Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Harriett Baldwin.)
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. It is a pleasure to be here debating the important subject of the management of sea bass in the UK.
For many years, those involved in sea bass fishing in the UK have warned that the stock has been left increasingly vulnerable by weak management tools and practices. Now, almost too late and certainly with far too little, the European Union and others have woken up to the potential for a total collapse in the sea bass population in our domestic waters. Some may say that I am being overdramatic, and some may say that we have all been here before and that it will all get better in due course. I say they are wrong. This is happening now, it is happening to us and it needs to be dealt with.
In 2013, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which advises the European Union on the strategies needed to exploit our fishing resources safely, proposed a 36% reduction in the catch of sea bass. That proposal was not acted upon. Now, less than a year later, ICES advises an 80% reduction. We only have to look at the Irish experience of the early 1990s to know what comes next if we hesitate: a total failure of the stock and a total ban on all forms of bass fishing. The tragedy is that we do not need to go there. We need only grip the problem here and now, to a scale and design that will make a real difference.
The question is: how on earth did we end up here in the first place? By any reckoning, we now pursue bass much more actively and much more successfully than in the past. The exploitation of sea bass has increased hugely across all areas, and current landings run at a level roughly four times that of the early 1990s. In addition, fishing activity is now often targeted at spawning aggregations. Studies show that bass spawn offshore in the English channel and the eastern Celtic sea from February to May, and as they do so they become sitting ducks for pair trawlers, which ruthlessly exploit them. New spawning aggregations in the English channel are being discovered and targeted, including some inside the 12-mile limit off the Kent and Sussex coasts.
On top of all that, nothing like the number of fish that should be reaching breeding size actually do so because of a farcically low minimum landing size. Bass are a slow-growing species, and female bass do not become sexually mature, in UK waters at least, until they are at least 42 cm in length, and some estimates put the figure as high as 46 cm. The current minimum landing size is an absolutely ludicrous 36 cm. That was set back in 1989, when even the Department’s own estimate said that the maximum sustainable yield for sea bass would be reached if the minimum landing size was 50 cm, yet still we sit here with the level at 36 cm.
An increased minimum landing size for bass, coupled with a corresponding increase in mesh sizes, would be a huge positive for the UK bass fishery. Over the years much time has been spent on trying to convince those in charge to increase the UK MLS. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who is here today, nearly managed to implement the reforms when he was Fisheries Minister in 2007, but alas, just before he could pull the lever, he was replaced and the whole thing dropped through the floor before it could reach the statute book. Unfortunately, his successor did not carry on with the implementation, which is a tragedy. We are now living with the consequences of that change.
In 2012, the then Fisheries Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is also with us today, initiated a further review. That the study is still in train was confirmed by the current Minister in 2013, although it has yet to be published; hopefully we will hear a little more about that later. Technical papers suggest that the main benefit, at least in terms of yield, of management aimed at protecting juvenile sea bass, which increasing the MLS would do, chiefly accrues to fisheries operating within the six-mile zone. The implication is that there is every reason to increase the MLS here in the UK unilaterally, whatever happens at EU level. We will benefit, whatever the rest of Europe decides to do.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this debate, because this is a big issue in my constituency. Does he agree that enormous damage is done to the feeding and spawning beds of sea bass by pair trawlers, which drag the bottom of the oceans and take away all the seaweed? Does he acknowledge that one solution might be to restrict sea bass to sea anglers? It has been calculated that in Sussex the value of sea angling is more than £31 million, including tackle, accommodation and boats. That is more than three times the value of commercially landed fish stocks. Such a measure would go a long way towards conservation, too.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will allude to the study that he is referencing a little later in my remarks. On the ecological damage done by pair trawling and indeed by other sorts of trawling, including otter trawling, there is no doubt that it is very destructive to the environment. Although it is effective and useful for commercial fishermen, all of us interested in sea angling should look to do something about it more generally than just with specific reference to sea bass. That is an important issue.
Finally in the sorry tale that I was outlining, the average recruitment—the number of sub-one-year-old fish being added to the fishery—between 2008 to 2012 was less than a quarter of the long-term average. We are fishing more, we are increasingly targeting sea bass, we are specifically fishing out breeding shoals and we are not allowing the young stock to reach spawning age. How much more is there to say other than that, in an ecosystem that is supposed to be carefully managed, such practices are, to use an American phrase, as dumb as dirt? I do not know how else to describe the situation. There could not be a worse way of managing a fishery that we apparently want to keep for the longer term.
Before looking more closely at the current policy proposals for managing the problem, it is worth spending a bit longer talking about the economics, to which my hon. Friend just referred. There is a crucial difference between the returns in the commercial and recreational sectors. If we are to reach a sustainable, long-term solution, it is critical that we understand that well. The best data we have on the catches of the commercial and recreational bass fishing sectors in the UK are in the “Sea Angling 2012” report published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That study modelled the recreational share of the total as being somewhere between 20% and 33% of the retained catch landed in the UK, but it is clear about the lack of statistical certainty in the data on recreational catches and angling activity:
“Respondents were self-selecting and unlikely to be representative of all sea anglers. On average they were more avid and successful anglers than those interviewed in the other more statistically designed Sea Angling 2012 surveys, reporting higher catch rates, more days fished, and higher membership of clubs and national angling bodies.”
In short, there are good reasons to believe that the likely level of recreational landings is much lower than the report suggests, or is, at the very least, at the bottom end of the report’s estimate.
It is also clear that the economic activity generated by recreational angling dwarfs that of the commercial sector. “Sea Angling 2012” shows that there are 884,000 sea anglers in England. They directly pump £1.23 billion into the economy, and 10,500 full-time jobs depend on that spending. Indirect spend is equivalent to £2.1 billion and 23,600 jobs. Those figures are direct from the Department.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On a day when we are celebrating our long-term economic plan, does he agree that we need to support individual anglers and the economic activity he describes? If we need evidence of the difference he proposes, we can look to our hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), whose actions in government have directly caused an increase in economic output off the north-east coast by reason of the salmon that is now seen in the Tyne.
I agree completely. It is always difficult to quantify exactly the economic benefit of fishing done for fun, but all the evidence points inescapably towards it being an extremely important stream of revenue, in particular for less economically advantaged areas, of which there are a great many in the south-west and the part of the world that my hon. Friend represents.
It is also worth noting that the VAT alone that is collected from sea anglers dwarfs the entire first sale value of all commercial fish landings in the UK. That demonstrates the scale of the economic benefit of recreational angling. That was further reaffirmed by a detailed study released last Friday, to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) referred, by the highly respected Marine Resources Assessment Group on behalf of the Blue Marine Foundation. The study took a detailed look at sea bass fishing in the Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority—a control area for fishing—and its conclusions are nothing short of startling. Its low-end estimate was that the economic and employment benefit per tonne of fish removed by recreational bass angling was more than 40 times that of commercial fishing—a pretty extraordinary statistic in anybody’s book. Despite the much smaller weight of fish removed by recreational anglers in the Sussex IFCA, the total benefit to the local economy of recreational angling was still, as my hon. Friend said, more than three times that of commercial fishing.
