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Mr. MacNeil : Surely the hon. Lady would not look for a licensing scheme in a cockle fishing area unless actual cockle fishers in that area were in favour of the scheme.

Geraldine Smith: Yes. Obviously, there would have to be consultation, but such a scheme would represent progress as it would ensure that people could work safely in the dangerous environment of Morecambe bay.

As well as health and safety issues, many of my constituents have been appalled by the environmental damage to Morecambe bay. When the cockling beds were opened, they were fished on an industrial scale. Rubbish and netting were left behind by cocklers, and many old vehicles were abandoned in the middle of the bay. I went out with the lifeboat crews on the hovercraft, and saw the problem for myself. It is a beautiful bay, and in the middle of it are several vehicles. They are in the sand and covered by water. Those abandoned vehicles pollute the bay and present a hazard to fishermen who work in small boats should their nets become entangled with the vehicles.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, the problem is that no agency or Government Department appears to accept responsibility for the removal of the vehicles from the bay. I have tabled several questions to various Government Departments but I have not been able to establish who is responsible for their removal. I would be most grateful if my hon. Friend were to make inquiries and write to tell me who has that responsibility. It may be helpful for him to know that so far the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency, the police and the local authority have all denied any responsibility. I do not know which organisation will be the last to disclaim responsibility.

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider what I have said in my brief contribution to the debate. I look forward to hearing his response when he winds up.

1.51 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) to whom we should pay tribute for her tireless work on cockle fishing in Morecambe bay and for the changes that she has brought about. I am much persuaded by what she has said, particularly about abandoned vehicles. I am used to dealing with abandoned vehicles in fields in Cornwall, but to have vehicles abandoned in Morecambe bay seems ridiculous.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute, once again, to the annual debate on fisheries. I pay my respect to the many fishermen who day by day risk their lives. We also remember those who have lost their lives during this year in pursuit of their livelihood.
 
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Later this month, the Council of Ministers will once again have its work to do. It is right that we record the many issues that are facing fishing communities in the UK, some of which have already been raised. Ministers will again decide on the quotas for commercial fish stocks in each and every member state. Too often in previous years decisions on quotas and total allowable catches have been more about short-term political priorities than about informed science and decisions reached after proper consideration and consultation involving the fishing industry.

The UK's presidency of the EU leads some of us to worry that the Minister, in trying to undertake his role as chair of the relevant committee, will pull his punches on behalf of UK fishermen. He has not done so in the past, and I hope that that practice will continue. I also hope that he can assure us that he will go into the negotiations fighting for the UK's interests. Seemingly, other countries have had no embarrassment in doing so on behalf of their fishing industries when they have been in the chair.

We want the 2006 quota regime to be based on sound science and sustainability—sustainability not only in terms of fish stocks but of the industry itself. We are mindful that stocks of many species remain at a critical level, despite a number of beneficial changes that have been introduced, including those relating to mesh sizes. Still, however, not enough young fish are being allowed to grow to maturity, with a consequent continuing decline in some fishing opportunities.

The penalties that are exacted upon those who buy and sell black fish are punitive, and this is having a real effect on the incidence of such fishing. It is, however, obviously difficult to measure the trade in black fish. It is a practice that none of us can condone, and I am pleased to note that there is some evidence to suggest that that activity is beginning to be reduced.

The cod recovery plan was well-intentioned, and originally we all supported it, but it is not working. Before any further reductions in quotas or efforts are considered, I suggest to the Minister that there should be a full review of the current plan. It should address especially the issues of by-catch and discards, and data. Merely going on with more of the same, but at an even more draconian rate, is unlikely to improve stocks to the extent that we would all wish.

We certainly need much better information on by-catch and discards. Some recent improvements need to be factored into scientific assessments relating to new data on that, but some scientists are a little behind.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): The lack of any real quality data is at the heart of the scientific debate and of the difficulties that scientists face. Will my hon. Friend suggest to the Minister that using our own fishermen productively to create such data and to help in its capture would be a positive way forward?

Mr. Breed: That is an excellent suggestion, and one that has been considered in the past. The means by which that data will be collected and the arrangements governing inspectors on ships and on other vessels are yet to be established.
 
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Mr. Bradshaw: The Government have funded to the tune of £5 million what are called fishery starts partnerships, which are doing exactly what has been suggested. The data on which the recommendations are based are themselves based not only on research that has been undertaken in the seas but also on real catch data.

Mr. Breed: I thank the Minister for that helpful response. Informed data—that which is robust and clear—is at the heart of decision making, or at least it should be.

Does the Minister envisage any cap on the effort in the haddock fishery? Will he tell us what perhaps he might be arguing for in the Council meeting on UK interests? The Commission has submitted its proposals for TACs, and he will know that there is considerable concern about haddock, especially in connection with the bilateral negotiations with Norway. Will he confirm that the bilaterals still take place between officials and that there is no direct ministerial involvement? Perhaps he might comment on whether he thinks that there should be such involvement.

We welcome the continued development of the regional advisory councils, which we have supported over many years. We hope that those councils will develop somewhat more rapidly to take on more of a management role rather than merely an advisory one. Even in that role, however, the councils have not been given sufficient time to respond properly to the Commission's proposals. It is vital that the RACs are in possession of information and are aware of proposals in good time for them to respond. Will the Minister, in future, insist that they receive information in good time so that they might respond in a proper manner?

We are delighted that at long last sand eel industrial fishing has been stopped. We assume that that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. Does the Minister expect that the issue might be raised at the Council meeting, with a date for its recommencement? Perhaps he will comment on that.

Mr. Carmichael: Does my hon. Friend agree that if that fishing were to be restarted, the test that must be applied is one that enables the industry to demonstrate that the fishing can take place without damage to the stock levels of other species, rather than simply taking the approach that has been adopted in the past by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—ICES?

Mr. Breed: I quite agree. Earlier, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) suggested that the scientific evidence had been available for some time. How that argument held sway at such a late stage has never been explained, but clearly an explanation will be required if there are any proposals whatsoever to reopen the fishery.

Last week, Commissioner Borg indicated his intention to introduce new proposals, and began by stating that much of the scientific evidence on which proposals are based is often weak and, in some cases, non-existent, due to poor or non-existent landing data. What plans does the Minister have to improve that
 
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important data to achieve more informative decision making? Scientific underpinning for the setting of quantitative limits on catches is clearly not solid, and if we fail to include proper data that will only continue. Once again, the Commission and member states will be almost blind when they make important decisions on the livelihoods of many people and the economic future of many communities.


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