Consultation on Fisheries Management Proposals


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Bill Wiggin: Naturally, my party supports efforts to establish environmental and economic sustainability in our fisheries. We cannot have an economically sustainable industry unless the environmental conditions are right and unsustainable levels of fishing are stopped. In that respect, we must meet our 2015 Johannesburg commitments, and I pressed the Minister on that issue during questions.
Having said that, when the Government talk about the need to provide a sustainable future for the UK fishing industry, what exactly do they mean? Since they came to power 10 years ago, some 6,000 British fishermen have lost their jobs. I recently visited Fleetwood and Grimsby and saw for myself the situation in which our fishermen and their families and communities find themselves. I am sure that hon. Members are aware that in the weeks before the December Council and the very important EU-Norway negotiations, which begin this week, those people have been most anxious. We should never forget that the outcome of those discussions could literally change people’s lives.
The Minister will be aware of the events of the December 2004 Council, when the 6,500 sq mile cod recovery zone was imposed between Padstow and Pembroke. That was larger and more economically damaging than the one originally proposed. Indeed, the Minister apologised and said, “You sometimes get details like this that slip through unnoticed.” I hope that the extra consultation time created by the proposed arrangements will prevent any other nasty surprises from slipping through unnoticed, because altering a few numbers can mean the difference not only between flourishing fish stocks and depleted ones, but between employment and unemployment. That is why we have to get it right and stand up for our fishermen.
For far too many years, our fishermen have missed out, receiving unfavourable quotas and being subject to decommissioning, while other fishing fleets built more and took more. It is claimed, for instance, that Belgian trawlers take more cod through by-catch than Fleetwood fishermen take legitimately. I am aware that the majority in the industry and in the environmental lobby broadly welcome the front-loading initiative detailed in this communication and even see it as something that should have been introduced far earlier, but there are still some concerns that need to be raised.
First, it is reasonable to assume that scientists can only estimate what remains in the sea based on what is caught—its size, the season and all that being relative—but there is a gap between fishermen’s own experience and the predictions made by scientists. The Minister referred to that as a Berlin wall and I agree with him. A great deal of effort is being made to close the gap, which will of course be a worthy achievement. Ending discards would reinforce that effort. After all, only the fishermen know exactly what is discarded. By ensuring that all catch is landed, we can build our knowledge, which can only help. Until we have solved the problems of discarding, we must simply do our best to try to get TACs right.
First, we have to approach with a little caution the separation of the setting of TACs and quotas from effort. Although it is very important that discussions on TACs and quotas begin as soon as possible, it would not be the most sensible step to separate them completely from effort controls. Effort and catch control measures still require a significant amount of integrated thinking, if not integrated decision making.
My next point is about the scientific evidence on which the decisions on TACs and quotas will be made. Under the front-loading initiative, the Commission will produce a policy statement in April to provide guidance for the following year’s fishing opportunities. As that is early in the year, before the science is confirmed about fisheries stocks and especially those on which the British fishing industry depends, we need to be certain that the science behind the negotiating positions is as accurate as possible.
With that in mind, I am keen to know the Minister’s views on the response given by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries. Having seen its 22nd report, I am concerned that the front-loading initiative may end up leading to considerable underestimates of the amount of stock available. The report says:
“STECF has stated previously, that the uncertainty associated with forward catch predictions are likely to be underestimates.”
Although the stock assessment scientists are generally aware of that fact, the methodological tools routinely used at present do not contain appropriate statistical routines to determine the accuracy and precision of predicted results. When we consider the implications for the UK fishing industry of underestimating stocks and subsequently formulating low TACs, we see that we cannot risk relying purely on underlying scientific trends.
Following on from that point, when the policy statement is drafted, it is supposed to be designed to present the Commission’s strategy and working assumptions for management based on the underlying trends of the most recent scientific advice; that is, that which was presented in the previous year. I am concerned that the Commission may plan for one or a set of scenarios, only to find that those have not occurred. Indeed, changes made to the final draft of the communication may cause alarm bells to start ringing among fishermen. Currently, there is a general rule that TACs will only be changed within a 15 per cent. margin and that was stated in an earlier draft of this communication. However, in the final draft that we have here, that section has been edited out and the fisheries industry may be worried that TAC reductions could now fall drastically lower than the 15 per cent.
