Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)—who gave an insight into his local area and the wider scene as regards European affairs—for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) and for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), from whom we heard a few fishy stories.

On behalf of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, I would like to share a few thoughts with Members, which I trust the Minister will take cognisance of as he prepares for the Fisheries Council. I also hope that he will encourage his colleague at the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Rooker, to attend with him to bat for Northern Ireland fishermen and to do his best to put forward the case for local fishermen in Europe.

I also hope that, following my remarks, this House will better understand the problems that the industry is facing and the few opportunities that it has. Some of
7 Dec 2005 : Column 915
those problems are common to all regions within the United Kingdom. I understand the frustrations that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby expressed. I can assure him that those frustrations are felt by Northern Ireland fishermen, especially as the Irish Republic Government seem to secure a more favourable outcome from the talks and negotiations in Europe than the UK Government do on behalf of fishermen in Northern Ireland. There are some issues that are unique to those who fish and depend upon fish in the Irish sea.

Sea fishing is maintained all around Northern Ireland's coastline, but the main commercial activity is centred around three fishing villages, namely, Portavogie in the north, Ardglass in the middle and Kilkeel in the south of the County Down coast. The fishing industry is in reality the community in those villages, and the community is the fishing industry. The two are inextricably linked. Therefore, we can understand what a decline in that industry does to the community. Before I refer to some of the recommendations that those fishermen would like the Minister to take cognisance of, let me give hon. Members some background.

Traditionally, the industry sustained itself and the fish stocks by being able to conduct what was known as a mixed fishery, targeting three main stock groups. For about a third of the year, the fleet would target herring; for another third of the year, it would target whitefish; and for the final third, it would target nephrops, or prawns. Then fisheries managers intervened. Back in 1980, temporary closed areas were introduced in the herring fishery. Twenty-five years later, those temporary closures are still with the industry. One might ask, what has resulted from those temporary closures? For the vast majority of fishermen, the herring fishery disappeared. The local fleet then had to divert its efforts to the remaining fisheries: whitefish and prawns.

Then, at the beginning of the 1990s, the fisheries managers decided that too much effort was being exerted upon the whitefish stocks. Reduced TACs in the Irish sea were the order of the day, but those were compounded in 2000 by the first so-called cod recovery programme to be implemented in EU waters. The temporary area closures were complemented by the imposition of effort controls in 2004. The Irish sea remains the only EU waters where so-called cod recovery combines area closures with effort control.

In 1999, there was a fleet of over 40 Northern Ireland trawlers targeting whitefish for most of the year. Today, the number of trawlers targeting whitefish can be measured in single figures. Consequently, white fisheries managers now give lip service to the mixed fishery model. In fact, the traditional mixed fishery in the Irish sea, which served both the stocks and the industry so well for decades, has been managed into a single species fishery.

Prawns are by far the most important single species to the entire local fishing industry, both at sea and onshore, accounting for more than half the value of all fish and shellfish landed in the Province. Prawns are the bedrock of the local fish processing sector. They account for the vast majority of fishery exports to Europe. That sustains most of the processing sector jobs and has a worth of over £70 million annually to the local economy. Yet despite the fact that fishery managers have cornered the
7 Dec 2005 : Column 916
industry into the single species fishery, they are still not happy—they want to go further. How much further can they go?

I am led to believe that the Commission is minded to impose additional management measures on that industry. There are rumours about further reductions in the number of days prawn boats spend at sea. Additional unproven technical conservation measures in the TAC persist and are counter to the science on that stock, which confirms what fishermen have said for years—if anything, the size of the prawn stock is on the increase.

Many fishermen hold out for the future; they look for a new dawn. Fishermen, it should be remembered, are just like everyone else—they are business men; ordinary people desiring to make a living. Each owns assets worth several thousands, if not millions, of pounds. Does anyone really believe that if fishermen did not think that there was a future in fishing the Irish sea, they would be continuing to invest in the industry, despite the problems? I congratulate those who have maintained that hope and encourage Government to defend them in the negotiations in the Fisheries Council later in December.

