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Total Allowable Catches: Fisheries Negotiations

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2023

I will call George Eustice to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move, 

That this House has considered the methodologies for setting total allowable catches for data-limited stocks in fisheries negotiations.>

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. It is very appropriate for you to chair this event since, as every Member present knows, your knowledge and experience of the fishing industry is unrivalled in this House. I am sure that, were you not being impartial in chairing the debate, you would have plenty to say on the matter.

In my time as a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, I had two key observations. First, every Minister comes in with plans for the environment, and one of the first things they need to learn is that the environment has plans for them, too, and they are not always very pleasant.

The second truth is that every Minister coming into DEFRA says that they will have an evidence-based approach and will follow the science. But when they ask the scientists what should be done, they find that the scientists are not quite sure. They talk about evidence gaps and things that they do not understand, and are reluctant to come up with a clear policy proposal. That means Fisheries Ministers in particular are inevitably left with the thankless task of trying to make policy decisions with imperfect evidence, but making the best use of the evidence that they have. Nowhere is that conundrum more complex than in fisheries.

I recall a fishing representative giving evidence to a Select Committee. As he put it, fisheries is not rocket science; it is way more complicated than that. There are uncertainties in the science and in the way we calculate maximum sustainable yield. There are difficulties, for instance, around assessing the age of a fish. The basic approach to maximum sustainable yield is to allow fish to reproduce for at least one generation, and that stock should be sustainable. Typically, scientists measure the average length of fish when they are landed to try to assess the age of the stock and its reproductive capacity. That is the essence of the calculations that take place.

But there are difficulties all round. First, fish of different ages tend to inhabit different parts of the ocean, and trying to make sense of that can be difficult. It can be a hit and miss science to understand exactly what the average length of a fish is, given that they are very mobile and move around.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I am extremely interested in what he has to say, and I spoke to him beforehand. I have one example of the importance of data. We have witnessed a remarkable turnaround with spurdog. In a most important fishery, limited data led to a ban on landing the species. However, the situation has changed dramatically, based on the data for 2023, with a total allowable catch agreed with the European Union for the year ahead based on up-to-date scientific advice. A statutory instrument is to follow, as the Minister knows. That is because of the data-limited status and the evidence that has made the change.

Order. This is a 30-minute debate. If interventions are to be made, can we make them short and snappy, please?

I think I get the hon. Gentleman’s point and the Minister might want to address it, but my understanding is that there is now data on spurdog and a total allowable catch has been allocated. One consequence of leaving the European Union is that we have accountable processes in this House for introducing regulatory changes, and I believe a statutory instrument is needed, which takes time to introduce. In the EU, because there is no such accountability, the Commission can literally just issue delegated Acts and implementing Acts sometimes on a whim without any real process behind that.

To continue my point, the length of the fish is not always a good sign of its reproductive capacity, so there are complexities with some species—haddock, in particular—for reasons that we still do not really understand. Roughly every seven years we get a big recruitment year, and it is hard to predict when that will happen. It is difficult to differentiate between different species of the same genera, so we have, for instance, composite TACs for species such as skate and ray whereby there are some 24 different species in a single TAC. To try to make sense of that, we introduced prohibitions on landing some subspecies within the TAC, but sometimes it is hard—for fishermen and for scientists—to distinguish between species visually, even though we know they are biologically different.

For some species, age cannot be determined by the length of the fish. I remember being briefed that scientists had to go to other measurements, such as the size of a fish’s eardrums, to try to make an assessment because the fish’s length was not a reliable indicator of age, and it threw the calculation out.

There is also the problem of uncertainty around fishing mortality. In particular, we do not have accurate data on recreational angling. Recreational anglers and commercial fishermen have hours of fun blaming one another for the state of particular fish stocks, but exactly what is fishing mortality is a difficult conundrum. That is especially the case with species such as pollack and bass. There is a further complication, which is that fish eat one another. The marine environment is dynamic, and a healthy recovery of one species might put pressure on another, which is preyed on.

As if all that were not complicated enough, there is a political context in which Fisheries Ministers have to operate. The Fisheries Minister has to arbitrate between competing interests among different UK Administrations, and indeed competing interests among different sectors, such as the pelagic and white fish sectors, the inshore fleet and so on. To reach a compromise with other countries to get a multilateral agreement on how to approach fisheries, we will, at times, have to accept others’ interpretation of the science, which might not be entirely in line with our own. If we do not get a compromise and do not get an agreement, and people unilaterally set quotas, that is the worst of all worlds.

