I beg to move,
That this House has considered the fishing industry.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), the new fisheries Minister, to his first annual fisheries debate. There was a time when these debates were fairly rowdy affairs, but I think he will find that it is a bit more sedate now. I suppose that is a reflection of the decline of the industry.
However, fishing is still extremely important. The industry is responsible for about 1% of GDP. There are about 6,500 vessels in the fishing fleet throughout the UK. It still employs 12,500 fishermen, nearly 7,000 in England and Wales, 5,000 in Scotland, and 700 in Northern Ireland. It is clearly an industry that benefits the country in a range of ways, not just economically—for example, the health properties of fish are well known. It is important that we keep a vibrant and viable fishing industry.
Of the top 10 ports for landings in the UK, three are in England and seven are in Scotland. That shows the strength of the Scottish fleet. Peterhead, which on last year’s figures landed over 110,000 tonnes of fish, is way ahead of every other port. Given the volume of fish landed in Peterhead, it is no surprise that the Grampian region, where my constituency is, dominates the processing industry, along with Humberside. My own city of Aberdeen was once the No. 1 port, but that was many years ago, and most of the harbour where the fishing boats used to deliver fish is now given over to the oil and gas industry. That is a very significant change.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate. It was once provided in Government time, but for a number of years now the Backbench Business Committee has been the route for us to secure it. It has been traditional to commemorate those who were killed in the industry in the performance of their work. The latest figures I have are for 2012 and they show an improvement. Six deaths and 44 reportable injuries are slightly below the norm for the industry, but that is still a serious number of accidents. I know that efforts are being made, supported by Government, to improve the safety record in the North sea, but it is still a major problem.
I want to focus on two issues that are of major concern to the industry. The first is the serious consequences of the impasse between us, the European Union and Iceland with regard to the way in which Iceland and, to a lesser extent, the Faroes have been exploiting the mackerel and pelagic fish in their area. The Minister will by now be well aware of the processes that take place during the fishing year: surveys are conducted and data collected and analysed, and the results are passed on to scientists, who give us advice on the health of stocks and what tonnages may be fished. The European Commission then presents us with a policy statement of intention and approach, and we go through a few more stages before conducting negotiations with Norway about the common species we share. The Administrations of Iceland and the Faroes are also involved in that.
Those negotiations with Norway have not taken place this year, so it would be helpful if the Minister could give an indication of when they are likely to be held. The industry’s view is that there will be no opportunity for the Commission to discuss the quotas and decide on the total allowable catches until the bilateral discussions with Norway and other countries have taken place.
The likeliest estimate, according to the reports I have read, is that that will happen towards the end of January. That means that our fishing fleet is expected to cope and survive through the difficulties they face for a whole month of the fishing year without knowing what their TACs are for the year. It is important to know exactly when discussions will be held with Norway in particular, and when the TACs will be fixed, so that there can be some certainty. Many boats require refurbishment and maintenance and some fleets even need to acquire new boats, so those figures are crucial for them to be able to get the necessary loans and help from the banks.
This is a major problem for those based onshore. Aberdeen cannot be said to have a fleet anymore—it is virtually non-existent—but it is still a big centre for processing and our processors depend on the stocks that are brought ashore. Given that the fish are among the most popular in sales terms—including cod, haddock, North sea herring, North sea mackerel, whiting, plaice and saithe—a chain of problems and responsibilities needs to be taken into consideration.
The other major issue I want to focus on is reform of the common fisheries policy. Over the past few years, as this process wound its way slowly through all the stages it needed to go through, there was real optimism that progress would be made towards a new type of fishing and a new management and regulation regime in the North sea in particular and right across the waters around the UK and beyond. The industry is, however, becoming more and more aware of the very difficult relationship that now exists between the European Commission and the European Parliament. It is absolutely right to have an element of democracy and to ensure that the Parliament is aware of the issues and is involved. I am not privy to the detail of that relationship, but its consequences have been reported to me by fishing organisations and fishermen, and there are concerns about some of the most important parts of the policy reforms.
The first concern is about regionalisation, on which there seems to be a major impasse. I have had a report from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations on its serious concerns. It states:
“How cooperation between member states at regional-seas level and close cooperation of regional advisory councils in the formulation of fisheries policy will work in practice are open questions...And the clock is ticking on the deadlines set by the European institutions.”
Will the Minister update us on that?
Another concern relates to landing obligations. Everyone is in favour of a policy to reduce or extinguish discards, but the practicalities of getting it into operation show that real problems need to be addressed.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned discards. I know of a boat on the west coast of Scotland that in September and October sadly dumped about 400 boxes of spurdog, because there was no quota to land that species. I asked the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), what exactly this part of the discards policy means for that particular species, and the answer was to return them to the sea, even though they were dead. Should there not be some sort of quota allocation for by-catch spurdog, because dumping it back into the sea puts pressure on other shark fisheries worldwide? The system is perverse. Some fish are dead already, but that causes other fish to be fished in other places.
Mr Deputy Speaker is frowning at me, but I will try to be brief. Does not the hon. Gentleman think that over the years the problem of discards has been seen as far too difficult to deal with, but that we must now get stuck into finding a method of ensuring that we can land what is caught? I do not agree with him when he says, “Oh well, this, that or the other”; in the end, we have got to do it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. I had not quite finished my sentence, but we are all opposed to discards: it is criminal to throw good fish back into the sea. We have a major problem in this country in that the majority of our fisheries are mixed ones, but the European Commission operates on the basis of species and does not take account of mixed fisheries. We have not resolved that problem, but it needs to be worked on, so he is absolutely right.
To return to the issues that should be considered, the NFFO states that, in what is apparently now being formulated, there is a potential problem for
“choke stocks (where the exhaustion of the quota for a minor species prevents vessels from catching their main economic species).”
There is also the potential
“to put into reverse the progress that has been made over the last decade in reducing fishing mortality and achieving high levels of compliance”,
which is a serious issue. Other problems involve:
“Treatment of species with high survival rates”;
“Whether Norway will sanction quota flexibility for North Sea…stocks.”
I will be interested to hear from the Minister about that.
I do not want to sound totally negative, because it is important that we are not, but there are serious concerns. We have always been concerned about EU bureaucracy, but it seems to have reached a different level in relation to the fishing industry because of the involvement of the European Parliament. The prospect of a rejuvenated fishing industry under a sensible new system of regional management that operates properly, in which the TACs are determined at a relatively local level and which takes account of discards and all the rest of it, is being much delayed. It is important that the Minister responds to the points that I have raised, but also that we hear what approach he will take on these issues at the December Council.
Most of the communications that I have received from the fishing industry in my 20-odd years of life as a Member of Parliament representing a fishing city have been pretty depressing. That is part of the strategy that is adopted by the industry. However, in my recent discussions with Barrie Deas of the NFFO, he was good enough to supply some good news stories and I think it is worth reporting those. The NFFO states that
“the general trend in fishing mortality (fishing pressure) right across the North East Atlantic (including the North Sea and Baltic) since the year 2000 has been downwards. In fact a reduction of about 50% across all the main species groups has been observed by ICES.”
It is important to recognise that much of that is to do with the change in culture among the fishermen in the fleet. I am delighted that, under the guidance of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the Scottish fleet has been in the vanguard of that.
Barrie Deas gave me a few examples of good news stories. The biomass for North sea plaice is
“above anything seen in the historic record.”
Western and North sea hake
“has seen a dramatic resurgence, is seen now in areas where it has not been abundant and justifies a 50% increase in the TAC.”
The Minister can take that information with him. There are similar good news stories about other species of fish.
There is good news on the fisheries science partnership. For years, it has been obvious that there is a big gulf between the fishermen and the scientists who present the evidence to the European Commission that determines the likely outcome for TACs each year. The fact that there is a serious partnership that is supported by Government and by various EU institutions, and that projects are arising from that, is certainly very good news.
I will finish on that point. I simply say to the Minister that this is an important debate for those of us who still have a fishing industry in our communities and it is an important debate for the country. There are many issues in which we might want some involvement during the year, but this is the main debate in which we have an opportunity to focus on the industry. Members of the all-party parliamentary fisheries group had very good relations with his predecessor and were sorry to see him go. If the Minister can keep up to his standards, we will all be grateful.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and others on securing this timely debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the debate to take place in the Chamber so that there can be more contributions than there have been in such debates in Westminster Hall.
I welcome the Minister and the shadow Minister to their new responsibilities. I thank them for the contributions that they made as members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and remind them that they both participated in our excellent report in response to the proposals for the reform of the common fisheries policy.
I join the hon. Member for Aberdeen North in commemorating those who have lost their lives in the fishing industry. Fishing and farming are the two most dangerous industries and they both suffer fatalities and other losses. We should recognise that element of the work that fishermen do in bringing the fish to our plates. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) who, despite the personal loss she suffered, continues to take a great interest in the fisheries industry.
Today’s debate is timely, and I pay tribute to fishing ports across the country. The port of Filey has historically enjoyed coble boats—that is why we have Coble Landing—and when I was first elected, six families still depended on fisheries off the North sea coast from Filey port. Sadly, however, for a number of reasons—not least that they needed a trailer to bring the coble boats on to shore—the cost has been prohibitive, and I understand that they now fish mostly out of Bridlington, which I think is the largest shellfish port in England, if not the UK.
The historic common fisheries policy agreement that was agreed by the European Parliament this week is to be welcomed and paves the way for new reforms to take effect on 1 January 2014. Notwithstanding that, I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in his overnight negotiations. I hope he will be well equipped with refreshments to keep himself in good order, as he will obviously need to be on top form.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although it is great that the European system is now grinding into place to ban discards—I wish the Minister well in that—the process must be kept going and indeed sped up? My knowledge of the EU, and I suspect that of my hon. Friend, is that it will take an awfully long time to get to a situation where we can stop discarding healthy fish. We need to speed up the system.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with him. The opinion of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on this deal was published in February 2012 and the Government response in July 2012. It has taken three years of difficult negotiations, and I commend the fisheries Minister and his predecessor on the lead we took in securing a significant reform of what was deemed a fundamentally flawed common fisheries policy.
Let me say why the reform is so important. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the hon. Member for Aberdeen North mentioned discards, and it is key that we do not replace discards at sea with discards on land. The Committee’s report concluded robustly that we must be imaginative about bringing fish on to land—having been born in Scotland, disappeared, and then returned there, I can say that different fish are eaten in Scotland from those eaten in England. If we can extend the palate and consumer taste to different types of fish and create new markets for existing fish, that would be a great way forward. As the report noted, celebrity chefs and others have a part to play in that by creating a novelty feature for dishes such as pollock, which I am sure would not be so widely eaten had it not been for chefs and others paving the way.
The hon. Lady calls for us to be imaginative in dealing with some of the problems that fisheries throw up. Twenty years ago I fished for spurdog as a targeted fish, but things have moved on and, as I said earlier, it is now a non-targeted fish often caught in nets. Spurdog comes in on boats, but under the landing obligation it looks as though it can be neither landed nor discarded. We will certainly need some imagination in dealing with spurdog that we cannot land or discard.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will join me in tasting some of that to see whether it is edible, and we could look at creating a new market.
