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House of Commons Hansard
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Fishing Discards and Quotas
18 March 2015
Volume 594

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

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Today, we have debated the Budget, focusing on much of the positive news for the economy and businesses right around the UK. I was pleased to be able to speak earlier on those matters. In the Adjournment debate, I want to raise the plight of a particular industry. Businesses operating in it are experiencing real difficulties and concerns. I am speaking particularly about the inshore fisheries industry in my constituency, but I know the subject is of interest to many other hon. Members with constituencies right around the UK’s coastal waters.

Many fisheries businesses are suffering acutely: they are landing fewer fish; they have a reduced quota and reduced incomes; and the operating costs, business costs and indeed the costs of living for the fishermen’s families are not going down. There is an urgent need, I believe, for additional quota for the under-10 metre fleet and the inshore fisheries in particular. I believe this is necessary to alleviate the considerable hardship being experienced, and if the proposed discards ban is going to be workable, the extra quota will be needed.

The inshore fishing fleet and the inshore fisheries businesses are an important part of the local economies that they serve—not just for the crews and their families and the vessels they maintain, but for the communities where the fish are landed. In my constituency, from Dungeness and Hythe to Folkestone, fishing businesses are linked to the trawlermen’s businesses. There are businesses such as the Dungeness Fish Hut and Richardson’s, also in Dungeness; Griggs of Hythe; and the Folkestone Trawlers association. These are popular fishing businesses. They sell fish into the restaurant trades, they are part of the important local food tourism offer and they support local food, fish festivals and so forth. They are an important part of a living coastal community—its heritage, its traditions and its economic life—and many other businesses rely on their sustainability.

The urgent matter of quota has been raised with me by my local fishermen. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) also met the Minister to raise with him concerns brought to her attention by fishermen in Hastings, who particularly highlighted the reduction in quota of 28% for sole and no increase in their quota for skate and rays. In my constituency, the Folkestone trawlers brought to my attention the fact that one of them had recently caught his entire month’s quota for plaice in an hour and half while fishing in Hythe bay—such is the level of abundance, yet the fishermen have the acute frustration that they do not have the quota to land more of the fish because they are already at their limits.

The Folkestone trawlers supplied me with some data based on the quota for this month. It is based on the quota for the North sea and English channel areas from which the Hythe-based fishermen fish, and it looks at levels of cod, plaice, skate and sole. The total catch value for the fishermen, minus their expenses, would bring in a total of £8,635, divided between four crews, but they tell me that they are unlikely to catch much sole. At the moment, sole would bring in over half of the value, so the real potential income from the quota of fish landed could be as little as £3,285 divided between the crews. The Folkestone trawlermen tell me that when that is broken down to the hourly rate for which the fishermen are working, it means that they could be working for as little as just over £5 an hour.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. Are we not seeing the pernicious evil of Europe once again, as it sticks its nose into our affairs and prevents our fishermen from earning a livelihood?

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I agree that there is widespread concern about the operation of the common fisheries policy and the deal that it gives our fishermen, and I think that we would all like to see more local management of our waters. That is part of the agenda that the Government have pursued during their negotiations in Europe, which I think we would all support, and which the sector would certainly support.

There is also the question of the allocation of quota. The inshore fishing fleet has about 4% of the United Kingdom’s quota, although it supplies about 75% of the manpower for the UK fishing industry. Will the Minister consider making additional quota available for the inshore fleet? The fishermen tell me they need a substantial increase, and that they need it soon. The provision of additional quota in a year or two may come too late for a number of fishermen who are currently in great difficulty.

The question of conservation levels has been raised in the House recently, and, indeed, arose last week during questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is especially relevant to sea bass stocks. Because sea bass is outside the quota, inshore fishermen in particular are going for whatever fish are available to supplement their catch, and sea bass is a good species to go for. It is possible that any concern about fish that are not on the quota will be exacerbated by the lack of quota for the inshore fleet.

