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19 Apr 2006 : Column 93WH—continued

Northern Ireland (Fishing Industry)

11 am

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the Minister for the opportunity to raise matters of great urgency, upon which the future success of entire communities along Northern Ireland's eastern seaboard rests.

Six years on from the introduction of the cod recovery scheme and the closure of the Irish sea cod fishery, fisheries scientists are unable to tell us in Northern Ireland whether it has had any effect whatever on cod stocks in the Irish sea. Six years on, the Northern Ireland fishing fleet is a shadow of its former self and hundreds of jobs have been lost. Six years on, factories and businesses have disappeared and the industry is approaching a point of critical mass beyond which it might not recover. Six years on, the Government cannot indicate whether the measures that have contributed greatly to the demise of our fishing industry have had any impact. Those left in the industry are exasperated as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and its scientists continue to do little other than talk, while the industry crumbles outside.

In 1993 213 commercial fishing vessels were registered in the Northern Ireland fishing fleet, but by this year that figure had fallen to a staggering 130. Whereas there were 44 white fish boats in the Northern Ireland fleet five years ago, there are now only 12. In Portavogie, where there were once more than 100 boats in the fleet, there are now just 40. Between 1999 and 2003, the average profit before depreciation of a Northern Ireland-based white fish trawler fell by 76 per cent. to just £10,400. The average profit of a nephrop trawler fell by 48 per cent. to £15,600.

Since 2003, fishermen have had to deal with other factors, such as the huge rises in the cost of fuel oil and the cost of leasing quota, and income will have fallen further still. I spoke to one skipper during the week who told me that whereas fuel for his vessel had once cost 15p a litre it now costs 40p a litre, and that the fuel costs for operating his boat were now up to £1,914 a week.

Of course we must accept that to a certain extent the price of fuel is beyond the control of the Government. We do not ask for any preferential treatment. We merely ask that the issue is acknowledged and taken on board by the Government in order to understand the lengths to which the industry is being stretched. The cod recovery scheme was implemented six years ago on the basis that it would last for three years. The measures have been repeated each year since and were extended when the Scottish Executive imposed a closure in the north channel that was targeted at Northern Ireland trawlers.

The EU Commission has stated that additional recovery measures are needed only where there is a biological urgency, but where is the biological urgency in the Irish sea, where the science shows that stocks are nowhere near as bad as assumed? Without a grain of evidence to justify the closure of the cod fishery, DARD scientists now tell us that without any substantial evidence they hold out little hope of the scheme—itself based on erroneous evidence and interpretation—ever being lifted.

So what have DARD scientists been doing for the past six years, as countless skippers have been forced to decommission their boats, hundreds of fishermen have
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lost their jobs, factories have closed and countless jobs have been lost in the fish processing sector? Despite the enthusiasm of Northern Ireland Office Ministers, it has become increasingly clear during this period that the approach of fisheries scientists and the spin used in interpreting results has been a significant obstacle.

Progress has been made in improving relationships and attempting to work co-operatively to address the problems faced. Despite that, fisheries scientists have acted in a counterproductive manner. Fishermen are urged to work with DARD to provide the data required for officials to argue their case in Europe. However, whenever that information is collected, fisheries scientists always seem to identify something negative and run with it, at all times ignoring the positive aspects of the data.

Despite the poor reputation that DARD scientists have earned for themselves, local fishermen and producers' organisations remain committed to working with DARD. At a meeting with Lord Rooker last Tuesday, DARD scientist Peter Jan Schon came under enormous pressure from representatives of the catching, selling and processing sectors of Northern Ireland's fishing industry. He claimed that there was no co-operation from the fishing fleets in Kilkeel and Ardglass, except for Portavogie. That is absolute nonsense and was totally refuted by all present.

Mr. Jan Schon was unable to substantiate his claim. He said that there was no data on the cod stocks in the Irish sea because fishermen were not co-operating. However, thanks to his work, fishermen are barred from fishing the area as a result of the annual cod fishery closure. When asked what he had been doing for the past six years, Mr. Jan Schon had no response.