As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said, the key points of the next stage of reform include a ban on the wasteful practice of discarding at sea perfectly edible fish for which there is no current market, a legally binding commitment to fishing at sustainable levels, and decentralised decision making that allows member states to agree measures appropriate to their fisheries.
One of the most exciting parts of this reform is that for once we are going to focus more on the science—I think we have gone wrong with previous reforms of the commons fisheries policy because we have not done that. I am an avid watcher of “Borgen”, the Danish television programme, and I will include in my remarks one or two references to Denmark. I am half Danish—I am very proud of that—and I studied in Denmark. As part of our report the Committee had the opportunity to visit Denmark and see practices that I hope will transform the regional control aspects. Science is particularly important there because Copenhagen is home to the headquarters of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—ICES—and if we followed more of the scientific base that it spends a long time producing, I believe we would all benefit.
The health of fish stocks is assessed every six months by ICES, and the EU published an overall assessment of its advice in October 2013. It stated—this is from a Library note so it must be true—
“that 39% of EU fish stocks are still over fished,”
but that is down from 86% in 2009. In spite of that reduction in overfished stocks, the assessment goes on to say that trends giving rise to concern include, for instance, the fact that
“the number of stocks under an advice to reduce captures to the lowest possible level… had increased.”
I am sure the Minister will wish to focus on that. Being optimistic, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North concluded, Seafish, the industry body for the UK, has said:
“there is reason for cautious optimism in the industry as we continue to see iconic stocks such as cod in the North Sea move towards recovery.”
We must not rest on our laurels, and it is essential we follow the science. Where I would like the science to lead, and where I believe there is an example we can follow, is regional control, and I have a question for the Minister about that.
I also worked for a number of years in Brussels in legal practice, and we must understand how we can get round the problem of fisheries still being an exclusive competence of the EU. If that situation remains, how shall we achieve regional control in practice? I believe that is a legal problem and not insurmountable. Again, I will turn to Denmark, because Denmark and Sweden have established regional control around Danish and Swedish waters that works extremely well. That is down to the size of the nets and meshing they use, and how they fish particular fisheries—I will not go into too much detail because it is well established. I hope the Minister will confirm that that model will be used. I understand that the new common fisheries policy brings decision making closer to the fishing grounds, clarifies the roles and obligations of each of the players, and ends micro-management from Brussels, and that the Commission will agree with fishing nations in the region about the general framework, principles and standards, overall targets, performance indicators and time frames. Crucially, however, member states within that region will co-operate at a regional level to develop the actual implementing measures. If it can be established, and all member states in the region agree to the recommendations being transposed into rules that will apply to all fishermen in the region, it will be a real game changer.
My hon. Friend is making a superb speech. She mentioned two key elements to reform, but does she agree that there is a third? History might reveal that that third element—a legal requirement to fish sustainably, to fish to maximum sustainable yield—is even more of a game changer. Is that not a key reform that will get our fisheries back on an ecosystem management basis?
I am grateful for that intervention, and it gives me the opportunity to record my thanks to my hon. Friend for the hours he spent on the groundwork to achieve an historic agreement. Sustainability is key, and sustainability will be proved by following the science. We went too far away from the science in the past; we need to hold to it in future.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the idea of regionalisation, as described by the EU, is perhaps one of the tremendous ways that the EU misleads us? The first meeting on the regionalisation of the north-west waters took place in Dublin on 12 November. The group includes the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands—a pretty big region. We had thought that regions would be smaller than states, but at EU level they are multi-state organisations. It is better than what we had, but it is by no means local control—it is still a horse-trading arena.
The hon. Gentleman does the House a great service by pointing that out. I had understood that regions would relate to borders contiguous to the sea within which there would be fishing. We cannot get away from the fact that Spain had historical rights to fish in our waters before 1973. That is something the Minister will have heard about, and I am interested to know how Spain manages to muscle in. I pay tribute to my Spanish friends, in case they are reading this or watching it on television—we have an agreement not to discuss fishing, Gibraltar or Las Malvinas.
My hon. Friend talks about Spain’s access to what, historically, were our waters. One problem is that once there is a common fisheries policy everybody muscles in, nobody more so than Spain. Spain will hoover up fish not only off our shores, but off Africa and anywhere she can find them. She is a menace and I am quite happy to say that in this House.
As some of my best friends are Spanish, I hope they are not following the debate too closely. I am sure Spain would wish reciprocal access rights for our fisherman in its waters. Perhaps we can reach agreement on that basis.
The new laws will allow countries working together regionally—under my definition of regionally, which does not necessarily include Spain—to move away from micro-management to true regionalisation and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) said, to a legally binding commitment to fish at sustainable levels.
Our report was so good that I would like to highlight one or two points. We called for decentralisation, rather than the Commission handing down, and for more research into selective fishing methods, which are important. We called for a cipher mechanism to reallocate fishing rights away from slipper skippers, and we called, again, for a register. My hon. Friend the Minister would not forgive me if I did not mention again our call for a register of who owns the current quotas.
The Minister and the House will have heard what the hon. Lady says. I await the Minister’s reply with great interest. The House sits for another whole week and I am sure we stand prepared to hear from the Minister on his return not just that he has brokered a good deal for Britain, but that he wishes to publish the register of fisheries.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak. I pay tribute to those who fish our waters and put themselves in harm’s way to bring fish to our plate. I pay tribute, too, to those who called for this debate. I wish the Minister great success in his negotiations on Monday.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make what I hope will be a brief contribution to the debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and others for securing such an important debate on what is still an important industry. I welcome the new Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), to his role and acknowledge the important work done by his predecessor, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon).
I want to begin by paying tribute to the fishermen, in my constituency and elsewhere, who do a dangerous but important job on our behalf. We are reminded of the dangers facing fishermen by a report in today’s Daily Mail that the remains of 10 people discovered in Russia may be those of fishermen lost when the Gaul sank off Norway in 1974. The Gaul was the Ranger Caster when it sailed out of my constituency from North Shields. In that disaster, which was well documented, 36 men lost their lives. A number of them were from my constituency. In government, we were justified in supporting a survey that provided some of the answers. If this recent news brings further closure for the families—if there can ever be closure in such a situation—then I welcome it. They will be celebrating, if that is the right word, the 40th anniversary of the disaster in February next year. I pay tribute to the families who have worked so hard, not just in my constituency but in the wider area.
Closer to home, I thank those who work every day to keep our fishermen as safe as they can be: the coastguard and, in particular, the volunteers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at the inshore boat at Cullercoats and the bigger boat in Tynemouth. We should be proud of our RNLI crews. They are brave and do things that I certainly would not be prepared to do. They play an important part in supporting our industry. I also want to pay tribute to the Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen in North Shields, under the inspired leadership of Peter Dade and Alex Hastie, who do so much to support the wider fishing community. Fishing is a dangerous job and a precarious business. We must not lose sight of the fact that, whatever its traditions and history, it is a business.
I want to raise two points, and I make no apology for being very local as they will allow us to talk about the grand strategy and what the Minister will be about when he gets to Brussels. The first point is, I think, within the Government’s remit to resolve. The second is less of an issue and more of a short story concerning the current situation facing fishermen in North Shields and along other stretches of the north-east coast. I hope the Minister will bear that in mind during his deliberations.
We all claim to have the most important ports in the country in our constituencies, but North Shields truly is the most important fishing port in the north-east. Despite that, it only retains one or two larger boats and a couple of dozen under-10 metre boats. It is a fraction of the size it was even in the relatively recent past. Fishermen there rely on a mixed fishery, and at this time of the year they particularly rely on the prawn fishery, but a few also rely—or did rely—on licences allowing them to use drift nets to catch salmon. In many cases, these licences have been handed down from generation to generation and have been an important part of fishermen’s incomes, yet over the years there has been a concerted effort to get rid of them, particularly—this is not a political point—under the Conservatives. The pressure has come from landowners in Northumberland and south-east Scotland who know they can make a great deal of money from fishing rights along the banks of their rivers, and concerted pressure has been placed on Ministers. Up until recently, the line was held, but the decision was made earlier this year—I am sorry to say—to phase out the licences.
My constituency shares with the hon. Gentleman’s a significant involvement in this traditional fishery. The river fishery to which he refers is an important part of the economy of the Tweed and other rivers, but does he not agree that it in no way depends on driving out of business a few fishermen in small boats who exercise responsibly traditional and historical licences, and that the decision to close the fishery altogether is wholly unjustified?
I agree entirely on both counts with the right hon. Gentleman. Anecdotally, I am told that salmon stocks are relatively healthy and that there are salmon in more and more rivers in Northumberland and—I would imagine—in south-east Scotland as well. The fishermen themselves contribute to the hatchery that puts fish in at Kielder to ensure that stocks are buoyant. I understand that there is some dispute over salmon stocks—
As the person who took that decision, I would like to put it on the record that although I did get pressure from angling interests, they were as nothing compared with the concerns I had about the impression we were giving at the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation. These are mixed-stock fisheries, and we had given a commitment but we had not carried it out. The whole of the UK’s credibility for sustainable management of our fisheries was at question because of the stand we had been taking at NASCO. That was the primary reason for the decision I took.
I am sure that is the case from the former Minister’s perspective, but we are talking about 13 licences and a decision that, as far as I can understand, was largely one that we made. We presented this opportunity, his predecessors having withstood the pressure for a considerable period. Of course, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said, we want anglers to have access to good stocks, but the former Minister knows as well as I do that there has always been concerted pressure, not from the anglers themselves who take their rods to the rivers, but from those who see this as an opportunity. Let me tell him this: it might be an opportunity for landowners to make some money, but it is also an opportunity for fishermen in some cases to survive on the back of these licences. This fishery is not an extra, but an important part of what they do.
While we are on the relative buoyancy of stocks, I understand that the Environment Agency takes the same view as fishermen in saying, like the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, that there is enough for both. I still do not understand fully why the decision was made to phase out the licences and the fishery—and made without a debate in Parliament using order-making powers. My point is simple: the drift net salmon fishery in the north-east is a traditional fishery—what some call a heritage fishery. It is, by all accounts, sustainable. It is local and organised so that catches are limited, yet somehow vested interests appear to have won out. If the Minister has some spare time when he returns from Brussels, will he revisit this issue? The fishermen who will lose their licences believe it could be revisited before we pass the point of no return.
The hon. Gentleman mentions heritage fisheries. About 22 years ago, I worked in Gretna, on the border, on the M74. Working with me were gentlemen from Kirkpatrick Fleming who frequently went “haaf” netting on summer evenings, as they say in the ancient fisheries—“haaf” is apparently the Old Norse word for “ocean”. At a moment when we are looking for plurality and diversity, it would be sad if we took a step that would, as he says, ruin and end a centuries-old practice that people have carried on sustainably in many communities.
Not surprisingly, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I have always been careful, in the few fisheries debates I have spoken in, not to take too romantic a view of the past or the industry now. This is a business, and all I ask is that the Government apply to this case the same principles they talk about in wider fisheries policy. If we apply those principles, I cannot see how we arrive at the position the Government arrived at earlier this year. If we are not careful, the danger is that the livelihood of local fishermen will be lost, and without any great gain.
