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European Standing Committee A Debates

Recovery of Sole Stocks in the Western Channel and the Bay of Biscay

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European Standing

Committee A

Tuesday 30 March 2004

[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]

Recovery of Sole Stocks in the Western Channel and the Bay of Biscay

2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am grateful to the Scrutiny Committee for recommending this debate. The European Commission's proposals for a recovery plan for sole stocks in the western channel and the bay of Biscay have potentially serious consequences for fishermen in the south-west, so it is right that the Committee should debate them.

In its report, the Committee highlighted two areas for debate: the apparent disagreement between the Government and the European Commission about the state of the western channel stock, and the potential impact of the proposal on the south-west fleet, particularly vessels that catch not only sole, but other species. That is significant because sole is only a small part of the catch for many vessels.

The starting point for the Commission's proposal is the scientific advice on the state of the stock. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea advises that the stock in the western channel has been declining since 1980, and is now at an historically low level. Due to misreporting, there is some uncertainty about the absolute level of that stock, but the trend is clear. At the same time, the fishing rate has been high. For most years since 1982, it has been above the safe levels recommended by scientists.

Our differences with the Commission are mostly not about the science, but the conclusion that it has derived from the scientific advice. We agree that the state of the stock in the western channel could be improved, and that the fishing rate is too high. We also recognise the problems caused by misreporting and underreporting—fishermen, scientists and the Commission all acknowledge that there has been a high level of misreported landings of western channel sole in recent years—but we believe that there is enough evidence to conclude that the scientific advice on the state of the stock does not justify the severity of the measures proposed by the Commission. There is a higher proportion of mature fish in the sole stock than in the North sea cod stock, yet the measures proposed for western channel sole seem to be more severe, in some respects, than those for North sea cod. That cannot be sensible.

The scientific difficulty of estimating absolute stock size has led the Commission to propose targets to reduce the harvest rate rather than to increase the size of the stock. The harvest rate, which is the proportion of stock removed by fishing, is believed to be

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reasonably well estimated. Given those uncertainties, the principle of basing a recovery plan on the harvest rate is sensible, but we believe that the Commission's proposal would go too far, too soon. Other recovery plans have adopted precautionary targets that provide a safety margin, give a high chance of avoiding stock collapse and create conditions in which stock recovery would be anticipated.

The Commission proposes to go significantly further for western channel sole, the impact of which would be particularly severe on UK fishermen because sole in the western channel is taken in mixed fisheries. Sole represents only a small proportion of the catch of beam trawlers from the south-west, which catch most of the UK quota. Many of the other species on which the fleet depends, such as cuttlefish, are outside the total allowable catches regime, but fishing for them would be restricted by the proposals. For example, the Commission proposes that if a harvest rate is above a predefined, low level, TACs and fishing effort should be restricted by 20 per cent. That would translate into a restriction on days at sea for vessels that catch sole, which would probably have a disproportionate effect, as such measures could greatly restrict catches of other species—with obvious consequences for the economic viability of the fleet.

The European Commission recognises the mixed fishery problem, but does not have full information on the catches of the fleets involved, so it has invited member states to provide further information, which the UK did at a meeting last week. We also invited the Commission to visit the south-west to hear from the fishermen concerned first hand, and it accepted that invitation.

We are working closely with the industry to develop the UK response to the Commission's proposals. There is widespread acceptance within the industry that we must find ways of tackling the misreporting problem so as to improve the scientific advice, and I am pleased to report that some skippers have already co-operated with our scientists so that we can get a truer picture of catches. There have also been suggestions from within the industry for other measures that might reduce the fishing mortality of sole while allowing other species to be caught, including increasing mesh sizes and reducing the length of beam trawls. We are studying their implications with the industry. This month, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science has been trialling the use of large mesh sizes with the help of commercial fishermen.

As a south-western MP, I am very much aware of the concerns that the industry in my region has about the proposals. As I explained, we share many of those concerns. Although we recognise that the western channel sole stock needs to be improved, we do not accept that proposals as severe as the Commission's are necessary. We must study alternatives, such as those suggested by the industry, which will help the sole stock but have less impact on vessels whose main catch is not sole.

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The Chairman: We now have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask several questions.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst; it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am pleased that we are discussing this issue, which has such consequences for the south-west.

What forms the basis for the stock calculations that have given rise to the Commission's concerns that sole stocks are in danger?

Mr. Bradshaw: It is the scientific research that ICES regularly undertakes to measure a stock's biomass, reproduction rate and age range. It then decides whether the stock is growing or whether fishing is decreasing its biomass.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): I extend my welcome to you, Mr. Hurst; it is always good to see you in the Chair.

How will the report by the Prime Minister's strategy unit, which was published last Thursday, dovetail with the measures before us in terms of the overall UK fishery?

Mr. Bradshaw: We could spend a great deal of time discussing the report, and I am sure that hon. Members will have ample opportunity to do so at some point in the future. As my hon. Friend will know, the report says a great deal about the future of the fishing industry. Indeed, as the representative of a fishing constituency, he will have studied its recommendations with great care. In summary, it is a radical report, which offers the industry a rosy future. It makes it clear that the fishing industry, unlike the coal industry, is not in terminal decline, and that fishing is based on a renewable resource. If we manage that resource properly, there is absolutely no reason why communities such as that represented by my hon. Friend should not have a good future. However, that renewable resource needs to be managed in such a way that it does not become over-exploited and go into terminal decline.

On the report's relevance specifically to the south-west, I seem to remember from my reading of the report that the south-west is singled out as having a more positive future than many other parts of the United Kingdom. Most of the stocks on which it relies are in good condition, and it is a mixed fishery, with a thriving shellfish and inland fishery sector. Some of the measures that have been introduced as a result of the common fisheries policy are being pioneered in the south-west. There is a high level of co-operation in the region between the industry, Government, environmental groups and the various agencies to ensure that the fishing industry has the profitable and sustainable future that we would all want it to have.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): As the Minister said in his opening remarks, his own scientists dispute the interpretation of the science as regards the sole stocks,

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particularly in area VIIe. Like many others, I would like to be a fly on the wall during negotiations on the issue between CEFAS and ICES, because, as the Minister rightly suggested, the impact will be felt by not only the 50 beam trawlers of the South West Fish Producers Organisation but by the 30 beam trawlers of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation. What discussions have taken place between CEFAS and ICES since their meeting was cancelled in December?

Mr. Bradshaw: The discussions take place regularly. Our disagreement with ICES is not, fundamentally, about the science or the council's assessment of stock levels, although we have some slight disagreements as regards the stock's age balance. We recognise that there is problem with stock levels, which needs to be addressed, but we differ over the way in which we want to address that. As I said in my opening remarks, the policy that the Commission is advocating is far more radical than is necessary, and could damage our industry. We want the approach to be much more gradual. We agree that stocks must recover, but we believe that that can be achieved without introducing measures that are likely to have serious implications for the industry in the short term.

 
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