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Shellfish Aquaculture

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023

[Julie Elliott in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered shellfish aquaculture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. As treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group for shellfish aquaculture, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak up for shellfish aquaculture across the United Kingdom and the businesses linked to it.

I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the UK’s aquaculture sector has long been overlooked and undervalued. A quick comparative glance at the various European oyster, mussels or scallop farms versus those of the UK shows that we are behind the curve in size and scale. Such a lackadaisical approach to aquaculture has dulled confidence in the industry and seen successive Governments fail to recognise the true potential of harnessing, working and using our coastal waters. If done right, we can help to create tremendous opportunities along the UK’s coastline and address some of the very real issues outlined in Professor Chris Whitty’s report on health and wellbeing in coastal communities, as well as countless reports on the aquaculture sector.

In accepting that more needs to be done and by addressing the bureaucratic red tape, improving our relationship with our friends and neighbours in Europe and ensuring the regulatory environment is a help, not a hindrance, we can create more jobs, boost local economies, support coastal communities, protect the marine environment and even enhance our coastal waters and play a part in sequestering carbon dioxide, as well as creating a sustainable food source that relies on little to no chemicals and addressing our food security concerns. Yet those successes are dependent on us changing our approach.

In the past seven years, UK mussel production has decreased by 60%—by 99% in Wales. In the past three years, UK oyster production has declined by nearly a third. That decline comes despite the Government’s best efforts to help through the fisheries and seafood scheme and countless other funds and initiatives that have been put in place over the past few years.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the woeful lack of attention received by the sector, which is important for communities such as the ones that I represent. Can I suggest that what we really need is Government and Governments who operate in the same direction? At the moment in Shetland, we have the Shellvolution project, which brings £4.4 million to develop low-carbon, sustainable mussel farming—something that is good for the whole of Scotland—and is funded by both the UK and Scottish Governments. At the same time, we have a consultation on highly protected marine areas that is focused almost exclusively on inshore waters, which was today described to me by a local businessman in Shetland as an existential threat to the industry.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know how hard he works on behalf of the aquaculture businesses in his area, but also that he sees the wider picture across the United Kingdom. He is absolutely right about the spatial squeeze that is closing out our fishermen and aquaculture businesses. I suspect that this will not be much of a debate; it may just be a moment of violent agreement across the House to talk about how we can work together to find a collaborative approach that allows us to grow the sector and bring enormous benefits to our coastal communities, and indeed to the sector itself. The right hon. Gentleman will find no disagreement with me on this matter and I will certainly come on to that point later on.

We need to change our approach to address the decline and recognise that we must be fleet of foot to not just save the sector, but build it up, develop it and let it become the success that we all know it can be. With the Windsor framework almost agreed, it should not be wrong to expect an improved relationship between the UK and Europe. If that is the case, we can rightly expect to take advantage of this situation and see to it that sectors that are so readily dependent on close-to-home export markets have the opportunity to address some of the problems they have experienced both at home and abroad.

I will point to specific examples both at home and abroad of where I believe we can take the necessary steps to help our aquaculture sector enormously. As a representative of south Devon, with one of the finest coastlines, I can tell you, Ms Elliott, that there are few delights as good as fresh oysters and a pint of Guinness. In fact, I invite you and the Minister down to south Devon, and, even more, I shall pay for lunch—I don’t know if this counts as bribery—to welcome you down any time you like to experience such a delectable combination.

The Chair of the International Trade Committee is more than welcome to come as well. On the basis of cross-party co-operation I am happy to invite the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), as well. However, this lunch, which is rapidly becoming more expensive for me, is conditional on addressing the problems facing the mighty Pacific oyster. For over 100 years, the Pacific oyster has existed in our coastal waters. In fact, in the 1960s, to mitigate the inability to farm many native species in certain parts of the United Kingdom, the Government reintroduced Pacific oysters to help expand and cultivate the aquaculture sector, so that we could grow a proper aquaculture industry.

The lack of clarity around the status of the Pacific oyster has held back the ability to farm it and benefit from its presence in our waters. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been absolutely clear in correspondence to me and the chairman of the shellfish aquaculture all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), that there is no doubt that Pacific oysters are a non-native species. We do not disagree with that point. However, given the prevalence of Pacific oysters, and the almost indisputable presumption that we will not be able to rid them from our waters, it is surely time for DEFRA to recognise that the Pacific oyster has become naturalised to the UK environment.

It is worth pointing out, but I am happy to be corrected on this, that in the guidance on section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, paragraph 18 states:

“A species would be considered to be ‘in a wild state’ where the population lives and fends for itself in the wild.”

If we were not farming them, those Pacific oysters would continue to exist in our waterways. Why not take advantage of what we have?

As the Minister knows, DEFRA has moved positively for those farming Pacific oysters south of the 52nd parallel. However, for those north of the line of latitude, the future looks desperate if not deathly. One only needs to consider the issues with Lindisfarne Oysters, which has been restricted from expanding by Natural England. North or south, east or west, the future of the industry is still in jeopardy because we are failing to be clear about the status of Pacific oysters in our waters.

The knock-on impact of the issue is that shoreline owners stop supporting the sector. I will give the very specific example of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has decided to phase out all Pacific oyster farms over the next two to three years on sites where they exist. It says the reason is that Pacific oysters remain classified as non-native and invasive. That decision alone will close three to four businesses in my constituency, and impact hundreds more across the country. It will also provide an example for other shoreline owners.

To compound the problem, Natural England has already issued advice to Natura 2000 sites, saying that it believes that,

“there should be no new pacific oyster farms and no expansion of existing ones should be allowed”.

Stopping the farming of Pacific oysters will not reduce or eradicate their presence in our waters, so why are we not taking advantage of the chance to build up the sector? To use comparative figures, the UK produces in the region of 3,000 tonnes of oysters while France produces 145,000—95% of which are Pacific oysters.

An hon. Lady from Cornwall—whose constituency I have totally forgotten—cannot be here but would make the point that in parts of Cornwall they do not want Pacific oysters to be introduced. It is important to put on record that the oyster farmers of Cornwall take a different approach.

As a neighbouring MP to Truro and Falmouth, which is the constituency my hon. Friend was seeking, I know that there is a wild native oyster fishery in that area. When it comes to the Pacific oyster, my understanding from my dealings while I was Secretary of State and Minister in this area is that there is an acceptance of triploid oysters, which are sterile and thus less likely to spread and have an impact. Is my hon. Friend aware that his constituents and businesses could use triploid oysters?