I want to move to my second, broader point about what has happened in the past couple of months off my constituency. As I said, local fishermen rely heavily on the prawn season. Using relatively small boats, they make a living and keep the fish market going and the port working, but this year they have faced increased competition, perhaps as never before. They tell me it comes from larger twin-netted boats. I am told anecdotally that many of the crew are overseas fishermen—that should not be a big point, but it is a point they make. The boats clearly come from elsewhere. At the risk of falling out with my new hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—I am told that many of them come from Scotland, but this is not an anti-Scottish thing, I assure him. The fishermen of North Shields are trying to make a living and stay in business, but the pressure on them has been intense this year. The word they keep using is “displacement”. When fishing restrictions are put in place elsewhere, the pressure goes on those parts of the fishery where stocks are relatively healthy.
I understand exactly the hon. Gentleman’s point about displacement. We have a problem off the west coast of Scotland with boats whose nets are far too big or that have too much horsepower using up the kilowatt days allowed in the fishery, and the resulting payback time and lost days at sea cause great difficulty and angst on the west coast. I fully understand his point, therefore, but would make one point about crews from other countries: they are most welcome. When we see Filipino fishermen, we recognise that we have great seafarers in our midst. I only wish the immigration department would recognise that too and allow men from the Philippines to come here and work and be welcome in our communities.
We have not fallen out, as I thought we might earlier, but I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point on board, although my fishermen might be less willing to share his view on the role of the immigration department—but that is a slightly different matter.
In the light of what my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North said earlier, I worry about what delays in setting the quotas might mean. If there is uncertainty in the system, will it add to displacement and result in even greater pressure while we await the quotas? That is very important. I am told that no rules have been broken. The organisations he referred to, which are normally very officious in applying the rules, have been ominously slow and silent on this matter. As a result, fishermen in my constituency feel under pressure. They feel under pressure when they read about marine conservation zones. They are not anti-environment—they are some of the greatest environmentalists hon. Members would ever want to meet—but they read what has been written and they feel under pressure. When they hear that we are going to have more offshore, rather than onshore, wind farms, they wonder what the effect will be on their industry. They feel the cost of living—as we all do—on their families. As a result, they feel under threat.
My question to the Minister is relatively straightforward. I hope he will be able to say what the reforms to the common fisheries policy that he is doubtless going to outline to us will mean for fishermen. What will regional management, reliance on scientific evidence, giving greater access to the under-10 metre fleet and so forth mean for the fishermen in my constituency? In the light of the problems raised about the implementation—and possible delay—of the new policy, what assurances can the Minister provide for my constituents? They want to know whether next year will be easier or more difficult for them. If the Minister cannot confirm that fishermen can look forward to a better future, I hope he can say that they can look forward to at least a future.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), and I congratulate him on emphasising the importance of safety at sea and on repeating what the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) said in opening the debate about the bravery of those who work so hard in such difficult conditions and who face significant danger to put the fish on the plates of people all around the United Kingdom. We are about to commemorate the 40th year of the tragedy of the Gaul, and in constituencies such as mine, literally scores of fishermen have lost their lives in pursuit of this vital industry.
In opening, I want to pay a significant tribute to the former fisheries Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who achieved a tremendous amount during his period of office—with the exception, I have to add, of his decision on the salmon drift-net fishery in the north-east. That does not impact directly on my constituency, but the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) certainly raised important issues about that.
Having ranged as widely as I intend to, I shall now become extremely parochial for the rest of my speech, as I shall look into the impact of negotiations on common fisheries policy reform on the vitality of the fishing industry in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. My constituency has a significant port in Newlyn, as my hon. Friend the Minister, who represents Camborne and Redruth, well knows. The amount of fish landed in Newlyn every year is of considerable value, and the fishery, in which the over-10 metre fleet is unique, is an ultra-mixed one. The by-catch of spurdog and porbeagle in the ultra-mixed fishery of Cornwall is particularly significant, and I have raised issues about this on behalf of the industry for the past decade. The problem is nothing new to the fishermen in my area.
I know that the UK Government are engaged with the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, as is the Cornish fleet with scientific projects and research such as the Neptune project. All this engagement and work will be perceived as pointless if no change to the policy results and no attempt is made to provide a pragmatic solution to this important issue.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that one problem for politicians is the pressure that comes from non-governmental organisations to restrict this type of fishery? It can lead to the perverse outcomes I mentioned earlier. The supply is reduced but demand remains the same so that shark fishing starts to happen in another part of the world. Meanwhile, the by-catch here is returned to the water dead—a double hit that emanated from probably good intentions, albeit ignorant ones.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is exactly the point I raised on previous occasions. Although I have every sympathy and agree with the sentiments expressed by the NGOs—we do not want to take action that will have a detrimental impact on, or undermine the viability of, important species such as spurdog—the fact is that we need to engage in trying to find a practical solution to the problem, and simply saying that we are going to ban the landing of these fish does not necessarily mean that a single spurdog will be saved. We need to find more effective methods of achieving the desired outcome. I hope that the NGOs will engage with the Government and, in our case, with the Cornish fishing fleet, the Neptune project and so forth to find a practical solution rather than simply campaigning and saying that what is being done is never good enough.
Another theme running through the debate—one feels that one is repeating oneself from the same hymn sheet—is the arbitrary use of the 20% precautionary element of the quota-setting process, particularly where the science is insufficient for the setting of an effective quota. I hope that the Minister will talk to the industry and come to understand not just the anecdotal evidence, because a lot of work is being undertaken nowadays with scientists going on board many of the vessels and subsequently sharing their data and information.
The reasoning behind some of the annual quota cuts is unjustifiable and, in many cases, counter-productive because no fish are saved. I urge the Minister, rather than to run through the impacts on each fish species of the proposed quota settlements for next year, to look closely at the representation he received last week from Paul Trebilcock on behalf of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation. I think that a cogently argued case has been made, which I hope the Minister will use as a brief. I know that Paul will be available and at hand if the Minister needs any technical assistance in the negotiations.
Another key issue that crops up time and again in the fisheries debate is the perceived conflict between commercial fishermen and sea anglers—something that is played out in our debates and in a lot of the discourse that goes on in Cornwall, for example, in connection with the Cornwall inshore fisheries and conservation authority, and in the Isles of Scilly, where there is a separate IFCA.
One significant pinch point relates to the setting of the bass minimum landing size. I corresponded about that both with the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury, who I see is leaving his place, and the present Minister. At the end of the day, angling contributes £2 billion to the economy and a total of 23,600 jobs. The angling fraternity is keen to ensure that the Government recognise its important role for the UK economy, especially when about 75% of the fish caught by anglers, including those caught at sea, are returned alive to the water.
A number of issues have arisen in Cornwall. For instance, bass do not spawn until they reach a minimum of 42 cm, but the minimum landing size in Cornwall—which is higher than those in the rest of the country—is 37.5 cm, and elsewhere it is 36 cm. We need a healthy bass minimum landing size. Local sea anglers are arguing for the minimum to be raised to 48 cm in order to allow the fish to breed at least twice before there is a chance of their being caught, and I think that that is a justifiable argument.
According to this year’s report from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, bass stocks have fallen by 35% in the last five years. In our area in particular, there has been a significant amount of pair trawling on a seasonal basis. Scottish pair trawlers sometimes come down to the channel to take their slice, but no pair trawlers from our own coasts are involved, and although we see a great many bass longliners, they are very selective in their fishing methods and their impact is therefore relatively small. Fixed-gear gill netting takes place inshore, and I think it important to set an inshore net size that will prevent the catching of juvenile fish. The minimum landing size for mullet, for example, is 20 cm, but they do not spawn until they are 48 cm.
Our local branch of the inshore fisheries and conservation authority has engaged with the industry in trying to find a solution, but the IFCA tells me that the Government must become involved if that is to happen. I recently received a letter from its chief officer and head of service, Edwin Derriman, in which he wrote:
“I am aware that Defra is considering the ICES report”
—that is, the report from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea to which I referred earlier—
“so I have to assume the UK Government will comment in due course. The Government and the EU are the proper authorities for considering that report, as it is for that audience that the ICES reports are written and any concentrated action to protect the species has to come from”
the Government and the European Union. Mr Derriman went on to say
“the Government do not necessarily agree with Cornwall IFCA’s view that a general increase in MLS”
—minimum landing size—
“would or could be beneficial for all stakeholders.”
I hope that the Minister will inform us of the Government’s latest thinking on that issue.
In another letter, Eddie Derriman wrote:
“an unexpected challenge has come about through the forthcoming EU ‘discard ban'.”
It is true that many people did not anticipate that challenge. There has been a campaign for a discard ban, and I have certainly joined the chorus, although I have consistently pointed out that if a logical solution is to be found, it will be important to find a way of distinguishing between what is intended and what is unintended in relation to catch quotas.
Let me first say something about the impact of the discard ban on minimum landing sizes generally, and on those relating to bass in particular.
Eddie Derriman wrote:
“There is a lot of discussion on the principle that if discards are banned, then MLS sizes may be defunct. We cannot second guess the likely outcome to all the discussions, but I would hope that common sense prevails and that ‘robust' fish species could be put back in the water it there is a good or reasonable chance of them surviving.”
While we agree in principle that it is unacceptable for perfectly good and edible dead fish to be thrown back into the water and wasted—a rather offensive image which has, I think, driven the argument for a discard ban—I think that we should think about the potential unintended consequences, one of which is the increased difficulty of implementing a minimum landing size. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that as well.
The hon. Gentleman said that we needed to establish whether the fishing of endangered stock was targeted or non-targeted. I know that during the autumn at least one boat contained 400 boxes, and I am sure that all the other boats have done the same. That should serve as a guide to civil servants and scientists who are formulating some sort of policy.
The one thing that fishermen do not want to do is go on a fishing trip and load their boats with fish that have zero value. They do not want to steam out, fill their boxes with fish that they did not intend to catch, do not want and cannot sell, and then have to steam back and land them on a pier. That is the worst of all worlds for a fisherman.
Order. We need short interventions. There is a danger of Members’ trying to make speeches by means of interventions, which worries me. Six more Back Benchers and two Front Benchers have yet to speak. I do not want to have to impose a time limit, but it is looking likely.
I accept your strictures, Mr Deputy Speaker. We could, of course, extend the debate to the relative merits of quota and area management, but I will simply say that, in my view, area and seasonal management and a more effective use of closed areas are a better way of controlling and protecting fish stocks than quotas.
Let me end by making a couple of brief points. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that in Cornwall we have drawn attention to the potential risks to our crab fishery, particularly in the over-15 metre sector. One of the problems of the way in which the industry is managed is that requests for significant cuts in the catch are often given at very short notice. Much more planning is needed if we are to avoid shocks of that kind.
