I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of fisheries.
I am pleased to begin this debate. It seems amazing that a year has flown by since the last annual fisheries debate, although we have had many occasions in the intervening period to debate marine and fisheries matters. Although the year has flown by, in the past 40 minutes or so I wondered whether we would get to this debate, but I am pleased that we are here now.
This is the second fisheries debate in which I have spoken. It gives me the opportunity to report progress in the past year, which has been quite a significant year. Common fisheries policy reform is well under way, with the Government leading from the front, and we have worked on IUU—illegal, unreported and unregulated—fisheries and international governance. We also got the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 on to the statute book last month. We are the first country in the world to have a single piece of legislation to protect and manage our seas. This debate is also timely, as it always is, in that it allows me to hear the views of the House before the December European Fisheries Council and to look forward to next year.
However, at the outset I would like to pay tribute—as we always do, and quite rightly—to our fishermen, who face dangers at sea every day, every month and every year to catch the fish that so many of us enjoy eating. I am very sad to report to the House that over the past year 12 fishermen have lost their lives. I know that the House will wish to join me in expressing our sincere condolences to the families and friends who suffered those tragic losses.
Let me begin with the meat of the debate by giving the usual update on the fishing sector’s contribution to the economy. As hon. Members will know, the industry has faced catch restrictions to protect fish stocks. Since 2007, UK landings of fish have declined by 4 per cent., with falling catches of mackerel and herring. However, landings of shellfish have increased by 3 per cent. The total value of landings of fish from UK vessels in 2008 was £629 million, a decrease of 2 per cent. from 2007. Although the value of demersal fish was largely the same, prices for shellfish landings showed slight decreases, particularly, as hon. Members in the areas concerned will know, those for nephrops, a key shellfish species for the UK fleet.
Exports of fish and fish products had a value of just over £1 billion in 2008, an increase of 3 per cent. since 2007. The industry—a huge employer in this country, along with its associated ancillary industries—provided employment for 12,761 fishermen in 2008. As we all know, the industry also contributes to the local economies and the culture of coastal communities, which is especially important in these times of economic difficulty. It would be remiss of me not to mention also the contribution of sea angling, which is popular in our island nation and makes a significant contribution to the UK economy.
Over the past year we have been working on many fronts towards a single goal of achieving sustainable fisheries. That has been very much in the news, as hon. Members will know, with the film “The End of the Line” arousing great interest among the press and public alike and causing much debate. Sustainable fisheries are hugely important for our food security. Across Europe, two thirds of the fish that we eat and up to 90 per cent. of white fish are caught outside EU waters. Over-exploitation, illegal fishing and conflicting demands on the marine environment all impact on fisheries’ contribution to our food security. That is why we need to look at what we do not only in the domestic arena and the EU, but internationally.
One of the international issues relates to concerns raised by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation about this year’s annual negotiations prior to the European Fisheries Council, and in particular about the catch that the Icelandic fleet wishes to secure and the attitude of the Norwegians, which it says is causing delay in those negotiations. Can the Minister tell us anything about that?
Indeed I can. It is a live issue, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware. In fact, I met fishermen this morning and discussed that very issue, among others. Officials and I were in touch with fisheries leaders throughout the weekend, and we continue to be so. It is unfortunate that this year’s discussions between the EU and Norway and other non-EU states are more difficult than normal, for reasons that I suspect the hon. Gentleman is aware of, albeit for the right reasons as well. Where we need to take enforcement action on fishing vessels within and outside the EU, it is right that we should do so, but that aspect has perhaps coloured this year’s discussions.
We are actively engaged in those discussions. We want to see a positive outcome, but we remain in live discussion with industry leaders and skippers as they go forward. I pay tribute not only to those stakeholders and the industry, which are engaged in that process as we speak, but to officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Marine Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, who are also out there fighting the good fight. However, it is difficult this year.
On the subject of the EU-Norway talks, I suspect that one of the sticking points will be the allocation of mackerel quotas. For Scottish fishermen, and Shetland fishermen in particular, that is an absolute red line. Whatever difficulties the Minister encounters, will he please understand that, for the health of that important pelagic sector, compromise could be unhelpful to say the least?
Indeed, and some good sense. We are playing the hand of cards that we have been dealt. We have the red lines that I have indicated and we have written to the Commission. That is the basis of our negotiations, but it is also the basis of the parallel discussions that Marine Scotland and so on are having, so we are arguing exactly the same point as the hon. Gentleman’s Scottish National party colleagues in the Scottish Executive. I have to say that things are extremely difficult. However, the undertaking that I would make to him is the same as the undertaking that we have made to the fleet, which is that we will keep a frank dialogue going as the process goes forward. I do not know what the outcome will be, but that is our position.
I thank the Minister for being characteristically generous with his time. Can he tell us what progress he has made with the EU in discussing the dumping of fish? Dumping is an obscenity that affects all sectors of British waters and is something that we need to stop.
I will return to that point in a moment as part of my substantive remarks. However, one thing that we are agreed on across the UK and all the devolved Administrations is that we do not have to wait for common fisheries policy reform to make movements on discards. There are things that we can do right now. Last October—I think it was October, although time does fly—we signed the Aalborg agreement with colleagues in Germany and Denmark. Under that agreement we agreed to pilot the use of CCTV cameras on boats to monitor what is landed in the nets and to try to uphold the principle of landing more fish and killing less, thereby avoiding discards. I would also say that part of our strength and our credibility with the EU is what we have done in the last few years on real-time avoidance of spawning grounds, on the conservation credit scheme in Scotland, on avoiding juvenile stocks and so forth. There is a lot we can do now, but fundamentally—I shall return to this in a few moments—this is an issue requiring extremely radical CFP reform.
If Members will allow me, I will make a little progress, as there are many participants, as always in fisheries debates, and I am sure that many want to speak.
I was talking about international fisheries and food security. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that half the world’s fish stocks are already fully exploited and at risk of disappearing altogether. A report by the World Bank, to which I often pay regard, has estimated that at least $50 billion dollars of wealth are lost because of poor governance of the world’s fisheries. There is a note of optimism as well, which is the flipside of that report, in that if we can improve the governance and management of fisheries, we can actually harvest more and also protect the marine environment.
To increase our food security, we are working to improve fisheries governance globally, building awareness of the benefits of well managed fisheries. Over the next three days I am visiting Ghana, partly to deal with forestry, partly to increase the Government’s lobbying for Copenhagen, but partly on account of the governance of fisheries. Enabling consumers to recognise that their fish comes from well managed stocks is part of ensuring food security. Supermarkets are increasingly sourcing their fish from sustainable stocks, and initiatives such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s “blue tick” labelling scheme are a step in the right direction to help consumers to make sustainable choices. We also have to make sure that our own fisheries are sustainable.
I was pleased that the House found time to debate the reform of the common fisheries policy on 27 October. I have made it clear that I want the UK to lead the reform of the CFP and I will just quickly recap where we are, as this is crucial. At the European Council of Fisheries Ministers in May, I set out the UK vision for future sustainable fisheries, which places ecologically sustainable fisheries at the heart of reform.
In September, we published a discussion paper on CFP reform setting out four key priorities. These are fish populations within safe biological limits; a prosperous and efficient fishing industry; recognition of the valuable contribution that fishing makes to local communities; and fisheries management integrated with management and conservation of marine resources. For too long, fisheries issues have been dealt with in a silo, which is to their detriment, as we have seen over recent decades, and to that of the marine environment as well. These issues need to be mainstream and part and parcel of cross-government thinking within the UK and of cross-departmental thinking within the EU.
With the help of the Marine and Fisheries Agency, we have held meetings around the coast—I say that, but they were also in Edinburgh—to hear local views on CFP reform. Last week, I discussed with colleagues in the devolved Administrations and a wide range of stakeholders the feedback on the discussion paper and the challenges to be addressed. This is helping us to ensure that when the UK responds to the European Commission’s Green Paper on reform of the CFP later this month, we are recommending radical but realistic reform. This will include people in the fishing industry themselves taking more responsibility for implementing the CFP; more long-term management to reduce uncertainty for fishermen—too often, we hear fishermen saying that they cannot plan a month, let alone a year or five years ahead when they go to their bank manager; ensuring decisions are based on sound science; and reducing, or wherever possible eliminating, wasteful discards.
What indications does the Minister have from other member states, particularly Spain, that they will support his laudable and sensible aims?
I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his contributions to our previous debate on the common fisheries policy. Several significant states appear to be like-minded and as keen as we are to have radical reform. I have to say that several have different ideas on the way forward, but I believe there is a sufficient body of member nations that are of a similar disposition to ours on the core components of CFP reform. I am hopeful. I know I said it in our other recent debate, but it is not a question of waiting until 2011 and then mulling over what the Commission has brought forward following co-decision and so forth, as it is the next couple of months that are going to be crucial. We have the wind in our sails on this.
The Minister mentioned co-decision, but it rather seemed as if the Commission was doing its best to bypass co-decision and move before it could become a reality, when the direction we need to move in is one in which fishermen’s organisations play as full and constructive a part in regional management as they want to, because they are the best people to do it.
The right hon. Gentleman raises another aspect of co-decision that I have touched on—trying to find a way, and we think there are ways, of devolving real responsibility where the buck stops. The buck does not stop only in terms of fisheries management, because it stops with fisheries and marine management, involving those people who I have consistently argued will be the best for long-term management of that marine environment, namely fishermen themselves. I think that there is a real appetite for this.
We recently had a two-day session at the Inter-RAC conference, when the regional advisory councils were brought together in Edinburgh a month ago, and there was almost unanimity on this issue. That meeting, and others, have been attended by officials from the Commission as well, who have spoken about the legal difficulties but with some optimism that it could be done. It is now down to us, with the support of the industry and people with ideas and models, to advance those ideas rapidly. That is what we are set on doing.
One issue I am concerned about, as I said last year, is that of small coastal communities around the UK. I understand the value of fishing to these small, often remote, coastal communities: it is more than simply fisheries and the economy; it is their way of life, their livelihood and also a huge issue for their cultural heritage. It is also part of the UK’s heritage as an entity. We need to find ways of supporting vulnerable communities that depend on fishing.
One of my priorities this last year, in difficult times, has been putting the inshore fleet on to a more sustainable footing, which has not been without difficulty. We have decommissioned 65 vessels. On the back of that decommissioning, which was linked to licence capping—not without controversy—we have directly released quota back into the under-10 metre pool. We introduced the licence capping scheme to keep fishing for quota stocks at current levels.
We have also set up the SAIF—sustainable access to inshore fisheries—project through close working between DEFRA and stakeholders in fisheries management, the fishing industry and fishing communities. This is not driven purely by fishermen themselves; our argument with SAIF was always on the basis that the issue of fisheries needs to be integrated into regional development, better marketing and extending the line of production so that it is not simply a matter of extracting the raw materials but receiving the end-benefit as well. All that is relevant to the SAIF project. There is an advisory group, which has done some excellent work, bringing together expertise from the fishing industry and beyond to help to drive this work forward.
