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Mauritania (Fishing Agreement)

Volume 541: debated on Thursday 8 March 2012

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

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) who is responsible, by default, for my bringing this debate before the House. He visited Mauritania last year and, following his excellent report, I conducted investigations into the fisheries partnership agreement between the EU and Mauritania. I am sure that many Members will agree that he has put great efforts into our relations with north Africa and the middle east. He has far greater expertise in this area than I. No one has done more to further Anglo-Mauritanian relations than he.

The first EU fisheries agreement was with Senegal in 1979. The number of such agreements rose sharply in the 1980s, following the ratification of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea and with the accession of Spain and Portugal in 1986. Those countries brought with them a number of bilateral agreements with other countries, particularly in west Africa.

The first fisheries agreement with Mauritania was in 1987, and it entered into force in December of that year. The current fisheries partnership agreement with Mauritania will end on 31 July 2012, and a new protocol was negotiated on 1 August 2008. The financial contribution is set at €86 million in year 1, reducing to €70 million in year 4; €11 million, increasing to €20 million, is to be used for national fisheries policy, with €1 million a year for—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

There will be €1 million a year to support the parc national du banc d’Arguin, a national park. Licence fees costing an estimated €15 million are paid by ship owners to Brussels. The agreement with Mauritania is by far the most expensive and important for member states such as Spain, which is already moving to negotiate a bilateral agreement if the EU negotiations fail.

The fleet can be broken down into two sections, the industrial and the artisanal. The industrial fleet is made up of a variety of vessels targeting various stocks. A few Scottish and Irish vessels catch pelagic stocks—mackerel, horse mackerel, sardine and sardinella. Sardinella are bonier and larger than sardines, and are mainly sold to the African market. Those vessels pair trawl, and they are fitted with saltwater tanks to store the fish, similar to a vivier tank in a crabber. The catch is trans-shipped to factory ships, and one Norwegian factory ship in the area is called the Ocean Fresh.

Factory ships and pair trawls are permitted by derogation from Mauritanian fisheries law. The sector is permitted a catch of 15,000 gross tonnes a month, to be averaged over the year. Dutch freezer trawlers catch pelagic stocks, and the catch is frozen on board. There are 17 licences, for a reference tonnage of 250,000 tonnes. There are 32 licences for 13,950 gross tonnes of cephalopods—species such as octopus and squid. Spain holds 24 of those licences and also catches tropical round fish and white fish, working in competition with the artisanal sector. Other licences are issued, mainly to Spain, for different fishing methods and species.

The artisanal fleet comprises mainly pirogues, constructed sometimes from laid wooden planks but increasingly from aluminium. Those boats operate with an outboard motor, and many are crewed by Senegalese fishermen. The crews operate with only a satellite or mobile telephone for communication, and they often have no navigation lights on their vessel and no VHF radio.

The Mauritanian Government have drawn up a development plan for the artisanal fisheries. The pirogues fish for cephalopods using pots or traps, and when shoals of tropical round fish, white fish and sardinella come close to the shore, the pirogues fish for them with nets. Most of the artisanal catch is landed locally in the port of Nouadhibou, where there is a quay.

As was pointed out in the report produced following the visit by my right hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham—

My hon. Friend's report pointed out that landing facilities are sparse, with just one small factory that can take 100 tonnes of mixed pelagic fish. I know that he would be pleased to confirm that, but he is prevented from speaking on the matter owing to his position as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister. His report makes the following observations:

“The fish are either auctioned in open air for the local market or auctioned in the purpose built facility with chilled storage units to buyers that deal with European fish and seafood firms. The operation here was of a reasonably efficient standard, however there was no large scale refrigeration available, meaning the fish were left out in the 30 plus degree heat.

There was one small room where a refrigerator from above was creating ice for use with some of the fish stocks, however the scale was not sufficient to deal with the volume of catches of different fish species, which were as a result liable to lose freshness and therefore value as a consequence.

In addition to the lack of refrigeration, there was also an absence of any other automated processing of any kind.

