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Sea Fisheries (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2024

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Sea Fisheries (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, these regulations were laid in draft before this House on 14 March 2024. This is a good news story: Atlantic bluefin tuna are present again in UK waters and are increasing in abundance after an absence of many years. In 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed its assessment of bluefin tuna from “endangered” to “least concern”, which reflects the improving state of the stock. There is significant demand for recreational fishing access to bluefin tuna, which will boost tourism in coastal communities and deliver social and economic benefits.

Following our exit from the EU, the UK joined the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, henceforth referred to as ICCAT, which is the international organisation that manages Atlantic bluefin tuna. This enabled the UK to secure bluefin tuna quota for the first time. In line with ICCAT rules, this instrument will enable UK fisheries administrations to open their own catch-and-release recreational bluefin tuna fisheries. It will permit authorised recreational fishing vessels to target bluefin tuna by rod and line only and on a catch-and-release basis, meaning that fish should be returned to the water unharmed. Without this legislation the UK would be able to run only commercial and scientific bluefin tuna fisheries, preventing us unlocking the social and economic benefits associated with the recreational fishing of this valuable species.

So far, UK fisheries administrations have taken a cautious and measured approach to managing bluefin tuna quota by running scientific catch-and-release tagging programmes, known as CHART, over the past three years. Under the English CHART programme, bluefin tuna were caught and released with an exceptionally low mortality rate of 0.7%. The programme provided valuable data on the social and economic benefits associated with recreational access to bluefin tuna. A trial commercial fishery for bluefin tuna ran in 2023 in UK waters.

This year, the UK has been allocated around 66 tonnes of bluefin tuna quota by ICCAT, which represents 0.16% of the total allowable catch shared between all ICCAT contracting parties. Comparatively, the European Union has been allocated 53%. In future years, the UK hopes to increase its quota allocation; decisions on how we intend to use it will ensure that bluefin tuna fisheries meet our international commitments, contribute to delivering the Fisheries Act 2020 objectives, and reflect stakeholder interests. This year, 16 tonnes will be used for recreational fisheries and 39 tonnes will be used for the trial commercial fishery, which is running for a second year. The remainder will be used for commercial by-catch and scientific tagging programmes. Although the tuna will be caught and released in the recreational fishery, quota is needed to cover any incidental mortalities.

The Marine Management Organisation is expecting to open a recreational fishery in English waters this summer. The Welsh Government are also considering opening a recreational fishery in Welsh waters this year. These fisheries will run alongside further CHART programmes elsewhere in the UK. ICCAT requires any recreational targeting of bluefin tuna to be authorised. The UK fisheries administrations currently do not have the appropriate powers to authorise recreational fishing for bluefin tuna. Therefore, the Government wish to proceed with the legislation being debated today to bring recreational bluefin tuna fishing in line with ICCAT requirements.

This statutory instrument has been created using powers under Section 36 of the Fisheries Act 2020 to add provisions as amendments to existing assimilated law, namely Regulation (EU) 2016/1627. This UK legislation enables each of the four UK fishery administrations to issue non-transferable, time-limited permits to UK recreational vessels to fish for bluefin tuna in their waters should they wish to do so, regardless of where in the UK the vessel is based. It gives fishery administrations the power to set permit eligibility requirements that support the delivery of Fisheries Act objectives; to set appropriate criteria for ranking applications in the event of oversubscription; and to refuse permits on the grounds of safety, conservation or appropriateness.

The SI also gives fishery administrations the power to amend or revoke permits. It explicitly prohibits both the unauthorised targeting of tuna on a recreational basis and the removal of bluefin tuna from the water anywhere in UK waters, whether on a vessel or from the shore. It amends the Sea Fishing (Enforcement) Regulations 2018 to confer enforcement powers on the Marine Management Organisation and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities. Finally, the SI creates new offences for the unpermitted recreational targeting of bluefin tuna and for breaching permit conditions, ensuring that we protect this unique species and its encouraging return to UK waters.

