Select Committee on Agriculture Eighth Report


The Agriculture Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. The fishing industry in the United Kingdom is often represented by itself and others as an industry of victims. It has unquestionably undergone radical change in the last twenty years and this process is set to continue as new ways of working, pressure on stocks, consumer choice, wildlife protection and environmental demands bring further pressures to bear. Nevertheless, many in the industry are already finding ways of continuing to fish profitably and successfully and many others could be helped to do the same in the right policy framework. Restructuring within the industry is driven not by the Government but by the market, by intense competition leading to pressure on licences and quotas, and by the growing acceptance of the need to match catching capacity to the state of the stocks. Fishermen, scientists and managers all share an interest in sustaining fish stocks. Yet this common interest is often masked by disputes over stock assessments and by the regulations imposed by Government to enforce the management mechanisms set under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The cost of management both to fishermen and to the public is extremely high in comparison to the contribution of the industry to the United Kingdom economy. Some £108m of public money every year is spent on enforcement, research, scientific support, fisheries grants, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and other administrative tasks. Of this, expenditure directly attributable to the UK catching sector alone equates to approximately 7 per cent of the value of the fishing industry[1] but a much higher proportion of the value of the catch. This may be less than the level of public spending on competing fishing industries but it remains a matter of genuine concern whether expenditure on fisheries is worthwhile and well directed.

2. Despite this level of public finance, the fishing industry in the UK believes it has suffered from political neglect or mistreatment over the years. Its relatively low national economic and political importance and its fragmentary nature with its activities scattered between many small ports ensure that it is rarely at the top of the national political agenda. The industry feels it has lurched from one policy to another, with ever increasing numbers of regulations. The lack of consistently reliable data because the science, although improving rapidly, is not yet sufficiently sophisticated to deliver it and the different perspectives and priorities north and south of the border, coupled with the ability of fishermen to switch effort onto new stocks which themselves rapidly become threatened, means that policy almost necessarily tends to be one of improvisation. This means that regulations have multiplied as Ministers have sought to control the exploitation of increasing numbers of stocks as they are targeted commercially. The resentment of the industry towards this approach has been heightened by its perception of the more supportive attitude of other European Governments towards their fishing fleets. UK fishermen see their counterparts receiving financial assistance to modernise, to build new boats, to meet new charges and to install new equipment while they are expected to pay for the privilege of accepting increasing restrictions on their activities. As a consequence, significant sections of the industry are defensive, looking to the past rather than the future and resisting the changes that are necessary if they are to develop into a modern competitive fleet.

3. There are many in the industry who have broken with the past. They have invested in technology, in vessel licences and the right to catch fish and have negotiated new ways of selling their product. Others lack the money or incentive to follow suit. These fishermen will either leave the industry, continue to fish in ageing vessels, or, more happily, move into niche markets, perhaps concentrating on sustainable fishing methods. We recognise that this is a multi-speed, many layered industry, with substantial variations between areas of the country and between individual fishermen. Its heterogeneous nature, however, only strengthens the case for a strong, clear policy framework for the entire industry and an agreed set of objectives against which any policy should be judged. Our own conclusions based on this inquiry suggest five essential objectives of any fisheries

management system. It should:

  • promote sustainability of resources, to safeguard the long term success of both the stocks and the industry;
  • ensure that the stocks are exploited in the most efficient way, so that fishermen are not drawn into a race for fish;
  • encourage the profitability and competitiveness of the fishing industry from vessel to retailer;
  • minimise both the cost to the public purse and the level of Government intervention; and
  • minimise the complexity of regulation while maximising the responsibility for that process given to the industry consistent with securing compliance.

In some of these respects we are not our own masters, being dependent, particularly for the second, on European decisions under the Common Fisheries Policy. Yet there are other important criteria which the Government should consider, such as rationalising the fleet, securing a way of life for the more vulnerable fishing communities where there are few alternative sources of employment, and maintaining fishing centres with the necessary concentration of services and facilities. These depend upon the Government first deciding on the type of industry it wishes to see and the level of intervention it wishes to retain. We support the concept of regulation by the industry itself as far as is consistent with the acknowledgement that there is a common interest in protecting the sea and its resources. However, our overriding concern is that the Government establish a settled, transparent long-term strategy for management of fisheries which takes into account the competitive position compared to other EU countries and within which the industry can plan, confident that any necessary changes will apply equally and be introduced fairly, with proper consultation and with regard to clear and agreed objectives. There is a very bright future for the UK sea fishing industry and the Government has to play its part in helping to bring this about.

