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25 Jun 2001 : Column 484

EU Cod Recovery Programme

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. McNulty.]

10 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to raise this subject. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will agree that, after the hiatus of the election, now is a very appropriate time for the House to return to the EU North sea cod recovery programme, which is especially important to our coastal communities. I am sure that I speak for many hon. Members who represent fishing interests in welcoming his reappointment to his important role as Fisheries Minister, which was greeted with relief. The prospect of a new and inexperienced Member being given such a technically difficult role at this especially sensitive time would have caused understandable concern. We are pleased to see him on the Front Bench this evening.

The purpose of this debate is twofold. First, will the Under-Secretary give the House a progress report on the current state of the cod recovery plan and the negotiations that surround it? Secondly, we would all be grateful if he could try to provide a somewhat better understanding of what was meant by Commissioner Fischler when he recently declared that the European Union white fish effort would have to be reduced by some 40 to 50 per cent. That statement, which was reported in the general and fishing press, has caused a great deal of alarm in our coastal communities. Any reassurance and explanation of the context of the statement would be very welcome.

Before I deal with some of the detailed aspects of the cod recovery programme, let me say that I am pretty certain that I am expressing the views of many hon. Members when I say that there is a palpable sense of anger and foreboding in our fishing ports--especially the small village-based industries around our coasts. Every week that passes and every new issue of Fishing News brings more frustration for the catching sector of the North sea fleet. For example, early in May, it was reported that the Republic of Ireland had been allocated through its national development plan for fisheries another £20 million for decommissioning and other purposes, including the development of shore-based facilities in ports.

If the arithmetic of my local fishermen is correct, the EU funds available to the Irish fleet in the period 2000-06 total some £75 million. That contrasts with the £6 million for decommissioning that is going to the English fleet and the £25 million allocated to the Scots fleet for the same purpose. On decommissioning, will the Under-Secretary respond to concerns about the fact that the scheme that has been announced is unlikely to be available much before the end of the current financial year? It will not be available to under-10 m boats and it may also be of most financial benefit in practice to Anglo-Spanish boats sailing out of ports such as Ayr. Alternatively, and equally perversely, it may involve payouts to Peterhead skippers whose boats are registered in that port but who never land fish there.

To make matters worse, we have heard the recent European Union announcements on the allocation of FIFG--financial instrument of fisheries grant--fisheries guidance funds for diversification out of the catching

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sector. The announcements showed that Spain was getting more in one year--more than 1 million ecu--than the UK was getting in the entire six years of the programme--some 225,000 ecu. Our fishermen are aggrieved not just about the direct effects of the efforts to protect stocks, but about the apparent unfairness of the way in which their interests are being protected by European Union common fisheries policy regimes. If the Minister can reassure me about any of those perceptions of unfairness, which were repeated to me numerous times on the doorsteps of fishermen, skippers and crewmen during the election campaign, I shall pass that on to skippers in ports such as Eyemouth, who believe that their interests are not being protected relative to those of their opposite numbers in EU sister states.

There is a clear feeling that greater involvement of skippers and crews should be taken into account when policy is formulated; that more regional control of fisheries management should be devolved back to local areas--parts of the North sea are a good example of that; and that the bankruptcy of fishermen and fishing catching sector enterprises should not be a deliberate tool of policy, which might, by default, be the case soon if left untouched.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I spent part of the day with representatives of fishing interests--in particular, with those who are concerned about the 10-metre-and-under sector--in Pittenweem in my constituency. My hon. Friend's comments about anxiety were reflected in what I heard this afternoon.

Mr. Kirkwood: That does not surprise me. Places such as Anstruther and Pittenweem are coastal villages that form an important part of the industry. They are being affected directly and indirectly by some of the negotiations on the cod recovery plan.

The first thing worth noting about the plan is that the notion of closing principal spawning grounds for cod was thought to be a good idea just after I was elected in 1983. That was promoted by skippers and others who were knowledgable about the industry on the Berwickshire coast. If that was the case 20 years ago, it cannot be argued that it is a great new idea that has just been dreamed up by scientists. At the time, the scientists said that it could not, or would not, help. That is another example of why skippers do not fully trust the scientific advice that they are given.

