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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I congratulate the Minister on securing a full day's debate. Such a debate has been a long-standing ambition for him and a number of other hon. Members, so let us give him credit where credit is due for getting it out of the powers that be in this place.
The North sea has a number of stocks that are undergoing a strong recovery, as we know from scientific advice. It is to be hoped that the TAC that has been agreed will reflect that recovery and increase fishing opportunities. However, if the TAC for cod remains very low, it might be impossible for fishermen in a mixed fishery to take up opportunities in respect of haddock and other stocks. What thought has the Minister given to that problem and how does he see a way forward on ensuring that the maximum fishing opportunities are available to fishermen in the North sea?
Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is right that that is a potential problem. I shall comment on it when I deal with the Commission's proposals, its reasons for them and the reaction of the UK Government. The problem to which he refers relates to managing a fishery where some stocks are in severe troublethere is no doubt that the cod stock is in troublebut other stocks are not. Of course, that is in the nature of a mixed fishery, and I shall speak about the matter in a moment.
Let me spell out the Commission's broad approach. First, with regard to stocks for which the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommends a recovery planpredominantly cod and hakethe Commission proposes to treat 2002 as the first year in a long-term process of reductions in fishing mortality and TACs. The stocks approached in that way include cod in the North sea, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) mentioned, as well as cod in the Irish sea, and west of Scotland, northern hake and nephrops in southern waters. The latter is a stock in which the UK has no interest.
A second category of stocks is subject to the same approach. These stocks are not recommended for recovery plans by ICES as they are not considered to be in a dire state, but are regarded as being fished outside safe limits and have very low biomass levels. We cannot ignore that scientific advice. Stocks that fall into this category include western channel sole, Irish sea haddock and west of Scotland whiting.
The third categorythis is the difficult one identified by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchancovers stocks that are associated with those in the first and second categories. It could include, for example, species caught with cod and hake. With regard to such stocks, the Commission proposes to reduce TACs as a complementary measure. It made an attempt to do the
As I think the hon. Gentleman was suggesting, the matter needs to be carefully thought through. Account must be taken of the fact that we operate in a mixed fishery and that there could be a danger of displacement if fishermen are cut off from particular stocks that are not in difficulty and then move on to other fishing. Those issues are serious and not easy to resolve. In some cases, however, I do not think that the Commission itself has thought them through clearly, and we will have to discuss them in some detail at the Fisheries Council.
Andrew George (St. Ives): The Minister rightly said that the first category included stocks that are in a very severe state. In certain areas, they are on the verge of collapse and will be destroyed if we do not take the necessary measures. However, with regard to hake, for which a recovery programme is being implemented, does he accept that fishermen are concerned that catches in area 7where hake catches are still relatively good and catch sizes are reasonably large, although not by any means acceptableare different from juvenile hake catches in area 8? There is considerable concern about the catching of juvenile hake by fishermen in other nations. As hake is a migratory stock, such fishing will clearly have an impact in area 7, so in the area where it occurs an increase is needed in minimum mesh sizes and minimum landing sizes should be increased by up to 40 cm.
Mr. Morley: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I concede that fishermen in the south-west are saying that there has been unacceptable juvenile mortality further south in relation to the hake fishery. It is for that reason that we agreed last year, as part of the hake recovery plan, that mesh size in the bay of Biscay would increase from 17 mm to 100 mm. That is a very big jump. It does not significantly affect our industry, which has traditionally used larger meshes, but is designed to reduce juvenile mortality. I agree that such reduction is one of the top prioritiesindeed, it is probably the top priorityof the hake recovery plan.
The total spawning biomass of hake is at dangerous levels. In that respect, we must have an eye on overall fishing mortality. That is where the impact of our own industry comes into play, even though it is catching bigger fish. Minimum landing size is an issue, but it cannot be increased unless mesh size is also increased. That is rightly being done and I set great store on it following my discussions with fishermen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
The overall picture is one of seriously diminishing opportunities for a range of stocks, although there are one or two bright spots. When the EU-Norway talks are completed, we expect some increases in a range of quotas, although that does not go all the way in mitigating what the Commission is proposing. However, we must accept that the reductions in opportunity were inevitable to some degree. We cannot ignore the stark scientific assessment of some stocks, although I must point out that I am
Some of the TACs that have been proposed do not seem to take account of the difficult and painful measures that the industry has already taken in good faith. It has taken such measures in the Irish sea and deserves to be congratulated on its co-operation with us on the Irish sea cod recovery programmes. There is a call for a blanket cut on a number of stocks of real economic value, despite a lack of scientific advice, while in one or two cases scientists have recommended increases. We need to challenge such proposals and I can assure the House that that will be one of my objectives in the Fisheries Council.
One of the prime examples of proposals that need to be considered further relates to nephrops. The Commission has proposed what seem to be inappropriate cuts that are designed to complement cod recovery. Again, the matter is linked with by-catch issues. By-catch problems are very seriousif the science and evidence exist. I am convinced neither of that nor that the Commission has understood our research, which we presented to it to back up our argument.
Angus Robertson (Moray): Does the Minister know that Spain is in a similar position to Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom on nephrops? Is he optimistic about an opportunity to find commonality of interest between Spain and various parts of the UK on nephrops in the Council of Ministers?
Mr. Morley: Spain has an interest, but it is in different stocks. Our interests are mainly in the Irish sea and the North sea, where Spain does not have a quota for nephrops. However, I agree that one or two other countries have a joint interest with us on such issues.
We have always been responsible and argued on the basis of science. On last year's 10 per cent. reduction, we presented the Commission with scientific evidence to support our view that the cod by-catch in the North sea nephrops fishery was low and did not justify such cuts. We intend to challenge the Commission's scientific analysis on the basis of our considerably detailed work.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about the Irish sea fishing communities, which have genuinely worked together. Will he consider the results for the past two years of the cod recovery programme in the Irish sea? Many Fleetwood fishermen do not believe that they have been given the time or the chance to prove its success. Instead, savage cuts have been introduced without consideration of the programme and how we can build on the past two years.