Skip to main content

Fishing: East Anglia

Volume 639: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2018

[Mr Ian Paisley in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Renaissance of East Anglian Fishing campaign.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am very pleased to have secured this debate, as it provides an ideal opportunity to highlight the work getting underway in Lowestoft, in my constituency, and along the East Anglian coast to launch the campaign to deliver the renaissance of East Anglian fisheries. I am delighted that my neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), is responding for the Government.

REAF was launched last month, on 15 March, at the East Anglian fishing conference at the Hotel Victoria in Lowestoft. Up to 150 people attended, predominantly local and many from the local fishing industry. Many of the speakers were local, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), gave a keynote speech and we had a productive workshop in which some very good ideas were put forward for how best to revitalise the industry. Brexit provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do that—to start again with a clean sheet of paper and to have a complete rethink of how we manage these fisheries.

Fishing has taken place along the East Anglian coast for more than a thousand years. Lowestoft was previously the fishing capital of the southern North sea and was the hub of an industry that included many other ports, such as Kings Lynn, Cromer, Sheringham, Yarmouth, Kessingland, Southwold, Aldeburgh, Orford, Felixstowe Ferry, Maldon, Colchester and Southend. East Anglia sits next to one of the richest fishing grounds in Europe, but today little local benefit is derived from that. Most of the UK vessels registered in East Anglia and fishing off our coast are smaller than 10 metres and many of them target shellfish or fin fish in the inshore areas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me permission to intervene beforehand. The bottom line is that, while UK vessels land 40% of their catch from UK waters, Norway and Iceland land 83% and 90% respectively in theirs. That shows the indisputable fact that the European Union has never given us our fair share and never will. As such, does he agree that it is imperative that we regain full control of our waters and do not accept anything that does not bring the control of fishing in British waters back into the hands of the MPs here and the people who we represent?

The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.

It is important that our region derives the maximum possible economic benefit from Brexit. REAF is seeking to achieve that goal, with the local industry taking the lead in planning the future of East Anglian fishing. The intention is to set out our stall, and to work with Government, to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That approach is consistent with the Prime Minister’s desire for the Government to work with the fishing industry to secure a better deal for coastal communities.

I shall briefly outline what I believe are the three ingredients to deliver REAF. First, East Anglian fishermen must be given the opportunity to catch more fish. The region’s catch sector predominantly comprises the inshore fleet, which, as has been well documented, does not get a fair slice of the cake. The six vessels in the Lowestoft Fish Producers Organisation land their catches in the Netherlands and Peterhead. We need to be in a position whereby fish caught in the exclusive economic zone off the East Anglian coast are landed in local ports, thereby benefiting local people, local businesses and local communities.

If the quota system is to continue, there needs to be a radical reallocation in favour of locally based fishermen, so that they can earn a fair living and the full benefit of their hard work, which often takes place in extremely harsh conditions, can be secured for the ports and communities in which they live and work and for allied industries, such as local processors, merchants, ship repairers and maintenance services.

Secondly—this goes hand in hand with landing more fish in East Anglian ports—there is a need to invest in infrastructure, skills and supply chain businesses in those ports and their surrounding areas. Although in many respects it is surprising how much of the supporting sector remains in Lowestoft and other East Anglian ports, there is concern that it does not have the capacity to cope with a significant increase in landings. There must be a whole-industry approach from the net to the plate.

Thirdly, a new management system must be put in place that has the full confidence and respect of all those working in the industry. The system must be based on science and be local, sustainable and collaborative. Being based on science means making decisions that are established on scientific evidence, not political expediency. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which has its headquarters in Lowestoft, should be at the heart of that locally, nationally and internationally. The Government are to be commended for their foresight in investing in the redevelopment of CEFAS’s Lowestoft headquarters, which is now getting under way.

The system must be truly local and tailored to ensure the bespoke management of individual fisheries—a bottom-up approach to replace the top-down strategy. The new system must have sustainability ingrained in its DNA, it should guard against unsustainable practices such as electric pulse fishing, which is having a particularly devastating impact on local fisheries in the southern North sea, and it should ensure that those working in the industry can plan and invest for the future. Fisheries management must be a tripartite partnership of fishermen, scientists and regulators, collaborating and working together. We must do away with the current “them and us” approach that pervades much of the current regulatory system. That will mean fishermen taking on new responsibilities and regulators working with them.

