Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Robert Goodwill.)
It is my great privilege to open this afternoon’s debate on fisheries, and I am grateful to see so many hon. Members, who I suspect have postponed rather arduous journeys home to far-flung parts of the UK to be here. I am very grateful to them all.
With the EU Fisheries Council talks less than two weeks away and with officials, I believe, already in Bergen ahead of the talks, this is a timely and very necessary debate. It is likely that we are facing reductions in total allowable catches for some of our key stocks in the year ahead. That means that, in spite of having made substantial progress in conservation, certain parts of our fishing industry are facing a very bleak outlook next year.
As I am sure most Members would agree, fishing is part of the DNA of our coastal communities. It is a multi-million pound industry, and it employs thousands of people—5,500 people in Scotland alone. In addition, fishing directly supports many more thousands of jobs onshore, in processing, retail, supply, maintenance, boat building and so on.
However, we must remember that fishing remains an inherently dangerous and demanding occupation that takes place in a hostile marine environment. Last year, 13 men on UK-registered fishing vessels lost their lives. It is important today that we remember them; that we express our condolences to their families and communities, and that we pay tribute to the Fishermen’s Mission, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, our coastguards and all those who offer support to our fishermen in their hour of need.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to lead this debate today, so I am disappointed that it is not taking place on the Floor of the House. In my view, it is very important that the Government should have the chance to inform our discussions this afternoon by setting out their priorities for the EU negotiations. Nevertheless, I hope that we will have a full and productive debate.
As I am sure Members are well aware, this year’s EU talks are taking place against the backdrop of ongoing consultation on reform of the common fisheries policy. At the outset, I think that we have to acknowledge that the CFP is an abject failure. It has failed the fishing industry, it has failed as a conservation strategy and it has failed our coastal communities.
The significant challenges that we now face have to be seen in the context of a CFP that, for more than 30 years, has been systematically damaging our marine environment, systematically undermining the livelihoods of those who seek to earn a living from the sea and has been inconsistently applied across the member states of the EU. It is simply not fit for purpose. It is my belief that we will not realise an economically and environmentally sustainable fishing industry until the CFP is consigned to history and replaced with a workable model of fisheries management.
There is growing consensus in the fishing industry among fishing leaders, fishermen, scientists and environmental non-governmental organisations, that a regionalised approach offers a better way forward than the “one-size-fits-nobody” approach that we have at the moment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, of course, on securing this debate. With Scottish National party eyes, I perhaps see a new “Madame Ecosse” in the making—I am not sure, but we could well have another one within the party.
On the point of regionalisation, surely the way in which the CFP and fisheries are managed at the moment places restrictions on fishing west coast prawns and causes problems, because of the multiplicity of species in the sector. There is a lot of whiting in the sea that eat young prawns, but the fishermen are unable to get them, and rescue and sort out the prawn fishery. As a result, there are distortions right across Scotland, but particularly on the west coast. I wonder if my hon. Friend would address that.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that very important point about the need for a whole-ecosystem approach to fisheries management. In addition, our fishermen need the ability to plan their business on a long-term basis and certainly on a much longer-term basis than they do at the moment.
I cannot think of any other industry that is subjected to the intense degree of micro-management and annual uncertainty that the fishing industry is subjected to every year at this time. Fishing is a politically managed and politically regulated industry, and we just simply have to do better.
Fishing is very much the lifeblood of the coastal communities I represent, which include Peterhead, Europe’s premier white fish port, and Fraserburgh, Europe’s biggest shellfish port. Between them, Peterhead and Fraserburgh are also home to a large part of the UK’s pelagic fleet and home to a large processing sector. We have a very diverse industry and it does not just involve major ports such as Peterhead and Fraserburgh. In my constituency, many coastal towns and villages define themselves by their maritime traditions: Whitehills, Gardenstown, Rosehearty, Cairnbulg, Inverallochy, St Combs, and my home town of Macduff. These communities have paid a very high price for the failure of the CFP, which has essentially been a failure of political leadership.
I know that the diverse fishing industry I see in Banff and Buchan is reflected around other parts of the UK coastline. One of the advantages of having a general debate this afternoon is that it will enable Members from around these islands, I hope, to express the concerns and interests of different parts of the fishing industry that pertain to their own locale. Nevertheless, I hope that Members will understand that I myself want to focus this afternoon on a couple of issues that are of particular interest to my own local area.
Perhaps nothing symbolises the mismanagement of fisheries policy more than the present predicament of our white fish fleet in relation to the whole problem of discarding good-quality fish. Under the current regulations, nutritious and marketable food that could be landed and sold is instead thrown back dead into the sea, polluting the marine environment and needlessly depriving boats of landings that could keep them afloat financially.
On that point about discards, some fishermen from the west coast of Scotland have said to me that they feel that the increased quota restrictions, which it must be said are often called for by environmentalists, actually lead to higher discards and that it is a counter-productive way of managing fishing, with micro-management from outside the fishing industry leading to these increases in discards.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the current quota system is counter-productive with regard to discards. We have to recognise that discards happen for a number of reasons, but one of the key problems is that quotas are currently set for the amount of fish that is landed in port and not for the amount of fish that is actually caught.
I know that the Scottish fleet has worked extraordinarily hard in recent years to reduce discards. Since 2008, discards have declined by a third, which is a greater reduction than has been seen anywhere else, and it has been due in no small part to the introduction of real-time closures and the use of selective gears. However, while those have been very valuable mitigation measures, I do not think that anyone would argue that they have gone far enough. One in three cod caught in the North sea are still being discarded and discard rates are still unacceptably high. More than 14,000 tonnes of cod are still being dumped. That means that more cod is actually being dumped into the North sea than can be landed in the whole of the UK.
That is an environmental outrage, but it is also economically disastrous. In the North sea in 2009, 60,000 tonnes of white fish were landed in Scotland, worth £68 million, but the total catches amounted to 88,000 tonnes. That means that almost 28,000 tonnes—potentially up to a third of the value of the Scottish cod, haddock, whiting, saith, plaice and hake catch—were thrown back into the sea. In financial terms, we could speculate that up to £33 million-worth of good fish was dumped last year. That is a criminal waste in economic and environmental terms, and I can assure Members that nothing creates greater anger and frustration in fishing communities.
With quotas set to be reduced further, discards are actually expected to rise next year. That is why we need to take seriously the success of the catch quota pilot schemes in Scotland and Denmark, which have been running in recent years, and build on those schemes in the years ahead. Those taking part in the pilots have been freed from certain effort restrictions and awarded higher quotas in return for fully monitoring and recording their catches, and avoiding discards. Those fishermen are removing fewer fish from the sea, but they are able to land more fish. It is a win-win situation for them; it keeps the cod recovery plan on track, while rewarding fishermen who do not discard. It is also providing valuable scientific data on what is actually going on in our seas, which is no small point of controversy.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. She mentioned pilot programmes and programmes that we have had. Of course, on the west coast of Scotland we feel the great loss of the by-catch for dogfish, which I think should be looked at again. Particularly on the west coast, there is an awful lot of squid at the moment, but there are no ways for the fishermen to catch the squid. I hope that the Minister will look at enabling fishermen on the west coast of Scotland to get near that squid fishery at some point.
My hon. Friend advocates well on behalf of his constituents.
I think that it is recognised that catch quotas are no panacea for the white fish fleet. They will help to mitigate the most damaging social and economic impacts of this year’s expected quota cuts and reduce discard levels further, allowing our fishermen to catch less and land more, but in order to take things to the next level, we need the opportunity to trial a mixed-species catch quota option. The North sea is really a mixed fishery, and we need to consider the ecosystem as a whole. I hope that the UK Government will pursue a full catch quota system for cod in the year ahead. I also urge the Government to secure options to trial catch quotas for other species such as haddock, whiting or plaice. If fishermen are to reap the full benefits of their conservation efforts, the Government must secure changes in the management regime.
Over the past decade, the Scottish white fish fleet has more than halved as the industry has attempted to place itself on a more commercially and ecologically viable footing. We must start rewarding our fishermen for successful conservation efforts and recognise their central role in managing and conserving our fishing resources. In my experience, it is fishermen themselves who want a whole-ecosystem approach to fisheries management. They see the dangers of displacement and know only too well that cack-handed management measures have unintended consequences for them and for the marine environment.
It is also important to remember that the quota reductions likely to affect the white fish fleet next year will have a knock-on effect on processers, some of which are already under pressure from the impact of the recession on global markets and the reduced availability of quotas. In such circumstances, the argument for extending the catch quota scheme next year is compelling, and I hope that the Government will pursue it vigorously.
The other big issue that I want to address is the so-called mackerel war between Iceland and the Faroe Islands and the rest of Europe. I have welcomed previous assurances that the Minister is not minded to acquiesce to the unreasonable demands of Iceland and the Faroe Islands for huge chunks of the global mackerel quota and is keeping pressure on the European Commission not to cave in on the issue. As he knows, about 60% of the UK pelagic fleet is based in my constituency. I have been in regular contact with pelagic fishermen and their representatives during recent months, as I know he has, and they keep saying to me that they want a negotiated settlement, but not at any price.
Mackerel is the UK’s most valuable fish stock. It is also one of the most sustainably managed. Iceland and the Faroe Islands have awarded themselves quotas amounting to 37% of the total allowable catch. Their grossly irresponsible actions are jeopardising the sustainability of the stock and threatening the Marine Stewardship Council accreditation that the pelagic fleet worked so hard to achieve. Our fishermen accept that there are mackerel in Icelandic waters and that Iceland is entitled to some quota, but they argue rightly that that quota must be proportionate and in line with the long-term management plans that exist to protect the stock. There can be no doubt that the increase in mackerel in Icelandic waters is attributable to the successful implementation of conservation measures elsewhere in the North sea. I do not want that work to be undone in order to give Iceland an expedient political payoff.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the acquisition of 185,000 tonnes of mackerel is akin to piracy on the high seas and should be objected to in every forum by the Minister?
I agree 100%. In my view, appeasement of the unreasonable demands of Iceland and the Faroe Islands will lead only to further demands. The EU must not reward behaviour that has been utterly reckless in conservation terms.
We must remember that our fishermen have absolutely nothing to gain in the negotiations; they can only lose out from any deal struck. Nevertheless, they see that their own long-term interests depend on the long-term health of stocks, so they want us as politicians to hold our nerve and stand firm for a fair and equitable resolution of the issue.
On the subject of mackerel, one of the most frustrating aspects of European fisheries policy is that while our fishermen have made strenuous efforts to fish sustainably, they have seen other member states flouting the conservation targets. Spain overfished its mackerel quota by 296% last year, yet the Commission has taken no action against it. I am unable to explain to the fishermen in my constituency why fishermen in some parts of the EU can flout the rules and regulations with impunity while they face serious sanctions if they do so. I hope that the Minister will take up the issue of Spanish overfishing with the Commission and work with other member states towards more sustainable fisheries in all EU waters.
Sea fishing has the inherent potential to be both a sustainable and a profitable industry. Those goals are sometimes in tension, but I think that most people in fishing communities and the industry recognise that over the long term, they go hand in hand. Our fishing communities deserve better representation from UK Governments than they have had. Too often, fishing has been a bargaining chip in bigger negotiations. It has not had anything like the priority that it deserves. I hope that that will change. I wish the Minister well in the forthcoming round of talks, and in opening the debate this afternoon, I urge him to put the economic, environmental and social sustainability of our fishing industry and coastal communities at the heart of his Government’s approach.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on opening this debate. I echo her comments that it should be in the main Chamber and not in Westminster Hall. This is the 10th annual fisheries debate that I have attended, and it is only the second that has not been held in the main Chamber. I hope that in future years, the Backbench Business Committee will put this debate in the main Chamber, where it rightfully belongs.
As the hon. Lady said, fishing is a dangerous occupation, and it would certainly be uncomfortable to be on a fishing boat on a bitterly cold day like today. This is my 10th annual debate. Unfortunately, the issues do not change much. Agreement at these debates is always widespread that the common fisheries policy has failed and needs radical reform.
We must move away from centralised decision making by the Commission and towards a decentralised system of regional management committees involving fishermen, scientists and fisheries managers from member states. Only by decentralising decision making will we ever get a system that sustains both fish and fishermen.
I stress that we need a common fisheries policy. The actions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands on mackerel show what would happen if there were a free-for-all and each member state could do its own thing. We need a common fisheries policy, but it must be based on regional management, not centralised decision making from Brussels.
Discards are an obvious example of why the present common fisheries policy is failing both fish and fishermen. The European Commission is well aware of the problem; its cod recovery plan is based on the assumption that 30% to 40% of cod taken from the sea will be discarded. There is something wrong with a system that makes such an assumption. Decentralising decision making to those most affected by the decisions must be the way forward. Fishermen are well aware of the need to sustain stocks over the long term.
I am listening with interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about decentralising fisheries, but I have been hearing it since I came to Parliament five years ago. Nothing really happens; fishing is still controlled by the common fisheries policy at a European level. Other than national control, will we really see any change in the next five years, or will we hear further rhetoric from politicians saying that we must change?