I am, and I am also particularly grateful for the work my right hon. Friend did during his time as Secretary of State for DEFRA. I thank him for reminding me about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), and for putting on the record what his oyster community is talking about.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but in parts of south Devon triploids do not work as well as Pacific oysters, and farmers there have a tried and tested method. That is where we have to be careful about the language we use. At the moment the language used by DEFRA is holding back the sector. It is not about saying that Pacific oysters are right for everywhere, but recognising that, where they already exist, there is a chance for us to create a community and an industry that could grow, develop and rival the size of France’s industry.

We are at odds with European countries, many of which have long since stopped trying to eradicate Pacific oysters and have accepted that they are fully resident and compatible. To avoid choking the industry out of existence, we need to look at how we can support and grow the Pacific oyster sector. That can be achieved in three rather quick ways.

The first is to create a new national policy that takes a realistic, pragmatic and holistic approach to the species and the benefits it can bring not just to biodiversity, but through a social and economic impact on coastal communities. We must question, even push back, against the all-too-often precautionary approach of Natural England. DEFRA, through the Minister, should use this new era—dawn, start, beginning, whatever we want to call it—to create an environment that returns the sector to its previous size, and to develop it.

Pacific oysters are only part of the aquaculture jigsaw. The export of live bivalve molluscs is also of the utmost importance. The changing relationship with the European Union has meant that the export of shellfish from class B waters has become far more complicated. Before we go into the weeds on that, I want to pay tribute to the Food Standards Agency for its work and co-operation with the sector in helping to prioritise and implement improvements to UK classification protocols. Since 2021, in England and Wales, class A areas of water have increased from 26 to 40, and seasonal class areas from 19 to 27. That is a significant improvement that should be welcomed.

I want to put on record my thanks to the Food Standards Agency, which has done so much to co-operate and engage with the APPG and my shellfish community, but significant improvement does not mean job done. Our attention must be directed towards creating stability and as much certainty as possible. Within the trade and co-operation agreement there are 18 specialised committees. Two of those, on sanitary and phytosanitary measures and on fisheries, are the conduit—the mechanism—for both sides to address grievances and technical issues, as well as to find solutions and harness improved trade and agreement between parties.

However, like most EU structures, they can be cumbersome and bureaucratic. The SC on fisheries has met only five times since 2020, and the committee on sanitary and phytosanitary measures has met only twice. Progress through those committees can be sped up. I politely ask the Minister to put his weight behind that request, and to raise the matter with his EU counterparts. Resolving trade frictions can be achieved through expedited measures. Although the SCs are a valuable avenue, they are by no means the only route to take.

Sort out the trade flows and we can reach new markets, and grow our oyster, mussel, scallop and clam markets far beyond their current levels. Engagement with our friends and neighbours can be only part of the strategy. We also need to look closer to home for what we can do. As already mentioned, the changing relationship with our neighbours has had an impact on trade flows, but our domestic legislation plays a significant role in holding back the growth of the sector, particularly the classification of harvesting waters.

The Minister will be aware of the Seafish report, “Review of the application of the Official Control Regulations for shellfish production as they relate to microbial contamination”. Once we are past that rather tricky title, it is a fascinating report comparing UK and European standards. The purpose of the report was to review the

“application of official controls across different EU member states and to identify the areas of deviation and flexibility that may exist.”

Bearing in mind that the United Kingdom wrote the rules when we were in the European Union, it should be a cause of concern to see other countries take a more flexible and agile approach to those rules. The report goes into forensic detail. In a response to a letter from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness, the Food Standards Agency said, in relation to that Seafish report, that it had

“prioritised working on improvements based on several proposals from the report such as: application of different tasting methods for classification results; use of industry sampling as part of official sampling records; reviewing the timeframe for reopening sites after high results; reviewing the relationship between investigative sampling results and the classification record.”

What correspondence has the Minister had with the FSA about the Seafish report? Is he able to share that with the House or put it in the House of Commons Library? Is there an update on the FSA’s progress on those points? It is fantastically good to hear that it is willing to look at the report and act on the recommendations, but we need an update, because many businesses have been waiting far too long.

All businesses in the sector—and all businesses generally—need certainty and stability. The comparisons and recommendations put forward by Seafish would go a long way to creating an environment of stability, thereby attracting investment and opportunities for the sector. The four proposals would not put us out of line or in contention with other countries in Europe. Indeed, they might see us become more aligned with many of their practices. Given that we now sit outside the EU and can act on a unilateral basis, I ask the Minister to push through the proposals as quickly as possible. Implementing the measures will not put at risk our harvest or humans consuming live bivalve molluscs, but will at least make the sector more flexible and able to respond to circumstances that are often beyond its control.

While changing the regulation and testing methodology can help, there is no substitute for simply improving our water quality. Despite some Opposition mischief and misdirection, I am hugely proud to have voted in support of the Government’s landmark policies to help clean up our rivers and coastal waters. Our Victorian-era network is creaking under ever more pressure from development and age, but our new laws have pushed water companies to invest a further £56 billion over the next 27 years and have set actionable targets that are punishable with hefty fines if not met. Those measures, without raising the costs on households, are set to bring our water network up to speed and ensure that waste water and sewage management plans are adhered to and delivered so that the public can have faith in our water companies to do what is right.

Through not just the Environment Act 2021 but the Agriculture Act 2020 and environmental land management schemes, we can help change habits to improve the quality of our waterways. If we bring farmers and fishermen together, they can help one another understand how what happens on land can have a huge impact on water quality far off the coast, impacting many aquaculture farms. Joining land and sea-based businesses in common cause and understanding will help improve biodiversity and protect our landscape and seascape for future generations.

I have several businesses in Totnes and south Devon in the aquaculture space, but the reality is I should have hundreds more. Perhaps the most effective case study is Offshore Shellfish—the largest mussel farm in the UK and, soon, Europe. Based out of Brixham and operating in Lyme Bay, it is an extraordinary success, despite immeasurable challenging circumstances facing the sector. In succeeding, it demonstrates just how much potential there is in the aquaculture sector. Offshore Shellfish has pioneered blue offshore food production and, in doing so, has been recognised internationally as being technically, scientifically and commercially 10 years ahead of any competitor in Europe. Indeed, it has already been contacted by the Dutch, the French, the Germans and the Irish to run trials and pilot schemes, showing just how viable and brilliant its model is and how brilliant British innovation in the sector can be. However, to attract long-term investors, the Holmyard family, who run that extraordinary company, need to be able to reassure investors about stable access to markets, strong and comparable testing regimes, good trade flows and clean waters.