Fishermen want to safeguard fish stocks—after all, they are their future. Our local fisheries organisation is currently managing various projects, utilising European Union and national funding, that are designed to improve the selectivity of fishing gear. In partnership with local fisheries scientists, they are conducting an attempt to identify simple measures that can be used by the local prawn fleet to minimise discards in its prawn trawls. Fishermen are developing a new partnership with local fisheries scientists to improve data, which, in turn, will improve the science and should improve fishery management in the area. Those are commendable exercises. Fishermen are working with scientists and others in the industry and the Department to try to achieve goals.I simply hope that, in the meantime, the forthcoming Fisheries Councils do not scuttle that work by imposing more meaningless measures on the local industry.

Mrs. Iris Robinson : In relation to the forthcoming Fisheries Council in Brussels and with specific regard to quotas, I am informed that EU scientists have advised the Commission to increase the Irish sea plaice quota by 250 per cent., but that the Commission is set to order a 15 per cent. decrease. Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Government to investigate the scientific evidence on which the Commission intends to base the decision?

Dr. McCrea: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and simply direct her question and her information to the Minister and press him to take the point seriously and investigate it now, before the Fisheries Council meeting.

I ask the Minister to take account of the current fuel crisis, which is affecting the industry. Hon. Members must be aware of the problems that increasing fuel costs have caused. Some member states have assisted their fishing sector on that but, typically, the United Kingdom has not.
7 Dec 2005 : Column 917

Mr. MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the United Kingdom should operate a similar scheme to that in France, whereby the Government supply fuel to fishermen at about 22p a litre? When the price of fuel falls to below 22p a litre, fishermen pay the higher price. However, in the interim the scheme gives fishermen guaranteed prices and they know that they can plan their businesses.

Dr. McCrea: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. France is supposedly regarded as the great European, yet it always finds a way around European legislation, whether it affects farmers, fishermen and so on. We simply ask for a level playing field in Europe. If that is good enough for France, there is no reason why it cannot be done. Ministers often tell us, "We can't do these things." How can the great European leaders of France do them? If the French Government can do it, why cannot it be done to save our industry at a time of crisis?

The fuel crisis is in danger of overarching all the issues that I have mentioned. The industry could be crippled soon. What more could be done? I make a plea to the Minister to ensure that the forthcoming Fisheries Council bears that major socio-economic issue in mind when it reaches its decision for 2006. The fishing industry cannot sustain the imposition of any further cuts—in for example, quota and days at sea—or the unworkable technical measures. They must be resisted.

I believe that there are those in the industry who feel that there is a future. I ask hon. Members to join me in asking the Minister to ensure, through the negotiations, that he and his colleagues in Europe give our fishermen that future.

3.24 pm

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I should like to associate myself with some of the earlier comments about fishing and the attendant dangers. I have known several people who lost their lives fishing, including people with whom I was at school, and I am therefore well aware of the courage and drive of fishermen. That should not be underestimated.

I declare a slight interest in that I have been fishing. Ten years ago, I fished with static nets, west of Uist, in a boat called the Dawn Ann. Two years ago, I was lobster fishing, which the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) mentioned. When lobster fishing, if one sees a good lobster that is going to Spain and one knocks its claws off, it cannot be sold. We also fished brown crabs and the violent little velvet crab. I admire anybody who eats velvet crabs. I am sure that they are tasty and they should command a higher price. I hope that they will in the run-up to Christmas.

As I said, many friends of mine fish. Many are successful fishermen who were given the right chance at the right moment and found themselves in charge of boats at a young age. When given such an opportunity, many young island men have made a great success of it. I hope that the Under-Secretary is mindful of the need for continued support to ensure that, in future, we experience the same success.

