I beg to move,
That this House believes that the recent EU restrictions on recreational sea bass fishing are unfair and fail to address the real threat to the future viability of UK sea bass stocks; and calls on the Government to make representations within the Council of the EU on the reconsideration of the imposition of those restrictions.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this very important debate. Let me place my cards firmly on the table: I am a recreational angler, and a very passionate one. I have cast from many a beach in Cornwall. I have fished with plugs and lures from rigid-hulled inflatable boats. I have regularly fished and ledgered on the Camel estuary and taken great pleasure in digging my own lugworms—big long trenches of lugworms—and ragworms. It is great to be on the coast looking out over Daymer bay and Padstow with the sun going down, the tide coming in and the lines dipping into the sea, waiting for that bite.
That is a shameless plug, but it is a fantastic fishing shop, I have to say. The chap there has some very good fishing rods and tackle that can be purchased at very reasonable rates.
I have set the scene for my fishing expeditions on the Camel. However, the situation this year is very different from that in previous years. For the first six months of this year, if I, as a recreational angler, caught a bass that was of legal size, I would not be allowed to keep it—I would have return it to the estuary—yet a commercial fishing boat that was netting on the estuary would be able to claim that fish and take it for the table.
I will come on to some of the different elements of the fishing industry when I talk about the Cornwall inshore fisheries and conservation authority.
I am here today not just to speak for myself as a recreational angler but to speak up for the 900,000 recreational sea anglers in the UK. There are many parts of the fishing industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) pointed out. When I served on the Cornwall sea fisheries committee, we saw people with beam trawlers, people from the under-10-metre fleet, rod-and-line anglers, and many others who made a living out of fishing. There needs to be a properly managed inshore fleet so that we can have a sustainable future for our fishing industry.
As another MP with a coastline, may I ask my hon. Friend to acknowledge that not only are some 10,400 jobs dependent on sea angling, but there is a whole lot of leisure industry business that supports sea anglers—accommodation and everything else—with sea bass fishing being, of course, the most popular form of sea angling? An enormous business worth over £1.2 billion, it is estimated, lies behind this.
My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally good point, and I fully agree. I will go on to talk about some of the tourism benefits. We have seen some great uplifts in places such as Ireland and the USA, where there have been big recreational fisheries for a long time.
The crux of my argument is that it is grossly unfair to penalise rod-and-line anglers for the first six months of the year while commercial boats are allowed to operate in that period.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a real need to have some data to support any action that is taken? Otherwise. it will be very difficult for us to work out a strategy as to what we should be doing.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on being so generous with his time. He mentioned Ireland. My understanding is that following the depletion of sea bass stocks in the ’60s and ’70s, Ireland banned commercial fishing and concentrated on the recreational side, which has expanded its tourism base. Despite the expansion and re-strengthening of the stock of sea bass, Ireland continues to ban commercial fishing.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I believe that Ireland relies solely on the recreational sector, but that has been of huge benefit to the tourism industry. In the spirit of the Opposition, I will read not from Jeff or Rosie but from Paul. Paul is a sea angler in north Cornwall who wrote to me:
“After enjoying free and unfettered access to the inshore bass fishery for countless generations, it is understandable that many anglers feel aggrieved that they are suddenly having the right to take fish for the table so severely limited that in effect for many it will equate to zero.
What is not in doubt is that bass stocks are in serious decline and most anglers agree that steps should be taken to…reverse this situation. Despite the assertion that the cause of the decline has little or nothing to do with angling pressure, most anglers are content to accept reasonable reductions in the number of fish they can retain. Hence the widespread, uncomplaining acceptance of the three fish ‘bag limit’ introduced for recreational sea anglers in September 2015.
However, within the RSA community it was naively believed that the commercial sector would have been asked to make similar reductions in catch effort. No such drastic reduction in commercial effort was achieved. At this stage, many RSAs were both angry and perplexed”—
I am aware of those regulations, but I am also aware that gillnetting and commercial fishing are still permitted in bass nursery areas.
Paul continued in his letter:
“The results of the negotiations are well known and in effect fall a long way short of the scientific recommendation…We call for an immediate review of the regulations in respect of the daily ‘bag limit’ for RSAs and a prompt correction of ill-judged legislation. It belies the intelligence of the EU commissioners not to recognise how illogical the rule is in its present form.”
I want to make two points. First, the Commission has proposed the measures but does not decide on them. Those decisions are made by Ministers of national Governments, including our own fisheries Minister. Secondly, is the hon. Gentleman aware that last year, Labour MEPs, having received representations from recreational sea anglers, called for a multi-annual management plan for sea bass stocks that made specific reference to the importance of recreational fisheries, but UKIP and the Tories voted against it?
I was not aware of that, and I thank the hon. Lady for making those points. I want to talk about some of the EU changes. I welcome the ban on French pair trawlers between January and April. They account for about a third of the bass taken in British waters, and many of the bass that they catch are spawning fish. Taking large spawning fish out of the ecosystem means there are no smaller fish to grow and become bigger fish. In the EU changes, we should be talking about reclaiming our territorial waters. The EU holds the common fisheries policy up as a shining example of joined-up thinking, but I am yet to find a commercial fisherman or a recreational sea angler who believes that the CFP is a good thing.
I am delighted to be drawn into intervening by the hon. Gentleman. May I draw his attention to a 3-inch piece in a right-hand column in The Times about six months ago—a tiny little thing—which reported that the long-running battle to replenish cod in the North sea was being won? Cod stocks are growing bigger, as we can read in the press again today. North sea cod has been replenished because instead of cod wars we have agreements based on science to replenish the stocks. Those agreements are working.
I will try to check out that column in The Times. It is not my regular newspaper—I normally read The Telegraph and The Sun—but I will go back and check it. Such agreements may be fine in other waters, but we should have an understanding that our territorial waters inside the 6-mile limit should be protected for our fisheries and our people.
My hon. Friend is making a splendid speech, which I know will be much supported by Christchurch fishermen. Does he agree that Iceland decided to take control of its own fisheries and that those fisheries are a fantastic success?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I recently read a book about the Bering sea and the mass stocks that it used to have. No fishery can be managed properly unless it is looked after effectively. We used to see huge shoals and salmon and sea trout regularly running the Camel, but such stocks no longer materialise.
The hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous in giving way. One of the very significant reasons for the depletion of stocks is the advancement of technology in trawlers. The fact that deep-sea trawlers can go further using technologically very advanced sonar is one of the principal courses of depletion, not the common fisheries policy, as has been erroneously suggested.
If our fishing boats have to go outside the 6-mile limit to catch fish, that surely shows that the fish are not actually within that limit and that fish stocks have been depleted over the years.
Recreational sea anglers fully accept that fishery resources are finite and that there should be controls on their activities—minimum landing sizes, bag limits, seasonal closures—to protect this public resource from over-exploitation. The Council of Minister’s recent decision to prevent recreational fishers from taking any bass for the first six months of 2016, while sanctioning commercial fishing for bass for the first four months, is irrational. The decision is a symptom of a fisheries management regime that is broken and a common fisheries policy that is unfit for purpose. The EU has displayed utter contempt for our recreational sea anglers and those whose livelihoods depend on recreational sea angling.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he agree that, as those of us with coastal constituencies know, there is real anger about this interference? Does he also agree that we need to send a message from this House that we want locally line-caught sea bass back on our menus?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Locally caught sea bass has a premium price. It can be sold in local restaurants, and local businesses can make a profit from it.
