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Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I wish to associate myself with the Minister's remarks regarding the tragedy of Colin Donnelly, who was one of my constituents, as well as the other fishermen throughout the UK who have lost their lives. Indeed, slightly earlier, three generationsgrandfather, father and sonwere lost in one incident in my constituency. It was one of the greatest tragedies that I have ever known, and it highlights the horror that can result from the unpredictability of earning one's livelihood at sea.
I shall resist the temptation to enter into the international debate about the CFP and various other things. I simply wish to concentrate very briefly on a couple of matters that directly affect the negotiations that are about to take place and that will impinge on the fishermen of my constituency and the North Down constituency from January nextjust a few weeks away.
First, I should like to deal briefly with the total allowable catches and the quotas. It seems from the information that I have received that the jury is still out on what is happening to Irish sea cod, whiting and haddock, but we would like to be assured that improvements will result from the negotiations. However, for plaice and, to a lesser extent, Irish sea sole, the scientific evidence has reversed. Whereas last year the evidence indicated a serious decline in the number of plaice, the same scientists now say that it is on the increase. Therefore, I should like the Minister to take that on board when he negotiates the TACs and quotas for that catch.
The most important catch on the County Down coast that I represent is nephrops. That catch has reduced in real terms over the past four years by 24 per cent.almost a quarterbecause of the quota system. It has been reduced from 23,000 tonnes to 17,500 tonnes. The reduction was introduced not because of a scarcity of nephrops, or prawns, but because of the allegation that there was a considerable by-catch of Irish cod. I wish to say two things about that.
First, fisheries scientists now estimate that the prawn stock in the Irish sea is three times the size that they had previously estimated. Secondly, as a result of the DEFRA-sponsored fishery science partnership, observers on local vessels have indicated and proven that the by-catch, particularly of cod, from the nephrops fishery is, in their terms, minimal. In view of those two factors, will the Minister ensure not only that there is no further reduction in the TAC or quotas for nephrops in the Irish sea, but that there is an increase?
The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) mentioned The Hague preference, which continually works to the disadvantage of Northern Irish fishermen. There has been a regime over the years whereby the Ministers in the north and south or in London and Dublin exercise a swapping process. Swapping quotas with the Irish fishing industry south of the border has proved to be beneficial. Those two fishing industries for the island of Ireland can see one another fishing. The border between them is in my constituency. Carlingford loch, which is probably the only water border, is not even a mile wide. To have one regime on one side of it and another on the other is nonsense. The Hague preference greatly militates against Northern Ireland fishermen in that respect.
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At last December's round of talks, the Council introduced effort control at sea. Northern Irish fishermen were given additional days at sea to compensate for the closures. It is our understanding from the European Community that they will not get those additional days if there is a closure this year. We are also getting indications from our spies at the EC that if the Minister presses strongly enough and negotiates hard enough, we will get those additional days if the closure restrictions are introduced. I leave him with that thought, to gird his loins for that negotiation.
The Irish sea cod closures are now into their fifth year. There have been all sorts of effort controls, including additional technical conservation measures, fishing vessel decommissioning and a plethora of presumably laudable and necessary restrictions on catch. However, there is no evidence of those having any meaningful effect in restoring stocks. Local fishermen are wondering whether over-fishing is causing the problem or whether environmental change is a primary factor in the decreasing stocks of particular species in particular areas, which has been discovered in fishing areas outside the UK. Perhaps the Minister will take that on board in his review.
I like to think that the Minister will, in the remaining time before he sits down at the negotiating table, consult more intimatelyif that is the right word to usethe Northern Ireland fishing organisations. There is an opinion that they were excluded from the higher echelons of consultation for the first time, in 2004. They have always had a close relationship with the Fishing Minister in the north and the Fishing Minister in Westminster.
David Burnside: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that our representative, Mr. Alan McCulla, will be at Westminster next Tuesday, giving evidence to the fishery Sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, representing our interests. We hope that that evidence will be passed on to Her Majesty's Government.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. It would be a great thing if the Minister, who will be the key person at the negotiating table, takes the opportunity of the Irish fisherman's presence here to give him an interview and discuss matters with him. That would be most laudable.
I end with words of exhortation on behalf of the fishing fleet in Northern Ireland. Communities such as Kilkeel and Ardglass, the primary ports in South Down, and Portavogie in North Down depend on the fleet. Not only is the fishing industry dependent on the catches and the markets, but whole communities are built almost exclusively on the fishing industry and fish processing. The fleet is vital to the economy of my constituency and the industry as a whole in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Down[Interruption.] I am sorry. It would have been a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for either Down, but it is certainly a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). I will follow his
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example by spending the latter part of my speech on specific practical matters. The Minister said that he was a pragmatic Fisheries Minister; I am a pragmatic Opposition Member, and my uppermost concern in these debates is the immediate issues that face my constituents and the industry that depends on the catching of fish. I shall devote some time to the politics, but I will want answers to my specific points.
I do not agree with Members who have suggested that this is the wrong time for the debate. We have a very good idea of the proposals that will come forward. We know what the Norwegian talks have thrown up and we know, roughly at least, what the Commission's proposals might be. In so far as the Minister chooses these things, he has chosen the right time for the debate. I hope that he will keep us informed as the talks go on. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made an excellent point, and perhaps the Minister will even prevail on the Leader of the House for a statement as the talks progress. Would it not be interesting if the subject of fisheries was considered important enough to have a statement on the Floor of the House? The Minister could inform us of progress, and we could have a debate.
I am sure that the Minister will want to provoke a debate on the outcome of the negotiations. This year I provoked a debate in Westminster Hall to examine the unintended consequences of last year's fisheries discussion. I hope that we will not have the same unintended consequences this year, but it is important that the Minister, having chosen the right time for this debate, keeps us informed on the progress of the negotiationsI know that he will be anxious to do thatand comes back in January for a debate on their outcome. It is time that we accorded the subject the importance that it deserves.
Lawrie Quinn: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, probably two years ago, we had a very useful and encouraging debate in a European Standing Committee? Members representing fishing communities were better able to scrutinise the outcome of European talks. Is not that format, which allows for debate and a vote on a motion, the best for allowing us to discuss the meat of the decisions that will probably be made?
Mr. Salmond: Like the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), I have been at every fisheries debate on every occasion, stretching back for many years, and I remember that debateprecisely because I noted that the Minister disparaged the common fisheries policy and said how much he disagreed with it. I think he will find that on the record; I do not see him demurring. It was a useful debate, and of course, he opposed the policy only in a pragmatic sense in that Committee. None the less, he was right to do so. I shall remind the House what is wrong with a policy that has served us so badly over the past 30 years or so.
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