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Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): This is the fifth annual fishing debate that I have taken part in since being elected to the House and the issues raised are depressingly familiar. They include the usual background of the failure of the cod recovery plan and the knock-on effects for other species. The aims of our fisheries policy should be to create the conditions in which stocks at risk can recover, and to maintain stocks at safe biological limits, so that we avoid the need to take drastic measures to save a particular species. It is also important to ensure the continuing viability of the industry both at sea and on land, and in the many local communities that depend on it.

There is little doubt that the common fisheries policy as currently structured has failed. It has failed to achieve any of its key objectives or to conserve fish stocks, most obviously of cod. I agree with those Members who say that a full review of the cod recovery plan is required; imposing more of the same measures has little chance of success. We need to move away from the annual round of negotiations and horse-trading in Brussels at this time of year. Ideally, we should move toward a system of regional management committees.

The current policy has failed mainly because it is far too centralised and run from Brussels. Decisions are taken in a forum that is far too remote from the fishermen and others affected by such decisions.
 
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Whereas the Norwegian delegation at the EU-Norway talks allows its fishermen into those talks, other European fishermen are kept outside. Before Sweden joined the EU, Swedish fishermen were able to take part in the talks; once Sweden joined, they were ushered out of the room. We need to involve fishermen much more in these discussions. I also agree that we need to look at the fishing year; the current system leads to a very rushed series of negotiations at this time of year. There seems not to have been time even to involve the existing regional advisory councils fully in that process.

Withdrawal from the CFP, while it may be tempting, is not a serious option. It was not clear from the comments by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) whether it was still the Conservatives' policy to withdraw from it unilaterally. I thought from his last remark that that was still their policy, but he may be preparing the ground for a U-turn by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron).

Mr. Weir: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has already started that U-turn? It was reported, when he made his brief visit to Scotland during the leadership campaign, that he said that there were more important issues in Europe than fisheries policy and he was no longer committed to withdrawal.

Mr. Reid: That is interesting information and it reinforces my suspicions that the hon. Member for Witney has gone down one leg of the U.

Mr. Salmond: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that at one of the leadership hustings in Aberdeen only 15 people turned up?

Mr. Reid: Were they charging for admission?

As I was saying, withdrawal from the CFP is not an option. Fish swim across national boundaries. They spawn, feed and get caught in different parts of the sea. National boundaries are only artificial lines on the map, drawn halfway between countries, and are not boundaries on which we should base a fisheries policy.

At European level, we need an overarching policy. However, within that policy, management of fish stocks would be best carried out by regional management committees, which would involve local fishermen, scientists, representatives of Government and other stakeholders. I hope that the new regional advisory councils will develop into regional management committees with real power. I am sure that such committees would manage their local fish stocks far better than the present system.

I now wish to say a few words about this year's negotiations. As part of my preparation for this debate, I consulted fishermen in my constituency. The main fishery in the waters off my constituency is prawns. In fact, the prawn fishery is now the most valuable fishery in Scotland. There is universal agreement that prawn stocks are healthy, although it is true that in certain areas, at certain times, there is a more than negligible cod by-catch. However, the cod spawning grounds have been identified and a box has been drawn at the entrance to Clyde, partly in Scottish waters and partly in Northern Ireland waters, in which trawling for prawns
 
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is prohibited during the cod spawning season from 14 February until 30 April. As long as the cod spawning box is avoided between those dates, the Clyde Fishermen's Association insists that the cod by-catch when fishing for prawns is negligible, but its fishing effort is restricted. This year the Commission has proposed further cuts in days at sea for nephrops trawlers in the west of Scotland area. The Clyde Fishermen's Association does not see the need for that further restriction because its cod by-catch is negligible as long as the box is avoided at the specific times of the year.

The views of the CFA on the cod by-catch are backed up by a written answer that I received from the Minister's predecessor, now the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, as long ago as 7 November 2002. It stated:

Given that longstanding scientific advice, I do not understand why the Commission still insists that further restrictions on the days at sea for nephrops fishing are required as part of the cod recovery plan.