My asks are perfectly simple. They are those of the APPG for shellfish aquaculture, so they are not new, but they come with a warning: failure to act now will condemn the sector. The Minister has the powers, ability and understanding to make the necessary changes. At the end of this not quite Chancellor-esque lengthy speech, I hope he will take the opportunity to take advantage of our new-found freedoms, use the agility of not having to consult 27 other countries and change our rules and regulations to unlock the huge potential of the sector. If he does, not only will he be a champion of the aquaculture sector—I know flattery gets you everywhere in this place—but he will effectively and meaningfully go a long way to help coastal communities level up, without having to use Government resources. The potential is there. The opportunity is there. I know how hard the Minister works on the issue, so I look forward to working with him.

Thank you for calling me in this important debate, Ms Elliott. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for introducing it. I will be taking a slightly different tack from him, because I represent Huddersfield —as you know, Ms Elliott—and the last anyone looked, it is not on the coast. I also chair Thames Renaissance, and although Huddersfield is not on the Thames either, I was born in Sunbury-on-Thames, and I went to Hampton School, which is on the Thames, and the London School of Economics, which is also on the Thames, so I have some credentials when it comes to water.

I also regularly visit coastal resorts such as Whitby in Yorkshire and Whitstable. They are both favourites of mine because they are places where people can enjoy the most wonderful surrounding countryside and the beautiful fishing that goes on there. Historically, people could also buy fresh fish, lobsters, crab, oysters and mussels in both resorts, take them home and have an absolutely brilliant feast made from something that is produced in our seas.

The reason I am speaking in this debate is that I am increasingly concerned that it is no longer possible to get fresh fish in Whitby or Whitstable. Mysteriously, it is no longer on sale, and neither are crabs. Indeed, the notices in those two resorts will say: “Everything here is imported”—all the crabs, all the oysters; everything. There is something really strange going on, and if I ask the restaurants that I have been going to for years, they say, “Oh, something’s gone wrong, guv’nor,” or maybe, “The sea’s warmed up.”

There is a real worry that something is going on in our seas and oceans, and I am particularly concerned. I have been interested in the marine environment for all of the 40-odd years I have been in Parliament. It is so essential, and I want to share with the Chamber something that really triggered my decision to be here. I also chair the Westminster Commission for Road Air Quality, which was taking evidence on air quality when suddenly one of the scientists said, “You know, a lot of nasty stuff comes off tyres and goes into the air, but the real pollution is what comes off tyres, stays on the road, and is washed into the gullies and ditches, and then into the streams and into the rivers and oceans.” He said that most people think that tyres are made of rubber. There is some rubber, but there are also 32 chemicals in the average tyre. Those 32 chemicals are very sophisticated, some of them are very related to cancer, and all over the globe—not just around our coast—they are flowing into the seas and the marine environment.

As Members know, there are other pollutants—microplastics and other things—but we have had all these years of pollution, and these particulates are particularly poisonous for marine life. I hope that today we can put on record that we all want a marine environment where oysters, crabs and lobsters can thrive. I might also throw in the fact that, as some of us who know something about the history of London will remember—I do not know whether there are any London Members here—there used to be all sorts of different things in the river that people could buy and catch. I have to admit, though, that I was surprised when hosting a birthday party for my granddaughter on the Terrace in the summer to peer over the side into the Thames and see three seals swimming by.

Does that say something about the quality of the environment in our river? I am not sure, but it is certainly true that eels have disappeared from the river. Where have the eels in this country gone? When I was a very young man at the London School of Economics, I used to go to Eel Pie Island on a boat—eel pie was a very important dish—to hear this anonymous group that I liked. I met the guy who started the group and used to go to hear them, before they had a name. Then this colleague of mine, a student at the LSE—well, his name was Mick Jagger—and his group got a name, and they performed as the Rolling Stones. What has happened to the eels and crustaceans in our marine environment? If there is one thing that I hope we can all agree on today, it is the serious poisoning effect all around our coast.

In his very good speech, the hon. Member for Totnes mentioned sewage. Even after being given enormous fines, Thames Water and Southern Water are still discharging tonnes and tonnes of sewage into our rivers, streams and seas. I am constantly pursuing Thames Water and the Environment Agency, which is very lax. So many of the places it should be monitoring around our coast, it is not monitoring efficiently and effectively, because it is under-resourced. This type of pollution, which is linked to cancer, will poison all of our marine environment. I hope we can do something about it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on obtaining this debate. I echo an awful lot of what he said. There is enormous potential for the expansion of shellfish production in the UK.

I want to talk specifically about my constituency and echo some of the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). Looking around the room, I see that we have representation from Devon and Cornwall, Yorkshire, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. I want to talk on behalf of Essex, where oysters have been cultivated since Roman times.

When I was first elected to this place, I had the honour to represent part of Colchester, so I used to attend the Colchester oyster feast, with oysters from Mersea Island. I have always represented Maldon, where the Maldon Oyster Company is based. I had the pleasure of visiting its new depuration and packing plant in Cock Clarks recently. Restaurants across the great city that we are in now frequently have Maldon oysters on the menu.

The Maldon Oyster Company is doing well. The oysters are grown in the Blackwater estuary, which is a category B water. It has only exceeded that once in recent times. Various explanations have been put forward for that, with suggestions that it is to do with discharges from houseboats or seabirds, but my constituents believe—this is where I follow on from the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield—that it is due to the level of sewage discharge, particularly from development that is taking place.

My area, like many represented here, is undergoing substantial extra housing development, which is putting ever-increasing pressure on the sewerage companies. In my case, that is Anglian Water. When I talk to the company, it tells me that it monitors and is compliant with the requirements of its permits, and it is fitting new discharge monitors; 70% of my constituency has been fitted, and Anglian is confident of reaching 100%. But part of the problem is that the contamination affecting oyster production is not subject to monitoring outside of designated shellfish waters and bathing waters. While part of the Blackwater estuary is a designated water, other parts where oysters are grown are not.

I recently held a public meeting in my constituency on the issue of the water quality in the Blackwater estuary. The hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned the Rolling Stones. I invited an old friend of mine to participate in the public meeting, who I think will be known to the Minister. He was known to me in his previous capacity as the lead singer of the Undertones, who I saw perform on several occasions. He has now become a strident campaigner on the issue of water quality. While I do not always agree with Feargal Sharkey, he is doing an important job in raising awareness.

