Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

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Mr. Mitchell: It would be sensible to reduce the seal population as quotas are reduced. The Conservative party should turn its attention to the matter, as it has only one policy on domestic affairs—should burglars be allowed to shoot seals? Marvellous.

Mr. Moss: I was coming to my main point, which is that, given the pressure on stocks and the problems experienced by fishermen, the matter should be looked at and a sensible programme of culling should be initiated. Why does not the Minister say positive things about that?

Mr. Andrew George: Is it now Conservative party policy to cull seals?

Mr. Mitchell: It is Liberal policy.

Mr. Moss: The Conservative policy is to investigate the concerns expressed to me and to the hon. Member for St. Ives that, in some parts of the country, seals are a problem. The Minister is right to ask for the evidence; we should not ignore the problem but consider it and, if necessary, bring in a sensible culling programme.

Mr. Morley: MAFF has a number of research programmes and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology is doing some work on seals, but there is no evidence about the seal population. There is also a dichotomy in some of the claims: fishermen accept that cod stocks have gone down; they also claim that seal populations have gone up. There is evidence of a population increase but, in any predator-prey relationship, if the target of the principal predator at the top of the food chain is a particular species, when that species declines, the predators decline too. There is a glaring inconsistency in the claims about seals.

Mr. Moss: I hear what the Minister says, but I was not aware that seals ate only cod.

Mr. Morley: They do not.

Mr. Moss: All stocks are under pressure, not just cod in the North sea, as I have been told on more than three occasions on my visits round the country. I am merely reporting back to the Minister and the Committee that it is an issue perceived to be a problem by fishermen in certain areas. All the Minister has to do is to embark on research to discover whether there is a problem and if so a culling programme will be necessary.

Mr. Quinn rose—

Mr. Moss: No, I will not give way. I am stuck on seals and I want to draw my remarks to a conclusion to allow other hon. Members to speak.

The Minister has a hard task ahead of him this week, but he has an opportunity at least to bat for Britain as a change and to use The Hague preference to gain some ground for our hard-pressed fishermen in the North sea in respect of cod. The Minister has a good hand to play and I hope that he plays it. He will not commit himself today, as he will want to reserve his negotiating position, but there will be deep dismay within the industry if he does not have something positive to offer later this year.

5.54 pm

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I would like to take the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire back to the subject of seals. He would not take an intervention from me on the subject, but the leader of the European Conservative party, Mr. Edward McMillan-Scott, visited my constituency and told local fishermen that is was indeed the Conservative party's policy to cull seals. I would like clarification on that point.

I return to the main purpose of our debate. I wish to reinforce a point that I tried to raise with my hon. Friend the Minister in question time. It seems appropriate to start with the North sea environmental disaster that occurred off our coastline. Trawlermen in Whitby now have to travel further to catch fewer fish, and the cost of fuel has hit them hard. For the local fishing fleet, it is not so much a double whammy as a treble or even a quadruple one. If we want a sustainable fishery in Scarborough and Whitby, we must get the boats and crews through the present environmental crisis. I ask my hon. Friend to pay strong regard to that in his discussions later this week.

I also take the opportunity to mention the great disquiet that was expressed last weekend in my constituency when the fishermen found out that the annual fishing debate would not take place before Christmas. I shall convey to my constituents what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the advantage of timetabling a full fishery debate once the recovery plan has been mapped out in the new year. He is welcome to come and talk with my fishermen, and I hope that we shall have an opportunity to do that before the annual debate so that he will be aware of the feelings that are abroad on the quayside and out in the North sea. The temperature in the community is rising.

I have told my hon. Friend the Minister, in debate and personally, that the people of Scarborough and Whitby are resilient, particularly the fishing communities. They have seen the failure of a vital part of the industrial complex in the area, but they have moved on, they have made innovations and they have found other ways of making a living. One of the strong successes for the fishermen in my constituency, particularly those from the port of Whitby, has been the move to recreational fishing. I ask my hon. Friend to check his figures. My records show that the recreational fishing industry is taking only 0.8 per cent. of the sort of catch that the other fishing vessels in Whitby are after. Not many of them are cod; most are species that are not up for quota reduction.