One of the core principles at the centre of fisheries decision making is striking the right balance between scientific demands and economic confidence. With that in mind, every year the ICES’s scientific report spells doom and gloom for fisheries. It seems that each year the same recommendations are made: close fisheries and allow low fish stocks to increase their biomass and recruitment. By allowing more time for construction, a wide knowledge base can be built, upon which decisions can be made. We still need to ensure that this advice will actually be considered and, with that in mind, I am concerned about the following insertion into the introduction to the final draft of the communication:
“Enhanced consultation with the stake-holders will not affect the Commission’s right of initiative”.
We should be concerned that, with that caveat, the perception could be created that the Commission can ignore stakeholders and that the enhanced consultation may be nothing more than a bureaucratic exercise. I would like to see a consultation that is open and transparent so that the views of stakeholders can be scrutinised and member states can use them as a knowledge base for Council negotiations and not just rely on the recommendations of the Commission. Following on from this point and referring again to the earlier draft of this communication, it was originally planned that the European Parliament would be consulted in April on the Commission’s policy statement and have a debate in early September. It stated that the Commission would welcome input from the Parliament on these issues particularly if this could be delivered before the Council debate in October. That section is not present in the final draft and while I appreciate that it is the Council alone that decides on fish catch and fishing effort, the only democratically elected European institution should still be closely involved.
The proposals outlined in this communication will alone not be enough to create sustainable and well-managed fisheries and work still needs to be done, for example, to resolve the problem of discarding and by-catch. Nevertheless, effective fisheries management needs the support of policy makers, science, and transparent and accountable decision making. If all concerned make a concerted effort to do that, the proposal in this communication may make a positive difference to the environment and to the fishing industry.
5.28 pm
Mr. Carmichael: I will not detain the Committee for long because we have already had the benefit of a useful exchange of questions and answers and I thank the Minister for being as forthright as ever in dealing with the Committee on that basis. Earlier, I should also have indicated my congratulations to the hon. Member for Leominster. I think that this is the first occasion on which he has had the opportunity of taking part in a fisheries debate—the poisoned chalice was passed to him by his party leader. I have followed with interest his recent comments on his movements within fishing and for those who have previously expressed much enthusiasm for the Conservative cause, I wish him well in his travails—not too well, of course.
Hon. Members in this room probably still have the scars of December Fisheries Councils of years gone by and from the many weaknesses inherent in the common fisheries policy and the management of fishing that stems from that. I have always thought that for a system that is supposed to theoretically start on the 1 January, this hell for leather rush at the end of the year in December is simply madness. I cannot think of another industry of any sort that allows itself to be regulated in a way where it does not know until the 22 December what its potential productivity will be for the year starting on the 1 January.
There has been a failure to include our fishing industry in the acquisition of scientific data. Not all scientists are men in white coats; quite a lot of them wear oilskins as well. We should take their knowledge and expertise from the home ports and into the conference chamber, particularly into the EU-Norway talks, from which the fishing industry is always telling me that it is excluded, whereas the Norwegian fishermen somehow manage to get in with their representatives. The Minister frowns—we have had this debate so many times, but I never know not quite how we reached this impasse. Whether or not the Norwegian fishermen are in the room, it is clear that they are much more effectively plugged into the negotiating process than our fishermen or fishermen in any EU member state have ever been.
The hon. Member for Leominster spoke about the quality of the advice that is available earlier in the year. The provision of interim advice must always be regarded with a degree of suspicion. If the hon. Gentleman or the Minister want advice on any fish stock that they chose to name, they can get it in the lounge bar in Lerwick on a Friday night. It is not always couched in particularly diplomatic terms but, by and large, it is usually pretty accurate and is offered in a spirit of absolute candour. Such advice is not always to the benefit of the fleet, but in my experience it is remarkably accurate or is ultimately shown to be so.
