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Session 2006 - 07
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European Standing Committee Debates

Consultation on Fisheries Management Proposals

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Mike Weir
Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Dobbin, Jim (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
MacNeil, Mr. Angus (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Singh, Mr. Marsha (Bradford, West) (Lab)
Vaz, Keith (Leicester, East) (Lab)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Alan Sandall, Emma Webbon, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)

European Standing Committee

Tuesday 28 November 2006

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Consultation on Fisheries Management Proposals

[Relevant Document: EU Document No. 9898/06.]
4.30 pm
The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for recommending this debate. Sustainable fisheries and the marine environment are extremely important matters on which there have been significant recent developments, and it is good that hon. Members have the opportunity to discuss them.
On a number of occasions since I have been Fisheries Minister I have attended debates in the House at which hon. Members from all parties have rightly criticised the inadequate time available for reasoned consideration of and debate on a variety of European Commission proposals, in particular those linked to the annual negotiations that culminate in the December EU Fisheries Council, which is less than one month away. I am delighted to say that, following concerted pressure from the UK in particular, the Commission has produced an initial project plan—the first document under consideration—that suggests a range of proposed improvements, and that it is now starting to effect the necessary changes.
I am also pleased to say that as a further step the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and the Commission have recently reached agreement on significant changes to the provision of scientific advice. From 2008, the advice that has previously surfaced in October will be produced in June and that, combined with the earlier submission of the Commission’s strategy paper in April, should provide for the more measured debate that is desired. In particular, it will allow adequate time to consult the regional advisory councils and other interested parties before the Commission produces its formal proposals later in the year.
Separately, the Commission has produced a paper that details how it proposes to implement the commitments to achieve the more sustainable future fishing levels throughout the EU that were entered into under the world summit on sustainable development, or WSSD—the so-called maximum sustainable yield target. That is the third document before the Committee for consideration. The commitments require the EU to maintain stocks or to restore them to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield. For depleted stocks, the aim is to achieve that goal urgently and, where possible, no later than 2015.
The Chairman: We have until half-past five for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that their questions should be brief and asked one at a time, in light of the ample opportunity for everyone to ask several questions.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): May I say how nice it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir? I congratulate the Minister of State on his recent promotion. Given that the proposals will require earlier estimates of the science on which decisions are made, what measures are being taken to improve the accuracy of estimating stocks, biomass and recruitment?
Mr. Bradshaw: We constantly try to improve and refine the scientific exploration that we and ICES undertake. That does not mean to say that with cod, for example, we will not still look for scientific evidence in the autumn as well as the spring, but having the information by the summer should give us an early indication of the state of the latest year class and will help us to plan. It may well be that by the autumn the estimates will have changed and we will need to revisit the positions that we held before, but as the hon. Gentleman will know, marine science is not an exact science, but it is constantly being improved and refined.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir, and place on record the congratulations that I offered privately to the Minister earlier on his recent promotion to Minister of State, which is, I think, of great benefit to the fishing industry.
I bring the Minister’s attention to paragraph 3 on page 7 of the bundle. It refers to the importance of
“agreements with third countries like Norway and Iceland”
and goes on to say that
“the Commission will be looking to begin these discussions earlier in future, if at all possible.”
I place on record my agreement with that assessment and ask what progress has been made in that regard.
Mr. Bradshaw: I personally have regular discussions, both bilaterally with the Commission and at the Council of Ministers. The EU-Norway talks have been discussed in the past three Fisheries Councils. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, those talks are crucial and increasingly important for the overall package that our fishing industry will end up with at the end of the year.
I think I am right in saying that 50 per cent. of all the value—certainly for the Scottish fleet—is predetermined by the outcome of the EU-Norway talks, which set the level of catches for the stocks that we share with the Norwegians. The UK and other EU member states have certainly left the Commission in no doubt about the importance of those talks and of the EU striking a fair but hard bargain with the Norwegians in the interests of EU fleets, including the UK’s.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What impact does the Minister think the recent EU enlargement has had on his discussions? Obviously, countries such as the Baltic states will be very engaged on fisheries management policy. Has enlargement helped in any way, or are there now more obstacles as a result of the A8 accession?