We are also using the European Fisheries Fund to help our fishing industry to secure a sustainable and profitable future. In 2009, we have offered grants totalling £43 million across the UK for projects ranging from major harbour improvements in North Shields and extra safety gear above the legal requirements for individual boats to Marine Stewardship Council accreditation.
One pan-UK project that I know Members will be interested to hear about is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution man overboard safety system, which enables the RNLI to track vessels and alert their monitoring system if there are difficulties. That could be crucial and I remind hon. Members that I opened the debate with the issue of lives lost at sea. This sort of innovation is something that could really help in the future. The system also includes personal safety devices that alert the skipper if a crew member goes overboard. The system has already saved lives at sea and we hope that on the back of that investment, as many as 1,500 units will be in use by the end of 2011.
We are discussing a matter that probably affects every fishing community. I declare an interest as a member of the RNLI national council. Does the Minister agree that, regardless of the number of initiatives, the real challenge is to convey the message to the industry? No matter how many devices there are in the market, if they are not used by the industry they will be of no use to anyone.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I think that the work being done on the ground and—let me give credit where it is due—through august publications such as Fishing News, which seems to run stories about these devices every other week, is very necessary. Members of Parliament can also play their part by hammering the message home when they are out speaking on the portside. It is gaining attention, but there is much more to be done if we are to make a real difference.
The Minister mentioned the SAIF project and, in particular, the impact of certain regulations on the vulnerability of the inshore fleet and coastal communities. Can he reassure us that special areas of conservation will be imposed by Natural England in a constructive manner, and that Natural England and the industry will ensure that not just the marine environment but the viability of fishing communities is protected?
Special areas of conservation and special protection areas are designated through the European marine habitats directive. Socio-economics are not a factor, and in that regard this debate differs from our debate on marine conservation zones. I am pleased to say, however, that before the proposals were submitted for consultation they were subjected to a period of pre-consultation discussion with fisheries leaders to ensure that there were no unnecessary distractions or scare stories. Projects such as this may occasionally displace certain activities, and we need to work with the fisheries industry to ensure that that is recognised. Natural England is very aware of that, as is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
Let me add to the tribute that is always paid on occasions such as this to those in the RNLI who put their lives at risk on behalf of our fishing communities and so many others, year in, year out. Like, I am sure, many other Members, I joined a local lifeboat crew on a training mission, and it was a real eye-opener: it made me aware of the dangers that those crews must confront.
The Minister has spoken of the sustainability of smaller fishing communities. I represent many such communities in Berwickshire. Does the Minister accept that, as well as wishing to unite the fishing and marine environments, we must not lose sight of the need for financial sustainability for those communities? I know that—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been making an exceptionally long intervention, and I am sure the Minister is now able to answer it.
I warn Members that Back-Bench speeches will have to be limited to eight minutes, because time is running out and a great many Members wish to speak. Although interventions add to the debate, Members who wish to catch my eye later are now intervening, and there is something not quite right about that.
In view of what you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall try to cut my remaining remarks short. However, I want to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) about the sustainability of communities and the fleets that are part of those communities, because it is relevant to a vital part of the debate.
As we implement common fisheries policy reform, we need to engage in a frank discussion throughout the devolved areas about how we can deliver a prosperous future—let us scrap the word “sustainable” for the moment—for widely variegated coastal communities that have different types of vessels and experience different aspects of isolation and remoteness. I think that part of the solution is not protectionism per se, but the willingness of Ministers to stand up and say how vessels and fisheries can be made more profitable, how they can produce better harvests, and how fishermen can own production from the point at which the fish are landed to the point of marketing.
I have used this analogy before, and I am sorry that it comes from my own back yard, but we should bear in mind what has been achieved in the marketing of Welsh lamb. Ten years ago, Welsh lamb producers were producing only cheap carcases from the top of the Welsh hills. Now they represent one of our biggest success stories. They have taken command of the line of supply all the way to the supermarket in a co-operative manner, and have added value. Some of the fisheries in the constituencies of the hon. Gentleman and others are high-quality mixed fisheries which should not be selling at bog-standard prices—not that there is such a thing—to whoever comes in. There should be a much cleverer way of owning the profits resulting from that supply chain.
As you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, many other Members wish to speak. Let me do what I said I would do, and deal with some of the other aspects rapidly. I mentioned illegal fishing earlier. I am pleased to say that we have taken a leading role on that, and are making good progress. A European Union regulation that will come into force next month introduces new rules on imports and exports of fish and fish products to and from the EU, making it more difficult for illegally caught fish to enter the EU from non-EU countries. We have been working closely not just with importers and exporters but with nations that will be affected, including developing countries. We are trying to work with those countries to encourage them to engage in better governance and to tackle illegal and unregulated fisheries so that they can take advantage of entry to the European market.
The UK is also leading the way in protecting commercially fished species. Action is needed urgently if bluefin tuna is to be commercially sustainable. We have publicly supported Monaco’s proposal to give this species the highest protection possible under the convention on international trade in endangered species. As a result of the international pressure, and with the strong support of the United Kingdom, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas demonstrated at its annual meeting its willingness to take tougher measures to protect bluefin tuna. However, we shall keep a close watch on whether the measures are implemented quickly enough to conserve this iconic species.
We have been working hard to protect sharks, skates and rays, which are in serious decline. We ensured that the Council’s conclusions on the European Commission’s shark plan of action, agreed in April, were strong, clear and robust. We are proceeding with work under this plan of action ourselves, funding scientific research that will help us to protect and manage those threatened stocks. The UK has made a bold decision to increase the protection offered to sharks by banning the removal of shark fins at sea by UK-registered fishing vessels. Any sharks caught by UK vessels will now have to be landed with their fins attached to their bodies, so there is now no risk of wasteful shark finning.
The UK is also dealing with the incidental catch of seabirds in fisheries operations. Every year many seabirds die unnecessarily, and that is seriously affecting some seabird populations. Internationally, we are working through the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, and we are putting pressure on regional fisheries management organisations to reduce by-catch. We are playing a leading role in championing seabird protection in Europe by challenging the European Commission at the November Council meeting to introduce an EU seabird plan of action.
A major theme of our work is integrating fishing with other marine activities. I have mentioned the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, with which Members will be very familiar; I thank them for their support in putting it on the statute book. It establishes a new system of marine planning. Along with the devolved Administrations, we have published high-level marine objectives to which we have all agreed, and which will feed into the marine policy statement that we are developing to guide the marine planning process under the Act. For the first time, we will be planning all the activities in the our seas in a properly integrated way.
The Act introduces better licensing for marine developments, and the conservation of marine biodiversity through marine conservation zones. Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee have set up four regional projects, which are doing extremely well. The conservation zones will help us to deliver our commitments under the European Commission’s marine strategy framework directive, which requires us to achieve “good environmental status” for our seas by 2020.
The Act also creates the Marine Management Organisation, which will be the Government’s delivery body in English waters and UK offshore waters. I have appointed the chairman-designate, and staff from the Marine and Fisheries Agency, which is being subsumed into the Marine Management Organisation, are already moving to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in preparation for the vesting of the organisation in April. In order to put this to rest, I want to put it clearly on the record that, contrary to speculation in the regional press, we have measures in place to ensure that levels of service are maintained during the transition. The MFA is currently recruiting new members of staff for its headquarters, to replace those who are not relocating. The first two groups of new recruits have already completed training in London and are now working in Newcastle. More new staff will begin work over the coming months, complementing the experienced staff in the 18 offices—which we often forget about—all around the UK coast. So it will be business as usual.
At the local level, inshore fisheries and conservation authorities will ensure that we have an integrated approach to our marine resources. They will replace sea fisheries committees, and they will modernise inshore fisheries management in England. They must seek to balance the social and economic benefits of exploiting the sea fisheries resources of their districts with the need to protect the marine environment from, or promote its recovery from, the effects of such exploitation. They will draw on local knowledge to solve local problems through local decision making. Following consultation, I have decided that there will be 10 inshore fisheries and conservation districts. Last month, we brought together members and staff of the sea fisheries committees to discuss how the new authorities can best respond to their new duties, using the achievements of the sea fisheries committees as their springboard.
Having sprinted through my speech in order to leave time for other contributions, I hope Members will agree that over the last year we have made significant progress towards achieving sustainable fisheries and integrating fishing with other marine activities. We have moved forward in protecting our marine environment, and progress on common fisheries policy reform and other initiatives are good news for fish stocks and fishermen. Although there will be difficult choices in the coming year, we have firm foundations on which to build. I look forward to hearing the views of Members.
It is a great pleasure to speak in my first fisheries debate as the spokesman for my party.
I welcome this important debate, and the opportunity to turn our full attention to the serious issues that face our fishing industry and the health of our seas. With the December European Union Fisheries Council and its negotiations for the 2010 quota allocation fast approaching, this debate is most timely. Today, the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament met, and on 14 and 15 December the Minister and others will be taking part in the Fisheries Council. It is also good to see so many Members present with interests in coastal Britain, the fishing industry and related matters such as angling, which is an extremely important activity for so many people.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is clear to me from my visits around coastal Britain that we can learn a lot from other countries, where activities such as recreational angling, which I am sure we will hear a lot about in this debate, are integrated much more with tourism. In Ireland, for example, on the approach roads to coastal ports there are signs advertising not only hotels but boat hire, tackle shops and so forth. The industry there is much more integrated. This also has an impact on the fishing industry, in which so many people are involved. We can learn a lot, and we can do a lot to try to make these industries more integrated.
This year more than ever we are debating fisheries during uncertain times for the UK fishing industry. At present, the UK pelagic fleet is facing uncertainty as international negotiations over mackerel with the EU, Norway and the Faeroes continue to drag on, while the white fish sector continues to be squeezed by reduced quotas and days at sea. Moreover, the implementation of marine conservation zones, and the formation of the Marine Management Organisation and the new inshore fisheries and conservation authorities, is under way.
Before I continue, I would like to take this opportunity to join the Minister in paying tribute to our fishermen, who do a very dangerous and increasingly difficult job catching the fish that end up on our plates. In the last 12 years, 120 UK fishermen have died at sea—51 in the under-10 metre sector and 69 in the over-10 metre fleets. Fishing remains one of the most dangerous jobs, and while we talk on a political level in this debate, it is important that we remember that the realities at sea affect not only livelihoods and communities, but the lives of thousands of people. I am also indebted to many fishermen and others in coastal communities for the time they spent with me as I travelled around coastal Britain seeking solutions from those who live and breathe the issues we are discussing. I also wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), who did a lot when holding the post I now occupy. He is a hard act to follow.