I also want to raise the issue of the six and 12-mile limits. I know that my hon. Friend has a reputation, indeed a pedigree, for being strongly anti-European, and I hope that I can draw something out of his anti-European-ness. I am talking about simply batting for Britain. Let us all join forces, and agree that whether we are engaging with Europe positively and constructively or negatively, what we want is the best deal for Britain. It is clear that most of the foreign boats that are taking advantage of access within the 12-mile zone and up to the six-mile zone are new, and were not around at the time of their historic entitlement. I urge my hon. Friend to scrutinise the impact that they are having very close to our coasts. I also ask him to think about the point that we have reached in the negotiations on the setting of marine conservation zones, which lie both within and outside the six to 12-mile zone. We need to ensure that we apply the same rules to both foreign and British vessels.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George). May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing the debate and welcoming the new Minister to his first annual fisheries debate?
This is an appropriate day to remember those who have lost their lives or been injured at sea. We have to remember that fishing remains an inherently dangerous occupation, and those who take on the risks of harvesting our seas deserve our utmost respect. Today’s debate is also an opportunity to express our gratitude to those who serve in the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. The mission does a tremendous amount of good in our fishing communities, and from speaking recently to the superintendents in Fraserburgh and Peterhead, it is clear that the demands on their welfare provisions are intensifying in these austere times.
We should also pay tribute to our coastguards and the volunteers of the RNLI lifeboats. Earlier this year I joined the crew of the Fraserburgh lifeboat aboard the “Willie and May Gall” for one of its regular training sessions. Luckily for me, it was an usually calm evening off Kinnaird head, but it gave me a fantastic insight into the commitment and courage of the men and women who train all year round so that they are prepared for emergencies when they arise. I want to thank publicly Victor Sutherland and his crew for that opportunity, but above all for the service they give—and, indeed, the service the lifeboat crews in Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Macduff give to the communities I represent and the service provided by all those RNLI volunteers around our coast who give their time and risk their own lives to save others.
This has been a difficult year for the fishing industry in Scotland, particularly in my part of the world. Last December, shortly after our last fisheries debate, the east coast was hit by a massive storm that combined with high seasonal tides and the direction of the wind to cause extensive damage to our ports and sea defences. Our largest ports at Peterhead and Fraserburgh sustained considerable structural damage, as did many of our smaller harbours. One factory in Peterhead was completely destroyed. I saw buildings near the shore in Fraserburgh that had been moved off their foundations. People living near the shore in Peterhead had to be evacuated from homes that had lost their doors and windows, and further damage to processing factories was only averted by swift action to repair sea defences in the immediate aftermath of the storm. It was a sobering reminder of the power of the elements, but its aftermath has also been a testament to the resilience of our fishing communities.
Things are not yet back to normal by any means, but the repairs are well under way, with ports seizing the opportunity not just to repair, but to improve their sea defences and invest in new developments. The further round of emergency grants announced by the Scottish Government this week and European fisheries funding is supporting 45 projects around the Scottish coast and will enable over £11 million of investment in our fishing communities. Businesses in my own constituency have been major beneficiaries, most notably Peterhead port authority.
Yet Scotland only gets £46 million of the UK’s EFF allocation, which fails to reflect the size of our fishing industry and compares very poorly with the levels of funding available to other fishing nations such as Lithuania, and also Denmark which has £100 million a year in EFF funding although it has a population of a very similar size to ours. Overall, Scotland accounts for 7% of the EU’s wild fish catches and 12% of EU aquaculture, yet we get only 1.1% of fisheries funding. By any measure, our fisheries are being short-changed, and disasters like the one last year expose the vulnerability that this creates.
However, the challenges we have faced this year have not just been weather-related. This has also been a particularly difficult year for our nephrops fishermen, given the scarcity of prawns during the first half of the year. That has caused real hardship in parts of the fleet, including in my constituency, and great anxiety because we do not know for sure what caused the problem, as it is a well-managed, sustainably harvested stock. The prawn catches have bounced back more recently, and those most adversely affected have access to hardship funds, but it does bring home the need for flexibility in the common fisheries policy so that parts of the industry are not left high and dry in such situations.
The other challenge, of course, is that the mackerel dispute with Iceland and the Faroes rolls on. The Minister should know that I deeved his predecessor regularly on this issue over the last three years. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North suggested, the impasse has big implications not only for our pelagic sector, but for the white fish fleet and our fish processors. It is also a factor in the hold-up of the talks between the EU and Norway, which should have been taking place this month, but have now been put back until the new year. I am told there is some new momentum towards reaching a deal on mackerel. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to update the House on that, and can I urge him not to accept a deal at any price, and to defend our industry? Mackerel is our most valuable stock, and we must protect access to EU waters and ensure there is equity between EU member states and Norway.
I acknowledge the work that has been done to reform the CFP. Finally, at long last, we have a deal. To my mind, the move towards regionalisation, and the moves to maximum sustainable yield, will pay dividends in the medium to longer term and set the policy on a very different course. This represents progress that is long overdue.
The new landing obligation, or discard ban, has dominated the debate and has been widely hailed as the centrepiece of the reformed CFP. I think everyone without exception wants to see discarding come to an end. Those of us who have campaigned against discards know that it has, without a doubt, been the worst symptom of the structural problems within the CFP. I do not want to rain on anyone’s parade, but we have already heard about some of the contradictions that will be created by that discards ban, and the House needs to acknowledge that we still have some way to go to find a way to make that ban workable in practice.
There is inevitably by-catch in a mixed fishery, and our fishermen are going to need quota to be able to land it. The Scottish Government ran a trial earlier this year with a pair team of vessels on a “land all you catch” basis, with a view to informing the implementation of the discard ban. The trial was supposed to run until December, but it ended in August because the vessels ran out of quota for hake, which is currently abundant in our waters. This problem of “choke species” is not going to go away, and we need to find ways to deal with it. In this case the choke species was hake, but in other waters it will be other species, and therefore in future our fishermen are going to need quota for non-target species and unwanted catches. There are massive financial implications for vessels that need to lease in quota for by-catches, and if we are serious about stopping discards, then we need to secure the extra quota to allow it to happen. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks about the prospects of the Commission providing fishermen with the additional quota to cover the fish they are currently forced to discard so that we do not end up in the situation outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), where they have got fish on board that they cannot land and cannot discard. Are they going to eat it on board? It is hard to know what fishermen are supposed to do and how they are going to stay within the law.
I know that the talks that start next week will only be addressing stocks that are wholly within EU waters, and the important discussions with Norway on key shared North sea stocks like cod, haddock, whiting and saithe will not be happening until we are into the new year. However, once again the big issue will be cod quotas and the flaws in the cod recovery plan. We know that cod stocks are moving in the right direction, and in fact cod mortality is now at its lowest level since 1963, when assessments started. Fishermen and scientists alike are telling us that cod is more abundant than it has been for 50 years. However, the CRP threatens to derail the progress made in recent years. Last year, common sense prevailed and there was recognition that rigid adherence to the plan would be counter-productive. The same applies this year. If the proposed 9% quota cut goes ahead, it will inevitably lead to an increase in discards, which is exactly what we are trying to prevent. In my view, we need to continue following the science—in this I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh)—and the science indicates that a small increase in the allowable catch for North sea cod will enable the stock to keep growing and keep our long-term outcome of a sustainable fishery on track. I hope the Minister will promote that objective in the forthcoming talks, and I seek his assurance on that today.
I also seek a commitment from the Minister that he will not let days at sea be reduced any further, and that he will support an effort to freeze this at 2012-13 levels. Automatic reductions in days at sea will not give the fleet enough time to catch its quota, and that can only increase risk to our fishermen.
A great deal rides on the forthcoming negotiations. As everyone else looks forward to winding down for Christmas, December is a particularly tense and anxious time of year for fishing communities and everyone who works in the fishing industry. I wish the Minister well for the negotiations, and urge him to defend robustly the interests of our fishing and processing industries at these talks.
I apologise for the fact that I shall not be present for the wind-ups owing to commitments relating to other Government business. It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), and I should like to thank fellow members of the all-party parliamentary fisheries group for joining me and helping to secure today’s debate through the Backbench Business Committee. I should like to welcome my Cornish neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), to his first annual fisheries debate as the Minister responsible for this industry, which is very close to my heart, as the House knows. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and thank him on behalf of the industry for representing it so well over recent years as a shadow Minister and a Minister.
As is traditional, I should like to thank members of all the seafarers charities who provide so much support for our fishermen. In particular, I should like to mention the Fishermen’s Mission and to single out one very special person who has volunteered for the charity over the past few years. He is Ian Murray, the brother of my late husband. I should also like to offer my condolences to all the bereaved families of fishermen and to make a special mention of the Fishwives Choir, which consists of fishermen’s widows who came together to record the song “When the boat comes in/Eternal father”. Hon. Members can download the song from the Fishermen’s Mission website; it would make an excellent Christmas present.
After years of being virtually ignored by the last Government, the fishing industry now has a Government who represent its interests. I want to look at a couple of the things that were achieved during the common fisheries policy negotiations. The discard ban has been a long time coming. I remember protesting in Plymouth city centre many years ago, along with fishermen who were discarding their over-quota plaice in the middle of the road to demonstrate that wasteful practice to the public. The Minister must ensure that this move is accompanied not only by the available quota, which many Members have called for, but by all the available technical measures to allow the small fish to escape before capture. Neil and other Looe fishermen inserted square mesh panels in their trawls many years ago to try to ensure that only marketable-sized fish reached their decks. Looe was a leading port in that initiative.
The Minister must also ensure that in mixed fisheries, particularly in Cornwall, the correct quota balance is available to allow fishermen to earn a consistent living. Many fishermen only have small boats, and do not have the luxury of large modern vessels like the Lunar Bow. I joined the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and many others on a visit to that ship a couple of years ago. It can earn a living by going to sea for just six to eight weeks a year. Most British fishermen do not have that luxury.
I want to turn now to decentralised decision making, and allowing member states to agree locally the measures appropriate to their fisheries. That is a first-class proposal. As Bertie Armstrong of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation mentioned in his briefing, this has not been put in place before because of a systemic defect—namely, the fact that “exclusive competence” for preservation of marine biological resource rests with the EU. Without a treaty change, it is not possible to devolve that responsibility, which we all believe involves control.
Finally, I would like to move on to the six to 12-mile limit derogation. My fellow Cornish coalition partner, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), has mentioned the fact that the derogation was due to end on 1 January 2013. I raised this matter last year, and I am raising it again today. This matter is still up for negotiation as a result of the extension put in place by the European Commission. Had there been no extension, there could have been a repetition of the Kent Kirk incident.
Let me explain to hon. Members what that incident involved. Kent Kirk is a Danish Member of the European Parliament. Before that, when he was the Danish fisheries Minister, he shot his nets within the British 12-mile limit during the 13 days when that limit was not in place, between 1 January 1983 and the date later in January when the agreement came into force. He went to the European Court of Justice because the British authorities excluded him from those waters, and the Court ruled that the waters within our 12-mile limit were in fact EU waters.
I call on our Minister—as I did last year—to negotiate the six to 12-mile limits in the spirit of the original London convention agreement of 1969. According to the spirit of the agreement, access to the 12-mile limit for other nationals with historical rights was always intended to be temporary. Forty years on, we need to see an end to other nations’ access, because those vessels are probably no longer fishing. That six to 12-mile limit should now be exclusively for British fishermen.