This year, there was some good news from the Commission in that it proposes an increase of 39 per cent. in the west of Scotland nephrops TAC. It is very important that the Council agrees to that measure. Last year, the published scientific data showed that the nephrops TAC for the west of Scotland could be increased by 30 per cent. without any risk to cod stocks, but only a much smaller increase was allowed. I am pleased that this year the Commission has taken the scientific advice and proposed a much larger increase.

The association is also concerned that the European regulations are complex and often change drastically from year to year, which makes it difficult for fishing businesses to plan ahead. The association makes a plea for simplicity and continuity in the regulations. Sometimes, due to their circumstances, individual fishermen suffer greatly from the regulations. The association gave me two examples of such hard-luck cases. I plan to write to the Minister about them in more detail, so I shall only summarise them.

The owner of a scallop boat wants to convert his vessel so that he can fish for queen scallops, but the scallop-fishing gear on his boat falls outside the regulations. Queen scallops also fall outside European regulations but the gear that he requires to fish for them is caught by European regulations designed to minimise cod by-catch. Because he has no record of prawn fishing in 2002, he cannot to convert his gear, yet the local association tells me that it would be almost impossible to catch a cod with that gear.

The second case involves a Campbeltown fisherman who bought a vessel from the North sea white fish fleet in 2002 with the intention of converting it to a prawn trawler and using it in the west of Scotland zone. However, just after he bought the trawler the new days at sea regulations were published, whose effect is that the days at sea applying to that vessel are not the days at sea that apply to the west of Scotland nephrops fleet, but the
 
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much lower number of days at sea that apply to the North sea white fish fleet. I am not sure of the logic of imposing days at sea restrictions for a species in one zone that were meant to apply to a different species in a different zone. That fisherman was caught out by regulations that did not apply when he bought the vessel, but had retrospective effect to the time before he bought it. That appears unfair to what must be only a small number of fishermen. The fishermen's association told me that as the regulations are European, the Scottish Executive have no flexibility, so I hope that the Minister will investigate those cases.

Other Members have referred to angling. Angling at sea and in salmon rivers is an important industry and sea management measures can affect it. It is important that the angling industry is allowed to participate in the management of fish stocks.

In conclusion, I live in hope that future debates will be held against the backdrop of a cod recovery plan that has been seen to work and that the regional advisory councils will have been translated into successful regional management committees, so that this annual, pre-Christmas Brussels horse-trading will be a thing of the past.

3.43 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): It is a pleasure to be back in this little club of ours—the annual fishing debate. We have some new members this year. I especially enjoyed the thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), and also the contributions of the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill). I commend the latter for his generous comments about his predecessor. When I heard that Lawrie Quinn had lost his seat, I mused on the fact that it would deprive us of our annual update on the life and times of Mr. Arnold Locker. I am delighted that we have not been deprived of that, although I am distraught to hear that Mr. Locker has hit hard times. I look forward with some anticipation to next year's instalment, when I hope that his fortunes will have taken a turn for the better.

This is one of the least febrile of the fishing debates that I have attended. It has been much less fraught and heated than some of those we enjoyed in years gone by. There are perhaps a couple of reasons for that. First, I give the Minister credit for the fact that when he went to Brussels with the UK delegation last year, for the first time in my experience he managed to take with him—metaphorically, if not literally—the fishing interest. He was much better at listening to and taking on board the views of the fishermen who were then in Brussels. As a result, they obtained a much better deal, which has better support from the industry.

Perhaps one of the reasons why we are less hard on the Minister this year than in years gone by is that he is not responsible for the industry's most immediate and pressing concern: the cost of fuel, which is becoming a real difficulty for many fishing boat owners in my constituency whose boats operate on the very margins of profitability. I do not yet know—I can only wonder—the effect of the Chancellor's reference in the pre-Budget statement to increases in duty on red diesel. I never quite understand how the red diesel rules work in the fishing
 
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industry, but if there is any such effect, the situation will only get worse. Even if there is no such effect, the situation will not get any better. I contrast that, as other hon. Members have done, with the situation in France and Spain, whose Governments have been able to give their fishing industries some support by one means or another.