The most recent figures show that there are some 12,761 fishermen in the UK. About 80 per cent. of them are regular and the remainder are part-time. The total number of fishermen is down by a third since 1997, with the catching industry in the UK landing about £645 million-worth of catches, which can result in £800 million to £1.2 billion-worth of economic activity. Behind every fisherman and vessel there is a fishing community, with about five onshore jobs—down from 10—for every fisherman. While much of today’s debate will relate to fishermen, we must remember the shore-based jobs as well.
In the past, this annual debate has been limited in scope. We should remind ourselves that the health of our seas is a national concern. I think many of us who were involved in the passage of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 were taken aback by the amount of organisations and ordinary people who lobbied us on that Bill. The Co-op’s customer polling showed that a vast number of people across the land—not just in coastal Britain—are now taking an active interest in the health of our seas. If we add the 1.3 million sea anglers, we realise how important a national issue this is.
Consumers have a key role to play in the future of our fisheries. Through the choices they make in supermarkets, they can support innovative schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council accreditation scheme, which has genuine potential to help achieve a sustainable future for our fisheries.
UK household consumption of fish continues to increase. The amount of money spent on fish by consumers jumped from £1.96 billion to £2.57 billion between 1996 and 2005, so this issue has an impact on our food security as well as our economic security. However, while the consumer demand for fish rises, it is no secret that the UK’s fisheries are struggling. Dwindling fish stocks and a patchy understanding of the overall state of stocks, overcapacity, wasteful discarding, mismanagement of quota, top-down micro-management, and a common fisheries policy that even Commissioner Joe Borg has described as
“inefficient, expensive and too complex”
have all served to deepen the woes of UK fisheries and the industry they support.
Of course, when debating the future of our fisheries, we cannot simply look at the industry. A more holistic approach must be adopted that takes into account the fact that fisheries play a vital environmental, as well as recreational, role, with UK waters housing 50 per cent. of total UK biodiversity, and recreational sea anglers contributing £538 million to the economy and supporting 19,000 jobs.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that three years ago the Conservative policy was to get out of the common fisheries policy because it is so disastrous, but a U-turn was performed by his current leader. Is his leader minded to do another U-turn and actually help the fishing community by getting out of the CFP?
I am not going to waste my breath going down this long avenue of discussion, as we can address it on another occasion and we are currently talking about the fishing industry. If I ever find myself in the lucky position of holding the office the Minister present occupies, I will put all my energies into pushing at what I believe is an open door in Europe, in the light of the green paper that the European Commission recently published. I will talk about that shortly.
I look forward to the day when Parliament can debate fisheries in a positive and upbeat fashion, rather than approaching the industry as one that seems, usually through no fault of its own, to lurch from one crisis to another. How much better it would be to take this opportunity to applaud the industry for sustainably harvesting the seas in a way that contributes to a healthy product that is much needed for our food security and our national well-being. That is a future to which we can all aspire.
I wish to speak about not only the industry but the marine environment. I am of the opinion that those two strands are not at odds: they are two sides of the same coin, with fishermen playing a fundamentally important role in the achievement of a sustainable future for UK fisheries. As I have travelled around fishing communities, I have been struck by how many fishermen are the sons and grandsons of fishermen, and by how many want their sons and grandsons, in turn, to go into the business. The concept of stewardship is alive and well in coastal communities, and we in Parliament must do all we can to support it.
I cannot help but feel that the use of a sweeping term such as “the UK fishing industry” is misleading in some way. The UK fishing industry houses a diverse range of interests that could not be more different in the way they operate and even in the species they fish for. The UK is home to a diverse and varied fishing community, ranging from recreational sea anglers and small independently owned inshore vessels to large commercial vessels backed by producer organisations. The industry is home to the inshore, offshore, under-10 metre and over-10 metre fleets, as well as the trawlers, pole and line vessels and producer organisations. More diversity could not be housed in one industry. One of the most useful statistics I have been given is that 51 per cent. of the UK catch is landed in three ports, which means that 49 per cent. is landed in 280 ports. I want to make sure that those 280 ports remain viable, and that the people who support the fishing industry in those communities can have an industry of which they can be proud.
I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that fishermen need to be consulted on changes in the marine environment, particularly in respect of offshore renewables, about which many fishermen in my constituency have serious concerns? I have put them in touch with the developers and their concerns are being addressed, but it is important that fishermen feel part of that negotiation and do not have things imposed upon them.
I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I have not given the Scottish marine Bill the same detailed examination that I gave our marine Bill, for obvious reasons, but I can say that the concept of marine spatial planning—although that term is ghastly, it is important—was vital in the English Bill. Fishermen should be involved in that decision right from the start. There is much in terms of marine conservation and marine renewables that can work together if things are done in the right way.
Unfortunately, it is not just our use of language that has failed to reflect the diversity I was just discussing. More worryingly, the approach taken to the management of our fisheries has, to date, failed to take into account the diverse range of interests and issues confronting us. A micro-managed approach to fisheries has meant that for too long we have been trying to push square blocks into round holes, forcing the whole industry to conform to over-centralised regulation without taking into account the difference among its constituent parts. As a result, fishermen are struggling to survive in some areas, whereas there is latent capacity in others; and there are shockingly high rates of discard of certain species of fish and dwindling stocks of others, as well as disproportionate allocations of quota between sectors.
On discarding, is my hon. Friend aware of a voluntary trial in the west country by south-west trawlermen? They are experimenting with increased mesh sizes and changing their gear to try to reduce the number of unwanted fish that are caught, and early reports indicate that there has been a 60 per cent. reduction in discards. Is that not the sort of bottom-up, voluntary approach we should be encouraging?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because that is precisely the point I am coming on to make. The Minister touched on this issue, but I believe that much more can be done to empower fishermen to be the solution, rather than being seen by too many people as the problem. The scheme that my hon. Friend outlines is an absolute model for management in the future. I shall discuss why that is so important and why it remains my intention to see it work in the future.
I will take this opportunity also to pay tribute to the Scottish fishing industry. I have been impressed by what I have seen in the way of real-time closures, the conservation credits scheme, the technical measures that have been adopted and the serious approach taken to sustainability responsibilities that the fishermen themselves have implemented. Scottish fishermen must not take all the praise, because a lot of good work is going on in England—in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere.
It is clear that the current system of quota management is not working. It has served to encourage discarding and has driven many fishermen out of business. This Government have repeatedly stumbled over quota allocation—for example, distributing quota among the 10-metre and under and over-10 metre fleets in a completely disproportionate and haphazard manner. That has resulted in the 4,833 10-metre and under vessels receiving only 3 per cent. of the national quota, compared with the 96 per cent. that goes to the over-10 metre fleet, which has about 1,500 vessels. As I have said to the Minister before—he wants to corner me on this—I am not in the business of impoverishing one sector to the benefit of another, but even those running large producer organisations say to me, “If you get into government, for goodness’ sake do something about the under-10 metre fleet in England and Wales.” That is because it has for too long suffered from the completely disproportionate sharing of the cake.
The issue of latent capacity, which my hon. Friend raises, is fundamental to the resolution of this problem, and I shall discuss that in a moment.
A further example of not quite getting it right is the somewhat unusual idea of a “cod quota lottery” for this year’s remaining under-10 metre area VIId cod, which was recently proposed by the Marine and Fisheries Agency. The scheme proposes that rather than the remaining cod quota being split between the 183 cod catcher vessels in area VIId, 36 vessels would be chosen at random in a lottery draw to receive the allocation of quota between them. I have a copy of a letter from the MFA explaining the scheme. It is dated 20 November and it states:
“Applications for the draw are invited now and that list will be closed on Thursday November 26th.”
On the basis that it probably took three days for the letter to arrive and for fishermen to respond, it is extraordinary to think that that might be a proper way to allocate this kind of quota.
If the idea were not bizarre enough, I discovered that no consultation was made with the inshore sector about the lottery. It is being sold as a way of making the allocation of cod quota in area VIId “fair to all”, but in the fishermen’s opinion it is doing the exact opposite, creating infighting and a completely unlevel playing field in the sector.
When I meet fishermen up and down the country I hear the same story of the reality of fish stocks not being reflected in quota. We absolutely must underpin quota allocation with science, but that science should be informed by the fishermen as well. Partnerships between scientists and fishermen are a great step forward and a genuine opportunity to obtain coherent data on fish stocks that would, in turn, allow us to manage our quota more effectively. I hope the Minister will do all that he can to encourage those partnerships and gain a better insight into UK fish stocks.
On one of my visits to the east coast, I was made aware by a local fisherman of a scheme called the environmental responsibility fishing project, which was abruptly cancelled last month. The scheme took 30 under-10 metre vessels, removed restrictions on what they caught and allowed them to land all of their catch. Apparently, the scheme’s purpose was to give the Marine and Fisheries Agency a better indication of what levels of stock there were in a particular area.
The boats were allocated 2 per cent. of total allowable catch, but they ended up catching around 20 per cent. because of the amount of cod in that area. They finished catching cod in late May, but at the beginning of November, just as the cod season was about to begin, they were told that the scheme was cancelled. They were given 500 kg of quota a month, which most of the vessels were catching in a day. Naturally, there was considerable concern among the fishermen about how to make a living in the period up to the next quota year.
It is my understanding that the fishermen involved in the scheme got no warning that the experiment was going to be stopped. If there is a theme here, it is that fishermen are not being consulted when they should be. Many had to invest considerable amounts of time and money in getting sustainable gear for selective fishing, but they cannot now pursue those methods as they are not in possession of any additional quota. I understand that pilot schemes have to be stopped if they are not working, but the apparent lack of consultation with the fishing industry is more than worrying.
I am under no illusions: if I were to be in the Minister’s place after the election, I would not have a magic wand to wave to solve the many problems that the industry is facing, but the industry is in crisis and the issue of quota allocation is complex. A quota system that suits one sector of the fishing industry might be completely unsuitable for the other. It is therefore imperative that we move away from a blanket approach and that we look at quota not only on a fishery-by-fishery basis but also in terms of vessels.
That is a prime example of how the CFP is not working at the moment. Most of our fisheries are mixed and micromanagement from Brussels simply does not work here. Innovation, localism, devolved powers—those are the way forward. Whatever we have to do, there must be a fairer way of dividing up quota than the one that we have currently.
The hon. Gentleman has spent a commendable amount of time talking about the 10-metre and under sector. As I am sure he has found out from his travels north and south of the border, in many cases it is that sector that supports the village-based industry. Would he be willing to extend the localism that he is talking about as far down as those components of the village-based fishing industry?