Finally, I would like to put it on record that when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister enters into the next renegotiation of powers to be returned to the sovereignty of this House, the restoration of national control over our 200-mile/median line limit, as described in the Fishery Limits Act 1976, should be at the top of his list. I am pleased that, over the years, this proposal has also had the support of Labour Members. Although he is not present today, I would like to applaud the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who has been campaigning for that change for longer than I have—and I have been doing so for almost 30 years.
I would like to remind my hon. Friend the Minister that fishermen all over the country, especially in Cornwall and Devon, have been listening to the words of our coalition colleagues who have tried to dress up regionalisation as national control for far too long. That argument simply does not wash any longer. Nothing short of the Conservative manifesto commitment of 2005 is acceptable to me or to the industry that I love so much. It is time for action. In the short term, we need exclusivity for British fishermen over our territorial waters out to 12 miles. In the long term, we need national control over our 200-mile/median line limit.
I shall not speak for too long, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray). She has lived her life at the heart of the fishing industry, and it is obvious from what she has just been saying, with which I strongly agree, that her heart is still with the industry.
Hon. Members will appreciate that Luton North is not a maritime constituency, and I have to say that the Luton North fishing fleet is not large. Nevertheless, I have spoken many times on fishing policy, and I have strong views on it that I think some Members share. The CFP was a terrible mistake, and it has been a disaster for Britain and for fishing waters around the coasts of the European Union. The reforms come and go, and we have seen some improvement: the movement towards regionalisation is a tacit acceptance that we have to have some local control. The obvious local control should be national local control, which, in effect, means the abolition of the CFP, in time. I have suggested that we ought to give notice—perhaps five years’ notice—that we will withdraw unilaterally from the CFP if we cannot get agreement within the European Union. That should be one of the prime negotiating planks when the Prime Minister is renegotiating our relationship with the EU. The CFP would be my No. 1 policy to dispose of.
Fish stocks have suffered terribly as a result of overfishing, and that has occurred because all member states can plunder other nations’ waters without having any responsibility for what happens. We know that at least one nation has indulged in “black fish” landing in considerable quantities, and if it cannot be trusted to fish in our waters, perhaps it should be restricted to fishing in its own waters, and restoring the 200-mile limit or 50:50 limit would be the sensible way forward.
Britain has large traditional waters; it is one of the largest maritime nations in the European Union in terms of its seas. It is completely daft and unacceptable that a number of land-locked nations in the EU can vote on the common fisheries policy. Many of them will vote slavishly for what the Commission suggests, because that is what they habitually do, so the Commission can always rely on a block vote of land-locked nations and nations that have no interest in fishing to act against what our interests might be.
The first-class example of a nation that manages its fish stocks extremely well is Norway, because it is not a member of the common fisheries policy—it is outside the European Union. Norway monitors every boat and every catch within its waters. I have just seen a quote today from an article in The Guardian of 14 February in which Fiona Harvey talks about a Norwegian trawler skipper, Egil Skarbøvik. She quotes him as saying:
“In Norway we have been able to build up the strongest cod and haddock stock in the Barents Sea ever, thanks to strong regulations including closed areas, sorting grids and a strict coastguard.”
If every nation did that, we would not have a problem with overfishing or with fish stocks diminishing, and we would not need such nonsense as discards, because we would all be managing our fish stocks and our fishing, and we would all benefit.
If all foreign vessels were excluded from British waters, I feel confident that there would be plenty of fish for British fisherman—there would not be a problem. With the existing fishing industry continuing to fish in our waters, we would see the fish stocks recover, because other nations’ fishermen would be outside. Over time, if it became possible, we could do what Norway does, which is to license individual fishing boats from other nations to fish in its waters. We have seen the boundaries of the CFP being pushed by Sweden and Denmark, and we ought to move in that direction, too. They are inching closer and closer to having real control of their own fishing waters, and I say hooray for them. I think we should do the same. They are smaller nations with smaller fishing grounds—nothing like ours—but we would benefit enormously by adopting such an approach. That is not just a nationalist policy; it is about saving fish stocks for everyone. If we had good fish stocks, we would be able to eat fish comfortably, without having to worry about the long-term future viability of our fishing grounds.
I have made my point many times, and I shall no doubt make it again until I win the argument. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who negotiated quite hard on our behalf and did a good job, and I have complimented him at a personal level, too. However, we still have a long way to go. We have regional areas, but a region that covers Britain and Spain is nonsense. Having Spain as one region and the UK as another would make more sense. That would be a step towards the abolition of the CFP and the restoration of the management of fishing to member states, which is the sensible way ahead.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this debate and welcome the new Minister to the Front Bench. I also pay tribute to his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon).
In many respects the outlook for the fishing industry in the United Kingdom is better than it has been for many years. The reforms of the CFP mean that a regime that made it difficult for fishermen to run their businesses successfully, led to the overfishing of stocks and devastated the marine environment is, at last, being cast into the dustbin of history. It will be replaced, I hope, with a more sustainable system, where decisions are taken on a regional basis, rather than in Brussels. There are hurdles to overcome, although fishing stocks are probably in a better place than they have been for some time, with cod mortality in the North sea decreasing, biomass slowly increasing and North sea plaice in a better place than it was 10 years ago. Nevertheless, significant challenges lie ahead. The industry in Lowestoft, in my constituency, is a pale shadow of its former self and I fear that the halcyon days will never return.
There are three aspects of CFP reform: a move towards decentralised decision making, which I welcome; the legally binding commitment to fish sustainably, which, again, is very welcome; and the outlawing of discarding. Although that is to be welcomed, the implementation of the ban presents many challenges. This transition will not be straightforward, and the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has identified four hurdles, which the hon. Member for Aberdeen North has outlined. I would welcome the Minister’s response on those four issues when he sums up.
If there is to be a satisfactory transition to zero discards, fisheries science will play a vital role, so I urge the Government against any cuts to this part of the DEFRA budget. The Fisheries Science Partnership, established in 2003—which includes DEFRA, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is based in my constituency in Lowestoft, and the NFFO—has played an important role in bringing a scientific perspective to decision making, and has brought industry and scientists closer together. It is important that we build on that partnership, as that will help the move towards zero discards by 2019.
It is also necessary to build on the catch quota management trials that have taken place to improve nets and gears, thereby helping to avoid unwanted catches. The feedback from the Project 50% trial, on which CEFAS and the Brixham trawl fleet have worked together, is encouraging; overall discards were reduced by 52%, and the most successful boat achieved a 70% reduction. There is also a need to convince consumers to eat less popular types of fish, which would otherwise be thrown away. We need to build on such initiatives as Fishing for the Markets, which seeks to convince consumers that the less popular fish are both edible and tasty. Such a move in consumer demand will not only ensure that the less popular fish are not simply discarded on land, rather than at sea, but will take pressure off more popular fish, such as tuna, prawn, cod and haddock.
The small Lowestoft fleet that exists today is predominantly an under-10 metre one, and the challenges that the inshore fleet has faced in recent years are well documented. These boats comprise 70% of the UK fleet and employ 65% of the fleet’s total work force, yet currently receive only 4% of the total quota available to the UK. It is important that that inequity be addressed. Article 17 in the finalised text of the CFP reform document provides the framework within which justice can be achieved for the under-10 metre fleet. It is important that the Government have its provisions in mind at all times as they set about implementing the reforms. The importance of a strong under-10 metre fleet should not be underestimated. These boats have the least economic impact on the marine environment, and they maximise the social and economic returns to many coastal communities facing significant challenges, such as Lowestoft.
It is important to recognise that the quota problems for the under-10 metre fleet are not localised to the south-east, but are more widespread around the UK coast. I acknowledge the work being done by the NFFO in identifying and dealing with pinch points—the localised problems the fleet faces—but to have a long-term future the under-10 metre fleet cannot rely on handouts from producer organisations, be they annual swaps, gifts or transfers; it is important that it has its own quota. There is a concern that those under-10s whose business model is reliant on access to leased quotas from producer organisations could experience significant difficulties if the cost of quota escalates following the introduction of the discard ban.
Back in July, Mr Justice Cranston handed down one of the most important judgments in recent years regarding the creation of proprietary rights from state licences. In brief, that was a judicial review case brought by the producer organisations against the Secretary of State over the unused allocation of unused fishing quota from the larger to the smaller operators. The larger operators sought to quash the Secretary of State’s decision on three grounds, and the claim was dismissed on all three.
In July, I secured an Adjournment debate to consider the implications of the case. The Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, responded. The judgment provides the Government with an opportunity to secure a more equitable distribution of quota for the under-10s, although I am aware that some experts have described the judgment as contradictory. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the action the Government are taking as a result of the judgment.
Also back in the summer, DEFRA provided an assurance that the publicly accessible register of quota allocations and transactions would be published by the end of 2013. I would welcome an update on when the register will be published. Hopefully, it will dispel a number of urban myths about who actually holds quota.
In future, quota should be held only by active fishermen and not by those who have sold their boats and no longer have any connection with fishing. I would be interested to hear whether the Government share that view. It is the only way we can ensure that in ports such as Lowestoft, the industry will have a future. The glory days will not return, but there is an opportunity to have a financially viable inshore fleet that will help sustain the allied and processing industries, and that can play an important supporting role in the renaissance of coastal Britain.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on setting the scene for this important debate. One thinks of the film “Groundhog Day”, as the debate happens every year and we always seem to come back to it. However, it does not make the debate any less important, as we can see from the Members who are here to make a contribution.
As I have said many times before in this Chamber, fishing is the lifeblood of the village of Portavogie in my constituency, which has both primary and secondary fishing jobs. It has been said in this debate that Northern Ireland has 700 fishing jobs, but the offshore jobs—those involved in further processing—double that figure. It is clear, therefore, how important fishing is to my constituency and to the constituency of the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie).
Just last week, I, along with Diane Dodds MEP and Alan McCulla of the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, had the opportunity to meet the Minister and to put forward a case for Northern Ireland to set the scene early on. I pay tribute to the former Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is not in his place, because he took the time to come to the Chamber for the start of the debate. We all recognise his interest and importance in this regard. Things have changed. The responsibility now falls on the shoulders of a new Minister, and I look forward to supporting him as he does his job. Let us make no mistake; there will be a big fight in Europe over this issue.
Members have referred to the number of deaths at sea. Every time I watch the film “Deadliest Catch”, I think of the fishermen from Portavogie who have such experiences every week. The other night, “Perfect Storm” was on TV. We all know that film, but for some of the families in Portavogie, they live that life. We have a memorial in the harbour to those who died doing their job.
I want to focus my remarks on Northern Ireland and the issues of nephrops and prawns. The scientific advice for nephrops was published on 31 October, but we have no indication of what is happening in relation to it. The nephrops industry is critical to the fishing sector in Northern Ireland. If area 7 is cancelled, nephrops will again be our No. 1 priority. I urge the Minister, as we did last week, to underline that important issue. The fishing stock in Northern Ireland could have 100 vessels specifically targeting that species.
