission’s insistence on a 20% cut and would demand a result based on long-term scientific evidence taking account of cod recovery so far and the prospects of returning the stock to sustainability by 2015.

Thursday’s deal for 2013 included:

• Keeping permitted days at sea at 2012 levels rather than cutting them by up to a quarter.

• Increasing catch quotas for Channel plaice by 26% and sole by 6%, Celtic Sea whiting by 29%, Irish Sea herring by 5%, West of Scotland prawns by 18% and Irish Sea prawns by 6%.

• Limiting proposed catch cuts for haddock in the Celtic Sea to 15% instead of 55% and of West of Scotland megrim to 7% instead of 40%.

A statement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK government has secured a deal that is good for both the health of our seas and the UK fishing industry at this year’s annual round of fisheries talks.”

2012 Guardian News and Media Limited