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10.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison): The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) has raised an important subject, in which there is wide interest. She need not feel any trepidation about raising the subject, as there is such interest in it; I acknowledge that she has taken a consistent interest in the status of the basking shark.

I shall deal with the position as far as the quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is concerned, but first I shall briefly consider the wider context in which the hon. Lady set out this important issue. She will know of the active part that the Government play in the operation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

While I understand that she is disappointed that the United Kingdom was unable to propose listing of the basking shark in appendix II of CITES--a decision that we think was soundly based on the Government's view that the proposal would not have met the internationally agreed criteria for listing a species in the appendix--I am grateful for the welcome she gave the incorporation of an Isle of Man representative on the UK delegation at the next CITES conference of the parties in June. I am sure that that arrangement will enable the issue to be discussed fully in the conference and its working groups, with additional expert knowledge and interest.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will also welcome the part that the Government's biodiversity initiative is playing, our response under our Rio commitments, and the fact that the basking shark is one of a considerable number of UK species whose status will be monitored by the UK biodiversity group in the next five years. We certainly believe that the current quinquennial review exercise will be helpful in that process and will assist the group in submitting its next report.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the EU habitats and birds directives. As she knows, we are playing a full part in responding to those European commitments on top of our other international commitments.

The 1981 Act is the primary Act for conservation in Great Britain. The JNCC began work on the third and current quinquennial review in 1995. Between mid-1995 and mid-1996, the JNCC sought the views of relevant scientists and non-governmental organisations to arrive at a list of 34 recommendations. The recommendations were that one animal, the bugloss moth, should be removed from schedule 5 and that 12 animals should be added to it; four animals already on schedule 5 should receive increased protection; 17 plants should be added to it. The basking shark is one of the animals recommended for addition to schedule 5.

The Government intend to be as open as possible in our consideration of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee's recommendations. To this end, a public consultation exercise began on 29 January. The consultation period expires on 1 April. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that, until the exercise is

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concluded and the views of all interested parties have been considered, it is impossible to predict whether the recommendations will be supported and acted on. Although I can give no indication of the likely outcome of our consideration of the JNCC's recommendations in respect of any of the 34 species concerned, I feel that I should respond to the concerns raised by the hon. Lady about the basking shark.

In its current recommendation, the JNCC claims that there is still inadequate data on the population status and vulnerability of the basking shark. As the hon. Lady said, it is a gentle creature and I believe that it is our largest fish. However, it can be vulnerable. She suggested that protection was justified on the basis of the precautionary principle. The lack of clear, comprehensive scientific data for the species in British waters makes the task of assessing the merits of the case difficult.

The shark was similarly recommended by the JNCC's predecessor, the Nature Conservancy Council, in earlier quinquennial reviews of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in 1986 and 1991. Insufficient data about or evidence of an immediate threat to basking shark populations in UK waters meant that it was not listed for protection after those reviews. In its current recommendation, the JNCC recognises that the basking shark is notoriously difficult to monitor, with few verified records. The notable exception, as the hon. Lady said, is the Isle of Man waters.

It has been long been accepted that the primary threats to the species are, first, directed fisheries and, secondly, accidental disturbance and capture by man. Evidence from around the world suggests that where the species is targeted, it suffers severe declines from which it may not recover. At present, there is no UK basking shark fishery. The hon. Lady mentioned the position with Norway. Norway has a quota to take 100 tonnes of basking shark liver from UK waters. Only 5.8 tonnes, or roughly 15 basking sharks, were recorded in 1993, and nothing was taken in 1991, 1992, 1994 or 1995.

Evidence of damage to or loss of stocks commonly cited relates to directed fisheries in Canada during the 1950s and in Ireland between 1947 and 1975. Similar findings have been made in other shark fisheries off California and Florida. It is important to remember that such declines were the result of targeted fisheries and occurred in waters some distance from the United Kingdom, where different climates, both of population and meteorology, exist.

Ms Walley: Does the Minister agree that, while sightings are not scientific data as such, the evidence from the Isle of Man over five years has been of a drastic reduction in the number of sightings? We should take account of that surveillance, because fewer sharks are being seen.

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Lady has made an interesting point, and we shall consider the position scientifically during the consultation. We welcome views and evidence coming forward as part of the debate and during the consultation period.

The impact of accidental capture, or by-catch, of basking sharks in fisheries targeting other species is less clear. To date, British voluntary fisheries recording

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schemes have provided no evidence of incidental capture of basking sharks in nets deployed for other marine stocks.

What is clear is that there appears to be a relative lack of robust scientific evidence concerning the basking shark in British waters and further afield within the north-east Atlantic region. It would appear appropriate, therefore, to investigate further the data available for the basking shark before reaching any conclusions. In part, the public consultation exercise will facilitate such a review.

Additionally, however, I would anticipate--this responds to the hon. Lady's point--that it will be necessary to hold one or more focused meetings to ensure that the Government consider all available information and evidence before reaching any decision. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to welcome the work that the hon. Lady has done to stimulate a debate on this species. I am sure that she will want to work with my Department to ensure that all the facts are made available as part of that debate.

Having spent some time discussing the basking shark specifically, I remind colleagues that the approach that I have outlined and that the Government will be taking to ensure that an informed and appropriate decision is taken in respect of the basking shark will also be applied to all the other 33 species subject to the JNCC's recommendations. The Government will be open in their considerations and would welcome information from all interested and affected individuals and organisations.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the Norwegian quota, and I accept his description of the take over the years. However, in the context of abiding by the precautionary principle that was laid out so clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), would the Minister, from his Department, be prepared to recommend to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that the fishery for basking sharks should be closed until more information is collected on the status of the basking shark and the effect on populations around the UK coast?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman's point speaks for itself. He will agree that we have to look at the evidence and debate it before we can reach conclusions such as the one that he suggests, but I hear what he says in that respect.

I hope that, once the formal public consultation exercise concludes on 1 April 1997, we shall be able to reach a consensus decision on each species so as to enable those species which require additional protection to be added to schedule 5 or 8 as soon as possible thereafter.

In the course of this short debate, I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Lady about the rigour of our approach towards protecting this important species and other species under the auspices of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, our other commitments under the Rio convention and our European commitments, under which we are protecting much of our animal life and biodiversity.

Question put and agreed to.

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