I reiterate my concern, which I expressed to the Minister in an intervention, about the contract for search and rescue helicopters, one of which is based at Sumburgh airport in my constituency. I am now due to meet the director of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency tomorrow—the meeting had been scheduled for 13 December, but I then discovered that the contract was due to be placed on 12 December—and I shall put my concerns directly to him then. However, I can tell the Minister and the House that my concerns are very real.

There are unresolved issues about the suitability of the aircraft, but I return to the point that I also made to the Minister that it is essential that the terms and conditions of the existing staff are transferred when the new contract is awarded. It is the skill, courage and expertise of the crews of those helicopters that is vital. The reason why that is of such concern to the fishing industry in particular is that barely a month goes by in my constituency without a fishing boat getting into trouble and ending up being towed into Lerwick harbour, and the helicopter at Sumburgh, Oscar Charlie, frequently plays a crucial role in the rescue. If we do not get that contract right, I very much fear that the commencement of these proceedings in future years will feature even more tales of loss of life and injury.

I want to say a few words about the cod recovery programme, which has been with us for a number of years. Of course, on one side of the equation is the reduction in effort and on the other is a growth in cod stocks. We have met our targets on the reduction of effort. That has been an exceptionally painful process, especially in heavily fishing-dependent communities such as Shetland. I have lectured the Minister on the reduction in the Shetland white fish fleet in the past, so I shall spare him it today. The reduction has been massive, but there has not yet been any substantial evidence of a recovery in the stocks of cod. However, I enter the caveat that all hon. Members have applied today—which is, of course, that exceptionally wobbly science seems to be associated with fisheries.

I remind the Minister of the point that I made to the hon. Member for Hartlepool: there seems to be some evidence of a good recruitment of young cod along the east coast of the United Kingdom. That is not unknown; there was a similar situation in 1996, or perhaps 1995. Unfortunately, as a result of the fishing practices at the time that involved smaller mesh sizes, especially for the nephrop sector, the immature class was slaughtered. We now have a window of opportunity, albeit a small one. The spawning grounds with immature cod must be identified and protected, because this might be our last chance. We can only speculate on the impact of climate change on cod stocks, but if we have the opportunity to improve the situation, we must not allow it to pass.

I add my voice to those of other hon. Members who have said that this is a point at which we should be reviewing the cod recovery programme. We must examine the targets that have been set. Is a 30 per cent. increase in the spawning stock biomass year on year
 
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realistic or achievable? Is the time frame in which we should achieve the targets realistic? Should we now be considering a more evolutionary approach?

When we review the cod recovery programme, there must be a central role for the regional advisory councils, especially the North sea regional advisory council. The Minister must be aware that when the RACs were set up, they were greeted with a degree of scepticism—I think that he used the word "cynicism" earlier, but I hope that "scepticism" is nearer the mark. It is fair to say that the jury is still out on RACs in fishing communities and the fishing industry. However, there is a need to nurture the RACs for the benefit of those of us who hope for a regional or decentralised structure of fisheries management.

I was most concerned to hear today from the lobby from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations that the November meeting of the North sea regional advisory council was not given the figures on which the Council will make its judgment in December. There was not even an oral report to the Council from the Commission. If RACs such as that for the North sea are ever to do the job that the Minister and I would like them to do, they will need rather better treatment than that. I suggest that the first step towards giving them better treatment and improving their standing and stature would be to task them with the review of the cod recovery programme in the North sea.

I want to say a few words about black fish landings. I note that the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) has returned to the Chamber, so I caution him about the terms in which we all should speak about the matter. It is exceptionally difficult to make estimates about the situation—it is like proving a negative. The problem is more acute in different parts of the country at different times of year due to the circumstances that arise because of different quotas that are set. Any bold or sweeping statement will almost inevitably be out of date by the time that it is made, yet will be damaging to the wider interests of the fishing industries of the United Kingdom.


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