My contribution this afternoon is to pass on the request from my constituents at Maldon Oysters that there needs to be more monitoring, not just in specified designated shellfish waters, of such things as E. coli and bacterial contamination, which is not generally monitored, and that priority needs to be given to investment in the processing of discharge, perhaps through UV treatment of discharges that are close to shellfish waters. At the moment, Blackwater continues to grow extremely popular oysters that are enjoyed around the country, but there is concern that, if development continues at this pace without additional investment to ensure that the water remains uncontaminated by bacteria, that could one day be put at risk. I echo the point about the importance of maintaining water quality, which is essential if this extremely important industry is to continue to thrive.

Thank you for calling me, Ms Elliott. I am pleased to be able briefly to highlight a few issues. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on his knowledgeable contribution. His delivery was almost as rapid as mine—although his abbreviations are much easier to understand. I thank him very much. I found out only this morning that the debate had changed, but when I saw it was on shellfish, I recognised right away—representing Strangford, as I do—that I could make a contribution on the subject.

DEFRA’s figures indicate that wee Northern Ireland, as I call it, produced more oysters than even England did in 2020, so it is important that we have an input in this debate. It is clear that this is yet another UK-wide fishing industry that needs improvement to balance the key goals of conservation and production.

Of course, the Minister knows that fishing and shellfish aquaculture is a devolved matter, but in Strangford we have a very active, thriving and economically viable industry, with Cuan Oysters. We have had it for a number of years—I cannot remember not having it in Strangford lough, to be truthful. I recognise the work that it does, the contribution it makes to the economy and the jobs that it creates.

I understand that the Department feels that it is inappropriate to develop a policy for a non-native species. However, I agree with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, to which the hon. Member for Totnes referred, that Pacific oysters are not harmful, that they in fact increase biodiversity and that they can benefit native oyster populations by acting as a settlement surface. Why should anyone want to change that? The hon. Gentleman was right in his request to the Minister to seek to have the position overturned.

Worldwide, oyster reefs are generally considered highly desirable habitats, and there are many projects under way to create or restore them. Whether native or non-native, the fact remains that all oysters are equally good for the environment; they clear waters of algae, remove carbon and nitrogen, and increase biodiversity. Again, why would we want to change that successful process? Indeed, oyster farmers control the accessible wild stocks in their areas, making use of the resource and reducing the visible population. There is a strong argument to be made that, if we continue to restrict the UK industry, it will not stop the spread of Pacific oysters.

The popularity of Pacific oysters is growing in the UK, as evidenced by the demand for them, and that cannot be ignored. There are areas where oyster festivals attract tourism and economic growth. Many things come off the back of what the hon. Member for Totnes said. I agree with the APPG that we need a national policy that is realistic and pragmatic and that takes a holistic approach to the species. We need a better understanding of what is before us.

Another issue that I wish briefly to touch on is—this will not surprise anybody—the dreaded EU bureaucracy. My goodness! We never get away from it, do we? I know that we do not in Northern Ireland—I will not get into the Northern Ireland thing at the minute; that is a matter for the future. It is necessary to purify shellfish after harvesting in UK waters, as many of the waters around our coast are not deemed clean enough for shellfish to be consumed directly after harvesting. However, following Brexit, the EU will only accept shellfish that are already safe to eat, so the UK industry can no longer export produce for purification, even though the waters are the same.

I cannot understand what the difference is. It is a bit like it was for us in Northern Ireland when the EU said that we could not bring in plants and seeds, when the soil was the same on 31 December as it was 24 hours later. That policy has meant a dramatic fall in shellfish exports, with many businesses unable to operate at all.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The EU reversed its earlier position when it came to the export of depurated live bivalve molluscs, which is really quite outrageous. It told the Government, in the latter part of 2020, that that trade could continue and that it would just draft a new certificate, and then it just changed its position, inexplicably, in February.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention; as always, he brings knowledge to the debate. That is part of the debate, and it is part of the evidence base that backs up the very point that the hon. Member for Totnes and others are making.

As with so many issues, that barrier to trade is not logical, but then when did anything logical come out of the EU? I say that maybe a wee bit cynically, Ms Elliott. There may be a few others here who agree, and there may be some who would say, “No, that’s not entirely correct.”

If the hon. Gentleman intends to talk about Huddersfield, I am not sure, but I give way anyway.

We will be divided on membership of the EU and the wisdom of leaving it, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that what we are debating—air quality, the marine environment and support for species—is something that we have to work with the rest of Europe on?

I stand corrected, Ms Elliott. Thank you for reminding us all of the real reason for the debate. The thing is that shellfish aquaculture is restricted by EU bureaucracy. The trade has existed for many years—it existed when we were in the EU and it exists now that we are out of it—and nothing has materially altered. That is the issue. There is no reason for the trade not to continue as it was before. Again, that is part of the issue.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is right: if we could work together honestly, pragmatically and reasonably to try to find a solution, then I would say, “Yes, let’s do that.” But we will not find the UK Government causing any difficulties; we have to put the ball at the toe of the organisation that is responsible. The Shellfish Association of Great Britain highlights that DEFRA does not agree with the current EU interpretation of the regulations and has raised the issue at the sanitary and phytosanitary committee, but to no effect.

The Minister knows that I respect him greatly. He understands issues very clearly, and I know that he understands this one. I have no doubt that he will get behind the shellfish aquaculture sector, and the Shellfish Association, to ensure that a solution is found. This is not about negativity; it is all about solutions, and the Minister is a solution-led Minister.

I urge the Minister to progress this issue as a matter of urgency. We have the resource—when I say “we”, I mean this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and that can be used to the benefit of everyone in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in England—the mainland—as well. To realise that benefit, we must utilise the resource more effectively, and that can happen only if we can find a solution. Let us hope that the EU will give us that solution so that we in the United Kingdom can work alongside it.

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); I have never done so before and it has been on my bucket list for a while. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this important debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on shellfish aquaculture and he is its treasurer. He is definitely the Dastardly to my Muttley, which makes him the more intelligent one.

The Chamber has heard from Members from Devon, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Essex and Northern Ireland—and is now hearing from me, a Cumbrian. My home looks out on to Morecambe Bay, where hundreds of small fishers operate. There is a large oyster farm off Walney, and in Barrow, quite surprisingly, we have one of the largest producers and conglomerators of live bivalve molluscs in the UK.

