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East Coast Inshore Fishing Fleet

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 14 October 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Wright.)

I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to debate the future of the east coast inshore fishing fleet. This matter is of great importance, both to the fishing fleet in Lowestoft, in my constituency, and to other ports along the east coast and elsewhere in Britain. Although there is much wrong with the way in which the industry is governed today, I shall say from the outset that I exempt from any criticism the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is responsible for the natural environment and fisheries.

As a shadow Minister and now as a Minister, my hon. Friend has spent a great deal of time travelling around the coast, meeting and listening to fishermen, hearing at first hand their worries and subsequently doing what he can to address their concerns. That includes obtaining additional sole quota in August when the east coast fleet had no fish to catch. Last month, he and I met Lowestoft fishermen and discussed with them the problems that they face, and he subsequently came back with considerable speed to arrange for a delegation of fishermen from Lowestoft to meet him in Whitehall in December to discuss their plight more fully.

Much of Lowestoft, as it stands today, was built on the back of the fishing industry. As well as a substantial deep sea fleet, a network of supporting industries grew up, including shipbuilding, net and rope manufacturing and processing factories. Ross Foods has long since gone, though Birds Eye remains as an important employer, despite no longer processing fish from its factory in the town. The railway used to run into the fish market, and fish sold in the morning was on London dinner tables in the evening. “Fresh fish from Lowestoft” was and still is an evocative cry, although sometimes today it rings hollow because the fishing industry is much diminished and is facing a fight for its very survival. Most of the deep sea trawlers have long gone, as have all but one of the shipyards and many of the supporting industries. However, an inshore fleet remains, which, with the right policy framework, can not only survive, but flourish.

I am conscious that time is short, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I shall set out the problems that the fleet faces, not only in Lowestoft but along the east coast, and conclude with a few thoughts on how a sustainable and financially viable long-term future can be secured.

Inshore fishermen face five problems. First, the common fisheries policy is over-centralised and fails to respond to local needs. It is too cumbersome, unwieldy and centralised, and the forthcoming review in 2012 provides an opportunity to address the problem.

Secondly, the regime palpably fails to achieve its prime objective of conserving fish stocks and causes untold damage to the marine environment. Young fish are caught before they mature and there are inadequate incentives for the long-term management of stocks. Thirdly, the British under-10 metre fleet gets a raw deal, despite making up 85% of the British fishing fleet.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister has inherited a disastrous problem with the under-10 metre quota? The previous Labour Government introduced fixed quota allocations, pinned the under-10 metre quota to a grossly underestimated figure and then failed to address the situation when it came to light with the registration of buyers and sellers. Our Minister has inherited a problem arising from the inaction of the Labour party when it was in government.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree that the Minister has inherited an unenviable problem. There is a common perception that all fishermen have overfished the sea and are now reaping their own whirlwind. However, it is important to distinguish between deep sea trawlers and the inshore fleet, which fishes sustainably with long lines.

The quota system, which is meant to conserve fish stocks, has spawned the obscene practice of discards. Fishermen go out to sea and once they have reached their quota they throw back perfectly healthy fish that they cannot land owing to the threat of criminal prosecution hanging over their heads. A Lowestoft fisherman has told me how only two weeks ago in five days he had to throw back dead 1,300 kg of skate; eight other similar sized boats have probably been forced to do the same. That makes 11,700 kg of dead skate thrown back into the sea in just five days—11.5 tonnes in one fishery. When one takes into account the fact that this is happening all around the British coast, one realises that the waste, destruction and pouring of money into the sea is mindboggling. In that fisherman’s own words, the system not only stops him making a living and making long-term business investment plans but is decimating a national resource. If he was allowed to land just 20% of his discards, he could cover his expenses instead of operating at a substantial loss.

The final problem that we face is that quota has become a tradeable commodity, with legal entitlement. It is often owned by faceless investors, known as slipper skippers, who have no connection with the fishing industry and who lease the quota to fishermen at a substantial profit. That should be contrasted with the sugar beet regime, where ownership of quota remains with British Sugar, which makes it available to individual farmers both large and small.

The problems have created a frankly ridiculous and unsustainable situation. As I mentioned earlier, most of the deep sea-trawlers have left Lowestoft. However they still operate and fish the same grounds, although, as the quota was sold to a Belgian, the boats are now based in Belgium. Now and then the boats come to rest in Lowestoft, where the catch is unloaded and driven by lorry to Belgium or Holland. Much of it is then bought by Lowestoft-based processors and driven or flown back.

That is the position in which the inshore fishing fleet finds itself today. If the regime remains unchanged, the fleet, both in Lowestoft and elsewhere around the UK coast, will cease to exist. It is important to remember that just as farmers are the guardians of the land, fishermen are the custodians of the sea. None of them wishes to be aboard the vessel that catches the last fish. They all have an interest in creating and managing sustainable fisheries.

There is a solution, there is a way forward and there is a better way of running the industry. I do not have the answers and nor do the bureaucrats or officials, but I know the people who do: the fishermen, the scientists and the others who work in the industry.