We know for a fact that recreational bass fishing is worth far more to the economy than commercial fishing, and is a great deal more sustainable. That is one of many reasons why the current EU proposals are puzzling to the point of bewilderment. As the Minister knows only too well, they propose limiting recreational anglers to only one fish per day, despite the fact that, as far as I understand it, the EU has no competence over people who go fishing for recreation, and, indeed, the pretty skimpy evidence that recreational anglers are the problem. For one spawning area, area IVc—I will happily share the map of the areas with colleagues who wish to see it—the EU makes an as yet incomplete proposal to limit the daily amount of fish taken during the spawning period by a certain number of vessels. We genuinely know no more than that. How that is supposed to make a meaningful difference to the current situation is, frankly, anybody’s guess. In my view, it is the political equivalent of trying to stop your house falling down by painting it a different colour.
We all know what needs to be done. The French know it, the Dutch know it, we know it—everybody knows it, so for goodness’ sake, let us get on and actually do it, finally, for once. We have to drastically reduce the amount of fish taken. We have to allow fish to reach sexual maturity. We have to stop most, if not all, fishing in the spawning season. We have to do a better job of protecting and enhancing nursery areas. Finally, we have to grasp the undeniable reality that converting the fishery to one dominated by recreational fishing is the only long-term solution that will protect our economic interests and give the fish a future. Any solution that markets itself as long-term but does not deal with all those issues will fail; of that there can be little or no doubt.
I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing the debate but on making such a powerful case. Does he agree that the Government must also ensure that the IFCAs properly engage with recreational anglers? When I go to IFCA meetings, I see that the commercial fishermen have a far greater influence in the workings of the IFCA than the recreational anglers. That problem must be addressed if we are to get the changes that my hon. Friend rightly identified.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but that will only happen when the IFCAs and others understand and accept the importance of recreational angling and see the Government outline a direction of travel. Only then will the recreational anglers get a proper bite of the cherry, and only then will the IFCAs and others follow that course. The Government must lead from the front.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the quality of his opening speech and on raising this subject. In Essex, we have a lot of recreational anglers who provide a great deal of employment and generate a lot of tourism, but we also have very small-scale inshore fishermen who catch sea bass. Do they have a future in my hon. Friend’s scheme, or will they be squeezed out by the ban on commercial fishing?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is a vexed issue. There are people who make a very small-scale living out of bass fishing. My belief is that it is likely that in the near term, as has happened in Ireland, the north-east coast of the United States and a great many fisheries where proper regulation has been put in place, people who run sub- 10-metre boats will find that they make a much better living from taking out and guiding recreational fishing than from trawling for a few vulnerable sea bass out in the ocean. Although I would not condone any policy that forced people who fish at that scale from one to the other, particularly in inshore waters, I think that reality will dawn and that most of them will end up in the recreational sector.
In concluding my remarks, I hope you will excuse me, Mr Crausby, for asking the Minister a series of detailed questions. I have given him notice of some of them because they are quite complex, but I would appreciate answers to as many of them as possible.
To protect breeding fish, will the Minister follow the proposals made by the Angling Trust and others and seek a ban on targeted fishing based on catch composition or sufficiently restrictive vessel catch limits to make the fishery unviable from January to May inclusive, to apply to areas VIId, e, f and h and IVc in offshore fisheries beyond member states’ six-mile zones? For the benefit of other hon. Members present, I am simply asking for proper fishing restrictions to be put in place in pretty much all the coastal waters where we find sea bass, and certainly where they breed.
Will the Minister take on board another of the Angling Trust’s proposals and pursue catch limits for all registered EU vessels fishing for bass in areas VII and IV to cap effort, with limits set at a level that reduces fishing mortality by at least 40% across all member state fleets? I have apologised to the Minister for not giving him notice of that question.
To allow fish to reach breeding age, will the Minister work to ensure that a minimum landing size of 46 cm or over is adopted for sea bass at European level? Will he undertake to impose such a limit unilaterally on UK landings in any event? At the very least, will he confirm that the review of the minimum landing size for bass started by his Department in 2012 is still progressing, and will he undertake to publish the results as soon as possible? To help protect the recruitment stocks, will he undertake to look again at the extension of bass nursery areas?
Finally, does the Minister agree that the development of sea bass fishing as a recreational activity is the best long-term solution to both the ecological and the economic sustainability of the fishery, as proved by the Irish sea bass experience, the striped bass fishery of the north-east coast of the US and many other examples?
With the right measures in the right place at the right time and in the necessary proportion, we can make our fisheries policy work for us and for future generations. I hope the Minister will offer us all hope that such a prospect can be realised.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech, in which he outlined his case.
I do not intend to repeat the detail of much of what the hon. Gentleman said. I see my role, as a former Fisheries Minister, as being to stiffen the Minister’s resolve when he negotiates in Brussels in a couple of weeks’ time and with the self-appointed representatives of the commercial fishing sector. I warn him from my experience that if he and the Council do not make tough decisions now, he or his poor successor—perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)—will have to make much worse decisions in a year or two’s time, as the hon. Member for Meon Valley outlined. It is far better to make tough decisions now. If the Minister caves in to the self-appointed representatives of the commercial sector, our bass fishery will be doomed. I therefore urge him to go to Brussels and negotiate hard on behalf of the fish stocks. In the end, it is the fish that matter for everyone, including the commercial sector if it is to have a future.
I also want the Minister to be aware that in the view, probably of most people in Westminster Hall today, and certainly of most people in the country who have an interest and knowledge in this area, the current proposals by the Commission are not only wholly inadequate but totally imbalanced in favour of the commercial sector and against the recreational sector. One of his first tasks, apart from ensuring that we get much more meaningful and drastic action, is to rebalance those proposals in the other direction.
The Minister will know the value of the recreational sea-angling sector, and not only because his hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley reminded him of it, but because his own Department conducted research into it in 2012; I think I can recall earlier pieces of research into it, too. The Department’s research in 2012 found that the sector’s income for the country was £2.1 billion, it sustains 23,000 jobs, and as I think the hon. Member for Meon Valley said, the VAT receipts alone from the wealth and activity generated by sea angling dwarf the income from the commercial fishing sector. As I said, the Minister’s first task is to rebalance this inadequate plan from the Commission.
The Minister’s second task is to grasp the nettle on minimum landing size. I commend to him an Adjournment debate that was held in the main Chamber in 2007, between the then hon. Member for Reading West—Martin Salter, who was a great champion of sustainable fisheries and the sea-angling community—and my successor as Fisheries Minister, Jonathan Shaw. In that debate, all the arguments about minimum landing size were rehearsed. As the hon. Member for Meon Valley has reminded us, when I was the Minister I took the decision to increase the minimum landing size, to 40 cm as a first step, then to 45 cm after a period of review. Tragically, however, that decision was reversed by my successor who, as is often the case, came under pressure from the very powerful self-appointed commercial fisheries spokespeople.
That was a disastrous decision. If people look at that debate, they will see that the reasons given by my successor as Minister for not proceeding with the increase was that the bass stocks were in decent shape. Well, look at them now. All I can say to the current Minister is, “Please learn the lessons of that mistake and go for an increase in the minimum landing size.” It is absolutely insane that we allow people to catch the vast majority of bass before they even reach spawning size: that is my second message to the Minister.