On my island, the Isle of Barra, we have the tremendously successful company, Barratlantic, which employs many local people. Many people with whom I
7 Dec 2005 : Column 918
went to school work at Barratlantic. Fishing is therefore the bedrock and foundation of my island and my communities. It is interesting to note that many people have come over from the Czech Republic and Poland to work in our factory. It is especially encouraging to witness the good relations that have consequently been established. Many co-workers from the islands have been on holiday with their colleagues in the Czech Republic and Poland. I especially welcome that sort of development and friendship, and the way in which the island people work with those who come to work in their midst.

I welcome the increase in the nephrop-prawn quota in the coming year. The Western Isles fishermen are pleased with that. It means more jobs and, I hope, greater prosperity.

Scotland has approximately two thirds of UK fish landings. With population factored in, that makes fishing 20 times more important to Scotland. Scotland has around 127,000 square miles of the European seas. I am mindful of the comments of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who said that smaller nations are more aware of their fishing and fishery needs. The hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) highlighted that in practice, when she spoke about looking over the border to the Republic and seeing new boats at Killibegs and similar ports.

With 127,000 square miles of European waters, one imagines that Scotland would be a bigger player in Europe, but it is not and that is unfortunate. The negotiations have already been framed this year in the talks with Norway, which is a power to be envied. It is an independent nation with excellent relations with Westminster. However, Norway negotiates with the EU directly, and when Norway frowns, the EU trembles.

It is useful to highlight the problems that underpin our annual debates on fishing. Recently, the Prime Minister, while abandoning the rebate, has tried to attack and target the common agricultural policy. Perhaps he should have looked at the common fisheries policy. Have the Government looked seriously at the pros and cons of replacing the CFP, which has many problems, with other fishery structures? Of course, no one is saying that we should not have international negotiations on and co-operation between fisheries, but should it be on the current basis? Instead of this horse-trading, would it not be better for nations to be up-front with each other? For instance, why, west of the Hebrides, where there is no overlap, are France and Spain hoovering up many of our fish? I leave that with the Minister.

Consensus at this time of year is difficult to find and the consensus in the Chamber is that the run-up to Christmas is not the right time for such negotiations. I should not be surprised if after a tiring and pressing three days, Ministers make mistakes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said, their robustness and ruthlessness might decline somewhat by the end of such long negotiations.Consensus is also emerging on the cod recovery plan. It is not doing what it says on the tin—it is damaging other fisheries. It needs a public re-examination and cod needs to be separated from other fisheries.

When the plan fails, we go back for more of the same medicine from the same source of advice—even at a time when many feel that cod are migrating to colder seas.
7 Dec 2005 : Column 919
The demand for a 30 per cent. increase is unrealistic, and if it is not achieved, cuts will come into play for other species. Now is definitely the time for a full re-evaluation. The Minister might say that it is tactically the wrong time, but it is strategically the right time for fishermen. We need to do away with the annual emotional rollercoaster ride that is caused, in the main, by the failure of the CFP. This year, there are projected cuts of 15 per cent. for cod, 13 per cent. for haddock, 15 per cent. for saithe, 15 per cent. for whiting and 2.5 per cent. for plaice. The latter figure is attributable to the particular interest of the Dutch in plaice; they are lobbying quite fiercely in that regard. The CFP clearly has knock-on effects for many other fisheries.

I hope that our Government will push hard for the industry during the negotiations. I point out, particularly to the officials, that any reference to cricket should go. Given that we are in the driving seat—that we have the presidency of the EU—we should make absolutely sure that we are doing the best for our fishermen and getting the best deal. I want to be able to tell my communities that things are going well and that fishing will be looking up in the next few years, not down.

I am also concerned about the cut in pelagic fishing. I know the owner and crew of the pelagic vessel, the Prowess, which operates in the Outer Hebrides, and I hope that that cut will be offset by the increases that scientists say could be made in other areas overseas. I hope that the Minister will look at this issue and ensure that the pelagic cut is not as currently framed.

I wish the Minister well and I hope that the officials will be mindful of my earlier cricket reference. Would it not be better if the Minister were at the top table in Europe with the ally of an independent Scotland, rather than being without one?

3.32 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page