The port was littered with rudimentary stalls that ranged from people gutting and de-scaling fish, to making various broths and dishes with the catches. There were also basic sheds which sold various supplementary goods for the fish, as well as maintenance sheds for the boats and port workers.”

The current EU fisheries partnership agreement contains several promises. Some have been honoured, but others have not. Annex IV of the current protocol makes specific promises for port facility improvements. First, on progress on the refurbishment of the port of Nouadhibou, I understand that some work is being carried out, with the contract awarded to a Spanish contractor. Secondly, progress was to be made on refurbishing and extending the non-industrial fishing port of Nouadhibou. Thirdly, a number of measures were to be carried out to bring the fish market into line with standards. Fourthly, progress on the creation of landing stages for non-industrial fisheries was promised. Finally, a number of wrecks were to be removed from the Nouadhibou area.

Many shipwrecks have been removed, financed by the EU, and the contract was awarded to a Dutch contractor. However, I understand that there has been no progress on improving the artisanal side of the ports of Nouadhibou or Nouakchott. The three other landing piers to spread the artisanal sector more evenly along the coast have not been provided.

The joint motion for a resolution by the European Parliament of 10 May 2011 confirms that. The preamble states:

“owing to the scant development of the fisheries sector in Mauritania, including the lack of significant landing ports outside Nouadhibou, the country is being deprived of the added value it would obtain, if it were exploiting its fishery resources itself (including processing and sales)”.

The resolution continues:

“as envisaged in Article 6(3) of the current protocol, the EU should support the fastest possible construction of adequate facilities for landing fish along Mauritania’s central and southern coastlines, including—but not limited to—Nouakchott, so that fish caught in Mauritanian waters can be landed at national ports rather than outside the country, as is often the case at present; this will increase local fish consumption and support local employment”.

Talks between the EU and Mauritania collapsed last December according to Euronews, which reports that a negotiator from the west African country said that the two sides failed to make an arrangement regarding money. For far too long, EU bilateral agreements and the successor fisheries partnership agreements have failed both conservation and the local fisheries sector of the host nation.

I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to make representations to the European Commission and fisheries Ministers from other member states, calling for the inclusion of the European Parliament’s recommendation in any future FPA with Mauritania. That should include: delivery of all promised port facilities; a requirement to land all catches from EU vessels, including pelagic and cephalopod, in Mauritania; and support for the artisanal fleet, including education about fishing practice, management, safety equipment and marketing advice.

Will my hon. Friend also investigate, with all parties at UK, EU and Mauritanian Government level, the possibility of helping create a sustainable, self-supporting fishing industry in Mauritania? That could be through the formation of a fish producer organisation or a non-governmental organisation similar to the Sea Fish Industry Authority. In the UK, both those organisations are funded by a levy. Such a levy would be easy to apply if all catches were landed in Mauritania. It would provide the financial means for marketing, management and safety training to the local industry among other things, and could allow Mauritanian fisheries to become self-supporting and sustainable, thereby eradicating the need to rely on handouts of aid from the EU or Government sources, and boosting the Mauritanian economy. Most importantly, it could provide the means for scientific data collection and ensure that those rich waters are not plundered by large third country vessels to a level where the fish stocks they contain fall below the safe biological limits. The EU has a responsibility to ensure that fisheries agreements do not harm nations such as Mauritania.

In conclusion, I should like to describe disgraceful behaviour that has taken place off west Africa, as highlighted by the European Environmental Justice Foundation. Fish caught by pirate vessels were trans-shipped to a larger factory ship—the Seta—before being landed in Las Palmas. The EU confiscated the catch under the recent regulation concerning illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Some four months later, claiming a discrepancy in translation, the Spanish Government released the catch, allowing the pirates to sell it and receive the income. Will my hon. Friend the Minister investigate that matter with both the Commission and the Spanish Government?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for allowing me to contribute to her Adjournment debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for his report highlighting the problems in Mauritania.

