Skip to main content

Common Fisheries Policy (Article 17)

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 21 April 2016

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

I am pleased to have secured this debate, because it provides the opportunity to examine how the Government are getting on in implementing article 17 of the reformed common fisheries policy, which came into operation on 1 January 2014. Article 17 presents the opportunity to regenerate the fishing industry in ports such as Lowestoft in my constituency, and it has the potential to bring significant economic and social benefits to coastal communities all around the UK. It will help the Government to achieve their objective of rebalancing the economy away from London and the south-east and facilitating the much-needed regeneration of coastal areas, where communities feel that they have been neglected for far too long. There is a concern that, although the Government have introduced some initiatives in order to comply with article 17, they do not have a coherent, long-term strategy in place to ensure that its important objectives are met.

Put simply, the way the common fisheries policy works—perhaps I should say should work—is that an overarching policy framework is laid down centrally in Brussels, and it is up to individual states to pursue their own initiatives to ensure that the mutual objectives in the framework are met. Under the previous regime from 2002, member states were given very wide discretion, and the equivalent policy framework was loosely worded. Article 20(3) from 2002 stated:

“Each Member State shall decide, for vessels flying its flag, on the method of allocating the fishing opportunities assigned to that Member State in accordance with Community law. It shall inform the Commission of the allocation method.”

Member states were given wide discretion to do what they wanted, but they had to tell the Commission what they were doing. That article has been replaced by article 17, which is more far specific:

“When allocating the fishing opportunities available to them, as referred to in Article 16, Member States shall use transparent and objective criteria including those of an environmental, social and economic nature. The criteria to be used may include, inter alia, the impact of fishing on the environment, the history of compliance, the contribution to the local economy and historic catch levels. Within the fishing opportunities allocated to them, Member States shall endeavour to provide incentives to fishing vessels deploying selective fishing gear or using fishing techniques with reduced environmental impact, such as reduced energy consumption or habitat damage.”

I should highlight some of the important requirements of this more targeted policy strategy. First, there is the need for transparency, which is particularly welcome. For too long, domestic and, indeed, European fishing has been unnecessarily complicated and opaque. A good example of that was the difficulty of finding out who held fishing quota. That was shrouded in mystery until my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), the former Minister, introduced the register that had to be published. Before that register existed, all manner of urban myths developed about who held fishing quota. Was it car companies, or even football clubs?

Secondly, in allocating fishing opportunities, the Government are required to consider the three criteria—environmental, social and economic factors. That means maximising the economic and social benefits to UK coastal communities, but at the same time minimising the environmental impact of fishing, which is the activity that has the greatest ecological impact on the UK’s precious and vital marine ecosystem. It is crucial that the allocation of fishing opportunities is based on the targeting of these multiple and diverse objectives. If it is not, as history has shown time and again down the ages, fish stocks will decline, market forces will push inextricably towards industry concentration—fishermen will be muscled out as small businesses—and coastal communities will be weakened and undermined, with their economies often taking decades to recover.

Thirdly, article 17 encourages member states to pursue a variety of methods of allocating fishing opportunities. No longer should they be one-trick ponies relying just on catch history; they should consider a whole package of measures and issues, such as the impact of fishing on the environment, the history of compliance, the contribution to the local economy, the incentivising of fishing vessels to deploy selective fishing gear, the promotion of fishing techniques with reduced environment impacts and the reduction of energy consumption and of habitat damage.

The Government have signed up to a policy that can help to bring back prosperity to our coastal communities, and they have been provided with a number of tools in the box to do so. I have two questions: first, are they using all reasonable endeavours in pursuit of this policy; and secondly, are they using all the tools in the box? It is vital that the Government do so, as fishing communities all around our coast are in urgent need of support.

In the past, those communities—the fishermen and the people working in the industry—have delivered so much to this country not just by putting good, wholesome food on our plates, but by providing jobs in the supply chain, which stretches far and wide inland. What has happened in Lowestoft in my constituency in the past 40 years is a vivid illustration of how the policy makers have got it terribly wrong. Now, as a matter of urgency, we need to do things to right the mistakes of the past.

