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Fishing: Fish Stocks

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 December 2006

My Lords, I feel, with Christmas good will, that I was slightly cheated there. I had a question on the previous subject, but never mind. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

What steps they are taking to protect fish stocks around United Kingdom shores.

The UK Government are committed to the conservation of fish stocks. The common fisheries policy provides a framework for co-operation at European Union level. The UK Government continue to play an active role in negotiating improvements to the policy designed to provide more sustainable long-term fisheries management. We are working to ensure that depleted stocks are recovered and subsequently conserved, while at the same time delivering, in so far as we can, a viable future for the fishing industry.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. What representations are the UK Government making to the European Council of Ministers for greater protection of our fish stocks? First, does that include the continuation of discards and the hoovering of sand eels, a practice that I believe has been banned? Secondly, have the UK Government looked into the effect of climate change on the marine environment? Does the Minister consider that the North Sea has become too warm for cod, or does he believe that the cause of the cod’s demise is the success of other species’ revival?

My Lords, on the latter part of the noble Baroness’s question, there is no doubt but that climate change will have a dramatic impact. I understand that only a slight change in temperature—maybe one degree or less—is required, particularly in the North Sea and the Irish Sea, and, before we know it, the fish stocks that we are used to having will have disappeared. They may have gone elsewhere, but the fact is that there will be a massive change if sea temperatures change dramatically. Half a degree to one degree is a dramatic change in temperature. So there is certainly a climate change impact on this.

On what we are trying to do with the European Union, the environment council and the fisheries council are meeting this week in Brussels, as the noble Baroness and the House will be aware. The fishing Minister is there. The European Commission recently published a proposal for the regulation that will set total allowable catches and quotas for 2007. Given the poor status of some of the key stocks, it is likely to be a significant challenge to deliver the necessary stock recovery while ensuring the viability of the UK fleet. As far as possible, we will be guided by scientific advice—we have to be guided by it—but we have to balance that with ensuring that we maintain a viable UK fishing fleet.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that before we joined the European Union, we controlled some 70 per cent of the fish that swam all the year round in all European Union waters? Would it not have been better to have kept control of that great asset, to have nurtured our national fishing industry, and to have leased any surplus fish to other countries?

No, my Lords—as I disagree entirely with the premise of the question, I cannot agree. I apologise for not referring to sand eels in the previous answer, because this is important. At the very most, the total allowable catch for 2007 could be 400,000 tonnes. The catch used to be 1 million tonnes and this year the fishery will close completely in August, so efforts are being made to protect sand eels. However, I understand that the system is a bit more complicated this year than the one prevailing last year.

My Lords, earlier this year the Minister increased the minimum landing size for sea bass from 36 to 40 centimetres. He also increased the mesh size, so that fewer juvenile fish were caught. Those were both sensible measures for preserving the stock. But does that rule, which applies to UK fishermen, apply to all nationalities fishing in UK waters? The commercial fishermen down in the south-west are concerned, because they believe that the rule does not apply to other people fishing in UK waters, who are able to land fish of the old size of 36 centimetres, thereby undermining the Minister’s decision.

My Lords, I will have to take advice on that and write to the noble Baroness. However, I understand that those who are allowed to fish in UK waters—for historical reasons, it is not a free-for-all among all European Union members within the six to 12-mile limit—and land in the UK are fishing in competition with our own fishermen. To say that there should be a level playing field may not be quite right, but the mesh sizes ought to be the same.

My Lords, my noble friend said that he must rely on scientific forecasts. Is there evidence that they are better than most economic forecasts?

Entirely so, my Lords. Having been to the fishing laboratory at Lowestoft, which is unquestionably a world leader in work on both climate and fishing, I know that the information that the scientists get from the sea and from catches is enormously beneficial. The fact is that the stocks are not there as they used to be; we ignore that at our peril. We want to balance and maintain a fishing industry but, if we overfish year after year, we should not be surprised if the stocks disappear. I can tell my noble friend that the science is world-class, but I cannot comment on the efforts or ranking of our economic science forecasts.

My Lords, the Minister will know that fishing with rod and line for salmon in UK waters brings an estimated £350 million to the rural economy, often in remote country areas. The Irish Government have recently banned drift-net fishing in their coastal waters. What steps will our Government take to follow the Irish example, with particular reference to the 16 licensed drift-netsmen off the north-east coast of this country and the 155 licensed half-netsmen in the Solway?

My Lords, the noble Lord has got me completely on that. I have a fair amount on deep-sea species, but I do not have the information for a question on salmon as well. I will make it my business, immediately after Questions, to get that information. I will write urgently to the noble Lord and put a copy of my response in the Library.