Consultation on Fisheries Management Proposals

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Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, indeed. We agreed two years ago to a new system, under which there would be no change of more than 15 per cent. in either direction, unless there was an unprecedented reason for introducing one, although we secured a significantly bigger increase in the nephrops TAC for Scotland last year, which was not sniffed at. In general, the big swings in the past made it difficult for the industry to plan for the long term. One reason why landing values increased and incomes rose in the past 12 months—15 per cent. in the Scottish fishing industry—is the new stability that was introduced in the industry as a result of those decisions.
Mr. Goodwill: Perhaps I have developed a cynical attitude to how decisions are made in Brussels because of the number of Conciliation Committees that I was involved with when I was in the Parliament. But does the Minister really think that decisions will be made earlier, or will it be a case of waiting till the 11th hour, as usual? Does he think that if politicians are given more time to discuss TACs, they will also have more time to try to circumvent the scientific advice and more time for other issues apart from the strict scientific arguments?
Mr. Bradshaw: I suspect that for some time the majority of decisions on TACs and quotas will continue to be made at the December Council. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there is always a trade-off. It is not an accident that the Council meets in December, just a couple of days before Christmas, as it means that Ministers and the Commissioner need to get away. Otherwise, one could seriously imagine discussions going on and on. The timing provides a discipline to decision making.
Last week, we reached an agreement on deep-sea species which otherwise would have been part of the December Council negotiations, and we came to a decision on the management plan for the Mediterranean. That historic agreement provides the first proper management regime for the Mediterranean. Because of those agreements, there is less to argue about in December, which should make things simpler and more straightforward. It follows logically that the fewer high-priority issues that countries have to concentrate on, the easier it is for them to make the sometimes difficult decisions that they need to make to ensure a sustainable fishery. That is certainly the case for some countries.
Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and sensible point, and I would have agreed with it if he had put it slightly differently; perhaps along the lines of whether it is worth while putting a significant part of our fishing industry out of business to enforce maximum sustainable yield principles on cod, given the uncertainty resulting from climate change as to whether cod will recover in the North sea. I entirely accept the point. However, Ministers must rely on the consensus of scientific advice, which is that cod has been seriously over-fished in the North sea—without question, it has been fished down to historically low levels—but that there is a small glimmer of hope with the 2005 year class, which is the best year class for several years. I am advised that although the North sea is near the southern extremity for cod, cod is found further south and there is no reason why it should not recover in that part of the sea.
Bill Wiggin: The Minister says that the UK was one of the main driving forces behind the Commission initiative, but the Commission will still need to be pressured to ensure adequate delivery. What aspects of the delivery is he uncertain about? What aspects does he think the Commission cannot deliver without UK pressure?
Mr. Bradshaw: One area that we raised that is of particular concern to our fishing industry is the rules on gear marking, which we think are over-prescriptive and over-bureaucratic. The Commission had proposals, in its original action plan, to simplify the rules for gear marking, and we hope very much that the promise given at the Council by the Commission to produce more details on some of these technical issues next year will include addressing matters such as the gear marking rules.
Mr. MacNeil: The Minister alluded earlier to some stability in the North sea in recent years, particularly with black fish being a thing of the past. I can certainly testify to that, having spoken to some crewmen off a pelagic boat last Saturday night, but there is still a rumour of pelagic clawback in the industry, which is causing a great deal of instability, particularly as some factories that the boats had been landing to are involved in investigations. I would add that boats were allowed a 20 per cent. margin of error. The landings were allowed by fisheries officers at the time, but there is still a persistent rumour of pelagic clawback. I look to the Minister for an assurance that that will not be the case and that pelagic boats, particularly Scottish pelagic boats, can look forward to a future free from any bureaucratic involvement or interference that would adversely affect their futures.
Mr. Bradshaw: I can certainly say to the hon. Gentleman that as long as we maintain the trajectory that we are on, which is one of increased enforcement, better compliance and, as a result, rising prices and good stocks of mackerel—the herring situation is slightly more difficult this year—yes, there should be a good future for the pelagic fleet. I cannot give him the assurance that he seeks on clawback this year, but I will write to him after this Committee. It is an important principle that not only we but other member states adhere to that the Commission retains the power, if there is evidence and admission of serious over-fishing or illegal fishing, to claw back the next year. I am not aware that that should have a significant impact on us this year. We certainly made the point that it should not in any way affect the EU-Norway talks; one of the industry’s main concerns was that it might do.
Andrew George: What effort is the Minister’s Department either engaged in or commissioning from ICES or perhaps elsewhere as regards its own assessment of what measures would be required to achieve maximum sustainable yield? I wrote to ICES in the summer and I received a letter back only on 22 November from Hans Lassen, the head of the advisory programme. It certainly indicates that for some stocks the period will be three to five years and for others it will be up to 20 years in terms of very significant reductions in mortality. What efforts has the Minister’s Department made to seek or commission that advice?
