Skip to main content

Fisheries Council

Volume 537: debated on Monday 19 December 2011

I wish to inform the House of the outcome of the discussions on fisheries at last week’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council, at which I represented the United Kingdom for the fisheries elements of the agenda, while Richard Lochhead, Michelle O’Neill and Alun Davies represented Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales respectively. I am aware that that many Members are very interested in the annual fisheries discussions, and I am grateful for the opportunity to inform the House of the outcome of this year’s negotiations.

The annual December round is always a difficult negotiation, but this year we went into it facing a greater challenge than we have confronted in recent years. Just under a month ago, the Commission published a regulation on the cod recovery plan that would have had dire consequences for significant elements of the UK fleet. We had not only to negotiate the annual total allowable catch and quota allocations, but successfully to negotiate a resolution of the threat of massive cuts in the time that our fishermen can spend at sea under the cod recovery plan. I am pleased to report that we managed to achieve both those outcomes.

We stated and won our case for our interpretation of article 13 of the cod recovery plan. That means that we can continue to offer incentives, in the form of additional days at sea, to fishermen who undertake additional conservation measures. Without that correction in interpretation, more than three quarters of the fleet would have had their fishing time cut drastically short, in some cases to just four days a fortnight. This important victory means fleets can go on fishing and catching their quota, while continuing the ground-breaking cod avoidance and discard reduction schemes that are being developed and implemented by fishermen all around our coast.

I know that the fact that—except in regard to the regulation that I mentioned a moment ago—we were unable to avoid reductions in days at sea has come as a blow to significant parts of the industry, and I share their disappointment. However, the Commission felt that significant legal obstacles, as well as resistance from a number of member states, prevented it from not cutting the number of days at sea. That said, the Commission has made it clear that the cod recovery plan is not meeting its objectives, and has agreed that the review that I secured last year must be accelerated as a matter of urgency. I hope that it will be possible to revise the rules without a full-blown co-decided revision of the text, but if that is needed, we will work hard with the Commission to create mitigating technical measures that will maximise the opportunities available to our fishermen.

Let me now turn to the TACs and quotas for next year, which constituted the main issue on the Council’s agenda. Since the Commission’s proposals were published in the autumn, we have consistently argued that we should follow the science, and should aim for the securing of sustainable fish stocks in our seas. That was particularly important in the context of tackling the so-called data-poor stocks. The Commission’s proposal that quotas should be reduced by up to 25% did not take into account all the information that the fishing industry and scientists had been collecting, or the implications of such cuts, both in economic terms for the fleet and for discards. Significant cuts in by-catch species, for instance, would have been likely to result in a substantial increase in discards. That is completely contrary to the policy of both the UK and the Commission, which is to eliminate discards.

We successfully negotiated amendments to the Commission’s original proposal for TACs and quotas—amendments that are worth an additional £36 million to the UK fleet. We secured the continuation of this year’s quota allocations for the majority of stocks, including North sea and west of Scotland megrim, whiting in western waters, and pollack and sole stocks along the west coast. I can give more details if Members require them, but a couple of noteworthy gains included a 200% TAC increase in west of Scotland haddock, a roll-over of Northern Ireland nephrops, and a 150% increase In south-western cod. The UK battled hard to reach an agreement that ensures the long-term sustainability of fish stocks while providing short-term catching opportunities for our fishing industry. The package we secured helps all sectors of the industry, large and small, and delivers benefits for all parts of the UK, north, south, east and west.

I would like to put on record my thanks for the co-operative manner in which colleagues from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales contributed to the discussions. In the event, all Administrations were able to agree to the final deal. I would also like to stress that the overall package of measures was negotiated with close and constructive co-operation with the European Commission and with other member states, most notably France, Germany, Spain, Denmark and Ireland. This shows that the UK is playing a firm and constructive role in Europe, getting the best deal for the UK and its fishermen. This was a good result for the UK fleet and, equally importantly, a good result for the long-term sustainability of the stocks that our fleet fish.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on at least managing to stay in the room with his European colleagues until 4 am, unlike the Prime Minister. I also congratulate him on exposing the two faces of the Scottish National party on Europe: on the one hand it promises to get out of the common fisheries policy, while on the other hand it says it wants to be a leading player in the EU.