As I explained in my speech, national control would not work either. Because Iceland and the Faroe Islands are outside the EU, they are behaving utterly irresponsibly. National control would lead to exactly the same thing. We need a common fisheries policy, but it must be based on decentralisation and determined by sea basins rather than member states’ boundaries; that is the way forward.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. This is his sixth annual debate, but it is my 10th. We must resolve the issue. I would hope that the Governments of all EU countries will recognise that and move towards a decentralised system in the next round of common fisheries policy reform. The regional advisory councils are a start, but they must be given much more power to take local decisions.
By far the most important species for fishermen living off the west coast of Scotland is nephrops. Fishermen in the area are extremely concerned by the Commission’s proposed 15% cut in total allowable catch. If implemented, it will have a terrible effect on employment in the west coast fishing industry for both fishermen and fish processing workers. Although fishing on the west coast has declined in recent years, it is still an important part of the local economy.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the 15% TAC cut in nephrops on the west coast of Scotland. Does he agree that it is also important for the under-10 metre sector that the cut is not implemented?
I agree that it is important for the entire west coast fishing fleet that the cut in TAC does not go ahead. We must remember that the proposed 15% cut would follow several cuts that have been made in recent years—a 15% cut was proposed last year and went through—so it is a reduction of more than 15% on the catch of a few years ago.
To add to the problems of the Clyde fishermen, the proposed cut in the Irish sea quota is even higher. The Clyde fishermen are concerned that sea vessels that normally fish in the Irish sea will come to the Clyde instead to fish for prawns, as has already been witnessed. The Clyde Fishermen’s Association is concerned about that and estimates that those additional vessels will increase the fishing effort in the Clyde by about 30%. That additional effort will come out of a TAC that could well be cut by 15%, so it does not take much arithmetic to work out that there will not be much quota left for Clyde-based fishermen in their home waters.
What makes those cuts even more frustrating is that nephrop stocks off the west coast are healthy. That is recognised by all. The problem that the Commission envisages is cod by-catch, but it does not appear to take into account the fact that cod by-catch resulting from fishing for nephrops is tiny. It also does not appear to take into account the other measures that have been taken to reduce by-catch. The weekend fishing ban on the Clyde, for example, further limits the days at sea, and there have recently been increases in mesh size and the introduction of the new OMEGA measuring gauge. A TAC cut of 15%, combined with the effects of stocks being taken by visiting vessels, will result in a severe blow for the Clyde fishing industry. I urge the Minister to make it his prime objective when he goes to Brussels to get that cut reversed. The TAC must remain where it is if fishing in the Clyde is to survive.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) not only on securing the debate, but on giving the shortest opening speech I have ever heard in a fisheries debate, and I have been attending them since 1987. The reason why it was so short is that she is not the Minister.
I want to preface my comments on the industry by making a point that needs to be addressed. The annual fisheries debate used to take place in the Chamber on a Government motion; that was the case long before 1987. I and many other Members assumed that that is what would happen this year, because it is an extremely important industry, as those who represent coastal communities know. I was shocked to be told when I contacted the Minister’s office that “the Department could not organise a debate.” The same words were used in a letter the Minister wrote to the hon. Lady. I was at pains to find out why that was so, particularly when it concerned such an important industry and at such an important time, just a few days before the Brussels summit.
This is not a party political point, because I am sure that the previous Government would have been just as guilty in the same circumstances, but the Government Whips seem to have taken all the departmental debates, such as this one, including the five defence days, and loaded them into the days allocated to the Backbench Business Committee for the business it proposes. It seems that what was intended to extend democracy for Back Benchers and give them more debating days has been hijacked by the Government to offload debates that were previously held in Government time.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will finish my point, because I know what the Minister is going to say. When I questioned Government Whips on that, I was told that the appropriate number of days had been allocated to the Backbench Business Committee. That might be true in a normal year—we have yet to see a normal year—but this year will not be normal because it will extend into 2012. I will say no more about that, but it is important, particularly to the fishing industry, which in many respects often seems to be a Cinderella industry.
I will set out the situation from my perspective. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that I relish the opportunity to address the House on this important issue and that there is absolutely no inclination on the Government’s part to hide from the debate. There was a debate last week in Backbench Business Committee time on the regulation of independent financial advisers. I think that today’s debate has attracted much more interest from MPs, not only those who represent coastline constituencies, but those who care about our marine environment. I hope that the strength of feeling that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, and which I and other hon. Members will express, will be pointed out to the Committee so that we can get a response.
Order. Can we get back to the matter of fishing?
I welcome the Minister’s remarks and was not targeting him specifically—
He was a by-catch.
That is a very good point. A number of Members have indicated that they want to speak, so I will say no more on that point. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan covered many of the points that I wanted to cover, so I do not intend to say much. I hope that we will have an opportunity to hear the Minister give his review of the year and set out the Government’s plans and the position they will take at the Fisheries Council meeting on 13 December on all the important issues that will be raised today.
The general point I want to make is that it has been a difficult year for the fishing industry. The hon. Lady mentioned that 13 fishermen have been lost at sea this year, and every year that figure is shockingly high. It is the most unsafe of all the industries in the UK. I know that the industry makes serious attempts to improve its safety record, but the problem tends to lie with individual vessels, and it is difficult to enforce safety measures. I do not know how we can get the message across, but we need to do much more to improve safety.
The pelagic fisheries have been mentioned, and there is a serious problem in that regard. The idea that one country can put a gun to the head of the whole of Europe, in the way that the Icelanders seem to be doing to get whatever they want—I am not quite sure what they want—is a serious problem. We had the opportunity in the all-party group on fisheries to meet representatives of the Scottish pelagic fisheries, who made it clear how difficult that is for the industry and how much they want to see the problem resolved, but not through concessions to Iceland.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make his own contribution.
Another serious problem this year, particularly for the Scottish fleet, has been the Isle of Man’s decision to limit scallop fishing. Financial pressures are beginning to tell. I am told that up to 41 vessels from the white fish fleet—almost a third of a fleet of 120—are likely to be decommissioned over the next year, which is a sign of the difficulty imposed on the fleet by the limited fishing opportunities allowed by the current CFP arrangements. The Seafood Scotland website, which I looked at while preparing for the debate, reported in news releases for June and July this year that, for a number of vessels, nearly all the days at sea had been used up, so the end of year fishing will be limited. That puts pressure on other links in the chain of the fishing industry.
My main interest in the fishing industry is in the processing side. The Aberdeen fleet is turning to fish elsewhere. The processing industry has serious problems with the fluctuations in the provision of raw material. There is continuing uncertainty over the progress of reform in the common fisheries policy, manpower changes in the Commission, the lack of news about the proposals that are to be laid and the politics of it all. Whenever we discuss such matters with the industry, there is no sense that there will be any sensible breakthrough that will reform the way in which we operate at the moment. There are so many problems with the common fisheries policy that it is difficult to know where to start. We know where we would like to be, but given the size of the opposing bloc in the European Union, there will be major difficulties in reaching any sensible decision to reform the policy.
On the positive side, there is, unquestionably, progress in the industry. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned the Marine Stewardship Council. I remember being at its launch in 1997 at 4 Millbank, its UK branch, when people were saying, “Well, it’s not going to apply to us. Our fishermen are the last hunter-gatherers.” There was no sense that the council was going to be anything really positive for the industry. Since then, however, there has been a sea change in the way in which the industry views itself and functions, particularly in Scotland, which has led the way in the UK and in Europe. The industry has adjusted to the new environment—its massive gear changes, technical improvements and, most importantly, cultural change. The industry now talks about itself as harvesters rather than hunters. It knows that the stock that remains has to be sustainable, which is why there is so much anger about the way in which Iceland has operated. There is also much anger about other issues such as the by-catches and the waste of resource that is allowed under the current arrangements. Haddock and pelagic stocks are now MSC-approved, which does huge things for the marketing opportunities for my fish processers as well as for others.
The other positive thing—I know that it sounds confusing to call it positive—is that trials are under way in Scotland of fishermen who have broken the rules and regulations in relation to black fish. Some 15 fishermen or vessel owners have been convicted and are awaiting sentence. How can I possibly present that as good news? Well, for most of the time that I have been speaking in these debates, black fish has been a key issue, which meant that our industry was not properly regulated. A combination of effort from various Government bodies, Grampian police and others has seen black fish put into its coffin, which is a good thing. It should have happened many years ago.
Earlier, I mentioned that the biggest problem facing the fish processing side of the industry is the availability of raw material. I know that an industry such as the one in Aberdeen that relied on white fish—haddock principally but cod as well—now deals with a whole range of products. The uncertainty makes life very difficult. My fish processers also make it clear to me that their relationship with fish catchers is not always easy. The catchers think that the processers steal the food out of their babies’ mouths, and something similar is said in the other direction. None the less, at the end of the day, they know that they are linked, and the processers now recognise, as much as the catchers, the need for a sustainable industry, but they want one with more certainty.
The skills of the people in the industry is an issue, not least because the flow of new people is drying up, particularly in Aberdeen. Fish processing work is mainly done by workers from east Europe and China, who have the skills, work hard and sustain the industry. Very few young people from the UK or Scotland are coming into the industry and learning the skills that their parents and grandparents learned and passed on.
The hygiene regulations, which mostly come from Europe, are expensive and costly for the industry. Over a number of years, there has been regulation after regulation and that causes difficulty. The processers are keen to point out that unlike the fish catchers, they do not get any decommissioning costs in return.
Let me say a few words about the way in which the debate in the industry has changed. As secretary of the all-party group on fisheries, I can say that we have become much more engaged with external bodies, such as the World Wildlife Fund and GLOBE International, of which many Members of this House are members. The organisation Baltic Sea 2020, which is based in Stockholm, is now interested both in functioning in the North sea and in the common fisheries policy.
I return to my point about the change in culture in the industry. Representatives of WWF and of GLOBE International spoke at our all-party group a week or so ago. It was fascinating to hear them because they were speaking almost the same language as our fishing industry representatives, and that is a sign of how much things have moved on. Certainly, reading the presentations of both organisations, they are presenting arguments to Brussels that we would want to see presented by our own Government.
I have one final word to say to the Minister. Despite my outburst at the start of my contribution, I know that he is doing a good job and that he will do a good job in Brussels. I wish him well in all his travails and hope that at the end of it all he will get some sleep.
I have to declare a special interest because my husband is the owner and skipper of an under-10-metre commercial trawler operating out of the port of Looe in my constituency.
I have seen the difficulties facing the industry over a number of years. People seem to forget that each commercial fishing vessel represents a small business. I pay tribute to the work of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, and my heart goes out to those fishermen who have lost their lives trying to put the fry on our plate.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate, but I, too, am disappointed that it did not feel that it could take place in the main Chamber, as it has in the past. I hope that time will be found during 2011 to allow a full debate on the Floor of the House on the review of the CFP in 2012. That is important to the fishing industry, the marine environment and fish stocks.
I praise the Minister for showing great determination in setting out his case for root-and-branch reform of the present destructive common fisheries policy. Perhaps he will tell us about the support that he has secured from other member states that share his view. He may also be able to tell us about the member states that have indicated that they want a simple review of Council Regulation No. 2371/2002 and a continuation of article 17, which contains the disastrous principle of equal access to a common resource.
At each Council, the EU TAC for each precious stock is decided. Fishermen from my constituency work from, and are supported by businesses in, Looe, Polperro and the Rame peninsula. They fish in ICES—International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—area VIIe, and the species they catch include area VII lemon sole, squid and cuttlefish, which are non-precious stocks. However, the Commission has proposed a 15% reduction in cod, pollack and anglerfish, which is often known as monkfish, in the area, and fishermen there rely on those stocks.
The Cornish Fish Producers Organisation has written that the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Irish Sea Fisheries Board have indicated that there are signals in their official surveys of good recruitment of cod. That seems to corroborate the observations of fishermen, who are reporting a high abundance of cod in the 30 to 40 cm range. There is a strong scientific argument for saying that this stock should fit into Commission policy statement category 8, with an increase in TAC of up to 15% and no increase in effort. I urge the Minister to speak to his counterparts from France, Belgium and Ireland and to make representations to the Commission to introduce an increase, as opposed to the proposed reduction.
On the point about cod around the coast of Cornwall, may I confirm from my conversations with fishermen from my constituency in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly that there is an abundance of cod? In recent weeks, many of those who have targeted other fisheries have found that three out of every four fish are cod of the recruitment class that the hon. Lady described. I strongly endorse the message that she has articulated, and I hope that the Minister will make sure that it is strongly communicated in the negotiations.
I thank my hon. Friend for that support.
Pollack is very important to fishermen using static nets. There is no ICES advice on pollack, yet the Commission has proposed cutting the TAC to average recent catch levels. That approach could have unintended effects on relative stability and increase discards in individual member states, thus prejudicing fisheries-dependent scientific data.