I want to point out the madness of the current situation. Recreational sea anglers are members of the public who equip themselves with the tackle and knowledge necessary to access and enjoy public fishery resources. They selectively retain some fish for their own consumption, just as other members of the public enjoy Dartmoor, the New Forest or the Forest of Dean to forage for wild mushrooms, nuts and so on for their personal use. I believe that the EU is preventing our UK anglers from exercising their right—the right of our ancestors—to claim fish for the table, which is very wrong.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made an interesting point about tourism, something I want to comment on. The Invest in Fish project, which was funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was launched in 2004 and ran until 2007. It was a multi-stakeholder steering group that included fishermen, restaurants, fishing producers, merchants, recreational anglers and a number of other organisations. The objective was to examine ways in which fish stocks might be restored. In the south-west, it covered Bristol, Cornwall, Weymouth and Dorset.
The project involved numerous work packages, one of which was a study of the demographics and economic impacts of recreational sea angling. I will give some of the figures. The south-west has 240,000 recreational anglers, who cumulatively spend £110 million on their pursuit. In addition, some 750,000 days are spent at sea and the visitor spend is about £55 million. Recreational sea angling across the south-west therefore generates a total of £165 million of expenditure on bait, clothes, charter boats, boat ownership, fees, travel and accommodation.
Some places have recreational angling only, and I want to outline the benefits that that has brought. In the USA, the striped bass recreational fishery attracts anglers from all over the world and makes an estimated economic contribution to the country in excess of $2.5 billion. We must learn from the good practice in the USA and elsewhere, which delivers agreed resource sharing by species in line with fishery management advice, the best scientific evidence and economic objectives, as was said earlier.
There are jurisdictions in the British Isles, such as Ireland, that have fishery management policies that operate in favour of the most sustainable forms of bass fishing and the conservation of stocks. Bass has been a recreation-only species since the 1990s in Ireland, as was illustrated by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). That delivers an estimated €71 million to the Irish economy annually and supports 1,200 jobs. The Isle of Man is about to change the legislation covering sea bass to include a ban on all commercial bass fishing within 12 miles of the coast. Changes are happening around the world and we seem a bit slow to keep up.
Many of the fishing ports of north Cornwall used to be utilised regularly for fishing. In Padstow, back in the ’80s and ’90s, many people used to sit around rodding and lining off the pier. We do not tend to see that as much nowadays.
There are huge economic benefits to recreational angling. There are almost 900,000 recreational anglers in the UK and they pump £1.23 billion into the economy. There are almost 11,000 full-time jobs in sea angling alone. The “Sea Angling 2012” report found that the direct expenditure of sea anglers, after deductions, was £831 million. English anglers pay as much into the Treasury as the entire value of English fish landings, but receive no consideration in the reallocation of resources.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that we must consider not just the direct value of angling, but the wider impact on the economy? For example, those who come to Torbay for the sea angling will not only stay in a hotel, but buy a scone done in the correct way.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point.
I will give two accounts from different parts of the sector before I wind up. The first is from a tour guide in the west country, who writes:
“About to start the new fishing season with a great deal of concern and trepidation for the future of recreational angling and how it may affect my business. Prior to the new rulings regarding Bass, I had a full diary for the year ahead, due to the uncertainty of our weather patterns in this country, this has proved to be an economic necessity as we lose so many days.
Now I find myself shielding daily emails from booked customers asking if the new rulings will apply to them, and would I consider turning a blind eye to the odd fish for the table as opposed to a cancellation!!!!”
I do not want anglers to be criminalised—that seems ridiculous. He continues:
“I consider myself as indeed are most of my customers to be conservation minded, but find these new rulings to be extremely harsh, especially when you consider that commercial fishing with rod and line and indeed netting will be allowed to continue within my ‘low pressure sector’. It is highly possible that I will be forcing anglers to return a fish right in front of a commercial line drifter”,
which could then keep the fish that has been returned. He went on:
“There is also the wider picture to consider, local cafes, tackle shops, bed and breakfasts”
and all the people who rely on that sector.
TV fisherman and bass guide Henry Gilbey—one of my personal favourite fishermen—stated:
“I am a full time fishing writer and photographer with a ridiculous obsession for bass fishing. I live within walking distance of the sea in south east Cornwall yet I spend more than two months each year in Ireland. Why? Because the bass fishing is better. I run guided bass fishing trips and I need as many photographs of bass fishing as I can get, and I would love to be promoting bass fishing in Cornwall. But I can’t. My local bass fishing isn’t good enough. The fact is that to access really good bass fishing I need to travel away from my home in Cornwall and help promote Ireland as a sport fishing destination. We could have bass fishing like they have in Ireland though…but we don’t. We need more and bigger bass for anglers to catch, and this can only come about via better management of the stocks. Bass are the king of our saltwater species and anglers want to catch them.”
They are simply being denied.
I will not give way because I want to make progress.
To conclude I will quote from John Buchan who said:
“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.”
I do not want to take that hope away from our recreational sea angling community, and I urge the Government to do a few things. First, will they review this decision and reverse the unnecessary catch-and-release policy for recreational sea anglers? Will DEFRA consider making a study of how much benefit rod-and-line angling produces for British tourism industries, and will it consider a complete ban of gillnetting in bass nursery areas? I look forward to hearing the views of other hon. Members, and I hope to sum up the debate at the end.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who made a brilliant speech, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I also welcome him to the all-party group on angling, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker). I look forward to some pleasant days out.
I am a terrible fisherman, so restraints such as the 42 cm landing size, the one-fish-per-day limit, or the moratorium will not affect me because I do not actually catch anything. However, I have great affection for the recreational angling community, and this is a great opportunity to debate the issue. I do not think we have discussed recreational fishing since December 2014, when the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) secured an Adjournment debate on bass fishing. After that debate we were optimistic about the future direction of travel of Government policy, but I am afraid we stand here today pretty disappointed about where we have got to.
Angling is one of the highest participant recreational sports across Havering, Barking and Dagenham, and in the country at large. If we joined conversations in recreational angling chatrooms, and talked to people from the Angling Trust and the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society, we would quickly appreciate the concerns across the country. Anglers are desperate to help to rebuild bass stocks in a fair, efficient and proportionate way, and we were looking forward to making real progress at the December Council of Ministers meeting.
The basic problem now is that the recreational angler feels singled out and that EU fishing Ministers have unfairly targeted them in the new six-month moratorium. That moratorium risks criminalising thousands of law-abiding people, and it will be difficult to enforce without the active support of angling clubs, anglers and the Angling Trust.
Evidence suggests that charter boat bookings are already down, which will impact on tourism revenues and potentially put some operators out of business. Anglers fishing from April to June will have to return all their bass, yet a commercial boat can come alongside and catch and kill the same fish. Ministers have boasted that these supposed conservation measures will have little effect on commercial inshore bass fishing, while also claiming that they have secured a good deal for bass stocks. Those statements cannot both be true. We therefore need to find out what the Government’s actual position is.
DEFRA’s own “Sea Angling 2012” report shows that there are 884,000 sea anglers in England, who directly pump some £1.23 billion per annum into our economy. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned, bass are the most popular recreational species, and bass angling is worth some £200 million in England alone. Let us cut to the chase: for the past decade and a half, recreational sea anglers have been led to believe that their most popular sporting fish would be managed sustainably and be acknowledged as a valued recreational species. Why is that? It is because politicians of all parties have told them so.