My third message is to have a look at what I still consider to be the best Government strategy on fisheries published in the past 20 years—a document called “Net Benefits” that was published in 2004. It was commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in 2002, because of the disaster facing the North sea cod industry and the repercussions, not only on cod stocks but on fishing communities around the North sea. It took two years to develop what I believe still stands as the best long-term fisheries strategy for this country. I commend that document to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, the Opposition spokesperson, if she has not read it already; I hope that she reads it before she gets the job of Fisheries Minister, because it is the best policy document that I can remember.
In that document, the Government at the time said:
“We should review the evidence supporting arguments for the designating of commercial caught species for wholly recreational sea angling, beginning with bass by the end of 2004.”
That document was published in 2004, 10 years ago. Here we are now, with the bass stocks at risk of collapse, and far too little has been done in the meantime.
Consequently, the third thing that the Minister can go away and do is a longer-term thing, which is to have another look at designating the bass fishery as solely recreational. That was a Labour policy 10 years ago; it has got nowhere, and we are now paying a very high price as a result. Incidentally, the “Net Benefits” report was endorsed shortly after its publication by the then Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which also supported re-designating bass fishing as a recreational fishery.
Those are my very short political messages to the Minister. The hon. Member for Meon Valley has done a great job in laying out the detailed case for change, and the challenge that we face. However, my simple message to the Minister is for him to go away, fight for bass and take some radical action, because if he does not do so, he—if he is still in the job—or his successor will have a much tougher job further down the line.
I am grateful for the opportunity to comment on the excellent speeches we have just heard. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) for calling this debate.
The story of the management of this stock has been a very bad one indeed. The high point was the decision by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) to increase the minimum landing size, and all credit to him for taking it. If we had followed that decision through at the time, it would certainly have made a difference. Why his successor rescinded that decision is something that I could not really determine from reading the excellent Adjournment debate in 2007 to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
When I was in the Minister’s position, I set about trying to reverse that change in policy, and I tried to increase the minimum landing size. I was persuaded that it was important to do everything to conserve bass at a European level, and I believe that it is right to get agreement among our European partners, because many vessels from other countries fish this stock in our waters. To go to the EU was a sensible piece of advice that I received.
However, if we just left matters to the sclerotic processes of the EU, this stock would crash before we could do anything about it. There is a lot that we can do unilaterally, and there is a lot that we can do in this House and beyond as a sort of club of ex-Fisheries Ministers; I do not know what the collective noun for ex-Fisheries Ministers is, but I think it is an “exhaustion” of ex-Fisheries Ministers. We would all say to my hon. Friend the Minister that he has a much more difficult task this December than the tasks that I faced in three or four years of December rounds of talks. He is a very good negotiator and takes his job very seriously. However, my advice to him would be to take precisely the advice of the right hon. Member for Exeter—that this stock will not exist unless tough decisions are taken.
We now face a collapse in stocks. At times, when we talk about minimum landing size, it seems slightly like fiddling while Rome burns, and that there are more important things that we could do. However, it is still necessary to increase minimum landing size and I hope that the Minister will consider doing that, and take forward the work that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already done on this issue and act unilaterally.
I take an old-fashioned view that fish should not be harvested until they have had a chance to breed. It is the spawning biomass that is crashing and it is on that issue that action needs to take place. This situation has arisen before; we can look beyond our borders and see where it has happened before. There is a fishery on the east coast of the United States called the striped bass stock fishery, which is now worth a lot of money. I have heard varying figures, including the figure that now, in its healthy state, it is worth $1 billion a year to the state of Massachusetts in terms of tourism and the added benefits that angling provides. I have also heard that nationally it is worth $2 billion a year to the US economy, and possibly more.
The stock spawns in the Chesapeake bay, but in the late 1970s it was overfished and crashed. Immediately, everyone was prevented from fishing it, whether they were recreational or commercial anglers. The stock has now recovered and it is a massive draw. British bass anglers spend all their savings to fly from the United Kingdom to the United States to exploit this exciting fish. It is branded; people wear T-shirts with the slogan, “I’m a striped bass fisherman.” However, British fishermen should not have to do that in US waters; they should be able to do it in UK waters. Similarly, they should not have to go to Ireland, where there is a very buoyant recreational fishery; I will come on to talk about that shortly.
I would love to portray the problem in the simplistic way that some do, which is to say that it is all about the pair trawlers. Well, I am afraid that it is not all about the pair trawlers. In the area from Felixstowe round to Sussex, the use of trammel and drift nets has increased by 20% or 30% in the past year. We need to look at all the activities in this sector. What is really interesting about the Marine Resources Assessment Group study that my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley mentioned is that it relates to a fishery in Sussex, where every way of exploiting this diminishing stock is used. There are pair trawlers coming over from the continent to exploit it; there are inshore fisheries that exploit it commercially; and there is also a very important recreational fishery. That is why MRAG chose Sussex to conduct this important piece of research.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) said earlier, I suspect that we will hear later today in this House the words, “long-term economic plan”. Well, let us just look at the economics of the issue that we are talking about. In Sussex alone, I calculate—from the figures in the MRAG report—that between 258 and 267 tonnes of fish were harvested commercially in 2012, and somewhere between 10 and 19 tonnes were harvested recreationally. Taking the median of those two, about 5.7% were landed from the recreational sector. However, what is really important is that the economic output per tonne in Sussex is 40 to 75 times higher for recreational than commercial. The employment that is generated, calculated per tonne, is 39 to 75 times higher for recreational bass fisheries than commercial.
The report states clearly that the final economic and employment impacts of recreational bass fisheries in Sussex are estimated at £31.3 million and 353 full-time equivalent jobs. The final economic employment impacts of commercial bass fisheries in Sussex were estimated as £9.25 million and 111.28 full-time equivalents. That is a staggering difference. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley said, if calculated across the piece it is more than three times as valuable as a recreational fishery than as a commercial one.
It would obviously be better if the EU had measures in place to put this stock back on track, but I urge the Minister to look at what has happened in Ireland, where there is a recreation-only fishery, a strict catch limit and a high minimum landing size, which I gather is about to be increased to 50 cm, on the basis of scientific advice received by the Irish Government. This is a highly valuable tourist attraction. In Ireland, angling, tourism and coastal communities are integrating in a much better way than in this country. We have a lot to learn in that regard. People who go there are welcomed and find charter boats linked to hotels and pubs. The whole package is there; it is part of a deal that attracts people. I want those fisherman to go to Devon, Sussex and Essex and exploit this exciting game fish.
I am going to do something that should never be done in the House of Commons, which is to ask a question without knowing the answer. I do not intend to put my hon. Friend on the spot, but he was Fisheries Minister until quite recently, so why did he not do this? What was the obstacle? Where is the resistance? What were he and his successor having to fight to be able to implement this measure, not just in the EU, but domestically?