If we reduce a TAC when there is an abundance of fish, fishermen will end up discarding fish they cannot land. Many species suffer what could be described as the bends when discarded, and they die. A parliamentary answer from the former Minister responsible for fisheries on 21 October 2008 confirmed that statistics at the time showed that 117 million of the estimated 186 million fish caught in area VII were discarded, and many may not have survived.
There is a real argument for requiring all marketable fish to be landed. Over-quota fish could be sold on the market, fishermen could be compensated for their expenses and the remaining proceeds could be invested in developing environmentally friendly fishing gear and good fisheries science. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister has sought agreement from the European Commission to run pilot schemes to identify whether such an approach would work.
The argument that too many fishermen are chasing too few fish has been used for the past 30 years. I accept that we cannot allow the fleet to continue to fish unregulated, but it does not always follow that setting a low TAC will rectify the situation. Under past regulations, quotas have been reduced year on year, with many now less than 50% of levels in 1999. According to UK sea fisheries statistics, the number of English fishermen has fallen from 7,166 to 5,358 since then, while the number of vessels fell from 7,818 in 2000 to 6,500 in 2009. A decade later, however, we hear calls for further reductions in fleet size and fishing activity.
On the UK quota management regime, I fully acknowledge that the Minister has inherited a difficult situation, particularly in relation to the under-10-metre fleet. Will he confirm that the quota management rules published on the Department’s website have a legitimate standing in the UK? Had his predecessor used rule 19 to rectify the underestimate of the catch by fishermen in the under-10-metre sector in area IV, we may not have seen their quota expire earlier this year and the mackerel hand-line quota swapped to obtain fish to keep those fishermen working. That led to a critical situation regarding the hand-line mackerel quota a few weeks ago, and additional quota had to be obtained for that species. I would be interested to hear from the Minister from which source the additional 50 tonnes of mackerel were secured.
Finally, let me mention the recently approved special areas of conservation and the ongoing consultation on the four marine protected zone pilot projects. Despite a budget of £4,116,685 for consultations on those four projects, fishermen are still sceptical and suspicious. I fully accept that the designation may not result in any restrictions on fishing activity in those zones, but will the Minister confirm that he will take account of the fact that they contain sites for the disposal of dredged material permitted under Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 licences issued by his Department? If any restriction on fishing activity is considered in any of those zones, I ask that it take place only after we have ensured that an end to the further use of those dump sites is guaranteed.
My hon. Friend has inherited a difficult task, and I applaud his determination to secure a future for our marine environment and our fishing industry. Although fisheries may not be regarded as a large employer nationally, many coastal communities rely on the industry. I wish my hon. Friend well in the negotiations over the coming weeks and I thank him for the support that he has already shown the industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to an annual fisheries debate after several years of the Trappist-like silence that comes with ministerial office. I congratulate those Members who persuaded the Backbench Business Committee to allocate time for this timely debate. I welcome the Minister to his new role and to his first annual fisheries debate. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) to his new responsibilities.
Like every speaker today, I want to place on record my disappointment at the fact that the debate is not taking place on the Floor of the House in Government time. That is not only my view, but the view of fishermen I spoke to at the weekend, who said that that is an indication of the lack of importance that Government attach to the fishing industry. I say “Government” rather than “this Government” because the problem is not just with this Government. There is a view that successive Governments have let the fishing industry down.
That is no criticism of the very good things that the Labour party did when it was in office or of individual Fisheries Ministers; in my time in office, we were well served by Fisheries Ministers. In their own ways, the former Members for Scunthorpe and for Chatham and Aylesford, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) were committed to the job that they had, and they did it to the very best of their ability. I do not want to blot the current Minister’s copybook too early, but I am hearing good things about him, too, and I sincerely wish him well in one of the most difficult posts in the Government. It is one of the few ministerial jobs that hardly any Back-Bench MPs envy because they recognise how difficult it is. In the previous Government, my right hon. and hon. Friends worked within the straitjacket of the common fisheries policy, just as the current Minister does. That policy has overseen the managed decline of the fishing industry, and it has not been done well.
There is a fishing fleet in my constituency, mainly based in North Shields. It consists of one boat that is over 10 metres long and about a dozen boats under 10 metres. Unusually, the infrastructure associated with a fishing port is still there—we have engineers, buyers and the fish market, as well as the excellent work of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, under the inspirational leadership of Peter Dade. We have the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and until recently we had the coastguard, although unfortunately no more. There have been recent developments in a series of regenerated buildings, and a number of excellent restaurants that make the fish quay a vibrant place.
Those in the fishing industry, however, find survival increasingly difficult and look to the Government—of whatever persuasion—and to Parliament for a lead and support. The annual fisheries debate is held before the Minister goes to the Fisheries Council, where the fishing quotas are essentially set. To the outsider, that appears to be a kind of international maritime game of happy families, where quotas are swapped but nobody comes out particularly happy at the end. From those quotas, fishermen in our constituencies must make their livelihood and live within the regime that has been created.
Fishermen in my constituency want reassurances that the Minister will get the best possible deal at the Council. In particular, I want to mention the whiting quota, which has already been referred to. I understand that there is a proposal for a 15% cut in whiting, although that goes against the view held by fishermen I know who tell me that stocks are relatively good. Far from a 15% cut to the quota, they were hoping for an increase of about the same amount. The Minister and his officials should not be swayed by the idea of an unused quota held by the Norwegians being a sign of limited stocks. It is not as simple as that. If there is a cut across the board, or a particularly severe cut to the whiting quota, it will be difficult for some fishermen to survive.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that unused quota is not simply given up during this round of negotiations so that we retain that bargaining position for future negotiations?
I agree, but it is easy for me—and, with respect, for the hon. Lady—to say that. To an extent, some of my remarks will work against one another. It is an extremely complex and difficult issue, which is why I do not envy the Minister his job. The hon. Lady makes an important point, just as she made an excellent speech.
I would like confirmation on what the hon. Gentleman said about whiting. The view taken by fishermen in North Shields, and shared by those in Amble, is that whiting is currently a plentiful species. None of those fishermen have any quota left for whiting at the moment, and a reduction in the quota would be an awful prospect.
Indeed. I also want to gently warn the Minister against changes in quota and I will give two examples. A number of years ago, when I was able to take part in the fisheries debate, I spoke about the cuts to the cod quota. At the time, North Shields fishermen were heavily dependent on the prawn quota, and warned that there would inevitably be displacement, with boats coming from Scotland and Yorkshire. That is exactly what happened to the prawn grounds off the Northumberland coast. In areas such as the Farn Deeps, off the coast of the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), there has been great pressure on the prawn grounds. As a result, there have been declining catches over the past four to five years.
The second unintended consequence of changing the quotas is that we end up with the terrible situation of discards, which many hon. Members have spoken about this afternoon. Fishermen who reach their quota of mixed fishes have little chance to do anything other than throw the fish back. Discards are obscene, and environmental madness. I hope that the Minister will reaffirm that discards will be a priority in the reform of the CFP, and that at long last we will do something about the situation.
There is a sense of urgency about the reform of the CFP after 2012, and I hope that the Minister will bear three things in mind. First, we need a long-term approach, rather than an annual quota. The North Sea Regional Advisory Council Advice to the Commission mentioned a 10 to 15-year plan. That was based on the experiences of multi-annual arrangements with Norway, which have proved a better way of conserving stock than the annual quota negotiations in which we take part.
Secondly, we must ensure that policy is led by science, and acknowledge that disputes do not necessarily come from the science itself and the views of fishermen, but rather because of the way in which the science is interpreted, particularly by the Commission. That leads to fishermen’s suspicion that the Commission is not prepared to listen to the other side of the argument.
The third point has already been made, but I want to emphasise the importance of environmental considerations. During debates on fisheries—this may happen at the great debate in the Council—there is a danger of always seeing fishermen and scientists on opposite sides in a great battle to see who can dominate policy. The fishermen I know are passionate about the maritime environment; they choose to work and make a living in it, and if it was simply an economic matter, it would not make sense for them to continue doing that. Therefore, we should pay tribute to the contribution that fishermen make to the debate on environmental matters.
Most fishermen I know support the marine protection areas, but it is reasonable for them to ask why we are rushing to put those areas in place by 2012. They also recognise the pressure on our energy resources, and acknowledge that offshore wind farms will be an important part of renewable energy. Again, however, it is reasonable to ask what the effect will be of an offshore wind farm that runs from St Mary’s in the north of my constituency to Blyth. That seems to squeeze the fishermen out of areas that would otherwise be potential fishing grounds.
I conclude by mentioning another aspect of the Minister’s work. His job is not only to go to Europe and argue the case for UK fishermen, but to argue the case within government. Regional development agencies have not been universally popular in everything they set out to do and, not surprisingly, they have not been universally successful. However, One North East in the north-east was getting a good reputation and winning the respect of many fishermen, even those who were sceptical about the political process. I argued with One North East about the need for a regional fisheries policy. After the south-west, the north-east is the most important English region for fishing.
We got support for projects such as the restoration of the west quay in North Shields, and the general regeneration of the fish quay. However, one early effect of getting rid of RDAs and reducing funding was the ending of a grant to the seafood training centre in North Shields. Perhaps naively, part of my response was to go to the local authority and ask what it was prepared to do, since we understood that local authorities were going to be the basis for local enterprise partnerships. It told me that all it was able to do was facilitate discussions about the centre, and that there was no money. The result was that the centre downsized and went to Amble in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. His gain is very much our loss, although I understand that the centre is pretty much a shadow of the operation that existed in my constituency. That was an example of a response to a situation. We know about the difficulties in public finances, but hitting the traditional skills, and the safety skills being taught at the centre, had an unintended consequence on an already hard-hit fishing industry.
I shall conclude simply by saying this. Between 700 and 800 people in my constituency are still directly or indirectly employed as a result of the fishing industry. Like me, they look to the Minister—I wish him well—and to the Government to do everything that they can to ensure that their jobs survive.
I should not need to congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on having made the case for securing this important debate because, as has been said, we should, by rights, have had this debate in the main Chamber.
At this stage, I need to apologise, Mr Owen—I apologised to the Minister in advance—and explain that the timing of the debate, which is taking place on a Thursday afternoon, is particularly challenging for many MPs from far-flung constituencies, where fishing primarily takes place, and that because of the transport problems that I shall encounter in getting to the far west of Cornwall this evening, I may have to leave just before the debate concludes. In view of that, I will do my utmost to keep my remarks brief.
On top of the excellent points made by my honourable colleague the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) about issues affecting our region, I want to make a number of other points. The Minister is aware of them because I sent him a note to give him notice. First, I simply want to embellish and emphasise my honourable colleague’s point about the swapping of the mackerel hand-line quota during the autumn of this year. This is one of the most productive times of the year for mackerel hand-liners.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the mackerel hand-liners pursue a very ecologically friendly fishery, and for them to lose the quota when they are fishing in such a sustainable way was doubly disastrous?
Absolutely. My honourable colleague has anticipated the point that I was due to make, which is that that is a very sustainable fishery. Over the years, previous Ministers will have been aware of the work of mackerel hand-liners and those who support their work. It is also a Marine Stewardship Council-certified fishery. Given that, it is acknowledged that it should be taken out of the quota system altogether. I hope that there will be opportunities for the Minister to explore that in the negotiations in which he gets involved. We are talking about people who are engaged in the use of a line rather than a net. It is a selective fishery. It does not involve tremendous power, but just the brawn, generally, of the men—and women occasionally—who are engaged in it to haul their catch aboard. It is a very primitively based fishery.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that intervention and much reassured. He replied to me on 17 November about the issues that I raised on behalf of the industry in Cornwall. I understand that what was undertaken was not done at his discretion, but was undertaken by the Marine Management Organisation, perhaps on his behalf. The point that I think he fully understands now is that it was undertaken without any consultation or negotiation with the mackerel hand-liners themselves. There was no effort at all to engage with them before the decision was taken to reduce their quota—to swap their quota—which put them in a parlous position. That is clearly absurd, given that it is the very type of fishery that we should be trying to encourage, not discourage.
My next point—again, I have given the Minister a note on it—is about protecting the engineless, under-10-metre fleet from having to face the regulations that other fisheries face. We have a very low-impact fishery in the Fal estuary—the Fal oyster fishery—which my honourable colleague the Member for South East Cornwall is well aware of. That is a sailboat-based fishery; no engined boats are engaged in the oyster fishery in the Fal. It is a Truro-based fishery. Travel difficulties have meant that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is unable to be here, but had she been here, she would have been arguing this case as well. I know that the European Commission will be reviewing the exemptions that have been granted to that fishery and potentially others.
The Minister will be aware of another fishery that is in my constituency—the traditional St Ives Jumbo fishery. Those traditional boats, which have been rebuilt in recent years and are extremely popular in St Ives bay, are a potential source of income. They, too, are engineless, 7-metre vessels, which have a very low impact on their environment. I hope that the Minister will consider very carefully the case that people will be making in that respect.
