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10.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on the way in which he has made his case. He raised a number of pertinent points about the cod recovery plan, which I understand are of concern to his fishermen, his constituents and other hon. Members who are present. I can update the hon. Gentleman on the cod recovery programme, as details have only just been agreed and are not yet widely known. I am happy to go through those points in this debate so that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the latest situation.

I shall start by dealing with the subsidies announced by the Irish Government. It is of course for member states to decide how to apply FIFG--financial instrument of fisheries grant--money. I fear that the Irish proposals will result in a rerun of what happened in this country in the 1980s, when an awful lot of money was made available to the United Kingdom fleet for modernisation and building. That led to significantly increased capacity, and we then spent the 1990s using public money to decommission the fleet.

Given the pressure on fish stocks and the fact that, as I understand it, one justification given by the Irish Government is the exploitation of deep-water species, about which the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea advice is not good, I have some concerns about just where the boats will go. However, that is a matter for the Irish Government. I would not wish to interfere in their policy, apart from saying that I do not believe that using public funds to increase catching power and capacity is a good use of such funds. There are other areas in the UK and European fishing fleets to which money should go.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about decommissioning. I certainly hope that we can reach a conclusion on the matter before the end of the financial year. He will appreciate that we have to consult the industry on the shape of the decommissioning scheme, but I certainly hope that the proposals can be implemented as quickly as possible so that fishermen know exactly what is on offer and can make decisions accordingly.

Agreement with Norway has been reached in the 2001 negotiations on the cod recovery programme. I shall run through what is in that agreement. Although the negotiations have been difficult generally speaking, there is a problem with cod stocks, as the hon. Gentleman emphasised fairly. No one disputes that, and we must take action on it. We in the UK have to explain to the Commission the problems of a mixed fishery. There is of course logic in going for a bigger mesh size in a cod fishery. Indeed, in the cod fisheries in Norwegian, Faroese

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and Icelandic waters, a 135 mm mesh size is not unusual. However, that would be much more difficult to introduce in a mixed fishery in the North sea. We have had to emphasise that point to the Commission on a number of occasions, shall we say, but we have made some progress.

The diamond mesh size is to be increased from 100 to 120 mm, with no square mesh panel required in the North sea. All species caught within that mesh size can be retained, subject to quota availability. The present 100 mm beam trawl fishery for plaice is to increase to 120 mm. For one year until 31 December 2002, the 110 mm diamond mesh fishing will be allowed in the European Community area of the North sea--our mixed fishery zone--with a 90 mm square mesh panel, as we have at the present time.

The target fishery will be 50 per cent. of any mix of haddock, whiting, plaice, sole, lemon sole, skate, ray, anglerfish or monkfish, in which a 25 per cent. cod by-catch will be allowed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the original proposal was for 15 per cent. We argued strongly that, by comparison with the normal by-catch in the fishery, that was not realistic for the UK. The last thing we wanted was increasing discards as a result of setting an unrealistic by-catch percentage. Although we understand that 25 per cent. is tough for the industry, it is certainly more manageable than the 15 per cent. originally suggested.

The nephrops fishery mesh size becomes 80 mm, which is already applied in many cases. The 80 mm otter trawl fishery in the southern North sea remains. All 80 mm otter trawls must incorporate a square mesh panel and a 140 mm diamond mesh in the cover of the net, as is currently applied in the Irish sea.

Sorting grids will be mandatory for the 32 mm pandalus shrimp fishery. The UK twine thickness standard of 8 mm single or 5 mm double has been adopted as part of the agreement. For static gear, the EC mesh size for cod increases from 120 mm to 140 mm; Norway will retain 148 mm in its own fishery.

The House might be interested to learn that, in connection with the controversy about industrial fishing, Norway has agreed to close an area on the Bergen Bank to all industrial fishing for Norway pout, blue whiting and sand eel, because significant quantities of juvenile haddock and whiting have recently been taken in those catches. I am sure that that will be welcomed by our industry, which has frequently expressed concern about the impact of industrial fishing.

After being a lone voice on the subject of industrial fishing, I am pleased to find other countries taking an interest. I emphasise that the Danish Government have been highly co-operative and have shared information and technical knowledge with the UK on those issues.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): The Minister's voice might have been a lone one in EU councils, but it certainly has not been in the House. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his reappointment as Fisheries Minister: he is the pole star in the changing world of the Government ranks. Will he address two points relating to the deal that has been struck? First, there is the issue of closed areas diverting effort into other fisheries; it is not only a question of mesh size. Again, I commend the strategy of a tie-up scheme. This year's

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voluntary tie-up probably saved 10 million juvenile haddock, but I have strong doubts whether a voluntary tie-up will be available again.