Mr. Bradshaw: The advice that we have is that the hon. Gentleman is right that for some of our stocks, maximum sustainable yield would mean a significantly more precautionary approach than the one that we have operated hitherto—not all of a sudden, but over a number of years, to ease it in. The benefits of that approach would be significant to the fishing industry and the availability and size of the stocks in future. We think that haddock and prawns are pretty much already being fished according to the principles of maximum sustainable yield. Cod and flatfish are not. They are perhaps at the other end of the scale, and the rest of the quota stocks are in-between. Of course, there are significant stocks fished around our coasts that are not quota stocks at all and from which very good incomes and profits are being made, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Mr. Goodwill: The Minister mentioned that cod were at the other end of the scale. It might be useful for the Committee to have an idea of what percentage current North sea stocks represent of the stocks that would be required to meet maximum sustainable yield for cod.
Mr. Bradshaw: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the scientific advice on cod for the past five years has been zero catch. That is using the current less precautionary approach than the maximum sustainable yield approach. That is one reason why we have some concern about some of the detail of maximum sustainable yield, particularly in a mixed fishery. If the level of fishing effort is set in relation to the state of the weakest stock, the impact on the UK fishing industry as a whole would be devastating because, in most of our fisheries, cod is caught as a by-catch. That is one of the areas where we will work very hard to establish what we can do through technical measures, the use of different gear and targeting closed areas in order to enable our industry to continue to make good money from the stocks that are in good shape such as haddock, nephrops and others. We also need to allow the cod stock to recover to a level where it is again a healthy and profitable resource for our fishermen.
Mr. Carmichael: I would like to bring the Minister’s attention to the first of the documents: EU Document No. 9898/06 from 31 May 2006 and particularly to page 16 of the bundle for the Committee. In the second to last paragraph—if it assists the Minister I can read it out—and in the context of the December fisheries Council, the EU document states that
“some Member States considered that the time pressure built into the present system was helpful in reaching decisions efficiently”.
Can the Minister find out who those people are and arrange to have them taken out and shot? I can think of many words to describe the procedures of the annual December Council and efficient is not one of them.
Mr. Bradshaw: One should make a distinction between the time pressure at the Council itself, and the run up to it. One of the difficult and frustrating things for all of us is that the principal scientific advice on the main stocks comes too close to the December Council and gives very little time for parliamentary scrutiny, for consultation with the industry, or for preparatory work with the Commission. One of the ideas we had previously was to move the date of the December Council back to the spring in order to give us more time. What the Commission has proposed is an alternative version of that, which involves bringing the main scientific advice forward to allow more time. I repeat what I said earlier: there are advantages to forcing Ministers to make difficult decisions by shutting them in a room in Brussels for hours on end. We see this not only in fisheries, but in a lot of serious EU negotiations. It forces people to make decisions and, if we did not do it, I am unsure about what other means the hon. Gentleman would use to reach a deal.
Bill Wiggin: When talking about fishing yield, can the Minister provide an explanation as to why the wording has been changed between the communication and its previous draft? In section 3.4 the earlier draft of the document used the term “maximum sustainable yield” whereas the final communication uses the term
“sustainable exploitation while providing high yields”
Is there a difference in the meaning as well as the words? Will this mean that TACs could be higher than maximum sustainable yield or lower?
Mr. Bradshaw: I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that. We did not like the original wording for the reasons that I gave earlier relating to the difficulty of a mixed fishery with cod.
Mr. Reid: One of the background documents points out that currently the scientific advice for nephrops is given in October and it says that the Commission has asked for advice to be provided earlier in the year. That document was printed back in May. Can the Minister inform us if there has been any progress since then and will the advice for nephrops in future be provided at an earlier time in the year?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I understand that it will be.
Andrew George: I welcome any measure to enhance the use of multi-annual quotas or for ensuring that plans are set far enough in advance to avoid the eleventh-hour brinkmanship that happens every December in the fisheries Council. The sixth bulletin point under the heading “Long-term Plans”, on page 39 of the bundle, says of mixed fisheries that
“where different stocks are normally caught together, the plans should include technical measures to ensure fishing of all the stocks in compatibility with their respective targets”.
Does that not mean the target for the species that is most at threat, which in the North sea is cod and in the western approaches is sole? The biggest problem in a mixed fishery is surely that that one species sets the precedent for the rest of the fishery, so could the Minister explain whether that advisory note is quite right?
Mr. Bradshaw: I read that sentence slightly differently. It talks about using “technical measures” to allow the different stocks to be fished
“in compatibility with their respective targets”,
which I read rather differently from the hon. Gentleman, in that there is room to use technical measures to exploit stocks that are in better shape, while not catching stocks that are in bad shape, where at all possible.
Mr. Goodwill: One species that is not mentioned in the document is the sand eel, which is possibly the most important species in the North sea, although there is a reference to shortfalls being made up from farmed fished, many of which are fed on sand eels that are industrially harvested. Does the Minister have any views on what the maximum sustainable yield of sands eels should be and whether the measures that are currently in place to limit the Danish catch of sand eels should be made permanent?
Mr. Bradshaw: We would certainly take the view—not only under a maximum sustainable yield approach, but even under the current approach—that there should be a small or zero sand eel catch. That is something for which we have argued repeatedly at fisheries councils.
Mr. Carmichael: May I draw the Minister’s attention to paragraph 3.1, on page 19 of the bundle, which is headed “Changing the fishing year” and comes under the heading “Recommendations for improving the system”? It states:
“TACs are currently decided for a calendar year from 1st January, both in the EU and in neighbouring third countries. It might be possible to alter this management period to run for twelve months from a different date.”
Can the Minister say what the Norwegian Government’s view on that is and whether we are likely to see early progress?
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