These amendments are distinct from the licensing requirements and powers under Section 14 of the Fisheries Act 2020, which apply only to commercial vessels. This legislation will support delivery of the sustainability and scientific evidence objectives of the Fisheries Act 2020.

With an annual allocation this year of 16 tonnes of quota, bluefin tuna recreational fisheries are expected to generate £25 million in charter fees and significant additional spend over the next 10 years in deprived rural and coastal communities. These benefits will increase if quota allocations increase. We are keen to improve our knowledge of bluefin tuna in UK waters, which is why this instrument stipulates that recreational fishers must report their catch within 24 hours of each trip.

The devolved Administrations are supportive of the amendments made by this UK instrument. If the instrument is not passed, there will not be enough time to open the bluefin tuna fishery for the full 2024 season, with the consequence of lost revenue for charter businesses and an increased risk of illegal fishing.

I hope I have reassured noble Lords on the purpose and aims of this instrument, which will deliver socioeconomic opportunities to coastal communities across the UK. For the reasons I have set out, I commend these regulations to the Committee. I thank noble Lords for their support and remain at their disposal for any questions that they may wish to ask.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that introduction. I have one or two questions to ask him, because I have been involved in some fishing discussions in the south-west, where I live.

I start by asking the Minister about this SI. We are talking about recreational fishing boats. Can the Minister explain in a bit more detail the difference between a recreational fishing boat and a commercial one, if there is a difference? Is the difference that you are required to throw the fish back on a recreational boat but, on a commercial boat, you can eat the product? It is unclear to me. I know that they all have to be caught by rod and line, but does it matter who catches them?

At the end of his useful introduction, the Minister mentioned an income of £25 million for the fishing industry, but, only a couple of months ago, a similar decision was made to ban pollock fishing completely. That will probably put a large number of small fishing boats whose owners live in small villages in Cornwall, where I live, out of business, and they will probably have to sell their boats.

The reason I raise this issue is that, in the debate on pollock fishing in the other place, on 11 March, there was a lot of criticism from all parts of the House about the lack of data. There was a quota of several thousand tonnes a year of pollock that could be caught, but suddenly, just like that, the whole thing was banned —no fishing at all—with maybe a small amount of compensation if the fisherman’s main income was from collecting pollock. There has been a series of bad rows in the south-west and other places because it is not easy for these small fishing boats to diversify.

In a media statement, the then Minister for fishing and fishermen—I do not know who it was but he has been quoted among the fishing sector in the south-west—said, “If you’re suddenly not allowed to fish for pollock, you can always fish for tuna”. As the Minister here will know, tuna are rather heavier than pollock and you need different equipment. Today, we have a draft regulation telling people that if they if they want to fish for tuna then they have to chuck it back—which I think is a good idea—but a couple of months ago a Minister was telling people that if they were not allowed to fish for pollock then they could go fishing for tuna.

People who are about to lose their livelihood—quite a few of them are having to sell their little fishing boats in places such as Mevagissey—being told that they can go and fish for something else, and that by the way they will get a small grant for one-quarter of the difference, is bad enough, but when people dug into that a bit more they found that there was no data about why the ban was suddenly introduced, without any warning to the fishermen concerned—it just suddenly came. If the stocks were gradually reducing then I could understand that fishermen might be told they could not fish for so many and their quota had to go down for the next year, but to be suddenly told that you cannot fish for them at all, even though that is your livelihood—and we might give you a bit of money for a cup of tea but nothing else—is ridiculous. It shows complete ignorance of the industry. I was talking to a fisherman in the Isles of Scilly at the weekend. I asked what he thought of it and he said, “Well, there’s more pollock around my coast than there are human beings in Cornwall. These people don’t know what they’re doing”.

