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Illegal and Unsustainable Fishing (Due Diligence)

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2024

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require suppliers and retailers of fish and related products to establish and implement due diligence systems to ensure that those products are not obtained from illegal or unsustainable fishing; and for connected purposes.

In recent years the House has extensively debated the disastrous loss of biodiversity and habitats around the world. Our focus in doing so has rightly been on the threat to forests—in particular, the major forest areas in the Amazon, the Congo basin and south-east Asia—and on the implications of a situation where illegal deforestation to grow products such as palm oil and soy is doing huge damage.

The Government have done the right thing by being at the forefront of creating legislative frameworks to help address the commercial exploitation of those forest risk products. The Environment Act 2021 created the first real framework requiring UK businesses to know where their supplies come from and whether they come from areas affected by illegal deforestation, although I would nudge Ministers—I see the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries in his place—about the need finally to sort out all the secondary legislation that goes with that Act. However, illegal deforestation is not the only threat to biodiversity around the world. The loss of marine life and of marine ecosystems is as serious a priority for us all.

The destruction of fish stocks is nothing new: huge fisheries in the Atlantic have been destroyed through excessive levels of catch over the past century; massive stocks of herring and cod off our shores have steadily disappeared; huge cod fisheries off Canada suffered a similar fate; and more recently the common fisheries policy has failed to halt the pressure on fish stocks, with politics often overriding scientific advice. But that excessive extraction of fish stocks in a regulated environment is just one dimension of the problem facing marine life.

Over the course of this Parliament, I have pushed for a rapid extension of the ban on bottom trawling in marine protected areas around the United Kingdom. I am pleased that we are now free to change those practices, which were permitted under the common fisheries policy, and that the Government are making real progress on moving away from an unacceptable situation, though there is still much to do on that front. The creation of highly protected marine areas is also a major step forward as long as it is done in the right areas, but even once the bans are in place I am in little doubt that rogue vessels will continue to push the rules to the limit and exceed them when no one is looking. These new laws will not stop the practice altogether.

The frank reality is that illegal practice is a feature of fisheries around the world. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is doing massive damage—ironically, particularly to the small coastal communities that depend on their fisheries for their local economy. Illegal operators have little regard for national or international law. They use illegal equipment, and they have no regard to whether the species they are catching are endangered and protected, or whether it is a closed season. Backing those fleets up are refrigerated transport vessels and supply ships moving vast quantities of catch to markets around the world.

In many maritime regions of the world, IUU fishing has massively contributed to the depletion of fish stocks, especially in developing countries’ coastal waters. One of the biggest problem areas is west Africa, where IUU fishing accounts for an estimated 40% of all fish caught and about 20% of worldwide illegal fishing. Apart from the environmental damage, it is estimated that the practice costs those coastal communities in Africa billions of dollars a year. IUU fishing is practised in particular by China and Russia, and it tends to target species that are already over-exploited by legal fishing or are subject to restrictions. They target high-value species such as cod, salmon, trout, lobster and prawns.

The UK and the EU have tough rules on IUU fishing and systems in place. Imports have to be properly certified, but it is generally accepted that that does not stop fish from IUU vessels getting into Europe. There is seldom enough enforcement available to prevent illegality from taking place.

One thing we learned when the Ukraine war started and we began to put restrictions in place was just how much of our white fish imports were sourced from Russia; less well known was how much comes from China. Those two countries—together with Norway and Iceland—are by far the biggest suppliers of fish to the UK, and they are the biggest global source of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. To be frank, we should not trust either country to be ensuring that its fishing vessels conform to international norms and rules on good fishing practices. It is therefore right that we have a tight national regulatory regime and that it becomes tougher still, but I do not believe that a regulatory regime should be the only weapon in our armoury to tackle IUU fishing, and indeed illegal fishing closer to home.

I believe that we need to take an additional step in protecting fisheries here and around the world, which is to place the same duty on retailers for fish sourcing as we have for forest risk products. That means having a mandatory system of due diligence for retailers, and particularly those buying their supplies via third-party wholesalers and other intermediaries, on which a big part of the industry depends. All we need those retailers to do in taking their purchasing decisions is to be clear that they know they are sourcing their stock from trusted and reliable sources and that they have a line of sight over their supply chains. That is what we are moving to do with forest risk products, and we need it to apply to fish as well.

I would like to see clear rules on the sustainability of UK fish stocks in the revised fishing arrangements that will need to be put in place in the next Parliament, regardless of the EU approach, which all too often allows catch limits above scientific recommendations. When the new agreement is reached in the coming years, there has to be a clear line that fishing must be sustainable in UK waters. Due diligence rules should then be applied to UK-sourced fish as well, particularly if there is a risk of illegal operations in marine protected areas. I fear that, notwithstanding the change to the rules, we will see that in future.

The purpose of the Bill is straightforward, and my proposal is very simple: we simply extend what we have already done in one area of critical biodiversity risk to another area—the future of our oceans. I am proud that this Government and this country were one of the first to address the issue of forest risk products and take action on the risks of those products coming to the UK. I want us to go a step further and apply the same principle and the same rules to fish from illegal fisheries around the world. I want us to be absolutely certain that when we buy fish in our shops, we know that we are not contributing to more unsustainable biodiversity loss in this country and elsewhere. With this Bill, we can protect our oceans and fisheries and do the right thing for our environment. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Grayling, Andrew Selous, Harriett Baldwin, Alex Sobel, Dr Matthew Offord, Ian Levy, Barry Gardiner and Trudy Harrison present the Bill.

Chris Grayling accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June, and to be printed (Bill 186).