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Session 2006 - 07
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European Standing Committee Debates

Conservation of the European Eel



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Hywel Williams
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Crausby, Mr. David (Bolton, North-East) (Lab)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Love, Mr. Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
Steen, Mr. Anthony (Totnes) (Con)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Keith Neary, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Standing Committee

Monday 23 April 2007

[Mr. Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Conservation of the European Eel

4.30 pm
The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The European eel is a fascinating creature. It starts its life in the Sargasso sea, the spawning ground for all European eel, thousands of miles from our shores. It drifts as larvae across the Atlantic ocean towards the European coastline on the currents of the gulf stream and the north Atlantic drift. When it reaches European shores, it undergoes a metamorphosis transforming intotiny transparent glass or baby eels and finding its way into inland rivers. There it undergoes a startling transformation, feeding and growing often for 15 to20 years first into yellow, then silver eels in preparation for the journey back to the sea and a long swim back to the spawning grounds in the Sargasso sea.
However, there is a danger that that miracle will not be repeated for much longer. The European eel is under serious threat of extinction. For several years in its advice to the European Union, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has warned that the stock is considered outside safe biological limits and that the fishery is unsustainable. It is no exaggeration that the state of the eel is absolutely dire.
In the past two decades, juvenile recruitment is estimated to have fallen to between 1 and 5 per cent. of historic levels throughout the whole of Europe. The situation in the United Kingdom mirrors that across the rest of the European Union. Unless decisive action is taken there will no longer be any eel left in European waters, let alone sustainable eel fisheries. It is almost four years since the Council agreed that the parlous state of the stock required urgent attention. It is therefore vital that agreement is reached and a recovery plan implemented as soon as possible. The negotiations on the proposal have been protracted and difficult. Having read the papers, members of the Committee will recall that the original proposal detailed prescriptive measures involving an extension of the common fisheries policy into inland waters prescribing a close season for eel fisheries during the first 15 days of each month.
The Government argued that any workable solution to the problem would have to recognise the diverse systems in place for the regulation and management of freshwater fisheries in each member state. We also argued that the control and enforcement measures needed to be proportionate with member states best positioned to judge what was needed in their particular countries. I am pleased to say that the latest draft reflects those suggestions.
The second requirement is to reduce fishing effort or catches of eel by 50 per cent. in maritime waters over a five-year period. Thirdly, when fisheries for juvenile or glass eel are permitted with the territory of member states, a percentage—currently 65 per cent. of the catch—should be sold for restocking waters that currently have low natural recruitment. The fourth proposal is to draw up registers of persons or vessels licensed to fish for eel and those licensed to act as first buyers and sellers. Finally, member states should satisfy themselves that live eels exported from their territory were caught in accordance with the measures provided for by the regulation.
The first three points are essential if we are to see a recovery of the stock. Management plans offer member states a flexible solution enabling them to choose from a toolbox the most appropriate means for each river basin to obtain the 40 per cent. escapement objective, whether that be reducing commercial fishing activity, restocking measures, introducing fish passes so that eels can freely migrate up and down rivers or improving habitat. The set-up is important so that member states can take into account their unique conditions.
My Department has been working with the Environment Agency, the Scottish Executive and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland to ensure that plans are developed in all the United Kingdom’s river basin districts. The work is currently on target to meet the Commission’s deadlines and takes into account conditions both in terms of conservation and socio-economic impacts and work towards increasing escapement from UK rivers.
In my previous correspondence with the Committee dated 12 April, I explained that the proposal was due to reach political agreement at the April Agriculture and Fisheries Council and that it was our intention to vote for the proposal. That meeting took place in Luxembourg last Monday. Since then, I have written again, but I understand that the letter has failed to reach members of the Committee in time for today’s debate. I wish therefore to give hon. Members a short oral update of what happened at the council.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend talks about the problems of overfishing. Does he believe that there is any link between global warming and the decrease in numbers of eels?
Mr. Bradshaw: The simple answer is that we do not know. There is a lot of speculation about the impact of climate change on the populations of migratory species such as eel and salmon, but no definitive evidence.
Although I regret that no agreement could be reached at that council, I am none the less pleased that our debate will serve a purpose, as it is no longer being held after the event, as it were. I hope that our discussions will enable the dossier to be subject to clear scrutiny and that the remaining obstacles to agreement in the European Fisheries Council can be overcome in time for the proposal to be adopted in May or June at one of the next two councils.