I would be interested to know the basis on which people can continue to fish for tuna and either chuck it back or eat it, depending on which of these different commercial arrangements are in place. Will the Minister comment before the Government introduce any more sudden changes in regulation? This has a dramatic effect on small boat fishing around the coast, not just in Cornwall and Scilly but in many other places. How are they going to improve things in future? I look forward to his comments.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and for his time, and that of his officials, in providing a briefing on this statutory instrument.

When reading through the Explanatory Memorandum and the SI itself, I was confused about what exactly was expected of both commercial fisheries and recreational fishers. I am delighted that Atlantic tuna stocks have increased to such an extent that the UK is now in a position to be allocated quota for the fishing of tuna to begin once again.

Of the quota currently allocated to the UK as a whole by the international commission, as the Minister has said, 39 tonnes is for commercial fisheries, 16 tonnes is for recreational fishers and 10 tonnes is for research purposes. Commercial fisheries will apply for a licence and recreational fishers for a permit. Whatever is caught has be measured, weighed and recorded. The commercial fisheries will get to land their catch and send it to be sold and the recreational fishers will have to throw their catch back, live if at all possible, under the CHART programme and ICCAT requirements. I understand that, for a recreational fisher, the skill of the man or woman against the guile of the fish is a great part of the experience, but it seems to me that not to be able to land your catch at all, even though you have a permit, is likely to discourage rather than encourage applying for a permit in the first place.

My only concern with this SI is the enforcement of the quota against the fish caught and landed. The restrictions are strict on how this should happen. It will be easy for enforcement authorities to see who has a commercial licence, and thus be alerted to a commercial vessel fishing for bluefin tuna without a licence and so take action. On the recreational front, I think this will be more difficult: the fisher with a permit is likely to be indistinguishable at sea from the fisher with no permit. The fisher with no permit may also be fishing for other fish and hiding their tuna catch among that fish, and certainly not throwing the tuna back.

Extensive consultation took place on this SI and the previous one we debated in February. I have read this and understand that the consultation was positive, for the greater part, and welcomed the introduction of the quota and the way in which it was to be monitored. However, I would be grateful if the Minister could say how the bluefin tuna fish quotas are to be policed. Are there sufficient personnel to carry out effective monitoring of this new fishing quota, and will this be carried out by the MMO?

I understand that the main concentration of UK bluefin tuna is around Scarborough, Scotland and Ireland, and obviously around Wales as well if the Welsh are considering applying for a quota. This should help with the policing. However, it is likely that some fishers and charter boats will try their luck outside these areas. How are the other areas to be policed?

The Minister indicated that once the quota limit has been reached, fishing for bluefin tuna will cease for that year. Since the monitoring of what is caught and landed appears to be very tight, it should be easy to ascertain when the quota limit has been reached, but this will not take account of any illegal fishing that has taken place. Can the Minister give reassurances on this matter?

I am delighted that tuna stocks have recovered to such an extent that the UK is now eligible for quota allocation. However, it will be essential for the catch to be strictly monitored against the quota in order to prevent overfishing in the future. I have to say that I am very concerned by the remarks from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about the banning of fishing for pollock. I look forward to the Minister’s response to his questions.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his thorough introduction to this SI. He talked about bluefin tuna or, as they are known in the SI, BFT, which means I can think of them only as the “Big Friendly Tuna”. They were pushed to the brink of extinction because of overfishing, so it is really welcome that the fish have returned to UK waters over the past decade and that populations are recovering in other areas such as the Mediterranean, as noble Lords have referred to.

I want to look at just a few bits. Paragraph 7.10 of the Explanatory Memorandum outlines that

“Defra intends to open a BFT CRRF”—

I have not decided what else CRRF could be, but there are a lot of acronyms in the Explanatory Memorandum. The maximum scale of the CRRF is to do with the availability of the quota. We heard in the Minister’s introduction and in noble Lords’ comments about the implications of that quota in the long term, not just as it is set now.