Lowestoft was built on fishing. It was the fishing capital of the southern North sea. In years gone by, one could cross the water from one side of the Hamilton dock in Lowestoft to the other by walking from boat to boat. Today, the dock is virtually empty of fishing boats. In the past four decades, Lowestoft has been hit hard by overfishing, wrong decisions by politicians and the vulnerability of the very make-up of the industry, whereby the large trawlers used to help to sustain the smaller boats.

The way the quota is allocated has been a major factor in Lowestoft’s decline, as it has taken away the trawlers that were the cornerstone of the industry. The six affiliated vessels in the Lowestoft producer organisation have a fixed quota allocation of 80,419 units this year. This is a significant amount of fish, but none of it is landed in Lowestoft: 68% of it goes to the Netherlands and 32% to Scotland. Those boats—Wilhelmina, Ansgar, Margriet, Hendrik Brands, Sola Fide and Soli Deo Gloria—bring very little, if any, economic and social benefit to Lowestoft.

Today, the Lowestoft fleet is made up of small boats, known as the under-10s—the under-10 metre fleet—which get a raw deal in terms of quota. Nationally, the under-10s comprise 77% of the UK fleet and employ 65% of the workforce; yet they receive only 4% of the total quota available. As from 1 April many of these boats in Lowestoft are able to catch only 100 kg of skate and 2 tonnes of cod per month. That is not enough for skippers to sustain a business, let alone to earn a living. This story is not unique to Lowestoft; it is the tale all around our coast. It is being repeated all around the UK, and it is the reason why we cannot delay in properly and fully implementing article 17.

It is fair to say that, from a legal perspective, the Government are complying with the requirements of article 17. That was the conclusion that Mrs Justice Andrews reached in determining Greenpeace’s judicial review this January. The Government have carried out some welcome initiatives, such as the permanent transfer of underused quota to the under-10s. That was worth an extra 678 tonnes in 2015. The inshore fleet will also benefit from an extra 1,000 tonnes this year.

However, one can argue that although these initiatives are very welcome, they are piecemeal allocations. A clearly articulated and overarching framework for the full implementation of article 17 is still lacking. We need—dare I say it—not just a long-term economic plan, but a long-term economic, social and environmental plan. The Government can be criticised for adhering to a system that is too restricted, relying excessively on catch history and not making full use of the other initiatives that article 17 positively endorses and promotes. As I have already said, there is a need to use other tools in the box.

Other Governments are doing so and are pursuing a course that I suggest the UK Government should seriously consider following. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and Sweden are all moving away from systems for the allocation of fishing opportunities based exclusively on historical catch levels. In Belgium, there is a requirement to contribute to the local economy. In Denmark, there is an objective of aiming at best economic performance and investing in energy consumption reduction measures. In France, market orientation and socioeconomic equilibrium are considered alongside historical catch records. In Germany, historical catch levels likewise remain important, but measures have been introduced to reduce the impact of fishing on the marine environment and to reduce discards and bycatch. The contribution to society and local communities is also taken very seriously there. In Sweden, economic criteria are of importance in pelagic and industrial fisheries, while environmental criteria are pursued in demersal fisheries.

The policies being pursued in Ireland are particularly innovative. I urge the Minster to look at them very closely to see how they can be applied in the UK, as the fishing industries and fishing communities in our two countries have a great deal in common. In Ireland, quota is assigned to vessels, and if it is not used, it is returned to the state for reallocation. Inshore fisheries operate under a community quota system. There is a monthly catch allocation for stocks under pressure. A specific Irish measure that we should seriously consider adopting is that of consultation with those actively involved in local fishing communities—the people in Ireland, as in the UK, who ultimately know their industry and their waters best. There was a consultation in Ireland when the allocation policy framework was set up, and when amendments are made to the framework, they are always consulted on.

It is also appropriate to look outside the EU. In Canada, British Columbia now has one of the most comprehensive, integrated and successful catch share programmes in the world, which takes full account of economic, social and environmental consideration. The starting point for setting up the system there was likewise a public consultation, with an independent arbitrator submitting recommendations to the Government, who then adopted them.