The Minister will also be aware that excellent work has been going on in the south-west, including Cornwall, with the Finding Sanctuary initiative. The purpose of that is to bring together stakeholders—fishermen and other industries, as well as environmentalists and scientists—to help to identify the potential for candidate marine conservation zones, which will be registered under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. However, a great deal of concern has been expressed to me by stakeholders that there has been insufficient instruction, advice and guidance to those engaged in the stakeholder consultation, in that all the industries that will be affected by the proposed candidate marine conservation zones are in effect adding a number of assumptions whenever they agree to those potential candidate zones. They are being led along the garden path to saying, “Yes, we agree with this, on the assumption that we can carry on doing x, y or z,” whether that be aggregate dredging, towing gear in a particular area in the fishing industry or, in the recreational boating or yachting community, anchoring in a particular area in certain conditions.
Of course, all those assumptions are being accepted and recorded in the process, but there has been insufficient instruction from the Department to guide people in that process. I suspect that confidence in the registration of the marine conservation zones—and indeed the MPAs—will be significantly undermined if and when, further down the track, it becomes clear to stakeholders engaged in the process that not all the assumptions that they have had recorded in the process can be granted when the marine conservation zones are finally designated.
The Minister and I debated this issue during the Committee that considered the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. It was always my concern that stakeholders should be entitled to have a significant say on the management of the zones, as well as on the designation of them. Their designation is important, but it is important to recognise that their management is as well.
I wish to make two broad points on the negotiations that the Minister will go to in a couple of weeks—the December Council. One is on the issue that my honourable colleague the Member for South East Cornwall raised about cod. The overarching point is about the basis of the science from which the proposals for the recommended TACs come. In the case of cod, there has been the tremendous success of the initiative—which was actually industry-led—to close the Trevose grounds off the north coast of Cornwall during the early months of each year, which has been happening for more than four years. We believe—although there is insufficient science to be able to put two and two together, as it were, and to draw conclusions—that, as a result that, there appears to be very significant recruitment of cod around the coast.
The enormous abundance of cod is astonishing, especially for the inshore fleet in our area, and entirely echoes the point that my honourable colleague the Member for South East Cornwall made. For example, my constituent, Chris Bean, who has the Lady Hamilton, which is well known in our area, has had scientists from CEFAS aboard his boat for the past three weeks. They have witnessed the same things that he has; in spite of the fact that he is not targeting cod, three out of every four fish that he catches are cod—landable and of a good size. However, he cannot land them because the quota for cod is absolutely minuscule. As my honourable colleague knows, the British fleet has a tiny fraction of the available quota in area VII, because the other nations seem to take the lion’s share—especially the French.
Under the relative stability allocation, we secured 8% of the total EU TAC for cod in area VIIe. I endorse what my honourable colleague has said, and I would like to make him aware that things are even worse in area VIIe because of our very small starting point.
I am grateful to my honourable colleague for that intervention. It emphasises the point, although I do not think that the negotiations at the December Council will be an opportunity to reopen the issue of relative stability. I do not wish to cause earthquakes in Scotland as a result of suggesting that we do that now.
The issue goes back to the ‘70s and the basis on which, and how, we entered the European Union. That and the basis of our involvement in the common fisheries policy left us with a legacy that has created a complete absurdity. We are not saving any cod. Cod, due to their nature, are bottom fish. They suffer from the bends, so when they are thrown back they are dead. There is no question about that, and not a single life is saved as a result.
The Minister will have received representations from the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation. This is repeating the point that I have made to Ministers in the past on spurdog and porbeagle: zero quotas on both of those do not save a single porbeagle or spurdog. What we need is recognition that it is good for science, as well as for the industry, at least to record what is being caught, even if we do not realise the market value of the fish. I will not go into the detail of what is proposed by the CFPO on spurdog and porbeagle, but I think that it certainly has a good case on landing and recording every porbeagle over 2 metres, and that equally applies to every spurdog over 1 metre.
We need to have a further debate in future; I hope in Government time in the new year. The common fisheries policy has been mentioned on a number of occasions, and it clearly underpins everything that we are discussing today. Given that we need to look at the future of the CFP post-2012, I hope that the Minister will agree to a debate. Members who have been able to get here today and those who could not get here to engage in this debate would like, as early as possible in the new year, to debate this on a cross-party basis. These debates are often consensual, as we have found today, and we could establish a British view on the future of the CFP: a view that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) mentioned earlier, would be heavily based on a decentralised model—much more decentralised than now—with genuine management powers available to regional management committees.
The absurdity of using the blunt instrument of the quota regime has been highlighted by many Members. Quotas may be needed because it is not possible to distinguish between intended and unintended by-catch, and I am sure any regime would need an indicative quota of some sort, but it is vital that we look at other measures. [Interruption.] I am just about to finish but I am happy to give way.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and absolutely endorse what he has just said. Does he think that in addition to a more decentralised approach within the CFP, we should also have a much more forceful distinction in our policy response between the interests of smaller-scale, more traditional fishing communities and operations and the large factory fishing units? The interests of such units are not always aligned with those of conservationists and general mainland consumers, whereas the interests of the smaller fishing communities, as we have heard, are absolutely necessarily aligned with the interests of everyone else in the country. A clear and much more forceful policy distinction would reap great rewards.
I strongly support what my hon. Friend says. We have not debated, and do not have time to debate today, industrial fishing and fishing for animal feed, or the comparison between industrial scale fishing and the more artisanal approach, which I have also highlighted. I wish that we had an opportunity to debate the future of the CFP.
It was a pleasure for me to go along to support the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan on the Backbench Business Committee on 15 November in arguing that we should have at least this opportunity for debate. I am sorry that having said that I would be brief, I have taken a number of interventions and spoken for longer than I intended. I strongly endorse all the comments that other Members have made.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall and giving us all an opportunity to contribute. In passing, I want to comment on the fact that we do not have a Northern Ireland Member on the Backbench Business Committee. If we did, this issue certainly would have been brought to its attention and perhaps we would have had an earlier opportunity to discuss it.
This is my first debate on fisheries at Westminster, although as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and in my former role as a councillor on Ards borough council I have had the opportunity to debate the issue in the past. I think the reason why we are here is that every one of us in the Chamber has a personal interest in fishing and in the communities we represent. The knowledge of fishing of many people outside of the Chamber will probably come from the TV programme, “Deadliest Catch”, or the film, “The Perfect Storm”. One is clearly factual and the other is fictional, but the fictional underlines the danger that fishermen face on the high seas.
Every Member in the Chamber will be aware of the December Fisheries Council and its ramifications for the UK fishing industry. In my local community, and particularly in Portavogie village, we will focus on its impact on the fishermen I represent. In the past, fishing representatives and I have taken the opportunity to speak to the Minister about the matter, as well as to Diane Dodds, Member of the European Parliament, in order to push things along.
I have been contacted by many local fishing organisations. Their representatives have reiterated that one of our problems is quayside prices, yet overheads continue to increase every year irrespective of the price. Fuel costs are another problem; the green tax has recently added another 2p per litre to our fuel prices. The plethora of fishing regulations challenge fishing vessel operators, and have led fishermen to wonder whether to stay in the industry. The latest problem in my constituency—and, I suspect, in others—is that even the smaller boats have to have monitoring equipment. The fishermen tell me that it costs them between £80 and £100 a month to run that operation. Again, costs continue to rise.
In my area, particularly in Portavogie, most of the men have worked on the boats and most of the ladies have worked in the village’s two fishing factories. However, one of those factories recently closed, and people have had to go outside the village for work. In the past—again, it is the changing face of industry—they would have gone to Donaghadee Carpets down the road, but that factory is no longer going; the industry has fallen away. The other choice for a good many was to work in the civil service, but it too is facing cuts.
Times are changing, and such opportunities do not always exist. If the fishing industry has to bear any more pressure, there is every chance of more fishermen leaving their boats. That will put a question mark over the other fishing factory in the village, which would leave even more people out of work. The December review of quotas is therefore most important. It is critical for the area that I represent, and everyone there is conscious of the fact. It is imperative that the fishing industry in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is treated fairly.
Does the European Commission treat British fishermen unfairly? A great many of us feel that it does. Indeed, UK officials have said in the past that they share that concern. We are not saying that we should be above the law, but we want to be treated like the rest of Europe—and Europe should be treated the same as us. I have concerns about how the industry is run, and I underline the need for a sustainable industry. As the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) said, the fishermen want a sustainable industry as much as anybody else. That is what we are all about here, and there is consensus of opinion on that.
In Northern Ireland in 2010, we want to stay at the forefront of innovation, including the delivery of new state-of-the-art pelagic trawlers, which represent the pinnacle of Europe’s fishing industry. Significant investment in the onshore processing sector and in several modern prawn trawlers represents a vote of confidence in the future of this home-grown, privately owned industry. It is spending the money, so we need to ensure that it has Government support.
Other Members have commented on the common fisheries policy. It has to be changed, and no one here today would say differently. It behoves us all to shape that policy, and in 2012 we may have the opportunity to do so. Perhaps we will get it right, ensuring that the fishing industry is looked after. I am told by local industry organisations that UK Fisheries Ministers are telling the industry that fisheries management decisions must be based on the best available science. In 2010, we continue to have certain issues with the science, especially on the abundance of cod in the Irish sea. We find ourselves in a position where it is not so much the science that causes problems but the European Commission’s interpretation of it. That goes back to earlier comments.
It is not that there is a dispute between fishermen and the scientists; it is how the science is interpreted. I have a very simplistic way of looking at things, and I see what the fishermen tell me, but the figures in the scientists’ evidence show that the fishermen have the facts on their side. I urge the scientists to take that into consideration. We had the opportunity to present some facts and figures to the Minister three or four weeks ago, and I believe that the evidence that the fishermen presented to him was very much in our favour.
Things are further complicated by the application of the MSY—the maximum sustainable yield. That has less to do with science, but is a result of the political commitments signed at the Johannesburg sustainable conference in 2002. The political commitment is that fisheries must be managed through the MSY by 2015. As a result, many of the Commission’s total allowable catch proposals are less to do with negative science and more to do with the delivery of political aspirations. That worries me, as it could result in proposals—indeed, it is looking likely—for a quota reduction of 15% in 2011. Many have suggested such a figure.
I never fail to be astounded by some of the things that have happened to the fishing industry. The European Commission has proposed splitting the total allowable catch area that presently covers the whole of area VII—for us that is prawn fishing, which is a large part of our local industry—into seven TAC areas or quotas. That includes two areas in the Irish sea, and it will therefore have an impact on the industry that I represent. That approach is not viable, and not only because it will remove the flexibility that the fleet has to fish in various areas around Ireland; it is believed that it will undermine the sustainability of the stock.
These figures are ours. Science states that stock has increased by 8% in the past two years. However, we have figures showing that last winter and perhaps the winter before the seas were colder and many fish were returning. That is what the fishermen are telling me, and if they had such knowledge many others would agree. Whenever we approach the Minister to express our views on fishing, I am conscious that we could present 20 views, but rather than asking him to go to the December meeting with a wish list, it would probably be better to focus on three, so I shall comment on prawns, cod and herring.
Fishery scientists have been calling for the functional unit management of prawns for years, and the Commission has published what I called a non-paper. However, scientists agree with the industry to the extent that area VII prawns are already managed on a functional unit basis. Individual stocks in area VII are assessed, and an overall TAC figure is arrived at. The Commission wants to depart from that tried, tested and successful arrangement, and create new TAC quotas in seven functional units. The change will be dramatic, and it will put the industry under a lot of pressure.
Are we really overfishing? For the record, so that it can be read in Hansard, the organisation Seafish states that 25% of stocks are underexploited and 25% are overexploited. That said, if we add all the figures together from a fishing industry point of view—and, I suspect, from our point of view as Members—we would find that 75% of global fishing stocks were giving the maximum yield or could produce more. I suggest that those are the figures that we should focus on.
As was said earlier, the Commission’s change would remove the flexibility that has suited the industry and the stocks so well for many generations. For example, fishermen know that there are natural fluctuations in the stock from year to year, so if they start to fish for prawns in one part of area VII, but find the fishing slack, the current management allows the fishermen to migrate to another sea where the fishing is good. That might be to the Clyde. Fishermen from Northern Ireland have fished there for a great many years, and I hope that they will continue to do so—and I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid). Pressure will be taken off the grounds where the fishing is poor, the grounds will recover, and the cycle will continue, but with the Commission’s approach, some fishermen will find themselves restricted to particular areas, and if fishing in that area is poor they will not be able to migrate. Pressure would be maintained in those areas, but with what effect on the stock?
The Commission, with the support of member states, has effectively created a single species fishery in the Irish sea that is dependent on prawns, but that fishery has been successfully managed through a system of self-regulation for decades. The compromise would seem to be documenting the success of the current self-regulatory system, and agreeing a long-term management plan for the area VII prawns, which would provide built-in safeguards for the stock and the fisheries that increasingly depend on that stock. A statement from the Fisheries Council advocating that approach would be our preferred way forward.
