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Zero Total Allowable Catch: Pollack

Volume 747: debated on Monday 11 March 2024

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this debate to the House. The subject might be considered fairly niche, but it is incredibly important to many people in my constituency and across Cornwall. It was suggested my opening line should be, “Never mind the pollacks—here’s the Adjournment debate,” but of course I could not possibly say that.

I begin by thanking the Minister. I am grateful to him for responding to the debate. He has been willing to engage and meet with colleagues who have sought to raise concerns about the issue over many weeks. I thank him for his engagement—I hope it will not end now—as he has been working with us to find a solution to the challenge. He is aware that the decision to have zero total allowable catch for pollack, which was made in December and took effect from 1 January, is damaging the livelihoods of many fishermen in Cornwall.

It is estimated that upwards of 40 boats that either operate out of or land their catch in Mevagissey, Newquay and Fowey, in my constituency, rely on pollack catch for a significant amount of their income. As has been reported by the media, the Hunkin family have said that they stand to lose around £200,000 this year alone from the decision to have zero quota for pollack, which represents about two thirds of their total revenue.

In fact, the issue affects fisheries across Cornwall. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), boats would operate from Padstow and Port Isaac, and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), boats would operate from Looe, Polperro, and, in the far west, Newlyn. The decision is having a serious impact. Although pollack is caught from many ports around the UK, the decision has had a disproportionate impact on the inshore fishing fleet that operates out of Cornwall.

We all accept that the recommendation by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas that pollack should have a zero quota put Ministers and officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in an incredibly difficult position. After that recommendation was made, it would have been very difficult for the UK not to go along with it. We all acknowledge that. However, as a result of that decision, many fishermen had their ability to make a living taken away overnight. To put that in perspective, the 570 tonnes of pollack quota that was available to vessels operating from Cornish ports represent a loss of £2.3 million to the Cornish economy.

That loss impacts not only fishermen, but supply-chain businesses that serve and support the fishing industry. The harbourmaster at Mevagissey, Andrew Trevarton, has estimated that the loss of pollack quota will result in a loss of 20% of Mevagissey harbour’s income, and there is no prospect of an easy way to replace that income. It is difficult to overstate how important having a thriving, operating fishing port at Mevagissey is to the economy of that village. It attracts about 800,000 visitors every year, largely because it is a living, operating fishing port—not a museum, but a thriving part of the fishing industry in Cornwall.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I spoke to him beforehand. As he rightly says, issues with pollack fishing seem to be more prevalent in the south-west. In Northern Ireland, we do not have the same concerns. Despite that, allowing certain fish to be caught only as bycatch is impacting the livelihoods of local fishermen. Does he agree that if these issues start to arise further afield than the south-west—for example, in fishing ports in Northern Ireland—and the Minister tonight decides to assist the hon. Gentleman, the same grants and opportunities should extend to all areas of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

The case that I am making is on a very specific issue: the impact on a specific part of our fishing industry of the removal of the pollack quota at such short notice. We all want a thriving fishing sector right across the United Kingdom. We want fishermen and businesses that support the sector to thrive and be profitable right across the UK. We need policies that enable that to happen, but what we face in Cornwall and other parts of the south-west is very specific. It relates to the short timeframe in which vessels and fishermen must adapt, because the quota went from 1,500 tonnes to zero virtually overnight.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour on securing tonight’s much-needed Adjournment debate. One fisherman said to me that it is as though his right leg has been amputated, and he must now get through the rest of the year on crutches, until we can find a way through this situation. Does my hon. Friend agree that all the options that we have been offered so far mean only a displacement to different species and ways of catching fish, and will therefore not be of any help to the long-term prospects of the fishing industry in Cornwall?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for making the very next point that I was going to come to. One of the suggestions that has been made to the fishermen who have been affected by the decision is that they can switch to targeting other species. That is simple to say, but not that simple to do, partly because of the lack of time. There was no lead-up to the decision; there was literally two weeks’ notice. To switch to catching other species, fishermen need different equipment, and for much of it, there is a lead time of several months before it can be delivered. As my hon. Friend says, switching to a different species simply displaces the catch of other vessels. The vessels that work hard targeting that other species will then have to reduce their catch, and perhaps look for something else, which will also have a knock-on effect. While I appreciate the sentiment that these fishermen need to catch something else, it really is not that simple. Certainly, it is unrealistic to expect that to happen when they have had such a short timeframe in which to adjust.