I absolutely am giving that assurance to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because I think that localism is best. I shall come on to talk about the over-10 metre sector as well, but I am encouraged by the direction of travel in the debate. The Minister has also touched on the fact that there is a fair amount of agreement here. There is an opportunity to devolve power so that fishermen, even at a really local level, can take control of the industry. The inshore fisheries and conservation authorities may be the appropriate vehicle by which they can reverse the burden of proof so that they can be trusted to deliver genuine change and police themselves. I shall deal with that briefly in the short time that I have left.
Discards are a further symptom of the failure of the current system of quotas, as a number of hon. Members have noted already. According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, 45 per cent. of cod caught in the North sea last year were discarded. Much higher levels of discards are reported in more inshore waters. The reality of discards can be seen on the north-east coast, where fishermen operating in a mixed fishery are being forced to discard the whiting that is being caught in abundance due to a reduction in TAC.
The overall TAC is not being caught but the UK quota means that vessels have had to discard whiting from March onwards this year. If the proposed reductions go ahead next year, they claim that they will be discarding from January, and that is a prime example of the current inflexibility of the EU’s TAC and quota system.
I am conscious of the time and hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little more progress, as I might be coming to the point that I think he may be about to raise.
However, I was pleased by the Minister’s confirmation that the Government are backing the Aalborg declaration of earlier this year. That has shown a commitment at last to tackling discards, as it allows fishermen to land all of their catch. The Minister will be aware that that reflects a policy discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster over the past year. The commitment is welcome, but it would have been better if the UK had been able to take the lead and put its own policy on discards in place. We need to go further than these headline announcements. We need to be firm in calling on the EU to take a more flexible approach and give the UK the opportunity to pilot schemes for local management in our fisheries to reduce discards.
We should not be making disjointed and largely unsuccessful efforts to confront the issues facing our industry. The Minister touched on decommissioning, but I think he is on thin ice with that issue. If I had been in his position, with the millions of pounds that have been spent on decommissioning, I think I could have made a better job of rebalancing the industry. I would have held the quota that he allowed to remain with individuals as a national asset and given it—[Interruption.] It was in the Minister’s gift to give it to whatever groups of fishermen he felt had been unfairly treated.
The Minister gave a small amount to the under-10s, but if that quota had been held, millions of pounds of decommissioning money could have been spent much more effectively on rebalancing the industry. I will be happy to discuss this with him at any time, but I think he got that one badly wrong.
Of course, the EU and member states have an oversight role, but day-to-day management must be devolved to a local level. Irresponsible fishermen must be taken to task, but they are the minority. The majority of fishermen are responsible stewards of our seas, and they are keen to be trusted and given the responsibility to make a difference to the fisheries on which they rely.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the common fisheries policy Green Paper, because it gives the industry an opportunity to become less decentralised. I commend the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations for producing a very good paper, in which it talks about an approach of sustainable fishing plans, which is similar to a policy that I have discussed as I have gone around the country. The proposal is for three to five-year plans in which technical measures and accreditation schemes could be assessed, and the burden of proof could be reversed. The approach would not only have additional benefit for fishermen, because how much more fun would it be for someone to work for the MFA or the marine maritime organisation if they could say not, “You can’t do this, and if you try that, we’ll criminalise you,” but, “We’ll educate you, provide you with the means by which you can change the way you fish, and support you in trying to fish more sustainably”? That would be a much better way to proceed, so I pay tribute to the NFFO for bringing its proposal forward as part of the debate on CFP reform.
The top-down, centralised approach that has been followed thus far cannot continue if we are to achieve sustainable fisheries. With CFP reforms on the horizon, we must seize the opportunity for wholesale reform that decentralises day-to-day management of fisheries to a local level. We must trust fishermen’s knowledge of their fisheries and allow them to lead the way on fisheries management. Regional advisory councils already provide an effective model for that, and if the new inshore fisheries and conservation authorities created by the 2009 Act are implemented effectively, they will offer real potential for devolving responsibility to where the knowledge really lies.
Getting the reform right is of utmost importance to thousands of British fishermen. The current version of the CFP has been almost universally acknowledged as a disaster for both the fishing industry and the health of the marine environment. It has failed to provide a sustainable future for our fishermen and failed to protect our fish stocks. There is no room for back-seat politics when it comes to CFP reform. If I am lucky enough to find myself in the Minister’s position, my party and I will engage at every level in the EU to ensure that we get the best possible deal for the future of fishermen. The European Commission has opened a window of opportunity for the radical reform of the common fisheries policy and it is imperative that the Minister and anyone who follows him exercise as much influence as possible over the reforms.
As I have said, the issues affecting fisheries do not begin and end with the industry. If our fisheries are to have a sustainable future, we must take steps to conserve fish stocks and rebalance the industry so that effort does not outstrip supply. The 2009 Act has provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to carry out meaningful and effective conservation measures for our seas. The creation of marine conservation zones, IFCAs and the Marine Management Organisation is a positive step in the right direction. It was a pleasure to work on the Act as it proceeded through Parliament, and the cross-party consensus that operated in a bid to put the legislation on the statute book was a model of how to take such a measure through the House.
We have, however, done the easy bit. I remember seeing a look of satisfaction on the faces of many hon. Members as we passed the Act, but MCZs must be thoughtfully implemented and properly managed. Enacting a Bill is, in a sense, just a process—it is the outcomes that really matter. It is imperative that the designation of MCZs is an ongoing, flexible process that addresses the wide range of environmental challenges facing the marine environment. We also need a buy-in from fishermen, but that will be achieved only if we work with them, rather than impose measures on them. The Minister commented in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on conservation areas and special protected areas. If Natural England is true to its word, MCZs will be implemented in a balanced process that will involve fishermen at an early stage.
The implementation of European special protected areas is causing concern. The other day I was in Weymouth, where fishermen had been shown lines on maps of fishing areas in which they have had crab pots for many years. However, such plans should be explained to them at an early stage. There may be a thoroughly justified reason why those areas have been protected, but the fact that fishermen have not been consulted is a problem.
A further challenge arising from the 2009 Act is the transition of the Marine and Fisheries Agency to the new Marine Management Organisation. I hope that the Minister’s optimism is justified. I welcome the creation of this important new Government agency, which I hope will breathe new life into the approach to fisheries management, but I am concerned lest the transition from the MFA should result in the loss of specialist expertise. I learned from the written answer to a recent parliamentary question that some 67 MFA staff have refused to relocate to the new MMO in Tyneside. For many months, inside the organisation, reference was made to the Tyneside 10.
Yes, indeed there will be, and points of order like that one just take up even more time.
I am bringing my remarks to a conclusion, but it is important that the Minister understands the concern within the organisation about the MMO. The Government are not good at machinery of government changes or at managing people and organisations. There may be very good reasons why Tyneside was chosen for the relocation, and I have nothing against the area, but the Minister should have consulted the MFA employees much earlier to encourage more of them to go to the new MMO, because it is important that it works. We will all support it when it comes into operation in April, but it has not had a good start.
I approach my role with no sense of a one-size-fits-all solution, and I intend to work with anyone who wants a meaningful discussion about how to approach the future of our seas. However, if my party comes to power, the health of our seas, the viability of fishing as a business and the plight of our coastal communities will be real challenges for a new Government, and they will be a priority for my party in the months and years ahead.
Order. The eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will apply from now on.
May I express my resentment that this major fishing debate, which is important to all of us and brings together the best and the brightest Members of Parliament—that is to say, the fishermen of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, plus a line fisherman from Reading-super-Mare—to discuss the issues of fishing has been allowed only two and a quarter hours, of which the first hour has been taken up by the Front-Bench speakers? It is appalling that we are forced to cram our remarks on the forthcoming talks into that time, particularly as these talks will be some of the most difficult that we have had to face.
Today’s Norway talks will be complicated by the unilateral mackerel quotas grabbed by Iceland, the Faroes and Norway. We face a difficult settlement in the December Council meeting because of the problem of cod in the Irish sea. We face a situation in which co-decision is to be extended to the European Parliament, which will bring many more political considerations into a common fisheries policy that should not be dominated by politics, and will increase the leverage of the conservation and environmental fanatics, who regard commercial fishing as the enemy rather than the agent of conservation and sustainable fishing, which is how I see it. They will pay more attention to the cuddly seals than to the fish that the seals eat.
The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), said that the reform of the common fisheries policy for which he so much hoped was pushing at an open door. I have to say that some horrible things have emerged behind that door so far, with the first grab of power by the European Commission when it introduced the technical rules, which have been abominated by fishermen and the fishing organisations. The rules were rushed in with no consultation and were top-down measures of the type that we do not want. Fortunately they were postponed, but the Commission has now insisted on an EU control regulation which will provide for only a 10 per cent. margin of tolerance between the logbook estimates and the landing declarations.
That will lead to prosecutions all over Europe, particularly in this country, where our authorities are more assiduous than most, as soon as we get electronic logbooks. It is very difficult to estimate the size of the small amounts of by-catch, and any error of more than 10 per cent. will lead to prosecution. That will lead to an insane situation, with prosecutions all over Europe and all over England. In Grimsby recently a skipper was found to have a discrepancy of only 8 per cent. between his logbook estimate and his landing declaration on plaice, for which he was prosecuted, although there were no quota restrictions on his producer organisation for that species.
If that is an augury of things to come, it is an augury of disaster. If it is an augury of the kind of thing that the reform of the common fisheries policy will throw up, then that is even worse. We should oppose such reforms. Reform should pass power down from the centre—the point made by hon. Gentleman—from the command and control economy and management system operated by the Commission to the regional advisory councils and to a self-regulating industry. “Trust the fishermen” should be the slogan. The de facto decision making should be devolved and responsibility should be delegated.
We need sustainable fishing plans managed by producer organisations that will document the vessels’ activities and performance and will audit the situation—a bottom-up rather than a top-down system, such as the one that operates in Australia. We need to combine that with long-term management plans, and I hope the Government will support that.
In the December Council, the probable 25 per cent. reduction in fishing mortality under the cod recovery plan in the Irish sea and Scottish westerly waters will divert effort from those waters into the North sea and damage the industry there. The cod recovery plan is not working effectively in the North sea, either, so the time has come to review the plan and ask whether we cannot sustain and rebuild the stocks by other means. Something has to be done about a plan that is manifestly not working. We must note that any reduction in the days-at-sea allowances will lead to “Olympic” fishing, whereby people go out and catch all that they can. They will catch more cod as by-catch, and that will encourage more discards. The same situation will apply to nephrops, because of the failure of the catches on the Porcupine bank off Ireland, which will have a knock-on effect on the whole area. Why can we not combine haddock and whiting quotas to reduce whiting discards? Fishermen could make a return and land their stock, and we could avoid the problem of such large discards.
It is appropriate that I give only a short speech, but I want the Minister to make such proposals at the December Council. The industry will support them. He has done a very good and helpful job so far, but the crunch time is now, and it is important to resist the Commission’s proposals.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell): we need protected time in which to undertake this debate in future, so that we do not lose time because of other business. Many hon. Members wish to take part, and I shall do my utmost to make my remarks as quickly as possible so that we allow as many hon. Members to speak as we can.