A sustainable and profitable fishing industry is vital to the UK’s economic interests and to coastal communities around the UK. Some 12,000 fishermen are employed on UK boats, with just over 5,000 working in Scotland. The fishing industry is particularly important in Scotland. I grew up in the highlands of Scotland, and on a recent visit to the Western Isles I had a chance to speak to the fishermen in those fragile island communities. Fishing provides employment not only to the men I met in Tiree, Barra and Lewis, but to women as well, in the processing of the catch. May I ask the Minister whether he has visited the Western Isles, and if he has not may I urge him to talk to those men and women, so he can see for himself the impact the decisions he makes has on these fragile communities? Without a good deal from this Minister, the very existence of those communities is at risk.

The case for reforming the CFP is compelling. At present, almost half the fish caught in the EU are discarded, which is both an economic and an environmental waste. In July, this House unanimously adopted a motion urging the Government to support radical changes to the CFP. The Commission published its draft reform proposals on 13 July. What guarantees can the Minister give that the Government’s position on discards and CFP reform will not lose out in future negotiations? What progress is he making in advancing the case for the regional management of fisheries waters, a move that would be welcomed by the UK fishing industry?

I pay tribute to the Scottish fishing fleet, which has already reduced discards and introduced CCTV as part of catch quota to better manage fish stocks. What investment in scientific evidence is the Minister proposing to make as we move to long-term management of fishing stocks?

The verdict on this Minister is in: the fishing industry and conservation groups have described his deal as a disaster. In November he met representatives of the fishing industry and stakeholders to agree the UK’s red lines for the negotiations, including rejecting any calls to cut the number of days that fleets can spend at sea. On 5 December he issued a press statement saying his discussions with Commissioner Damanaki on the amount of time fishermen can spend at sea were very positive, yet his deal will mean a cut of between 15% and 25% in the number of days white-fish vessels can put out to sea in 2012 as part of the cod recovery plan. Fewer days at sea could lead to the unintended consequence of more damage to fish stocks and higher levels of discards, as fleets rush to catch all they can in their allotted time. Will the Minister explain why he abandoned his red line last week? Will he confirm that some vessels will see their period at sea cut to about four days in every fortnight? Will he tell us how many vessels will be affected and what the position of the Scottish fisheries Minister was on this issue? How difficult was it for the Minister to build alliances to support his red line? What went wrong? Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said:

“This is a bitter blow for our fishing fleet, which is now going to struggle to maintain economic viability under the impact of these…unwarranted cuts.”

What is the Minister’s message to fishing communities who feel betrayed by his broken promises?

I welcome the 200% increase in respect of west of Scotland haddock, the 150% increase in respect of south-west cod and the deal for fishing fleets in Northern Ireland. What assessment has he made of the ability of the fleet to use the extra quota, given that they will be at sea for fewer days? What impact does he believe the overall package will have on the number of fishing vessels that will be viable next year? What assessment has he made of the impact of the reduction in the number of days at sea on the financial viability of the Scottish fishing fleet and fleets elsewhere in the UK?

Next year, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the CFP. What reassurances can the Minister give the House that the Prime Minister’s stance on Europe will not isolate us in discussions and ultimately harm the British fishing industry?

I thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome—I am attempting irony, which never quite works from this position. She really needs to understand that at the beginning of last week we were looking down the barrel of a gun at cuts that could have resulted from a penalty regulation introduced by the Commission. Its interpretation of the cod recovery plan could have resulted in between half and two thirds of the Scottish fleet being put out of business, the Northern Irish nephrops fleet being tied up for 11 months of next year and a great many other vessels and fleets around the country being put out of business. We argued that both at meetings last week and at the end of the week at the Council and we got things reversed. We did so by close working with Ministers from other devolved Governments, and I thank them for their efforts.

If the hon. Lady looked into the details, she would see that although vessels will have a reduced number of days at sea next year, what we secured, through our interpretation of the cod recovery plan, was the ability for them to buy back days at sea by the imposition of other methods of conservation. So she simply has not understood the difference between the control order that the Commission has now withdrawn and the remains of the cod recovery plan.

The hon. Lady asked me to visit the Western Isles. I have done so in the past but not in this role, and I will certainly do so in the future. My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has reminded me that I am due to visit Shetland soon, and I see such visits as an important part of my job as UK Minister. She rightly says that there is an important social element to this, because the men who risk their lives to get this healthy and much-needed food on to our plates also support people in ports.