Sir Robert Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman know of a legal definition of recreational fishing? It is a defined process?

Mr. Quinn: Yes; I would define recreational fishing as boats sailing out into the North sea for eight or nine hours, taking many people from the former Yorkshire coalfields who probably bring a few crates of brown ale. They put their lines out into the water, they have a wonderful day and probably return with only one or two cod.

Mr. Mitchell: This big?

Mr. Quinn: Absolutely huge.

Those people support the local tourism industry, and the local pubs and hotels. A small town like Whitby cannot afford to lose the more than £2 million a year that they contribute to the local economy. We must consider that point seriously, and although this aspect of the impact of the quota cuts is insignificant in terms of the wider European picture, I ask the Minister nevertheless to have proper regard for it. If fishermen cannot advertise that they are trying to catch cod with rod and line, people will not visit Whitby and fishermen will not get bookings. That will lead to further decline in a community whose fishing industry has been in a spiralling decline since the 1860s. We in Whitby cannot afford to let that happen, and it should be noted that other communities throughout the country benefit from recreational fishing.

I want to develop one issue that arose during questions. Emphasis was placed on the need for regional management of fisheries, and I strongly support that in respect of the North sea. The Minister and members of the Committee will recall that, a few weeks ago, during an Adjournment debate on the fish processing industry, I mentioned a prototype organisation on the Yorkshire coast called the Yorkshire coast fishing forum. Since that debate, I have discovered that the basis of that important initiative is looking extremely suspect. The organisation was set up with support from the PESCA fund, but from April that grant will no longer be available. Will the Minister explain how we can establish a transitional arrangement, until proper regional management of our fishing stocks is established? How can we sustain organisations such as the Yorkshire coast fishing forum, so that they can act as a springboard for renegotiation of the common fishery policy?

While the Minister is dealing with that matter, will he talk to his officials about the need to enter into discussions with regional development agencies throughout the country? I am thinking of Yorkshire Forward in particular, which is the regional development agency for my constituency and that of the Minister. In terms of understanding the complexities of the Yorkshire region's fishing industry, that agency has a long way to go. If funding delivery mechanisms proved to be dead ends simply because organisations such as Yorkshire Forward lacked the right expertise, that would be a tragedy.

In towns such as Scarborough and Whitby, there are 12 onshore jobs for every offshore job. My constituency contains wards with the worst socio-economic statistics in the entire region. If we were to lose fish processing jobs, which are mainly occupied by women, the socio-economic impact on those small communities would be devastating. I know that the Minister will take account of that fact in discussions with his colleagues in Europe at the end of this week.

I wish the Minister well, because I want a sustainable and growing North sea fishery that will benefit the communities who rely on this vital part of the economy not only in Scarborough and Whitby, but elsewhere in the north-east of England and Scotland.

6.4 pm

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): Like other hon. Members, I was concerned to discover that this debate had been shuffled to the Committee Corridor. I therefore telephoned the Ministry to discover whether we would have an opportunity for the important annual fishing debate to take place on the Floor of the House. The Minister said that he would seek an opportunity, through the Leader of the House, for that debate to take place early in the new year. I welcome that on behalf of Liberal Democrats and I know that the Conservative party has also made its views known. It would be disappointing and an embarrassment for the Minister if we did not secure that crucial debate. We often have the opportunity to debate the matter at this time of year, just before the final quota settlement by fishing Ministers in Europe, but we do not often have the opportunity early in the new year. If the Minister succeeds in securing that debate, we may want to repeat it in future years.

In recent months, there has been concern about the draconian cuts in fish quota, particularly for cod and hake. The Newlyn fish festival in my constituency was opened at the end of August by Brian Tobin, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, who is a Liberal, of course. He was an excellent Fisheries Minister in his day and is now a member of the national Government in Ottawa. He presided over closure of the grand banks in 1992 and his speech to the Newlyn annual fish festival included some uncomfortable truths for fishermen and politicians, including the fact that fish cannot be caught if they are not there. Judging by the Minister's replies to our earlier questions, he is taking the right approach. It is important to act according to the science and not simply to make fishermen suffer because of collateral damage to some of the associated species. The message from the collapse of the cod fishery off the grand banks of Canada during the early 1990s is worth remembering at this crucial stage in terms of the future of the European and particularly the United Kingdom fishing industry. Taking a robust approach and, if necessary, introducing significant cuts in the quota for species facing collapse are of primary importance.

