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Fish Discards

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

Discarding is a waste of a valuable natural resource, which has a detrimental impact upon the sustainability of fish stocks, and has significant social and economic consequences for the long-term viability of the fishing industry. We are working with the UK industry and with the Commission and other member states to tackle this effectively, reflecting the circumstances of individual fisheries.

Although this will not endear me to the fishing industry, may I ask whether the Minister recognises that there is widespread concern among consumers in my constituency about the conservation of fish stocks? The latest revelation about fish discards has hardly helped the matter. Can he explain why the 2002 EU community action plan to end discarding by 2006 failed and why we did not start that initiative when we held the presidency in 2005?

There will always be discarding. The nature of our fisheries is mixed. Indeed, there are about 36 varieties of fish in the south-west, and fishermen discard those for which there is no market. We are working with the industry on this, and looking at trials of new nets that would allow certain species to escape. We have also introduced a number of measures, including, for example, the consideration of real-time closures, and we are working with the industry to ensure that it identifies juvenile stocks so that they can mature before they are caught. We are working with the Commission and looking at action plans. We want to reduce discarding. Consumers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and throughout the country want to see reductions in discards. Importantly, however, discards in the North sea are an unintended consequence of an increase in stocks. We must also not forget the conservation element involved. Our decisions are taken on the basis of science.

I was heartened by the Minister’s original answer that he takes discards seriously. He will be aware that European fish stocks are worryingly low. It is an obscenity that, of all the fish that are caught, 17 lb are thrown back for every 1 lb that is brought back into port. While I welcome some of the measures that he has just mentioned, will he assure the House that, if they prove effective, our European counterparts in France, Spain and Portugal will have to abide by them as well?

The hon. Lady has mentioned a number of member states that have overfished. The Commission has come down very hard on them and fined them. We welcome that, particularly in relation to the overfishing of blue fin tuna. The Commission takes discards seriously; the Commissioner has gone on record on this, and we are supporting him in this process. However, there will always be discards, because of the mixed nature of our fisheries. There are some fish for which there simply is not a market, and others will be below the minimum landing size. It is unacceptable, however, to discard high-value stocks such as cod—hon. Members will have seen pictures of such discarding on television—and we need to work harder to ensure that that does not happen. That involves a partnership between ourselves and the industry, and working with other member states.

It is obvious that the present level of fish discards represents bad economics, but it is also very bad in an environmental sense, in that it is bad for the ecosystem of the sea. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that many types of fish are not usable at the moment. That does not mean, however, that they can never be usable. Should not we make a real effort to educate our consumers to use the types of fish that, historically, have been rejected? That would make a major difference to the practice of discarding.

My hon. Friend is quite right, and we are now seeing a change in what the consumer is buying. We are grateful to the celebrity chefs who have promoted fish such as red gurnard, for example. It is caught in the south-west and was once discarded but is now fetching a high price. Indeed, an official told me this morning that he had had red gurnard on the Eurostar when he went to Brussels, so it is not just being served in specialist areas; it is also reaching the mainstream. People can now eat red gurnard as they pass through the glorious Kent countryside in my constituency.

The Minister has said that there will always be discarding, but why should that be the case? Instead of being compelled to dump fish, should not fishermen be compelled to land everything that they catch? Should it not be an offence to discard undersized or out-of-quota fish? Such a land-all policy would give scientists a much better picture of what fish were being caught, and where. That would enable them to devise more accurate conservation and recovery plans. Is not that the way ahead?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to get a better picture of the total discards, and we have been working on that programme since 2002. It is important that we bring in measures to reduce the level of discards. All the European countries in the common fisheries policy have to discard fish, perhaps because they do not have quotas or because there is no market for some of the fish. What does one do with such fish? Either they are disposed of at sea, or an inshore infrastructure has to be put in place to dispose of them. This is a difficult issue, and we take it very seriously. As I have said, the Commissioner also takes it seriously. We need to improve, and that involves working with the industry and bringing fishermen and scientists together, as we have done under the fisheries science partnership over the past five years. I hope that we will see a continued reduction. It is important to remember that the discards are an unintended consequence of quotas. We are not taking as many fish out of the sea as we once did. In 1987, 187,000 tonnes of cod were taken out of the sea; this year, the amount was less than 20,000.

May I assure the Minister and, indeed, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) that the outrage at the phenomenon of discards is nowhere felt more greatly than in the fishing industry and fishing communities themselves, because discards are a consequence of setting quotas that do not accurately reflect the mix of fish to be found in the sea? May I suggest that if the Minister and his ministerial colleagues want to see a real reduction in discards in the coming 12 months, the best thing he can do is win an increase in the cod quota for our white fish fleet and, more importantly, ensure that sufficient days at sea are available to that fleet to catch the quota that he gets?

I am grateful for that question. I have been to Peterhead and met fishermen there, so the hon. Gentleman’s point is understood. As to the cod increase, on the basis of the scientific evidence from both our scientists and those of the Commission, we have negotiated with Norway in the EU-Norway negotiations an 11 per cent. increase in cod total allowable catch. That is allowable within the cod recovery programme, and we hope for a reduction in the amount of discards of that valuable species. There is often a direct correlation between increasing the TAC and reducing days at sea, so we have agreed a UK position on bringing into play a more sophisticated approach, including real-time closures—a voluntary agreement operating in the Scottish industry—and looking at the development of new nets, which will be trialled in the North sea later next year.

Is the Minister aware that the Fishermen’s Association Ltd has indicated that its members are throwing back into the sea six to seven-year-old cod, which were in existence before the cod recovery plan? Not only does that pollute the marine environment, but it is the most appalling waste. Does not that reinforce the special report of the European Court of Auditors, which said that the common fisheries policy was a complete failure?

I have just said that we are going to have an increase—a modest increase of 11 per cent., based on the science—in the amount of cod that we can catch, because the cod stocks have recovered. We are all familiar with stories from Newfoundland about fishermen going out to sea but finding that there were no fish left. We must have in place a regime, based on the scientific evidence, ensuring that we have fish today and fish tomorrow, both for us to consume and for the industry. We are working hard with the Commission and in partnership with the industry to ensure that stocks are conserved and available for tomorrow. We are in the common fisheries policy and we are members of the European Union, and in order to improve the common fisheries policy, we have to be part of the discussions and part of the argument, as this country always is, whether on the common fisheries policy or the common agricultural policy.

The Minister has led the House to believe that he is against discarding. He has used words such as “waste”, “detrimental” and others. In DEFRA’s 20-year plan, taking us to 2027, for marine fisheries—and, indeed, in the consultation response document—it is made perfectly clear that DEFRA has no intention to stop discarding. Despite his warm words, it looks like it is going to be a policy under this Government—the watchword for incompetence—for the next 20 years. When is the Minister going to stop discarding and stop leading people to believe that it can be stopped? When he uses words such as “immoral” and “heartbreaking” in The Daily Telegraph, is he talking about his Department or himself?

As I told the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), we will always have discards because we have a mixed fishery. Does the hon. Gentleman understand that? Also, there is no market for some fish, so what do the fishermen do with it? They discard it. What I said was that having to throw away valuable stocks such as cod was immoral, and that we needed to find better answers.

It is not the case that we are against all discarding. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, if a fish is below the minimum landing size it must be discarded. In mixed fisheries they all swim together, so there will always be discards. In the case of valuable stocks such as cod we must find new ways of reducing the number of discards, such as real-time closures and better gear. That is what I said in The Daily Telegraph, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.