I did set about trying to increase the minimum landing size. I regret that we did not move faster when going through the process of consultation and further consultation, and trying to ensure that this was agreed at European level, because the evidence is all there. When you are a Minister, people tell you that someone cannot be prevented from doing something without enough evidence and judicial review, and that there are threats of infraction, and all the other things. However, I freely admit that if I had my time over again I would steamroller this through and take the consequences, because the consequence now is a crashing stock. The stock will disappear, along with the economic value.
To the fishermen in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), I say this: I have met them many times and I have great respect for them, but they will not be fishing for bass, not because of any decision taken by any Minister of any party, but because there will be none. They have a great future ahead of them exploiting other stocks, such as thornback rays and other things that are prevalent in those waters, but they really will have an economic benefit if they can get the fishermen on their boats to catch recreational bass in future.
It might help the hon. Gentleman if I say a little bit about my experience. In this regard, it was one of those occasions as a Minister where I had to stand up to powerful and well-funded vested interests and to officials. Great as my officials were, I am afraid it was a Minister’s decision against the advice and the will of my officials, and sometimes that is the right thing to do.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that position clear. It is important to listen to advice, but as I say we could still be fiddling when Rome burns. This stock will shortly be gone.
Other hon. Members want to speak. I shall conclude by saying that 80% of bass swim within 12 nautical miles of the coast, so action is needed now. We need action on minimum landing sizes; we need spatial and temporal closures; and we need better protection of nursery areas. Yes, we need a bag limit, but I do not believe that that is a massive issue—whether it is one, two or three—but other technical measures in the commercial fishery are needed. We also need better data so that we can face down the interests that say that this is the wrong decision.
The only way forward for bass is for them to be caught by hand line or rod. Any commercial activity at all should be based on its being a premium, hand-caught resource, in a similar way to mackerel in the south-west and other species: a virtue is made of the fact that those are local and high quality. My frank message to poncey restaurateurs who demand bass the size of the palm of my hand for their fussy customers is, “Get those from aquaculture, don’t get them from out of our seas, because that is destroying a stock.” Actually, their customers will probably mind more about not being able to eat bass in future. I want to see our waters criss-crossed with charter boats taking fat cats out to fish this really exciting stock, putting that money into coastal communities, and see a sustainable source working for this country, not crashing.
I thank the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) for securing such an important debate, which could help shape the future of bass angling in the United Kingdom. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions in this Chamber, I represent an area of the UK that has a rich fishing industry; in fact, for many, fishing is the life blood of the village. In Portavogie in particular, it is a tradition that has been passed down many generations. Unsurprisingly, this is a subject of great interest to me.
We are focusing on commercial fishing and looking at recreational fishing. Many hon. Members have spoken about work done in the Republic of Ireland. I want to mention that and some work done in Northern Ireland. Recreational sea angling attracts some 1.45 million anglers per annum and is worth in excess of £500 million per annum to the economy of England and Wales. Bass are a highly sought-after fish and bass angling attracts some of Britain’s most committed anglers, due to the fighting qualities and high reputation of this striking-looking fish.
The development and unregulated use of inshore monofilament gill nets, which commenced in the mid-1970s, followed by the development of winter bass pair-trawl fishing in the 1980s, means that bass are relentlessly pursued commercially as soon as they leave the estuary nursery areas. Bass are a slow-growing, long-living species, and can live for up to 25 years. I reiterate what hon. Members have said: many are caught as pre-adults at six to seven years old. We need to control that. I am sure that the Minister will hit on that issue and mention what we have done in Northern Ireland and what has been done in the Republic as well.
In 2013, the UK media reported that bass numbers were at their lowest in 20 years and that the breeding stock of bass had reduced by almost a third since 2009. To complicate matters further, bass is a non-quota species and there is a minimum landing size, which makes controlling and limiting commercial catches even more difficult. However, in Ireland commercial bass fishing has been restricted and protected bass areas have been created, and the fishing there has improved dramatically. Many in the UK see the Irish model as a way to restore British bass stocks. There are examples close at hand that we can use to help in this regard.
Despite questions about the long-term stability of bass numbers, this species appears to be extending its range northwards, with bass now being caught with some regularity in areas such as the Yorkshire and north-east coasts, where they were previously fairly rare.
Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue of recreational fishing and the commercial benefits that can be derived from it, does he agree that the progress made in the Irish Republic can be replicated, not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK, if we take the right decision and if a third Minister does not also find the difficulties almost insurmountable in trying to address the problems that we all face?
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for his intervention. Two previous Ministers have mentioned their experiences when they were in the position of power that the present Minister is now in, so perhaps their examples can be used to change the direction of the civil service roundabout, to push the matter through.
Many UK anglers fish for bass on a purely catch-and-release basis to help preserve stocks of the species and ensure that bass stocks return to a higher level, in turn preserving them for future generations. In 2010, new legislation was proposed in Northern Ireland to adopt the same protection measures for bass stocks as exist in the Republic of Ireland. The proposed legislation is going through the Northern Ireland Assembly, but a loophole has arisen. The legislation affects the crucial “Prohibition of the sale of bass” rule by introducing a clause that allows for bass caught accidentally by trawlers to be landed and marketed as allowable by-catch.
Case histories from the Republic of Ireland and the United States of America reveal how the sustainable management of fish species, such as the European sea bass and the striped bass, primarily for recreational benefit, can generate superior economic gains for local and national economies. We cannot ignore that money and how that helps villages and recreation. Undoubtedly the UK has lagged far behind other countries in realising the economic potential of proactive management of the marine species targeted by recreational anglers.
There are a number of fishing competitions and vessels around the coast of the United Kingdom, and I will mention two. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) will probably mention the Terry Herman bass fishing competition, which takes place each summer in Pembrokeshire. It is also a great charity fundraiser. There are examples like that around the United Kingdom, and good comes from them.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) mentioned the USA. The Big Bass Splash—the Americans sometimes describe things in a different way from the rest of us—has taken place in Kentucky since 1984, with prizes of up to $85,000 to be won. We have seen bass competitions televised in sports programmes. We are well aware of “Extreme Fishing with Robson Green”; those interested in fishing will enjoy that programme, which features all the fish we wish we could catch. I could never even catch one. The Jersey Open Shore Bass Festival takes place every October, with a competition for anglers of all levels of experience to encourage the sport. I hope that a strategy, a policy and legislation to help preserve recreational bass fishing will come from the debate, but will the Minister indicate what discussions he has had with Jersey, Guernsey and the Channel Islands on the rules that they will put in place? They see the benefit of recreational angling, and I hope we can do the same.
I have a picture of my son when he caught a 10 lb bass on holiday in the USA. I could not get a bite, but he got one almost right away. Those experiences make memories that last for ever and encourage an interest in fishing that will last for many years—probably a whole life.
Recreational and sporting angling can deliver money to local economies. I was a guest speaker at Irish Fest last year in Milwaukee, where a number of councils from the Republic of Ireland were represented in the tourism facility. Every one of those councils was advertising recreational fishing as one of the things people can do when they visit Ireland. Do not ever underestimate the amount of money that can be generated and how that can help the economy. I spoke to one hotelier at the festival and afterwards. He said that people come from the States specifically for the fishing. The Republic of Ireland has recognised the benefits and moved forward. It is time that we on the United Kingdom mainland did likewise.