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I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this matter. Fishing is important in my constituency. Nephrops and prawns are stable species in the Irish sea, contributing some 60% of the value of landings. We think it imperative for an exemption to be made by means of the survivability clause, of which I am sure the Minister is well aware. Does he agree that that is vital to the fishing fleets of Northern Ireland, and particularly vital to the fishing village of Portavogie?

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The Minister referred to the important issue during DEFRA questions last week, and I hope that he will say a little more about it this evening. Survivability rates are indeed important. In my constituency, plaice, skate and sole, including Dover sole, are an important part of the local catch. We know that survivability rates are good, and that fish that are caught can be returned. We also know that the gears that fishermen use often make it difficult to restrict catches, and that smaller fish, such as small plaice, cannot always be returned to the water, although they are normally thrown back as a matter of routine.

We do not want good fish, particularly smaller fish, to be left rotting in boxes on the quayside because nothing can be done with them, and we do not want fishermen to be unable to go out to sea because they cannot guarantee that their catches will not include fish that might tip them over the quota and that they cannot use, mixed up with other species. I think that when there is a good case for fish to be returned to the sea—and that certainly applies to flatfish—they should be exempt from the discard ban. Such an exemption would be greatly welcomed by the fishermen in my area of the North sea and the English channel. It would make the ban much more workable, as would additional quota for the inshore fleet.

The potential impact of the discard ban and the current lack of quota are crises with which inshore fleet fishermen must deal immediately, but in certain areas there is also concern about the impact of marine conservation zones. I thank the Minister and his team for their work in considering the proposal in tranche 1 of their consultation for a marine conservation zone in Hythe bay, and for deciding that the zone should go ahead only if it was compatible with the commercial interests of the fishermen. It is clear that there was no evidence to justify its imposition, and that the Government made the right decision. What has come from that is a proposal from the fishermen to create a permitted zone in Hythe bay, which would restrict access to the waters to larger vessels that operate heavier gear, which might damage the biodiversity of the bay, but would not restrict the current fishing rights that are enjoyed by the smaller vessels in the under-10 metre fleet and others that have certain rights to fish in those waters.

I think that is a good approach. It balances the need for conservation with the livelihoods of the fishermen. It respects the fishermen, particularly those in the under-10 metre fleet—they have the biggest vested interest in the sustainability of the waters they fish, because their livelihoods depend on it; they do not go deep out to sea, but fish from their local waters—and puts them at the heart of the management of future stocks. This proposal, which the fishermen are working on with the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, is a good approach. I hope that they can agree the proposals and present them to the Minister, and that this can be a model for the sustainable management of local waters, respecting sustainability targets. That is a much better model for the future.

However, that is part of an ongoing conservation. The urgent need for additional quota and exemptions in the discard ban to make it workable are the two pressing concerns now, and I ask the Minister to address those this evening.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this timely debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss some of these issues because DEFRA has a number of consultations out at the moment, looking at the discard ban and how we implement it for the demersal fleet, as well as at some of the issues that are of direct relevance to the under-10 metre fleet.

Let me begin by saying a little about the common fisheries reform that was agreed at the end of 2013. The UK worked hard to ensure that the reforms were a success. A great deal of credit is due to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), for doing so much to get what is quite a radical reform. It was said earlier that the European Union was a big problem in this regard. When it comes to the common fisheries policy, I think we have some potentially quite radical reforms, which I shall describe in a minute. I believe that those reforms can help to safeguard the marine environment while giving new flexibilities to our fishermen.

There are three key aspects to the reforms. First, there is a ban on the wasteful practice of discarding fish, or the so-called landing obligation. Secondly, there will be more regional fisheries management, with more power given back to the nation states that actually have an interest in those waters. In future, much more of the plans we have for individual waters will be agreed multilaterally by member states before being put to the European Union for final agreement. The third and final key component is a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably—that is, at maximum sustainable yield. Together, those three components make up a radical reform, but I am under no illusion that there will be challenges along the way. As always, the marine environment is very complex. It will not be easy to do some of those things, but by working together with industry, NGOs, scientists and other European member states, we can ensure that the reforms are a success.