The fishing industry does not often feature in the headlines of national newspapers, but it has done so recently. There have been unseemly xenophobic skirmishes in the newspapers about who is entitled to fish and the headline writers have had a field day with headlines such as, ``Cod has had its chips.'' The serious basic point is that difficult decisions must be taken in the face of worrying scientific evidence which has emerged recently.

The Minister seems to have taken on board the comments made about the management of stock and the potential collateral damage from a significant cut in cod quotas—for example, using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and the blunderbuss approach when a surgical strike is required. The Commission's proposed cuts are a little like throwing an unselective bomb into the issue. We need a less one-dimensional and a more sophisticated approach than that proposed by Europe. The Minister has been reassuring on that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) suggested, there may be an argument for increasing the saithe quota in the North sea because of saithe depredation of sandeels. On nephrops, the Minister said that the situation was worth reviewing and challenging. The case for invoking The Hague preference was mentioned, so I shall not labour that point.

The leader of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation has said that the 60 per cent. cut in the south-west's cod quota, the 38 per cent. cut in its megrim quota and the 74 per cent. cut in its hake quota—on top of the fuel crisis—could mean

    the end of the Cornish fleet as we know it.

It has been suggested in the past that the industry has cried wolf, but it now faces such a serious and fundamental crisis that I fear that some of the gloom and doom interpretations of its future prospects could turn out to be accurate.

Our good wishes will be with the Minister at the end of the week in trying to ensure a decent, scientifically robust settlement that takes into account the need to address the industry's problems by implementing sophisticated technical measures rather than the blunderbuss approach.

The proposed cut in the hake quota is especially galling for Cornish fishermen, as they have been pushing for more than 10 years for measures to protect small hake from capture before they are able to breed. For the past 13 years, scientists have consistently said that the capture of juvenile and undersized hake should be tackled, and Cornish fishermen are now asking why that was not done, because the situation has reached crisis point.

The European Commission's proposal of a 74 per cent. cut in the hake quota means that every fisherman will suffer, irrespective of the type of gear that he uses. For example, Cornish gill-netters use a large mesh to catch larger fish. On average, each fish is 50 cm to 60 cm long, is five to six years old, weighs 3 kg and is worth £10. By comparison, other continental trawlers, who are able to use smaller mesh for gill nets, target much smaller juvenile hake of 27 cm. As each fish is smaller, up to 200 times more fish are killed to make the same amount of money. For several years, Ministers and scientists have been aware that at least 8 million undersized hake are discarded dead each year. That is destroying the fish stock.

Similarly, in respect of the 38 per cent. cut in the megrim quota, it is clear that many juveniles are being caught and discarded, especially in the otter trawl fisheries on the continental shelf. That problem could be addressed in several ways—for example, by creating a no-take zone in that area, by increasing minimum landing sizes or by introducing new minimum mesh sizes. Similar issues apply to monkfish, where it is not clear what is happening to the stock.

The Minister will understand that the proposed 60 per cent. cut in the cod fishery in the western approaches is not welcomed. According to the industry, there is no truth in scientists' claims that cod is a significant by-catch of gill-netters who target hake. Landing declarations of UK gill-netters show that average yearly landings of cod amount to a by-catch of less than 2 per cent. Perhaps most significantly, in the late summer of this year catches of juvenile fish on the wolf grounds were the best since 1994, when small cod and haddock were prolific. This year, the haddock are back and so are the cod. The industry believes that the introduction of 100 mm mesh for trawlers targeting those species has protected cod and haddock from excessive effort. Next year, even greater landings will be seen.

We should also bear it in mind that, although any cut in the quota will be keenly felt by our fishermen because of the UK's poor share of the total available catch, it will be relatively unnoticed by the French, who have a large proportion of the catch in area VII.

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