The Chairman: We now have until half-past 5 for questions to the Minister. Questions should be brief and asked one at a time, as we are likely to have ample time for hon. Members to ask more than one question.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): What guarantees can the Minister give that the EU powers extending into inshore fisheries in these proposals will not set a precedent for others?
Mr. Bradshaw: As I said, one of the reasons why we opposed the original proposal was that we were concerned about that issue. At the same time, we accepted that with regard to some species that spend part of their time in marine areas and part in fresh water, there will inevitably be a grey area. Given the serious state of the eel stock, we felt that some Europe-wide action was important, because it is recognised by scientists as a single stock. The UK acting alone within our own fresh waters will not make enough of a contribution to enable the stock to recover.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Is there any evidence that the reduction in the eel population has anything to do with the introduction of exotic parasites through aquaculture?
Mr. Bradshaw: No, not so far as I am aware. A number of theories have greater weight—obstacles in rivers, hydroelectric facilities and so forth. I am not aware that any suggestion has been made that, as for example with migratory salmon, parasites are causing a problem.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The Commission’s proposal for protecting the eel in the period before member states establish management plans involves a 15-day moratorium at the beginning of the month. What evidence is there that fishing pressure will not just be transferred to the end of the month, and that fishermen who might have taken every weekend off will not just fish at weekends? On the same point, silver eels usually migrate on dark, moonless or stormy nights. Is there a concern that if one or a succession of such nights were to occur during the fishing period, the protection afforded duringthe beginning of the month would not help the species at all?
Mr. Bradshaw: My understanding of the most up-to-date version of the proposals is that the 50 per cent. cut—the 15-day non-fishing period in the month—would occur only in countries that had not prepared adequate action plans in time. We do not expect that to be the case in this country. The action plans that will apply here are almost complete. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s first point, we do not expect such a scenario in the UK. He might be right when he says that lunar, tidal and various other meteorological factors impact on the timing of eel migration. My understanding is that because of that, the situation would even itself out over time, given the 15-day closure period.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It may be that I missed a previous discussion on the matter, but as I understand it, the main evidence for the dire state of the eel stock is the fact that the amount that has been caught in recent years has been significantly reduced, from 2,500 tonnes to 700 tonnes or something of that order, and from 1,500 tonnes to 700 tonnes more recently. However, might not that have occurred for other reasons? For example, could it have occurred because demand for jellied eels has dropped off? People might be catching fewer eels because they are selling fewer. What other evidence is there that eel stocks have been reduced in the extreme way that the Minister describes? Could the reduction in the catch, which is seen in the figures, be a partial solution in itself?
Mr. Bradshaw: No, because the estimates aboutthe state of the stock that are conducted by the independent international scientific body, ICES—the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—are based not only on catches but on research at sea and in rivers. There is no danger that demand for the product will fall. One of the problems is that there is such strong demand for the product from the fareast that the price of baby eels can reach as much as €1,000 per kilo. That is more than for caviar. If a fisherman catches these little eels and can choose between selling them to someone who is going to restock them or selling them to a far-east market, obviously the incentive is to sell them to the latter. That is why it is vital that a minimum percentage of the catch, 65 or 75 per cent., is used for restocking. That was the main sticking point at the council on Monday. France and Spain and one or two other countries opposed any restocking requirement—an approach that we think would drive a coach and horses through the proposals.
Bill Wiggin: On restocking, what reasons were given, and how could we ensure that the 60 to 75 per cent. of a catch that is used for restocking is allocated across the whole eel fishing community?
Mr. Bradshaw: It would be the responsibility of anyone who had a licence as a fisher or a business involved in the fishery to ensure that that proportion of their catch was sold for restocking. I cannot recall the Spanish Minister making a convincing or coherent argument at the council. I just recall a lot of bombast.
Mr. Williams: What evidence is there of the effect of recreational angling on the population of silver eels? Is it a particular factor?
Mr. Bradshaw: None at all.
Mr. Goodwill: The French Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Dominique Bussereau, was largely responsible for torpedoing the proposal. On his website—coincidentally, he is up for re-election—he said that he has
“protected the future for 2,000 professional eel fishermen on the Atlantic coast”.
How long does the Minister think that that future would be if those measures were not put in place?
