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7.14 pm

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): Yet again, I have the sense of "Groundhog Day" that I get at this time of year. I hope to keep my remarks brief so that at least one other Opposition Member representing a fishing community might say their piece for that community.

This morning, I was looking at this year's census figures. It staggered me to find out that only 138 people declared themselves as working in the fishing industry in my constituency. Even that number, if we extend it using the conventional multiplier of eight, means that about 1,000 people in my constituency work in the fishing industry. That is still a significant number.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) spoke of the road to Damascus. From the perspective of my constituents, I wish the Minister well on his road to Brussels, and I hope that he tries to achieve the best he can from those negotiations.

As is traditional in this debate, we have already been told that, sadly, people die in the fishing industry every year. I am passionate about health and safety at work; it is a policy area to which I have tried to commit a lot of time, and I hope that the Minister will have the fullest regard to the perils that people in my constituency face when they go to sea. When he is considering subjects such as days at sea, I hope that he will understand the pressures that people going out to sea face as they try to maximise their achievement in reclaiming the harvest that they feel is their own.

The Minister knows only too well that the current chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations in England is one of my constituents, Mr. Arnold Locker, and that one of his close colleagues is Mr. Fred Normandale, the master of the Alliance fishing organisation in Scarborough. He knows those two individuals very well. He talked at some length about his concerns about enforcement and the pressure that the Commission is bringing to bear on the British fishing industry, and I ask him to have due regard to the recent court case in which Mr. Locker, Mr. Normandale and seven other of my constituents faced charges for allegedly breaching the enforcement measures.

As the Minister knows, since the summer I have been trying to have a conversation with him, but, regrettably, for some reason his diary did not permit that conversation to take place. There is a need to bring not only the inspectors but everyone involved in enforcement, especially in the English industry, round the table to think about how they can try to manage that difficult area.

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The Minister will know that the case was thrown out, at considerable cost to his Department, because the breach was alleged to have occurred a month before the notice and the regulation took effect. The fact that such a fundamental mistake could be made, wasting much time and money and causing great distress to my constituents, is a disgrace, and I urge the Minister to go back to his Department and try to encourage the more co-operative partnership approach that he described earlier.

Like many of my constituents, I regarded the Prime Minister's intervention earlier this year, and his commissioning of a strategic report on the fishing industry, as quite hopeful. The report is very timely, but there is also major scepticism about it, not least on the part of Mr. Fred Normandale, who was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that it was rather like trying to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. That conveys the sense of beleaguerment felt by many people who face the perils of the sea daily, when they consider the measure about which we hope we will hear conclusions in the near future.

Finally, I shall offer a little glimmer of hope and try to look beyond the difficult times that many people in my constituency and in the rest of the industry now face. In Whitby, there is a small success story. A sea fishing school has about a dozen apprentices learning their craft onshore before they go out to sea. I am pleased that youngsters wanting a career in the fishing industry come to Whitby from all over the UK, with the aim of learning how to ply their trade at sea.

I want my hon. Friend the Minister to take the message from Scarborough and Whitby to the difficult negotiations in Brussels. I want him to have regard for the youngsters who seek a future at sea. I notice that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), is sitting on the Front Bench next to the Minister. She knows only too well the difficulties faced by families who earn their living by going to sea in boats. Those people need skill and craft, but above all they need the hope that they have a sustainable future.

I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in his attempts to secure the best outcome for this country.

7.20 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), who favoured us with a cogent and thoughtful analysis of the industry's problems. I endorse in particular his remarks about the problems of enforcement. I hope that the Minister will take them on board.

It bears saying that this debate is not about fish alone, but about people living in communities that depend on fish. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this issue to my constituency. As I did my tour of the outer isles of my constituency this summer, more than 100 people turned up to the Symbister hall in Whalsay to lobby me on the state of the fishing industry.

One of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do was to stand up in the Lerwick mission hall on 19 December last year, six days before Christmas, and face more than 100 skippers and crew members. I had to try to explain the bad, corrupt and downright deceitful deal

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foisted on them by people in Brussels. It was a vicious deal, and they were its victims. They were staring ruin in the face—that is the human cost of the decisions taken last year. I do not believe for one second that Franz Fischler could have been a party to that deal if he had had to stand where I had to stand on that day. That is why I say that the remoteness of Brussels in respect of fishing cannot be overstated.