The Government remain absolutely committed to reform of the common fisheries policy. I sat up until 4 o’clock on Saturday morning arguing about net sizes, the gauge of nets, the Orkney trawl and eliminator trawls—such details simply should not be the subject of a management system where the people imposing regulations on the fishery are sometimes located 1,000 miles away from the fishermen who are supposed to use them. We must have reform that is more decentralised and that gets away from the micro-management that has failed. I believe that last week exposed a system that is obsessed with process and therefore ignores outcomes. The cod recovery plan is not working because the Commission sticks so rigidly to the process and the rules and regulations.

What we have achieved is a realisation from the Commission that it must start to look at the process, because the outcomes we all want to achieve are being lost. The hon. Lady is right that Scotland’s fleet has done many good things. It has led the way in real-time closures and selective measures, but it has not done so exclusively. Wonderful work has been done around the United Kingdom and we want to see it being brought forward. That is why we have secured the science budget, which the hon. Lady asked me about, to ensure that the information we can give the Commission is accurate. We faced 25% cuts in total allowable catch for data-poor stocks, but we managed to argue against that, not out of a blind desire to let our fishermen go fishing but because there was scientific evidence for it.

When the hon. Lady talked about last week, she talked as though Britain was somehow isolated in Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is today at the Environment Council and she will have the same experience as I had, which is of a close working relationship. I built alliances with the French and the Germans, and, as I said, with the Spanish, the Irish, the Danish and those from many other countries. I can assure the hon. Lady that Britain is far from being isolated in these matters.

I congratulate the Minister on his stamina and on delivering an agreement that was in the best interests of Britain. What does he understand centralisation to mean under the fishery reforms? I hope he will join me in wishing Denmark well as it takes over the presidency. Does he share my concern at the lack of science? He referred to the data-poor species, but we are proceeding with these annual rounds with a complete ignorance of the science about the stocks and climate change, warmer waters and the movement of species. Will he also give us an undertaking today that our inshore fishing fleet will not be disadvantaged in the future reform of the common fisheries policy?

My hon. Friend will know that I have been particularly keen in this job to see a better deal for the inshore fleet. I believe that the pilots we are about to start will show a new way of managing the inshore fleet and I can assure her that the scientific evidence we require for that will be vital. As we roll out the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the marine conservation zones, we will see further investment in information about what is going on in our seas, on the seabed and so on, to ensure that we protect those areas as much as possible.

My hon. Friend asked about regionalisation and it is vital that we get this right. This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity, and, frankly, I do not believe that we will have another chance if we do not get it right this time. Decentralisation must mean an end to the top-down detailed decisions that I described earlier being taken so far from the fisheries. The problem we have in the United Kingdom is that our fisheries are complex. They are mixed fisheries with species swimming alongside each other, which means that if one species is targeted another is caught. Systems of management such as the cod recovery plan that operate from the sub-Arctic waters of the north down to the waters of Spain simply do not work because they are a one-size-fits-all solution and that simply does not work with fisheries.

Will the Minister guarantee that the result of the Council last week still places the European Union on target to achieve maximum sustainable yield by 2015? Does not the outcome of the Council make a powerful case for the introduction of long-term reforms to the CFP and of long-term catch quotas to deal with the problem of by-catch and discards? Is not that reform preferable to the abolition of the CFP, which is the policy of Scotland’s separatist party?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We very much stick to our international agreed position of seeking to achieve maximum sustainable yield where possible by 2015 and good environmental status by 2020. He is right that long-term management plans are the way forward. I have just been rubbishing one long-term management plan, the cod recovery plan, which is a bad plan. What we want is good long-term management plans, and we certainly can achieve that. The problem with the common fisheries policy is not that it is common but that the policy is wrong. We will always need a degree of common working and all but a very few people in this country recognise that where there is an arbitrary line, such as the one that goes down the Irish sea or the median line through the channel, fish do cross those boundaries. We simply cannot work our management systems on just one side of that line; we must work on an ecosystems basis. That is why we need co-operation with other countries.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on resisting the more extreme ideas that came from the summit over the weekend. Does he accept, though, that one of the dangers is that as a result of the cuts in the number of days at sea, fishermen may not be able to catch their full quota? Will he undertake to keep the position under review and, if that proves to be the case, go back to Brussels in a year and argue for changes?

One of the most ridiculous outcomes of the penalty that was due to be imposed on British fishermen was that they would not have had enough days at sea to catch the quota they were allocated. We managed to stop that. We will constantly keep that under review and we are working hard to make sure that the problems that the fishing industry faces through the reductions in days will not continue in future years.