I always underline the increasing number of returns from anglers, as do those who see angling tourism as a way forward. Tourism-based sea angling for bass generates millions per annum for local and national economies. As the examples of America and Ireland have shown—they are two good examples; one is close by and one is further afield—the UK needs to adopt a policy of conservation so that levels do not drop any further. Given the long life of sea bass, it is vital that we do not fish them at the prime ages of six or seven. Instead, their time in nurseries or protected areas needs to be longer. We also need to consider changing how bass are commercially pursued, which I hope the Minister will address by altering how and when they can be fished. That is the only way to safeguard them and ensure that they remain part of angling culture for future generations.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for Meon Valley on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute. I ask the Minister in response to consider not only what Northern Ireland—fishing is a devolved matter—is doing, but what the Republic of Ireland is doing with legislation that is already creating benefits.
I start by referring to a letter from my constituent, Matt Powell, which was written in July 2014. He said:
“I run a small bass guiding business on the Pembrokeshire coast. This has given me the opportunity to observe the difficulties facing the future stocks of the bass…our most iconic marine sport fish. It is clear that the species is under the sort of pressure that is unsustainable in the medium to long term future. A combination of angling pressure…is taking its toll on our local bass stocks. I am obviously concerned about the future of my own business if things continue as they are, but of far more importance is the legacy we create for future generations.”
Mr Powell is not alone. There are plenty of people like him along the Pembrokeshire coast and elsewhere in Wales.
This is really a story of political will. We have extensive planning conditions to protect bats and amphibians, fences that keep deer off roads and tunnels for hedgehogs and toads to pass under roads. The Minister will know that there was a national outcry when he went through with a policy that would remove less than 1% of the UK badger population—a thriving and increasing population —so it is sadly ironic that, on our watch and under our noses, we are seeing the steady decline and eradication of an iconic species. Nobody, it seems, can find a solution to the problem. Even the populations of salmon and sea trout, which are of significance in my part of the world, seem to be receiving more column inches these days than the future of bass.
We have heard about the economic value, and I will not repeat all the statistics. In my part of the world, bass fishing by anglers is crucial. Its economic value and the number of jobs it provides outstrip commercial endeavours significantly. It has three times the numbers of employees and three times the money generated by those other methods of fishing, yet we put all that at risk.
I have a simple question for the Minister: can he be as bold about bass as he is about badgers? That is what we require. As we heard from the former Fisheries Minister, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), it is about facing down interest groups and officials and doing what is right. It is within the Minister’s gift to do the right thing. It is not as though that is an impossible ask. It can be done, and it can be done now. If it is not done now, the Minister will sadly have it on his record that bass collapsed on his watch. I cannot believe that he or any other Minister, facing the evidence they face now, wants that to be the case.
An increase in the minimum landing size is crucial. Following the advice of the expert bodies—goodness me, there are enough of them—is crucial. The Minister also might take into account the thoughts of the chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation, who refers to the essential banning of netting, especially in nursery areas, and investing in the expansion of rod and line fishing around the UK coast.
This is not about stopping people from doing things; it is about investing in education and the huge benefits that would arise in our coastal regions—particularly in Wales—if we got the message across. It is about investment in something that will bring good fortune not only to the bass population around the UK shores, but to the residents of coastal areas whose livelihoods depend on the practice. It is also about the maximalisation of marketing, which has not been referred to in the debate but has been touched on once or twice in the media commentary around it.
The situation is pretty simple. Someone once said to me that Governments can do pretty much whatever they want, so long as they really want to. I think this is one of those occasions. Do the Government really want to help bass? If they do, they can; if they do not, bass stocks will collapse on our watch and take at least 20 years to recover, while the livelihoods of people such as my constituent, Matt Powell, will probably never recover at all.
This topic is important. Only this past weekend experts called for a ban on trawlermen catching sea bass, given the evidence that angling offers three times the benefit to the economy.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) on securing such an important debate, and I want to repeat some facts that he pointed out in his opening address. DEFRA’s own “Sea Angling 2012” report shows that there are 884,000 sea anglers in England, who pump £1.23 billion per annum directly into the economy, with 10,400 full-time jobs dependent on the activity; and that the indirect spend is equivalent to £2.1 billion, with 23,600 jobs at stake. Bass are the most popular species for recreational angling and, according to figures given at the recent Dublin bass workshop, bass angling is worth more than £200 million in England alone.
I admit that I am not a bass fisherman—indeed, many of my colleagues in the all-party group might suggest that I am not a fisherman of any shape or size at all—but my youngest brother is a fanatical one, and many of my constituents are also bass fishermen. Indeed, angling is possibly the recreational sport with one of the highest participation rates in my east London constituency, as in the country at large. This obviously important debate is also about the nature of politics—about keeping our promises, which has been mentioned a number of times this morning.
For the past 13 years, recreational sea anglers have been led to believe that their most popular sporting fish would be managed sustainably and primarily as a recreational species, because Governments, including the previous Labour Government, kept telling them that that was what we were going to do. I want to focus on some of the recent history behind today’s debate, which was emphasised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) in his comments.
In 2007, we came close to a breakthrough based on a cross-party consensus, but a Fisheries Minister capitulated to pressure from the commercial sector and overturned the decision of his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, who had already signed off the order to increase the bass minimum landing size. Since then, arguably, we have witnessed seven wasted years in terms of sustainable management of the species, and that has been picked up time and again in the contributions this morning. Since 2007, as far as I can see, not a single measure introduced by Governments of either main party has halted the decline in bass stocks. We are still waiting for the publication of the 2012 bass minimum landing size review, instigated by the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). There is some doubt as to whether any meaningful work has been done at all.
The core of the argument put by all our colleagues this morning is that politicians have promised that Britain’s most popular fish in sporting and eating potential should be managed sustainably. That has not happened and bass stocks are in deep trouble. The latest scientific advice issued by ICES in June 2014 recommended an 80% cut in catches of bass throughout the European Union by 2015—more than double the amount suggested in 2013, which we had not acted on. The Solent bass surveys also make dismal reading, but that is not new—the news has not fallen from the sky.
It is worth going back to some of the recent elements in the debate. As emphasised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, in 2002 the Prime Minister’s strategy unit commissioned a report on the benefits of recreational sea angling. “Net Benefits” was eventually published in 2004 and it stated:
“Fisheries management policy should recognise that sea angling may, in some circumstances, provide a better return on the use of some resources than commercial exploitation.”
That is exactly the point made by the Blue Marine Foundation report that was in the papers this weekend, as I mentioned at the beginning of my speech.
The 2002 report’s recommendations were:
“Fisheries departments should review the evidence supporting arguments for re-designating commercially caught species for wholly recreational sea angling, beginning with bass by the end of 2004.”
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee then looked at the issue when considering the “Net Benefits” report. According to the Committee’s all-party review:
“We strongly support the Strategy Unit recommendations to develop the recreational sea angling sector. We believe that the sector, which has considerable economic value, has been overlooked and under-represented for too long.”
“We support the re-designation of certain species for recreational use and recognise the benefits that this can bring from both a conservation and economic point of view.”
The same points about the economic case for recreational angling have been made consistently over the past 13 years.