Let me set out five ways in which the situation can be improved. They are based on proposals made by the WWF and those running the east sea fisheries district. First, there must be a move from the current top-down micro-management. The EU’s role should be to set high-level objectives. The Commission should not get involved in the day-to-day management of fisheries around such a large and diverse continent.

That takes me to my second point: the day-to-day management should be carried out locally by fishermen, scientists such as CEFAS—the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which has its headquarters in Lowestoft—and representatives from the Marine Management Organisation and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. These are the people who know the fisheries best. Such an approach, with management decisions being taken by those who are involved in each specific fishery, is very much the big society in action. It involves politicians getting out of the way, departing the scene and leaving those who know best to run their own industry.

Thirdly, the quota system should be relaxed and replaced with a maximum hours-at-sea means of maintaining fish stocks and controlling fishing. That will eliminate discards with fishing hours being varied over a year to take account of the level of stocks and weather conditions. If necessary, fisheries can be closed when stocks run low.

Fourthly, it is important to use science in the future management of fisheries, both monitoring the amount of fish caught and recording fishing activity. For example, a vessel monitoring system—a VMS—could be fitted to all vessels that would provide detailed information on the state and seasonality of individual fisheries. That will help provide better information to assist in marine planning decisions, not only on fishing but on wind farms, dredging and marine conservation zones.

Finally, I am mindful of the fact that today the North sea is an increasingly crowded place. As well as fishing grounds, there are shipping lanes, dredging areas and wind farms. The latter have an important role to play in Lowestoft’s future, but more about that on another day.

It is important that the marine environment is managed sustainably and responsibly. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 provides a framework for that, although it is important that decision making takes place locally, that all interested parties are involved and that decisions are made promptly with the benefit of all the facts that science can provide.

At the current time, the outlook for the fishing industry in Lowestoft and along the east coast does not appear bright. In the past, however, Lowestoft has adapted to change and has bounced back. The challenge that politicians across Europe must address as a matter of the highest priority is to provide a proper policy framework in which the inshore fleet can rejuvenate itself and move forward, providing a fair living for all those working in it. The comments of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, which were reported in today’s Financial Times, provide encouragement that the seriousness of the situation is now appreciated.

The Sam Cole Food Group, fourth-generation Lowestoft fish merchants, has recently made a bold decision and invested £2.5 million in a new processing factory. We owe it to those fish merchants and all those working in the fishing industry in Lowestoft and elsewhere around the British coast to do all that we can to reverse 30 years of decline in an industry that is at the heart of this island nation. I personally will not sit back and rest until a fishing regime that has almost destroyed the Lowestoft fishing industry is itself discarded and thrown overboard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) has made an excellent speech and his five key points were precise. I have little to add, other than my constituency interest and that of the neighbouring constituency, Canterbury, which includes Whitstable.

In the past couple of months, the Minister and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have bent over backwards to assist us in resolving the quota problem that we experienced this summer, and I thank them for their work. However, we are approaching the end of this year, when we will start the new allocation of quota for next year. I know that the Minister will assist us again, but that situation reveals the byzantine, unworkable system with which the fishermen, the Department and the authorities must work.

We all realise that the big prize is the reform of the common fisheries policy. On the inshore fleet, my local fishermen and I believe that some important measures need to be considered. If we can reopen the issue of controlling effort and examine technical measures rather than more prescriptive forms of management of our fisheries, my fishermen and many others along the east coast will be extremely grateful.

I rise to declare an interest, because I have spoken in this debate. I am the wife of a trawler owner. My husband’s trawler bears the registration “LT1”, which was originally from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). My husband owns one of the vessels that has been displaced from Lowestoft, so I have seen how the port has declined over a number of years.

Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this welcome debate on the future of the under-10 metre fishing fleet. He represents his fishing fleet extremely well and is an assiduous lobbyer on its behalf, so it is lucky to have him. That is also the case for my hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), and for many other, often new, Members, who have taken on board the needs of and the problems facing their fishing communities with commendable spirit.

I have made no secret of the fact that the issues facing this part of the fleet are particularly challenging, as has been discussed tonight. I am personally committed to improving fisheries management for the inshore fleet, but that will require difficult decisions and have implications for all parts of the industry. It is therefore crucial that we all work together as part of the big society, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, to develop effective and practical solutions.

My hon. Friend mentioned Sam Cole, the fish merchant in his constituency, whom I have visited twice now thanks to his good offices. I have been struck by an important statistic that has stayed with me as I have gone around the coast in this job: of the fish that Sam Cole’s father or grandfather—whoever started that business—sold, 90% used to be landed in Lowestoft and 10% used to be bought in, but those percentages are now precisely the reverse, and that has changed in a very few years. I am delighted that he is investing in the town and in this important industry, and I wish him and his fellow traders in the port well. I hope that there will still be a fleet there to represent at least part of what he seeks to sell.