Mr. Bradshaw: That is a very good question. There is a short and a long-term view on all such sustainability and fish and marine conservation issues. In the short term, someone may claim that their fishers’ livelihoods have been protected, but that is not a sensible or visionary approach. I have already said that we have seen a reduction of between 95 and 99 per cent. in the eel population. If we continue in that way, there will be no future at all for Mr. Bussereau’s eel fishermen in his constituency, and I do not think that they will be very pleased about that.
Bill Wiggin: What research has the Minister presented to the European Commission and his counterparts in the council to demonstrate that the UK eel fisheries, such as Lough Neagh, are already meeting a 40 per cent. escapement level? What will be the cost to industry and the taxpayer of demonstrating that under the new proposals?
Mr. Bradshaw: In the conversations and negotiations that we have had on the subject, we have spoken at great length with Commission officials about the situation in Lough Neagh, which is very important to us. It is the biggest wild eel fishery in the European Union. We are confident that it could—if it does not already—easily meet the 40 per cent. escapement requirement. It relies very heavily on restocking. Lough Neagh restocks its baby eels from other rivers such as the Severn. My understanding is that it will be supportive of the proposals as they stand. If there were no restocking requirement, they would be extremely worried that they would not be able to get enough eels to restock, because they would all be sold to the far-east market.
Mr. Gray : What consultation has the Minister had with the industry in Loughs Neagh and Erne, and indeed in the Severn, as to what effect the proposals will have? I take it from his earlier answer that he understands that the industry will be perfectly content, but what actual consultations has he had and on what is he basing his understanding?
Mr. Williams: In his introductory remarks, the Minister said that he had consulted the devolved authorities in Scotland and Ireland. Has he had any consultations with the devolved Administration in Wales, or is the European eel a non-devolved species?
Mr. Bradshaw: I think that I am right in saying that the Environment Agency is responsible for this matter in Wales. I might be wrong, and if so I shall correct myself before the end of the debate.
Mr. Goodwill: The European eel is a long-lived species—males live for six to 12 years and females from nine to 20 years in rivers before they migrate, and they might live up to 85 years. As they have high levels of body fat, they are prone to building up levels of bioaccumulative chemicals. In particular, Greenpeace has identified PFCs, perfluorochemicals, and certain brominated flame-retardants. Is there any evidence that such chemicals have contributed to the decline of the species?
Mr. Bradshaw: Not that I am aware, but I will endeavour to write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify the matter.
Bill Wiggin: What discussions has the Minister had with the European Trade Commissioner regarding the export of glass eels to China, whose growing demand is forcing up elver prices? What does Mr. Mandelson think about that? What measures, if any, is the Commission introducing to deal with the matter, and when will such measures be introduced?
Mr. Bradshaw: The United Kingdom and Sweden are among the countries that believe that the trade is not justified and that it should be stopped. We are taking a proposal along those lines to the convention on international trade in endangered species meeting in June. Our contention is that under CITES regulations, the trade to which the hon. Gentleman referred is not sustainable.
Bill Wiggin: Will a CITES ban on the export of elver eels not kill the profitability of the entire British eel industry?
Mr. Bradshaw: I think that it is highly unlikely that CITES will agree to our proposals. Sweden and the United Kingdom are by far the greenest current members of the European Union, but we will not get majority support either at CITES or the European Union just because we make an argument in favour of something. However, we try our best to protect endangered species such as the eel, and we will continue to do so.
Bill Wiggin: With reference to article 7 of the proposed regulation, which relates to eel management plans, has the UK got its way and secured the removal of the plans for the scientific, technical and economic committee for fisheries to evaluate UK management plans?
Mr. Bradshaw: No, we have not, because we think that there has to be Europe-wide assessment and consistency, and that a European institution has to do it. The STECF deals with a range of such issues, so the Government are content with such an approach.
Mr. Goodwill: In defining the fishing activities that need to be restricted, the document refers to fishing for, retaining and landing eels. To what extent does the problem of by-catch impact on the species? Presumably, it would be legal to catch eels and discard them, and I guess that the eels might well not survive such a process.
Mr. Bradshaw: I am unsighted on that issue, so I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman to supply further information about it.
Bill Wiggin: The measures proposed may lead to some form of price control on the route to making restocking viable. Has the Minister thought about what sort of support would be available for UK eel fisheries and whether any European fisheries funds will be made available? If they are made available, will budgets be cut from other areas of fishing?