I want to talk not only about what is happening in Mauritania, but about the agreements in principle. I spent 10 years in the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009 and voted against every agreement, because—quite simply—the EU should not be buying up the resources of west Africa or anywhere else, and taking fish from the mouths of those fishermen and families. Boats often run down and destroy local fishing boats. If we are to help those countries, we should buy fish from them and help them to build up their fishing and port industries.

The agreements are absolutely morally wrong, and we should not use our taxpayers’ money or European taxpayers’ money for them. That money very often goes not to the people of west African countries, but to their various Governments of various types. I shall be reasonably diplomatic—for me—and say that not much of that money gets to the indigenous population. It more likely lands up in Swiss bank accounts. I am blunt about that, because we know how governance in such countries often takes place.

The Minister is a great warrior, and I know he will go to Brussels and raise those points. It is time we stood up to be counted as a country within the EU and said enough is enough. One has only to go to Spain and see the amount of fish eaten there to see why they are so hungry for fish, but if Spain wants fish, it should buy them from those African countries, not plunder their waters at European taxpayers’ expense, which destroys the livelihoods of the fishermen and communities in those countries.

I urge the Minister to take strong action. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall is an expert on fishing and was able to describe the species and types of fish being caught. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fish are being taken from Mauritania. It is completely and utterly indefensible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) both on requesting and on securing the debate, building on the expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). I should also acknowledge the powerful contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I shall explain shortly why this debate comes at an opportune moment. It is important that we debate such issues not only in the House, but where it counts, in the European Union. I shall go on to explain the Government’s policy on the external dimension of the common fisheries policy.

The future of the fisheries partnership agreement with Mauritania is important, as is the future of all EU fisheries partnership agreements with other countries. The EU spends around €120 million each year on fisheries partnership agreements with countries outside the EU in exchange for EU vessels being permitted to fish in their waters. That is a large amount of money, representing 15% of the total EU fisheries budget. I am determined that these agreements should provide value for money, support good governance and apply only where the exploitation of fish resources is sustainable.

Over the past four years, the EU has paid €305 million to the Government of Mauritania so that its vessels can fish there. In total, the EU catch is about 300,000 tonnes of fish each year. Rather than it all being landed into the EU or Mauritania, much of it finds its way to other African countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall said. In fact, very little of the fish caught in Mauritanian waters by EU vessels is actually landed into Mauritania. In 2006, only 8% of the EU’s catch was landed in Mauritanian ports. In response, Mauritania insisted on the inclusion of a clause in the latest protocol stipulating that, if vessels did not land into Mauritania, they had to pay higher licence fees. That has encouraged some additional landings but even now they are only around 12% of the total.

Vessel operators claim that they are unable to land into Mauritania because the conditions are simply not adequate for them to do so. In some cases, they say that to land into Mauritania could put the safety of the crew at risk, cause significant damage to the vessel and risk damage to the wider marine environment through oil spills. In 2011, the European Parliament issued a declaration that called on the EU to support the rapid construction of adequate facilities for landing fish into Mauritania. That would increase local consumption and support local employment—the kind of aims that a real partnership agreement should seek to achieve and, indeed, aims that are supposed to have been fulfilled in this agreement. The European Parliament also considers that more effective mechanisms must be in place to ensure that funds earmarked for development, and in particular for infrastructure improvements in the fisheries sector, are used properly. I entirely agree. We must be able to demonstrate that these public funds are being used for the purpose for which they were provided.

An independent evaluation of the Mauritania agreement indicated that, although it was better than previous agreements, there were still substantial deficiencies. For example, it concluded that most stocks offered to the EU by Mauritania were either fully exploited or over-exploited. If the EU wishes to be regarded as a responsible fishing entity, it must only fish against stocks considered sustainable. The scientific advice must be more robust and then adhered to by both parties to the agreement. The EU should not be contributing to overfishing in the waters of other countries by vessels that are, to all intents and purposes, subsidised by our taxpayers.

I am pleased to report that we are making progress. For example, all agreements now have to contain a clause allowing the EU to terminate them in the event of serious human rights concerns in the countries with which the agreements have been negotiated. I have also noted that the European Parliament has recently added its weight to the debate and called for money paid as compensation for access to fish stocks in Mauritania waters to be decoupled from financial support, so that reductions in fishing opportunities do not necessarily lead to reductions in financial aid.

