Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(2) (European Standing Committees),


Question agreed to.



13 Dec 1999 : Column 41


[Relevant document: European Union Document No. 7542/99 concerning the Commission's report to the Council and the European Parliament on the results of the multi-annual guidance programme for the fishing fleet at the end of 1997.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I should make it clear to the House that the Speaker has selected both the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and that in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrat party.

4.41 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I beg to move,

It is traditional to hold a fisheries debate each year before the December Agriculture Council to decide total allowable catches and quotas for the following year. It will be an important debate this year, given the recommendations of the International Council for Exploration of the Seas and of the Commission. This is an important occasion for Members from fishing constituencies and for those with a general interest in fisheries. Although total allowable catches and quotas are the main subjects, the debate enables hon. Members to focus on wider issues. I should like to touch on some of the problems that have affected the fishing industry over the past year, and to look ahead to some of the important questions for the future.

This year, the Select Committee on Agriculture produced a report on sea fisheries. I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), and its members for producing a thoughtful and well-constructed report that adds to the debate on fisheries. Although I regret that the debate has been cut short by the statement, I was pleased that, under the new procedures that have been introduced in the House, we were able to have a three-hour debate on the Agriculture Committee report. That was a useful innovation.

I want to begin by saying a word about the science behind the setting of this year's TACs. There is a debate about the science and the way in which it is applied. Fishermen have views on that, as hon. Members can quite understand. I am keen that there should be a greater exchange of information between scientists and fishermen.

This autumn, the chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations went to sea on the MAFF research vessel, and saw the detail and quality of the work that our scientists do. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science has regularly contributed articles on fishing science to Fishing News,

13 Dec 1999 : Column 42

which enables the industry to read about the scientific work and the calculations on fish stocks, and to comment on them. CEFAS scientists have visited fishing ports and have had useful meetings with fishermen. In the coming year, we want to discuss with the industry how to build on those contacts and put them on a more systematic basis.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): We all want a closer relationship between fishermen and scientists. I hope that the Minister will pursue this matter with great vigour, given the Canadian experience. Despite specific warnings from the scientists, fishermen in Canada said that there were plenty of fish right up until the last one disappeared from the grand banks. It is important to be careful when considering the anecdotal evidence in this area.

Mr. Morley: I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. We must ensure that we have a proper scientific basis for the assessment of fish stocks. That is not to say, however, that fishermen do not have valuable information to contribute. We want to work with them to develop that. The fisheries conservation group enables fishermen, scientists and fisheries managers to meet to consider and develop practical conservation measures. Some helpful measures have resulted, which I consider to be to the advantage of fisheries management. We want to develop that further.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): May I explain why the Minister was given such a hard time when he visited my constituency last week, and was roughed up by the fishermen? They cannot understand why, despite the conservation measures, they are having to throw more fish overboard--having caught them dead--than they are managing to land in their own ports. Is the Minister aware that there is now a sea lion epidemic? Sea lions are coming from all over the north of Scotland and beyond to find the dead fish, and to catch live fish as well. That is why the quota goes down by 30 per cent. each year. The quota system is madness: the Minister should get rid of it.

Mr. Morley: I did not know that there were so many discards that sea lions are coming all the way from the south Atlantic to the British Isles to eat the fish. Nevertheless, discards are an important issue.

I was sorry that the hon. Gentleman could not join me at the meeting in Brixham. The fishermen did not "rough me up", although they made their point robustly, as would be expected. I thought that the meeting provided a useful opportunity to hear both sides of the argument. The fishermen allowed me, with some courtesy, to make my points and to answer their questions. I have no objection to the holding of such meetings elsewhere, to enable fishermen to discuss the issues at first hand.

Time is being squeezed. Although I find it difficult to resist interventions from Members who are interested in this topic, I want to say what I have to say as quickly as possible, in order to provide the maximum opportunity for Back Benchers to speak.

Let me say something about this year's total allowable catches and quotas. The scientific advice relating to most of the stocks that we are considering is depressing: there is no doubt that many stocks are under pressure. The North sea cod quota has not been taken up this year,

13 Dec 1999 : Column 43

because the fish are not there to be caught. Monkfish are another example, and many round-fish stocks in the Irish sea are under considerable pressure. The resulting quota cuts proposed by the Commission have been described as the most drastic for 10 years, and we must think carefully about the consequences to the fishing industry.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Will the Minister be invoking the Hague preference for, say, cod in the North sea and monkfish in the western Scottish waters?

Mr. Morley: We intend to invoke a preference in regard to certain stocks when we consider it to be in our national interest. That applies to a range of stocks, and we need to give the matter some thought. As the hon. Gentleman may know, I am scheduled to meet representatives of the fishing industry this week, before I go to the Council of Ministers. I shall have an opportunity to discuss the preference then.

We need to take scientific advice seriously. It is provided in good faith by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, after thorough stock assessment and analysis. Some criticise the work of ICES because they do not like the implications of its proposals, but we cannot shoot the messenger because we do not like the message. Fisheries scientists do not have an easy job, but they address it professionally and are committed to it. We should recognise that. To be fair to the industry, some industry groups have pressed us on the need to respect the scientific advice on next year's TACs.

Nor should we blame the extent of the cuts proposed on the need for a precautionary approach. Significant cuts are required regardless of that approach, because many of our key stocks are in extremely poor shape. Some are at such low levels that they are over-dependent on the strength of incoming recruitment, which varies for natural reasons. As a result, the size of catches in the following year can vary significantly. It is not just a case of pressure on stocks, although that may obtain in some cases; there is also the question of natural cycles--for instance, the seven-year cycle applying to cod. Two poor year classes in 1997 and 1998 mean that current catch levels are already well down, with little prospect of improvement in the next couple of years. The number of young fish recruiting to the fishery in 1998 was by the far lowest in more than 30 years. In those circumstances, a deep cut in the TAC for next year will be inevitable and, indeed, essential if stock is to be conserved and rebuilt.

Next Section

IndexHome Page