Mr. Bradshaw: Helping a fishery to become more sustainable is certainly an area in which the European fisheries fund would in theory be payable. If the measure is passed, we will have to consider whether to use those funds in such a way. One could argue that that would be a better use of European fisheries funds than in other areas in which they are spent. However, there may be better uses for such money in the UK environment, and that is something that we will consider when the time comes.
Mr. Williams: The Environment Agency says that information on the eel is limited, as has been pointed out. Any improvement in the eel population will also be slow and incremental. What proposals does the Minister or the Commission have for a better system of monitoring the population and age distribution within the population of the European eel?
Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that not much is known about the stock—even less than is known about the wild salmon stock and the reasons for its decline. I am informed, by the way, that by-catch is not a serious problem in this fishery because it is a targeted and specialist fishery. He is also right that the probable time frame for any recovery is long. One can only hope that politicians—both French and from other countries—will have a strong view of their long-term interests so that we can take the right decision.
Mr. Bradshaw: We cannot be certain, but we have taken the view, as have the majority of member states, that we must do something. The proposals in the action plan are based on the best available evidence and advice about what we need to do both in terms of the proportion of eels that we need to allow to re-escape into the sea and the proportion that need to be used for restocking rather than sold for food or for growing on in the far east. As the behaviour and survival of the stock is so uncertain, there are no guarantees. However, when a stock is in such dire straits we believe that it is right to adhere to precautionary principles. Some people would say that the package of measures is not precautionary enough, and we will work hard to ensure that it is not watered down at future council meetings.
Mr. Goodwill: The 350 fishermen at the fishery on Lough Neagh are described as engaged on a seasonal basis. Are they engaged in other fishing activities for the rest of the time or are they part-timers who have other jobs? How big an impact will the restrictions have on their ability to care for their families or is work at the fishery an additional source of income, in the same way as going out and netting salmon used to be for some North Yorkshire fishermen?
Mr. Bradshaw: I am afraid that I do not know what the fishermen do for the rest of the year. However, I think that the value to the Northern Ireland economy is about £4 million a year.
Bill Wiggin: In response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, the Minister said that he did not know whether the plan would work, but he felt that he had to do something. However, in his opening comments he said that he was unable to do anything because of French bombast—I think that that was the word he used. What is to stop the French behaving like that again and what science has he got to back up his plan, on which I believe the Environment Agency has been working since 2001?
Mr. Bradshaw: We do constant research and, indeed, reporting and more research are part of any management plan. The hon. Gentleman misquoted me slightly. I did not say that I did not know whether the proposals would work; I told his hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire that there could be no guarantees. He also misquoted slightly what I said about the French Minister’s contribution at the council. I did not say that the measure had failed because of the French Minister’s bombast; I described the paucity of the argument in that way.
Bill Wiggin: Let us take the worst possible case of the negotiation not succeeding. What else could the Minister do to try to save our eels?
Mr. Bradshaw: We will have to carry on trying. We will go back to the drawing board to see whether we could be doing anything more, domestically. The action plans for our rivers, which we already have, are almost complete. However, the German presidency has shown a strong commitment to the environment, and I hope that it will see this matter through. I see more chance of the proposal succeeding under the German presidency, as Germany is a major country with a strong environmental movement. There was a great deal of unhappiness in Germany about this matter not being agreed on Monday, so there may be willingness to give it a final push. If it does not succeed, we will face the matter when we come to host the presidency.
Mr. Goodwill: Given the difficulty of building a qualified majority on this issue, does the Minister not think it somewhat bizarre that we have several new landlocked member states that have votes on the Fisheries Council when these measures will have no impact on the economy of their countries? They may well find themselves negotiating on issues unrelated to this, and their votes going against the interests of the European eel and the general environmental issues under consideration here.
Mr. Bradshaw: I am not sure whether I would wish to deprive any landlocked country of its right to hold a view on an issue relating to the marine environment. We all share a responsibility to protect it, and, having just persuaded several landlocked eastern European countries to join the International Whaling Commission so that they might vote with us and against the Japanese, I do not think that the principle that the hon. Gentleman elucidated would be sensible. I spend most of my time trying to persuade countries such as the Czech Republic to take a strong interest in the future of the marine environment, and to be with us on the side of the good guys and against some of those that would not take such tough action. We try to do exactly the same to persuade them to be on the right side on this issue.
Mr. Gray: The Minister’s answer is indicative. None the less, does he not agree that there is a question over the competence of the European Union? He says that this is not setting a precedent, but is there not a chance of that, given that this relates to the management of all manner of inland waterways? Would it not be odd if a similar principle were to be applied to salmon?
