Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sixth Report


1. The fishing industry is an important part of the UK economy with one of the largest fleets and processing industries in Europe. In 2003, the catching sector alone employed almost 12,000 people and landed over £520 million in catches.[1] However, the industry has faced tremendous upheaval over the last few decades. Levels of several commercial fish stocks are considered to be lower than safe biological limits. As a result, quotas have been cut and fleets decommissioned, particularly in the whitefish sector. Some traditional UK fishing communities have suffered a severe decline in fishing activity, with a total decline of a third in the number of full-time fishermen since 1995.[2] These economic and biological pressures have coincided with an increased concern about the impact of commercial fishing on the marine environment.

2. During 2004, three major reports were published, making different recommendations to reform the fishing industry—by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit.

The Strategy Unit report

3. The Strategy Unit was set up in 2002, bringing together the Performance and Innovation Unit, the Prime Minister's Forward Strategy Unit, and parts of the Centre for Management and Policy Studies. Its purpose is to "improve Governments capacity to address strategic, cross-cutting issues and promote innovation in the development of policy and the delivery of the Governments objectives".[3] In March 2003, the Prime Minister asked the Strategy Unit to assess the issues facing the UK marine fishing industry and recommend action to create a stable future both for the industry itself and for the communities that depend upon it.[4]

4. The resulting report, Net Benefits: A sustainable and profitable future for UK fishing, was published in March 2004 and made 33 recommendations intended "to form a consistent and coherent package of measures and provide a starting point for discussions on future action between government and stakeholders".[5] The recommendations were directed at the responsible "fisheries departments" in each UK administration—the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Scottish Executive Environment & Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD), the National Assembly for Wales Agriculture Department (NAWAD), and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for Northern Ireland (DARD)—and to the UK as a whole, as appropriate.[6]

Our inquiry

5. In July 2004, we decided to examine what had been done to take forward the proposals made in the Strategy Unit report (SU report) and to consider the effect on the industry and on fishing communities, fish stocks and the environment, of the proposals in the report.

6. We appointed a Sub-Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr Austin Mitchell MP, to carry out the inquiry. It received 26 written memoranda from various interested and affected parties. In November and December 2004, we took oral evidence at Westminster from: the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations; the Scottish Fishermen's Federation; WWF UK; the South West Fish Producers Organisation; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation; the National Federation of Sea Anglers, the Sea Anglers' Conservation Network and the Bass Anglers' Sportfishing Society; the South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen; Dr Andrew Palfreman, an independent consultant; and the Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries, Ben Bradshaw MP, together with Defra and Strategy Unit officials.

7. As part of its inquiry, the Sub-Committee also visited Scotland in January 2005, spending two days in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Peterhead, including a visit to Peterhead Harbour and fish market to speak with the local fishermen and harbour authorities. We took oral evidence at both the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and at Aberdeen City Council Town House. In Edinburgh, we heard from: the Royal Society of Edinburgh; the Sea Fish Industry Authority; and the Scottish Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Ross Finnie MSP, together with SEERAD officials. In Aberdeen, we heard from: the Scottish White Fish Producers Association; the Scottish Seafood Processors' Federation; and Fishermen's Association Ltd. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence or otherwise assisted with our inquiry. We are particularly grateful to the Clerks in the Scottish Parliament, the staff at Aberdeen City Council and Mr John Paterson of the Peterhead Harbour Trust for making our visit to Scotland such a success.

8. At the outset of our inquiry, we asked Defra to submit a written memorandum addressing our terms of reference. The resulting memorandum arrived five weeks after the closing date of 24 September and was significantly out-of-date. We asked Defra to provide us with an up-to-date memorandum, but never received a response to our request. Consequently, our written evidence from the Government was not as up-to-date as we would have liked.

Recent developments

9. During the course of our inquiry, several important developments occurred which kept fishing policy in the media spotlight. In November 2004, in an extremely important step for the progressive regionalisation of the Common Fisheries Policy, the first Regional Advisory Council (RAC) was established for the North Sea. Its first meeting was widely regarded as a success. We discuss RACs in greater detail below (paras. 152-163).

10. In December 2004, another report on fishing policy, Turning the Tide, was published by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The report focussed on the impact of fishing on the marine environment. It received a considerable amount of media attention, largely due to its controversial recommendation that a network of marine protected areas should be established, which would result in "30% of the UK's exclusive economic zone being established as no-take reserves closed to commercial fishing".[7] Unsurprisingly, the recommendation provoked a huge outcry from many in the fishing industry. It was denounced as "outdated madness", "codswallop" and resulting from "tunnel-vision".[8]

11. Later the same month, fishing was once again high on the media agenda, in the run-up to the annual Fisheries Council meeting in Brussels, at which the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) quotas are set for the forthcoming year. Despite the UK industry's initial pessimism, the Government was able to negotiate what was largely considered a successful deal for UK fishermen. The European Commission was persuaded to abandon plans to close key cod fishing grounds in the North Sea, off the west coast of Scotland and in the Irish Sea. The Government also prevented further limits being imposed on the number of days for which UK vessels may stay at sea.

1   Defra, United Kingdom Sea Fisheries Statistics 2003 Back

2   Net Benefits: A sustainable and profitable future for UK fishing, p.36 Back

3 Back

4   Net Benefits: A sustainable and profitable future for UK fishing, p.4 Back

5   Ibid. p.12 Back

6   Most aspects of fisheries management, industry support, regional development and environmental management have been devolved since 1999. Back

7   Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Turning the Tide: Addressing the Impact of Fisheries on the Marine Environment, December 2004, p.254. Other significant recommendations within the report included the immediate halt of deep-sea trawling in UK waters and that the UK government press for the introduction of an EU-wide discard ban.  Back

8   'Fisheries report is 'outdated madness', Western Morning News (Plymouth), 8 December 2004; Fishing ban denounced as codswallop, Morning Star, 8 December 2004  Back

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