As I understand it, the cod recovery plan contains three main elements, all of which try to protect cod stocks in the North sea. The first is quota cuts that affect cod and, in parenthesis, other species with a cod by-catch, which is important for the Scottish industry. The second element is nursery closures in the North sea and the west of Scotland. The third relates to gear modifications.

It is almost impossible to argue against cuts in the cod quota, which has not been fulfilled in recent years. However, significant cuts have been made in the haddock, whiting and nephrops quota as a result of the by-catch issue. Those cuts most affect the industry in Scotland, and give rise to various questions. What progress has been made to restore the 2001 nephrops quota? That is an important, although perhaps premature, question, and I should like to hear the Minister's response. In conjunction with that, will there be a similar cut in the nephrops quota this year? Is there any intelligence on that and what is the

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Minister's feeling about it? Finally, what measures will the Government put in place to ensure that the fleet remains viable in the light of a round of expected severe quota cuts in December? Those important questions are at the forefront of local skippers' minds.

Closures in the North sea and on the west coast of Scotland were based on areas of maximum catch during the spawning season. It was assumed that that would reduce the take of spawning female fish. How successful have those closures been? It should be possible to gain a preliminary idea of the scientific assessment of the data. Are scientific data available? If they are, will the Minister share them with us? If they are not, will he give us an idea of when they might become available? Will the closures be repeated, as expected, in 2002? If so, is it likely that those areas that were closed this year will be closed again?

What measures will be put in place to stop boats diverting to other fishing grounds--for example, the juvenile haddock grounds in the North sea? That question is particularly important for the fishermen in Eyemouth, in my constituency, who now fish for nephrops and are deeply worried that fishing effort will be diverted from the closed cod grounds to the haddock and whiting grounds and that effort will be further diverted to nephrops. Although subject to a quota, the stock of nephrops has not been particularly challenged, but it might be if diverted effort continues uncontrolled.

Finally, technical measures represent an important, third strand to the cod recovery plan negotiations. The debate about technical measures is continuing. The Commission's publicly stated position is that 120 mm mesh would be acceptable. However, I think that the Commission would be prepared to accept a 110 mm derogation for the first year. The French, because of their juvenile hake fishery, and the Scots, because of their whiting fishery, would prefer to advance no further than allowing a mesh size of 110 mm at present. However, as the Minister will know, I understand that the Norwegians, with whom key North sea stocks are shared, currently want a mesh size of nothing less than 135 mm.

If no agreement is reached between the Commission and Norway, the Norwegians could institute a 135 mm mesh size unilaterally in their waters. So will the Minister say something about the outcome of the crucially important EU-Norway round of the discussions, as those bilateral negotiations are of essential importance to those of my constituents who fish.

Do the Government envisage a substantial loss of whiting with the 120 mm net? If so, what will they do about any such loss? Finally, on technical measures, how will the problem of carrying two nets--one for EU waters and another for Norwegian waters--be addressed in future? Those are some of the issues that arise as a direct consequence of the continuing negotiations on the technical measures in the plan.

The catching and onshore processing sectors in my constituency are very pessimistic about the future. The Commission's plans for next year are still not clear; nor is it clear how long the current exercise will continue, but what happens if the cod stocks do not recover? That is the key question. It is not too early to start thinking about that quintessentially important question now, because the consequences will be immense if we get into the position that the Canadians were in with their North Atlantic white fish fishery. As we know, those grounds are still not yet open.

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No one who knows anything about this difficult problem thinks that its resolution will be easy. I do not envy the Minister's task; he has to reconcile all sorts of interests, but I know that he will do the best that he can. However, the House must understand that, if we are to provide any hope at all for those of our constituents who go down to the sea in ships and do business in great waters, the Minister needs to address himself urgently to some of those questions, and it would be of considerable assistance if he could answer some of them during this debate.

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