In conclusion, we need a clear and well articulated framework in which the UK’s fishermen and allied industries can work, invest in their businesses and make a fair living. That will lead to a healthier industry and benefit coastal communities all around the UK. With the allocation of fishing opportunities coming up in 2017, there is now a real chance to put such a system in place. Will the Minister give us an assurance that he will look at doing so with his colleagues and officials?

Last May, Geoffrey Melton, skipper of the Serene Dawn from Lowestoft, lost his leg aboard his boat. He has been given a prosthetic limb and is about to return to sea. We owe it to people like Geoffrey to do all we can to ensure that he has every chance of earning a decent living and bringing some prosperity back to the community in which he lives.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for the opportunity of speaking on this subject, and pay tribute to him not only for bringing this matter to the House but for his long commitment to the fishing industry in Lowestoft and beyond. I got to know him well before the election at which he joined us in this House. The fact is, if he was simply doing things for political purposes, there are probably more newsagents in his constituency than there are active fishermen. His commitment to those fishermen is a credit to him and his love of his town and community.

I will take the opportunity to add a little to what my hon. Friend has said. Although it may not seem like it for some members of the fishing industry, there is at last some good news, with rising stocks in our seas. The iconic species that people use as a measure of the health of our seas is cod, and the biomass of cod in the North sea is rising quite substantially. There is still more to do, but it is a credit to the fishermen, scientists and those in organisations such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and others, who are not always the fishermen’s best friends. They have relentlessly tried to find new methods of conservation of stocks, and are starting to see those work.

The sea is a very complex ecosystem, and what might assist one stock could damage another; we do not have the time to go into that today. However, the element of my hon. Friend’s speech to which I really want to pay tribute is that he talked about people. When these matters are discussed in Government, among policymakers, in non-governmental organisations, and in the chancelleries of Europe, if that is all that happens, we fail, because we have to engage those whose livelihoods depend upon the health of fish stocks. That does not mean simply the—sadly few—fishermen left in my hon. Friend’s constituency. This is about the very heartbeat of coastal communities. It runs very deep in the psyche of the British people, whether they live in coastal regions such as his, or about as far from the coast as is possible, in constituencies such as mine.

Combining the three legs of the stool of sustainability—economy, environment and social factors—is very important. I well remember the negotiations on article 17, some of which took place through the night. Indeed, I remember being prevented from getting in to make the case for sustainability by a blockade by Greenpeace, which was a rather strange irony.

Looking forward, the Minister needs to take this important point away with him. One of the great wins in reform of the common fisheries policy was not that on the headline issue that concerned most people, the absurd necessity for fishermen at that time to throw away perfectly edible fish, although we were all, quite rightly, affronted by that and its reform was welcome. The ending of discards is starting now, although we are not yet there. For me, however, the great win was a legally binding commitment to fish to maximum sustainable yield.

We have recently discovered that 50% of stocks in British waters are still not fished sustainably. If we want to see the glass as half full, we could say that half are, which is certainly a big improvement on the situation just a few years ago. However, there is still so much more to do. The political effort of the next few years is needed in the Council of Ministers. The resolve remains in the European Parliament, in this Parliament, in the devolved Administrations and Parliaments, and in the Commission, but to carry through the bold ambitions for reform of the common fisheries policy that were agreed unanimously will require continued great leadership by our excellent Fisheries Minister and others, to try to drive through reforms and make them effective.

I have been as rude about the common fisheries policy, and its folly and failures, as anyone—I bow to no one in that—and reforming it was something I enjoyed doing. I felt that we as a Parliament were united in achieving that. But we should not kid ourselves that the common fisheries policy is the only problem. In fact, if we look at Professor Callum Roberts’s very interesting graph of the decline of fish stocks since the late 19th century, there are two peaks in North sea cod stocks, one between 1914 and 1918, and one between 1939 and 1945; I will let hon. Members work out what was going on at those times. In the early 1970s, there is not even a blip.