In 2002, the Prime Minister’s strategy unit commissioned a report on the benefits of recreational sea angling. That report, “Net Benefits”, was eventually published in 2004, and it said:
“Fisheries management policy should recognise that sea angling may…provide a better return on the use of some resources than commercial exploitation.”
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on “Net Benefits” said:
“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.”
In the 2014 debate, the hon. Member for Meon Valley, who is now a Minister, concluded his speech by saying this:
“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?”—[Official Report, 3 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 119WH.]
Today, we ask the same question: what is the Government’s policy? We ask that as the derogations drive policy in the opposite direction to that argued for by the hon. Gentleman and the Government report in 2004.
Do not get me wrong, I am not attempting to make a party political point about this. For example, under the last Labour Government, the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), tried to increase the minimum landing size to 42 cm, but he was replaced by a new Minister who caved in to the commercial lobbying and annulled the statutory instrument that would have delivered this important conservation measure. My right hon. Friend was actively supported in those attempts to introduce that minimum landing size by the then Member for Reading, West, who, sadly, is no longer an MP, even though he is very much active in the Angling Trust and continues to lobby on behalf of recreational anglers.
There is a recurring theme throughout the past 20 years, whereby the ecological case has been consistently put by the recreational side, backed up by Government reports and all-party groups, and this has been accompanied by limited actions of Governments of various persuasions, given pressures from the commercial side. Here we are again today making the same points and trying to give voice to the recreational angling community.
In Ireland, bass has been designated a recreational species since 1990, delivering an estimated €71 million to the Irish economy annually and supporting more than 1,200 jobs. Ireland is also in the EU. The Isle of Man is about to embark on a similar policy. As well as highlighting the ridiculous anomalies with the current situation and the unfair treatment of recreational anglers, this debate today is really about trying to find out the longer-term thinking of the Government, so we do not have to return to this question again and again, whoever is in power.
I am not a recreational angler, but I have every intention of taking it up. It sounds an immensely enjoyable pastime and one in which all Members of Parliament should partake. I do, however, have an inshore fishing fleet to speak up for, and I have to say that one thing I am depressed about as a result of reading some of the briefings for this debate is the tone that is taken towards decent inshore commercial fishermen. These are men and women who have families to support. They are not large concerns. Having clung to a traditional fishing industry, in places such as Appledore, Bideford and Clovelly, they have found the rug gradually pulled out from under their feet.
I agree with my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas). We are dealing here with an insane, illogical, irrational, fatuous policy. It is absolutely crazy that anglers cannot take two or three fish home for the table, when, at the same time, the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), has obtained derogations that allow netting to continue. Of course on the face of it, if we take the one, it is strange we do not take the other, but I propose a reason to the House. Ministers know, when negotiating in Brussels with their counterparts in other countries, that if they take away bass from the inshore fishing fleet, they will have nothing left to catch. In the north Devon industry, which I represent, they cannot catch spurdog; there is no cod, plaice or sole; no thornback ray; no blonde ray; and now there is a ban on small-eyed ray, which represents 40% of the take for the northern Devon fishing industry. Fishermen say to me, “What do we catch?”
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the ban is pitting the recreational fishermen against the under-10 metre fleet? I and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) met our Sussex inshore fisheries and conservation authority last week and found out that, as a direct result of the ban on sea bass, there are now restrictions on shellfish.
I do agree. The policy is crazy, and Ministers know it. They wrestle with their consciences, they feel guilty and they try to push the envelope for the inshore fleet, but they know that the situation is untenable. They know that decent men and women with livelihoods to protect cannot go to sea for more than a few days a year and cannot cover their costs. I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann). Of course the position is crazy. It is an insane policy.
Of course the rod-and-line sea anglers must feel a sense of injustice. It is a direct and perverse consequence of a failed policy. That is the difficulty. How do I go back to Bideford and Appledore and say to my fishermen, “There’s nothing for you to catch”? Catching small-eyed ray, the last thing on which they depended, was banned in December. Why do we think my hon. Friend the Minister came back with derogations for gillnetting? It was because he knew that the small-eyed ray was banned, which meant 40% of the northern Devon fishing industry cut at a slice. Was there any consultation on that ban? No. Was there any warning? No.
The real injustice is the whole failed policy. It is time we got out of it. The people of this country will have the chance to withdraw us from it in just a few months. Then we can have a properly managed fishery in which the rod-and-line men and the sea anglers can be treated properly, and the inshore fleet, on which traditional coastal communities depend, can breathe again when we introduce common sense back into the counsels of our fishing policy.
No, I am not listening to a former Minister who presided over this policy and went cap in hand to Brussels begging for scraps. It is time we took back our fisheries policy. That will bring justice to the people my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall spoke for and to the decent men and women who have nothing to fish for in the north Devon fishery.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! What are the Government doing risking Europe’s sea bass for their foolish, unfair, ineffective and fishy decision on sea bass fishing? Members might ask what I am doing here out of my darkened room—it is nothing to do with defence; I do not eat fish; and I am not an angler. Thanks to 40 years of living with an ecologist, however, I know an environmental disaster when I see one.
I have constituents who are sea anglers who came to my surgery and asked me to take an interest in sea bass fishing. Unfortunately for me, I happen to know the former Member for Reading, and when someone knows the former Member for Reading, it is very dangerous to ask him, “What is the issue about sea bass fishing?” because he will tell them.
I appreciate the comment from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—I should never have done it, but my constituents wanted to know, so I wanted to know, and thus I am here today. I am also a Member who has a coastal resort, in which sea bass fishing was a very popular activity, so I started looking at the facts.
Everywhere I looked, it was very clear that there was an urgent need to rebuild bass stocks—and nobody seems to dispute that. It is the core bottom line. It is an environmental and economic imperative, and everybody will agree on that. We know this because in 2014, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas recommended an 80% cut in bass mortality across the EU area for 2015, following a rise in bass landings from 772 tonnes to 1,004 tonnes. We were taking more out of the sea than was sustainable. The bass stock in the North Atlantic fishery is 527 tonnes—well below the trigger point of concern for the exploration of the seas, which was set at 8,000 tonnes. Future regenerations of sea bass stocks are now in danger.
This is just a small point, but I think the hon. Lady meant to say 5,250 tonnes.
I thank the Minister for the correction; he is absolutely right.
In December 2015, the EU Fisheries and Agricultural Council met to formulate a package of measures and regulations, but the agreement that was reached was both unfair, ineffective and, quite honestly, unbelievable. The regulation of recreational and commercial bass fishing, which came out of that December meeting, has exposed a rotten relationship between the industry and Government, both in the UK and across the EU.
No, I would like to make some progress.
During the run-up to the December meeting, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) who is responsible for farming, food and the marine environment, was lobbied from all sides, but from everything I have seen and all the evidence sent to me, preference seems to have been given to commercial lobbyists. I am told that recreational anglers were granted a 30-minute telephone conference call with the Minister, whereas commercial lobbyists seem to have been in contact with UK Ministers and officials throughout the negotiations. Members will be aware that if we are going to carry out a consultation, it needs to be open, honest and not biased towards an already decided outcome.
I believe that the initial proposals were well received by all sides, but particularly by recreational anglers. There was to be a complete ban on recreational and commercial fishing, including catch and release, in the first half of 2016; then, in the second half of 2016, a monthly 1-tonne catch limit for vessels targeting sea bass and a one fish per day limit for recreational anglers and the reintroduction of catch and release.
I have already said no.