The Chairman: Order. We need to restrict the questions to the matter being debated today.
Bill Wiggin: What work has the Minister’s Department been doing to improve the habitat of eels, and what resources does his department have for improving wetlands and migratory pathways for eel recovery?
Mr. Bradshaw: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Environment Agency does a great deal of important work on habitat protection generally in our rivers and inland waterways, as well as on improving and easing the routes for migratory species. I do not have the exact figures on spend with me today, as this debate was not specifically about that. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with a full explanation of what the Environment Agency does in that regard.
Bill Wiggin: What research is the Minister and his European counterparts undertaking into the life cycle of eels and their spawning behaviour? Have there been any further developments in identifying spawning behaviour? According to the original 2003 Commission communication, the commonly held view that the European eel’s spawning grounds are in the Sargasso sea might be inaccurate. Is the Minister aware of any other spawning grounds for European eels?
Mr. Bradshaw: No, I am not.
Bill Wiggin: What research is his Department doing?
Mr. Bradshaw: I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman about that. However, on the basis of the research of which we are currently aware, I do not know of any other spawning grounds.
Bill Wiggin: I am grateful. We know that there has been little success in farming eel spawning stock in European waters. Are any scientific projects being undertaken to establish whether it is possible to break the dependence on elvers from Atlantic spawning stocks?
Mr. Bradshaw: Not as far as I am aware. Again, however, I shall write on the hon. Gentleman on that.
Bill Wiggin: I am grateful to the Minister for this surge in my postbag; he is very kind and generous.
In the 2005 explanatory memorandum, the Minister stated:
“Primary legislation may...be required to enable the introduction of effective management plans for eels.”
Is that still the case, and will he be able to use the marine Bill to introduce such plans?
Mr. Bradshaw: We think that we can do most of what we need to do through secondary legislation. Again, however, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to confirm that. Indeed, I am being given a nod by my officials.
Bill Wiggin: Again, I am most grateful. According to ICES, elver recruitment levels are 1 per cent. of 1980 levels, but some in the industry suggest that the real figure is in the region of 20 per cent. What is the Minister’s estimate of the current elver recruitment level? What research is DEFRA and its European counterparts undertaking to find out precise data on UK and European elver recruitment?
Mr. Bradshaw: As I indicated in my introductory remarks, we estimate the figure to be between 1 and5 per cent. That is based on ICES estimates, on which we all depend, and on our own research. Again, however, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to outline exactly what research we are doing on the issue.
Bill Wiggin: What research is being undertaken to reduce the eel fishing mortality rate in the UK, France and elsewhere in Europe?
Mr. Bradshaw: I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman on any of the questions that he asks me about that research.
Bill Wiggin: I fear that the Minister’s pen will have run out of ink by the time we have finished. I am most grateful.
Will the Minister confirm my major fear on this issue? He is trying hard, and I have never doubted his good intentions, but he has been put off once by other European countries. He will go back and try again if the Germans allow him to do so, but there is a lot that he could be doing in the meantime. Many of the elvers that we are discussing are from the Severn, which passes close to my constituency—indeed, the river Wye runs into it. Why, therefore, is he unable to do more without our European counterparts? Is our eel management plan ready, for example?
Mr. Bradshaw: It is virtually ready. However, the situation is not quite as the hon. Gentleman suggests. This is not about me being rebuffed. The Conservative party is trying to learn how to re-engage in Europe—with limited success, I acknowledge—and the hon. Gentleman will understand that the European Union consists of25 countries. Issues under the competence before us are decided by qualified majority, and although I am confident that the majority of the Council is on our side, the Germans clearly did not think that they had a qualified majority at the previous Council meeting. The UK, along with like-minded countries, will do everything that it can to ensure that the presidency and the Commission have a qualified majority on the proposals, as long as we are still satisfied with them at the next Council meeting. That is how it works.
Mr. Bradshaw: Certainly, some of those southern European countries feel that they would be ‘giving up’ baby eels from their rivers to re-stock rivers elsewhere. However, the reason for that is that those rivers, which are mainly in northern Europe, have had problems with regard to their survival rates and re-stocking. I mentioned the primary reason for the re-stocking requirement earlier: if you do not have a re-stocking requirement, the probability is that most of your baby eels will be sold for growing on or consumption in the far east and not for replenishing the stocks.