4. On 3 August 1998 we announced an inquiry into sea fishing in the UK to examine "the current economic circumstances and future prospects of the industry, and of different sectors within the industry, including developments in the structure and composition of the UK fishing fleet and the fish processing industry, and in marketing arrangements and prices". Against this general factual background we called for written evidence focusing on "the following specific issues affecting the UK sea fishing industry and on recent or prospective UK Government and European Union policy initiatives relating to them:

      (a)  the scope, efficiency and effectiveness of sea fisheries research, especially in assessing the status of commercial fish stocks, including evaluation of its cost-effectiveness;

      (b)  means of financing and implementing restructuring of the UK fishing fleet, including decommissioning schemes, and financial aid for new building and modernisation, so as to assist those involved in the industry to adapt to changing circumstances; and changes in the shape of the industry as a result of the increasing trade in the buying and selling of fishing licences and quotas;

      (c)  the efficiency and effectiveness of regulation, monitoring, inspection and enforcement arrangements for sea fishing within UK waters, including the introduction of designated ports of landing and progress in introducing satellite monitoring of fishing vessels; the costs and means of financing fisheries inspection and enforcement; and the efficiency and effectiveness of such measures in other EU Member States".[2]

We made it clear that we would not repeat the substantial work undertaken by the previous Agriculture Committee in 1992-93 on the effects of conservation measures on the UK sea fishing industry, with its focus on the Common Fisheries Policy. This precluded consideration of the CFP as a whole, although we have inevitably breached this rule upon occasion.

5. We have received over 70 written submissions and have held five oral evidence sessions at Westminster. To hear a greater diversity of views, we have also taken formal evidence in Cornwall and Peterhead and made informal visits to Newlyn, Grimsby, Aberdeen and Shetland in the course of which we met many active participants in the fishing industry. In addition, we went to Spain, in order to compare the management of the fishing industry in another Member State, and to Iceland which is often cited as being at the forefront of fisheries management. Finally, given the central importance of the CFP to the industry, we went to Brussels to meet officials from Directorate-General XIV of the European Commission. We would like to take this opportunity to offer our sincere thanks to all those who have contributed to this long inquiry either through formal submissions or informal discussions.

6. We have also benefited from the assistance of our two specialist advisers for this inquiry, Mr Robert Allan, former Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, and Dr Andrew Palfreman, Senior Lecturer in the University of Hull Institute of Food Health Quality. We are grateful to them for their advice and for sharing with us their deep experience of the industry. Our conclusions, of course, are our own.

7. Since our inquiry began, there have been constitutional changes in the UK which affect many aspects of the government of Scotland, Wales and potentially Northern Ireland. The fishing industry is not exempt from these developments. As fishing is a devolved matter, responsibility for monitoring fisheries management and enforcement in all parts of the UK no longer rests with the select committees of the Westminster Parliament. Most of our recommendations, therefore, are primarily directed at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and deal with matters in England, although we hope that, just as we have examined the wider issues, more general implications will be drawn from our observations for the fishing industry throughout the UK. Where reserved matters are concerned, for example on negotiations within the European Union, MAFF retains lead responsibility for the determination of UK policy and so of course in these instances our recommendations apply to the UK as a whole.

8. The Report is structured as follows. In Section II, we describe the current state of the industry, from the number of vessels to the sale of fish to the consumer, and the basic management structure applied in the UK. The fishing industry can be controlled either through the management of stocks and catches, through the management of effort or through a combination of both. In Section III, we examine the first of these through the process of research into stocks, the setting of quotas and the relationship between fishermen and scientists. In Section IV, we discuss two methods of managing effort through the restructuring of the fleet, first Government and EU schemes, such as decommissioning or aid for new build, and secondly, the trade in licences and quotas. Section V looks at the regulatory regime, how compliance is monitored and enforced, and specific issues of current concern, such as the installation of satellite monitoring equipment and the designated ports scheme. Section VI examines the marketing and processing of fish from the quayside to the supermarket and describes ways in which the fishing industry must adapt to meet the demands of the consumer. Section VII offers our overall conclusions on the future of sea fishing in the UK, while Section VIII draws together all our main conclusions and recommendations for ease of reference.

1  Qq 999-1000.  Back

2  Agriculture Committee Press Notice No. 36, Session 1997/98, 3 August 1998, as amended by Agriculture Committee Press Notice No. 2, Session 1998/99, 17 December 1998.  Back

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