I am grateful for advance sight of the statement and acknowledge the efforts of the Minister, Richard Lochhead, and other colleagues at the discussion, but does the Minister not acknowledge that this annual merry-go-round in Brussels is just not fit for purpose for the fishing industry or for the marine environment, so when will we see proper regional management come into force?

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is a circus. It is not a way to do business. We cannot make decisions in this way, working through the night and finding that the direction that we are seeking to take is thwarted by other countries working in a different way in an entirely different sea basin. It is not a good way of making any decision, so reform of the common fisheries policy, which we are discussing in the coming year with a view to a more regionalised system of management becoming possible in 2013, is a priority for this Government.

I know that the Minister is aware that 10 days ago the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee met in Hastings and took evidence from fishermen. May I let him know that the local fishermen whom we spoke to are very concerned about transferable fishing concessions, and may I urge him in all his conversations to bear in mind their differences on the under-10-metre group?

I am very aware of the fishermen’s concerns, which I share. Transferable fishing concessions may have application with certain vessels in certain fisheries, but by no means all. That is why we need localised management. Member states should be able to take decisions to apply such measures in a way that suits some, but not necessarily all, of their fleet.

A large proportion of Hartlepool’s fishing fleet comprises boats under 10 metres. The Minister did not mention that in his statement. Specifically, what did his late-night work help to achieve for that category of the fleet?

I am delighted that we are able to report that there were considerable increases in stocks that will benefit fishing out of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and that we were able to invoke the Hague preference, which is of particular importance to fishermen in the north-east. We secured increases in whiting, which is of particular interest to his constituents, and I very much hope that we will be able to continue the scientific work that we are doing with fleets based in the north-east on a land-all system so that we can learn what a discard-free fishery means, following it right through the food chain.

I congratulate the Minister on standing up for British fisheries, and compliment him on the deal he got for cod in the western approaches. On the cod recovery plan, he should not have to defend our plan when we are stopping discards. Should we not get the Commission to endorse more of our plans, rather than having to defend them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been some really good work in this country on reducing the number of discards, which was acknowledged by the Commission, so it was rather perverse that there was the possibility of measures being introduced that could have brought an end to precisely that good work. In his area, for example, Project 50% saw a more than 50% reduction in the number of discards in the beam trawler fleet. That would not have been possible under the proposed reduction in days that we were facing but luckily managed to reverse.

First, I congratulate the Minister on the hard work done in Brussels along with the other Ministers, including our own Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and Fisheries Minister. The Minister fought hard to ensure that prawn quotas were retained although the scientific evidence showed that they should have increased. The herring quota was also decreased although, according to the scientific evidence, it should have been increased. Will the Minister comment on the state of play at the sentinel fishery? We met some of the fishermen the week before he went away and we were told it was being investigated. I believe that the figures for that scheme will show the abundance of cod in the Irish sea.

I was particularly worried about the impact on the Northern Irish fleet. The initial proposal would have meant that many of them would have gone out of business. They could not survive if they were tied up for 11 months of the year and I am glad we managed to reverse that. I am glad that we also managed to reverse the proposed 19% cut in Irish sea nephrops, which was totally unjustified, and we were able to prove the science behind it. I was very interested by the proposal that the hon. Gentleman brought to me about a sentinel fishery in the Irish sea. We are looking into it and I will be in touch with him as soon as I have some information.

I thank my hon. Friend for both his stamina and determination in securing an increase in many stocks that my fishermen rely on, particularly cod in area 7B to K. Will he explore the possibility of top-slicing the additional quota that he secured, creating a reserve for the under-10-metre fleet, thus avoiding the disastrous situation we had under the last Government when, in 2008, the under-10-metre fleet in Looe was tied up because the quota was exhausted by the end of February?

I am delighted that fishermen have been telling me at great length, not just in the south-west, but certainly in the south-west, that they are seeing more cod now than they have seen for a great many years. That has been backed up by the science and we were able to secure an increase of 150%. That was a good result. Haddock is also up 25% and whiting up 15%. The package is worth £1.3 million in total to the fleet in the south-west. The managing director of one producer organisation told me in the small hours of Saturday morning that at the start of last week he was looking at a £250,000 cut to his members, which would have been devastating, but by the end of it we had secured a £250,000 increase. I will certainly look at my hon. Friend’s proposal for the under-10-metre fleet as well.