The sector is struggling, but it does not need to. There are huge opportunities; if it is managed well and given the tools it needs for growth, it could be a great British success story. It offers an almost unlimited and sustainable source of protein for us and for export markets. It offers a boon to our coastal communities—many of which, as we know all too well, are struggling—and it could be a guarantor of marine biodiversity. But it is hamstrung and held back. The tools to unlock it are within our grasp, and I urge the Minister to enable us to grasp them.

I would like to focus on three areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes has covered them all, but I have learned during my two and a bit years in this job that original thought does not get you anywhere in this place, so I will repeat them. The areas are live bivalve molluscs, highly protected marine areas and pacific oysters. If we can unlock those three, the sector will be flying.

I turn to live bivalve molluscs. We operate under the same water testing rules as the European Union, but many of our European friends clearly interpret them differently. The trade and co-operation agreement means that we are unable to export grade B live bivalve molluscs without their having undergone depuration. That holds back the sector tremendously—when I talk to them, businesses in my area say that it is what they are most concerned about.

Of course, we can build up our home-grown depuration facilities. In fact we do, and I am grateful to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for extending funding to some aquaculture businesses for that purpose. However, we really have to grip the core issue: the Food Standards Agency, which has taken an incredibly bureaucratic view of the testing regime. That is holding the sector back and has led to stagnation over the years. We have the same system and rules as elsewhere in Europe, but the UK interprets them the most strictly.

There is no evidence that our more restrictive system does any better in protecting public health. Given that measurements can change by the hour, the system of taking them monthly means that many fantastic local businesses are one bad measurement away from closure. That speaks to the really parlous state of the industry, and it needs to change. Our waters are not poor, but our system of measurement, and our ability and willingness to measure quickly, are poor.

We need to look at how our colleagues in Europe are interpreting exactly the same rules and to unashamedly copy them. Kingfisher Seafoods—the business in Barrow that I mentioned—supports about 100 family businesses in Morecambe Bay. The economic impact of failing to get this issue right will be devastating not just for that business, but for the 100 family fishermen, who have been operating for years.

The excellent Benyon review suggested that highly protected marine areas should not include commercial fishing. I strongly agree, but I do think that aquaculture businesses should be permitted to operate in them. Their inclusion in highly protected marine areas would aid biodiversity recovery as well as acting as an effective carbon sink. We should consider that closely; to my mind, it is a win-win.

The third point is about pacific oysters, which make up 95% of all UK-grown oysters. For some time they were classified as invasive but, as we have heard, they have become naturalised due to their prevalence. There is almost no chance of ridding our coastal waters of them and we would not want to. Our waters, of course, are linked to our European neighbours, who have correctly recognised pacific oysters as naturalised and started harvesting them. What is the result? As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, France’s aquaculture sector produces 145,000 tonnes per year, compared with our 2,680 tonnes. The delta is enormous. By simply looking at this in a different way, we can see the scale of the growth on offer.

If DEFRA were to recognise Pacific oysters as naturalised across the UK, businesses such as the excellent Morecambe Bay Oysters on Walney in my constituency would be able to scale up. Others that are currently at risk of closure would be able to continue to operate and to leave the parlous state they find themselves in now. If we do not grasp this issue and change the language and terms that this sector operates under, we risk many of the most innovative businesses in the UK closing within the next few years. We have it in our gift to enable a viable and sustainable aquaculture sector, on which thousands of new jobs could rely and which would promote biodiversity and offer considerable trade opportunities.

Although I am too cheap to copy my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and invite colleagues and the Chair to lunch, I would encourage them to take up his offer, because this is a story we should tell people about and that they need to learn about. It is a good news story waiting to happen. I hope the Minister will listen to the cross-party consensus on supporting this sector and help get things moving for it.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. Let me start by congratulating the fantastic hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). He has been one of the pivotal members of my trade Committee over the last number of years. I might have spoken wrongly —when I say my trade Committee, I mean his trade Committee, as he has guided us, shaped us, positioned us and pointed us in various directions. He has a natural enthusiasm, and I say with all sincerity that today he brought the fantastic enthusiasm he has as MP for Totnes to this debate. For that alone, he should be congratulated.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues that are very important and dear to my heart, and he has given me a fantastic opportunity to point out the companies that operate in my constituency. If he is looking to supplement the production of Devon with any other shellfish, he could look to Macduff Shellfish in Stornoway; Kallin Shellfish in Grimsay, North Uist; Barratlantic in North Bay, Barra; Kilbride Shellfish in Ludag, South Uist; Kilo Shellfish, which often buys razor fish for the far east market; Islander Shellfish in Stornaway; William Stewart, again in Grimsay, North Uist; or PDK Shellfish. Of course, I have to mention MacNeil Shellfish—not close cousins, but on the Hebridean islands we are often very related—Islay Crab, Sutherland Game & Shellfish, Norman Campbell, which does live shellfish for the export trade, and Hebridean Mussels, which is part of Loch Fyne Oysters. On Loch Fyne Oysters, I would gently say to Marine Scotland that it should look to help the company, which operates in my area, and to support the efforts it is making. When there are disputes, maybe one person being judge, jury and executioner is not the best way to proceed. I must also mention Raven Rock Sea Products, based in Lewis; Seaforth Mussels, in Scalpay, Harris; and Lewis Mussels, based in Lochs, in Lewis. While I am at it, I think I missed out Stellamaris Trading, Morrison Shellfish and Isle of Barra Oysters, which I am very indebted to for a number of points I will make later.

The hon. Member for Totnes touched on a number of things that have been echoed in my correspondence with Isle of Barra Oysters, namely the issue of Pacific oysters and the reality of their existence. Gerry MacDonald makes the very good point—I think somebody mentioned it in the debate—that it is not far from Cornwall to France, so any attempts on Pacific oysters will be in vain. They are important commercially. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the production of oysters—I think it was 3,000 tonnes in the UK and 145,000 tonnes in France. Gerry MacDonald tells me that 90% of that, or 130,000 tonnes, is consumed around the two weeks at Christmas in France and that the car producer Renault buy about 300 tonnes of oysters for staff. If anyone is looking for a job, they might want to go to Renault just before Christmas for a nice feed of oysters for Christmas dinner. Those are quite amazing statistics. France is, of course, a huge market for oysters.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) left no stone unturned—or no stone unrolling, given his mention of Mick Jagger. He made an important point about how interdependent different parts of environment are. The cars rolling around Huddersfield and everywhere else—I am not singling out Huddersfield—give off 32 chemicals from their tyres, which are inevitably washed into the oceans. That is a fantastic point, and we should dwell on it.