Finally, there is a tendency, once policy in fisheries is set, for it to be set in stone. It is easy to follow the path of least resistance, and to do this year what we did last year, putting off changing things to a future year, only to find in a decade or 15 years that it is too difficult to change everything because the concrete has set. That was the case, for instance, in the EU era when we had relative stability, although the landing shares of different countries were hugely outdated. However, under qualified majority voting it was impossible for the UK ever to argue for change because the only countries that would have supported us in arguing that also wanted our fish in return for their support.

My right hon. Friend the Minister joins a small club of Fisheries Ministers and former Fisheries Ministers who have had to wrestle with those dilemmas, and he has to make the best judgment he can using the evidence available to him, but he does have one thing in his favour, as we all do, which is the support of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.

Without question, CEFAS is the world’s leading fisheries science organisation, and its head office and main research facilities are in Lowestoft. If Members visit Weymouth, they will find a global centre of excellence on fish health, and in the reception at Weymouth are probably the best-cared-for carp in the world. CEFAS is very influential on the deliberations and methodologies applied by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. Indeed, our current chief fisheries scientist, Carl O’Brien, is also vice-president of ICES and a leading authority in this area.

I remember going every year during the EU era to the December European Council, and CEFAS would often detect and have to correct errors made by the Commission services. DG MARE—the Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries—did not particularly welcome the fact that an agency from a nation state was correcting its errors, but it nevertheless accepted when it was wrong. Of course, CEFAS always offered advice in an understated, very British way, which made it as easy as possible for the Commission to deal with those errors.

My purpose in calling the debate is to encourage the Minister not to allow the concrete to set on the way we interpret the science, and to ensure in all the bilateral fisheries negotiations we have that CEFAS’s pre-eminent scientific knowledge is projected forwards and shapes not just the approach for negotiations with Norway or the European Union, but the methodologies taken by organisations likes ICES. The particular prompt for the debate was the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation highlighting to me a particular case of pollack in the Celtic sea.

In the EU era, there were three principal ways of assessing data-limited stocks. The first was taking a precautionary approach, which simply meant an arbitrary 20% cut on species where we had limited data—that is, not a full dataset to enable a maximum sustainable yield assessment. The second was a “use it or lose it” approach. Empirical evidence from the previous year’s catch would be used to say, “Well, if they haven’t caught it, it is probably not there.” The third was saying there should be a roll-over approach. In essence, that was an assessment that the stocks are probably in a good shape, so we should just leave it where it is and roll it over year to year until the evidence suggests otherwise.

Even when we were in the European Union, we ferociously resisted these arbitrary, unscientific approaches. To be fair to the European Union, it was not just something that it had made up; its approach often reflected ICES advice in some of these areas. For over a decade now, ICES has recognised that those arbitrary approaches are not fit for purpose. In fact, probably as long ago as five years ago, CEFAS identified and developed a superior methodology based on making the best judgment we could with the evidence we had. We termed it as using biomass trends to assess what the TAC should be with these stocks. It effectively meant having a moving average assessment of the stock and aggregating data across several different years to avoid sharp changes in the TAC in one direction each year, and each year the aggregate data would get more reliable. For a while, even in the EU, we actually got them to accept that this was a better way to approach things, and that is what we used to seek and usually secured at December Councils.

The thing that caught my eye in the press release from the CFPO was that it alleged that the Celtic sea pollack stock had been set under the old-fashioned “use it or lose it” methodology. There are lots of reasons why fishermen may not have caught fish—it could be that the market conditions were not right or that there was bad weather at the end of the year. That is why it is a wholly inappropriate basis on which to assess the health of a stock. My question for the Minister is, whatever happened to the work that CEFAS did on data-limited stocks and that biomass trend approach? Will he seek to reinvigorate that work or update Members here on what CEFAS is doing in this area? Most importantly, will he ensure that we use the soft power we have through pre-eminent scientific knowledge in fisheries to shape how not just the EU and Norway, but ICES approaches these difficult issues?

My right hon. Friend has taken the case study of Celtic sea pollack. Would he consider how his approach might also help solve the dilemma with southern North sea spurdog? I was on CEFAS Endeavour on Monday morning and saw its excellent work, so could he quickly help us out of our dilemma on spurdog?