Mr. Bradshaw: That question is interesting and important. Although enlargement was a strategy supported on both sides of the House and has served the wider UK strategic interest, on some issues—this is one—it has made our lives more difficult in some ways.
To generalise for a moment, most of the accession countries, at this stage at least, seem more interested in short-term economic benefits for their fishing industries and port areas, rather than long-term sustainability. Those who follow the issue closely will know that, in the past year or two, the UK has been fighting hard to prevent the important reforms to the common fisheries policy that we achieved in 2002 from being reversed by a qualified majority of mainly southern European states and the accession countries.
However, I have two bits of good news from the recent Fisheries Council for my right hon. Friend. First, we have finally agreed on a cod recovery plan for the Baltic. That had been outstanding for some time, and the accession states played an important role in getting that agreed. Secondly, one of the most contentious issues at last week’s Fisheries Council was an agreement to reduce substantially the TACs and quotas for the slow maturing deep-sea species, many of which are at critically low levels. The UK led a conservationist grouping to prevent the French from significantly watering down the Commission’s proposals, and the support of Estonia was critical to our blocking minority. I sense that things are beginning to move in the right direction and we shall certainly do what we can to ensure that they continue to do so.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Page 6 of the explanatory memorandum states that the advice is often
“based on regular time series research, which has to be conducted at particular times of the year.”
Would moving the sampling period from October to June enable data to be strictly comparable? Is the Minister satisfied that we will not get a false impression, certainly in the first year? Stocks tend to move around and we might be misled about where the fish are and how many there are.
Mr. Bradshaw: We are not talking about changing the sampling, which will carry on as before. It will be increased to give us the advice earlier, but we will still sample throughout the year. We will certainly maintain the current pattern of sampling so that the comparisons to which the hon. Gentleman refers can be made.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Have any studies been made of warming in the central North sea and its effects on cod and cod migration to the northern North sea?
Mr. Bradshaw: A number of studies have been undertaken on the impact of climate change on the marine environment—indeed, we are publishing a major study on it tomorrow. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the issue as a possible factor in the low level of cod stocks in the North sea. I would, however, caution him that the scientific consensus suggests that, although there has been a general migration further north of all species—not just cod—because of warming, the North sea is still a perfectly viable and conducive environment for cod. There is no reason why cod stocks in the North sea should not recover, if they are allowed to do so.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I welcome the tenor of the Minister’s statement. He will no doubt acknowledge that the recognition of regional advisory councils in the European Commission’s statement is welcome. How optimistic is he that future negotiation of management procedures could lead to regional advisory councils becoming regional management councils? There are a lot of references in the document to consultation, but not many that acknowledge that, for seasonally closed areas and other geographically specific measures, it would be appropriate to delegate responsibility to those RACs.
The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister answers, the scope of the debate is the timely provision of scientific advice, but some of the questions are going a bit wide of that.
Mr. Bradshaw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have long held out the prospect of regional advisory councils playing an increasingly important role. At the same time, we must learn to walk before we can run. We still do not have the full network of regional advisory councils in the European Union area, but the UK would certainly encourage the Commission to revisit the role of regional advisory councils as part of its 2011 review of the common fisheries policy and to see whether they could take on a more managerial role. As a Minister, I am all for not having to micro-manage the fishing industry and for allowing not only the fishermen but all parties who have an interest in the marine environment to take on more responsibility for it. Taking the decisions out of politicians’ hands would be marvellous.
Bill Wiggin: The Commission’s Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries recently said:
“STECF has stated previously, that the uncertainty associated with forward catch predictions are likely to be underestimates.”
Does the Minister know by how much those predictions are likely to be underestimated?
Mr. Bradshaw: No, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact figure. I would imagine that the answer would depend on which stock that committee was referring to. It would not surprise anybody if, historically at least, predictions of fishing levels had been underestimates, because it is a natural desire of fishermen to maximise their catch and their income.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome the Minister’s statement. The documents point out that in the past there have been large variations in total allowable catches from year to year. For example, in the 17 years to 2005, the North sea haddock TAC was altered on average by 32 per cent. a year. Such wild variations clearly cause long-term problems for the industry. Has any thought been given to more long-term planning, so that there would not be such massive variations in TACs from year to year?
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Prepared 29 November 2006