I misled hon. Members a little. I have a Bill going through the House at the moment on tyres. There are some higher-standard tyres that are better, so the Minister could make a real difference very quickly.

I utterly forgive the hon. Gentleman for using his intervention as an advertisement. After all, I mentioned many companies involved with shellfish in my constituency, so it is only just and right that he similarly uses the opportunity.

The right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) mentioned water purification, which has become an issue, particularly in recent years, since Brexit. He also mentioned a pop band: The Undertones. We have just left the “Rock Lobster” unturned—that is the only one we have left. We have certainly put every bit of music into this—the debate has gone almost like a symphony.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is never usually left out of any debate. I think I heard him ask when anything logical has ever come out of the EU. I do not know whether that was a criticism of Brexit. Did I mishear him? I definitely misheard him—I know what he was saying. The point is that the UK is now trading like a third country and will have the barriers that third countries have. The trade and co-operation agreement helps, but a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement would help further.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) is the chair of the very distinguished all-party parliamentary group for shellfish aquaculture. I am sure he relays his august position to all his constituents in his constituency correspondence. If I am not a member, can I make an application?

Thank you. Reflecting the tone the hon. Member for Totnes took in his speech, my application has been expedited in record time.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness said that original thought in Parliament does not seem to get us anywhere, but I think he may be wrong when it comes to some areas of aquaculture. More power to his elbow as he carries on that noble pursuit.

Scotland’s mussel production increased by 52%, to 8,590 tonnes, between 2020 and 2021, and oyster production was up 70% in the same period. Combined, their value was £9.8 million—up 61%. That is a success story. It is also a success story in this particular form of aquaculture. Oysters are kept in protective cages, as I have seen myself at Isle of Barra Oysters, and mussels hang from ropes, feeding on what passes by in the sea. In fact, they clean the sea, in many ways.

I am very much indebted to Gerard MacDonald of Isle of Barra Oysters, who said that Brexit has made export more difficult for him, and the import of specialist equipment more expensive. That is a very interesting point. He feels that Brexit has damaged the industry, limited prospects for expansion and hindered jobs in rural areas. He pointed out that Renault took much of the production. He said that France has huge production, but it imports a lot from Ireland, the Netherlands and England. He also points out that the Irish are now selling an awful lot of oysters directly to China at very good prices. He says that the cash is good for oysters from Ireland to China. We can learn from what is going on there, especially at this time of Brexit. Whether we are inside or outside the EU, that should not hamper our exports to China.

I am anxious to hear what the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and the Minister have to say in reply to the hon. Member for Totnes, and I want to leave him time to wind up. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak, Ms Elliott.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate, on his introduction and on his account of the issues facing those working in aquaculture. I suspect I will cover much of the same ground, although possibly in a slightly different order and with a slightly different take on one or two points. I am, as ever, grateful to those working in the industry for their advice. In particular, I thank Mike Cohen of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and David Jarrad of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain.

I hope the Minister will address four key issues. The first, unsurprisingly perhaps, is water quality and the Government’s continuing failure to clean up our water. I very much enjoyed the observations from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). The issue, of course, goes way beyond aquaculture. I am sure the Minister will be disappointed to hear that I am not going to re-rehearse all the arguments now; they are, I am sure, very familiar to him and his colleagues. With the recent heavy rainfall, we are once again seeing huge quantities of human effluent being pumped into the seas, including into shellfish areas, which are supposed to have mandatory protection, whether that is under the water framework directive or the legislation that we carry forward. That is unacceptable and it directly impacts fishermen and their livelihoods.

The right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) made that point very persuasively, and I heard it directly myself when I went to West Mersea last year. The shellfishermen were clear that it was an all-too-regular occurrence that effluent discharged into the sea and meant they had to stop work. That has a direct cost for them, and it would be an avoidable one if water companies had invested in improvement rather than pouring out money to shareholders.

The point was picked up by Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), when she visited the Fal Oyster Ltd fishery at Mylor in Cornwall last year. She told ITV News at the time:

“We just can’t afford to lose industries like this. It is about the heritage of Cornwall, it’s about what makes this place so special not just to people in Cornwall but to people all around the country. We need to hear and heed the warnings of fishermen here in Cornwall who are worried about water quality, who are worried about the impact that’s having on their ability to sell their produce here and abroad.”

She was absolutely right. I suspect that she is probably quite busy at the moment, but I ask the Minister to tell us what assessment the Government have made of the impact of poor water quality on the aquaculture sector.

If that is a relatively well-rehearsed discussion, the second issue is probably less familiar to those outside this room. It is the Government’s attitude to Pacific oysters. The industry view is pretty clear, and its call that we should “love them” makes a strong case that they are good for farmers, the consumer and the environment. Its case is that, with a low-carbon footprint and with no requirement for external inputs, the cultivation of the Pacific oyster represents a sustainable method of producing high-quality marine protein while providing employment and economic activity in coastal communities.

Of course, not everyone agrees—we have heard observations on this from other communities—because it is not a native species. Natural England and others are concerned about the impact on the marine environment. They say that feral populations of Pacific oysters have become established in Natura 2000 sites, sites of special scientific interest and marine conservation zones. They say that monitoring conducted between 2012 and 2017 in the south-west showed a large increase in Pacific oyster density. There are concerns that colonisation by the species will have a negative effect on the designated intertidal features of these protected areas. They say that that has already contributed to some sites declining into unfavourable condition, because of the alteration of the biotopes and therefore the loss of original biotopes that make up the protected habitat features within marine protected areas. They say that if populations are left unmanaged, the expansion of dense Pacific oyster populations will most likely reduce the extent of habitat features at the sites and could reduce species richness and change community composition, as well as the diversity of biotopes making up the habitat.

Therefore this is not a simple or straightforward issue. The industry argues—again, we have heard these points made—that with warming of the seas, attempts to cull the Pacific oyster are, frankly, unlikely to be successful, so it is better to manage and farm it. Although indigenous to western Pacific coasts, it is nowadays the world’s most globalised shellfish, with cultivation occurring in more than 50 countries. It provides high-value crops in all continents. In Europe, production in France, Ireland and Spain dwarfs that in the UK. As we have heard, production in France is in the region of 100 times that in Britain and attracts significant Government support.