I will be quick because I explained this earlier. My understanding—as a former Fisheries Minister, one’s knowledge decays over time and the existing Minister will have far more knowledge than me—is that there is at least some evidence now to make an assessment on spurdog. I do not know whether it is a full dataset to provide a MSY assessment. Nevertheless, a TAC has been set on that basis and I believe it is simply a parliamentary procedure to get a regulation in place to enable that TAC to take effect, but I am sure the Minister will have heard my hon. Friend’s question.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I am glad to see you in the Chair, rather than in the Chamber intervening and asking me awkward questions.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) for securing the debate. I recognise his huge contribution to the future of fisheries from his work at DEFRA with fisheries; I hope that future is rosy and bright. It is worth putting on record the efforts he went to and the improvements he made to that industry, which I know is grateful for all his past work.

I recognise that there is a huge amount of experience and knowledge within the Chamber, but there will be people at home who do not have the same depth of knowledge. I hope those present will forgive me if they recognise and understand some of the things I say, but it is important to set out where DEFRA is coming from and what we are trying to achieve.

It is tempting to simply say yes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth, as many of the things he said are accurate, but I can assure him that we are not slipping back into those old ways, which he may be nervous about. It is just a coincidence that the 20% figure, particularly on pollock, has been arrived at, but I will get to that later in the debate.

We recognise that the fishing sector is under huge pressure. It faces challenges over increased fuel prices and getting access to labour. We recognise the hard work that the fishing sector is putting in and we look forward to working with the sector to try to assist it on its journey.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide some further explanation on one important element of how we arrive at TACs—the total allowable catch. The definition of a data-limited stock comes from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth said. ICES undertake the stock assessments that the UK and its neighbouring states rely on to set TACs for the shared stocks. ICES categorises its advice on a scale of 1 to 6, based on the available data and type of assessment used to generate the advice. For stocks where there is insufficient data, it can use analytic stock assessments. Data-rich stocks are categorised as ICES category 1 and 2. Stocks where the available data and assessment techniques fall short of these standards are classified by ICES as categories 3 to 6 and are truly data-limited stocks.

How does ICES provide advice on data-limited stocks? Historically, ICES has provided advice on data-limited stocks by adopting a precautionary approach. That was implemented by applying a 20% decrease, as my right hon. Friend said, in advised catches where stocks are considered either at risk or their status is unknown. ICES continues to improve its advice on data-limited stocks, and those efforts have increased since 2011, when ICES recognised the need to standardise and refine the data-limited methods.

That means that the precautionary 20% buffer is still used by ICES but only in increasingly rare situations, as new approaches to stock assessments and advice have been developed. ICES also continues to consider if it can justify moving stock assessments out of the data-limited category. As data and methods are slowly improving, this has resulted in a steady increase in the number classified as categories 1 and 2.

Does the Minister share my frustration that after so many years monkfish is still regarded as a data-deficient species, given its very high value to the Scottish fleet?

It is easy to be critical of the data and science that are available to us. The right hon. Gentleman will know that fish move in the sea. It is not like counting sheep in a field; it is much more complicated than that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth identifies, fish predate each other, and a boom in one species can result in a diminishing number of another. We are trying to measure and get data on a constantly moving feast.

How do we approach data-limited stocks in international negotiations? From a fisheries management perspective, data-limited stocks can present challenges when it comes to deciding how to use the scientific advice produced by ICES in setting TACs. Since becoming an independent coastal state, the UK’s approach to developing TAC positions has evolved. We do not use any of the EU’s historical approaches, such as “use it or lose it”, as my right hon. Friend identified. Our approach is led entirely by our domestic policy framework, and the Fisheries Act 2020 objectives are our guiding light.

In the case of data-limited stocks, there are two Fisheries Act objectives that are particularly important: the scientific evidence objective and the precautionary objective. The combined objectives lead us to the position that our starting point for every stock is the ICES scientific advice, even when the data is limited. However, we of course consider each stock on a case-by-case basis, taking into account wider socioeconomic factors and the potential impact on the fishing industry of the decisions. That means that, for most data-limited stocks, we will advocate the application of the ICES-advised tonnage, but in particular cases we may depart from ICES advice because of those wider considerations.