There are real concerns and questions about the data on which the decision was made. It is accepted that pollack stocks were diminishing, and quotas were being reduced for some time, but what shocked the industry was the decision to go suddenly from 1,500 tonnes to zero at once, when previously quotas have dropped by a few hundred tonnes a year. As we understand it, the data has largely been gathered from the catch of trawlers, but it is well understood that the main place where pollack can be found and caught is on reefs and wrecks, where trawlers cannot fish. There are real questions about the accuracy of the data that has been used to make the recommendation, and whether it is based on the reality of the stock of pollack that is available.

The fishermen I have spoken to are incredibly frustrated—some are even angry—because for several years they have been saying to the Marine Management Organisation, “We are concerned about pollack stocks, and therefore we would like an increase in the minimum catch size, an increase in the mesh size for the nets or a closed season for one or two months a year to protect the stock so we don’t have to take this drastic action”—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

When those fishermen put that to the MMO, it said, “Oh, there’s no need for that. We are not concerned. We don’t think those measures are necessary.” But it looks like the fishermen were right all along, because if these measures had been brought in gradually over the past few years, we may have had sustainable quota for pollack without this sudden drop to zero.

I know the Minister has been looking at ways to support those who have been affected severely by this decision. I welcome the steps he has taken, the work he has been doing and the measures he has brought forward through the fisheries and seafood scheme to expedite applications from those who have been affected by the reduction in pollack stock to help them diversify. That is very welcome, but will he clarify the letter sent out on 23 February, which said the scheme will be available to all those affected by the reduction in pollack quota, including netters? The press release that went out later that day seemed to suggest it was only available to handliners and boats under 10 metres. If the Minister could clarify exactly who the expedited FaSS is available to, that would be welcome.

I can do that while my hon. Friend is on his feet. I was trying to establish a priority list, so boats under 10 metres and handliners will be prioritised over boats over 10 meters and those that are netting. That does not mean those boats are excluded; it just means that we will prioritise the others.

I am very grateful to the Minister. It is very helpful to have that clarification.

The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science—I will call it CEFAS, which is a lot easier to say—is working with fishermen to gather accurate data about the current stocks of pollack, which will hopefully inform future decisions. Paying fishermen who have lost their catch due to this decision to gather data is very welcome, but we should acknowledge that the scheme will assist only a relatively small number of vessels. Both schemes are welcome, but they do not go far enough and will not help anywhere near the number of boats that have been affected or mitigate the losses that are being experienced.

We need to focus on two things. First, we must help and support now those who have been so badly affected by this decision, and protect their livelihoods in the immediate future from the loss of income that they experienced virtually overnight with no time to prepare. Secondly, we should lay out a pathway to return pollack quota sustainably as quickly as possible.

I urge the Minister to prioritise work with the specialised committee on fisheries, where I understand that the UK and the EU will be discussing pollack as a priority topic later this month. This is the first chance to review the data and make requests of ICES for refinement of the science and management, particularly of recreational fishers. As the Minister knows, that is a real concern of many commercial fishermen: there seem to be no restrictions or regulations around recreational fishers when it comes to pollack. Those fishermen want to see the UK engaging robustly and confidently as the independent seafaring nation that we are, and to make the most of that opportunity. I also understand that the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation has a meeting with DEFRA and CEFAS later this month, ahead of the SCF meeting. I hope the Minister and his officials will take that opportunity to really listen to the concerns of our fishing representatives and understand the impact that this decision is having, and to work with them to find a way forward.

What we need is urgent help now. Fishermen have lost a major part of their income overnight through no fault of their own. They have ongoing business costs, mortgages to pay and families to support, and it is unrealistic to expect them to adjust at such short notice—they really need some help now. I urge the Minister to continue to do all he can to find a way of getting help to those fishermen as soon as we can, and to work with fishermen in Cornwall and elsewhere towards seeing a pollack quota return as soon as possible, so we can have sustainable fisheries for pollack going forward. I thank the Minister again for all he has been doing. I look forward to his response to this debate, and I will continue to work with him and colleagues to find solutions to these challenges, to help the fishermen I represent and to ensure they have a viable future.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), not only for tonight’s debate but for the work he continues to do to support his constituents. I also put on record my recognition of the efforts of my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) and for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who have been equally tenacious in their pursuit of support for their constituents.