The industry is therefore unhappy that the UK Government seem to stand alone in Europe in acting against the species. David Jarrad, chief executive of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, writes:

“Do we actually want a UK oyster industry? For too long, the government has been sitting on the fence, and the failure of successive governments to deliver a consistent national approach is leading to poor conservation outcomes, as well as hamstringing our oyster growers…It’s time to get priorities straight, with proper leadership on this issue.”

There is the challenge to the Minister—the call for proper leadership.

The third issue, which returns us to more familiar ground, is the classification of harvesting waters. I was interested in the comments from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), but I promise I am not going to go there. We do things in a different way here —gold-plating, as the industry argues, compared with the way EU members do things, even though we supposedly work under the same legislation.

The Shellfish Association of Great Britain tells me that there is no evidence that our more restrictive system does any better than other countries’ more permissive ones. Our system is based on taking one sample a month from waters that change on an hourly basis because of tidal flows. I am told that it has been shown that one sample is often entirely different from another sample taken from the same place at the same time. The test method has been shown to be more variable and less accurate than other approved test methods. The association argues that the system needs to be changed, to be more in line with other countries, so our industry is not disadvantaged.

I hear those points and have considerable sympathy with them. Again, we heard reference to the work of the Food Standards Agency. I would be grateful if the Minister gave his take on what the FSA has done so far, and what more can be done. Of course, safety always has to be highest priority, but it is fair to ask why our fishermen are being held to higher standards than their competitors. What is stopping him levelling the playing field?

I always defer to my hon. Friend as the Member for Cambridge, expecting him always to know everything about everything scientific. Could he tell me whether there is evidence that we are overfishing oysters? Is there a decline in stock? Should we stop? I have given up red meat. Should I also give up oysters?

I am terribly sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend: I do not know everything about everything. I would not pretend to do so, and must go away to seek advice on that question. I suspect that the Pacific oyster is plentiful, and there is plenty of opportunity to make more of it. I do not suggest that he needs to give up.

The long list of companies from my constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar that I read out would encourage the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to eat oysters and mussels, as well as a variety of other shellfish. I would also like to mention an advertisement that I missed out, which is that they are operating in class A waters probably all year round.

I am grateful for the intervention. Finally, I return to a familiar theme, which we discussed at length in the Chamber with the previous Secretary of State: trade with the European Union. Since Brexit, we have lost our main market for live bivalves, as it is now much harder to sell them from class B sites. As I recall, it was such a difficulty initially that the Government offered short-term help, while, as we have heard today, blaming it on the European Union.

I am sorry, but I will be brief. It is worth being clear on this, because there is not a broad amount of disagreement in this debate. We have not lost that market. Current export figures are going in the right direction. It is a case of our saying that more work needs to be done. Exports are reaching that market; it is not “lost”, as the hon. Gentleman termed it.

Well, it seems to me that there were some who lost their businesses at that time. I do not think we should shy away from that. I would like to hear from the Minister what has happened over the past couple of years, and what is being done to secure a negotiated solution, to reinstate that trade, which had been possible over many years.

In conclusion, the aquaculture sector is one with considerable potential. Labour will sell, make and buy more food here. That is good for food security, for jobs and, I would argue, for the local environment. More will be produced locally, and we will expect the public sector to source at least 50% of food locally.

It is hard to disagree that the fishing sector more widely felt let down after the many promises that were made to them about Brexit. The reality was much more bureaucracy, much more cost and, in some cases, the end of business. One of my first visits as a shadow Minister was to King’s Lynn, where I met a processor who told me just how much extra work had to be done, contrasting the single form they used to fill in with the pile of manuals detailing how they need to proceed today. I have to admit that he cheerily told me it would all be worth it. I admired his pluck and optimism, but whatever one’s view on the issue today, I hope the Minister can explain what he and his Department are doing to reduce that bureaucratic burden, so that our fishermen can do what they do best, which is feed people, rather than fill in forms.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. We have had a wide-ranging debate, from Brexit to car tyres to pop stars. I fear that I cannot compete with some of the connections my colleagues have in that sector, although I have to put on record my connections to both Michael Jackson and George Michael, which go right back to the 1980s, when I first bought their records. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate. His efforts and those of other members of the APPG for shellfish aquaculture are very much appreciated, and I thank all those who have made valuable contributions to the debate.

Aquaculture is a vital part of the United Kingdom’s seafood industry, and shellfish aquaculture in particular holds an important place in our coastal communities. It supports local economies and provides sustainable, healthy, low-carbon food. The Government support the sustainable, industry-led growth of shellfish aquaculture. However, as Members have noted, there are challenges facing the sector.

Let me start by looking at export issues. The Government continue to challenge the restrictions imposed by the European Union on the import of live bivalve molluscs. It is my belief that the EU’s decision only to import live bivalve molluscs that are already fit for human consumption is unjustified. It does not align with the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement. DEFRA continues to push the EU on this issue. We do not expect the EU to change its position any time soon, but we will continue to push it as robustly as we can.

My recollection is that the EU basically used an animal health certificate and just changed the wording to preclude live bivalve molluscs, so it probably does not require a legal change from the EU; it simply needs the EU to draft a particular type of export health certificate that would accommodate live bivalve molluscs. Given that there has been a slight thawing in relations with the EU following the discussions on Northern Ireland, does the Minister think this is something the chief veterinary officer could broach again?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work he did as Secretary of State. I do not want to over-promise—I would rather over-deliver—but I recognise what he says about the changing relationship with the EU. Now that we have resolved the challenges with Northern Ireland, we are into a new phase of co-operation and working with our friends in the EU, and I hope we can continue to raise the matter with them and find a suitable conclusion that will help businesses up and down our coastline to export great-quality products to the EU as soon as possible.

Would it not be better if we consumed more of our own oysters, rather than exporting them? I always thought oysters were rather boring in this country, and when I went to New Orleans, I realised that they can do wonderful things with oysters there. Is it not about time that some of our chefs made oysters more interesting on the menu?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the political trap of a Minister saying, “Let them eat oysters”, which I hope not to fall into. UK food producers in general, not only in the shellfish sector, are producing some of the highest-quality food anywhere in the word. We consume great amounts of that in the UK, but there are also opportunities to export at the same time. We should consume more UK-produced food as well as exporting to our friends around the world.