On cod recovery, I have to make a case for white fish and the cod men. Not too long ago, we had a fishing industry with 40 boats fishing for cod. We are now down to five. That is a cause for concern. The Commission proposes a 50% cut in the Irish sea TAC and another 25% cut in the number of days at sea. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware of any other industry where people are allowed to work only a certain number of days in the year. It is almost incredible.
When the long-term cod recovery regulation was agreed in November 2008, it contained a commitment to review the plan after three years. That review should occur in 2011. The industry was encouraged to hear recently from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials that the review should be fundamental in nature and not, as the Commission previously suggested, an examination of the 2008 regulations.
In 2000, the Irish sea became the first European sea area to be subjected to EU cod recovery proposals. Overall, a sense of pessimism remains about the stock, despite observations from the fleet. A project instigated by Northern Ireland fishermen, with the support of Department of Agriculture and Rural Development fisheries scientists and funding, has proved that fishing gear deployed in the Irish sea by the local fishing fleet has exceeded ambitious targets on what the European Commission considers the most vulnerable fish stock—cod. During 2006 and 2007, fishermen discussed with local fisheries scientists various plans and ideas to address the problem. The result was launched in 2008, when fishermen from Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie were trained to self-sample their catches. In addition, independent observers were employed to go to sea with trawlers to monitor catches to see what was retained on board and what was discarded.
At a recent meeting in Belfast, industry representatives were presented with the results of that pioneering work, which has become the biggest scientific fisheries sampling programme in any sea area around the United Kingdom. Before the latest evidence was obtained, the European Commission used models designed for fisheries in the North sea and elsewhere to estimate the amount of cod discarded in the Irish sea. Its guesstimate for 2008 was that 738 tonnes, or 80%, of all cod caught by Northern Ireland fishermen, had been discarded, but the scientific evidence, which the Department agreed, showed that the total discard by the entire Northern Ireland fishing fleet in 2008 was 2.8 tonnes, or 1.5% of the catch.
The facts are clear. While fishermen in other areas continue to explore ways to reduce cod discards and monitor their positive results, such as CCTV and catch quota trials in the North sea, Northern Ireland fishermen, working with fishing scientists, have delivered. However, their work will not stop there. A new project, which seeks further to reduce discards of whiting and haddock, is already being planned.
The actions of the Faroe Islands and Iceland have shown that the EU is not in control of fisheries. Those countries must take a sensible approach. It grieves and annoys me that after we bailed out their banks, they show their gratitude by taking our fish. It is understandable that we should be a wee bit annoyed. The EU must take into account the views of those who are on the seas every day, whose livelihoods depend on stock replenishment and who know the seas better than any scientist flown in. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours at the December meeting. I hope that this does not put the scud on him, as we say back home, but we are impressed by his knowledge of and interest in fisheries, and we look forward to what he will bring back.
I apologise on behalf of my fellow Northern Ireland MP, the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who could not attend this debate because she could not get here. Now I am in a predicament: can I get home? I hope that I can. I ask the Minister to take account of and act on what he has heard this afternoon. The days of passively accepting EU directives to the detriment of our fishing industry must be over. Fairness and equality must now be the catch of the day, and the House must do the background work to serve a palatable meal for our fishermen.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this annual parliamentary debate on UK fishing policy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on opening the batting, hours before somebody else opens the batting down under. I also congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on granting this debate. It is important, and it would be helpful if next year, this debate took place in the Chamber.
Over the past 10 years, as the Conservative candidate and now the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, I have become aware how totemic the issue of fishing has become on the peninsula and how it can become the conduit for anti-EU sentiment. It goes much wider than just fishing. When I was a parliamentary candidate, I consistently said that I would say to Ministers that Plymouth is not Portsmouth; we are not 20 minutes away from Bristol and we would be very grateful if the Government took real notice of what happens in the south-west and on the peninsula, especially in relation to fishing.
Fishing is one of those issues that appears very regularly in the Western Morning News, the Herald in Plymouth and, of course, on the BBC’s “Spotlight” programme. It is a very important community issue, which I believe receives great emotional support as well. I am afraid that Edward Heath’s 11th-hour intervention and subsequent Government decisions to give Europe a greater say over our fishing policy, which affects our communities, was a very big mistake. It has made many of our fishermen very sceptical about the CFP and consequently very sceptical about some of the EU’s conservation proposals too.
Many of our fishermen are horrified that the Austrians, who have no coastline whatsoever, should be able to have a say on the CFP, while other British fishermen feel that the UK Government gold-plates much of our EU fisheries regulation, whereas in Spain, of course, the inspectors are hundreds of miles away from the Spanish fishermen and ports, very rarely visiting them, and they are very lax on enforcement too.
Last Friday I spent the whole day, along with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), seeing first-hand how Plymouth is a major global player in marine scientific research. I firmly believe that Plymouth needs to make more use of that research, to rebalance the economy, which is very dependent on the public sector. That research can help our economy immensely.
Our day included going to see the Royal Navy, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Plymouth university, the Marine Biological Association, the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science and the National Marine Aquarium, all of which I am delighted to say are based in my constituency of Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. Although I would say this as a Plymouth MP, it was rather unhelpful that the previous Labour Government decided to put the Marine Management Organisation up in Newcastle rather than in Plymouth, although I am sure that that is something that might be reconsidered at a later date.
I very much want to invite my hon. Friend the Minister, who is responsible for fisheries, to come down to Plymouth to see some of the very good work that is taking place in the marine industry. If he would like to come and do that, I would be delighted to welcome him.
As someone who was involved in lobbying for the MMO to come to the north-east, I just want to put on record that everything that the hon. Gentleman has listed as existing in Plymouth also exists in the north-east.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I am aware that Newcastle university has a very big role to play in that regard too. However, for my part of the world, it is important that we try to make sure that we have a strong way to ensure that our economy works. I also believe that all of this activity, if it works properly, can help to encourage major economic clusters. Having said that, I am aware that there can occasionally be real tensions between people in the fishing industry and people involved in conservation at the National Marine Aquarium and Plymouth university.
It would be very helpful if my hon. Friend the Minister could double-check and make sure that Natural England has used the correct process to assess marine conservation zones and that any further environmental proposals are consulted on widely with my local fishermen. I fully support the National Marine Aquarium’s concerns about the amount of foreign industrial fishing that takes place within our waters. During the past 10 years, I have consistently campaigned for UK fishing waters to come back under UK control and I want to confirm that commitment again today. I am delighted to report that academics at Plymouth university have told me that they are quite receptive to that proposal, which they regard as a way of trying to conserve some of our fishing stocks as well.
Many Members who have spoken, and those are still to speak, are significantly better informed on the whole issue of fishing than I am ever likely to be. I refer especially to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, who has demonstrated a good knowledge from a very personal point of view. I am therefore not going to get too involved in some of the technical aspects of fishing policy. Over the next few minutes, I want to talk about recreational sea angling and ask my hon. Friend the Minister what plans the coalition has to protect the UK’s premier recreational fishing industry from the over-fishing that currently takes place in UK and EU waters.
In the run-up to this debate, I heard from a number of recreational anglers who are very concerned that the UK is losing out to the Irish. Some 20 years ago, the Irish decided to ban all commercial fishing for bass, and chose instead to focus on the substantial value of bass fishing as a recreational sport. Last night, one of my constituents wrote to me, telling me how he and many other British residents travel to the Republic of Ireland to spend up to 16 weeks a year angling for sea bass. He noted that the Irish Government are delighted with the huge revenue that visiting anglers produce, and he suggested that I ask the Minister if there were proposals to introduce similar legislation in Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK. I appreciate that there is a balance to be struck between the economic contribution that this species makes to Plymouth fish market and the protection of our recreational sea anglers. I must stress that I want to be supportive of Plymouth fish market and ensure that it is not affected.
I will not ask the Government to ban all commercial sea bass fishing, but I would be grateful if my hon. Friend explained—either now or at a later date—what measures the Government are proposing to introduce to help the substantial Plymouth-based charter fleet and the 240,000 British people who, according to Invest in Fish South West, go fishing in the south-west each year and depend on there being fish to catch.
I am aware that devising fisheries policy is complicated and that the Government have to strike a balance between the fishing industry and conserving our fishing stocks. I am also aware of the ways in which fish benefits our health, thanks to the Chestnut Appeal, which is the Devon and Cornwall prostate cancer charity. It regularly tells me that I should eat significantly less red meat and more fish, and I should take notice of that. I believe that Plymouth and the south-west have a proud fishing heritage. We now face a practical and scientific challenge to ensure both that we protect our fish stocks and that our fishing industry is able to flourish in a sustainable manner.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I am conscious that there are a number of other Members who wish to contribute and that we need to give the Minister an opportunity to respond to the points that have been made, so I will try to be as brief as possible.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on securing the debate, and I associate myself very much with her comments about the Fishermen’s Mission and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which does a superb job protecting people around our coastline. I am almost unique in this Chamber today in that, as far as I am aware, there is no fishing fleet in Rutherglen and Hamilton West; indeed I would be surprised to find that there was. Perhaps it is the same in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), who is on the Front Bench.
I was keen to contribute to the debate as someone who, 10 years ago, worked in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Having attended a number of Fisheries Councils in that capacity, I genuinely wish the Minister well for the negotiations later this month.
As many hon. Members have said, the need for reform of the CFP is a long-standing issue, and one that has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House for a number of years. In some ways it is disappointing that, almost 10 years since I last had some degree of familiarity with fishing issues, so many of them have not changed much. That speaks to the compromise that sometimes seems to happen in European negotiations, particularly when fisheries issues and other issues are played off against each other. It is one of the less attractive features of how European issues are sometimes discussed and negotiated.
I am sure that the Minister will do all that he can to stand up for the fishing industry and to look at CFP reform as the opportunity presents itself next year or in following years. I am sure that he will make the case to colleagues in other Departments that fisheries should not be considered to be at the margins of European discussions, because they are vital to a range of communities that are well represented today and to the sustainability of both stocks and an industry that is a key economic contributor in several places. The Fisheries Council meeting in December is also important because it will come ahead of those negotiations on the CFP and therefore is a crucial opportunity to set the standard. I think that it will be used more widely as a barometer for where the debate on the fishing industry is going.
There is an important balance to be struck between the sustainability of stocks and the sustainability of communities and industries. I am sometimes depressed by the way the debate is characterised. Other Members have suggested that there can be almost a caricature of scientists against fishermen, but I know from my discussions with representatives of the fishing industry that that is by no means a fair reflection of where the industry is. There are other measures that the Government should look at when trying to marry those two objectives, because the overall policy goal, by and large, is shared.
Looking further at how we move from the sometimes cumbersome system of total allowable catches to catch quotas and the consequent reduction in discards is an important part of that. Early trials of on-board monitoring for fisheries in England and other areas have produced positive results, but that needs to go alongside rule changes as well, because one without the other will not allow that system to work properly if it is adopted. I hope that the Minister will take that stance in his discussions and meetings later this month and in the next few months.
I have had the opportunity at the last two DEFRA Question Times to raise with the Minister the mackerel quota dispute with Iceland and the Faroes, which other Members have mentioned. I appreciate that he made it clear on both occasions that the unilateral approach was unacceptable and that he shares the views of many who have expressed concern about how that situation has arisen and the fact that it is not resolved. I take this opportunity to implore him again to do everything he can to try to resolve that issue. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan made clear in her contribution—she obviously has a strong constituency interest—there needs to be a negotiated settlement, but one that is acceptable to the people whose livelihoods depend on that fishing.
The need for reform of the CFP is widely accepted, but it is difficult to achieve. I appreciate that the job that the Minister will have to do over the next few months is difficult, and I am sure that he will have picked up from the debate that there is a great deal of support for him and a recognition of the difficult nature of that job. I hope that those discussions on CFP reform will look at regional fisheries management. I know that there are issues about the extent to which such management is a regional matter and that the Scottish Government have expressed the view that it should be done at a Scottish level and not below. There needs to be appropriate flexibility in moving to regional fisheries management. However, the credibility that will come from that will help the Minister in the task that he faces. It will also help to move to longer-term management plans, which I think have a key part to play. Every year, just before Christmas, there is an opportunity for the wider media finally to pay a bit of attention to the fisheries industry, but they do so in a way that is caricatured almost as a “stay up all night, and who yawns first loses out” approach, which is not helpful. We should move to a much more sustainable position.
I would also like the Minister to respond, if he can in the time that he has, to three further points relating to fisheries that are of concern to people to whom I have spoken in recent months. First, regarding the future of the under-10-metre fleet, I know that work was being undertaken by the previous Government and I hope that that work is continuing under the current Government. Secondly, does the Minister intend to use the Hague preference during the negotiations later this month? Thirdly, what update can he give us in relation to the attempts—attempts that began under the previous Government and that I hope will be continued under this Government—to protect blue fin tuna? That is a very important international issue, stretching outside of EU issues and involving fisheries more widely. Moreover, what discussions has he had, or is he planning to have, with his Maltese, French and Italian counterparts?
Given that other Members wish to speak, I will curtail my remarks there.