We use this debate as an opportunity both to demonstrate our appreciation of those in the industry, especially the catching sector, who are engaged in the most hazardous profession, and to convey our sympathies to the families and colleagues of those men who engage in this important industry to put fish on our tables and who are lost at sea.
I pay tribute to the Minister and agree with about 90 per cent. of what he said. I shall try to concentrate on the areas where we disagree, rather than on those where we agree. In that respect, I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), because, having heard a decade of fantasy from the Conservatives, I think it useful and helpful to hear that the party has turned around and is now engaged in constructive dialogue about the future of the fishing industry in relation to its international objectives with the rest of Europe.
The negotiations are very difficult. The Minister will be aware that the main, very important fishing port of Newlyn in my constituency, which I hope he will visit soon, had a troubled year. It is now, however, looking positively to the future. However, many challenges affect my constituency and others. They include the challenges from the change to the regulation on under-10 metre vessels. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) will mention recreational sea anglers and the regulations affecting them. In an intervention on the Minister, I also mentioned that two of the five special areas of conservation—the special protection areas—are within my constituency. Their likely impact should be a good opportunity for the Government and Natural England to show that, in fact, conservation and a sustainable fishing industry can work together. We will watch that one closely. Further challenges include the roll-out of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the implementation of the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities, and I congratulate the Minister on his decision to retain the integrity of the current boundaries of the sea fisheries committees.
I shall emphasise a theme in my contribution. On the future of this industry, we do not envisage the “them and us” culture of the past, with the fishing industry working against those enforcing the regulations and the scientists, or vice versa. Instead, we envisage everyone working together, with the shared objectives of a sustainable industry—scientists and regulators working with the industry, and the industry often leading the debate on constructive proposals for its future.
I want to deal with the annual Fisheries Council, common fisheries policy reform, and the Green Paper, and to look at constructive ways forward. The Minister will be aware, as he has been through this already, that we will no doubt again have the absurdity of the 11th-hour brinkmanship of overnight negotiations as the fishing nations come together to resolve the remaining issues of debate and disagreement. I wish him well in those discussions. Of course, we agree that decisions should be based on sound science, but what do we do if the science is not there or if there has been insufficient recent scientific assessment? That has bedevilled much of our debate in years gone by. Throughout area 7, many of the scientific assessments are based on last year’s, not this year’s, assessments. What are we to do in those circumstances? I hope that the Minister will say that he is working towards remedying that situation early in 2010. Scientists, the industry, DEFRA, the regional advisory councils and the European Commission need to work together to address it.
Another theme that runs through those negotiations, which possibly affects areas 6 and 7 more than others, is the “use or lose it” method, which results in perverse outcomes—for example, the Cornish fishermen lose out if the French do not catch their quota. If quotas are not rolled over, there is also the perverse incentive whereby fishermen are encouraged to catch rather than to preserve their stock. I hope that the Minister will take that into account in his negotiations in the Fisheries Council.
The practice of quota swapping increasingly happens between nations. As a result of the establishment of the RACs, Cornish fishermen are working well with French fishermen, and that is happening elsewhere, too. Surely that is a beneficial outcome. It is better to develop international relations by joint working within the RACs. I understand that that is not yet sanctioned or supported by the Minister and his Department, so I hope that he will take that point on board.
The Minister mentioned the need to preserve spurdogs, porbeagle sharks, skates and rays. Those are non-target species, and rightly so, but they are an unavoidable by-catch in many of the sectors that we are talking about. I hope that he will work with the industry to try to ensure that we reduce that by-catch, as the measures proposed in the settlement for the Fisheries Council will not save a single spurdog, porbeagle shark, skate or ray. He has received a letter from the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, dated 27 November, which contains some significant proposals that I hope he will take into account.
I think that we are all reading from the same page in the debate on common fisheries policy reform. We want it to be more devolved on the basis of better science, better monitoring and better, more even enforcement across Europe, with more buy-in, based on a constructive dialogue, from an industry incentivised to promote long-term objectives and sustainability. However, the remaining issue, which we often come back to, is the role of total allowable catches and quotas in the future of the CFP. I think we can also all agree, as we have tended to do so in all the debates that I have engaged in, that quotas are a blunt instrument. They create the obscenity of discarding fish, they create a barrier to new entrants, they are almost useless in protecting stock in mixed fisheries, particularly ultra-mixed fisheries such as those in my area, and they are perceived as often being based on arbitrary assessments and threadbare evidence.
There are many other criticisms of TACs and quotas. However, the problem is that as soon as one starts to think of getting rid of them, the industry says that the problem is that the most highly valued stock—in my area, Dover sole and turbot, for example—would be the first to be plundered and would therefore slip down the value chain. Moreover, that approach would hit the areas that are as close as possible to port, particularly when fuel prices are high. It would not work. I have noticed that the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations is very clear about wanting a system strongly based on quotas.
The problem with discards is how to distinguish intended and unintended over-quota by-catches. That has been a conundrum for the regulators and will continue to be. If we got rid of quotas altogether, those who had invested properly would not be properly rewarded for it in future quotas and licences.
The hon. Member for Newbury referred to the NFFO’s proposed sustainable fishing plans, which are clearly the way forward. It has stated that a future CFP should be:
“The catching and gathering of marine resources for the benefit of humankind in ways that do not prejudice future generations”.
I would add that that should probably include their appreciation of a healthy and diverse marine environment. The culture has changed for the better over the past decade, and there is a strong and constructive dialogue. The industry is working constructively with marine scientists, and there are two good examples of that. The first is the Cornish Trevose ground closure, which has now been in operation for four years. It was designed for cod recovery, and anecdotally it is working. We have not yet had a review of the impact that it is having, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that there is one. Has it displaced effort elsewhere, and what contribution has it made to the spawning stock biomass, sustainable yields and the recovery of cod and other species? Knowing that would be particularly helpful.
The second example, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is an excellent initiative largely driven by the industry in Scotland—the Scottish conservation credits scheme, which was introduced last February. They are Celts, but they are rather laggardly Celts, because they are slightly behind the Cornish, but never mind. We will forgive them for that—at least they are ahead of the Anglo-Saxons. The scheme is based on voluntarily closed areas, changes in gear, the management of effort and the maintenance of days at sea.
The industry has come up not only with those two excellent initiatives, which are already working, but with something of which I hope the Minister will take account—the sustainable fishing plans. The hon. Member for Newbury has already described them, so I do not need to. I hope that the Minister will take into account what hon. Members have said and ensure that the plans become the basis on which we can build an agenda for the future in which the industry is keyed in and working constructively with scientists, marine conservationists and law enforcers. There must be greater teamwork, with all of us working together, rather than the “them and us” culture of the past.
I welcome the approach that the Minister has taken and the opportunity once again to discuss the fishing industry. Not a lot changes—in the 20 years or so that I have been attending these debates, Front-Bench speeches have always been too long and the debate has always been too short, and we are always compressed like this.
The Minister opened the debate by referring to the huge changes that we are seeing in the industry, a number of which have been mentioned by all three Front Benchers, but nothing much has changed for the industry, because this year it is once again facing a lot of uncertainty. That is partly about the Norway and EU discussions that are taking place today, and the level of uncertainty is much greater this year because of the mackerel stocks, which have been mentioned a number of times. It is clear that the industry faces a number of serious problems, and it will need to adjust to the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. Probably most important are the changes in the CFP. There is a lot of optimism, and it is important that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet on such a fundamental issue.
The all-party fisheries group recently met representatives of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations. I have to say that I did not detect a huge amount of optimism from them about where they saw the EU going, despite the NFFO’s very good report on the Commission’s green paper. There is still a lot of uncertainty about whether the Fisheries Council or the European Commission would want to give up their power.
That situation has been made slightly worse because the industry is smarting from the decision that the Fisheries Council took last week on the west coast white fish sector. That is likely to have an impact, not just on the Scottish industry but around the country, because of the displacement that may be caused, because of other factors and, more importantly, because of the attitude taken by the Commission. There is deep concern, certainly about the attitude of the Fisheries Council, because the decision seemed to show that it is still in the driving seat, and that there is still centralised control. The industry saw the emergency regulations introduced earlier in the year as temporary, and there was real concern and surprise when the Council extended them. That is a serious matter for concern.
It is quite clear from the UK industry—this comes through in the NFFO publication mentioned earlier, and in publications from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation—that it strongly wishes to move away from the current centralised approach, and towards a regional management system, whereby local decisions can be taken by stakeholders under a process of rigorously applied and regulated criteria. That is certainly set out in the Commission’s green paper, but the question is whether the attitude recently shown by the Commission suggests that it is seriously likely to consider that route. That is something that we need to consider carefully.
The Minister mentioned the number of jobs in the industry, but he did not mention the onshore side of the industry—the fish processing side. It is going through difficulties of its own. It suffers the same uncertainty about supplies, but of course it can, and does, import from ports around the world. Like every other business, fish processing businesses are under pressure, particularly because of the lending position taken by many banks. Those businesses face the same difficulties as the rest of British industry, and we should recognise the importance of fish processors to the fishing industry.
The Minister rightly paid tribute to those fishermen— 12 this year—who have lost their lives in the UK fishing industry. We all know that the fishing industry is the most dangerous industry in this country. A research project carried out by two academics at Swansea university and published in 2007 set out the shocking figures. The fatal accident rate for UK fishermen between 1996 and 2005 was 115 times higher than that of the general UK work force. By comparison with other specific areas of work, that rate was 81 time higher than that in manufacturing, and 24 times higher than in the most dangerous onshore industry, construction.
That research was followed by a report by the marine accident investigation branch, which was published last year. I know that the MAIB is not part of the Minister’s Department, but it investigated the causes of death of the 256 commercial fishermen who died in 180 separate marine accidents between 1992 and 2006. Those statistics were added to and highlighted when Seafish published its report “The Price of Fish?” earlier this year. Seafish is to be congratulated on the report and on the work that it is doing on the subject.
The title of the report is apposite, because we know that as the economics get tougher in any industry, particularly the fishing industry, more and more risks are taken; that is a sign of the times. That is a matter that we need to be cautious and careful about, and we need to invest much more to tackle the problem. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) talked about the culture of the industry. One anecdote that has stayed with me throughout the time that I have represented a fishing community is that of the old fisherman who was shown a new type of lifejacket. His first response to it was, “Aye, son, but does it catch fish?” That is the culture of the industry. It is a dangerous culture, and we need to work to change that. I make a simple plea to the Minister: in all the hectic rounds of talks and negotiations over quotas, which do not happen just at this time of year but throughout the year, will he and the Government as a whole not lose sight of the importance of the safety of our fishermen?