I was also interested to see in paragraph 10.3 that there was a fairly thorough consultation between July and September 2023. Paragraph 10.3 outlines a number of ways in which the scheme has been revised following the consultation. One of the things I wanted to pick up on, and I will come back to, is the reasons why the introduction of permit charges was delayed.

One of the responses to this announcement was from the leader of the Blue Marine Foundation, Charles Clover—I am sure the Minister knows this. Charles Clover said he is anxious that

“we are just starting off a cycle of commercial fishing far too early in its recovery which we cannot control. We are creating a new commercial interest in fishing bluefin which will need close scrutiny. Realistically, the survival of the bluefin now will be about setting quotas strictly within scientific advice”.

Clearly, we all want this to work. Can the Minister say something regarding Charles Clover’s concerns? On the face of it, the quota that has been brought in by Defra looks absolutely fine, and we support the SI, but, having looked at the Blue Marine Foundation’s comments, I ask the Minister: how will the quota be kept under review? Will Defra be prepared to make significant changes if the data suggests that any changes are needed? How would that come into play?

On that point, I want to look at what my noble friend Lord Berkeley said about pollock. Again, this is about the accuracy of quotas, when this is reviewed, how it is implemented and the impacts on the fishing industry. It is often very small boats that rely on this for their living.

To come back to the postponement of the introduction of permits, the Explanatory Memorandum says that

“the introduction of charges for permits has been postponed, to allow time for further work to confirm the scope and scale of such charges, as well as how any charging income would be used”.

Questions were asked about the delay in charging for permits when this SI was debated in the other place. The Minister responded that permits would ensure that

“the whole industry will be conducted responsibly, with the best welfare in mind”,—[Official Report, Commons, Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee, 24/4/24; col. 8.]

which obviously we support, but it would be useful to have a bit more information as to the timescales for this, what is likely to happen and what it is likely to look like when it comes in. What does “further work” mean? What kind of work is being carried out? It would be useful to know. Having said that, we are supportive of this. It is good for the industry and for coastal communities, and it is great that we have tuna back.

I hope the Minister will forgive me, because I know this is not what the SI is about, but I want briefly to raise concerns about the salmon farming industry, following a story I read in the media this morning. Official figures from the Scottish Government suggest that farmed salmon mortality hit record levels last year, with over 17 million deaths. There has been increased incidence of mass mortality events in farms elsewhere in the world. We know that these mass die-offs are believed to include sea lice infestations and environmental stressors, such as poor oxygen levels in water, with overpopulation of pens exacerbating the problems.

I was concerned about Defra’s decision to allow Salmon Scotland’s application to change the protected name wording on the front packaging from “Scottish farmed salmon” to “Scottish salmon”, as I think that is pretty misleading. That change is also not supported by Animal Equality UK and WildFish, which say that, as well as being misleading, it breaches assimilated EU Regulation 1151/2012—the Minister may want to write that down—on quality schemes for agricultural products and foodstuffs. I am aware that this is outside the scope and subject of this SI, and I apologise to the Minister for being a little cheeky, but I know that he has a particular interest in and knowledge of this area, so I would be grateful if he could look into this.

I thank noble Lords for their interest in this matter and in other fishery-related issues.

I start by commenting on the issues in Scotland, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I am highly sympathetic to this issue because, in a previous life, I chaired the Atlantic Salmon Trust, which deals with wild salmon and interacts with the aquaculture industry on a daily, permanent basis. There are some serious challenges in this space. I have a personal view and then there is a Defra view. I should probably stick to the Defra view for the moment—unless your Lordships can coax the other one out of me later.

The level of mortality of farmed salmon, in my view and Defra’s, is completely unacceptable. As your Lordships know, salmon farming is an issue devolved to the Scottish Government. The only jurisdictional reach that Defra has into aquaculture is through its work on antimicrobial resistance and the use of antibiotics, which is UK-wide. It is no coincidence that salmon farming is one of the least successful industries at reducing its antibiotic use. It is an area of serious concern and those concerns are being raised. I accept the noble Baroness’s comments on the name change. I can see from noble Lords’ body language that those are collective comments and, as your Lordships’ can probably see, I am minded to share those views. I will take that back to the department to quiz officials further. It is a completely unacceptable state of affairs.