I do not want to be party political in any way in this debate, but I want to emphasise the 2005 “Labour’s Charter for Angling”, which contained the following words in a foreword by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter:
“It was anglers concerns for the conservation status of sea bass that has persuaded me to agree to implement much of the excellent bass management plan put forward by the Bass Anglers Sport Fishing Society”,
including increases in the minimum landing size to strengthen the brood stock.
My right hon. Friend was true to his word, and in 2005 he launched the DEFRA consultation on increasing the minimum landing size for bass so as to produce a sustainable fishery with more and bigger bass for the commercial and recreational sectors. He took the long-term view in 2006 when he announced the conclusions of the consultation and his intention to increase the minimum landing size to 40 cm from 36 cm, and later to go on to 45 cm, beyond the optimum spawning size. According to his DEFRA press release:
“I have listened very carefully to the representations made and have not taken this decision lightly. I have accepted the arguments for a bigger minimum landing size to help increase the quantity and size of bass. This will also give better protection for the stocks. There may be short term costs from this measure before we see future gains but it is vital that fisheries management takes a long term view.”
My right hon. Friend went on:
“The recreational fishing sector makes a major contribution to our economy and it is important that their voice, as well as those of commercial fishermen, is taken into account in fisheries management.
In the future, I intend to increase the landing size further to 45 cm, but subject to the results of a review, in 2010”.
To justify that decision, DEFRA claimed at the time that the increase to 40 cm would bring the minimum landing size closer to the average spawning size for bass. As a result, more juvenile fish would be protected and there would be increased recruitment to the spawning stock. In turn, that would increase the number and size of bass available for capture to both the commercial and recreational sectors. My right hon. Friend concluded:
“I have taken on board the concerns expressed during the consultation by the commercial fishing sector about the impact of an immediate increase to 45 cm and the need for a reasonable implementation period to minimise the cost of net replacement.”
The next Fisheries Minister, however, made the decision to go back on the commitment made by his predecessor to increase the minimum landing size in the interests of conservation. On 25 October 2007 he made a statement on retaining the minimum landing size at 36 cm, rather than increasing it to 40 cm and then 45 cm by 2010. The decision was met with predictable anger and dismay by hundreds of thousands of sea anglers and many conservationists in the country. The Minister admitted at the time that his decision was based on looking after the short-term interests of the inshore fleet, rather than on the long-term interests of the species and the environment. We should obviously be concerned about any decision and its effect on jobs, but let us not forget the devastating impact that unsustainable fishing has on all sectors, whether commercial or recreational.
Bass is a highly sought after and valuable resource. It was recognised as worthy of protection by the Prime Minister’s strategy unit, by the whole Government and by cross-party Committees of the House. Unfortunately, the direction of travel was later unwound, and seven years have followed with little having happened. I hope that today we will start a new phase of the discussion, and I praise the hon. Member for Meon Valley for putting the issue on the agenda today. I hope that we can begin to rebuild a cross-party consensus about sustainable management of the bass stock.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Crausby, to speak in the debate.
I will not rehash the figures given over the past hour, but I must say to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), to paraphrase Napoleon, “better a lucky fisherman than a good fisherman”. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is rather better than he gives himself credit for, although I know that he is a lucky fisherman, as I have landed both his double-figure barbel for him—or at least netted them; I think he takes responsibility for having landed them.
I was going to give a great exposition on the need to preserve bass stocks, but again that has been done eloquently by my colleagues. Instead, I want to say that I absolutely love fishing. Fishing bridges all walks of life, from the richest and most powerful people to those who simply enjoy a day on the beach. I spend a huge amount of time fishing with my sons and, before I had my sons, I spent an enormous amount of time fishing with my grandfather, so the activity bridges generations as well. One of the most exciting times that I have had in the past five or six years was when my middle son caught his first bass, on Islay. I was running up and down the seashore making a huge amount of noise, getting in a panic, and dropping the net and picking it up again, while he calmly landed a wonderful fish. As a family, we all then celebrated his success.
There has to be a fish species somewhere in the sea that does not belong to commercial fishermen. They have it all their own way. As the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said, they are a powerful lobby. Sea bass are a resource that needs to be shared, and the balance in that sharing needs to be in favour of the recreational angler. As for commercial interests, the debate is not about the loss of jobs; it is about the creation of jobs—well-paid guiding jobs, and jobs in restaurants, hotels, pubs, the tackle trade and angling shops. It is a positive thing that we are doing here today.
The wonderful thing about sea angling is the way everyone gathers early in the morning, or when the tide is right, with great excitement. Tackle bags are thrown on to the shore, and people rootle through for their favourite lure. A great celebration takes place, with people enjoying their natural heritage and the natural history of this country.
It is all very well to come up with facts and figures, which are very important, but the most important fact is that we are currently taking fish that have not spawned. They have not reproduced. Any idiot, from whatever background, knows that that is unsustainable. One of the most depressing interventions in this discussion was by the European Union, which has drawn a moral equivalence between netting and pair trawlers, and recreational anglers, saying that if we are to make new rules and legislation about the taking of bass, recreational anglers should be limited to one fish. That is to confuse and conflate issues. Recreational anglers are not the problem—they are the solution to the problem.
I do not intend to detain Westminster Hall for more than a few minutes.
Do we not all share a feeling of rising anger and frustration, which almost brings tears to our eyes, as we listen to the debate? We have heard about the manifesto commitment on which the Labour party was elected, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), the former Fisheries Minister, has said he wishes he had acted when he was in office—a candid response to my remark.
Like many of those present for the debate I am a fisherman, and like thousands of others I have caught sea bass off the Essex coast. I treasure the species from an emotional point of view, but also from the point of view of the coastal communities. It brings life to seaside towns such as Harwich and Brightlingsea that have become so dejected in some respects because they are out on a limb and are no longer the economic centres that they became when they built ships, when there were big fishing fleets and when they were the links to the continent.
As Fisheries Minister, aside from my personal interest in fishing and angling and what my fishing friends would have told me, I do not think I would have known about the problem until it reached its present stage if it had not been for the Angling Trust coming to see me with a group of people who really know what is going on. We could then put in train a process—which I wish had happened earlier—involving the Government working well with organisations that are informed and rational in how they work with Ministers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, the debate is not anti-commercial interests, anti-jobs or anti-employment. It is pro-economic, social and environmental development. It is about what all the political parties in the House believe in, yet we have had 10 years of debate and have achieved nothing.
As Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, I have the word “accountability” in mind: that is the crunch. All the democratic pressure on successive Ministers was to get something done; my hon. Friend the Minister must ask himself why it has not been done. I invite him to consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury—and indeed the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)—said about wishing they had been tougher with their officials. It is not right to blame officials, who give their best advice, but there is also the question of legal advice.
Legal advice is not an instruction on how to behave; it is something to be taken into account in making a decision. If the risk of being taken to court—to judicial review—is balanced against the risk of losing the fish stock, which is the bigger risk? The Minister must be accountable for the decision. He is not being accountable to this House if he just submits to the legal advice. Legal advice is to be listened to, but in many cases it is to be overridden. It is to be disregarded—well, not disregarded; it is to be taken into account. The judgment that the Minister then makes is not about blindly accepting the legal advice. Otherwise we do not have accountability; we might as well be ruled by lawyers.