I am fortunate to represent Brixham and fishing is the absolute heart of Brixham. The catch there is worth £17 million a year. The jobs involved are not just those at sea; there are many more related jobs on land. That is particularly important in Torbay, where there are 3,500 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance.
The English channel fisheries are worth more than £70 million a year at first sale and 60% of that money comes from non-quota species, such as scallop, crab, bass and lemon sole. That is particularly important because, for its size, the English channel is the richest sea area—in pounds per square mile—in European waters.
Of course, those rich fisheries exist because of rich habitats. We all understand that the Minister has to tread a very careful line between protecting habitats and protecting livelihoods. However, when he signs statutory orders protecting sites, he creates offences that carry penalties of £50,000 or more and he needs to take great care to ensure that areas closed to fishing are absolutely necessary and evidence-based, in terms of giving a chance for regeneration of fish stocks that can then contribute to fishing livelihoods.
Commissioner Maria Damanaki has recently praised the work of trawlermen in Brixham who are involved in Project 50%. In that project, skippers such as Shaun Gibbs work closely with net designers, including Darren Edwards in Brixham, to innovate at their own expense, by designing new gear that allows small fish to escape and that significantly reduces the by-catch. In fact, they have managed to reduce discards by more than 50%, which of course saves fuel, preserves stocks and reduces the impact of the benthic species.
I ask the Minister to press the case for such projects to be recognised and to provide an incentive for others to follow suit, by rewarding them with increasing quotas for the key target species, such as Dover sole, anglerfish or monkfish and plaice. It is also very important that he recognises that the Commission’s proposal to change the management regime of channel plaice, particularly in areas VIId and VIIe, would have far-reaching implications beyond the simple quota tonnage numbers. Those areas are currently managed in combination, but if they are split that would result in a large increase in discards in area VIIe, which is the western channel, particularly in the beam trawler fisheries in my constituency.
I think that we would all agree that policy drivers must be consistent. There is no point having projects such as Project 50% if we are going to see discards driven up by measures that are poorly thought through and by policies that are, frankly, inconsistent. Has the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science been asked to conduct a full regulatory impact assessment of the Commission’s proposal, including an assessment of how many perfectly healthy plaice will be thrown back into the sea dead if a mixed fishery catching sole is unable to land perfectly good plaice over quota? I call on the Minister to resist the proposal to split areas VIId and VIIe for that reason.
The Commission proposes a 15% increase in the available catch of sole, but it is accepted that the TAC for area VIIe should not have been reduced by even 5%, because, as I understand it, the status quo would have yielded a full improvement in the spawning stock. As my constituents see it, the only fair outcome is the full, scientifically justified 19% increase in the TAC for 2011, and I hope that the Minister will press for that.
The skate distribution among member states is unfair. We recognise that it is unlikely to be reworked, so I call instead on the Minister to press for an increase in the quota so that skippers can land what they catch rather than discarding skate. We all recognise that current arrangements are not preserving stocks; they are just causing dead fish to be thrown back into the sea.
We believe that sprats are not depleted. One of the many daft Commission rules is “use it or lose it”. I think that many Members here share my hope that the Minister will resist further reductions for under-utilisation.
I represent not just the beam trawler fleet but the under-10-metre fleet. I am sure that the Minister recognises that the two fleets sometimes have conflicting interests, but there are issues common to them both. They both agree that the “use it or lose it” proposals are counter-productive, particularly when it comes to the under-10-metre fleet. Skippers pay large sums to acquire vessels, often with a high premium because they come with a shellfish quota that the skippers do not wish to use. I hope that he will look into that issue. Such skippers are also disadvantaged because they must often buy vessels that are under-equipped in engine power to fish safely or efficiently. They would like me to draw to the Minister’s attention the unfair discrimination that they face when compared with the recreational and charter fleet. They often fish alongside such vessels, using the same methodology, but they face expensive restrictions in terms of training courses and qualifications, and of course the charter and recreational fleet has no quota. I call on him to consider that issue.
I extend the Minister a warm invitation to come back to Brixham. He kindly visited before the election, but at that time we had not completed our wonderful new fish market, which was funded in part by DEFRA. I know that all my colleagues in Brixham would warmly welcome him. I close by paying tribute, again, to the work of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, the RNLI and the coast guard.
it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in my first annual fisheries debate. Like others, I wish it were taking place on a larger stage, which would have done credit to the industry that we are here to represent. I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on securing this debate.
Although I am pleased to be here, I am acutely aware that these are difficult times for the fishing industry in Lowestoft, in my constituency, and around Britain. In many respects, the industry is in the last-chance saloon. It is up to all of us to ensure that it is sustainable and not only conserves fish stocks but gives our constituents who work in the industry a viable future in which they can earn a reasonable living and have the certainty needed to make long-term investment decisions.
As I said in the Adjournment debate that I secured on 14 October, the Lowestoft fishing industry is a shadow of its former self. However, I believe that it could have a viable and brighter future if the European Commission and the Government make the right decisions now and in the coming two years. To get to that better future, a number of obstacles need to be overcome and a number of vested interests challenged. A difficult and tortuous road lies ahead of us.
I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for the way in which he has approached what many may regard as an unenviable task, and some may describe as a poisoned chalice. He has been to Lowestoft to meet fishermen on two occasions, and this morning he hosted a delegation of fishermen from Suffolk to listen to their concerns and hear their ideas for the future of their industry. One of those fishermen is in the Public Gallery this afternoon and I thank him for listening to us.
Time is short, so I shall first set out the problems that confront the Suffolk fishing industry, and then make some proposals for the way forward towards a brighter future. In my opinion, five problems need to be addressed. First, the current regime fails to achieve its prime objective of conserving fish stocks, and causes untold damage to the marine environment. Young fish are caught before they are mature and there are no adequate incentives for the management of stocks.
Secondly, the current regime is not only bad for fish, it is bad for fishermen. The industry lurches from one crisis to the next, and it seems that the role of each successive Minister is continually to apply a sticking plaster to ensure that a particular fishery or group of fishermen gets over those crises. Fishermen find themselves unable to make a living or make long-term investment plans. Ultimately, many leave the industry.
Thirdly, one immediate problem faced by the industry is ensuring that fishermen survive the next year before the review of the common fisheries policy in 2012. The initial prognosis is not good; Lowestoft fishermen are faced with a cut to their whiting quota from 4 tonnes to 500 kg per month. The European Commission’s proposals for TACs and effort control mean that British fishermen are facing severe cuts in quotas. Regulation by TACs is a flawed process, and I question whether some of the proposed quota reductions are based on genuine, well-founded science.
Fourthly, we must throw overboard the obscene practice of discards as soon as possible. It is destroying fish stocks, it repulses fishermen, and the British public are appalled by it. As I mentioned in my Adjournment debate, in Suffolk we estimated that in five days in late September, nine under-10-metre boats threw overboard 11.5 tonnes of skate.
Finally, the British under-10-metre fleet gets a raw deal. It makes up 85% of the British fishing fleet, but it gets under 4% of the available quota. Today, most of the Lowestoft fleet is made up of under-10-metre boats that fish inshore in a sustainable way with long lines. That is the type of environmentally friendly industry that we should be encouraging. At the forthcoming CFP review, that fleet must receive a more equitable share of the quota.
Looking to the future, the first challenge to confront in the short term is to ensure that our fishermen get the best possible deal in the forthcoming Council of Ministers on 13 December. The Minister’s task is not an easy one and I urge him to do all that he can to secure the best deal for Britain. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations set out a clear guide on the course that he should pursue, and I urge him to challenge the science behind the Commission’s proposals, which in many respects appears illogical.
There is also a role for our MEPs, as this year for the first time, fisheries policy needs to be agreed jointly with the European Parliament. The future of many fishermen depends on whether those negotiations can provide them with an income with which to pay their mortgages and living expenses. If they go out of business, the boats go, as does much of the supporting infrastructure, and they will never come back.
Looking ahead to the CFP review, much good work has been done on which the European Commission and the Government can build. That includes the SAIF—sustainable access to inshore fisheries—report from August 2010, work by the WWF and GLOBE, and the catch quota pilot study carried out by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, CEFAS, details of which were set out in its interim report in September.
I urge the Minister to pursue a four-pronged approach. First, there should be a move away from the current top-down micro-management that has worked so badly and led to so many of the problems faced by the fishing industry today. In future, the EU’s role should be to set high-level objectives. The day-to-day management of fisheries should be carried out locally by fishermen, CEFAS scientists and a more streamlined regulator. It may be that the Marine Management Organisation should devolve its responsibilities to the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities.
Secondly, there must be an increased use of science, with fishermen themselves playing the lead role in monitoring the amount of fish caught and recording that activity. That information can be used to manage fisheries in a proactive, responsible and sustainable way. It is vital that all parties work together and that trust, which has been missing in recent years, be re-established. It is important to remember that fishermen are the custodians of the sea. Lowestoft fishermen always say that they do not wish to be aboard the vessel that catches the last fish. Fishermen want to create and then manage sustainable fisheries.
Thirdly, a variety of tools should be used in the local management of inshore fisheries. It is such fisheries that I am concentrating on, as the Lowestoft fleet is almost exclusively an under-10-metre fleet today. Effort control in the form of a maximum-hours-at-sea approach has a role to play in eliminating discards, but other controls should be used as well, such as catch limits and a variety of technical measures.
Finally, there must be an equitable redistribution of quota to ensure that the inshore fleet is treated fairly. The quota system needs to be put on a more commercial footing, rather than being based on “grandfather’s rights”. It is very much the elephant in the room. If necessary, the legal status of quotas needs to be clarified and challenged.
I am grateful to you, Mr Owen, for bearing with me. In conclusion, I wish the Minister well in the tough and difficult negotiations that he faces both in the next few days and over the next year or so. He has approached his job with serious resolve, enthusiasm and a willingness to listen. Many people and communities around Britain are dependent on him for a successful outcome to his negotiations both next month and at the CFP review. I wish him well.
It is a great pleasure to address the annual fisheries debate for the first time. That delight is slightly diminished by the fact that England did not win its World cup bid. However, that disappointment will be temporary, whereas the disappointment that fishermen face every day over the fact that their industry is being decimated is beyond comparison.
I thank the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) for leading the charge in securing this debate. I was delighted to accompany her when she put her case to the Backbench Business Committee. I suggest to colleagues that on the first Monday of November next year, we all go to the Backbench Business Committee and secure the rightful place for this debate in the main Chamber. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) points at the Minister. He will have voted, I think, for the Backbench Business Committee’s reforms. I understand that in the Wright report, it was decided that the Committee would take on the role of allocating debates, such as the annual fisheries debate. As often happens in politics, voting for something sometimes has unintended consequences. However, this is the reality for this year. For next year, we should all club together and go to the Committee.
I want to congratulate my constituent, Mr Wightman, who has come to London for this debate. He had, I believe, a successful meeting with the Minister earlier. He fishes from a boat called Maximus out of the port of Lowestoft, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). I pay tribute to him for sitting through this debate when he could be out fishing instead.
Fishing may not be the biggest industry in my constituency, but it is an iconic one. The whole area to the north of my constituency is called Sole bay, and for a good reason. It includes places such as Aldeburgh, Southwold, Dunwich, Felixstowe Ferry and other places such as Orford, which have a different kind of fishing. I am surprised that no Member has yet claimed to have the best fish and chips in their constituency, so I will make my bid for that. Although the Minister came to my constituency to look at coastal erosion and meet some fishermen, sadly, we did not have time to stop for fish and chips. If he comes again, I will make sure that that will be our first port of call.
I pay tribute to local fishermen and councils for their efforts, with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and our MEPs, to secure significant investment to upgrade the fishing facilities in Southwold harbour. We secured a grant from the European fisheries fund. If colleagues have not had the opportunity to do so, I recommend it. It is a good source of financing to keep our industry going.
Ultimately, however, what will keep our industry going is not fancy facilities but the ability to fish. It is a great irony—hon. Members might remember this as a classic pub quiz question—that the only foodstuff not rationed during world war two was fish, but today we are debating the rationing of fishing. As has been said, it is likely that the total allowable catch will decline in the next agreement, even though the Minister, who has been outstanding during his short time as Fisheries Minister, will fight the good fight. I wish him well.
The fishing fleet in my constituency is an inshore fleet. As has been said, that is substantially the highest proportion of the fleet, with a tiny amount of quota. I know that Commissioner Damanaki has recognised the important cultural role that fishing plays in coastal communities. It enhances the social and economic fabric as well, which should not be underestimated. Different experiments in managing fisheries have been undertaken. It would be worth while for the Minister to go back and look at some of the trials in the eastern sea area to see what worked and what did not.
In a way, I did not appreciate the importance of fishing to my constituency until that became clear in the summer, when fishermen were suddenly prevented from fishing. Although I should not use unnecessary hyperbole, the consequences in terms of the community’s reaction, never mind the fishermen’s, were absolutely astronomic. Again, I pay tribute to the Minister, because I know that he worked exceptionally hard to get the quota swaps. I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) that the fishermen’s subsequent quota was higher than last year’s, thanks to the Minister’s good efforts. Although I do not have the data to back that up, I believe it to be true.