Secondly, will the Minister address the issue, which I know he understands, of slow-pulling highly selective fisheries, such as the seine-net fishery? Whatever mesh size is agreed in whichever area, some fishing boats that pursue the most select fishery might be disadvantaged. It would be an irony if such boats were pushed out of the equation, because they are surely the ones that we want in terms of selective fishery doing less damage to fish stocks. I should like to see some recognition that the Minister is fishing for the seine-net position within the overall deal.

Mr. Morley: To deal with the latter point first, I have sympathy with the argument about the nature of fishing and its selectivity. I do not think that proper attention has yet been paid to the way in which different fishing techniques have differing impacts on fish stocks. I had a private discussion with Commissioner Franz Fischler on that very point. I emphasised that, in addressing the recovery plans, we should not adopt a one-club approach. The main strategy is to reduce effort and fleet size. That has a role, but we should take a more sophisticated approach to recovery plans and consider the range of fishing techniques and their different impacts. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point, but we have more work to do in terms of quantifying the argument and convincing the Commission to take it on board.

The hon. Gentleman knows where I stand on the issue of tie-up grants. My mind is not closed to any approach, but I remain to be persuaded that the large sum of money that would be involved in a tie-up represents good value for money, or that the policy would have the effect we want. It might be regarded as a short-term solution to a long-term problem. There are several points on which we still need to be convinced.

On the cod recovery plan, I must emphasise that the 110 mm fishery is important in relation to mixed fishery. I know that the industry is worried about how long it will be continued. The original proposal is that it would be for one year only--2002. However, we have agreed with the Norwegians that it will be reviewed at the end of that year--it will not be for one year, and then finished. The review will enable us to consider the impact of the 110 mm mixed fishery. We have also agreed that that review will include proper consideration of the fishery's socio-economic impact. That examination, carried out over the course of the year, will help negotiations on future cod recovery plans.

There is no doubt that larger mesh sizes are the right approach, but we have to take the socio-economic impact into account and carry the fishing industry with us. The industry is willing to be co-operative. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire pointed out that cod recovery, closed areas and spawning were under discussion 20 years ago. However, we are now making progress because there has been a fundamental shift in attitude in the fishing industry. It recognises that there are severe problems with many fish stocks, including nearly all commercial stocks, and accepts that conservation action has to be taken. It has therefore participated in discussions.

As a Minister, I have tried to ensure that the fishing industry has been involved in all discussions at every stage. Its input has been invaluable; its experience and

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participation have been sensible and mature and have shaped the development of the cod recovery programme. It has certainly helped us to convince the Commission that its original proposals on technical measures were not workable; not only would they have a dramatic impact on fishermen, but they would not necessarily achieve the conservation outcomes that the Commission, the industry and we all want. We have therefore made a bit of progress and now have the opportunity to discuss with the industry the future stages of technical measures and the impact of the 110 mm and 120 mm mesh sizes; we can try to evaluate the application of the 120 mm mesh, how it works and its effects on the industry.

Information has been collected on by-catch figures for the nephrops fishery in the North sea. From our figures, it appears that the white fish by-catch is low in that fishery, which will allow us to argue for the 10 per cent. reinstatement that was part of the agreement that we reached last year. We have also been waiting for the ICES advice on North sea stocks; it has just come out and is promising for nephrops stocks, which seem to be in pretty good shape in the North sea--we want to try to keep them that way. However, there is a problem. The main difficulty is the Commission's determination to restrict any fishery that may have a potential cod by-catch. The fact that we have been collecting figures to present our case will be helpful in the fishery negotiations that we will be having on nephrops stocks.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the success of the closed areas on spawning. As he will appreciate, it is too early to say at this stage, as the hatched eggs are in planktonic form, so the success of spawning cannot be measured until the autumn of next year. However, when we have those figures, they will give us an indication of the success of the closed areas. Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) made a point about diversion to other grounds, which is an issue that we recognise. It is partly in the hands of the industry itself, which well knows the impact of diversion and concentration on particular areas, recognising that in this year's recovery programme. We shall discuss the matter with the industry and shall try to tackle it.

Finally, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire spoke about the two-net rule, which will be applied as part of the outcome of the Norwegian talks. I do not think that it will be problem; carrying two nets is already allowed under Norwegian regulations, so there should not be a problem for vessels carrying two nets--one can be used in the Norwegian zone for directed cod fishery and one for mixed fishery in the North sea.

In conclusion, the issues are complex and the negotiations difficult. We are facing serious problems with cod stocks in the North sea and a range of other white fish stocks. We are determined to deal with those problems and make progress, and we want to do that with the full involvement of fishermen and the full engagement of the industry; we want to involve them in discussions and take their views into account. We can make progress, improve the position and move towards a sustainable fishing industry, which is the objective of the industry, the Government and all those who represent fishing communities.

Question put and agreed to.

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