After lengthy conversations with the commercial sector throughout the negotiation period, EU Fisheries Ministers granted a surprise, namely a four-month exemption for commercial hook-and-line bass gillnet fishing, which accounts for 50% of bass fishing. The strict ban on recreational fishing will remain in place, and the monthly catch limit for commercial vessels has been increased from 1 tonne to 1.3 tonnes. Those outside this place who have never had the joy of seeing a gillnet should be made aware that it leads to the violation of EU fish-size regulations by allowing for the catch of undersized fish, which are then thrown overboard dead. They do not help conserve fish stocks, because the undersized fish—the next generation of fish—are thrown back dead.
I do not usually quote Christopher Booker of The Sunday Telegraph, but I agree with him that the EU is using a
“sledgehammer to miss a nut.”
Yet the regulation is endorsed and supported by this Government.
I may not be an angler, but I know nonsense when I hear it. The EU Fisheries Ministers, in conjunction with UK Ministers, are talking nonsense when they try to spin this fix-up as a considered and environmentally sound policy. They falsely claim that bass gillnet fishing has a minimal environmental impact; that the measures are beneficial both for the commercial fishing sector and for bass stocks; that, because drift netting has been caught by the moratorium, bass stocks will increase; and that drifting accounts for 90% of all bass fishing.
We need to know where the Minister got that 90% statistic from, because it is misleading and contradicts data published by the Government’s own Marine Management Organisation, which in 2014 stated that netting constitutes 62% of all commercial bass catches, with drifting responsible for only 20%.
How can this Government possibly justify increasing conservation-damaging gillnetting, yet ban recreational angling? I had thought that the Minister had mistyped the policy and that he in fact intended to ban gillnetting and to increase angling, but that was not the case. Recreational angling represents the sustainable future of bass fishing and it should not be banned.
The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science—
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Government negotiated a stunningly bad deal. I cannot think of a worse deal that they could have come back with for recreational bass fishermen in this country. It is no good beating around the bush.
I make no apology for enjoying visiting the website of the Art of Fishing in Wadebridge. I have never visited the shop, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) will send the team my regards when he sees them this or some future weekend.
Why was the Government’s deal so stunningly bad? They have come back and trumpeted a six-month closure. That sounds like pretty good news, until we realise that they have negotiated a four-month derogation for gillnets and hook and liners. Over the next 10 months, each of the boats will be allowed to take up to 1.3 tonnes a month—in other words, 1,300 fish a month, or 13,000 fish a year. Indeed, it is a 1 tonne increase on what they could take last year.
Let us be clear: anglers account for less than 10% of the bass killed and taken out of this country’s waters, yet the value of recreational bass fishing is estimated to be £200 million to the economy, while the figure for bass stocks landed by commercial fishermen is an estimated £7 million.
And ladies—account for 25% or 30% of all the hundreds of thousands, the millions, of bass that are taken. There they are, those recreational anglers, filling up their wheelbarrows and taking them down the high streets of our fishing communities! What a load of rubbish that is. It defies belief that organisations that pretend to be serious expect us to swallow such utter nonsense.
Let us be clear about this. The value of a bass on the dock is about £3.50. The value of that same bass to recreational angling is about £100. It is worth 28 times more to recreational anglers than it is dead on the slab, going to market.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good case for getting out of Europe. Does he feel, as I do, and as many other Members in the Chamber do, that it is about time we had control of our fishing grounds around the shores and in the seas of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? We make the decisions, and let us do it ourselves.
Of course I agree that we should have control of our fishing grounds, which is why I shall be voting to leave the European Union, but that is an argument for another time. I do not want to stand here and attack commercial fishermen who fish for bass, because I think that there is a golden opportunity here. As was pointed out by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), there are very few fish left in the sea for inshore commercial fishermen to target.
My hon. Friend has made an excellent point, although I do not think that the proposals that were negotiated, or agreed to, by the Government take us any nearer to that stage.
As I was saying, there are very few fish left in the sea for inshore commercial fishermen to target, and once they have finished with the bass, there will be nothing left. So here is the opportunity: let us create a recreational bass fishery that is the envy of the western world. In 1984, it was decided in the United States, on the east-coast Atlantic seaboard, that the inshore striped bass fishery would be recreational only. That fishery is now worth $2.5 billion to the economy, as people from around the world travel there, booking charters and staying in hotels in order to go out and catch those wonderful fish.
This is the opportunity that remains open to our coastal communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall said, it has been seized in Ireland, and that recreational fishery is now worth £71 million a year to the entire Irish economy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the fishing tackle industry, and the supply of fishing tackle, are vital to all these crucial areas? May I commend to him the Summerlands fishing tackle shop in Westward Ho!? It is a superb exponent of that particular art, and I hope that he will go and see it and buy something from it.
I think that, during his speech, my hon. and learned Friend unwittingly invited my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall and me to join him for a bit of fishing. We shall be able to introduce him to the delights of recreational angling, and that fishing shop will be the first place that we visit after breakfast, at 9.30 in the morning.
But I want to be serious about this. There is a huge opportunity here. As I have said, the value of recreational fishing—bass fishing—to the Republic of Ireland’s economy is £71 million. The value of the entire commercial catch of bass in this country is £7 million. I put to my hon. Friends representing fishing communities that the real prize, the real money and the real future for their inshore commercial bass fishermen is being at the forefront of creating recreational fisheries. There is a laboratory—a live case study. We can forget Ireland and the USA because they are established and thriving. The Isle of Man has decided to pursue that route to create jobs for charter captains and fishing guides, and jobs in hotels and restaurants. That is the opportunity that presents itself.
On the words expressed earlier about the Europe and the CFP, does the hon. Gentleman find it remiss of the Prime Minister that he did not prioritise fisheries in any part of his negotiations with Europe?
I wish the Prime Minister would be more bullish when he comes to defend fishing interests. I remember fishing with the hon. Gentleman in Shetland. He was sitting on the side of a beautiful loch as it neared midnight on about 8 July. He said, “Charles, why are you using a fly and not a worm?” I leave him to justify his position in that matter with his own constituents.
Let us not make this a row between recreational fishermen and inshore fishermen, who have also had a pretty rough deal. Without threatening jobs, could we start to think collectively about creating a new opportunity for what remains of our inshore fleet to thrive and prosper, and about having a sustainable fishery and not one that is here today, gone tomorrow? As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon made clear, many fisheries around his coast have been here today and gone tomorrow, and they are now in the last chance saloon.
I have spoken for longer than I thought I would, and I took a couple of interventions, which I greatly enjoyed, but be in no doubt that the Government will continue to be harried and harassed on this matter, because there is no other word to describe their dealings in the European Union but failure.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) and thank the Backbench Business Committee for the debate.
Bass tastes great served at a dinner party or a simple supper. My mother had a very special way of cooking bass that was caught with a rod and line at Queener Point off Rame Head near my home. Bass has always been a highly prized fish. Some people dream of winning the lottery. My late husband Neil—my late, fantastic commercial fisherman—dreamt of catching a bag of bass.
I am here to talk about all fishermen, not just recreational sea anglers and not just commercial men. In addition to recreational sea anglers, two other groups are affected by such terrible measures: trip boats that work out of Looe and Polperro, taking groups of anglers out to sea with fish with rods and lines; and commercial fishermen who trawl or net for a living. Recreational sea anglers spend their leisure time fishing for hours, and it is only right that, when they get a bite and reel in their catch of bass, they can take it home for their supper. Recreational fishing is a very popular pastime for locals and visitors alike. Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, it is estimated that landings of recreational bass account for about 25% of the total. I have heard that the European Commission is challenging the UK because it is not recording the landings of bass in a reasonable way.