In recent years, the UK and Ireland have successfully made the case that the total allowable catches must be uplifted above the “sum of the science” to account for consistent undershoots in the TAC caused by some member states not taking up their allocation of nephrops. I find those undershoots both worrying and annoying; they cause great concern to me and to the industry. Combined with the less favourable scientific advice, they will make achieving a roll-over in the TAC very challenging this year. It must be stressed that the catch landed is important for the fishermen of Northern Ireland and for the shore-based industry. Again, let us make no mistake: the issue is critical for the Northern Ireland fishing sector. Nephrops is Northern Ireland’s No.1 priority, and giving that stock such priority can be easily explained. It is practically the only major stock we have left. The fact remains that fisheries in the Irish sea have been managed into practically depending on this single species.
Europe, through its legislation, bureaucracy and strategies, has pushed the fishing industry towards the one sector of prawns. At a recent North-Western Waters Regional Advisory Council meeting in Paris, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas agreed that stock was being managed within the maximum sustainable yield targets, which is good news.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) outlined the issue of North sea cod. The situation is similar for us in Northern Ireland. Our one remaining full-time whitefish trawler in the fleet mainly targets haddock, but a recovery plan is in place. The Northern Ireland fisheries division, through the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development, permitted a limited sentinel fishery for cod from 2 to 24 September. It observed the quantity of cod in the sea, and it showed that cod numbers and the size of cod are increasing, which is good news.
I am concerned that the European Commission has proposed a cut in the TAC of 20%, in line with the cod recovery plan. It is clear that we must argue for a simple roll-over in the TAC, but the Fisheries Minister is aware that that is a difficult argument to win, and a potential compromise would be to suggest a by-catch only fishery in 2014 if the Commission would agree to the TAC remaining unchanged. A reduced TAC combined with improved gear selectivity and the forthcoming discard ban will make it all the harder to determine what is happening with Irish sea cod. It should also be noted that any reduction in the TAC will stop the sentinel fishery, which is important and has been running for the past two years.
There are some good points to make about fisheries, which is good because the news is so bleak at this time of the year. The size of haddock and plaice has increased over the past year. The EC has also proposed a 5% increase in herring, which is good news. The industry is on track to secure the Marine Stewardship Council certification, which has been running over the past few years, and that will be a first for an Irish sea fish species.
I am really concerned that the number of days at sea will be reduced if cod stocks fail to recover. Our fishermen will have fewer days at sea, which is incredible and hard to understand.
That is a valuable intervention, which outlines my case very clearly. If there is a reduction, the viability of many boats will come into question. Again, it will be yet another nudge in the direction of not fishing any more.
Other Members have mentioned mackerel, but I am concerned that Iceland and the Faroe Islands might have 12% of the total allowable catch, which is what the EU is moving towards. Thankfully, that has been blocked so far by Norway. It reminds me of a saying that we have in my country—that is, “No surrender.” Norway said “No surrender” to the Faroes and to Iceland. When quota is allocated, it is ridiculous to allocate a percentage when the stock reduces in size. We want to protect the UK allocation, as other hon. Members have said.
I am conscious of regionalisation. Others have mentioned it, but I want to see regionalisation that means that Northern Ireland has some control over the fisheries in the Irish sea. Other regions would like to see that, too. Northern Ireland secured an acceptable amount of money from the European fisheries fund budget and I believe that it can do likewise through the European maritime and fisheries fund.
I urge the Minister, when he goes to Brussels, to ensure that the one thing he keeps in his mind is the fishermen. They want the fish, they want to sustain their jobs and they want to sustain their families. I am aware that I have gone into some detail, but at the same time I tell the Minister that I have every confidence that he goes into battle well armed with knowledge and firm about what he wants to achieve. I ask the House to give him the support he needs to do the job we know he can do well. We wish him well in the next week or two as he fights those battles for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I am proud to represent a fishing constituency where vessels operate all along the coastline from Bantham round to Torbay. The value of the catch to Brixham cannot be overestimated. It is the highest-value catch in England in monetary terms and is worth £27 million. The fantastic new Brixham market has a turnover this year of £23 million, which has sadly reduced from £25 million in the previous year. I hope that the Minister will accept an invitation to visit Brixham and many of the other ports along my constituency’s coastline. He would be most welcome.
We have 25 beam trawlers, 40 day boats and a growing leisure fleet contributing to our tourism sector and 375 people are employed locally as a direct result of the fishing industry in Brixham. That translates to 1,200 wider jobs in our local economy. No one can be in any doubt if they have been on board a commercial fishing vessel that fishing is the most dangerous of occupations in Britain. Those people work courageously and very hard in terrible conditions to put food on our plates.
Since the last debate, Torbay has been mourning the loss of Andrew Westaway. I pay tribute to all those who have given their lives at sea to put food our plates and, like many other Members, pay tribute to our coastguard. This year in particular, I am thinking of our maritime rescue co-ordination centre in Brixham, which is sadly due for closure. I also pay tribute to the RNLI, to rescue boats such as Hope Cove, to those in the coast watch and to the Fishermen’s Mission, which does such an extraordinary job providing support to families who have lost loved ones and in supporting fishermen who work in or who have retired from the industry. In particular, I am thinking of the contribution of John Anderson in Brixham.
Our fishermen are making great efforts to reduce the environmental impact of what they do. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for pointing out the work that has been done in Brixham, particularly with Project 50%. I pay tribute to those who have contributed to that. In particular, I am thinking of the extraordinary work of net designers and of those fishermen who have carried out the trials on beam trawlers. They have done extraordinary work and are now extending the use of rollerball technology to reduce the impact of by-catch and the environmental impact on the sea bed.
Our fishermen are under extraordinary pressure. In 2011, 22% of our fishermen’s turnover went on fuel costs. That increased to 27% in 2012. Alongside that, they are under huge pressure from the impact of changes to quota. As the Minister goes into the negotiations—I wish him well—may I ask him to consider the impact of the 75% reduction in the haddock quota? Can he confirm what I am hearing from my local fishermen, which, I gather, is also evidenced on the ICES website—that is, that there has been a significant increase in haddock stocks that is not yet recognised? Although fishermen in my constituency are taking part in the i-logs and completing what they catch while they are on board, they tell me that there is a significant delay in that information being recorded by the Marine Management Organisation. The trouble is that, because it is a mixed fishery, fishermen in my constituency cannot stop catching haddock. As the discard ban is not coming in this year, they will be forced to discard healthy fish for the whole of this year and into the next. I urge the Minister to consider the evidence that the biomass for haddock has never been higher since we started recording it and to argue that we should roll over the existing TAC.
Western channel Dover sole is iconic to Brixham and we must consider the impact on fishermen of a 7% reduction in that catch and a 17% reduction in channel plaice. As the Minister goes into the negotiations, I ask him to consider the most recent evidence on biomass and argue for a roll-over of existing quotas rather than accept a reduction.
The combined efforts with the Brixham fleet have been effective in reversing the decline, but I want to move on now to what we can do to improve the science of recording catches and, in particular, the use of the EFF. Will the Minister confirm that the EFF will be extended into next year and will not now finish in December? When he looks at the EFF, I ask him to recognise that it operates between England and Scotland with the MMO. I have heard that although in Scotland projects can start pending a decision, in England that is not the case. That has had a considerable impact, meaning that the EFF has not been fully spent. Will the Minister confirm how much underspend there has been and what he intends to do to make the EFF easier to access? In particular, what will he do to put more of what the EFF does into supporting the science so that it can be kept up to date when future decisions are being made?
I would also support the use of the EFF for safety equipment, where it has been very valuable. The installation of tipping bars and conveyors on our scalloping fleet has had a significant impact on safety, but there is far more we could do to use the EFF more effectively to support businesses onshore as well as using it on board our vessels and to support sciences.
My final point is about a specific issue for the crabbing fleet. Five crabbing vessels operate in my constituency and they support 30 families. The crabbing fleet is under significant pressures from the effort restrictions and there are historic problems, too. The Minister will know that the French have 2 million kilowatt days whereas the UK has only 545. There is now an increasing threat that that will have to be shared with those who have latent licences. I feel that it is not reasonable to expect the fishermen to negotiate complex swaps with the French. I am grateful that the MMO took that on at the eleventh hour on this occasion, but will the Minister consider specifically whether small groups of families can negotiate such complex agreements? I feel that that is an important role that the MMO should be taking on on their behalf.
As the Minister goes into the negotiations, I hope that he will consider the enormous economic importance of this export industry and do everything he can to support our fishermen as we go forward. I hope that he will come down to visit them in my constituency, where he will have a very warm welcome.
I am delighted to respond to the many excellent speeches that have been made by Members across the Chamber. I, too, would like to begin by paying my respects to all those who have lost their lives over the past year in our fishing communities and in the wider service given on the seas, in the coastguards, other coastal agencies and the maritime fleet. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), who introduced the debate so well, and to the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who served as an excellent fisheries Minister over the past few years and negotiated many important developments in European fisheries during his tenure.
The EU is the world’s largest maritime territory, and marine resource makes a significant contribution to our prosperity and social well-being. The marine environment must therefore be protected to ensure that it is healthy, productive and safeguarded for the use of future generations. We are stewards of a renewable resource, rather than miners of a finite one, and we would do well to remember that. Many of the threats to Europe’s marine resource require co-operation and collective action if they are to be tackled effectively.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) spoke about the need for regional control to lead logically to national control, but unfortunately I do not share his view, because effective co-operation is needed if we are to manage the resource responsibly and through the ecosystem-based approach that the marine stewardship framework directive suggests. Our seas and oceans border many nations and unfortunately fish do not carry passports, so they must be managed on an ecosystem basis.
The marine stewardship framework directive outlines a transparent legislative framework for that ecosystem-based approach. In essence, it states the need for each nation to develop, in co-operation with others, marine strategies to be implemented to protect and conserve the marine environment, to prevent its deterioration and, where practicable, to restore marine ecosystems in areas where they have been adversely affected. Those marine strategies must, in accordance with the directive, contain an initial assessment of the current environmental status of the member state’s marine waters. They must contain a determination of what good environmental status means for those waters.
Many Members have referred to the fact that sound science is often lacking, that there are steps that we might like to take but we do not know whether we have the scientific basis upon which to proceed. That is why it is absolutely critical that those elements of the strategies that the framework directive calls for are implemented. Without that sound science base, it is extremely difficult to see how we can move forward.
I want to talk about what has been referred to as the discard ban, which of course is not yet coming in. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations—many Members have referred to its briefing document—has highlighted serious concerns about the ban. It mentions recent research published in green policy and fisheries research that shows that the ban, in isolation, will generate little economic incentive to operate more selectively. It has also been suggested that the additional quota provided to enable the landing of by-catch could be too large for certain modern vessels and too small for less technologically advanced vessels. Unfortunately, some people appear to place more emphasis on the need to enlarge quota to deal with the landing obligation and to focus on the measures designed to eliminate by-catch in the first place. We heard some good examples from the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) about selective gear and net mesh size, which can do just that. Also, ultimately, that could be done by trading quota.
The NFFO has focused on the fish species that in some cases have shown significant recovery over the past few years—referred to as the “good news” by some Members. Hake, haddock and herring have all shown some recovery, which is testimony to the technological capability of the industry and its efforts to fish more sustainably when required to do so. I think that it is also a vindication of the role that the quota system has played. The fact that stocks are recovering should not be taken as an excuse to say that the quota system should now be disbanded; they are recovering precisely because the quota system has been effective.