Discard rates have been mentioned, as has the distortion of quotas by the fact that discard rates are automatically calculated in. That seems somewhat ridiculous. Discards happen, as has been said. I am interested to hear about Project 50%, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) referred. I hope that the Minister will consider ways not so much to improve efficiency as to reduce discards, especially in our inshore fleet.
On a slightly different subject, other barriers to fishing include marine conservation zones or offshore wind farms, both of which are prevalent off the coast, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney will know. Natural England and other organisations have been proactive in engaging with fishermen on the issue. I believe that my constituent has been involved in helping map out areas where fishermen can still fish. However, as he convincingly pointed out to me earlier, they are effectively doing it blindfolded, because they do not know what the Marine Management Organisation is doing in its plans for sustainable management. It should be a round-table discussion rather than a bilateral one.
Views differ on offshore wind farms. Developers seem to suggest that wind farms provide a haven for fish and are therefore good things. I am not convinced by that, but at some point during the summer, I am due to visit a wind farm, and I hope that the company will allow me to bring along a fisherman as well. Fishermen in my constituency have made a relevant point about the operational effectiveness of the MMO. I am conscious that that is a new organisation. However, I understand that the leadership and directors have already changed on a regular basis. That brings into question the credibility of the leadership of the MMO. Instead of being focused on internal matters, it should focus on fish and fishermen. I do not expect the Minister to criticise the MMO, but perhaps he will reflect on and express his view of its first months of operation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and other hon. Members said, it would be useful to have a discussion about how we can devolve the management of fisheries locally. I shall give an example. The people to whom I spoke in the summer suggested that it was all well and good for the MMO to say, “Right, you can now go and fish cod,” but it said that when there were no cod there; they had already moved on. It is that inflexibility that concerns people. The fishermen know what they are doing. I appreciate that the MMO must have a process for deciding what can be fished and for closing different areas and so on, but those decisions seem to be completely unlinked.
There is a joke in our part of the world that there are more “policemen” dealing with fishermen than there are real policemen dealing with criminals. That is an interesting set of priorities. As has been said, there is another distortion in relation to leasing of quotas, which are a valuable commodity. In the past, Governments have boldly adopted the notion of trying to get leaseholders to become freeholders, with some element of compulsion. Although I appreciate that such decisions cannot be made on the back of just one or two conversations, perhaps the Minister will take that into account when considering this issue in future.
Fishing is an inherent part of our country’s heritage. It is an inherent part of what makes us special as an island. It is an inherent part of the good foodstuffs that we should be encouraging people to eat every day. I am proud to serve a coastal constituency. I recognise the excellent contributions made by other hon. Members. I am sure that although the Minister is not from a coastal constituency, there are plenty of fishermen in his area, even if they fish just for recreation.
Fishing is one of our most important industries, but it has been treated shamefully under the common fisheries policy. Hon. Members have asked whether we need a common fisheries policy. I believe that it has been a disastrous experiment, and one of the things that one learns as a scientist is not to keep doing the same experiments and expect to get a different result. It is a case of what could be; we need to take it forward in a new way. We do not rely for our defence solely on the European Union. In fact, we do not at all; we use NATO as the appropriate organisation for that. It seems ridiculous to constituents that landlocked countries have a say on fisheries in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council.
Perhaps there is an opportunity to move forward with people outside the European Union and have a fisheries council just of fishing countries, which work together to make a difference. Who knows what the future holds for fish? I hope that it is a thriving future. Some policies seek the restoration of fish stocks, but the same policies also result in the decimation of the fishing industry.
I am grateful to hon. Members who have attended the debate, including the 12 Members who have made speeches. Before I call the Front-Bench spokesmen, I would like to say that I have taken note of what was said about the debate not being in the main Chamber today. I shall ask the Member who initiated the debate to make her concluding remarks after the Minister—he has agreed to this—has made his concluding remarks. I call Willie Bain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, for what I think is the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on securing this important debate before the annual European Fisheries Council later this month. She has spoken with great fluency and passion about the crucial link between the fishing industry and the local economy in Peterhead and across her constituency and, indeed, Scotland, which constitutes about 70% of the UK fisheries industry. However, as we have also heard in the debate, fishing is crucial to community life in much of the rest of coastal Britain, from the south-east to the south-west and, indeed, to the north-east of England, too.
Let me commend the contributions that have been made by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members. I thought that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) spoke with great authority on the issue of decentralisation and the need to emphasise decentralisation in CFP reform. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) and the hon. Members for St Ives (Andrew George), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) all spoke eloquently about the importance of fishing in their communities, which range from the north-east of Scotland to the south-west of England. I think that the theme that ran through all their remarks was the need in CFP reform to tackle the shameful issue of discards.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) spoke, of course, with the authority of an “insider” from the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food days. I thought that he spoke extremely well and insightfully about the need for CFP reform.
Let me also associate the Opposition with the remarks made by several hon. Members about the contribution that the RNLI and other coastal services make to the fishing industry and indeed to Britain as a whole.
This has been an exceptionally enlightening and consensual debate and the only thing that would have improved it would have been if it had taken place in the main Chamber. I hope that that will be remedied in future years.
As the EU prepares to consider radical reforms of the CFP, there are several factors that the Opposition believe should inform that debate. First, the status quo on the annual setting of fishing quotas should no longer be an option. A longer-term approach is required to provide greater sustainability and certainty in the conservation of fish stocks, particularly cod stocks, regarding the connected threats of ocean acidification and climate change, and to provide greater security for the fishing industry itself. Multi-annual management plans might cover 30% of total EU catches for 2011 and indeed 80% of fish by weight caught by EU fishermen this year, but the ambitions of the Government and the EU must be to raise those levels quickly.
Secondly, EU Fisheries Ministers should be moving towards greater regional management of fishing waters, as many hon. Members have reflected upon during this debate. Thirdly, a reduction in the unacceptable levels of discards and by-catch is vital. The EU must reform the system so that the levels of fish caught are given greater priority in the regulatory approach that is adopted, as opposed to the quantity of fish that is landed onshore.
Let me develop each of those points in turn. There is an overwhelming priority to preserve our fish stocks within safe biological limits and to consider sustainability in the overall context of the ecosystem. That means examining the effects on the habitat and the other species in the waters from which particular species of fish are taken. Therefore, the view expressed by Commissioner Damanaki, rejecting the old belief that environmental conservation and development of fisheries are incompatible, is welcome. The EU Commission’s statement of 11 November makes it clear that only 40% of assessed EU fishing stocks have been fished sustainably, so we have an important issue to tackle in that respect.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that almost 28% of global stocks of fish are overexploited or depleted, with another 52% fully exploited. The World Bank has estimated that the annual cost of global overfishing is about $50 billion per year; cumulatively, that amounts to $2 trillion during the last three decades.
The Commission has proposed that the level of total allowable catches and quotas for 2011 will amount to a 10% reduction overall. Some 80% of global fish stocks are at or beyond the limit of sustainable use; many are beyond that limit. The challenge for the EU is to reduce structural overcapacity in fishing, yet incentivise those fishing fleets that are doing the right thing. Such fleets have invested in new nets and new technology and have adopted new fishing practices, as has been demonstrated by the industry in Scotland and beyond and which has rightly been praised by hon. Members today.
In 1995, the EU imported 33% of the fish consumed in Europe. In 2006, importation levels increased to 48% and are now at approximately 50%. Dr Peter Jones, a senior lecturer in the geography department at University college London, addressed a Westminster food and nutrition forum last month that I chaired. He said:
“We are importing more and more fish from developing countries, and that proportion is likely to increase if we see further quota reductions and perhaps the introduction of Marine Protected Areas into European waters, at least in the short term.”
A crucial element here is the future of small-scale fishing, as we heard from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) in an intervention and from the hon. Members for Waveney and for Totnes. The 2027 vision paper published by the previous Government in 2007 supported the wider economic, social and environmental benefits of small-scale fishing. A key issue if it is to thrive is improved accessibility to capital, particularly where short-term quotas are involved.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm why, under his party’s watch, the amount of quota allocated to the under-10-metre fleet was underestimated by about three-quarters? That is what caused the problem with the quota management for that sector of the fleet.
The hon. Lady details an important point. I certainly take it on board in terms of the formation of policy within my party’s processes, and I am sure that the Minister will have taken great note of it, too.
It is important to illustrate the further assistance that Commissioner Damanaki has provided. In an address to the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee of the European Parliament on 29 September this year, she said that small-scale fisheries
“often contribute to a vital extent to the social fabric and economic well-being of our coastal communities. Small scale vessels often carry out fishing activities that are less harmful to the environment and often more selective than other parts of the fleet. For me it is therefore absolutely important to ensure that these coastal fleets do not lose out in the reform.”
Another important point to be emphasised on CFP reform is greater regionalisation. That will involve integrating fisheries policy with other marine policy. Mike Park, executive chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producer’s Association, said at the Westminster food and nutrition forum in November:
“Part of the problem we have had is the fact that it has been top-down…it has been prescriptive. The best way to resolve that is to actually incorporate fishermen into the system, allow fishermen to take part, build that policy from the bottom upwards, only then will you gain respect, and if you relate it back to the terms of what business does best, fishermen will then…help create policies that actually deliver a sensible, sustainable regime.”
Those are wise words indeed. Commissioner Damanaki echoed that view in her address to the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee of the European Parliament to which I referred earlier. One mechanism that the Council could consider is setting targets at EU level, but then permitting the technical details of how these outcomes are to be decided and implemented at the local or regional level.
In addition, the Council needs to build upon the incentives introduced last December to cut the level of discard and by-catch by permitting fishermen who install CCTV on their boats, and use the excellent techniques that the hon. Member for Strangford said were being utilised in Northern Ireland fisheries, to receive increased quotas. In the Scottish fishing industry, trialling systems have been established incorporating cameras and data reporting as a means of basing enforcement on levels of fish removed from the sea, rather than on levels of fish landed. It is important because by-catch can have damaging effects on the marine environment as a whole.
At a global level too, marine conservation is an important concern for policy makers. The GLOBE International Commission on Land Use Change and Ecosystems produced a marine ecosystems recovery strategy in June, which starts from the principle that marine conservation requires a globally co-ordinated response, with action needed at all political levels, including a review of fishing subsidies at World Trade Organisation level. It recommends:
“Within national and regional parliaments where fishing rights are held in common, measures are needed to address fleet efficiency and to ensure that the management of domestic fisheries is governed by a sustainable, ecosystem-based approach.
The largest importers of fish must also pass robust regulations to eradicate illegal fish from the market and promote sustainable sourcing.
Regional cooperation is needed between key port and coastal states in order to ensure there are no safe havens for illegal fishing.”
Some of the specific ideas mentioned in the strategy include rights-based management, where fishing rights are allocated to individuals or communities, on either a transferable or non-transferable basis, which create incentives for resource conservation and economically efficient fishing, but pay particular attention to local communities. It also mentions cap and restore programmes for severely depleted fisheries, which involve a temporary moratorium on or drastic reduction in fishing effort and catches to allow fish stocks to recover, while paying compensation to fishermen either to leave the industry or to work in scientific assessment and enforcement activities. The EU could consider those issues as part of CFP reform.
Let me conclude by asking the Minister a couple of short questions. The first is on the hugely important issue of the dispute involving the UK, Iceland and the Faroe Islands over the shared mackerel quotas, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned. The Minister will recall that he told me in a written answer on 23 November that further talks between the coastal states would take place on 25 and 26 November. What progress has emerged from that meeting about the unacceptable behaviour of the Icelandic fleet in unilaterally seeking to increase its share of the quotas? What are the priorities of the Government for reform of the CFP in 2012 and, in particular, which measures will they propose to tackle the problems of discard and the structural overcapacity of the EU fishing fleet, while protecting vulnerable fishing communities in the UK?
All Members, including Opposition Members, wish the Minister well in his negotiations in the Council. Will he pledge to make a statement to the House before it rises on 21 December on the outcome of the December Council, so that Members have an opportunity to scrutinise effectively how the Government have progressed in the areas that Members have outlined in this debate?
This is a time for EU member states, collectively, to grasp the nettle of thoroughgoing reform of the CFP. That is strongly supported by the Opposition. I hope that in replying to this debate the Minister can demonstrate that it is a key priority of the Government as well.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Owen. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) for securing this debate. She spoke for everyone here when she said that this debate should take place on the Floor of the House in future so that we can give this subject the forum it deserves.
This is an important time for the industry, and I want to put the fishermen themselves at the heart of our considerations. I pay tribute to those who have lost their life or been injured in this dangerous profession. Fishermen work off a dangerous platform in a dangerous place, and too many pay the price for that. Bereaved families and many other parts of the fishing industry are wonderfully supported by organisations such as the Seamen’s Mission and the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. I echo other hon. Members in paying tribute to them and to organisations such as the RNLI and the coastguard for their bravery and courage and for serving our marine environment so well.