Cornish mackerel handline vessels often use charter trips as a way of ensuring that they have an economically sustainable business. Commercial vessels from the south-west rely on bass in the winter months. To presume that they can make up the economic loss with other species shows a complete lack of understanding of the commercial fishing industry and its seasonal nature. It is essential to have joined-up fisheries management for all fishermen, and restrictions must look at the socioeconomic impact on coastal communities. Recreational fishermen provide support for tourism, and commercial vessels provide support for harbour repairs and local infrastructure.
In 2006, the Labour Government announced that the minimum landing size for bass would be increased from 36 cm to 45 cm. This was to apply only to UK vessels operating within the 12-mile limit. Labour reconsidered, however, and announced in October 2007 that the minimum landing size for bass would remain at 36 cm. The December 2014 Fisheries Council could not agree on bass conservation measures. The Angling Trust expressed its disappointment and called for domestic measures in UK waters, including raising the minimum landing size to 45 cm, strengthening the UK’s network of bass nursery areas, moving away from netting towards line-caught methods and limiting the catch per commercial boat. There was no mention of bag limits, I hasten to add. The Angling Trust should be careful what it wishes for when the European Commission is involved.
I am sure that the UK’s request for emergency measures on 19 December 2014 was made for genuine reasons, and all fishermen accepted that some conservation measures were necessary. Those emergency measures included a three-fish bag limit for anglers, and 18 kg a day limit for demersal boats—which was workable—and a ban on mid-water trawls until the end of April, which was accepted because that was the time at which the fish were spawning. In September 2015, the minimum landing size was increased to 42 cm, which was a sensible conservation measure. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea published advice on 30 June 2015, before an assessment of those emergency measures. Its paper acknowledges that there were uncertainties in the assessment due to inaccuracies in historical landings.
To maintain a sustainable fishing industry—I include recreational sea angling in that description—I propose that in the short term our Minister immediately asks the European Commission to revert to those emergency measures, so that we can make a real assessment of the bass stock. I also propose that the bycatch for demersal trawlers should be increased from 1% to a workable 5%, because discarded bass do not survive. What is the point of throwing this stock back into the sea dead when it is not covered by the European landing obligation? Discarded bass would have a very low survival rate.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, but my point is that some commercial vessels rely on catches of bass and it is too costly for them suddenly to change their gear. Believe you me, I know about this because I spent 24 and a half years married to one such fisherman. Preventing drift netters from bass fishing is vindictive. They cannot catch any other species during their seasonal fishing, although they could of course simply add weights to their nets, fix them to the seabed and carry on.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend on that point. There are fishermen in Newhaven in my constituency who invested in new nets just before Christmas. Because there was no notice of the ban, they had no way of planning for it, and this has decimated the fishing industry in Newhaven.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I have seen how the industry and fishermen are affected by changes to the rules, and to introduce such a measure so quickly when it costs a lot of money to invest in gear is simply nonsensical.
I acknowledge that the Minister may need to ask the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to write to me on this matter, but will he please reveal why the ban on drift netting was not announced until after the Council meeting, and not at the end of the debrief with the industry? I am sure he did not intend to allow fishing representatives to believe that all static net fishing had an exemption.
This is a clear example of how the common fisheries policy has destroyed fishermen. The draconian CFP has caused fishermen from Looe and elsewhere to fish alongside French boats in the south-west 12-mile limit, and see those boats land about 10 times more haddock. Our fishermen have sent me images of their charts showing French fishing vessels inside our six-mile limit, while their path and speed suggests that they were actually fishing. To take this forward to prosecution under the CFP, the UK would need evidence of the gear in the water or confirmation from the fishery protection vessel.
I understand that the 2016 herring quota has been exhausted already and we are only in February. Sprat and Cornish pilchard boats cannot avoid catching herring and they are subject to the pelagic landing obligation. Will the Minister meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) to talk about that, because it is really important to our fishing industry?
Enough is enough. Fishermen are fed up. The UK has to get control of our 200-mile median line, so that our Fisheries Minister is able to make the rules without going cap in hand to the European Commission.
I will try to be quick so that others can speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope Members will understand if I do not take interventions. I have been tempted into making some points. There have been some very good speeches by Members who know a lot more about the fishing industry than I do, but my opening point is that the Europe issue is a red herring.
Even if we had control of our own waters, we would have to have the right conservation measures to balance conservation with the survival of fisheries. We would have to do that come what may. I alluded earlier to North sea cod. Even if we had not been part of the common fisheries policy, and even if I had not been the Minister who started the trend for bringing back devolution of decision making on the North sea alongside Scottish colleagues and others, we would still have had to have made that decision for the good of our fisheries in the long term. We need the focus to be on the conservation of stocks, which is, ultimately, good for recreational fishermen and commercial fisheries.
The Minister has a very difficult task. When he goes to Brussels, he argues for the UK—it is not as though we do not have a voice, and he is there alongside colleagues from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—and he has to do a difficult thing: he has to represent fishing communities while taking account of the science. Yes, I understand that that is difficult, but my question to the Minister is why is the decision on bass such a departure from the science? That is the fundamental question. I understand the difficulties he has when he goes to Europe, but there is such a difference between what ICES and the science clearly says—science is never perfect, but it is pretty good to go on—and what the Government have come up with. That is what we need to hear today. This issue is not between recreational anglers and commercial fisheries—or it should not be, although sometimes it seems to descend into that—but about the balance between using the science effectively in negotiations and keeping the fisheries alive.
The fundamental question in my very short contribution is this: why is there a chasm between the science and the final outcome of the December fisheries negotiations on bass? The joy of the North sea cod result was that we had to strike a balance for more than a decade and we did it. Yes, fishermen were not happy, but they are a lot happier now that the cod is recovering and that they have bigger fish to land in their vessels. We need to do the same with bass and all other species as well.
The question that I leave the Minister is this: why is there such a gap? I have experienced the difficulties of fisheries negotiations, but he must understand that there is a chasm between what the science was telling him and the outcome. Is it because there was a huge pressure from the fisheries communities and the Minister gave way? I have certainly been faced with the situation in which we almost had to close fisheries off the west of Scotland and off north-east Ireland. We managed to pull away from that, but it was difficult. There is such a chasm now that I must ask whether the Minister has just dispelled the science and let rip.
Cheshire is not known for its coastal communities, largely because it has none. However, it does have some very keen recreational fishermen. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) who said that the policy is crazy and that it is absolutely insane to criminalise recreational anglers for removing one or two fish from the sea while allowing commercial fisheries to behave in the way that has been described. It simply does not make sense. Speaking as someone who comes from the other side of the European debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, I can say that this is exactly the kind of insane EU policy making that discredits the whole European Union.
I was slightly surprised by the sentiments expressed by the hon. Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), as of course there is a large degree of subsidiarity involved here whereby both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have an ability to regulate their inshore fleet, to designate their own conservation zones and to apply their own conservation criteria. If those communities do not agree with the policy, the decision making over the inshore fleet is devolved, and, effectively, changes can be made.
The answer to this is not simply to leave the EU, because the reality is that there are many treaties between EU and non-EU countries that regulate the fisheries but that are not in the common fisheries policy. Those pre-existing treaties are one reason why the CFP has historically failed over so many years. They have caused many, many problems and undermined attempts at an EU level to try to resolve things. I have, however, considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) who talked about French boats landing three times the amount of haddock as her local fleet. It is a real problem and it is inherently unfair. It just seems to me that this whole area needs to be looked at again.