At the beginning of the statement the Minister mentioned that the agreement was supported by France, Germany and Spain, among others. I bet they supported it; they saw him coming. If the number of days at sea is reduced, the number of boats going out and the number of people working in the industry will be reduced. The reality is that we will end up with a smaller industry, and that will not be reversed until the Minister obtains some sort of reversal during the review of the doctrine of common resource. That is the root of all the problems in the common fisheries policy, which is one of the most loony ideas ever to fly out of Brussels, and that is saying something. Until he does something about the doctrine of common resource, we will not reverse the situation.

I think we are coming from the same direction, but I am not sure we are reaching the same conclusion. The hon. Gentleman is just wrong to say that our relationship with other countries was somehow to their advantage and not to ours. There was a collective view across major fishing countries in Europe that the cod recovery plan was not working and the Commission had to understand why. We were absolutely on the same page with major fishing countries that fish in areas such as the North sea and around our coast. Not only did we achieve a good result last week, but in terms of reform of the common fisheries policy, we will continue to work on those relationships, whoever is in government in those countries, to make sure that we have the result that we need for our fishermen.

I, too, praise the Minister for his steadfast and robust approach. One of my constituents shrugged his shoulders this morning and told me, “It could have been much worse”, which I can assure the Minister is high praise, coming from them. Many fishermen have virtually eliminated discards through new processes, but that is not reflected in the methodology used in the negotiations. What hope is there for future improvement in that respect?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is really important that we build on good work, such as the fisheries science partnerships, which involve scientists going out on fishing vessels and fishermen meeting scientists to discuss how to approach this, as information on discards can then be dealt with in an informed way. That helps me in our negotiations with the Commission, so I commend the work being done by fishermen in his constituency on reducing discards and ask him to keep me informed.

I know from personal experience that the post of UK Fisheries Minster is a lonely one and I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has managed to achieve. This ludicrous system whereby decisions are taken year on year on the basis of sleep deprivation simply has to stop. Will he give the House a written statement in the new year on how he sees the reform of the common fisheries policy moving forward? This year two maritime nations—Denmark and Cyprus—will hold the presidency of the Council of the European Union, so surely there is an opportunity to move to regional fisheries management during their year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his help and advice as I have progressed in this job. It is useful to have Members of the House who know what it is like to go through this charade—I use the word carefully—of a process, which requires decisions to be made after two or three days of heavy negotiations that run right through the night. We must have meaningful reform and it must have regionalisation at its heart. We need to be able to define in the new year exactly what we expect when working with partners in the sea basins around the UK. I pledge to keep the House informed of our progress.

Given the considerable disquiet among British fishermen about the deal, particularly the breaching of the Minister’s own red lines, is the deal not further proof of the catastrophic loss of influence in Europe since the Government parties came to power?

No, the hon. Gentleman probably was not listening when I said that we have been working extremely closely with our European partners. I think that he would really benefit from seeing just how well we worked and how we joined forces to defeat a proposal that, had it been implemented, would have been utterly devastating for our fishing industry.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting a 150% increase in the amount of cod being fished off the south-west. What position did the Hungarians and Austrians take in the matter, given that they have absolutely no coastline? Will he also confirm that there will be no impact on recreational fishermen?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am a great supporter of recreational angling and want to see many more people fishing in our seas. One of the ways of achieving that is by having more fish in the sea, so that feeds into what we are doing. I can assure him that all my conversations—I think—were with nations that have a maritime interest and that we work well with them.

We keep hearing about all the benefits of our membership of the European Union. Does my hon. Friend think that UK fishermen agree that the common fisheries policy benefits the UK fishing industry?

I do not think that anyone loves the precise elements of the common fisheries policy, but fishermen tell me that they understand that proper management of our seas requires a common approach that recognises ecosystems, because fish do not recognise lines on maps. We need policies that reflect the ecology of fish, which sometimes means having to work with other countries.

The tragedy of all this is that Britain should never have given away her fisheries in the first place. Our European neighbours have overfished Britain’s territorial waters and we should be repatriating powers over our fisheries industry. Given that that is not Government policy, I congratulate my hon. Friend on doing his best in difficult circumstances, but will he tell the House whether Britain’s market share of fishing will go up or down as a result of this deal?

If I may correct my hon. Friend, it is precisely our position to see more regional management of our fisheries, which means that we will be responsible for more of the decisions that are taken at a local level. That seems much more sensible than the current system. I believe that we have created a considerable economic benefit for a number of fishermen around our coast and that we have certainly seen off some very damaging economic decisions that could have come out of it. I hope that, in moving forward to a properly reformed common fisheries policy, I will have his support in trying to get more localised management for our fisheries.