There is a tremendous wealth of information and experience within our industry, but it grieves me that we have never been able to tap it and include it with the information that we receive from ICES and other bodies. My frustration with ICES is that every year we get desperately gloomy predictions. Basically, one asks an impossible question and then receives an answer that sounds awful. We asked how to effect the recovery of cod stocks within 12 month. The answer to that will always be a zero TAC for cod, which means closing the whole of the North sea. That will inevitably be the case, because achieving a recovery of cod stocks within 12 months is nonsensical—it is never going to happen. Cod is a slow-growing, long-maturing fish, as are so many white fish species. We are looking at a period of perhaps 10 to 12 years before the full recruitment of mature adult cod to the fishery.
The other concern that I have put to the Minister comes from his earlier indication that a report is to be published tomorrow on the possible effect of temperature changes on North sea cod stocks. That comes as no surprise to me, as the issue has been spoken of for many years. If we factor that into the equation, the picture on cod stocks makes sense in a way that it currently does not. Other scientists have been telling me for years that the seabird colonies in my constituency have been declining desperately because of the change in temperatures, which has brought with it changes in plankton and where they are to be found. Thereafter they move up the food chain. I have never understood how we could say that it was affecting the bird colonies, but not the fish stocks.
If that report is published tomorrow, as we believe that it will be, it will place on the Minister a particularly heavy burden come the December Council to ensure that the view within the Commission is challenged fully and that the consensus does not continue, or that we do not pretend that it does, when it is challenged significantly by the Minister’s own Department’s research. Otherwise, we will find ourselves heading for a further 12 months operating a system that logic would seem to dictate is doomed to fail, if the report published tomorrow is correct.
It is another 12 months. I have no doubt that the fishing fleets in my constituency will survive those 12 months—they have been remarkably resilient so far—but we should not be in the business of making more difficult a job that is already one of the most dangerous and challenging there is. Many men put their lives at risk every year and a goodly number have lost them. That comes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby because those decisions made every December have a very real impact on the everyday lives of men and women in my constituency and constituencies the length and breadth of this country, certainly on the coast, at least.
It has been just a few months since the sad loss of a boat from Fife. I understand that the fairly strong local view is that fisherman in Fife are pushing the limits because the margins under which they operate are that much more difficult and smaller. That is often the case in my constituency as well. Every fishing opportunity that comes their way has to be taken and eventually, sadly, that costs lives.
The proposals today are fine for tinkering with a system that frankly is beyond repair, in my view. However, we need a completely different approach with a regional basis. For the North sea, it has to involve not just the EU countries, but Norway. I do not think that that can be achieved within the current set up, but I hope that in the long term we might get there. However, for today, half a loaf is better than no bread.
Bill Wiggin: On a point of order, Mr. Weir, the Minister asked me where in the explanatory memorandum my question was from. It is from page 7, part 4. That might be helpful to him.
The Chairman: That is not a point of order, but I think that the Minister heard and will adhere to it.
5.38 pm
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I notice that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland started by mentioning that the current fisheries policy is going from catastrophe to disaster. That might be why I said to go nowhere near Europe or indeed the common fisheries policy. I am, of course, impressed by Norway, which is just slightly smaller than Scotland, and will be standing toe to toe next week with the whole might of the European Union. That lesson is not lost on me and my party and nor, I hope, the rest of Scotland.
I noticed the mention of the advice freely dispensed in Lerwick on a Friday night, which is much the same as that in Castlebay and Stornoway on a Saturday night. I was reminded last Saturday night that every kilo of fish landed in Norway is accounted for. It is not yet the same in the UK. Fishermen feel that it would be of benefit if it were because the tightening up on black fish has been to their benefit over the last couple of years. Last January, in particular, during the shorter fishing period of two weeks, they caught their quota and felt that they came away with more money than they had in previous years when the period was six weeks. So maybe there have been some steps in the right direction.
I hope to leave the Minister with a couple of points ringing in his ears. He conceded, I would say, that the cod situation is not wholly the fault of fishing or fishermen. I agree, particularly when I think of haddock in the same waters, I can agree with him. I urge also that the nephrop quota, which we welcomed last year, remain untouched and is not a casualty or, indeed, a bi-casualty of any negotiations this year and is ring-fenced.
5.40 pm
 
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