The real point is that if we do not protect sea bass, we will not have any fish to fish. ICES said that, on a scientific basis, no more than 541 tonnes of sea bass should be fished in the central and south North sea, Irish sea, English channel, Bristol channel and the Celtic sea. In the past year alone, the UK has landed 1,000 tonnes. That seems wrong.
We need to consider the time that it takes for sea bass to mature. It takes from four to seven years for them to reach a size to spawn. If the UK is landing virtually double the tonnage that has been recommended on a scientific basis for the whole region, is it any wonder that we are in crisis? If there is that opportunity for recreational angling to reinvigorate coastal communities in a different way and to boost tourism and provide that extra pound that circulates in the local economy with all the benefit that that brings, surely we need to look first at line-caught sea bass, rather than allowing netting or drift fisheries. The common fisheries policy causes a great credibility gap for the EU. My recreational anglers in Eddisbury see that hypocrisy and do not like being criminalised.
I shall be brief. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Being on the Backbench Business Committee, I learned a lot about sea bass reproduction, when my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) regaled us all with the reasons why we should have this debate.
I am grateful to my constituent Chris Packer who wrote to me yesterday setting out the impact in Torbay, where there are about 3,000 recreational anglers. My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), is one of the most beautiful coastal parts of the whole country and has a thriving seafood industry, as well as a commercial fishery. I have the waters of Brixham harbour in my constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) has the harbour itself in hers, so there is a strong interest.
I agree with the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) that the question whether this is a “leave” or “remain” debate is a red herring. Whatever our position in relation to the European Union, we will need to have an agreement with other nations.
We would still almost certainly end up having to co-operate with the countries that border the channel and the North sea to ensure that we had a coherent fisheries policy.
There should be no distinction between recreational and commercial fishing. Instead, we should focus on the science and the methods. In my constituency the rod-and- line commercial fishermen came to lobby me. They catch relatively small numbers, and do so in a way that allows them easily to check the size of the catch they are landing and return to the sea immediately any fish that do not meet the requirements, meaning that they are likely to survive. If we debate whether this is commercial or recreational, we get into the position outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall. In theory, a recreational boat could go out and have to return, whereas a commercial rod-and-line boat could be beside it, using the same method for catching. That is bizarre.
I welcome the debate. The importance of the industry should be recognised, not just on account of those who participate directly in it, but as part of wider tourism and visitor attractions, particularly for constituencies in Devon and Cornwall, and certainly for my own. I welcome the contributions we have heard so far. There are real concerns about the system currently in place and they have been well explained during the debate. Whatever system we have, we will end up with some restrictions. Nobody here today is suggesting that we should not preserve the stocks and build them up, but we need to do that on the basis of science and evidence. There has been a slightly false division between commercial and recreational fishing, when the important issue is what we are taking out and what methods we are using to do that, based on clear science.
I speak on behalf of the small-scale coastal fishing community in my constituency, based on the River Hamble in Warsash, which has been fishing the Solent for centuries. Records from 1235 show that herring, cod, plaice, sole and bass were once in plentiful supply. The Prior of Hamble used to send 20,000 oysters to the monks at Winchester every year.
Today the local fishermen own small inshore fishing vessels, which I recently visited. They use a rod and line, and long lines to catch bass. Their families have been fishing the Solent for generations, but life is hard for them. They do not fish for recreation, but to earn a living. However, after taking account of their running expenses and the hours they work, they do not even earn the minimum wage. Now, they face destruction as a result of the six-month ban on bass fishing, the changes to quota sizes and the increase in the minimum landing size. They are a community on the verge of total collapse.
How did we get here? The quotas at the heart of the common fisheries policy have excessively affected British fishermen. Why our Fisheries Department ever allocated 96% of all quotas, no one can understand. The small-scale under and over-10-metre vessels received only a derisory 4% of the quota.
The common fisheries policy has caused the absurdity of discards. Healthy fish are thrown back into the sea, skewing the natural relationship between man and sea. For all of time, man has harvested the riches of the ocean harmoniously and intuitively. Then, the European Commission constructed a system so bizarre that it gave rise to the problem we face today: depleting stocks of fish. Instead of enabling the natural equilibrium, we have now imposed artificial, heavy-handed management measures and quotas. These have been in place for the whole of my life, and they are now causing our fishermen to catch and throw back fish that could otherwise feed people.
Let us consider cod stock. Once it was a staple of the British diet, but it was nigh on driven to annihilation. The huge total allowable catch reductions and the savage days-at-sea restrictions were big mistakes. At worst that meant that in the North sea, one cod would be discarded for every cod retained on board. That is at odds with all we do by experience, and it is injurious to the health of our oceans.
The common fisheries policy, for that is what I am describing, is one example of how pan-European interference can change—no, distort—what was previously a perfectly healthy model. The policy has been driven by a Commission addicted to drastic measures characterised by clumsy and blundering legislation. Bass now faces the same fate as cod stock. This knee-jerk moratorium on fishing for bass will kill off the fishing community in my constituency.
Set in the local context, the ban is too stringent. The Solent already has many restrictions as a result of UK and European protection designations. In Southampton Water, we have one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with fish stock nurseries and other obstacles for fishermen to navigate. That has made it impossible for them to fish alternatives, such as mullet and sole, which might otherwise make up quotas if bass is limited.
This small-scale, sustainable industry is suffering as a result of attempts to prevent overfishing by large-scale industry trawlers further out to sea in the channel. Those in the industry are receiving no compensation for their loss of income or to buy new equipment. They have nowhere else to turn.
It is not easy to reach agreement on matters to do with the European Union—something we are all very aware of at the moment. Although I will not stray into wider EU issues now, I can say that the way the Warsash fishermen will vote in the EU referendum is clear for all to see.
Lastly, I do not profess to match the expertise of those of my constituents who live, breathe and work in the sector, but I ask whether extra measures can be taken to protect them from being annihilated by this deal. That would avert massive unemployment. Declining fish stocks will destroy our fishing industry. That will cost us fish and fishermen. As the precious stone set in the silver sea, Britain deserves more.
I am glad to be able to say a few words in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on his entertaining and energetic opening speech. He is clearly an enthusiastic angler. I have to say that although my late father was an angler, I have never cast a rod in anger myself. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s advertising for The Art of Fishing in Wadebridge—he was egged on by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker)—will stand him in good stead with his local communities.
As many Members have said, it is unfortunate that we have got to a stage where there is a dispute between recreational and commercial fishing, because that is in nobody’s interest. We must remember that this has happened because of the scientific evidence on depletion of the stocks. The situation is not new. It goes back to 2013, when ICES advised a 36% cut and was ignored, and then, in June 2014, recommended an 80% cut in bass mortality for that year. As a result, the stock has been in decline, and now these draconian measures are being brought in.
Sea bass is an important stock for recreational and commercial interests in Scotland. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) rightly said, the reformed common fisheries policy now has a regionalisation element, and the Scottish Government do have some powers in this regard. In fact, they are now putting in place conservation areas, and they have introduced the Wild Fisheries (Scotland) Bill, which is currently going through the Scottish Parliament. We have a great many interests in angling and deeper-sea fishing. On the estuary at Montrose in my constituency, there is salmon fishing, which is also relevant. There are disputes between the commercial salmon fishers at the estuary mouth and those who angle further up the river for these important fish. We have fishing in many of our rivers—the Tay, the Spey and many others. That brings in a great deal of tourism, and thus a great deal of money to the Scottish economy. It is calculated that while fishing brings about £500 million to our economy, aquaculture overall brings in about £1.86 billion, so it is a very important aspect.