We have seen European law, human rights law and fear of judicial review take over the whole of government in some Departments—DEFRA may be one of the worst instances—but we expect our Ministers to govern. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister please to exercise his best judgment. He will then be vindicated for what he does. If he submits to the legal advice, he will be condemned.
When we think about why our system of government feels so unaccountable with respect to so many Ministers, the question we should ask is how they respond to the advice that they are given and whether the House should empower them to act in the national interest rather than submit to the rather blind legal advice they are often given. That advice is given for the best of reasons; that is the job of the lawyers. However, in my experience, lawyers always advise doing the more cautious thing from their point of view—not necessarily from the point of view of the public interest.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) on securing the debate. We always say that debates are important, but this one really is; and it is very timely, given the meeting of the Council of the European Union in two week’s time.
The hon. Gentleman outlined perfectly the problems with sea bass stock. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), and the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon)—both ex-Fisheries Ministers —made the important point that if we do not take tough decisions now we will be back in two years facing an even worse crisis in stock levels. That is an important backdrop to today’s debate.
I want to underline one of the debate’s key themes, and in doing so I must declare not quite an interest, but where I come from—literally. I am the daughter of a former commercial fisherman—a Grimsby fisherman. Grimsby was the biggest fishing port in the world at one point. He fished in the Arctic, which was probably the most difficult fishing ground to work in during the 1950s. I grew up in a village outside the town and fully realise the pride and feeling that coastal people have in their fishermen, which continues to this day. In my father’s youth it was common for the school day to start with the fisherman’s prayer because yet another tragedy had occurred at sea. It is important to remember that fishing was and still is the most dangerous occupation in the world.
Fishing is still an important source of economic activity, contributing many millions to the UK economy. In 2013, the commercial industry directly employed about 12,000 people, with a fleet of around 6,400 vessels, landing around 600,000 tonnes of fish at a value of over £700 million. Let us not forget, however—and I do not think that we can, after today’s debate—how important angling is, socially and economically. I am not going to rehearse the figures again—they have been reiterated more than once today—but to summarise, both directly and indirectly, angling contributes £1.2 billion and 23,600 jobs to the UK economy.
Fishing and angling matter, and sea bass is an important and iconic fish for those engaged in both commercial and recreational fishing. The latest figures suggest that across Europe some 5,600 tonnes of sea bass are landed annually, with the commercial side accounting for just over 4,000 tonnes, around 75% of the total, and recreational fishing accounting for the rest—around 25%. A breakdown of landings by EU state shows that French vessels are by far the biggest exploiters of the stock, accounting for around 66%; by contrast, UK vessels land around 20% of the total, with the Dutch and the Belgians landing the majority of the rest.
The fish itself—this next point is important when we are discussing sustainability—is a slow-growing one, and does not mature until four to seven years of age. Juveniles spend up to three years occupying nursery areas in estuaries and tend not to leave until they are around 36 cm in length.
The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has advised that sea bass mortality is at a level well above that considered sustainable for the stock. As we all know, ICES has recommended that catches should be cut immediately by 80%, to restore stock levels. Furthermore, recruitment of young fish into the population has been in decline since the mid-2000s, and has been very poor since 2008. The decline in recruitment coupled with the increase in mortality has caused a rapid deterioration in stock levels. Another important point to bear in mind is that the species is completely unprotected by quotas.
It is against that backdrop that some EU countries have taken action to avoid a disastrous collapse of the stock in their waters. We have heard today what the Irish have done, with a complete ban on commercial bass fishing by Irish-registered vessels within Ireland’s 12-mile territorial limit. The Dutch Government are considering the introduction of a series of national measures, including the banning of pair trawling in certain areas from September to December, capping monthly landings, increasing the minimum landing size from 36 cm to 42 cm, setting a bag limit for recreational anglers and putting a cap on the small-scale commercial rod and line fleet.
The EU position is fluid, and is up for discussion and decision in two weeks’ time. It proposes that anglers be restricted to bagging one fish per person, per day, while commercial vessels would face some restrictions on catch—it is all very fluid—based on the assessment of the need for an immediate 80% reduction in catch and the reductions on stock exploitation required to keep the species sustainable.
As has been mentioned frequently, in the UK we recognised the need to protect sea bass stock—that history and the need to learn lessons from it have been well rehearsed today—with the plan in 2007 to raise the minimum landing size to 40 cm, and then again to 45 cm. In 2012, the then Fisheries Ministers, the hon. Member for Newbury, launched a review of the evidence supporting those measures, but to this day we have not seen its outcome. Will the Minister comment on where it has got to?
In the past few years, the UK Government—both the previous Government and the current one—have seemed unwilling to take action in UK waters to restore stock levels, arguing that they do not want to exceed or fall short of either the requirements set by the EU or, now, those of their own better regulation framework. However, I note from a recent letter sent by the Minister to the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) that although he believes that important progress can be made at the EU Council in two weeks’ time, he is of a mind to press for a more radical set of proposals from the Commission negotiations, with a focus on a balanced package of measures to reduce catches in the commercial sector, coupled with sensible measures for the recreational sector.
I wish to make it clear to the Minister that we support an approach that calls for stronger interim measures. The UK position in those negotiations needs to be firm and resolute. We need a better set of proposals from the EU than the one currently on the table. Although it is possible for member states to develop measures unilaterally, the impact of such measures is weakened by the grandfather rights on access to home waters that are enjoyed by some member states. That is why we need agreement at EU level. The ideal outcome would be a set of measures that all member states have to abide by, including short-term measures to halt the alarming decline in stocks while further research is undertaken and a long-term management plan is developed.
What do we do if we do not get agreement at the EU Council in two weeks’ time? The Opposition acknowledge the potential anomaly if we take unilateral action, but the UK Government would have to do something in the event of failure to find agreement at the EU Council. A number of measures have been proposed both today and in the recent past, including an increased minimum landing size. On that issue, I return to the review promised by one of the Minister’s predecessors and reiterate that we would be glad to hear both its findings and his view.
We all recognise that simply increasing the minimum landing size is not a complete answer. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has stated that it has serious concerns about the recruitment of fish into the sea bass population, which has been in decline for a long time. The debate about whether to extend the protection of sea bass nursery areas goes on and on. Will the Minister explain his plans to tackle that problem? We need resolution on that issue sooner rather than later—much sooner, in fact.
Has the Minister considered incentives to encourage commercial rod and line fishing, especially within the 6-mile limit, as an alternative to more damaging commercial fishing practices? Hon. Members have mentioned other measures such as catch limits and spatial closures. We need a response from him on those as well.
Finally, the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 set out the Government’s intention to create an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas. One of the main aims of that network is conservation of the sea environment. Will the Minister explain his view on how that policy interacts with issues such as the one we are discussing, especially when one considers that around a third of commercial catches are based on demersal trawling, a type of fishing said to be extremely damaging to the sea environment?