There are two strands to this subject: what we need to do now, which is to provide some relief to the immediate issues, and what we need to do in the long term, which is to move the whole fleet, around the coast, towards a more sustainable future. In the current economic climate and with the downbeat prognosis for quota allocations in the coming year, all sectors of the UK fleet are finding things difficult, and things are likely to get tougher in the short term. I shall not hide from that fact. I will go to the December Council negotiations with the aim of securing the best deal for the whole UK fleet, but it is unlikely that the quota allocations will be higher than last year’s. However, I believe that we can take further steps together towards maximising the potential wealth from this quota, as has been demonstrated by the recent success in securing additional quota for the under-10 metre fleet by collaborative working between the Marine Management Organisation and producer organisations. I shall continue to push for more of that. I am grateful to hon. Members who have mentioned this, and I pay tribute to the new MMO, which has worked extremely hard with hon. Members and fishermen to ensure that the fisheries could stay open this summer.

It is imperative that while trying to provide short-term relief, we continue to focus on the future. I have been delighted with the progress that has been made towards our long-term goal of a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable inshore fleet in the relatively short time that I have been in my post. The sustainable access to inshore fisheries, or SAIF, project was established by the last Government to help to achieve that goal, and I have built on the work that they set in train. I welcome the recommendations that were recently made by the advisory group, which has not shied away from addressing the big questions. I have been particularly impressed by the willingness shown by the inshore and offshore sectors in coming together to discuss a range of issues relating to the reform of inshore fisheries management in an informal working group. That valuable insight from industry, along with extensive research into the environmental, economic and social impacts of the inshore fleet, is feeding into the SAIF project, which aims to consult on proposals for reform in the new year.

Any changes to the way in which our fisheries are managed both inshore and offshore will be more effective if they are implemented across the UK, and we are working with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations to share ideas and disseminate best practice. The SAIF work is also crucial in developing our negotiating position on reform of the common fisheries policy, helping to crystallise our thinking in relation to more localised management, self-regulation, differentiated management regimes, rights-based management and safeguarding the potential benefits of the small-scale fleet. CFP reform will play a crucial role in setting the framework for sustainable fishing, but there is much that we can do within our existing system, and we are taking action now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waverey mentioned discards, which are a waste of natural resources. They are as much an affront to fishermen as they are to consumers. In fact, they are probably more of an affront to fishermen, who, in a hungry world, have to carry out the hideous task of throwing perfectly edible fish back into the sea, dead, never to be eaten by any human being. That is a ridiculous product of a failed and bankrupted system, and a real example of why we have to change the common fisheries policy. I am committed to minimising discards. I say so with regret, because I want to eliminate them, but I recognise that although we must set our sights high, in the short term we must be realistic and seek to minimise discards. I shall therefore push strongly to bring about those changes to the CFP which in time will achieve that aim.

Within the UK we have already made great progress in demonstrating the potential to reduce discards through more selective gears and fishing methods. The current catch quota project aims to pilot an alternative management system based on catch rather than landings quotas, thereby removing the need for excessive regulation and bureaucracy. It puts the responsibility on fishermen to use their knowledge and skills to fish more selectively to optimise the value of their catch. I hope that as the project progresses, we will be able to build on that and involve more parts of the fleet. The new Fishing for the Market project is also looking at how we can maximise the wealth from all, and often discarded, parts of the catch.

The low-cost vessel monitoring project involves scientists and fishermen working together to improve data collection. That is important, too, because since shadowing this job and now doing it I have discovered that around many parts of our coast there is a gulf in understanding between fishermen and scientists. There is good practice, much of it in the south-west, but elsewhere, too, where scientists and fishermen now work closely, and I want to encourage that in any way I can.

The introduction of inshore fisheries and conservation authorities will strengthen the local management of fisheries, based on greater self-determination by those who make a living from the sea. We want to ensure that fishermen are well represented on those authorities. The strategy developed in the SAIF project will provide the basis for a more sustainable fleet, enabling solutions so those other issues are addressed. Reform of fisheries management must empower fishermen and their local communities to take control of their destinies. We need to move away from arbitrary divisions within the industry to a more unified system where more local needs can be reflected.

Some of the themes being discussed in the CFP reform can have a real impact, and they include rights-based management and regionalisation. I know that uncertainty breeds fear in an industry that has suffered greatly over the years, but as we develop our thoughts, in consultation at every stage with the inshore fleet and the fleet around the whole of the UK, I hope that a degree of trust—something that has been absent for too long—can be built, together with the real belief that we can turn a corner and make a real difference to the livelihoods of small coastal fleets, such as the Lowestoft fleet in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and those elsewhere.

Places such as Lowestoft have a strong fishing tradition and strong community support for the industry. They are already building the foundations needed to thrive under a reformed system. I again thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I welcome his enthusiasm for supporting his local fishing industry. I note his five solutions; they have been listened to and they will be reflected on as we progress.

I am delighted to be able to end on a positive note with congratulations to my hon. Friend and to his neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who have worked hard to help to achieve and secure a £1.2 million grant from England’s European fisheries fund to support a major development at the Southwold port. I understand that it is not specifically in his constituency, but in the same fisheries area. I want to encourage and applaud that kind of working together of colleagues in this House, pushing for projects that give a sustainable future for their industries. I hope that by working together we can secure a future that will see developments that benefit fishermen for generations to come.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.