We in Shetland have taken our share of the pain. Two years ago, we had a white fish fleet of 27 vessels fishing out of Lerwick, but today we have a fleet of 14. In the intervening period, the Zenith, the Harmony, the Donvale II, the Shannon, the Brighter Dawn, the Neptune, the Fear Not, the Madalia, the Langdale, the Andromeda, the Lomur, the Auriga, the Heatherbelle, and the Sarah Joan have either been decommissioned or sold. They have been lost to our community: 40 per cent. of the vessel capacity units have now been removed from the Shetland white fish fleet.

It is not just about the boats, but about the jobs that go with them. It is not just about the jobs on deck, either, but about the onshore jobs associated with them. I want to impress on the Minister the fact that we have suffered the pain, and are now looking for some of the gain. We are looking for a bit more stability in fisheries management. I want the Minister to accept the message, and to take it to Brussels with him, that there is now opportunity for growth in certain areas.

I turn first to the question of cod stocks. Figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea show that there has been a 59 per cent. increase in those stocks in the past two years. If that increase is repeated this year—and the extent of decommissioning over the past 12 months means that that may be a conservative estimate—it is reasonable to expect that the spawning stock biomass of cod in the North sea will be in the region of 69,000 tonnes next year. The ICES figures show that 70,000 tonnes is the minimum safe biological level. Therefore, the ICES proposal earlier this year for a total closure of cod was completely ill judged. At the same time, recruitment to the cod stocks has stabilised and, more important, the cod mortality fishing rate is now half what it was in 2000. In fact, it is at its lowest since 1979.

With a little imagination, there is an opportunity to explore the way in which spatial management might be used to decouple cod stocks from those of haddock. I have already made the point to the Minister about the opportunities that are provided by annexe V and the proposal to allow 22 days at sea for those boats that are able to take less than 5 per cent. of their catch from cod. However, that will be of little benefit to anyone if it excludes boats that, in previous years, have a track record of taking more than 5 per cent. That is one fight that must be winnable for our white fish fleet, and it would make a remarkable difference to the situation in which it finds itself.

I share the irritation of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) about the impression that, in some way or another, the North sea has been denuded of fish. I met an academic this morning who, at the end of our time together, told me that a fish van visited his village. He said that he liked to buy haddock from that van, but he was a bit concerned that buying haddock would affect the cod stocks. He knew that the level of cod stocks was critical. I told him that he was probably

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buying imported haddock so we perhaps should not go into that matter. However, I explained that if he was eating mature haddock, he would probably improve the recruitment to cod, so that his continuing to eat haddock might, in fact, do the cod a favour. If he really wants to help the stock of cod or that of any other species in the North sea, the one thing that he might do is stop eating Danish bacon. That is the ultimate destination of the sand eels and immature by-catch that industrial fishermen remove from the North sea.

As I have said to the Minister before, surely any proper application of the precautionary principle would mean that, instead of saying that the case that industrial fishing is damaging had not been proved, that point should be taken as self-evident. The burden of proof should be on the industrial fishermen to show that they are not damaging fish stocks by taking the amount that they do from the food chain.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan also mentioned monkfish. I emphasise the importance of monkfish to the fishermen in my constituency. My understanding is much the same as his. I believe that the stock levels that are prepared by ICES are made on the basis of landings and that there are no trawling data available specifically for monkfish. That is possibly because monkfish are inevitably a by-catch from other species; there is no targeted fishing of monkfish. Let us consider the figures. There was a 31 per cent. increase in the spawning stock biomass of monkfish this year, and there has been a 50 per cent. reduction in their fishing mortality over the past three years. The increased flexibility that the industry seeks for monkfish is crucial to the continued survival of a very fragile white fish fleet.

Sadly, nothing has been said about the pelagic sector, which is also of great importance to my constituency. It is healthy at present, but we must recognise that, like every other fishery sector, it will always remain vulnerable to bureaucratic micro-management from the centre. As others have said, we have an abundance of herring, but I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) to what is said in the briefing supplied by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. In relation to pelagic stocks and herring, it says:

That is a very responsible attitude for the federation to take.

We have also seen a slight downturn in the numbers of mackerel, but I hope that the Minister will take on board the concerns in the pelagic sector that an 8 per cent. reduction in the mackerel TAC is excessive and unnecessary. It is an over-reaction.

At this time of year, we always wish the Minister well. Indeed, we could not wish him anything other. He has a massive task ahead of him. I very much hope that he is equal to it, because the survival of fishing communities in my constituency, as in so many other places in this country, depends on his success.

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