One data-limited stock in particular—namely western pollack—has raised some questions, as my right hon. Friend identified, so I want to provide further information on that important stock. ICES produces a stock assessment for western pollack, but it is classified as category 4, and therefore the advice uses the ICES precautionary advice framework. The advised catch for 2023 was 3,360 tonnes, and that figure has been the same since 2019. Over that period, the total allowable catch has consistently been set much higher than that. However, a long-term downward trend in landings, which more than halved from 2016 to 2021, is a cause for concern about the state of the stock; it suggests the need for a lower TAC to prevent the stock from becoming over-exploited. The UK’s aim is therefore to bring the total allowable catch more in line with ICES’s advice. This year, a 20% cut was agreed with the EU for 2023, which follows on from the 15% cut negotiated with the EU last year. The size of the cut is a product of the negotiation process, but is not based on any particular rule or approach.

We have acted in several ways to support the improvement of the data on fish stocks. Through the fisheries industry science partnerships scheme, DEFRA has been directly encouraging applicants to tender for data collection activities. That has proved very successful: there are 12 large projects directly investigating and collecting data on data-limited stocks. That will mean that over 70% of FISP funding, which equates to over £5 million, will have been awarded to projects of that type. They include a 24-month project on data collection and research on pollack in the south-west. We are also working with the EU, through our Specialised Committee on Fisheries, to improve the management and support of the recovery of certain data-limited deep-sea stocks, namely roundnose grenadier and western red seabream.

Let me reflect on the UK’s overarching approach in setting advice in line with scientific advice, and conclude with some reflections on our broader progress in using science to set total allowable catches. As I explained earlier, our starting position in setting a TAC is that the best available scientific advice should be followed. That helps to ensure that key fish stocks are protected and supports the long-term viability of the UK fishing industry. We strongly champion that approach in our international negotiations, and this year we have made significant progress on the UK-EU bilateral negotiations. Overall in the UK-EU bilateral, we have achieved an estimated 13% increase in catch levels aligning with ICES advice, compared with last year. That is a huge improvement in the sustainability of what we fish. I am pleased to report that positive progress, but I recognise that further improvements are needed. We will therefore continue to work proactively with our industry, our scientific colleagues in CEFAS and ICES, and colleagues in the devolved Administrations, the EU, Norway and coastal states, to ensure that positive momentum is continued.

Will the Minister explain why EU fishers can catch spurdog and UK fishers still cannot? Why is there a delay in the UK allowing UK fishers to do so? How is it that we are now slower in allowing our fishers to catch that stock than we were when we were in the EU?

In the UK, we have a respectful democratic process by which we have to bring forward a statutory instrument. That statutory instrument is drafted and we are ready to roll with it, but we are waiting for business managers to find us a slot. We want to do that as quickly as possible to allow people to get out there and start catching spurdog. We have a great democratic process in the United Kingdom that holds people to account and allows people to object if they have a different view.

Can I come back on spurdog? I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for raising the matter. Off the East Anglian coast, the inshore fishermen who fish sustainably with long lines and nets cannot catch spurdog at the moment, but EU trawlers can. Does the Minister share my vision that we should have a fisheries management plan that embraces the ICES recommendation on limited-catch fishery for spurdog and enables local East Anglian fishermen, fishing responsibly, to catch it?

Our motivation is very much to allow this total allowable catch to be used, and we want to get on with that as quickly as possible. It is a new stock with a new quota. We want it to be done sustainably, and we want to get on with it. We will hurry up the democratic process to ensure that people who want to catch that species are allowed to do so.

There is a concern among fishers that this is the Government’s new modus operandi, and that UK fish policy will continue to be set a pace behind EU fish policy. Will the Minister set out an ambition to ensure that this Brexit delay in allocating spurdog catch will apply only to this species, and only this once? From now on, will Ministers ensure that any change in quota is pegged as much as possible to changes in EU quota so that our fishers do not suffer a disadvantage due to our new status as an independent coastal state?

I am conscious that this is turning into a spurdog debate, rather than the original debate. It would be worth somebody applying for a debate of that nature. Let me be absolutely clear: we have not been able to catch that species in the past. It is a new species and it requires a democratic motion to be passed through the House of Commons, and as soon as we have done that, we can get on with it. That is the right approach. We want to make sure we fish sustainably, and that requires that democracy takes its course so that people can scrutinise our decisions. I am very much aware of the desire to get on with this and allow our fishing industry to get on and catch this species. We will expedite that process as soon as possible. I will conclude there, and I thank colleagues for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.