We tend to approach this debate with a sense of groundhog day, as we trawl through the same old arguments. There is a general ennui or depression about the way in which we manage the system, but there are glimmers of hope here and there. What I have detected in my time, both as spokesman for my party when in opposition and as Minister, is that there are some reasons to be cheerful, I intend to put all my effort behind those chinks of light to make them wider and clearer as we progress in the months ahead.
We face a very difficult time; let us not pretend otherwise. If I am asked to present in a sentence my vision for this industry and for the marine environment, I would say that we take an ecosystems-based approach, which was referred to in the GLOBE document. Such an approach has sustainability at its heart—sustainability of the marine environment and the ecosystems that we need and value and from which we get so many services, and sustainability for the industry, and the communities that it supports. Members from all parts of the House have spoken movingly about communities in their constituencies which are dependent not just on the, sadly, too few jobs, but the families, the processing industry and all its supporting infrastructure.
When I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray)—it was the first place that I visited when I was appointed as shadow spokesman—I saw an industry that was surviving. It has had its moments and difficulties, but it has the support of a fish market, merchants, chandlers and many others. If one of them were to go, how viable would be the remainder? That is something that I frequently find as I go round the coast of Britain.
As we embark on the next few weeks, with the December Council and CFP reform, I have to say that I am supported well in this difficult job by some very able officials, who have so much more experience than I of this sometimes Kafkaesque process. There is a great sense of unity across the devolved Governments. If people want an example of cross-party co-operation, they need look no further. We have a Minister from a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government working with a Minister from the Scottish National party in Scotland, a Sinn Fein Minister in Northern Ireland, and a Labour Minister in Wales. I am determined that we should approach this round with a sense of unity, because it is only by working together and being on the same page that we can achieve what we need to achieve. I am grateful to all of them and to their respective officials for their support.
I will rattle through some of points that were made and try to respond to them in the time remaining. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan led the way in calling for regionalisation and an end to the top-down management of our fisheries and the common fisheries policy. She finds a ready and supportive audience in me. Earlier this week, I was at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council. In a discussion between all the Ministers and the commissioner, everyone who spoke mentioned the need for regionalisation and an end to the current centralised system. In the same way, people often talk positively about long-term management plans, but the proof of what is said lies in what is done, particularly with the current reform process. I sense that among some of our European partners there is, to quote Hilaire Belloc, a desperate desire to
“always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.”
I do not think that anything can be worse than what we have now. We must have a decentralised system, and that is what I will be leading on in the reform process.
The hon. Lady represents the two important ports of Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and my two visits to her constituency have proved to me the importance of the fishing industry there. I value the clear way in which I was briefed about her fishing interests, and she was right—as were other hon. Members—to point out the affront of discards. Discards are first and foremost an affront to fishermen, and they are increasingly an affront to the public and the consumer. I was recently interviewed at Billingsgate market by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whom I congratulate on leading an important campaign to raise awareness of this issue. His questions surprised me, as he seemed to think that I would somehow be a Minister in a suit who would try to defend the status quo. He was surprised that I out-outraged him with my hyperbole and my opposition to discards.
We must look at where we can succeed. Some schemes have been mentioned today; the hon. Lady mentioned catch quotas, and others have spoken about Project 50%. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) raised that issue, and on three occasions, I have heard the commissioner quote it as a shining example of what can be achieved. I intend to build on those important points.
How realistic is it to say that we will move to a system of catch quotas? I have no doubt that the Government are committed to dealing with that problem, but realistically, how likely is it that we will see a change in policy?
I forget the figures for the English fleet, but in Scotland, there are 17 vessels in a catch quota system. That represents about 20% of that fleet—perhaps not; I cannot remember the exact figure. At the moment, that system is a trial. We tried to persuade the Commission—and we will continue to try—that we must move beyond a trial. We want to get every vessel possible into a catch quota system because, for reasons that I will mention, that is the solution. Fishermen are incentivised to do something that gives them more fish, ends discards and is a bottom-up approach. It makes fishermen part of the solution, and instead of being the battered person at the end of the line being hit by a stick, they are given a carrot to find a solution. I will go on to talk about mackerel, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) echoed the point about decentralisation and I know the importance of nephrops to his constituency and the difficulties that are faced there. He rightly mentioned the difficulties of displacement. When we create a management regime that results in less activity in one area, there is a displacement effect. Too often, we have seen the malign effect of displacement round our coastline, and he is right to raise that issue. However, he sensibly discussed the world in which we live. I would love to debate how we got to this point, but that would be a waste both of my time and of the House’s. We should put all our energy into working with a system that we think we might be able to change. For the first time in my adult life and in the experience of people who have been in the House for many fisheries debates, we find the door open to a level of reform that we must try to achieve. I recognise that that is important.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) is an able chairman of the all-party group, which benefits from his knowledge of, and passion for, the subject. He rightly pointed out the importance of the processing industry. We must remember the jobs at stake and the importance to our food security of keeping the infrastructure that we require on land to support the jobs that we are discussing and get the product to market that our fishermen bring ashore. I think that he is rather depressed about the prospects for CFP reform. That probably comes from years of experience, but I hope that we can work with him.
My neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and I have been in and out of meetings and have not been able to contribute to this debate, but I emphasise that the processing industry is incredibly important to us also. It plays a significant role in the Humber region. Things are all interlinked. It is a huge issue for us also.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. I am meeting and working with the Food and Drink Federation to ensure that we have a strategy that supports that industry, and I am going with the FDF to see some fish processing companies near his constituency to ensure that we are integrating the needs of the processing industry into our policies.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North was positive about other aspects. He was right to point out the GLOBE report, which I value. I appreciate his good wishes at a difficult time. People have been commiserating with me on my job, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. Hon. Members sometimes say nice things about me, which is probably a kiss of death in this place, but the issue is not really about anyone in the House; it is about our marine environment and the jobs of people who do dangerous work out at sea. As we go into the December round, I am conscious that a lot of people will be looking on with great fear and trepidation for their futures. It is a great responsibility, but I take it on readily.
Many hon. Members raised marine conservation zones. Several, including my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, said that fishermen are sceptical and suspicious of the process. Yes, they are, but the point is this. Fishermen come to my office and meet me as I go around the country, saying, “We’re concerned about this.” People from green non-governmental organisations say, “The system is too much in favour of socio-economic activities.” The fact that both groups have those concerns means that we may be getting it just about right. However, I assure the House absolutely that I want to ensure that at every stage, we have a balanced approach and that people have access. The good thing about today’s debate is the feeling that the argument that conservation is on one side and fishermen and socio-economic activities are on the other is weak and old-fashioned. If we can get this right—the projects, although they have not been without difficulties, are proving that we can—it will be to everybody’s advantage. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and everybody who has raised the issue that at every stage right up until designation, we will ensure that everybody has access to the process.
We must remember that when we discuss management of marine conservation zones, we might be trying to manage the sea bed, in which case activities higher up the water column might be perfectly permissible, or we might be trying to protect features at the surface, such as bird life or harbour porpoises, in which case activities on the sea bed might be perfectly permissible. It is a question of working through the suspicion that my hon. Friend mentioned.
I intervened to address the point that my hon. Friend raised about hand-line mackerel. She has raised the issue with me before and is an assiduous campaigner on behalf of the fishing community in her constituency. She also mentioned dredged materials, a matter that is very relevant to Rame head. She has raised it with me before and it is currently under review. The point she makes is absolutely right: we have to get coherence, because that will bring credibility, and it is important that all parties link together to ensure that we have a credible system.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) made important points about his fishing community in North Shields, which I have visited. I will seek to get the best possible deal for fishermen there and around the country, as we face one of the most historically difficult rounds that we have ever faced. He raised a specific point on whiting, which is important. I know that it is a valuable stock for fishermen in his part of the world, as elsewhere. On the “use it or lose it” rule, there is a lack of understanding about what goes on, because the science is underdeveloped and it is assumed that just because a stock is not being caught up to quota, it is not there. We know that in our seas that is not the case, and I intend to make that point clearly.
A number of Members mentioned the interpretation of the science. The Commission makes the point that we have to debate on the basis of sound science, which is absolutely right, and we do and we will. However, there is a different interpretation of science when we talk about maximum sustainable yields. Are we talking about a particular figure or a band of probabilities? I agree with those who say that Europe should set a parameter, an aspiration to move towards MSY and have a sustainable stock by a certain date, and then leave it to regional bodies or even very local bodies, for example in the case of inshore fisheries, to put into effect an overarching plan. That has to be the way forward. That is the way to use science wisely and apply it to what we actually find in our waters, and I am determined to do that.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) has had to leave, so I will address his points directly to him. I do not have time to mention them in detail now, but I think that I can give him some assurance on his three main points. His point about the closure at Trevose Head is absolutely right. Real-time closures can be a good tool in conservation management, and they are fishermen-led. The fishermen I speak with want their sons and grandsons to carry on their profession in the future, and it is only by giving them the tools to make the conservation opportunities that they know are needed that we will get a better and more sustainable marine environment.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an important point about nephrops in the Irish sea, which is a matter of particular concern to Northern Ireland’s fishermen. I hope that we can come to some arrangement that gives them a sustainable future for at least the medium term until we see a recovery of that stock. I am working closely with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland and others to ensure that we get the arguments across. It will be one of our priorities as we go into the December round. I take his point about cod and herring. He briefed me in a very focused way recently, and I can assure him that we will take those points forward. The weather is closing in, so I hope that he will be able to get home.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) spoke about the cluster of science excellence in his constituency. I have benefited from it, experienced it and met a number of scientists from Plymouth. I know how passionate they are about their work and will readily take up the invitations to visit Plymouth and see that work, which have come from several directions. He asked about Natural England and marine conservation zones. I can give him every assurance that I want to see proper systems through the marine conservation zone process, so I can give him assurances on that and on recreational angling. I am an angler. I have been invited to fish for bass in his constituency, or nearby, by one of his constituents and I give him every assurance that I will try to represent the benefits of recreational angling throughout the process of marine conservation.
I am conscious of the time and I want to get on the points that were raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). First, I send him warm congratulations on his appointment as shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister and I look forward to working with him. Long-term management plans are the future and I give him every assurance that I will work towards creating those plans. Of course, that means losing political control, to an extent, and there are some people who think that the December round is the way that it should be, because politicians are holding the quota and can distribute it, which I think gives them a sense of patronage. That sense of patronage is not an attitude that I share and I want to see Europe move away from the rather bizarre antics that we are about to enter into.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of ocean acidification, which, in terms of our adaptation to climate change, is important. Regarding his question about mackerel, yes, we are being absolutely robust and I will be very happy to brief him in more detail on that issue.
On CFP reform, I have set out quite clearly our determination to work towards regionalisation and integration on a sea-basin basis, as well as integration of the industry. I have not had time to talk about the under-10s today, but I am determined to take forward a reform that sees those vessels getting a bigger slice of the action. However, I will do that in concert with the rest of the sector and I will try to rebuild trust in the industry. In the near future, I will announce some ideas that will be taken to consultation. At the centre of our CFP reform will be an end to discards and movement towards more catch quotas, and I am happy to keep the hon. Gentleman briefed at every stage. In conclusion, I offer him the pledge that we will be making a statement on the results of the December round.
There is much more that I would like to have said, but there is simply not time to give credit to everybody’s contribution today.
In closing the debate, I thank you, Mr Owen, for your exemplary chairing. I thank all hon. Members who participated in proceedings and I especially thank the Minister for his contribution. The very wide range of issues that have been raised indicates just how important fishing is to those of us who represent coastal communities and they also reflect the diversity and complexity of the industry and its management regimes.
We all recognise that the Minister will have his work cut out in the next few weeks. I particularly welcome the emphasis that he is placing on sustainable communities and his commitment to continue to work closely with the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations. I have no doubt that he will have to endure a few sleepless nights when the EU talks roll into the wee small hours—as they always do—and he has my sympathy in that respect. However, I do not think that that is the way to manage the industry or our precious marine resources. I echo the comments of the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) in saying that we need to move towards longer-term management of our fisheries. I hope that the Minister will work with others across Europe to find a better way.
Among a number of salient points made by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) was the observation that the multi-year agreements reached with Norway represent a far better approach to managing our fishing industry. He and the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made a plea that the “use it or lose it” quotas should not be automatically cut. That point is important, because automatically cutting those quotas reduces the scope for diversification and our future negotiating stance. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) ably highlighted the great danger of having a fishery that is dependent on only one stock.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to tackling the issue of discards and his backing for a roll-out of the catch quota scheme. I urge him to continue to hold his ground in the negotiations with Iceland and the Faroes. Above all, I urge him to bring the CFP, as we know it, to an end, and to fight for the livelihoods of our fishing communities and to defend our historic fishing industry. Until that happens, our industry will continue to languish and damage our marine environment unchecked.
I hope that the next time that we debate fisheries in this House it will be on the Floor of the House in Government time, and I wish the Minister every success as he fights the good fight for our industry in the next few weeks.
Question put and agreed to.