People left the conference of 15 March in an upbeat mood. The following week, the Government published the implementation agreement for leaving the EU, which provides for the UK to leave the common fisheries policy on 31 December 2020, rather than at an earlier date, as so many had hoped. As a result, that positive outlook was replaced by anger and despair. Helpfully, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State subsequently have made assurances that on 31 December 2020 the UK will resume full control of the seas in our exclusive economic zone, that we will decide who can access those waters and on what terms, and that no deals will be done beforehand that use fishing as bargaining chip as part of the wider Brexit negotiations.

That said, there are issues arising from the implementation agreement that need clarifying. Notwithstanding the wording of article 125 of the implementation agreement, which sets out the specific arrangements on fishing opportunities during the implementation period, there is a real worry that the best interests of the fishing industry will be irretrievably compromised during this period. We will be subject to the common fisheries policy and the landing obligations with the maximum sustainable yield target, but we will have a significantly reduced influence on the annual negotiations. The discards ban will be implemented during this period and its negative impact on the inshore fleet will be significant, yet we will have a very much diminished opportunity to promote measures to alleviate its impact. In effect, we will be bound by the CFP during this period, but only consulted on fishing opportunities in UK waters.

There is also a concern that the provisions of article 125 may set a precedent for future policy and negotiations with the EU. There is a worry about paragraph 4 of that article, which refers to maintaining

“the relative stability keys for the allocation of fishing opportunities”

during the implementation period. The main challenge for East Anglian fishermen is that they are unable to land enough fish to earn a fair living or supply the local processing industry. “Relative stability” in many respects underpins the status quo, and it is important that, after we leave the CFP, we start again with a clean sheet of paper for allocating fishing opportunities. If we do not, any gains will be enjoyed by the few, not the many.

As I mentioned, the East Anglian fishing fleet is predominantly inshore, comprising what have become known as the under-10s. That part of the industry is hanging on by its fingertips, and there is a worry that it will struggle to survive to the end of the implementation period. Action is needed to address the situation. It is important that we use the additional preparatory time wisely, and I make the following suggestions for how we might do so.

First, on 29 March 2019, the UK will become an independent coastal state with duties and obligations under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. We must be fully prepared to discharge those rights and responsibilities. Secondly, the fisheries White Paper and fisheries Bill should be published as soon as practically possible so that the industry and parliamentarians can help shape a future policy framework, which should have the flexibility to respond to local needs and demands.

Thirdly, East Anglian fishermen need to be able to land more fish so they can earn a fair living. In the short term, that can be achieved by reallocating a share of existing quota to the inshore fleet. In the longer term, we need to tackle the situation that fish caught in UK waters are not landed in UK ports. Much of Britain’s quota is currently held by overseas businesses. The economic link requirements of vessel licences must be reformed and then enforced. Fourthly, the UK will withdraw from the London fisheries convention on 3 July 2019, providing us full access rights to our fishing grounds in the zone between 6 nautical miles and 12 nautical miles from our coast. Consideration should be given to how best to take advantage of that opportunity.

Last Friday, Waveney District Council submitted REAF’s application for a European maritime and fisheries fund grant to the Marine Management Organisation. The proposed project will enable us to develop a long-term strategy for the future of the East Anglian fishing industry. It is a bottom-up initiative with widespread local and industry support. It is an exciting, innovative and compelling proposal that is a beacon of positivity at a time when the fishing industry is under intense pressure and there is anger and disappointment about the Brexit transitional arrangements. The project is designed to help shape a positive and profitable future for the industry as a whole, from the net to the plate. Its objective is to establish how the economic and social benefits of the fishing industry in East Anglia can best be captured and optimised locally and regionally.

There are three elements to the project: data and information gathering and analysis; a forward look at the prospective changes and the development of possible options for bringing benefits to the region’s fishing industry and coastal communities; and the preparation of a regional fisheries strategy. The project will examine why, despite the profitability of the UK fleet overall having increased year on year for the past 10 years, that improvement has bypassed Lowestoft and East Anglia. It will analyse the fishing fleets across the region to provide a starting point for developing a regional strategy. At local level, it will look at how a new management system can be put in place that takes into account the different sections of the fleet and ensures that they are managed in the most efficient and effective way. The project will assess the catch potential for East Anglian vessels and what changes should be made to the economic link requirements, and analyse the whole supply chain to establish how best to maximise the opportunity presented by Brexit.