The Minister and I go back quite a long way, and have had tug o’ wars in the Commons in the past. The hon. Member for Huddersfield makes a serious suggestion. While the Minister was right to point out the dangers of being trapped by a headline in the paper, far too often, good food production is overlooked—in the west of Scotland, as I have mentioned, and in other places in the UK. It is even overlooked in the House of Commons. We cannot see production anywhere near this Palace, and if we cannot have it in Parliament, where can we have it? We should have it everywhere, and everyone should know about it and talk about it. It is a serious point, although I do see the media trap of raising it, as the Minister expertly pointed out.

I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that if he talks to the catering team in the House of Commons, he would find that they are very good at procuring UK-produced and locally produced food. If he goes to the Tea Room this afternoon, there is a fish pie on offer that I encourage him to partake in. It may well have Scottish fish in it.

Turning to shellfish classifications, yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Susan Jebb, the chair of the Food Standards Agency. The FSA is a non-ministerial Government Department responsible for its own policies. I can report that the FSA is committed to delivering official controls that are pragmatic and proportionate while supporting the shellfish industry to thrive. The FSA will continue to work collaboratively with the industry to prioritise and implement improvements to shellfish classification protocols. It is a complex area, and it will take some time.

In making improvements, the FSA is drawing on Seafish’s 2021 review of the application of official control regulations for shellfish production across the globe. To illustrate the impact of what the FSA has achieved in this respect, since 2021, changes made to the shellfish classification system have increased the number of class A areas in England and Wales from 26 to 40, and seasonal class A areas from 19 to 27. That means the EU market remains open to an additional 22 business, without increasing risk to human health. Ultimately, the classification of shellfish waters is dependent on the water quality, which is why DEFRA’s ongoing work to improve water quality in England is so important.

Most English shellfish harvesting sites are class B. Water industry investments of nearly £200 million in improvements to assets that affect shellfish waters in England between 2000 and 2020 have prevented deterioration. We are looking for more improvement opportunities. Through collaboration with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain and the Environment Agency, DEFRA has identified 63 priority shellfish areas, where water quality improvement is considered feasible. We have asked water companies to make improvements in those areas and we expect to see this reflected in their plans.

The Pacific oyster is an important species for the shellfish aquaculture industry in England. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes contests its invasive, non- native status and has argued for the species to be considered naturalised. At present, Pacific oysters are classified as a non-native species in UK waters and are currently considered to be invasive. Evidence from Natural England suggests that they can alter habitats and ecosystems through reef formation, which can displace native oysters and have a negative impact on native biodiversity.

I am aware of the length of time that Pacific oysters have been in UK waters. I am keen to understand more about their impacts and benefits, and possible mitigations. As such, I will seek to meet with officials, regulators and scientists in the coming weeks to explore the matter further. DEFRA’s policy position on Pacific oysters and the expansion of the industry was shared with the shellfish aquaculture APPG in August last year. I am happy to share with Members the fact that the Department seeks to balance economic and environmental considerations.

In short, north of 52° latitude, where it may be possible to reduce the rate at which Pacific oysters spread by limiting human assistance because they are currently less prevalent, DEFRA does not support the expansion of the Pacific oyster farming industry. However, DEFRA recognises that some Pacific oyster farms have operated in this region for many years, and to reduce the risk that the farms can pose to nearby MPAs, DEFRA supports regulators in the introduction of mitigating authorisation conditions where necessary. South of 52° latitude, both new applications and existing farms will be considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the impact on MPAs.

On support for the industry, it remains possible to export LBMs from class B waters to the EU, provided that they have been depurated prior to export. As well as working to improve water quality and free up trade, DEFRA has provided significant financial support to help LBM businesses continue to export and develop new markets. Under the fisheries and seafood scheme, DEFRA has supported the sector with over £600,000 in grants to 15 projects involving the construction or purchase of tanks for the depuration of LBMs. It also remains possible to farm Pacific oysters, and many businesses continue to do so very successfully.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Given the earlier mention of oysters, mussels and filter feeders, I am not clear what impact they have on MPAs. I know that there are always bureaucrats and people who call themselves conservationists with plenty to say on the issue, but they are usually more a hindrance than a help. I struggle to see what the impact is, and I would be grateful, if it is obvious, if the Minister could tell us. If not, he can write to us.

It is about reef formation and whether the reefs that are formed from those oyster communities have an impact. I am not saying that they do have an impact on marine protected areas; what I am saying is that we want to continue to monitor that to ensure that they do not have a negative impact on those marine protected areas.

In summary, it is clearly a difficult time for the industry. His Majesty’s Government recognise the challenges that shellfish farmers face, and we will continue to work with the industry to address them. We have already set out how we can assist and how we are trying to help. However, we ask the industry to think seriously about its business models and how it can best adapt its operations to meet post-exit trading conditions and ensure its own long-term survival. As I noted at the start of the debate, aquaculture is a vital part of our seafood industry. I want it to thrive over the next few years, and I will continue to liaise with colleagues, help and support the industry, and move forward together.

This has at times been quite a weird and tangential debate but, as I think I said in my opening remarks, it has not really been a debate—it has been a moment of violent agreement about the fact that we all recognise the opportunity for the sector and the fact that there is work that can be done. Let me sum up in a few ways.

First, I encourage all Members here to join the all-party parliamentary group on this topic. It is trying to push the right agenda—one that works with the industry. Secondly, I encourage Members to attend the Shellfish Association of Great Britain conference on 6 and 7 June—they would all be very welcome—in Fishmongers’ Hall. It would be extremely interesting to hear how the Minister gets on with the chief veterinary officer on export health certificates and how the piece of legislation that will digitise our trade documentation would allow that to work. There is an opportunity for us to reshape the document that we use for global trade and trade with the European Union, which is important.

Thirdly, we would be very interested in hearing how the Minister gets on with officials regarding Pacific oysters and the progress he makes on that. The problem that I have at the moment is that they have been here for 100 years. Go to an oyster farm, mussel farm, scallop farm or clam site; pick up a rope of mussels—all that falls off is plankton, crab and small larvae of sorts. It is unbelievably enthusing and impressive to see the positive impact that that has on biodiversity. Finding a way to allow that to work with marine protected areas and highly protected marine areas would be of huge benefit, and would give a very strong signal to the industry. I hope that the Minister will listen on that.

We are grateful for the Minister’s time. The opportunity is now. We have all raised these issues before, and we will strengthen his arm in whatever way we possibly can to make this a success and help the industry to grow.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered shellfish aquaculture.

Sitting suspended.