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Session 2006 - 07
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European Standing Committee Debates

Fisheries: By-Catches & Discards

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Jim Hood
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Woking) (Con)
Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Scott, Mr. Lee (Ilford, North) (Con)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Mrs E Commander, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Hopkins, Kelvin (Luton, North) (Lab)

European Standing Committee

Monday 25 June 2007

[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]

Fisheries: By-Catches & Discards

[Relevant Documents: EU Document No. 8179/07 and addenda 1 and 2.]
4.30 pm
The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Hood, after a break of more than six years?
I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for its recommendation for a debate on the Commission’s proposal to reduce by-catch and eliminate discards in European fisheries. Discarding fish wastes valuable natural resources and has not only a detrimental impact on the sustainability of fish stocks, but significant social and economic consequences for the long-term viability of the fishing industry. It is a particularly complex problem, not least because often discarding occurs because fishermen cannot always control what they catch. Frequently fishing across the UK and EU is conducted in areas where a mixture of species is available, some of which are of no commercial interest and which often are caught alongside target species.
Fishermen who have run out of their quota for one species might continue to fish for other species for which they have a quota. The species for which their quota is exhausted will then be discarded if caught. In addition, fishermen might discard smaller fish to make room for larger and more valuable ones, even when the rules on minimum landing sizes have been complied with—known as high-grading, which is particularly prevalent in pelagic fisheries. Fishermen might also discard fish for other more valuable species or because there is no market for what they have caught. There is general agreement that levels of discarding in European fisheries are unacceptably high and must be reduced; it is the issue that most discredits the common fisheries policy in the eyes of the public. A radical approach, therefore, is needed.
Mindful of that, the Commission has tabled for discussion a policy paper proposing possible solutions—the document before us today. We welcome warmly this forward-thinking and radical paper, which represents a significant step forward, and generally the Government support its intentions. In particular, we welcome the Commission’s focus on the economic incentives that give rise to discarding. It is only if we focus on those that we will find solutions that really work.
The proposals mirror UK priorities for reform and simplification of the common fisheries policy, address the need to minimise the negative impacts of commercial fisheries on marine ecosystems and present a framework by which outcomes, rather than the means to achieve them, will be regulated. Also there is welcome recognition that solutions must be bespoke to the particular circumstances of individual fisheries and that the one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate.
We have some reservations, however, particularly about the Commission’s focus on discard bans as a key tool. Not only is the practical implementation of such a mechanism problematic in the mixed fisheries that typify the EU situation, but there will be heavy dependence on enforcement and control, which will have significant resource implications, particularly because the emphasis will have to be on controls at sea. In addition, we would expect the Commission to make more explicit how the future protection of juveniles will be achieved following its proposals to remove minimum landing sizes and how that will square with its objective of fishing activity reflecting much more the needs of the market. Certainly, we would want to avoid encouraging the development of a market in small fish. Ultimately, industry buy-in will be critical to the success of any measure and we will actively encourage fishermen to develop and adopt more sustainable fishing practices. Their full and active involvement in the consultation process, therefore, is essential, as to is that of environmental and consumer interests, which must be engaged.
The Commission’s proposals are a good starting point for a debate that will continue during the course of this year and draw out many of the difficulties presented in the proposals. However, because of their far-reaching implications, it is essential that there is a full and frank debate on the Commission’s ideas. The UK Government intend to play a key role in shaping the future management regime and I am sure that my hon. Friends will give me plenty of food for thought in that regard today.
Although it is important that adequate time be given for considering the many issues involved, we must not lose the impetus that the Commission’s paper provides to address this real and pressing problem. It is important, therefore, that the discussions are pursued urgently, and I have encouraged my Portuguese counterpart already to provide the necessary time as a priority under its presidency.
The Chairman: We now have questions until 5.30 pm. The briefer the questions, the more we will get.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): With reference to the communication on the way forward, how many regulations will be required to cover all UK and Community fisheries, and how often will they be updated? The communication’s proposals would promote micro-management. Why then are regulations being used? Why, under the principle of subsidiarity, are local fisheries not entrusted to make those decisions?
Mr. Bradshaw: The number of regulations will depend on what the proposals actually are. We are at a very early stage in this process and, as I said, all we have at the moment is a general policy document for debate. As I indicated in my opening remarks, one of the things that we will seek to avoid as the discussions proceed is a system that makes the existing regulatory structure even more complex. We shall try as hard as we possibly can to avoid that.