If the hon. Lady does not mind, I really want to get on.
It is important that we do not get into a dispute between the two sides. I appreciate that anglers are very angry about some things, but we must also think of the needs of the commercial fishermen—the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) made an excellent point about that. It is about balancing these needs to get to a stage where both sets of interests are represented. I am sure that we can do that, but it needs a bit less megaphone diplomacy between the two sides and a bit more getting together and seeing how we can co-operate to ensure that we are not destroying our inshore fishing fleets.
The issue of pulling out of the EU is perhaps a red herring—no pun intended. The Minister will still have to make these difficult decisions, whether within the confines of reform of the common fisheries policy or in the context of UK-only policy. It is no easier either way when he has to look at the scientific evidence. The EU argument should not be relied on in this.
I grew up in the town of Arbroath, which had a very good fishing industry when I was young, but it has basically gone now. There is some crustacean—lobster and crab—fishing, and there are trip boats that take anglers out to fish in the North sea, but the large-scale fishing industry has gone. It is fair to say that in the past the Scots have had their difficulties with the common fisheries policy, but we are making progress with a new regime. It has meant that Scottish fishermen have made great sacrifices, but the fishing stocks are now beginning to improve, and we do not want to throw that away. There are difficult decisions to be taken all round, but let us not fall out about it—let us get the two sides together and see what we can do so that both can enjoy their fishing.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing the debate and putting the case of recreational sea bass anglers so strongly. He spoke with great passion about his fondness for fishing, and he showed particular enthusiasm when he got on to the subject of lugworms. Several hon. Members have highlighted the need not only to conserve sea bass stocks but to restore them to sustainable levels. Hon. Members spoke about what the hon. Gentleman described as the “madness” of the situation in which recreational anglers are treated differently from the commercial industry. Questions have been raised about the extent to which the Government have caved in to the demands of the commercial fishing lobby and the long-term consequences of failing to take tough action. The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) described the policy as insane, illogical and fatuous. My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who is a keen angler, said that the ecological case has been consistently put by the recreational side, but has not been listened to by the Government under pressure from the commercial fishing lobby.
Bass stocks across Europe are in trouble, and urgent action is needed to conserve and rebuild the remaining spawning populations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) made clear, she can recognise an environmental disaster when she sees one. The decline is largely the result of commercial overfishing over the last 30 years, rather than of recreational sea angling. Increased fishing effort, targeting of spawning aggregations and juvenile fish, and loss of nursery habitat in estuaries are also factors.
No. As has been noted, it is only in fairly recent times that sea bass has been commercially fished. The 2004 “Net Benefits” report by the Cabinet Office recommended that fisheries departments consider making bass a recreational-only species, although that was not carried through.
In 2014, ICES recommended an 80% cut in bass mortality across the EU for 2015, having previously recommended a 36% cut for 2014, which was not implemented. Bass landings by UK vessels rose by 30% in 2014, from 772 tonnes to 1,004 tonnes. That was yet another example of expert scientific advice being ignored, with predictable consequences. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who has a great deal of experience of the matter as a former DEFRA Minister, said, it is important that we show that we can work with the science. He questioned why there was such a chasm between the science and the policy that was adopted. For 2016, ICES recommended a 90% cut, and some expect that its next advice, due in June this year, will be to recommend a complete moratorium lasting several years. That is what happens when early warnings are not heeded and action is not taken.
The Marine Conservation Society recommends a full six-month moratorium, followed by more stringent monthly catch limits and a range of avoidance and selectivity measures. As the MCS says, current measures
“have not come close to the reductions in fishing mortality needed to allow the stock to recover to levels capable of sustainable exploitation”.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) has argued that commercial fishermen cannot easily change gear. I have sympathy for that view, but they are in this situation because sea bass stocks have dropped to such a low level. The hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) made a similar point. I entirely accept her argument, but we are at the stage that if drastic action is not taken, the fish will simply not be there for people to catch.
The UK led in Europe on introducing the 2015 package of emergency measures to protect bass stocks, but it is estimated that these have reduced catches by only 36%. The European Commission accepts that the measures did not go far enough, but its 2016 proposals were watered down by Ministers at the EU Fisheries Council, with commercial sea bass fishing being closed for only two months of the year rather than the six-month moratorium during the spawning period that was proposed by the Commission. As the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, it was a stunningly bad deal.
Other Members have questioned the accuracy of the figures and assumptions used; why gillnetting is still being allowed; and the treatment of recreational anglers, who, somewhat perversely, will have to return all bass caught from April to June, but a commercial boat could come alongside and catch and kill the same fish.
It is clear that the current watered-down proposals will not do enough to protect sea bass stocks. The approach of making somewhat ad hoc, year-on-year decisions, which take on board ICES advice to some extent, but in some cases ignore it, is not a prescription for achieving a sensible long-term policy. It risks ignoring the lessons of previous stock collapses and forcing the introduction of a complete moratorium on all forms of bass fishing.
Does the Minister accept that the measures to date have not achieved the desired outcome, and that further action is now needed at EU level? Does he agree that over-fishing inevitably has consequences, and that the faster that depleted stocks can recover, the better? Did the UK support the Commission’s call for a six-month moratorium, or were we party to watering down the proposals in the Council of Ministers? If so, does he now think that that was the wrong thing to do? Does he agree that it is important to take national action to tackle illegal, unregulated and unreported landings?
I understand that the UK has been sent an infringement letter about the poor quality of its commercial landing records. We hear reports of huge numbers of unrecorded landings, a thriving market in black fish, netting rules that are regularly flouted, and a buyers and sellers exemption that allows unlimited, unrecorded sales of 30 kg transactions from licensed vessels to consumers. I hope the Minister can tell us what he plans to do about that, as well as about what the UK can now do to secure a sustainable future for sea bass.
As someone who is not the fisheries Minister and whose constituency is stuck on the top of a mountain, I feel I am being drawn from my native rivers and well out from the pelagic realms into very deep water. My main responsibility has been to listen very carefully to this highly intelligent and serious debate. I will communicate all the arguments that have been made to the fisheries Minister and I will make sure that DEFRA takes them into account, responds to them in detail and takes action.
In the seven minutes I have left, it will not be possible for me to do full justice to all the speeches and interventions. May I say, however, that it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate? One of the most striking things about it, as one can see in the Chamber, is the great strength, good humour and, indeed, good looks of anglers. I have been very struck by the sense of generally energetic, tanned men, such as the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who is looking cheerful and bouncy. I have a general sense that this sport brings out a stress-free, cheerful life, and that it is to be praised. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) also contributed to the debate in an intervention.
As someone who is new to the debate about sea bass, it is striking that it is bringing to the surface the very serious tension between EU fisheries policy and UK policy, and between the interests of anglers and the interests of commercial fishermen. Navigating our way through that is quite tough. Very strong statements were made by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who particularly stressed her family connection with commercial fishing, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), who took us all the way back to medieval abbots, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), whose speech was perhaps more suitable for mobilising a brigade for war than for a technical discussion of maximum sustainable yields.
The hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir) made us think about the role of aquaculture in relation to sea bass. One reason why sea bass is a very striking fish is that it is, or so it seems to an outsider, the next salmon—the next great challenge we face in the debate in the United Kingdom. It is clearly an unusual fish, as people found when they developed aquaculture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It struggles to get out of the microscopic eggs, it produces juveniles that have difficulty in tracking down their prey, and it has to create its air sack by rising to the surface and filling it with an oxygen bubble. In fact, the species suffered what was essentially an extinction event in the Mediterranean. We are now talking about the north-east Atlantic, but the Mediterranean sea bass was in effect eliminated during the 1960s and 1970s. Most of its presence there now appears to be related to farmed sea bass that have escaped.