In short, this is prudent and long-term strategic planning at its best. It is estimated that the project will cost approximately £160,000 and take nine months to complete. The application is for 75% of the cost of the project to come from the EMFF, and we are looking to the Government to contribute the remaining 25%. There is sound justification for them to do so, as the proposal has collective interests and beneficiaries and is highly innovative. We have looked at other sources of funding, such as councils, the coastal communities fund and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, but those options cannot be pursued, either because the money is not there or because a bid would not satisfy the various eligibility criteria.

The bid is compelling. It is exactly the sort of sensible long-term planning that should be done as we leave the EU to open up new and exciting business opportunities. It would be unfortunate if this highly innovative project stalled at a time when the industry is badly bruised.

Special thanks are due to the local community champions who came together to form REAF, some of whom are here today. There are many of them, but I pay special tribute to June Mummery and Paul Lines, whose passion and determination have been so important. REAF provides a great opportunity to revitalise a uniquely East Anglian industry for the benefit of local communities that feel they have been dispossessed and ignored for too long. In policy terms, the Government need to provide a national framework for fishing that has the flexibility to respond to different local demands and allows the industry to flourish all around the coast. REAF is looking to provide the cornerstone for that in East Anglia, and I hope that the Government can work with and endorse its locally derived, innovative and well thought-through initiative, which has strong local backing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), on securing this debate. I know that our fishing industry is of huge importance to him, his constituents and the many other coastal communities around the UK. His has been an important voice in the wider fisheries debate, particularly at the recent REAF conference in Lowestoft.

Unfortunately, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), cannot be here because he is in the Faroe Islands discussing potential future fisheries arrangements. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney pointed out, the Fisheries Minister spoke at the recent REAF conference. As the MP for an East Anglian coastal community—there are fishermen along the Suffolk coast—I am delighted to be able to reply to this debate about the REAF campaign. As my hon. Friend knows, this issue is not only of great importance to my constituents, but arguably one of the most totemic issues following the decision to leave the European Union.

The Government absolutely recognise that leaving the EU presents us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the future of fisheries in the United Kingdom. I am encouraged by the passion and enthusiasm of people throughout East Anglia to build up the industry for the benefit of their communities. The REAF campaign is strong and inspiring evidence of that passion.

I congratulate the applicants on submitting their initial bid for EMFF funding to support the REAF campaign, and I understand that it will be considered through the normal processes. I hope my hon. Friend understands that I cannot make any commitments to funding in this debate—most of all because I would probably have to declare some kind of constituency interest. However, I am sure he will be aware that the bid will be considered carefully. I understand the apprehension of some hon. Members during this period of uncertainty, but we recognise that the drive of the people in Waveney and other fishing communities around the country will be one of the main determining factors that will result in a thriving and prosperous local industry. 

I know the outcome of the implementation period negotiations was not the one that many hon. Members of this House wanted; it was certainly not the one the Government sought, either. We were clear at the outset of negotiations that specific arrangements should be agreed for fisheries during the implementation period. We pressed hard during negotiations to secure the outcome, and we were disappointed that the EU was not willing to move on that point. When the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, we will no longer be a member state, and we will formally leave the common fisheries policy. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, under the agreement current fisheries rules will continue to apply during the implementation period.

In regard to the annual negotiations of fishing opportunities, the agreement clarifies that the UK’s share of quotas will not change during the implementation period and that the UK will be able to attend international negotiations. That means we will continue to follow existing CFP rules for technical conservation as well as total annual catch and quota. Furthermore, the agreement includes an obligation on both sides to act in good faith during the implementation period. It is really important to recognise that while there may be a perception that all of a sudden UK fishing will be done down, we should not accept that assertion—not least because there is a dispute resolution mechanism where we can make a challenge if we feel the EU is not acting in good faith. However, I stress again that such arrangements will apply only to negotiations in 2019.

By December 2020, we will be negotiating fishing opportunities for 2021 as a third country and an independent coastal state, and at that point we will be completely outside the common fisheries policy. Any decisions about giving access to our waters to vessels from the EU and any other coastal states will then be a matter for negotiation.

The Government’s future vision for fisheries will be laid out in a White Paper, to be published in due course, which will be followed by a fisheries Bill that will give us the legal powers necessary to manage our fisheries in the future and enable us to develop a truly UK fisheries policy, in particular by controlling access to our own waters and setting fishing opportunities. Arrangements are well under way to put in place domestic preparations to ensure that we are ready to take advantage of the opportunities from leaving not only the EU but the London fisheries convention.