I begin by praising the work of the Angling Trust, whose headquarters are in Leominster, in my constituency. I am very proud that it has chosen to base itself there. Herefordshire has the famous River Wye, the finest salmon river in England. The Angling Trust came into effect in January 2009—the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and I were there—and it has provided a unified voice for angling needs, which is a tremendous asset. Some 4 million anglers contribute £1 billion to the economy and support more than 20,000 jobs. The trust has done a good job of keeping the interests of angling to the fore in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that it is essential that angling interests are properly represented on inshore fisheries and conservation authorities and are not just lumped in with other interests. They need a proper voice.
Angling is a great inclusive sport. I would also like to pay tribute to the organisations that support disabled angling, particularly the British Disabled Angling Association. Unfortunately, last year the Government hit disabled anglers with a one-third increase in their fishing licence fees, and 140,000 senior and disabled anglers are now paying more for their concessionary rates.
In a written answer to me, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), then a DEFRA Minister, confirmed in April 2008 that there would be another review of the concessionary rates for the licence fee in 2010. I hope that this Minister will ensure that that review takes place and that angling groups and disabled anglers, in particular, are fully included in that review and that the concessionary rates do not remain as they are but go down so that more disabled anglers find it easier to go fishing.
Article 47 of the related EU Commission regulation is the other serious concern against which anglers have been battling. It would take the amount of fish caught by anglers and put it in with national quotas. As for the progress that has been made, it is a case of so far, so good. I tabled early-day motion 528 on this matter last year and I think that the European Economic and Social Committee has highlighted the impact on the commercial sector and amended the wording. However, although I welcome the progress, we have to be careful. Some of the terms in the existing wording allow the Council to introduce “specific management measures”, including catching declarations and fishing authorisations, where it is thought that a recreational fishery is having a “significant impact.” The danger may have abated, but it has not gone away. I hope that the Minister will keep the House updated on such proposals and ensure that we veto them if the opportunity arises in Council.
The Minister mentioned the bluefin tuna. It is a tragedy that, even though that species is one of the most endangered in the world, members of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas—ICCAT—voted in November to allow 13,500 tonnes of bluefin tuna to be caught next year. That fish will be extinct in two years’ time; it cannot be fished at that level, and it is a real mistake to allow it. More needs to be done to prevent illegal tuna fishing and we certainly should not be considering having such big quotas.
On whaling, I must encourage the Government to take a very robust approach. Just recently, we saw the Japanese make significant progress: they actually managed to win a vote. When that happened, I checked to see what the Government had done to encourage other countries to join the moratorium on whaling. Very little had been done and so I take this opportunity to say to the Minister that he must not take his eye off the ball—we are all agreed that whaling cannot be allowed to be brought back.
We must ensure that effort goes into bringing on board countries that are not members of the International Whaling Commission. When the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) was the relevant Minister, he gave me a written answer that said that, of the 57 countries to which the Government sent their documents, only 15 were non-IWC members. Seven of those have still not joined: Bosnia, Latvia, Malta, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey. I hope that the Minister will ensure that pressure is put on those countries to join the IWC and to ensure that whaling is not brought back.
On the Marine and Coastal Access Act, I think we all welcome the progress that has been made. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on the excellent job that he did in a very consensual and positive way. He made sure that the Bill was as good as it could possibly be, and I congratulate him on that. One thing is still of critical importance—that other countries respect our efforts to preserve the marine environment. At the moment, they do not have to do so, which is why within six miles of our shore foreign fishermen can be obeying a completely different set of rules from those observed by British fishermen. We saw that with bass pair trawling—a way of fishing that is especially damaging to dolphins and that goes on just out of range. I urge the Government to do everything they can to ensure that the six and 12-mile limits are respected and that other European countries obey the same rules as British fishermen.
I know that the Minister will be discussing fish stocks in December, and he will know that 88 per cent. of fish stocks in Europe are over-fished, compared to a global average of 25 per cent. Some 30 per cent. of stocks are outside safe biological limits and 14 of the 47 fin fish stocks of importance to UK fishermen are now fished outside those limits. Only eight fin fish stocks are within those limits. If the Minister can do just one thing in his term of office it should be to ensure that those fish stocks are preserved. Everyone agrees that discards are wrong, but until we start to measure what is caught, we will not have the scientific evidence that we need to enforce proper discard bans. The hon. Member who mentioned what his fishermen were doing with larger mesh sizes was right, but at the moment there is no incentive for fishermen to be more selective in their gear—they do it out of the goodness of their hearts—and we need to ensure that, if at all possible, we reward best behaviour. At the moment, that is not happening and we need to do far more.
Equally, we need to look at how the Government are allocating quota to the under-10-metre fleet. I understand that The Hague convention allocation went to the over-10-metre fleet—
That is the first time that the Government have done what I asked last year and I am delighted to hear it. That is fantastic. At last, we are being listened to.
Under the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project, the Minister introduced the environmentally responsible fishing pilot scheme for 31 vessels in the under-10-metre fleet in three areas. Those vessels can fish without restriction and land their catches instead of discarding them. That is tremendous, but what I want to ensure is that the fish that are caught are recorded, so that we have proper scientific evidence and know what other people are doing. If that happens, there is hope for our industry. We have heard how dangerous it is, and we should remember those fishermen who have lost their lives at sea. This is an important issue and I wish the Minister well in the debate in Europe.
At this time of year, the Northern Ireland fishing industry faces the Christmas season with dread and almost despair because of the growing inability to earn a living at sea. I do not intend to address the broader issues, because they have been, and will be, so eloquently addressed by other hon. Members. I will discuss the more parochial aspects of the issue that I would like the Minister to consider.
I endorse the praise for the Minister that has come from both sides of the House tonight for his administration of this difficult industry. However, I shall unfortunately strike a discordant note. The House may be aware that the operation of the Hague preferences is particularly important to the island of Ireland, both north and south, but there is a feeling among the fishermen of Northern Ireland that they are now making an undue proportion of the contribution under the Hague preferences. Until last year, the buy-back or swap of the losses was compensated for by the UK as a whole, but it appears to Northern Ireland fishermen that this year they were the primary contributor to the swapping process.
In an effort to gauge accurately the scale of the swaps, fishermen asked DEFRA to give a summary of the Hague preference losses for the Irish sea since 2000. They were advised that the information could not be released because although the December negotiation teams had the information, they could not divert resources to release it. I find that a rather weak reason these days, when we have the technical ability to transfer data almost immediately. I must say, however, that I am disappointed because, in preparing for that point, I wrote to the Minister on 6 November, but as yet I have not even received an acknowledgement.
I shall move on, however, to the more important issue of the yearly quota cuts, including the one that will no doubt come from Brussels this month. The Minister referred to the importance in certain fishing communities of this vital industry—on both sea and land—to their economic welfare. That could not be better exemplified or illustrated than in my constituency of South Down, where two thirds of the fishing effort is concentrated; the remaining third is in the neighbouring Antrim constituency. In my constituency, and in one port in the Strangford constituency, the industry employs 1,200 people, contributing nearly £100 million to the economy. That would be severely affected by a further decline owing to the small-industry wipe-out that has taken place in constituencies such as mine and the complete collapse of the construction industry.
The largest sector in the Northern Ireland fishing industry is the prawn and nephrop sector—some 90 per cent. of the fishing fleet fishes for nephrops. That is the direct result of the yearly purges of the cod quota, resulting in an overall cut in the quota to date of 84 per cent. Only six boats in Northern Ireland still fish for cod.
That dynamic change, however, has not been particularly recognised by Europe, whose main proposal this year is to cut the nephrop and prawn sector by a further 30 per cent. If I remember rightly, last year, a more modest proposal for a 2 per cent. cut came out of the negotiations, but even that cost the economy in small communities in Northern Ireland £2 million. We could extrapolate a 2 per cent. cut from a 30 per cent. cut, but we still do not know what might happen. If the proposal is taken forward, at that rate of cut, several fish processing factories and more than 200 jobs will be lost immediately.
On the prawn quota, the scientific evidence gathered by the Agri-Food and Bio Sciences Institute is positive, and shows that prawns in the Irish sea are fished sustainably and that stocks are on an upward trend. Yet we have this proposal from Brussels for yet another massive cut. Like the Northern Ireland regional agriculture and fisheries Minister, I would like the Minister to confirm whether the area 7 prawn quota will be the No. 1 priority in the negotiations.
I thank the Minister for that confirmation.
Since 1999, the European Commission has cut the cod quota by 84 per cent., the whiting quota by 95 per cent. and the plaice quota by 96 per cent., with further reductions proposed of 25 per cent. for cod and plaice and 30 per cent. for prawns. We must ask ourselves, “How can we protect our fishing industry?” It is not just a question of the income, but of the tradition, know-how and intimate knowledge gained over generations of fishing in particular places.
One of the problems of Northern Ireland’s fishing industry is that it always feels one step away from the negotiating table. I welcomed the Minister’s saying earlier that regional devolution to some extent, under broad guidelines, can take place. That would be very much welcomed by the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, which co-operates fully with the scientific regime that is measuring and advising on these matters.
I hope the Minister will take on board the fact that the industry in Northern Ireland is on a delicate knife edge between reaching critical mass and suffering total annihilation, and sustaining the livelihood of those communities in the years to come.
Order. The next speaker may take the eight minutes that is allowed, but after that I propose to reduce the time to five minutes, to try to get as many people as possible at least to make some contribution.
It is that time of year again when the CFP gets its usual bad name. No one in Westminster seems to have a good word for it, but because of the great deities hanging around our necks, it is not, unfortunately, challenged seriously by any of the current big parties in the House, so fishing priorities are diluted. From the perspective of Scottish desires, the priorities are diluted in the British Union. The UK’s desires are further diluted in the European Union, but that is the CFP for us. I could go on for far longer, but I notice that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), my ally on this issue, is not in his place, so perhaps I will spare the House, as hon. Members might not have the stomach for it.
We are where we are. What message do I want to leave ringing in the Minister’s ears before he goes to Europe? I have a shopping list of things, and I am sure he will be taking notes on them or reading about them tomorrow. First, as has been mentioned, he should protect the mackerel, Scotland’s second most important quota after langoustines or nephrops—call them what we will. I hope that the Government at Westminster will not blink on the issue. We hold the cards on mackerel. We should keep those cards and not trade mackerel away for any other species.
In the wider fishery, Scots fishermen in particular have led the way on conservation issues, as has been mentioned. That should be recognised and rewarded, not subject to the penalisation that so often characterises the common fisheries policy. On the wider philosophy of fishing, a mixed fishery with quotas is just not working. For instance, the Faroese are using an effort-based approach. They seem to be far more successful and are much happier with what is happening with their fishery—they are also outside the common fisheries policy, of course. One of the issues with quotas is that scientists emphasise the lowest stock in a mixed fishery, which leads to a perverse approach to the management of that fishery.