An associated issue is the barring of prawn boats from fishing in the area closed as part of the cod fishery closure. Mr. Jan Schon stated at the meeting, as DARD has before, that the prawn boats are barred because cod represents a substantial by-catch of prawns. Dick James of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation then presented the meeting with a copy of a multi-million euro report published in 2002 entitled "Monitoring of Discarding and Retention by Trawl Fisheries in Western Waters and the Irish Sea in Relation to the Stock Assessment and Technical Measures". The findings of that report included the fact that no cod was caught as by-catch of a conventional prawn trawl—and who should be named as a participant and contributor to that report, but Mr. Peter Jan Schon. No wonder he had so little to say for himself at the meeting.

It gets worse, however. At a meeting with DARD officials on Thursday last week, Dick James again raised the matter, this time directing it to Mr. Richard Briggs, the Department's senior scientist. Mr. Briggs stated that it was his opinion that the nephrops fishery in the Irish sea was completely sustainable. One scientist has held up progress on the basis that prawn fishing is not sustainable, while another says that the whole thing is news to him. The right hand does not seem to know what the left hand is doing. It is that fundamental level of inconsistency on the part of DARD scientists that has led to the strain in relationships between those who work in the industry and DARD.
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Another associated issue is the shape and location of the box, which fishermen are adamant are incorrect. Currently there is derogation in the centre of the box, where prawn fishing is permitted. However, there is an important fishery to the north-east of the box where fishing is prohibited. When the box was created, the Department used a geological survey, but it quickly became clear that it was not accurate. As a result, one of the most important prawn fishing grounds was included in the closure. When the tides run high—specifically in the spring, during the period of the closure—the area supports a significant nephrops fishery. Boats need to be able to get into the area at least every other week to maximise their catch and ensure their continuing viability. The problem has been raised with DARD officials on more than 12 occasions, yet once again they have failed to act in any way to resolve the anomaly. It must now be addressed as a matter of urgency.

At the same time, however, it is clear that DARD as a whole has failed to represent the interests of the Northern Ireland fishing industry effectively. Last year the Food and Drink Federation announced that it was setting out to assess the amount of UK-sourced prawns consumed in the UK. Its findings indicated that the Irish sea could provide a sustainable fishery with a 30 per cent. increase in the nephrops total allowable catch. The Scottish and English Departments ran with those figures and used them to argue for increases in their nephrops quotas, obtaining increases of 31 and 39 per cent. for the west of Scotland and the North sea respectively.

DARD officials denied ever receiving the findings, which were forwarded to them by local fishing organisations. At the same time, they attempted to argue that because they are the poor relations within the UK, they do not stand a chance of getting a fair hearing. Those in the Northern Ireland fishing industry are sick, sore and tired of the Department's abdication of responsibility when representing their best interests in Europe.

There is serious concern about the lack of urgency shown by DARD scientists in completing those scientific studies that have been commenced. During August, September and October last year, five boats from Kilkeel kindly gave their permission to be used as part of a DARD study, but eight months later the Department still does not have a date for publishing the findings. Scientists complain about the lack of data, but their performance in turning around the data that they do have is abysmal. They claim that such data are like gold dust, so their performance hardly illustrates a real commitment to helping address the problems experienced by our fishermen.

As for the tie-up scheme, suffice it to say that DARD owes the industry an apology for being so wide of the mark in its interpretation of the legislation, after having been embarrassed in Europe by Jim Allister MEP. Despite that embarrassment, Lord Rooker has this year refused to grant that lifeline to many of Northern Ireland's fishermen.

We are informed that the decision to refuse aid was based on the fact that the scheme does not provide value for money. If that was the case, why was the scheme operated during 2004 and 2005? If it was value for money in those two years, what has changed in 2006? What has changed is that the cod quota has been decreased by 15 per cent., the haddock and whiting
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quotas have been slashed, and days at sea have decreased. In fact, given the new and increasing pressures placed on the industry since 2004, it could be argued that it would be better value this year than it was in the previous two years.