We have great designs for the hon. Gentleman.
Does the shadow Minister not share my concern, and that of many Members of the House, about the difference between the scientific evidence and the claims of those in the fishing industry who say that there are more fish in the sea?
I absolutely share the hon. Gentlemen’s concern about the lack of scientific evidence. Indeed, I opened my remarks by saying that is one of the key problems. If we are going to base our policy on sound science, we need to establish what that science is. I refer him to his own remarks about Irish sea cod. He talked about the need simply to roll over the TAC in relation to Irish sea cod. However, the NFFO guidance on that states:
“A decade of draconian measures which have cut TACs, restricted days-at-sea, imposed tightened landing controls, introduced more selective gear and decommissioned a significant part of the fleet and obliged most fishermen to divert to alternative fisheries, has failed to generate the kind of recovery of cod seen in the North and Celtic seas.”
If it has failed to generate that recovery and the stocks are still in such a low state, it does not make sense to say, “Well, heck. Let’s just proceed anyway” and bust through any attempt to get the stocks back into a reasonable condition.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again—he is being very gracious. The facts are that the sentinel fishery is an experimental fishery for the past two years, and the indications show that last year cod numbers were back in the sea, and this year shows even more evidence of that. That is what the fishermen are seeing and that is what the scientific evidence now shows, but that is not in the report. I wish that it was, because the opinion would be completely different from what the hon. Gentleman has referred to. The report is not up to date.
I would have to rely on the Mandy Rice-Davies defence—“They would say that, wouldn’t they?” The point is that anecdote is not the basis of sound policy. We have to establish the facts. I am as keen to establish them as the hon. Gentleman and, I am sure, the fishermen in his community. Once we have established the facts, we can proceed with certainty.
When politicians talk about science, in reality, as we have just seen with mackerel, the science has followed what is happening. The ICES advice for the increase in TAC in 2014 is a 65% to 79% increase, which in effect is only a 3% increase in what was caught in 2013 owing to fishermen in other states having a certain view of what was happening in the sea. Another issue—this relates to what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said—is that there are other areas where there is a cod recovery plan in operation but where there were no cod anyway. However, because of the catch compositions the cod recovery plan is leading to the dumping of haddock, and as haddock are being dumped and not landed, consumers will have to choose anther fish, and they will choose cod, so the plan will have the opposite effect to the one intended.
It is important to remember that for every hour spent fishing nowadays—in boats bristling with the latest satellite technology to identify the movement of the stocks, with all the modern gear on board—fishers now land just 6% of what they did 120 years ago.
Of course, fishermen always want to maximise their catch, and rightly so—they are business men—but we have to recognise that the loss of our fishing communities up and down the coastline of Britain has happened because of overfishing. There is no getting away from that fact. We have to put in place a regime that can restore biomass and maximum sustainable yield but also ensure that we get to the point where those communities have secure jobs and secure economic benefits because we have enough fish for everyone.
My hon. Friend has made a very powerful point about the number of fish being caught. Surely excluding from our waters the vessels of other member states that overfish, which we cannot control, has to come first before we start to manage our own fishing industry.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend was out of the Chamber when I responded to that point, which he made earlier. Perhaps if he wants to catch up with that in Hansard we will not delay the proceedings further.
We must take a science-based approach to quota allocation and we must have a clear goal of delivering a diverse and abundant marine environment that can sustain stronger economic growth and deliver more jobs for Britain’s fishing community. It is essential that fishers are able to respond to the changes in the abundance of their quarry. The quota system can clearly create barriers to more sustainable, responsive fishing practices, but I am not persuaded that calls for an increase in total allowable catch and quota are based on adequate evidence or are compatible with the recovery of Britain’s fisheries and the long-term economic health of Britain’s fishing communities.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) stated the need for a greater share of the quota for the under-10 metre fleet. He made that case absolutely superbly. Although I have screeds that I would wish to have said about it, he has made the case and I do not need to do so.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) spoke of the science base. Everything comes back to that: we must follow the science. The difficulty is that often proceeding on the basis of anecdote and surmise is the only thing that we have. There are very few examples of scientific evidence being gathered both pre and post-fishing activity. A happy exception is found in the study, “Long-term changes in deep-water fish populations in the northeast Atlantic”—a paper published in the proceedings of the Royal Society in 2009.
This week, unfortunately, the proposed European ban on deep-sea fishing, which aimed to phase out trawling below 600 metres, was defeated. Trawling below that level is recognised by scientists as being by far the most destructive fishing activity. In line with its work on a more sustainable EU common fisheries policy, this matter has been very much on the European Parliament’s agenda. The Minister may care to explain why his Conservative colleagues in the European Parliament joined forces with other groups to vote down the ban and also voted to delay progress on the draft legislation, meaning that better conservation measures for deep-sea species are unlikely to be taken forward until after the 2014 European elections.
Deep-sea trawlers are catching top predators first and then moving down the food web. Taking away the top predator from an ecosystem risks a significant, possibly irrevocable, destabilisation because it removes species that play a regulatory role affecting the entire food web. The key target species in deep-sea fisheries include round-nosed grenadier, black scabbard and orange ruffy, but for these three, and up to perhaps another seven, target species for deep-sea trawlers, some 78 species are being caught as by-catch. These deep-sea species tend to be longer lived. The orange ruffy lives for up to 100 years and reaches maturity only at the age of 30. Catching these species can completely destabilise the ecosystem.
The science shows that before commercial deep-sea trawling commenced, the abundance of fish per sq km was 25,000 fish, but afterwards it collapsed to 7,225 fish per sq km. Equally of concern is that the decline was not localised in the fished area of 52,000 sq km but extended to 142,000 sq km—an area two and three quarter times that of the area that had been fished by deep-sea trawling. This is a desperately serious problem.
Finally, I want to talk about marine conservation zones, because they have been—
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s “Finally” is a brief one, because he has already spoken for 16 minutes. We have another debate and we have not heard the Minister yet, so I do not want an extensive discussion of marine conservation zones.
I commend the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and others for bringing this issue to the House and the Backbench Business Committee for supporting it. It has been a very detailed first fisheries debate for me, and it has provided a welcome opportunity to cover a range of important matters.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it is important that we take this opportunity to remember the four fishermen who have lost their lives in this past year in their line of work at sea and in the harbour. This is a stark reminder that fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in this country, as numerous Members have mentioned, including my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) and the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell). I was particularly struck by what my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said about Andrew Westaway in her constituency. We must remember the courage and sacrifice of individual fishermen, who put their lives in danger to bring food to our tables, and of their families who support them. I remind people of the plug given to the Fishwives Choir by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray). I know that the House will want to join me in remembering the bravery of our fishermen and the incredibly difficult and dangerous work that they do, and in sending our sincere condolences to all those families and friends who have suffered losses.
Many important points have been raised, and I want to pick up as many of them as I can. First, I want to put on record the sheer importance of this industry to the UK. We have more than 6,400 vessels and nearly 12,500 fishermen, and we produce 627,000 tonnes of fish per year with a value of £770 million. This industry is incredibly important to the UK.
The single biggest development this year has been what I regard as a quite radical reform of the common fisheries policy. I congratulate my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), on his tireless efforts on this front, especially on managing to reform the broken common fisheries policy—a measure that was voted through and agreed by the European Parliament on Tuesday. The reformed CFP, which includes three major UK priorities, has three key elements: first, an end to the wasteful practice of discarding; secondly, an end to the one-size-fits-all approach, with regional decision making; and finally, a commitment to fish at sustainable levels. I want to say a little about each of those important areas in turn.
On discarding, it has been an absolute scandal that we have had these regulatory discards whereby perfectly healthy fish are thrown, usually once dead, back into the sea. A number of Members have raised concerns about the discard ban, but it is important to recognise that to make it work there will be new flexibilities in the quota system. There will be inter-year flexibility so that quota for a species can be moved from one year to the next, and there will be some limited interspecies flexibility so that if a fisherman finds he is catching far more haddock than he expected, he can offset some of that haddock against his cod quota. We also recognise that there is much we can do with improved net gear. Big progress has already been made on this, and organisations such as the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science have done a lot of work on it, but there is certainly further to go.
I have always thought that regional decision making is important, because I am of the view that a small number of member states with a shared interest in a fishery and in seeing it fished sustainably are much more likely to come up with coherent management measures than any haggling among a group of 28 countries. The move to regional co-operation is, therefore, very important. It will make it easier to get agreement and we will end up with more coherent policy making.
A number of Members have raised concerns about how that will work. The fact is that, technically, it will remain a European Union competence. We have seen it work. When I attended the Fisheries Council in October, a similar process took place for the Baltic sea whereby those countries with a direct interest in that water came up with an agreement; they got there in the end. I think that that combination—of individual member states deciding management measures among themselves and the Commission standing behind that process and providing the ultimate check to make sure that they are fishing sustainably—works.
The third point—this is really important, as the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, made clear—is about the legally binding commitment to fish sustainably. This is the essential bit that makes everything else stand up. All these things together represent a radical change in the CFP. This means that we have flexibility to ensure that a discard ban works, a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably, and more local decision making. We have further to go and I am looking forward to the next one to two years, when we can really work on making sure that we implement the measures properly. This has been a very important step forward.
It is important to recognise that the setting of the total allowable catch will remain a European competence, but the management measures will be decided by the member states. On the signing of those management measures, the Commission’s role will be to ensure that we are fishing sustainably. There is an issue—my hon. Friend highlighted this—that, legally, a competence can reside either directly with the Commission or directly with member states. A hybrid system is difficult, but I think our agreement enables us to do that. The Commission can use mechanisms to make agreements between member states legally binding.
I want to press on; otherwise we are going to get a bit tight on time and I want to deal with as many of the points that have been raised as possible.
The UK has been leading the way in Europe in trialling schemes that tackle discards through managing fisheries by what is caught, not what is landed. Catch quota schemes have been very effective in reducing discards, and following the success of those schemes I want to continue to help vessels with the transition to the landings obligation under the reformed CFP.
With the aims of the reformed CFP in mind, we will enter the negotiations at the December Council next week, where fishing opportunities will be decided. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) highlighted, it tends to end up being a late night. In fact, when anybody who has experience of the December Council describes it to me, they do so with a bit of a grin. I am not quite sure what to expect, but I will get some sleep over the weekend.
We aim to negotiate a fair and balanced package of fishing opportunities consistent with our high-level objectives, which are, first, following the best available scientific evidence; secondly, achieving maximum sustainable yield; and thirdly, minimising discards. A range of issues will be UK priorities in the negotiations.
I am going to press on. The hon. Gentleman has intervened quite a lot and, given the steer given by Madam Deputy Speaker, I am conscious of the time.
Our priorities will affect fishermen throughout the UK. They include—a number of Members have mentioned this—seeking a continuation of the freeze in the number of days at sea available for fishermen in the North sea, the Irish sea and west of Scotland, which was agreed last year. We also want to see a moderate increase in the North sea cod TAC, recognising the very welcome recovery of this important stock. We will also argue for an expansion of our catch quota schemes and for outcomes on monkfish, Celtic sea haddock and nephrops in the Irish sea.