That is why the challenge that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) made to us to focus hard on the science is so important. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) focused on biomass, particularly breeding or spawning biomass, and my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) focused on landings. The shadow Secretary of State pointed to the issues around tonnage and black fish, particularly the landing of 1,100 tonnes in 2014.
This is a serious subject and the science is at the core of the debate. It does not matter whether we are talking to commercial fishermen or the angling community: the question is: what is the state of sea bass? Of course, sea bass has been on an extraordinary rollercoaster since the early 1980s. We went from minimal tonnage to a single spike year in the 1980s in which we hit nearly 13 million tonnes of biomass. Very warm conditions seem to have created an enormous number of sea bass. Along with changes in our eating patterns, that created the phenomenon, which did not really exist before the 1980s, of commercial fleets going into the Atlantic after sea bass to feed these new tastes. A series of cold winters from 2009 onwards appear to have led to a serious problem in new juvenile production, when combined with the large levels of catching, as the shadow Secretary of State pointed out.
The best analysis that we can currently reach on the subject comes from ICES. We believe that we are catching about 5,000 tonnes and that that is about 30% of an 18,000 tonne biomass. However, if we look at breeding biomass, the figures appear to be lower. I see the hon. Member for Ogmore is looking at a piece of paper. Does he want me to give way briefly?
I thank the Minister for a very detailed answer, which is focused on the science. The ICES evidence points to the necessity of an 80% cutback in the year ahead and a 90% cutback after that. Those cuts are massive and stringent. Will the Minister respond to the suggestion that we will actually be looking at about 20%? Is that accurate?
I notice that since the emergency of Daesh, people have really struggled to pronounce ICES. It is causing more and more of a problem. Foreign affairs and defence appear to be entering into fishing debates.
To answer the hon. Gentleman, the 80% reduction is a reduction from a current maximum sustainable yield, which we believe to be about 13%—that is the best science—from the current catch rates and landings, which seem to be striking at about 30%. The question clearly is whether the measures taken in December Council will achieve those targets. I will come on to that now.
The key thing is that most of us in this Chamber agree that we need a solution—in fact, everybody in the Chamber probably agrees that we need a solution—that achieves a healthy bass stock. Again, I am very much not speaking as an expert, as this is outside my field. The measures that were taken at the Council were, broadly speaking, steps in the right direction. I think hon. Members would agree with that. The most important actions that were taken—this relates to the question from the hon. Member for Ogmore about the 80% reduction—were those that related to the pelagic fleet. In particular, the measures on drift netting—not on fixed gillnets, but on drift netting in general—were important, especially in relation to pair trawlers.
One debate in this House is about what kind of impact those measures will have. Will they reduce by 70% or even more the amount that is caught, as one would hope, or does more need to be done? I think that we would also embrace the move from 36 cm to 42 cm. The reason for that, which I do not need to point out to the House, is that we will get more spawning stock because the animals will get to a greater age.
That is a very good point, but it is important to remember that one reason why the EU dimension matters is that these fish are very widely distributed. I have talked about the Mediterranean variety, but they exist all the way from the Mediterranean right up to the north Atlantic. About 70% of the catches—it is hard to put a figure on this, but certainly the majority of the catches—in the north Atlantic come from French boats. It is extremely important, therefore, to the UK fisheries that an agreement is reached at the European level if we are to create a sustainable biomass and a maximum sustainable yield on catching.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), in a characteristically energetic, cheerful and engaged speech, attacked the specific conclusions that were reached in relation to fixed gillnets and, in particular, the 1.3 tonne limit and the two-month closure.
Let me move to a conclusion. There seems to be a consensus in the House that there is more to do and that we must consider our next steps, several of which have emerged from the debate. First, we must all agree that the huge achievement in the Council—I am sorry that more people have not pointed this out—was to get all member states to agree on the figure for the maximum sustainable yield. That is absolutely vital. By getting them to agree on a 13% take, we have a target for 2017-18 that we can use to leverage in exactly the kind of arguments made by my hon. Friend about the tonnage catch for individual boats. We must have those conversations throughout the summer and the rest of the year, and keep relentlessly focused on that target.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Angus made a powerful point about ensuring that, through the regional advisory council network, we have people in a room who are seriously focused on an agreed target of meeting that maximum sustainable yield—as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall pointed out, that also extends to commercial fishing. The 25-year environment plan that DEFRA is introducing will provide us with an opportunity to lead a pathfinder that will focus on a marine area. Hopefully that will allow us to explore the kind of ideas that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall focused on in relation to striped bass and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham focused on in relation to Ireland, namely the potential social and economic benefit that can come from developing a sustainable bass angling industry.
This has been an impressive debate given the level of science, detail and constituency commitments involved. In defence of the deals that are being struck, we have achieved an enormous amount in addressing the biggest problem, which was the pelagic large drift and pair trawlers, and that is a big achievement. We have also achieved an enormous amount in getting agreement at European Council on the maximum sustainable yield, and that target will be vital. We have done that in a way that has attempted to respect the interests of commercial fishermen, and also to engage anglers. If we can achieve that target by 2017-18—and it will be tough—a lot of these issues can be revisited. If we do not achieve the right path towards that target in the coming year, we will have to revisit the catch for commercial fishermen. I call on the patience and understanding of the House as we address an issue that is important not just to this country, and that is the preservation of a unique iconic species: the branzino, the spigola, the lavráki, or for us, the bass.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this exceptionally good debate. I am pleased that the 900,000 sea anglers have had their voices heard today, and that we have had the opportunity to express their concerns. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) made some interesting points about ecology, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) spoke eloquently about the benefits of coming out of the EU, and how we might be able to control our own inshore fishing fleet. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) always speaks eloquently about her inshore fleet, and I invite the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) to partake in a charter boat catch-and-release opportunity with Bass Go Deeper, a bass fishing company that works out of Cornwall.
What has come out of this debate is that we must follow the science, because without fish in the water there will be no recreational or commercial fishing. I thank the Minister for his response and for his idea of exploring how tourism could benefit from recreational angling. I urge him to consider the views expressed by hon. Members, as well as those of the angling community, and to fight as hard as he can in future weeks, months and years for the recreational angling community.
Question put and agreed to,
That this House believes that the recent EU restrictions on recreational sea bass fishing are unfair and fail to address the real threat to the future viability of UK sea bass stocks; and calls on the Government to make representations within the Council of the EU on the reconsideration of the imposition of those restrictions.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. During today’s oral statement on the junior doctor contract, the Secretary of State for Health said, “Along with other senior NHS leaders…Sir David has asked me to end the uncertainty for the service by proceeding with the introduction of a new contract”. The Health Service Journal has this afternoon contacted the 20 senior NHS leaders the Health Secretary referred to in his statement, and at least five have replied to say that they do not support his decision to impose a new contract. I am concerned that in making this claim the Health Secretary may have inadvertently misled the House. Can you advise me, Madam Deputy Speaker, on how best the Secretary of State can correct the record?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, but she will appreciate, as the House will, that it is not a point of order for the Chair. She has a point that she wishes to draw to the attention of the House, and she has used this mechanism so to do. I am quite sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what she has said and that her concerns will be conveyed to the Secretary of State. Whatever the Secretary of State says in this House is a matter for him and not a matter for the Chair.