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21 Nov 2002 : Column 847—continued

4.13 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I was watching television this morning and I saw the harrowing pictures from Galicia of the oil spill and the resulting damage to the environment, wildlife and fishing communities. Perhaps it has been caused by human greed in terms of single-hull tankers, but it is a tragedy none the less—an environmental and natural disaster.

I thought to myself how much more of a tragedy it would be if fishing communities here had visited on them an unnecessary disaster, not one resulting from an accident or from the environment. The more I consider the issue, the more convinced I am that any panic measure taken by the European Commission this December would be unnecessary and wrong. It would visit extreme suffering on many communities in pursuit of a totally unworkable policy and conditions not borne out by the science.

A few days ago, the Minister accused me of attacking the science—I wish he had not—as if the science were read. I was not attacking the science; I was attacking the conclusions drawn by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea from the scientific research that we have in front of us. The Minister himself, as has been pointed out twice in the debate, reserves himself the right, correctly in my view, to question the ICES recommendation that 1 million tonnes of industrial fish can be swept out of the North sea, including 50,000 tonnes of human consumption by-catch, while a human consumption fishery is closed down. He questions ICES on that matter, so the rest of us are entitled to consider the ICES report and the reality of what is in the science rather than the panicky pronouncements and manipulations that we see in so many of the comments from Commissioner Fischler and elsewhere.

The reality is that the figures show that the haddock spawning biomass, which, as the Minister knows, is by far the most important thing, is the highest since 1971. The spawning stock biomass for saithe is the highest since 1976, the whiting spawning stock is the largest since 1991 and everyone knows that prawn stocks are extremely robust. All that is in the figures.

Cod stocks are extremely low and extremely vulnerable, but even cod stocks have increased by 27 per cent. on the estimates in the figures compared with last year's total. Furthermore, all the figures that I have read out to the House—[Interruption.] The Minister looks at his officials, but I have the figures here and I can easily read them out. He does not need his officials when I am here. If he so wishes, I can read out the spawning stock biomass figures; believe me, they are correct.

The figures—the estimates—that I have read out refer to the largest spawning stock biomass for a range of white fisheries and, even from a very low level, there is a recovery in the cod stock biomass. However, all those estimates take account of the same effort this year as last. That is the underlying assumption in the scientific advice, but we all know that there was not the same effort last year as this. Why not? Because 20 per cent. of the Scottish fleet is no more—it has been decommissioned. The Scottish fleet is also now fishing with 110 mm nets with square mesh panels.

Incidentally, the #25 million package already referred to was for not just the decommissioning scheme, but #1 million went to research involving scientists and

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fishermen. We have the results, which show the escape of marketable haddock from 110 mm nets as 50 per cent. and that of marketable whiting as 70 per cent. We know that, as a direct result, the whiting and haddock quota will not be fished this year, not because there are no haddock and whiting in the sea, as they are there aplenty, but because there are very few discards of those marketable fish in the Scottish sector of the North sea as a result of the technical measures introduced by the Scottish fleet.

My good friend the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) made some interesting remarks. I am tempted to say that he said he wants to join us, although he was not making a territorial demand. That is my understanding, but he should remember, of course, that if he did so his fleet would be fishing with 110 mm nets with square mesh panels, as opposed to those in waters south of Newcastle where, remarkably, there are small cod and people are fishing with 80 mm nets. [Hon. Members: X120 mm."] In Norwegian waters, 120 mm nets are used, but 80 mm fishing is allowed, as the Minister well knows, south of Newcastle. The reality is that serious conservation measures have already been taken—conservation measures that he and I have argued for over many years. However, somehow and fantastically, they have not been included in the scientific assessment presented to us as the solution when stocks, or at least the biomass, are expanding. Somehow, the solution is to close the fishery. That is an unbelievable and lunatic recommendation from the European Commission and any serious analysis of the science would come to exactly the same conclusion.

Why is that important? It is important because no one will be to blame if we allow people to say, XIt is a shame about our fishing communities—a great tragedy—but there are no fish in the sea." We could all blame each other for the various stances that we have taken in politics over the past 20 years: people might blame the fishermen and the processors, the fishermen might blame the processors, the east coast might blame the west, Scotland might blame England and everybody might blame Spain. None the less, nobody would be essentially to blame because nothing can be done.

The right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who is one of the few Members who is more loyal now than when he was a member of the Government, illustrated that point by saying, XNothing can be done. What hope is there?" Read the figures: the reality is that plenty can be done. If it is not done, the people who live around the coastline of Scotland and elsewhere will want to know why.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I am very interested in the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and I hope that he makes his information available or tells us where it is available. Is there not a contradiction? The Scottish Fishermen's Federation says that

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However, the hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that that is not happening in Scotland. Why has the SFF alerted us to this fact in its own brief?

Mr. Salmond: What is happening in Scotland is this: because of the move to a large mesh and square-mesh panel, there are huge escapes of haddock and whiting. Haddock and whiting are smaller than cod and are no longer under pressure, but in any event using a high mesh—110 mm in Scottish waters, or 120 in regional waters—will mean a much more environmentally satisfactory fishery.

The Scottish fleet's transfer to the higher mesh has caused it some grief because the higher mesh allows many fish to escape, but that sacrifice—that conservation measure—was not taken into account in the Commission's calculation. There is no argument: according to the ICES advice, there was no time for assessment of the impact of the measures taken.

Mr. Doran: There is concern about the way in which these measures are being used out at sea. It is simple enough to get around technical measures that have been quite properly implemented in Scotland. A fisherman told me recently that square mesh panels are at the top of nets because fish swim upwards, and that if the net is turned the other way up they cannot get out. I do not know whether the allegations are true, but when suspicions and problems are floating around in the industry even more caution is needed.

Mr. Salmond: If the technical measures were not working, there would not have been the 50 per cent. escape of haddock reported by the joint scientific body. Moreover, this year's haddock quota would have been fished. If the hon. Gentleman had spoken to fishermen, he would know that there is any amount of young haddock in the North sea. ICES confirms that. The quota has not been taken because the technical measures are working, and the same applies to whiting. There is no longer a threat to those species. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), sitting directly behind the hon. Gentleman, is nodding vigorously. The hon. Gentleman should probably consult the chairman of the all-party fisheries committee before making any more hostile interventions.

Let me now say something with which all will agree. For the first time, the Scottish Executive have this year published a full analysis of the impact of fishing as an industry on the Scottish coastline. I use the word Xindustry" deliberately. It is not just a question of the catchers or the processors, many of whom are my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran); it is a question of the whole infrastructure that the industry supports. I am thinking of all the industries associated with a fishing community—netmakers, ropemakers, joiners, electricians and harbour staff. The research tells us that not 20,000 or 25,000—as has been suggested in the past—but 40,000 people owe their employment to the Scottish fishing industry, directly or indirectly.

Angus Robertson (Moray): Will my hon. Friend confirm that those statistics show that Moray's fishing

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communities figure largely? A representative of the processing sector in Buckie wrote to me this morning saying:

That is indeed a dire warning. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need more than just assurances from the Government—that we need delivery to prevent any such collapse?

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