Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (T12)

  Since the Agriculture Committee reported on the fishing industry in 1999, the two most significant developments have been the dramatic rise in fuel prices, which has pushed parts of the UK fleet beyond economic viability, and the emergence of EU stock recovery programmes for cod and hake, following very severe scientific advice for these stocks.

The Government's response to both of these crises confirms our view that the fishing industry, and particularly the fishing industry south of the border, is systematically disadvantaged by the UK Government policy. It also suggests that the Treasury, through its short-sighted influence, constitutes a significant part of the problem faced by our industry, rather than providing part of the solution.


  Fishing, particularly mobile forms of fishing such as trawling are relatively fuel intensive. This, and the fact that most whitefish is sold through the auction system and increased costs cannot therefore be passed on to the consumer, is sufficient to explain how the increase in fuel prices—combined with the lack of availability of fish on the fishing-grounds—caused major economic turmoil in the fishing industry in the first half of the year. Unlike the governments of Spain, France, Netherlands and Belgium, the UK Government provided no relief, despite desperate pleas for assistance and equity of treatment.

  The Committee will recall from our earlier evidence that the absence of equity in access to European construction and modernisation grants has been a consistent thread in the industry's decline. The absolute and relative ageing of the UK's fleet profile, which is closely related to the absence of UK match funding, was a central feature of our 1999 submission to the Committee. It is also worth remarking that the Committee's finding that the link between age of vessels and the casualty rate was "not proven", caused the Fishing Industry Safety Group to revisit the issue and to arrive at the conclusion that there is an inarguable correlation between age of vessel and casualty rate. Attached paper [not printed] refers.


  The implementation of stock recovery plans for Irish Sea cod, North Sea cod, West of Scotland cod and northern hake (in terms of measures adopted, speed of implementation, regional focus, legal instruments employed and consequences for the fishing industry), represents the most dramatic development within the CFP in many years. Although there are some positive aspects to the recovery plans (not least the recognition that the over-centralised form of decision-making within the CFP is redundant), there is also much for the fishing industry to fear.

  The Commission's use of its emergency powers and the justification of draconian measures by reference to the existence of a crisis, has severely threatened the viability of many UK vessels already struggling with the impact of the fuel crisis.

  The Minister acknowledged that the recovery programmes would have economic consequences and our case for strategic government assistance was submitted on 30 January. (See attached [not printed])

  It comprises two elements:

    —  decommissioning;

    —  transitional aid.


  The Treasury's response to our plea for financial assistance has been of a piece with its previous policy towards the fishing industry. It has focused exclusively on short-term expenditure rather than an appreciation of where these policies are driving the UK fishing industry in the longer term. Treasury inspired delay over decommissioning in 1992-95 allowed the quota hopping problem to grow to the extent that over 50 per cent of key UK quotas are now owned by Dutch and Spanish interests. Equally blinkered policies since 1989 have allowed the UK fleet to fall from somewhere close to the top of the European league in terms of modern, safe fishing vessels, to somewhere close to the bottom. The do-nothing approach in the fuel crisis, likewise saw other member states supporting their fleets through a short-term crisis to ensure their survival.

  Paradoxically, it is only the devolved administrations' flexing of their own muscles, to provide aid packages for the Scottish and Northern Irish fishing fleets, that has obliged MAFF to scrape together a minimalist package for the English fleet, from within existing budgets, which is portrayed as some sort of equivalent. That it is nothing of the sort, is evident when comparisons are made in terms of numbers of fishermen, fleet tonnages and value of landings.

  The fishing industry ought to have a bright future, based as it is on a renewable resource for which there is high and increasing demand. Rebuilding stocks to sustainable levels and maintaining them is the key to prosperity; a prosperity which would bring rewards not just to the fishing industry but to the Exchequer through increased revenues. This ought to be the basis for strategic Government assistance that would allow the fishing industry to take the conservation measures (and absorb the short-term losses associated with them) that are necessary to rebuild stocks.

  What is missing, or at least not shared by the Treasury, is a vision of a modern, safe, economically viable, UK fishing fleet, operating sustainably, or any plan of how to get there. It is important to keep a close eye on expenditure but when that becomes an obsession, displacing strategic vision, it is time for a change. Recovery programmes should be supported by transitional aid.


  The decline in the UK fishing industry results from two root causes. The Common Fisheries Policy has failed to halt stock depletion and the UK Treasury has overseen a policy which has systematically disadvantaged the UK industry and in particular the English industry, by obstructing parity of treatment. Our hope is that the Zonal Management will address some of the differences in the CFP. Home grown damage—mostly derived from myopic Treasury polices, is something that will have to be tackled domestically.

30th April 2001

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