As a society, we have gained ever more technological advantages in harvesting wild fish. Parliament and regulatory authorities have always been behind the curve. Now, perhaps, we have more regional control and the understanding that we have to involve catchers as well as scientists and others in achieving our aims. It is vital. I applaud the way in which my hon. Friend looked abroad for good practice. The catch share schemes in north America and elsewhere offer great opportunities for fishermen to buy into a rise in biomass and have something of value. By helping to increase the harvestable surplus of a stock, fishermen increase the value of their right to fish it. That gives them something to hand on to their children or else to sell to another fishermen when they want to retire.

There is cause for optimism. It is not easy, and there is much more to do in complex sea environments such as those around our shores. It requires political will and resolve, and needs people such as my hon. Friend, who represent the places around our coastline, to continue to be great champions for the health of our seas and those whose livelihoods depend upon them.

The Minister of State responsible for fisheries unfortunately cannot be here, but it is a great privilege for me to be here to hear those speeches, which revealed just how much care, affection and thought my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Newbury (Richard Benyon) have put into the issues of complex fisheries. I will reply quite briefly, as this is the Minister of State’s subject rather than mine, but I will make a couple of observations on DEFRA’s behalf.

First, we absolutely accept the importance of the inshore fleet. Its economic value is not just the amount of fish it catches but its contribution to ports and to fleets in general. The selective fishing done by inshore fleets—the under-10 metre vessels—is often more environmentally friendly and sustainable. It is less likely to have by-catch or disrupt spawning stocks. It is also much less likely to have issues with carbon emissions. Generally, it ticks almost every box for a sustainable fishery.

As my hon. Friends both pointed out very well, it is also true that this is not simply an issue of economics or the environment. Fishing is the lifeblood of the ports. We love to go to coastal communities and see fishing boats. Those boats simply will not be there if we do not protect the under-10 metre fleet. There is also a connection with our maritime heritage as a nation. It inspires us as a country to know that those vessels can continue to operate. It connects to tourism, the wider economy and the environment. For all those reasons, we need to pay attention to those fleets.

We must balance that, of course, with the interests of the offshore fleets. They catch far more of the fish we eat—about 666,000 tonnes are caught by the offshore fleets compared with about 42,000 tonnes caught by the inshore fleets. Of the 42,000 tonnes caught by inshore fleets, only about 5,000 are within the quota stock range.

About 5,500 people are supported by the offshore fleets. We know more and more about the benefit and fantastic nutrition that we get from fish, and about how good it is for our health and what a fantastically delicious and healthy food it is, and that depends on the offshore fleet as well as the inshore fleet. We need to consider how to get the balance right and swing the pendulum back.

The Government’s gut instinct is probably that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of offshore fleets, and we have now begun to push it back. As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney acknowledged, we have recently allocated another 1,000 tonnes to inshore fleets. We have begun to use the opportunities provided by getting rid of discards to allocate more, and 10% of that quota goes to inshore fleets.

The challenge is to have a good strategic study to consider the 25 or 30-year future. Rather than my pontificating from the Dispatch Box on a subject about which I do not know a great deal, I would like my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney and for Newbury to sit down with our officials and talk in great detail through the issues that have been raised, and particularly the fantastic work that the hon. Member for Waveney has done on comparative studies, such as Swedish fishing methods, and the French, German and Canadian approaches.

Our current process is fantastic, and it is not only processing people but retailers, the industry, fish salesman, and coastal communities who are discussing what more we can do for the inshore fleet. To do that, we need from my hon. Friends details of how much more of the quota it makes sense to give that fleet, how much more it feels that it can catch, and how that will deliver economic benefit.

I have two small pieces of reassurance. First, it is true that we are already incentivising more sustainable ways of catching fish, and European Union grants are available to upgrade the type of nets that are used to get more sustainable catches. Secondly, we are already emphasising the economic links with people who possess those quotas in terms of providing jobs for coastal communities.

In conclusion, let me pay tribute to what was a serious and impressive piece of research that contained stimulating ideas. We must take up the challenge of thinking forward over a 25-year environment plan, and we must consider how to integrate fish and coastal communities into that. In addition to protecting this precious piece of maritime heritage, we must think about the fish themselves, because they are a finite and precious resource.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.