Lord Rooker also states that there is insufficient funding to support a tie-up scheme and that money is already committed to projects in and around our harbours. That is well and good, and I commend the work of the fishing villages initiative in its work to attract millions of pounds of investment into fishing communities, but we must face the facts. What is the point in supporting fishing communities and investing in harbours when the time will soon come when there will cease to be a fleet to support?

We must now look to the future and to a plan submitted to DEFRA that has the Department's support. With the assistance of the Irish Sea regional advisory council, it is proposed that from January 2007 the fleet should start with a clean sheet, subject to certain criteria. The fleet would be allowed to catch what it wanted, but it would have to report exactly what was landed. Scientists would then assess that data and apply models to get an accurate picture of the health of Irish Sea fish stocks. From those results, they would be able to establish whether quotas were lower than the fishery could sustain, in which case they could be increased, or whether quotas were too high, in which case they could be reduced. Ultimately, we would arrive at the best possible package for both the industry and the conservation of the fish stocks in the Irish sea. The plan has the support of DEFRA and the EU Commissioner, and it has the potential to allow positive progress for the local fishing industry.

One problem remains, however. It will have taken DARD scientists eight months to report back on five boats being studied over a three-month period. How will the Department fare if it is studying more than 100 boats, 365 days a year? The danger is that DARD will apply the same tired old science to the new data, and the fleet might once again have to pay for the scientists' desire to highlight and emphasise the negative and ignore the positive. There is potential for recovery, but we have a mountain to climb before we can claim it.

In summary, this is the seventh year of the closure of the cod fishery in the Irish sea, but scientists still cannot tell us what effect, if any, it is having on the cod stocks. We were told that the closure would be for three years, yet seven years on we are still being told that DARD cannot go to the EU and argue for its removal, as it has no science to back it up.

The fishing industry in Northern Ireland should always have been a team effort between DARD and those in the industry. Given the precarious state of the industry, I cannot emphasise sufficiently how crucial it is that fishermen, sellers, processors and the fisheries division of DARD work hand in hand, striving to create a sustainable and viable fishing industry.

We need more effective science, more effective processing of information and more effective interpretation of results. To continue on the current course will lead only to the destruction of the local fishing fleet, which will have a colossal impact on the lives of those villages and communities that have for so long been bound together by the industry.
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The bottom line is that we should not be arguing about the creation of a tie-up scheme, which is open only to a fraction of vessels, and we should not be scrambling around attempting to secure transitional aid. Instead we should have a Minister for fisheries, committed to fighting the corner for the local industry, changing EU "wisdom" and striving to create a strategy that would facilitate the recovery of the local industry, not its destruction.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) on securing this debate. I know that she is passionate about the fishing industry, and about the problems of her constituents. She is always well informed, and is forthright in putting across her views. It is clear that she cares deeply about the future of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

I assure the hon. Lady that my ministerial colleagues and I share her concerns. We may not always have total agreement, but we all want to see a long-term sustainable future for the fishing industry, which means restructuring and changing it. No one wants to see short-term measures taken that do not deal with the underlying and ongoing problems.

The hon. Lady highlighted a range of complex issues and the need for change. She spoke about restricted fishing opportunities and increased operating costs, particularly for fuel—an increase that we are seeing across manufacturing industry as well. The fishing industry needs to face up to and meet changing attitudes to the marine environment. That is a significant challenge, but the Government want to help, because we want to see a long-term sustainable future for the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

I shall do my best to address the various points raised by the hon. Lady. She spoke about the tie-up scheme of financial aid for the fishing industry, and claimed that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development owes fishermen an apology. That claim is not justified. As she said, the industry has faced grave economic difficulties. She said that financial support was the way forward. However, that would address the short-term problems, not the longer-term underlying factors.

I appreciate the disappointment of the industry that the tie-up scheme was not run for another year. It was not an easy decision, although full account was taken of all the issues involved, including affordability—the hon. Lady mentioned value for money—sustainability and priorities within the fishing industry. Lord Rooker, who is listening to the debate, was very mindful of all those issues. He said that it was not an easy decision, but that it was taken in the best interests of the fishing industry.