The 2009 Act gives the Marine Management Organisation the powers to introduce byelaws in our protected areas in the 6-mile to 12-mile coastal limit. Those byelaws apply to the vessels of all EU member states, not just to the home fleet. That could be a valuable way to extend some of the protections we want to see. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the potential use of marine conservation zones and the powers available to the MMO to deal with some of the problems we are facing.
I look forward to the Minister’s response on this critical issue. More than anything else, we want and need a European deal. We also want to see positive and constructive engagement with the EU, not just shouting from the sidelines. We hope he will commit to that and to outlining, in addition, any measures that the UK can apply successfully and fairly in the event of a decision failing to materialise at EU level.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) on securing this timely and important debate. We have heard many good speeches and there is clearly a basis for quite a degree of cross-party consensus. We have certainly had our quota of former Fisheries Ministers contributing to the debate.
Sea bass is one of the most valuable species we have, both to recreational sea anglers, as many hon. Members have pointed out, and to some of our fleet of commercial fishing boats under 10 metres. We are at a pivotal moment for bass management. It is clear from the latest scientific advice from ICES that European bass stocks are in a very vulnerable state. In June 2014, ICES advised that, for us to be at maximum sustainable yield in 2015, total landings of bass in the Irish sea, Celtic sea, English channel and southern North sea for commercial and recreational fisheries should be no more than 1,155 tonnes, but last year the EU fleet commercial landings total was 4,132 tonnes, and estimated landings from the recreational sector were a further 1,500 tonnes—a total of more than 5,600 tonnes. To get to the ICES recommendation would require an 80% cut from 2013 landings.
Commercial bass fisheries in those areas include an offshore fishery on spawning fish in the channel and its approaches from January to April. That is conducted mainly by large mid-water pair trawlers, which take about a third of the total commercial landings. There is also an inshore fishery, which operates mainly between spring and autumn, using trawls, fixed and drift nets, and hooks and lines, and which involves a number of under-10-metre vessels.
Sadly, as many hon. Members have pointed out, the decline of bass is not new news, as ICES has made previous recommendations for reduction in mortality from fishing exploitation. The UK has been challenging the European Commission since 2012 to take urgent action to address that decline, and we have been at the forefront of promoting technical conservation measures for bass. It is worth reflecting on some of those proposals.
Initially, the European Commission suggested a total allowable catch for bass, but we firmly believe that that is not appropriate because a new TAC is established on track records of catches, so there is a real danger that that would simply lock in a continuation of the current exploitation pattern, which now needs to change radically. A further disadvantage of setting a TAC for bass is that it would take no account of the efforts a number of member states have already unilaterally taken to limit commercial catches, which would be unfair to those countries.
Bass is a migratory species. The ICES information clearly shows that a significant proportion—about 30%—of mortality occurs in spawning areas to which all member states have access. That is why, despite the frustrations of trying to get agreement at European level, the Government have consistently pressed, first and foremost, for technical conservation measures at EU level as the most effective way of ensuring that the bass stock recovers. Let me set out the position we have argued for in the last couple of years, because I think that will deal with many of the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley.
We have consistently argued, for instance, that there should at the very least be restrictions on targeting bass from January to April and that those should apply in the key offshore spawning aggregation areas. We have also recommended the phasing out of pair trawling to target bass. In addition, we have argued for catch limits for all EU vessels fishing for bass, to cap total effort and to avoid displacement away from pair trawling to other types of commercial fishing. Finally, we have suggested further work on the identification and protection of bass nursery areas in all member states, which will build on the progress we have made in the UK.
As many hon. Members have pointed out, the current EU proposal is far from perfect, but I think we should welcome the fact that the European Commission has at least proposed interim measures for 2015 in advance of the development of a long-term management plan for bass. However, let me be absolutely clear: I do not believe that the current proposed measures are sufficiently ambitious, nor do they achieve the right balance between the measures required for the commercial and recreational sectors, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) pointed out.
When the proposals are discussed in a couple of weeks’ time at the December Fisheries Council, I will seek to agree a more effective package of measures to finally start the recovery of the bass stock. That will be challenging, as December Council negotiations always are, but it will be a UK priority for this Council to extend and strengthen the proposals to limit commercial fishing. We will also seek a two-fish bag limit for recreational anglers, rather than the one-fish limit that has been proposed. I have talked to anglers’ representatives, and they recognise they have a role to play. They completely recognise that there should be a bag limit, but it would be wrong to have a harsh one-fish bag limit for anglers while having relaxed restrictions on the commercial sector.
A number of hon. Members pointed out that there are things we could do nationally, and I want to reflect on some of those points. On minimum landing size, once we have seen the shape of any deal that comes out of the December Council, I will consider what supplementary measures we could introduce nationally. I understand the frustration of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), whose successor not only did not bother seeing his proposal through, but actually got the knife out and cut it. Revoking an order that has already been signed is quite a big step. Listening to him and others, I was reminded of the episode of “Yes Minister” in which Jim Hacker goes to talk to his previous opposite number to try to get the lowdown on an issue. There could be a role for minimum landing size. In the first instance, I want the negotiating team to focus on getting the deal right at European level. We should also recognise that just increasing the minimum landing size without changing net gears, for instance, might be counter-productive, and we could end up with more discards, which is something we want to avoid. Finally, a minimum landing size does not deal with the problem of mortality caused by pair trawling taking place in spawning areas. That typically affects larger fish, but it can be particularly damaging.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the report the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science carried out in 2012, which was commissioned by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). Internally, it was dubbed the Benyon report. I can assure hon. Members that there is no conspiracy—it is not being hidden, and it has already been shared with the Angling Trust and other stakeholders. In the light of the comments made by a number of hon. Members, I will make sure we lodge the report in the House of Commons Library after the debate so that all hon. Members can see it.
It was the CEFAS report of 2012, which was commissioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, which we will put in the Library. That report concluded that a minimum landing size increase applied at European level could have quite a big impact, but pointed out that, because a lot of fishing mortality is caused by foreign vessels in UK waters, a unilateral, UK-only minimum landing size would not necessarily have the desired effect.
I was going to try to cover some of the other points.
First, on the value of recreational angling, I should declare an interest, because my brother fishes bass in Cornwall and regularly lobbies me on bass stocks. Recreational angling has a significant economic value. At the end of last week, I met Charles Clover, the chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation, to discuss its latest report, and we recognise the value of that. What I am sceptical of, though, is having an outright ban on commercial fishing sectors, as has been trialled in Ireland. Anecdotally, there are quite a lot of reports of by-catch in Ireland and of bass having to be discarded because they are a by-catch of other fisheries. Ireland has found that, in the absence of a wider European agreement, just having a total ban on commercial fishing has not been effective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) talked about me facing down legal advice. I can say that, on this issue, unlike on many other issues in DEFRA, where there is frequently legal advice about European law, I have not come across any particular legal advice that is an obstacle. This issue is much more about the best way to deliver the outcome we want, and although there are difficulties and frustrations in negotiating such outcomes at a European level, we can start by having effective measures at that level, which we can then supplement with our own national measures, and I intend to do both those things.
In the 10 seconds I have left, let me say that we should recognise the role that IFCAs can play. Many already implement their own measures to protect bass. Finally, I will be going to Europe and to the Fisheries Council to get the best deal we can.