I turn my attention to some of the questions that were raised on bluefin tuna. The issue that sits behind many of them is the sustainability of this particular fishery. We have been in a bad place in the past, but there were no rules, regulations and oversight then. My personal assessment of the situation is that ICCAT has a very firm handle on the conservation status of Atlantic bluefin tuna.

As I said in opening, the issue for me personally is that we get 0.16% of the overall quota. My maths is not brilliant but, if we get 60 tonnes in round terms, and the percentage is then only 0.16%, there are many hundreds of thousands of tonnes being allocated elsewhere. This is an Atlantic fish; it is only in the Atlantic. It seems inconceivable that the UK’s involvement, in its recreational or commercial fishery, would in any way impact on the population, when we are getting 0.16% of the quota that has been allocated by an international organisation that has the welfare of the bluefin tuna at stake. That satisfies my personal position on this, and I hope it goes some way to satisfy others as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, raised the issue of the pollock fishery. In many respects that fishery, which is governed under ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, seems to be sitting almost 50 years behind the bluefin tuna. I do not know quite how we got ourselves into a position where a fish species has been designated as below a certain conservation status, and therefore we cannot take a quota from it, but we are governed by ICES and restricted by its quota. This has been much debated in the other House. I do not think there is anything I can usefully add to that, other than that it is in no one’s interests that our fishery stocks are depleted to the state that we are in today, because that causes all the hardship, aggravation and financial stress and strain that we are seeing down on the south-west coast.

I am grateful for that answer. We are where we are, but can the Minister provide any assurance that, in future, the monitoring of not just pollock and tuna but other fish that need to be monitored is done consistently and comprehensively? At the moment, I am told that anybody who is allowed to fish for pollock can get extra money from somebody in the Government if they put a tag on it or if it gets monitored. It seems to me that the monitoring should have been going on continuously for many years and the results published, so that people can form their own view as to what is likely to happen in future—and challenge the MMO and anybody else if they do not like it. It would be very helpful if the Minister could give me some comfort that it is going to get better.

That is exactly it and precisely the place that we all want to be. Specifically on the bluefin tuna fishery, we have gone into this carefully. We have done three years of scientific study without even starting up a commercial or recreational fishery, so the lessons are being learned. I take the noble Lord’s point about having a consistent approach and will certainly take a closer look at that when I get back to the department.

We had some comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on how the fishery is to be enforced. I know that she is a keen fisherman herself and an expert in catch and release. In England, the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities—IFCAs—and the Marine Management Organisation will be enforcing the new legislation. IFCAs enforce waters up to six nautical miles from the shore and the Marine Management Organisation enforces from six miles to the 200 nautical-mile limit. Fishing for bluefin tuna without a permit or in contravention of the legislative requirements and permit conditions will be a criminal offence. The MMO will have the power to vary, suspend and revoke permits, under the conditions set out in this new legislation.

Enforcement of the fishery will be a risk-based and intelligence-led process, with the primary objective of enforcing the prohibition of non-permitted activities. Clearly, we are dealing with small boats in a big sea with limited resources. It is not going to be 100%, but no system ever is. However, there is quite a lot of local intelligence in this space and I believe that the MMO and the IFCAs have the resources in place to manage the entire process.

I think that covers everything. If I have answered all the questions, I hope that the Committee shares my conviction that this instrument is required to enable the UK fisheries administrations to establish recreational bluefin tuna fisheries in their waters. These regulations will bring social and economic benefits to the fishing industry and coastal communities, and support the sustainable management—I stress “sustainable”—of bluefin tuna. I will be sure to check Hansard and endeavour to respond in writing if I have missed any of the specific details. With that, I commend the instrument to the Committee.

Motion agreed.