The hon. Lady also made a point about having a Minister who fully represents the Northern Ireland fishing industry. I place on record the strong commitment of the Government and the ministerial team, including my noble Friend Lord Rooker, to doing their best to ensure support and sustainability for the fishing industry. We would all have preferred to have a single Minister dealing with the issue. Once the
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Assembly is up and running and a devolved Minister is in place, we will not have Ministers trying to run several Departments, although we do the best that we can under the additional time pressures that it creates.

It is worth noting that, for the second successive year, the Irish sea prawn total allowable catches were increased. In addition, the Northern Ireland industry was able to avail itself of the significant additional prawn quotas secured for the North sea and the west of Scotland. It is also worth remembering that the Irish sea still has a more generous allocation of days at sea than other areas of the cod recovery zone. Those achievements are worth placing on the record.

The hon. Lady also raised concerns about scientific information. Scientists need to obtain as much information as possible from various sources, for which they need the co-operation of fishermen. I challenge what the hon. Lady said about scientists concentrating on the negative. Scientists give a view of the scientific facts of the case. There is no interest for anyone involved in not presenting the facts as they stand. It is vital, when considering the long-term future of the industry, that we have accurate and precise information, for which we need scientists and the industry to work together. The fear is that if we fail to achieve that, the Commission is likely to adopt a harsher view and take a highly precautionary approach to its decisions, which would give us all cause for concern.

The only way for the industry to have a sustainable, long-term future—I am sure that the hon. Lady and her constituents seek that, just as we in Government do—is with accurate, reliable information so that appropriate action can be taken. There is no interest in anyone having anything other than that. Scientists and fishermen should recognise that they have the same objectives. They will not always have the same views or make the same assessments, but if they do not work together to get a true picture and understand the priorities, we will not be able to take the right approaches or make the case that we want to make.

The hon. Lady made her case about the cod recovery scheme. A considerable amount of work has been undertaken on that, and much more will be undertaken in the next 18 months, but marine science depends on data collected over a long period. It is not possible to take a snapshot of information that will be meaningful to the Commission or anyone else. We are optimistic that next year's exercise will be a significant step forward, but I cannot promise the hon. Lady any quick fixes. However, she must not think that a considerable amount of work has not been undertaken by scientists and the Department. That work is ongoing, because we need reliable, long-term data to make the case adequately.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of the purchasing quota. I understand her concerns about the price of the quota increasing, but that is its market value. This is another reason why we need important, accurate information, because if we do not have that, we might not do quite so well with the quota. We have done particularly well with the European Commission to be able to get that information. Unless we continue with that, we cannot give any guarantees for the future.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and DARD are jointly funding a programme with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and
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Aquaculture Science for fishery independent monitoring of cod recovery by means of egg production surveys. The hon. Lady nods; she must be aware of that. She made proposals in that regard, which we will certainly give full consideration. I welcome her positive steps forward on this issue, which we are keen to pursue. DEFRA and the European Commission are already holding meetings to discuss that, and we want to pursue it urgently. Scientific analysis will not handicap the effectiveness of the exercise in the years ahead.

I was a little disappointed by the hon. Lady's comments about an individual scientist. It is important to recognise the professionalism of the staff who deal with these issues. I hope that she will accept that nobody has any interest in not getting accurate information with which to do their best for the fishing industry. The scientists employed by the Department are working on this issue because they want to ensure that we get the best deal for Northern Ireland fishermen. I hope that she will understand that point.

I hope that I have addressed all the hon. Lady's points. I have already stated that the prawn total allowable catch for 2007 is a top priority for Northern Ireland. Enthusiastic work is being done to ensure that the TAC is increased in the following year. There is a deep commitment in the Department to ensure a long-term, sustainable future for the industry, but there is no quick-fix solution. The industry is under enormous pressure, and the Government would do it a disservice if we failed to establish what the long-term issues are and how they can best be addressed. We should not simply offer quick fixes that would undermine the industry in the long term.

11.25 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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