The Minister knows the difficulty with that issue; I can see him nodding.
Given the time available, I will now raise the issues that are pressing in my area of Na h-Eileanan an Iar—a constituency that I am sure the Minister looks forward to pronouncing at the end of the debate—on the west coast of Scotland. If I can translate from Gaelic, the main point made earlier today by Duncan McInnes of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association is that the squid and crayfish that are currently caught as part of cod recovery should be excluded, as the cod by-catch in the fishery is effectively zero. I hope the Minister will look at that issue. Prawn fisheries in which the cod caught accounts for less than 1.5 per cent. should also be excluded, and those concerned should be given 200 days at sea and the ability to land the by-catch.
The Minister may need to know that although west coast prawn numbers are currently low, they were also low in 1981, yet 1982 and 1983 were almost record years. Prawn numbers are cyclical. The difficulty with the science is that it often takes snapshots, reporting things as they are and attributing them to whatever reasons or causes come to mind. We really do not know the reasons and causes, but we can learn from history about what happened in the prawn fishery before and see that the years after were successful years.
With a 30 per cent. by-catch of cod, haddock and whiting in some prawn fisheries, fishermen’s leaders feel that the haddock should be removed from that category, because stocks of haddock are so good. The haddock fishery is in a very healthy position. John Hermse of Mallaig and North-West Fishermen’s Association echoed that point. He would like some help to be given to the prawn fishery, which is experiencing some difficulty, with a 15 per cent. increase in megrim and a 30 per cent. increase in monkfish, to help make the fishery pay for those fishermen. This issue is highlighted in an e-mail I was sent earlier today from the fishing vessel Astra in Stornoway. Given the limited time available, I will spare the House from having the e-mail read out, but it underlines the points made by Mallaig and North-West. I will of course make the contents of the e-mail available to the Minister if he would like to read it.
Mallaig and North-West also made an important point about the continuing catch of dogfish. At one time, these fish were caught and landed, but because of the bureaucratic drop in quota they are now caught and discarded. If that issue could be looked at, it would avoid the wastage of good food being thrown over the side.
Will the Minister also look at the tagging of nets? It is very annoying to fishermen when their boats are boarded and time is wasted while the inspectors check their nets; they might already have been checked in the very recent past. They could be easily be tagged to indicate that they had been looked at recently, so the lads can get back to their fishing.
On a lateral issue, I would like the Minister to consider Filipino fishermen, who are a welcome addition on the west coast. They are liked, wanted and needed there. I have been in talks with the Filipino ambassador about this. I hope that the Minister can use his position in Government to impress on the UK Border Agency just how important these fishermen are. The immigration Minister was helpful earlier in the year in ensuring an extension when there was a threat of having some of these fishermen removed from the country, but the immigration advisory council has delayed re-categorisation, so we still need a bridging period until this matter can be sorted out. I hope the Minister will ensure that if any fishermen return to the Faroes for the Christmas period, they will be allowed to come back. This issue also affects the processing sector; if these fishermen are not there to catch the fish, there will be no jobs in the processing sector, because the boats will tie up without them.
I wish the Minister well at the talks—the annual horse-trading, as it is dubbed. Let me say that it might be easier for him if he had alongside him the ally of an independent Scotland, which might happen in the not- too-distant future. Finally, I would welcome the Minister to Stornoway at any time in the near future.
I should like to thank our two Front-Bench spokesmen with all the venom and sarcasm I can muster for limiting Back-Bench contributions down to what is now more likely to be a shopping list than a speech; so I had better get on with it.
I praise the Minister and all concerned for the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009—an excellent example of how well we can legislate.
I urge the recreational angling sector to participate in the excellent “Your Seas, Your Voice” campaign, which it was my privilege to launch the other week in Westminster. It seeks public and stakeholder involvement in the identification of these important marine conservation zones. It is important that all stakeholders contribute to ensuring that we have conservation zones in the right places for the right objectives.
The Minister will have heard me say this before, but I would like to press him on the new IFCAs—inshore fisheries and conservation authorities—and ensure that sea angling is properly represented on them, as it was woefully under-represented on the old sea fisheries committees.
I thank the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) for his support for the Angling Trust. It is true that I launched it in January and that he was in the audience. I was pleased to see him there. For the first time, the Angling Trust has got its act together for the world of recreational angling and has actually produced a briefing for Members of Parliament—100 years too late, but a new first. Many of us will be thankful for that.
In exchanges on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, the Minister gave a commitment to revisit the appalling decision of his predecessor on bass minimum landing sizes. I would like some timetable from him as to when that decision is to be reviewed. Alongside the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, we have finally seen the implementation of the salmon and freshwater fisheries review. New fish removal byelaws are being put in place and special measures are being taken to protect freshwater eels, which are fast becoming an endangered species. Separately, we have seen fish passage regulations and regulations in respect of hydropower to ensure that migrating fish can make their passage up river to the spawning grounds—an issue to which I shall shortly return.
Secondly, it was my privilege to participate in the launch of the Our Rivers campaign, with which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) was also involved. It was a joint initiative from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Angling Trust and the WWF. That campaign highlights the fact that we are likely to miss dramatically the target that we need to meet under the water framework directive, which is for the majority of our rivers to have a good ecological status. At present only 20 per cent. of them have that status. There has been severe criticism of the 11 regional management plans presented by the Environment Agency. There has been a lack of effective stakeholder engagement and a lack of ambition. Those points were teased out in an Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on 13 May.
I share part of the River Kennet with the hon. Member for Newbury. We have seen increased turbidity in the river as a result of the opening of the Kennet and Avon canal, increased abstraction as a result of increased demand, point source pollution, and a prevalence of invasive species such as signal crayfish, which are decimating fish stocks. Some crayfish will actually lie under the vent of a spawning fish, eating the eggs as they emerge and thus preventing all opportunities for the recruitment of new fish.
I was disappointed by Ofwat’s draft determination, and also by the marginally better final determination that was published last week. I made serious criticisms of Ofwat—particularly in respect of the Thames Water region—for failing to take account of the need for continuing increased investment in dealing with waste water and sewage and tackling leakage, and, incredibly, failing to address the necessity of examining the impacts of climate change. It is true that Ofwat has allowed some significant investment. The Thames Tideway tunnel will make a major contribution, and despite the half-witted opposition of people such as Shaun Bailey and the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham, Stephen Greenhalgh, I believe it will make a radical difference. However, I worry about whether there will be sufficient investment in the 300-odd smaller sewage works which have an impact on Thames tributaries, including the Kennet.
The current situation is ludicrous. On the one hand, we are seeking to ensure that migratory fish can run the rivers and reach the spawning grounds. On the other, Natural England talks of reintroducing the beaver, the one creature which, by creating dams, will ensure that all our legislation on fish passes becomes absolutely worthless. If we really have to introduce endangered species, why do we not take the DNA of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the wolf and bring them back to Britain? There must come a point at which reality impinges on what Natural England—
Like other Members, I am conscious of the time, so I shall restrict my remarks to a shopping list consisting of a few items. It is unfortunate that we have to do so, because there are bigger issues at stake which deserve the time of the House. It is nothing short of scandalous that we are not able to give them proper ventilation.
As the Minister prepares for the European Union- Norway talks, and subsequently the December Council, let me impress on him again the importance of preserving the mackerel allocation that we currently enjoy. The pelagic fleet is of supreme importance to communities such as Shetland which are highly dependent on fishing. The mackerel is probably the single most important element of the species available to those fishermen, and it should not be used as a pawn in some wider game with Norway. I have observed with some frustration the breakdown in international co-operation in that regard, which has seemed simply to disappear.
The Minister will recall discussions last year about haddock. That remains a problem for fishermen on the west coast of Scotland, particularly on Orkney, and it seems that we are still far from a solution. However, the situation relating to the west coast quota will be greatly ameliorated if the Minister is able to preserve for the EU the 65 per cent. allocation of the total allowable catch of haddock around Rockall that we currently enjoy. Of course, that should never have been put beyond EU waters. It is nonsensical that haddock and other deep-water species are not party to EU waters, but that is an issue for another day.
The fishermen whom I represent are particularly concerned about the effect of the 90 per cent. cod quota uptake. When fishermen hit the 90 per cent. allocation, they are required to start using separator gear. That means that they now cannot fish the last 10 per cent.—they are unable to fish up to the full quota. That may be a technical point, but I hope the Minister will accept that it is important and take it to the negotiating table.
On the shopping list, may I draw to the attention of the House the importance of megrim? When I first started taking part in these debates some eight years ago, it was a species about which we hardly spoke at all, if at all. It is now one of the most important North sea species for the whitefish fleet. About 97 per cent. of the catch in the North sea comes to the United Kingdom, and about 80 per cent. of it comes to Scotland, and just about all of it is landed in Scotland. It has become enormously important, and it is deserving of a degree of attention this year—and, I am sure, in years to come—that it has not, perhaps, had in the past. May I also remind the Minister of the importance of monkfish? Brevitatis causa, I ask him to take on board my comments on that subject in previous fishing debates.
We are now entering one of the most important phases of the coming years, as we look towards the reform of the common fisheries policy. As the Minister knows, I have a concern that while the Green Paper’s analysis of the problem is welcome, it does not seem to accept the Commission’s central role in creating that problem. In particular, I have a concern that the Commission seems to think that overcapacity is universal throughout the European Union, but it is not; the Scottish fleet, and in particular the Scottish whitefish fleet, have already experienced drastic decommissioning. We must be given the fullest possible credit for that as we go forward in the reform process.
I can also be mercifully brief. I simply want to make three representations on behalf of the fishermen of the far south-west, who see the reform of the common fisheries policy as an opportunity to put in place a far better system for preserving fish stocks and supporting our fishing industry.
On discards, I have already mentioned the voluntary trial that is taking place among several trawlermen operating out of the west country. They are experimenting with mesh sizes and changing gear so that fish they are not seeking to catch have an opportunity to be released before the nets come to the surface. As I have mentioned, early results show a 60 per cent. reduction in discards. The fishermen are doing this voluntarily, and they say that they would like more such schemes to be developed in future. However, there needs to be an incentive in the form of some kind of enhanced quota when such cutting-edge measures are being introduced. I hope the Minister will take that on board in his negotiations with our European Union counterparts.
My second point is about the quota system. It currently runs rigidly from 1 January to 31 December. My local fishermen tell me that far greater advantage could be won by having a more flexible system, such as the system for milk quotas, where both surpluses and amounts not yet used can be carried forward for at least one year over the 31 December deadline—the expression they have used is banking and borrowing. I hope the Minister will take that on board, because in future there must be a more flexible system than we have had in the past.
