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21 Nov 2002 : Column 802—continued

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): It is more urgent than the Minister suggests. Negotiations with Norway are taking place now and the results will set the framework for the meeting of Ministers. So it is crucial that we are aware of the arguments about the latest scientific information and the more subtle messages that come from it.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is right. Although we can make progress on some stocks in the agreement between the European Union and Norway, as we will on pelagic stocks and saithe, the outcome of discussions on the North sea and the cod recovery programme will greatly influence decisions on other stocks.

David Burnside (South Antrim): Can the Minister be more specific when he refers to the North sea? Does he mean just the North sea or all the seas around the British isles, including the Irish sea? He is well aware that conservation in the Irish sea is more advanced in respect of moratoriums during the spawning period. We hope that we can defend the North sea and the Irish sea, but can he be more precise?

Mr. Morley: I assure the hon. Gentleman that in my methodical way I am working my way around the seas around the coast. I have no intention of underestimating the possible impact on the Irish sea, the west coast of Scotland or the western approaches. I am the United Kingdom Minister and it is my responsibility to pay heed to the whole of the country and every region in it, which I intend to do. I will specifically address the Irish sea. I understand that particular issues are a priority for fishing industries in particular regions. I work closely with the devolved Administrations and listen carefully to their views so that I ensure that the concerns of their fishing industries are taken into account.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I am glad that the Minister mentioned the science. The report by the Advisory Committee on Fishery Management shows that the haddock spawning stock biomass is the largest it has been since 1971; the saithe spawning stock biomass is the largest it has been since 1976; and the whiting spawning stock biomass is the largest it has been since 1991. Prawn stocks are also robust. Even the spawning stock biomass for cod, which is low, has increased 27 per cent. since last year. Given that, where did the recommendations for a total closure or draconian cuts come from, because they are in no way supported by the underlying scientific figures?

Mr. Morley: With respect, we need to interpret the science carefully, including those figures. Although some of them are encouraging, the underlying trends are not good for any stock, including haddock and whiting. It is true that there is a good year class in haddock. One of my objectives is to ensure that we manage that successfully so that we have a sustainable haddock fishery. I wish I could show the House a chart on the

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spawning biomass of cod. Although we can argue about the details of fishery science, which is not a precise art, there is no question about the trends, and the trend for North sea cod is demonstrated by a line that plummets below its safe spawning biomass.

The situation is serious. Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), have written to me about it and I propose to invite MPs, especially those from the North sea fishing ports, to attend a meeting to talk about the science in more detail. As the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, I will try to ensure that one of our scientists attends the meeting to discuss those figures, their interpretation and exactly what they mean.

Andrew George (St. Ives): No one questions the seriousness of the problem, but does the Minister accept that the science is largely based on estimates made earlier this year? It does not take proper account of the effect of the technical and other measures in place, some of which have been taken unilaterally by the industry. Those measures might lead to a significant perceptible improvement in the spawning stock biomass for cod in the North sea later this year.

Mr. Morley: Much has been done in this country. We have not been sitting around doing nothing when we have been considering the science. We identified that cod in particular was in some difficulties. That is why, since 2000, we have embarked on a number of recovery programmes, particularly in the Irish sea. The industry is to be congratulated on its involvement in the success of those programmes. We have a long way to go, however, in achieving recovery from a low base.

The hon. Gentleman is right about what we have done, and those actions must be taken into account—I shall say more about that in a moment.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—he has been characteristically generous in doing so. He is aware that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking into fishing at the moment. We have just come back from Brussels, where we received a gloomy message on stocks. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need an urgent scientific investigation into discard? We should look at the amount being thrown back, as that is completely unacceptable, not only in the operation of a modern industry, but in economic terms—we are almost paying people to cheat or not care about conservation. If my hon. Friend could initiate such an investigation, his epitaph would record that he had sorted the problem out.

Mr. Morley: I am always looking for a good epitaph. My hon. Friend is right—discard is a bane of fisheries management. We hear a lot about marketable fisheries thrown over the side of a boat because the quota has been exceeded. We do not hear very much, however, about high grading or undersized and unmarketable fish which are thrown over the side in large quantities in fisheries in all European Union states. We need to tackle that. Incidentally, one of the proposals concerns effort management on kilowatt days, which I know is

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controversial in the fishing industry. However, I talk to it a lot about discards, and always make it clear that I am prepared to look at alternative management approaches to reducing them. The annual quota is one method, and has some benefits. However, the only alternative to a quota system that promotes discarding is a form of effort management along the lines of kilowatt days.

There are mixed views in the industry about that approach, which does not invite universal opposition—there are people who support it. At this stage, where we are negotiating with the Commission, looking at options and talking to the industry, I do not rule any approach out or in.

Mr. Salmond: The Minister said that we need to tackle discards. Surely, the scientific research from the research voyages conducted for Scottish fishermen and the Scottish Executive shows that we have tackled discards? The summary of the findings shows that there is a 70 per cent. escape of marketable whiting and a 50 per cent. escape of marketable haddock. When the fishermen went to Brussels on Monday, the Commission said that it had not even considered the scientific evidence for fishing with big mesh and square mesh panels. When will it do so, and when will that be introduced?

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman's comment is true. I am not aware of any evidence in the figures or proposals that takes into account what we have done in this country. I repeat: we have not been sitting back waiting for the situation to get out of hand. There has been a reduction in effort in the UK fleet, and I will ensure that that is taken into account.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) rose—

Mr. Morley: It is only courteous to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but may I first point out that this is a standard European debate? When I discussed the procedure for this debate, my office assured me that it would not be an hour of intensive questions, as it normally is. I do not duck that approach, but I want to develop my argument and give other hon. Members a chance to contribute.

Mr. Hayes: In that helpful spirit, I shall limit my interventions to one, as I shall have a chance to challenge the Minister's assertions later. He talked about discards and the industry's efforts. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) was right that those efforts have been considerable, but that is not universally so. I draw to the Minister's attention a producer in the south-west who was told by his French counterpart, XOf course we stick to the rules. We only sell officially those fish that can be sold within the rules—the others are sold unofficially." Fish that should have been discarded were being marketed. That is happening widely in other countries, even though their industry is playing it by the book.

Mr. Morley: This year we prosecuted 200 people in the UK who held similar views to the French, so let us not think that everything is perfect in our own country. I shall say a few words about that in a moment.

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Let me focus on reform of the common fisheries policy. There is a link between CFP reform, recovery plans and quotas. We must discuss a number of aspects of the hake and cod recovery plan, which will be dealt with in the December Council. The background to all these issues, which we cannot ignore, is that fishing mortality is too high and is unsustainable. Stocks are diminishing, and although the instruments used under the CFP so far, such as total allowable catches and technical measures, have had some effect, they have failed to produce the reduction in fishing effort on depleted stocks that is fundamentally required. There are various reasons for that, not all to do with the CFP.

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