In general, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will ensure that that we will have the necessary rules in place on the day after exit. That provides the maximum possible certainty and continuity to businesses, workers and consumers across the UK. The fisheries Bill will then enable us to develop a truly United Kingdom fisheries policy—in particular, as I said, by controlling access to our own waters and setting fishing opportunities.

When we think about the future, it is important to ensure that we have a sustainable fishing industry. It is helpful to reflect that overall many aspects of the UK marine environment are improving. About 30% of fish stocks are now at sustainable levels, and the proportion of large fish in the North sea has climbed steadily since 2010 to levels not seen since the 1980s. That is a valuable reminder of what we can achieve to help build a sustainable resource for future generations.

While our role in fisheries management will change, we remain committed to working with the EU and other coastal states to manage those shared fish stocks sustainably, in line with our international commitments. We want to be a responsible coastal state and to develop a collaborative working relationship with our international partners. We are proud of our record of championing sustainable fisheries and the end of wasteful discarding. However, we fully recognise the need to ensure that the future UK discard policy has the necessary flexibilities to avoid the problem of choke with species such as cod and saithe.

As I pointed out, we will shortly set out our vision for sustainable fisheries management in our White Paper. During that time, the Government and the Marine Management Organisation will work together in closer partnership with industry, scientific organisations and other stakeholders as well as our colleagues in the devolved Administrations to help shape our future management strategy and ensure it is evidence based. That is a strong point that my hon. Friend affirmed is necessary.

My hon. Friend pointed out concern about the article 152 precedent and relative stability. Our advice is that the implementation period and what is agreed then will not set a precedent for the future. I assure him that we are committed to ensuring that, as I have set out, we will be able to shape our future management strategy and negotiate on who is in our coastal waters and the fishing opportunities there.

We absolutely want to safeguard the long-term profitability of the industry. Through the ongoing negotiations, we will work hard to ensure the best deal for the whole of the UK fishing industry and support the needs of inshore fleets and coastal communities such as those in East Anglia. Since 2012, to help support the under-10-metre fleet, the Government have realigned quota that had not been fished, leased, gifted or swapped by processor organisations and was considered unused. My hon. Friend will be aware of the huge court battle that ensued, but the Government won, and that has delivered a 13% increase in quota for the under-10-metre fleet. In 2016, that equated to almost 700 tonnes of additional quota. 

Our new fisheries policy must be forward looking, responsive, sustainable, resilient and competitive. We should all look towards the innovation and diversification taking place in other coastal communities in order to help build a profitable and stable career choice for a new generation of fishing businesses in East Anglia. As well as changes in quota, I agree that investment in vessels, infrastructure, skills and the wider supply chain will be needed to improve fisheries management and the sector’s profitability.

In October 2016, the Chancellor announced that all projects funded from the EMFF approved before March 2019 will be fully funded, even after the UK has left the EU. It is expected that the EMFF will continue to be open for new projects until 2020. I am aware from my hon. Friend that the valuable information he gathered at the conference in his constituency will be used to shape the design of any possible future funding schemes.

I am conscious of the local community where fishing is totemic. It is more than that; it is the livelihoods of many people there. It is about people who fish, people who process and the ongoing economic security that brings to their families. I am aware that alternative careers have been developing at Lowestoft and surrounding ports to support the offshore wind farm, but my hon. Friend and I agree that that should not be at the expense of a secure future for fishing in East Anglia. We want to ensure that.

With more than 10,000 miles of mainland coastline—quite a lot of it is in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend—the UK has some of the most varied marine habitats of any coastal waters. He is right to pay tribute to CEFAS, which undertakes a strong role, and I am pleased that investment is under way.

Our habitats in coastal waters make a critical contribution to biodiversity. Our seas support the national economy and our local economy with jobs, providing us with food, raw materials and beautiful, irreplaceable recreational destinations. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that in leaving the European Union we must take the opportunity to create a world-class fisheries management system based on the principle of maximum sustainable yield and help to restore and protect the marine ecosystem. Both ends are compatible. It is our ambition to take the opportunity presented also to reflect our proud maritime heritage in policies that create a stronger, resilient, more productive fishing industry—for the next generation in East Anglia, and for generations to come.

Question put and agreed to.