To begin with the scientific advice, back in June 2023, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas provided advice that the total allowable catch for pollack in western waters for 2024 should be set at zero tonnes for the first time. This followed a benchmark for pollack—a process whereby assessment methods for a stock are reviewed and best available methods are selected. That benchmark led to a change in the assessment from a data-limited method, which was mostly reliant on landings data only, to a category 2 assessment that includes fisheries survey data. The recent benchmark suggested that the stock went below safe biological limits in 2015-16. The ICES advice received in June 2023 is the best available scientific advice, and was the basis on which DEFRA negotiated a EU-UK bycatch TAC of 832 tonnes. That bycatch TAC aims to avoid choking other healthy fisheries in the south-west, where pollack is caught; however, it does not allow vessels to target pollack. I recognise the difficulties that that is causing, particularly for those who predominantly target pollack and have done for some time.

In addition to securing the bycatch of pollack, my Department has been working hard to find ways to assist and support those most affected, while of course keeping the long-term sustainability of the fishery in mind. With that in mind, on 23 February, we announced the reopening of the fisheries and seafood scheme, which is providing up to £6 million in funding to support projects in a variety of areas, including health and safety, processing and—importantly—business diversification. We are also expediting FaSS applications for hand and pole line fishers on under 10 metre vessels, bringing the application processing time down from eight weeks to four weeks. That will mean that we will be able to get support to the most affected the quickest.

In addition, on 23 February I announced that affected fishermen will have the opportunity to take part in a new scientific study led by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. This study will see a collaboration between scientists and fishermen to increase our understanding of the stock structure of pollack. Fishers will be engaged in the project to collect generic samples from around 3,000 pollack, receiving payments for initial training and participation. They will still be able to sell at market the pollack they have caught as part of that study. Applications, along with detailed eligibility criteria, will be open as soon as possible, encouraging the most affected pollack fishers to apply for that study.

I welcome the Minister’s announcements on 23 February, but did he see the comments made by Andy Read in Fishing News, where he asked a very salient question: could this not all have been predicted and could it not have been done earlier?

We do of course continue to monitor fish stocks, and we do follow ICES advice. It is a fair criticism that we have seen a decline in pollack over many years—over the last 20 years—but certainly the ICES advice continued to recognise that pollack could be caught until last June, when we were forced into the position where we had to take action. I am truly sorry for the impact that is having on the fishermen who have relied on that stock. We want to follow that advice to the best of our ability to try to recover that stock. I want fishermen to be able to catch pollack in those waters, so we do need to manage it in the most responsible way possible.

I genuinely thank the Minister for his continued engagement on this, which really is very much appreciated. He may like to know that, following his announcement a couple of weeks ago on the schemes he was presenting, I wrote to the Chancellor to ask him for a bit more in the budget—not in the Budget we have just had, but in the budget—to help the Minister with a scheme he might have. We really do need some financial support for these guys now. It really is critical.

Once again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tenacious pursuit of support for her constituents.

I will turn to the long-term outlook for pollack, which is important. We will work with the EU on the longer-term management of pollack, via the specialised committee on fisheries, to drive towards an improved stock assessment on which ICES can base future advice. I want to see a recovery of this important pollack fishery, and I believe the measures described will help support that sector through a very challenging time.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay mentioned recreational fishing, which I know has caused some frustration, with social media posts almost taunting the commercial fishermen. There is an active recreational pollack fishery, and although the evidence base is limited, the recreational catch is likely to represent a large component of the total pollack catch. Clearly, given the zero catch advice, there is a need to explore the potential to reduce pressure on the stock through management of the recreational fishery. As this is a jointly managed stock with the EU, the UK has committed to take forward work on this issue with the specialised committee on fisheries as a matter of urgency in 2024. We will work closely with relevant stakeholders throughout this process. My officials have started discussions with the recreational sector, and we are looking to take this work forward as soon as we can.

In closing, I again thank my hon. Friend for raising this important topic. Pollack is a key stock, and it is crucial to the south-west community. The Government will do all we can to support the industry, to improve the stock science and to drive the stock towards long-term sustainable management, which is of course in the interests of everyone, particularly the committed fishers of the south-west of England. I should make it clear to my hon. Friend that this is not the end of the discussions I seek to have with colleagues. My door is very much open to further discussions to see how we may be able to assist, and I look forward to working with him to support his constituents, as he seeks to do.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.