Bill Wiggin: Therefore, the purpose behind this is exclusively financial; it is not environmental. As I understand it, his prime concern is that there would be no glass eels at all, because every one would be sold at £500 to £1,000 per litre. By insisting on a re-stocking minimum, at least some have a chance of making it to adulthood. Is that correct?
Mr. Bradshaw: We certainly think that a high re-stocking requirement is essential if this eel recovery plan is to have any chance of working.
The Chairman: If there are no further questions, we will proceed to the debate on the motion. I call on the Minister to move the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 13139/05, Draft Council Regulation establishing measures for the recovery of the stock of European eel; recognises the long outstanding need to conserve and enhance the European eel stock; and approves the Government's intention to vote for the adoption of this proposal, provided it makes suitable provision to allow for the re-stocking of glass eel to European inland waters. — [Mr. Bradshaw.]
Bill Wiggin: Thank you, Mr Williams. It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair.
This motion tabled by the Minister states that the Government will support the proposal if it enables the glass eel to be suitably re-stocked in European inland waters. However, as it now seems that measures may not be a priority for the forthcoming EU presidency for some time, this may be an opportunity for the Minister to make a revised attempt to push for a more overarching package that also greater satisfies the UK interest.
Lough Neagh, the largest commercial wild eel fishery in western Europe has suffered from decreasing numbers of glass eels. The number of elvers has fallen from an average of 8 million per year to less than 1 million per year. Lough Neagh has managed to continue to thrive through sustainable management and without the added EU bureaucratic burden. Lough Neagh operates with a 40 per cent. escapement rate and also re-stocks by receiving regular deliveries of glass eels from the River Severn. Members may be interested to know that, on Thursday, some 1.5 million glass eels will make the trip to Northern Ireland.
The industry’s view is that priority needs to be given to improving habitats and migratory pathways. However, these proposals potentially offer very little to improve this situation. The Minister concurred with this view in his letter of 11 January 2007 to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). The Minister stated that he doubts whether:
“any short-term measures directed principally at fishing effort would be equitable due to the diverse nature and complex lifecycle of the European eel, and furthermore, they would be highly disruptive, costly to enforce and likely to have little effect on eel stocks.”
I am curious as to why, during the UK presidency of the EU in 2005, these proposals were not given the leadership and drive needed to make them more reflective and better able to deal with elver recruitment and improve the prospects for adult eels.
The French may be holding things up now—as are the Spanish, according to the Minister. The German presidency did not push hard enough for a deal, but the Minister had an opportunity two years ago to drive these measures through. Perhaps part of the problem of building up eel stocks is the gulf in knowledge between the current state of eel stocks and our understanding of the eel lifecycle. Following on from that comes the reason for the recent decline in eel numbers, which we still do not fully understand. More needs to be known about the eel and its life cycle. Management plans will need to adapt and be updated to take into account the improvement in knowledge.
Mr. Gray: The debate and the question-and-answer session earlier have been interesting. However, although people talked about all sorts of things that they were going to do, there was an astonishing lack of knowledge about the facts right now. The Minister replied to a remarkable number of my hon. Friend’s questions by saying, “I do not know the answer to that, but I will write to the shadow Minister.” That is an extraordinary lack of knowledge for a debate such as this.
Bill Wiggin: I must temper my agreement with my hon. Friend with my gratefulness to the Minister for at least agreeing to write to me and for ensuring that his Department has done the research that is necessary to be able to answer those questions. That is positive. However, my hon. Friend has touched on an important point. That is one reason why we need this debate. It is difficult—the Government’s position is particularly difficult—to insist that the plan will work when there is a great void of knowledge about eel numbers. We Conservatives will try to help. We all want a sustainable eel stock. However, it would be comforting for us to know that the plan was based on sound science, as DEFRA proposals usually are. We missed a chance two years ago, when we were in charge of the European presidency, to get this sort of legislation agreed and the deals done, however it works. The Minister keeps telling me he knows how it works, but I should like to see the deals done, rather than have lectures in statutory instrument Committees.
I am concerned about the effectiveness and workability of the regulation, because it will take an intrusive step into the UK’s competence over internal waters. The Minister said in the explanatory memorandum that he does not want to set a precedent for the EU having competence in inland waters for other fish species. However, those remarks fall far short of a guarantee against further measures. In its present form, the regulation will offer little benefit to our eel fisheries and will lead potentially to substantial costs. The UK industry is already taking sustainable measures and the possible EU interference under this proposal is unwelcome, to some extent. We already know, from the implementation of the single farm payment, about the impact of DEFRA’s incompetence on UK industry and the taxpayer and there is, in this draft regulation, potential for further administrative ineptitude.