Thirdly, as we have heard, good science makes for successful quotas. We need more scientists to go out on board the boats and more accurate surveying to be done, so the science and the fishermen interact more closely. I support the introduction of marine coastal zones; they are an excellent way forward. However, there needs to be full engagement and proper consultation with the fishing industry. I am sure the Minister intends that to take place.
In the past, we have had a top-down, bureaucratic, heavy-handed EU system that, frankly, has delivered the worst of all worlds: the devastation of our fishing industry, while not really preserving our fish stocks. The future must be all about flexibility and devolved decision making, and it will certainly include technical means to reduce discards with a benefit to fishermen, banking and borrowing, and better science to get quotas right. In short, we need to trust the fishermen and build a partnership with them.
I was delighted to learn that on 12 August this Minister was the first UK Fisheries Minister to visit Northern Ireland in more than 10 years. I can assure him that he was very welcome. He heard for himself that the Irish sea fishermen consider themselves to be the poor relations of fishermen from other parts of the United Kingdom. I understand that he was told in no uncertain terms when he visited Portavogie that issues concerning the Irish sea should be at the top of the UK fisheries team’s agenda for this autumn’s negotiations. The increases in the cod quota in the North sea are good news for fishermen based in other parts of the UK, and are of course welcome, but what are the proposals for 2010 in respect of the Irish sea? I think that they are unjustified proposals made by Europe that will have an impact on Northern Ireland’s fishermen.
I wish to discuss the proposal for area 7 prawns. One matter that has frustrated me over the years has been the disagreement between fishermen and fisheries scientists about the state of fish stocks in the Irish sea. Yet I am delighted to learn that on prawns there is complete agreement between fishermen, fisheries scientists and officials; prawns are described as being fished “sustainably”. Underwater camera surveys show a stable population—in fact, they have shown a significant increase in the Irish sea in 2009. This year’s catches have broken all records, yet the Commission has proposed a 30 per cent. reduction in the quota, following a 17 per cent. increase three years ago. Of course the question we ask is, why?
The Minister needs to be aware—he certainly has been made aware—of the social and economic consequences if any of those cuts are agreed. I agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) on this. The County Down coast in Northern Ireland is home to the commercial industry, and Kilkeel is the largest of the fishing ports, being a town of about 6,500 people. Some 12 months ago it had three major employers, but unfortunately two of those have seen a dramatic collapse in their business because of the economic slowdown, resulting in hundreds of jobs being lost. The fishing industry is, thus, vital. Fishing is a traditional, locally owned industry and it is the last bastion of employment in Kilkeel and the other communities in the area, and if the December Fisheries Council agrees to any reduction in the prawn quota, that last bastion of employment will fall. That would be disastrous for the economic well-being of those communities, so I beg the Minister to ensure that that is not allowed to happen. He knows that he has the entire Northern Ireland team behind him: the Minister in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, her officials, the fisheries scientists, and the entire industry. Following a recent debate in the Assembly, everyone, including all those from Northern Ireland in this House, oppose any reduction in the prawn quota. As far as we are concerned, this is a red line issue for Northern Ireland.
Let us consider other issues briefly. I know that the Minister has acknowledged to industry representatives that when he signed up to the long-term cod recovery plan on 19 November 2008 the plan was flawed, and in the intervening 12 months, even more flaws have been identified. That, unfortunately, is an expensive mistake, with which we are going to have to live for another two years. The proposed quota reductions in respect of whiting and sole are disappointing, and greater scientific emphasis needs to be put on the impact of other factors affecting fish population.
In the midst of all this, it is good to have some positive news from the Irish sea. A roll-over of the haddock quota is good news, as is the proposed 15 per cent. increase in the plaice quota. The latest scientific report advocating a 15 per cent. increase in the Irish sea herring quota must be pursued with vigour and a quota increase must be ensured. We wish the Minister well in his deliberations and I can assure him that he has the support of Members from Northern Ireland. I trust that he will bat for our industry and its survival in Northern Ireland.
We are almost at the last-chance saloon and we have to get common fisheries policy reform right this time—it is almost certainly the last chance for fish and for fishermen. I wish to echo the consensus across both sides of the House about the need to move away from the centralised system of decision making by the Commission in Brussels and towards a decentralised system based on regional management committees. Such committees would involve fishermen, scientists and fishery managers from the member states. Only by decentralising decisions down to the lower level will we ever get a system that sustains both fish and fishermen.
In the short time available to me, I want to raise some of the issues that concern my constituents. In the waters off Argyll and Bute, nephrops are by far the main species that are caught. Of immediate concern to local fishermen are the Commission’s proposals for year-on-year cuts in the days at sea of the nephrops fishery. If the restrictions come into effect, fishing will become unprofitable for many vessels.
Nephrops stocks have been shown to be stable and healthy over a long period of time, but the Commission’s cod recovery plan and its concerns about cod by-catch have serious implications for the nephrops fisheries. Those concerns are the reason why the Commission wants year-on-year cuts in the days at sea spent by the nephrops fleet.
There is an exemption from the cuts in days at sea for vessels whose catch is made up of less than 1.5 per cent. cod, but in practice fishing vessels have encountered great difficulty in obtaining it. The Clyde Fishermen’s Association has told me that many vessels have proven observed data that show that their catches are made up of less than 1.5 per cent. cod, yet the Commission will not accept that evidence and exempt the vessels from the days-at-sea restriction.
The Commission is taking the approach that it will allow exemptions from effort restrictions only if a Swedish grid is fitted to the nephrops trawls. However, its insistence on the use of the Swedish grid does not take account of the measures already successfully employed to reduce the cod by-catch to less than 1.5 per cent. The grid has also been shown to be dangerous to handle, especially in bad weather, and trials have raised doubts about its effectiveness.
Further reductions in days at sea would force many vessels out of business, so it is important that the Minister and his Scottish counterpart make sure at the coming negotiations that the Swedish grid is done away with and that agreement is reached with the Commission so that there is a sustainable and transparent method of measuring the 1.5 per cent. level. Unless exemptions are gained, many fishermen in my constituency will go out of business. That is just one example of how centralised control in Brussels simply does not work.
I wish the Minister all the best at the Council, and hope that he will negotiate a sensible way to measure the 1.5 per cent. cod by-catch level.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) was right to emphasise the Commission’s Green Paper which shows the disaster that the fishing industry has become, with 88 per cent. of European stocks being fished beyond their maximum sustainable yields. He was also right to say that it is important to look at these matters from the consumer’s point of view and, given that I represent Croydon, Central, I guess that that is the role that I am playing.
McDermotts restaurant in Croydon is one of the best fish restaurants in the south-east, and we also have the convenience of Top Fries. That may seem whimsical, but it is important to recognise that the fishing industry’s impact goes all the way down to the high street, because it helps to keep the lights on in retail district centres.
We need to adopt a more radical approach to fishing policy. As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) said, we need a system based on effort and not on the quotas that are so destructive. My suggestion is for a rather more dirigiste approach—a vessel monitoring system in which all vessels carry global positioning system technology so that the amount of time at sea can be restricted. Another possibility is the introduction of an electronic auction system, with operators buying the right to fish a given area for a set number of hours. That might be a more aggressive and determined approach, but I believe that Croydon residents who see the ecological disaster that is taking place think that such strong intervention is needed.
I am surprised that I have so much time in which to speak. I will rattle though my speech, and I apologise to the House if the opening Front-Bench contributions were too long. I, too, would have welcomed more time for the debate.
I thank hon. Members for making thoughtful contributions, as they always do in such debates. We have covered CFP reform in all its myriad guises, and I welcome the common agreement in the House on the need for radical reform. I reiterate that the UK Government intend to continue to be right at the front end of that reform.
I welcome the ideas that have been put forward. The common themes that we heard included the need to move away from micro-management—I agree that it is absolutely bizarre that Ministers should sit into the early hours making decisions on twine thickness—and the requirement for fisheries’ involvement that is based on good evidence and good science. With the continued support of hon. Members, I hope that we will be successful on some of those matters.
Many priorities have been suggested for the December Council, just as there were many asks during my earlier meeting with fisheries representatives from the whole of the UK. The EU-Norway negotiations will be important for mackerel, as well as for wider issues. The negotiations will be far more difficult this year, but we will continue to engage and fight hard on behalf of the UK’s interests, including the interests of the devolved Administrations.
We have heard about the importance of the fleet to coastal communities and the divergent nature of our fleet in communities. We have also reflected on the importance of fisheries to processing and ancillary industries.
I must stress the need to work together. There is a strong and effective working relationship among Ministers in the devolved Administrations and me, as the England and UK Fisheries Minister. When we work together and speak with one voice on CFP reform and other negotiations, the UK’s position is stronger. It is important that we recognise that and ensure that we take that approach at all times, as we do.
Good science and partnerships between science and fisheries are also important. As the weeks and months go by, I hope that we will have more ideas about how we can build on what is already being done well, including in the areas of hon. Members who have spoken. I talk to fishermen, and I sent some a video message in the past few days to congratulate them on the work that they were doing.
We have heard about the importance of the wide remit for people on the sea, including recreational sea anglers. We have also heard about the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, special areas of conservation and special protection areas, and the way to engage wide interests on the ground, including with regard to fisheries. Discards have also been discussed—we have heard about many issues in the contributions of hon. Members, for which I thank them.
We have largely sung from the same hymn sheet, but I cannot conclude without drawing attention to several discordant notes—I suspect that we are heading into the party political season—and I must correct some errors that were made. Unfortunately, although he made a good contribution, by and large, all the errors were in the speech by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon).
The hon. Gentleman was factually incorrect by referring to the environmentally responsible fishing pilot scheme as a stock assessment scheme. The ERF pilot was designed to provide evidence on the environmental and economic impact of segments of the onshore fleet—it was not a stock assessment scheme. It has provided hugely valuable data, and the findings will be published in due course. The scheme was originally meant to run from 6 August 2008 until 15 August 2009. In July, I made the decision to extend the scheme with the existing participants. Fishermen were warned in July, however, that the scheme could close at any time, and we closed it because we had obtained sufficient evidence. The data were being analysed on an ongoing basis, and we knew that the participation catch levels were higher than anticipated. In the interests of sustainable fisheries, I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that when a Minister recognises such a thing, he should stop a scheme.
Let me correct the hon. Gentleman’s point about quota. Under the Hague preference, we gave some quota to the under-10 metres and some to the over-10 metres. Under the decommissioning scheme, however, it all went to the under-10s. He seemed to mix up latent capacity and unused quota, which is important for producers’ organisations and some of the over-10s. They distribute that, including through swaps to the under-10s, and it is important that there is such flexibility.
The MMO has been fully engaged, and that process will be a success. The unions regularly come through my door. They will continue to do so, and I would hope that the hon. Gentleman would extend that invitation to them. I must congratulate him on summing up the Government’s achievements—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).