Let me turn to the discard ban. It is important to note that we have been trialling an early forerunner of the discard ban for some time. I am proud to say that the UK has been leading the way in Europe in tackling the problem of discarding. For several years now we have trialled so-called catch quota schemes, which manage fisheries in line with what is caught rather than what is landed. Those schemes have shown that we can significantly reduce discards. In the North sea, vessels on our catch quota schemes reduced discards of cod, for instance, to just 0.1%, compared with 41% for vessels that were not part of the scheme. That shows just what we can do by working with industry.

The first stage of the discard ban, covering the pelagic fisheries—predominantly mackerel and herring—entered into force in January this year and has been working well. As with any radical change in policy, we have encountered some issues along the way, but I am pleased to say that we have successfully overcome each of these. The discard ban will progressively cover all remaining fisheries—the so-called demersal fleet—between 2016 and 2019. I am under no illusion that the next stage will be more complex, but that is a reason to get going and develop those plans now, and why on 23 January we launched a public consultation seeking views on various implementation issues. The consultation closes at the end of March.

My officials are currently travelling the length and breadth of the English coast from Newlyn to Whitehaven visiting fishing ports. They are answering any questions or concerns the industry has, but they are also tapping into the detailed local knowledge of our fishermen. It is essential that we do that. Fishermen often complain to me that they are not listened to. They sometimes feel that science is done to them rather than with them, but we know from experience that policy works well when scientists and fishermen work together to identify solutions.

My officials have not yet visited Folkestone and Hythe, but I have said to them that we should visit the area as part of the roadshow. If my hon. Friend thinks that will be useful for his fishermen, I am happy for my officials to go down there.

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If I were to write to the Minister tomorrow, would he give a date before Parliament is dissolved on 30 March when his officials can come down that we can offer to the fishermen?

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I am more than happy to do that. My officials are in the officials’ box listening. I can assure my hon. Friend of that offer. They wanted to hold one of those meetings in Kent; Folkestone and Hythe would be a perfect place for it.

Exemptions and flexibilities will help to make the discard ban work. To ensure that it works in practice as well as in theory, during the deal we negotiated increased flexibility in how we manage quota. Those problems were considered during the reform. There are a number of key flexibilities. First and perhaps most importantly, there is inter-species flexibility. If fishermen put their nets out in a mixed fishery and catch more haddock than they expected but do not have the quota for it, they might be able to count that haddock against whiting or cod. That inter-species flexibility is essential to making sense of a quota regime.

Secondly, fishermen will be able to bank or borrow up to 10% of their quota from one year to the next, which gives them more flexibility in matching catches to quota. Thirdly, to pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend, there is a survivability exemption. Fishermen will be able to return some catches to the sea if they have been scientifically proven to have a high rate of survival. Returning those fish to the sea allows them to grow and spawn, fortifying the stock for the future. As he pointed out, landing under-sized, juvenile plaice for which there is little market makes no sense if, by returning them and they survive, they can continue to grow.

Last year, we commissioned a large-scale research project to assess the survivability of plaice in different fisheries around the coast. The industry has identified plaice as a key species that has a high rate of survival. Once we have marshalled and considered that evidence, we will argue for exemptions on the basis of survivability for plaice and probably for a number of flat-fish species. It is important to recognise that we have access to other exemptions. That can include reasons such as disproportionate cost, or that it is not possible to further increase selectivity and reduce unwanted catches—that is the so-called de minimis exemption.

Finally, another point to bear in mind is that when implementing the discard ban, we will start with the species that define the fishery. It will not be a discard ban on every quota species from the beginning. We will start with those that define the fishery in 2016 and aim for it to cover all quota species by 2019. For instance, in the North sea, hake is sometimes referred to as a choke species. Fishermen find it difficult to avoid as a by-catch, but it would be possible to get to a discard ban on hake in later years, closer to 2019.

There are specific issues for the inshore fleet. I greatly value our inshore fishing communities and understand the specific problems they face. My hon. Friend used a figure that is often quoted to me—he said that they have access to only around 4% of quota. It is not quite as simple as that: the less mobile nature of the inshore fleet means that it is unable to access about 60% of the UK quota because it is in offshore waters—for instance, some of the mackerel fisheries well offshore are outside the range of the inshore under-10 metre fleet.