I want the proportion of funding for fisheries agreements that is paid for by vessel operators to be increased significantly so that public money is not used to subsidise EU vessels fishing in developing countries. In 2012, only 20% of the money given to Mauritania was contributed by vessel operators themselves. We must ensure that these agreements represent value for money to the EU taxpayer and the local populations, and that these subsidies do not work against precisely what we seek to achieve on the development of sustainable fisheries.

We have been criticised for allowing vessels to operate around the globe that are no longer economically viable for fishing in EU waters. That criticism is well founded and we now need to take action to address it properly. I also want to ensure that, when these vessels fish under these agreements, they are subject to the same standards of control that apply to vessels fishing in EU waters. That means ensuring that a sufficient proportion of the funds under the agreements is spent on strengthening inspection and enforcement capability.

In that regard, I note what my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall said about a factory ship landing in Las Palmas. We will certainly make inquiries with the appropriate authority to investigate that. What she described is a disgraceful situation—if it can be proved—and we will work hard to ensure that, where possible, such matters are decided.

I should also report to the House that my discussions with other Fisheries Ministers from west African countries have shown me that what they require is a single point of contact with the Commission, so that if an EU-registered vessel is held and those concerned are arrested for malpractice of any kind, that information can be transferred to the Commission and appropriate licensing action can be taken by the EU. At the moment, that does not happen. We currently have a crazy situation, where a vessel can leave a port and just go out to sea, perhaps carrying on fishing illegally without the kind of sanction that should be applied by us, as the EU, from where it is licensed.

I have already been pressing those points in a number of forums. Over the coming months, we will have a number of opportunities to tackle the issues and bring about real change that will improve the governance of the agreements, ultimately benefiting both the EU and—more importantly for this debate—the countries with which we have those agreements. That is why this debate is so timely. The first such opportunity falls in about 10 days or so, at the March Fisheries Council, where I will be discussing with fellow EU Fisheries Ministers the external dimension of the common fisheries policy, as part of the reform of the common fisheries policy to deal with fisheries partnership agreements. I can assure hon. Members that I will be maintaining the pressure and reflecting the mood of the House this evening.

The UK’s position is clear. We want a common fisheries policy that promotes the genuinely sustainable use of fish stocks, wherever they are. We are seeking to ensure that fisheries partnership agreements are based on robust science, allowing EU vessels to fish only for stocks where a genuine surplus exists and providing value for money to the EU taxpayer. I want fisheries partnership agreements to place a greater financial burden on the vessel operators who benefit from them, and I want to see the same standards of control and enforcement as are currently applied in EU waters. I also want a mechanism that separates the money paid for access to fishing grounds from development aid, and provides a real benefit to the indigenous populations and fishing communities of the countries with which we have such agreements. Critically, any agreement must be subject to a rigorous assessment, to ensure that its sustainability is assured before, during and after its life cycle.

I end by offering this assurance to my hon. Friend and the House. I will continue to argue strongly for improvements to both fisheries partnerships agreements under the current CFP and the future policy frameworks under a reformed CFP, for the benefit of taxpayers, developing countries and the fish stocks themselves. I would also say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. He may not share the view that not all fisheries partnership agreements are wrong. However, if we can get this right and develop a sustainable fishery off a country’s coastline, so that the fish are caught sustainably and landed there, with value added to them by local fish processing businesses—perhaps with the support of aid from countries such as ours—and if those fish can then be sold on the world market, all that can benefit both the indigenous populations along those coastlines and the economic development of that country as a going concern, as well as helping with better governance and greater scientific understanding of what is happening in the seas around those coasts. That is what I am trying to achieve, by making a virtue out of what is, really, a black mark, in what has been the sorry history of the common fisheries policy, both at home and in its external dimension. I can assure the House that I am working hard with all those with an interest in the agreements, to ensure that we achieve real and meaningful improvements to the current framework of fisheries partnership agreements.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.