Will the Government sufficiently utilise the European fisheries fund or will the UK taxpayer be burdened? As it stands, the regulation does not address issues and could place unnecessary burdens on both the eel industry and the Government. The Minister will need to ensure that the UK receives a derogation on the 15-day seasonal closure. Will he demonstrate that the demands of the proposals are already being met in the UK and that further bureaucratic burdens are unnecessary? He must also consider measures at domestic and European level to improve the habitat and the migratory paths of eels. We all want sustainable management of our natural resources: it is up to him to deliver it.
5.13 pm
Mr. Roger Williams: Thank you, Mr. Williams. I believe that this is the first time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship. No doubt, this morning we escaped from our labours down in Wales and are addressing the important matter of the European eel. This has been an opportunity to reflect on the incredible life cycle of an animal that remained unknown for many years. Lots of suppositions were made about where it went and how it reproduced and there is, of course, still some uncertainty about whether we have the full details about that.
Much mention has been made of Lough Neagh, but none has been made of Llangorse lake in my constituency, which once had an eel fishery. It has not been netted for about 10 years, I was told this weekend, because the eel population has decreased so much. The people who remember that happening say that the eel were caught and transported alive to Holland and Belgium in water tanks. I do not know whether that is true, but it was the best information that I could get at the weekend.
There was another part of the fishery, on the river coming out of Llangorse lake, the river Llynfi, where there was an eel trap that caught eels, which were taken to Billingsgate. However, because of low eel numbers, and because it was not possible to depend on the price given for eels in Billingsgate, that trade has finished as well.
As to whether the French Minister might be looking to the next election, I am not looking to be elected in the near future, unless the Brown bounce is bigger than I expect.
Bill Wiggin: I was in Billingsgate just the other day and there were eels for sale. They are in what look like drawers; the large eels are in those, kept in the dark and kept wet, but there were also large numbers of jellied eels and other eel products for sale, so that is something that is alive and well.
Mr. Williams: Yes, I am sure that eels are on sale in Billingsgate, but they are not supplied from Llangorse any more, which must be a huge disappointment to the eel enthusiasts who want to eat the very best product.
I ask the Minister to insist that we improve our knowledge and expertise in this matter; only that will lead to the success of the eel management plan, and to our achieving what we want. Other countries may resist the measure, but what assurances do we have that even if it is accepted into European policy and regulation, other countries will ensure that the detail of the eel management plan will be adhered to with the enthusiasm usual in this country? It will be no good if we carry out our part of the plan and other countries do not do the same. We all look to a plan that will give us a sustainable eel population, and we shall certainly support the Minister.
5.17 pm
Mr. Gray: It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Williams the Chairman—as opposed to Williams the eel, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. I do not intend to delay the Committee excessively, but there seems to be a more fundamental issue to deal with than some of those that we have covered so far. Of course it is important that we should know more about the life cycle of the eel, and about whether any of the plan would work and whether we can conserve that valuable creature better than we have done until now. That is a vital issue and no one in this Room would disagree about the importance of finding a satisfactory method of conserving the eel.
However, we have not yet considered this afternoon whether the constitutional method by which we propose to attend to the matter is the right one. There seem to me to be two or three reasons for thinking carefully about that. First, despite what the Minister said earlier, there is evidence that the measures proposed by the European Union could have a significant effect on the livelihoods of 300 or 400 people—the eel fishermen particularly around Lough Neagh.
The Government’s explanatory memorandum sets out at some length the belief that there would, for a short period, be a significant effect on a number of the people in the industry. It states that there would be a significant impact, although in the longer term, because of the conservation of stocks, those people’s livelihood might well be safeguarded. However, there would be a bad effect on the employment of perhaps 300 or 400 people, particularly in Northern Ireland but also around the River Severn.
The question, then, is whether bringing in the European measure would save those jobs, the industry or the stocks. It could be argued perfectly coherently that the British Government and the industry itself are well able to do just that.