I met the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) last week and he has made a very strong case for nephrops, as has the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford). I recognise that, because of the cold, late spring, it has been a very bad year for nephrops. The science is challenging and recommends a 24% reduction in the TAC. As a number of Members have pointed out, there has been a tradition in past years for the quota not to be fully fished, which I think gives us some scope to argue that we should not have that proposed reduction. We will do our absolute best for the fishermen in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes has said, a challenging recommendation has been made to cut the TAC for Celtic sea haddock by 75%. We will argue that, because the TAC reduction for other species in that mixed fishery, such as whiting, are not being reduced by anything like as much, we will need to moderate that proposed reduction; otherwise, discards will be increased, because they are in a mixed fishery. We believe there is some linkage and that needs to be recognised in the negotiations.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. No real answer has been given on the issue of spurdog discards; fishermen need guidance on what is expected. Another point is that we should recognise the importance of our foreign crew, particularly in my constituency where men come from the Philippines. They are welcomed and wanted. Will the Minister use his office to do what he can with the immigration department to make sure we can get such men in? They are a proud people.
On spurdogs and porbeagles, we recognise that there is a particular challenge whereby there is a zero TAC or a very low TAC. One thing we will argue is that that needs to be loosened. On landings obligations, we cannot have a situation whereby, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said, short of eating the catch on the boat, it would not be possible to do much with it. We believe that that needs to be looked at and we will do so.
A number of Members mentioned the mackerel dispute. I am concerned about the continued lack of an agreement on the management of the north-east Atlantic mackerel stock. It is the UK’s most important single fishery. I continue to hope that we might be able to get an agreement to end this long-running dispute, but we have been clear—I set this out at the October Council—that it will not be a deal at any cost. We do not want new fishing access rights in our waters and we believe that Norway should do its share. Negotiations are ongoing and we hope there will be an outcome. With a 70% increase in the TAC, it is important that this is the best opportunity we will have to get a solution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) mentioned the issue of the under-10 metre fleet. I can confirm that this is an important domestic priority for the Government. I have met members of the under-10 metre fleet, as well as the producer organisations, and we are keen to see a permanent realignment of the quota to help the fleet. I also recognise the uncertainty they face with month-to-month access to quota. There have been some novel schemes whereby they have been able to pull together their resources in, for instance, Ramsgate and have quota allocated over a longer time frame. We are keen to make progress on that.
The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned monitoring under the marine strategy framework directive whereby we can get good environmental status. I can confirm that we will announce a consultation on that in the new year.
Finally, I will trot through some of the other points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North mentioned the importance of an EU-Norway deal. We absolutely recognise that, particularly the importance of access rights to Norwegian waters for much of the Scottish fleet. This sort of delay is not unusual—it happened last year and it has also happened in previous years—but we will press for the negotiations to begin early in the new year. Of course, there will be a provisional quota allocation to take account of the fact that there is no agreed TAC.
On the survivability element of the landing obligation, I have talked quite a bit about how the landing obligation will work. There will be exemptions for species that have good survivability rates. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said, it is important that we are able to return those fish that have a good survival rate.
My hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton and for Waveney spoke about the importance of trying to identify new markets for less fashionable fish. I agree that more can be done on that. In my constituency, a firm called Falfish markets pouting to the French, so there are sometimes export markets for some fish species.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned points made by the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation. I confirm that I met Paul Trebilcock just this week, as well as representatives of the NFFO. My hon. Friend makes a good point about the Neptune project, and the way in which we can get better co-operation between science and fishermen.
My hon. Friend mentioned the minimum landing size for bass. We remain committed to trying to develop that point at European level. One problem at the moment is that most of the bass is taken by the French fleet, so our having a minimum landing size unilaterally would not necessarily help very much. However, that is one measure for which we shall push at European level. We have also called for the closure of some spawning grounds to allow the stock to recover because, as he said, ICES has highlighted a particular problem on that front.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned the EFF. I look forward to discussions with Scotland and devolved Assemblies elsewhere about the allocation of such funds. Scotland is still getting slightly more than England at the moment, so the situation is not all bad, but we will look at that. To answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, we shall indeed roll over the EFF for another year during 2014.
My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall highlighted an issue that she has raised many times about the nought to 12-mile zone. It has always been a key priority for the UK to retain such a derogation during reform of the CFP, and that has been achieved. It is, however, important to recognise that the UK also benefits from historical access rights in the six to 12-nautical mile zone in Ireland, Germany, France and the Netherlands. We have to be careful about changing the approach too much, because we sometimes benefit from fishing in the waters of other countries.
My hon. Friend’s more ambitious point about the 200-mile zone, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Luton North, is beyond the scope of what we are now talking about. She may want to submit it to the balance of competences review.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I was not avoiding the subject. On deep-sea trawling, we took the view that the European Parliament’s proposal of an outright ban was quite blunt. We recognise that there are issues, and we want to consider changing management measures and a different approach, but we do not believe that an outright ban on deep-sea trawling is the right way to proceed. Contrary to what he has said, the fact that a motion for that has been defeated opens the door to sensible negotiations on the type of management measures we want to see, and we will certainly press for that.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me. I can tell him that that will be next week. Several hon. Members asked that question, and the register will be published, which is proof that DEFRA is capable of multitasking and undertaking complex negotiations, as well as publishing the fixed quota allocation register.
If we are to achieve our goals, there is a lot of hard work ahead and we face some difficult challenges next week. I will do my utmost for all hon. Members who have raised concerns about aspects of the negotiations when I get to Brussels next week.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and other hon. Members for securing the debate, through the good offices of the Backbench Business Committee. I also pay tribute to the former fisheries Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), as well as to the new Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) for raising various issues. We have had nine speeches from Back Benchers this afternoon, plus two from Opposition and Government Front Benchers.
Issues have been raised by all hon. Members about general fisheries matters, and the challenges faced in their dangerous occupation by fishermen right across Britain and Northern Ireland. Hon. Members have paid tribute to fishermen who have lost their lives over the past year, as well as to the many who have lost their lives over the past decade, and they have paid tribute to the central role of coastguards in safeguarding those in fishing and in relation to other issues.
The debate has mainly centred on the common fisheries policy. We are grateful that there has been a conclusion in relation to its reform this week in Brussels, but we and the Minister will now have to concentrate on two areas. The first is the issue of discards, and there is no doubt that it presents many challenges. The second relates to regional advisory councils. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North, I believe that, notwithstanding all the political difficulties, we must remain within the European Union. The EU does have a role, which will obviously come out in the debate and the consultation on the balance of competences. As the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), also emphasised, there is a role for the European Union, and that should be to determine the TAC.
There is also a role for regional advisory councils in managing the quota, dealing with the allocations and ensuring that the totality of fishermen have the best quality of incomes, because that is beneficial. I represent the constituency of South Down, in which there are the two fishing ports of Ardglass and Kilkeel, and I know that both the offshore and the onshore are central to the local economies in terms of job creation and the income that will supply other retailers and be of benefit to families, which is absolutely essential.
Among other issues raised were the roll-out of existing quotas, the whole dilemma in the north-east in relation to mackerel and the debate concerning Iceland and the Faroe Islands. That point was made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford). The situation has been going on for several years and requires urgent resolution. Anything that the Minister can bring to that particular debate in his various discussions would be greatly appreciated.
The subject of marine conservation zones has been raised, and we in Northern Ireland have also been confronted with that. Whether in relation to renewables in the Irish sea or anywhere around the British Isles, it is important that marine conservation zones simply help to supplement the fishing industry, and do not contravene or in any way undermine it. The one must supplement the other.
I know that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) wants to intervene, but I have several other points to make, and I have ensured that other hon. Members have had their say so far.
In Northern Ireland we have two particular issues, the first of which relates to nephrops. It is against a positive background, because fishing has been doing well, that we—and particularly the Minister—face next week’s Fisheries Council, which will decide about catch opportunities for 2014. It is traditional, but also frustrating, that those who make a livelihood from fishing expect bad news in respect of the TAC proposals published by the European Commission before the negotiations. What has made fishermen in the Irish sea all the more nervous this time is the failure to communicate the proposed quota for area 7 nephrops to the industry in advance of the Fisheries Council or at least at the same time as the other quota proposals. I know that the new Minister freely acknowledges that. He spoke to me about the issue the other evening.
On the basis of the scientific advice, the industry has, like officials, been able to make a good stab at the numbers. For prawns or nephrops in the Irish sea and the wider area 7, it equates to a proposed TAC reduction in 2014 of almost a quarter compared with 2013. A slightly better comparison shows that the scientific evidence demonstrates an 8% reduction from a year ago. Nevertheless, any reduction in the prawn TAC in area 7 would be unjustified. There are variations in the science year on year, but the same science confirms that the overall picture is stable, with prawns being harvested within the maximum sustainable yield principles. Surely that good news, combined with a recognition of the strides that have been taken by all fishermen in the Irish sea, provides sufficient reason to secure a roll-over of the 2013 TAC into 2014. I ask the Minister to make a special plea on behalf of those who are involved in nephrop fishing in the Irish sea. For us, nephrops are perhaps the only show in town.
The hon. Members for Banff and Buchan and for Strangford mentioned cod. There is an issue with cod in the Irish sea. By value and weight, the cod that are landed from the Irish sea equate to less than 1.5%. However, its iconic status pervades every demersal fishery. It is to be hoped that, come 2014, practical rules will apply that allow haddock and hake fisheries to be developed, while affording the necessary protection to cod. To achieve that, a roll-over of the 2013 quota for haddock in the Irish sea is needed. Against the background of a 17% increase in the stock, that is surely not too tall an order.
After 14 years of failed fisheries targets and recovery measures, Irish sea cod present a dilemma, but they should not be seen as a lost cause. It is regrettable that a huge gulf remains between the science on the stock and what the fishermen believe to be the state of the stock. Unfortunately, that is where I and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North differ on this issue. I am deeply concerned about our local economy and local fishery. A further 20% reduction in the TAC in 2014 will do nothing to address the unknowns or the data deficiencies. The fisheries science partnership and sentinel fishery projects will grind to a standstill with such a reduction.
Fishermen are at a loss to know how they can prove the negative position with regard to that stock. In many ways, they have been a victim of their own success, thanks to the highly selective gears and the much-needed innovation in technology that was pioneered by Anglo-North Irish fish producers in Kilkeel. How can the fishermen prove that there are cod in the Irish sea when they use nets that are designed not to catch cod? More scientific technology is required. The promises to look at ways of addressing the problems, such as identifying the reason for the high level of unknown mortality in Irish sea cod, seem to have evaporated as far as the fishermen can see. However, as part of the new common fisheries policy, fishermen are further encouraged to develop new mixed fisheries and multi-annual plans. How can they do that when cod remains a choke species and so many unknowns remain in respect of that iconic fish?
I now give way to my neighbour, the hon. Member for Strangford.
I wish the new Minister well in his post and in the negotiations next week on behalf of all Members who have contributed to this debate, Members who represent fishing constituencies in Britain and Northern Ireland and those who sit on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which he was once a member.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the fishing industry.