Within their inshore area of operation, however, by value the under-10 metre fleet land about a third of all quota stocks. At December Council I fought hard to secure roll-overs and quota increases for stocks around the UK, including some of those stocks that are important for the inshore fleet. Where there were cuts, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, we made an argument and brought fresh science to the table in order to reduce them. For instance, we managed to get a 10% increase in North sea skates and rays for Folkestone and Hythe and a roll-over for other areas in the UK, as opposed to a proposed 20% cut. I also agreed an extra 300 tonnes of whiting for the under-10 metre fleet in the north-east of England to allow it to land and sell its by-catch.

I recognise that many under-10 metre fleet fishermen will still feel that the current allocation means that they do not get a fair share, and they have a fair point. The reference period for when current allocations were decided was around the mid-’90s. By all accounts, some of the data for the under-10 metre fleet at that time were quite patchy and one result of that may be unfair allocation. That is why, since 2012, we have given the under-10 metre fleet access to additional quota to try to support it, and we continue to work with the industry on the quota realignment from unused quota on the larger vessels and producer organisations to the under-10 metre fleet. We are currently working to make that permanent and we are working through a number of appeals that some producer organisations have made to our approach. It is our intention to put that on a permanent footing.

The total increase in quota will vary from species to species, because it often depends on what is unutilised by the under 10-metre fleet. For instance, there could be significant increases in flatfish species that are particularly important to the under 10-metre fleet. Across the board, we estimate that the increase in quota could be about 12% for the under-10 metre fleet.

I also recognise that the under-10 metre fleet faces particular issues when implementing the discard ban, and we are looking at options to try to address them. As part of our consultation, we are seeking views on possible exemptions and changes to quota management for that part of the fleet, including options to make best use of any quota uplift. One option we have suggested in the consultation is to ring-fence 25% of the total national uplift in quota for the inshore fleet. That could give a significant increase in quota for the under-10 metre fleet.

I am also aware that the issue of latent capacity in the inshore fleet causes concern. We are currently consulting on options to make sure that inactive vessels are not able to re-enter the fisheries. That would provide certainty and security for those vessels operating in the under-10 meter pool. However, having discussed the issue at a number of fishing ports, I am aware that there are mixed feelings about that in the fishing industry. Obviously, I shall wait to see the full responses to the consultation.

I want to say a little about the new European maritime and fisheries fund, which will open shortly. The UK will receive some £200 million from the fund, which will help us to meet the challenges of implementing CFP reform. For instance, the lion’s share will go on selective net gear, helping fishermen to get the equipment they need to fish more selectively. It will also be used to help foster growth in the sector. Fishermen will be able to use the funding to help them adapt to the discard ban by purchasing more selective gear.

Across Europe, we have made real progress towards more sustainable fishing and stock recovery. In 2014, 27 stocks in the north-east Atlantic, North sea and Baltic were managed at maximum sustainable yield, up from just five species in 2009. At December Fisheries Council, I was pleased to secure a continued increase in the number of sustainable stocks this year and we expect to have 30 or more species that are fished sustainably. We are moving in the right direction with sustainable fisheries.

In my time as Fisheries Minister, I have visited many different ports across the UK and have always been impressed by the enthusiasm, determination and resourcefulness of the fishing industry. The marine environment, as I said at the beginning, is very complex.

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As this is probably the last fishing debate we shall have in this Parliament, I thank the Minister for all the hard work he has done for all the fishing sectors across the whole of the UK, particularly in Northern Ireland. I know that he has a good relationship with the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O’Neill. They have been an example of how to work together, in particular for the betterment of the fishing industry.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for those kind words, although I, like all hon. Members, very much hope to be back after 7 May. I have enjoyed my time working with the industry.

I am confident that together we can build on our past successes and strengthen and grow our fishing industry for the future. It has been a pleasure to discuss this issue today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.