We have heard that the quantity caught in Lough Neagh has decreased from 1,500 tonnes before the year 2000 to 700 tonnes currently. There has already been a significant reduction in the catch. We must ask ourselves whether it has occurred because there is less to catch or because the industry has contracted for one reason or another—possibly because of a reduction in demand, possibly because people have been tempted into other jobs. The Minister seems to be saying that because the eels are so valuable in the far east, the reduction has occurred simply because there are fewer to catch, but surely the industry itself ought to be able to judge the matter.
We come to the bigger constitutional issue. Is it necessarily right that the people who are well qualified to judge whether the fishermen are doing the right thing—namely, this Parliament, and possibly the Northern Ireland Assembly once it is up and running—are the people qualified to judge whether what the industry is doing in its own self-interest is sufficientto preserve it? The same applies to many other industries—on all sorts of occasions, one might reduce how much one is catching or killing to be certain that one’s long-term livelihood was thereby preserved—but surely the domestic Government are the people best qualified to judge. Although the Minister joked a moment ago about some of the inland nations in the European Union that are making up their minds about the matter, I am not certain that parliamentarians from Liechtenstein, Russia—well, not Russia—or assorted inland European nations are necessarily qualified to judge whether a reduction in the Lough Neagh catch is a good or a bad thing.
I am one of those who was not at all certain that there should be an inland waterways directive. We being an island, I have always taken the view that we ought to preserve our inland waterways for judgment from this place and not the European Union. But now we find that the animals in our inland waterways are equally being directed, constrained or managed in one way or another by diktat of the European Union. I am not at all certain that that is a constitutional precedent that we ought to encourage.
Leaving quite aside the question whether we want to conserve the eels—of course we do; no one in this Committee would disagree with that—it seems to me that there is an important constitutional question that the Minister has not really addressed. I hope that he will do so in his reply. Does he truly believe that it is right that the European Union should decide on the activities of the fishermen in Lough Neagh and elsewhere, or should that generally be a matter for this place to decide?
5.23 pm
Mr. Bradshaw: In response to the points raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, I must point out to him that neither Liechtenstein nor Russia is a member of the European Union at the moment.
Mr. Gray: Quite right.
Mr. Bradshaw: Those were the two countries that he cited as dictating how we should manage our eel population. The Tory party still has some way to go—it should know first of all which countries are members of the European Union—before it starts to re-engage in European diplomacy.
Mr. Goodwill: Liechtenstein was referred to as a landlocked country. May I inform the Minister that it is a double-landlocked country, like Uzbekistan? There are only two double-landlocked countries in the world.
Mr. Bradshaw: That is very interesting. The serious point is that it is a single European stock. I suspect that, were the UK taking draconian measures to restrict our own fisheries in the absence of any EU measures, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire would be the first to come to the Committee to say that what he wanted to see was a level playing field. What we are keen to see throughout the European Union is a level playing field and meaningful measures to protect that endangered stock.
That leads me to the point made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. Who will be the policeman? In the end, the Commission will ensure that any action plans are properly enforced and implemented. I say to the sceptics to look at the fine recently levelled against France.
Mr. Williams: Have they paid it?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, indeed. They have paid most of it. It was the biggest fine in European history for non-compliance with an EU regulation, and it concerned a fisheries matter. I have every confidence that the Commission will ensure that any proposals are properly implemented and that we get the level playing field that we want. If we have any suspicion that that is not the case, we are not backward in coming forward in such matters.
Bill Wiggin: The Minister is absolutely right; he is not backward in coming forward. He was complaining in The Daily Telegraph just the other day about the French not being fined for breaking their quota regulations.
Mr. Bradshaw: It is not quite true to say that they have not been fined. We are arguing for a payback in quota, but that issue is still outstanding and has not yet been resolved. One of the things that I was going to say to the hon. Gentleman is that he is very enthusiastic now about getting stuck in and making deals, as I think he said, in Europe. I am looking forward to his going off to speak to the Christian Democrats in the German Government, who I understand are not yet officially speaking to his party, or even to his new best friends in the Czech Republic, who are very important in this debate, to persuade them that they should be voting on our side in the negotiations. He is right to say that it is about making deals, but making deals is about winning allies. I look forward to his winning allies in Europe too.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 13139/05, Draft Council Regulation establishing measures for the recovery of the stock of European eel; recognises the long outstanding need to conserve and enhance the European eel stock; and approves the Government's intention to vote for the adoption of this proposal, provided it makes suitable provision to allow for the re-stocking of glass eel to European inland waters.
Committee rose at twenty-seven minutes pastFive o’clock.
 
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