Similarly, we want to avoid micro-management, but, whether one is dealing with measures to tackle discards or other measures, the problem inevitably arises that without absolute buy-in by the fishing industry in particular areas, some level of monitoring or management, whether by selective gears or various technical measures, will be necessary if we are to protect fish stocks. However, we shall seek to avoid the extra complexity to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I accept the philosophy and the principle of the proposals, but there is a suggestion that the implementation should be progressive. I understand the thought behind that, but how will implementation work in practice? Like changing the side of the road that people drive on, if done gradually, it would lead to chaos. Unfortunately, that is what I foresee.
Mr. Bradshaw: Of course, like the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), we are all progressives now, so I do not believe that any of us should have too many problems with a progressive approach.
To address the questions of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire more seriously, the idea is to start in certain fisheries or geographical areas. For example, we are already piloting some anti-discard initiatives: there is one in the North sea on nephrops, and another is about to begin in the Irish sea. It makes sense to suck it and see. We need to find out what works best in particular types of fishery, rather than try a big-bang approach and impose solutions across the board straight away.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I have just become a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, so I missed your chairing of it because you recently retired from that honourable service.
Does the Minister know what proportion of fish are taken by foreign fishermen from what were formerly British national waters?
Mr. Bradshaw: It is impossible to give a figure because fish do not respect the national borders to which my hon. Friend refers. They swim and move, and that is one reason why, whatever one thinks of the common fisheries policy, we would have to reinvent something rather like it to reach agreement with our neighbours with whom, incidentally, we have always shared waters and in whose waters our fishermen have traditionally fished, just as they have traditionally fished in ours. For the reason that I gave, it is not possible to give the figure that he seeks.
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Could I get a guarantee for the UK fishing industry that it will not be placed at any commercial advantage or be burdened with excessive levels of bureaucracy, compared with its European or Norwegian counterparts?
There is widespread concern in several EU countries about the problem of discards. It is not just a problem in our fisheries. It affects most of the fisheries in most European countries, and there is a desire to do something about it. Having said that, the challenges of doing so are not insignificant.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I have had several representations from sea bass fishermen in my constituency. In fact, I have put down parliamentary questions on the issue. Are any steps being taken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to protect sea bass?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, we are considering whether to increase the minimum landing size for sea bass. We consulted on that a year or so ago, but we held off making a decision following representations made to us by the commercial sector. We held off making a decision, following representations made to us by the commercial sector. It was worried that, if we increased the minimum landing size in the way that we proposed, it could add to the discard problem. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to draw a connection between sea bass and discards.
On the plus side, sea bass stocks are in pretty healthy shape at present. They are not one of the stocks that we are most worried about, but we are very keen not least with the recreational sector and its huge contribution to the economy to do what we can to boost the stocks in which it is particularly interested. We hope soon to reach a decision on extra measures to protect sea bass.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I do not know whether my letter has crossed the Minister’s desk yet, but what message can he give fishermen in Whitby who have invested considerable time, effort and money in selective fishing measures aimed at only catching larger cod? They were told at short notice that the cod fishery has closed and have had to revert to the whiting fishery, which means that they are murdering a lot of immature cod. Does that not send out the wrong messages to fishermen who are trying to do the right thing?
Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman identifies one of the difficult challenges that we all face with a discard ban or with any technical measure designed to protect one species that can then have a deleterious effect on another. However, I commend those responsible for taking such steps. I am not aware of having seen the hon. Gentleman’s letter yet, but I shall try to respond to it this week.
Bill Wiggin: The 2002 Community action plan envisaged that discards would be banned by 2006. That date has passed, so when does the Minister believe that discards will be banned?
Mr. Bradshaw: That is not really in our hands. It depends on how rapidly the Commission comes forward with concrete proposals and under which presidency those proposals are put to the Council of Ministers. However, I hope that it will not drag itself out too much longer. I regret the fact that the action plan has already been delayed. As the hon. Gentleman would accept, it is a complex area. As I said in my introductory remarks, it is important that we have a frank and comprehensive debate involving the industry and the region advisory councils so that we come up with good proposals and action rather than anything that is a bit hasty or ill thought through.
Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend will appreciate that I want to talk about policing the fishermen and the fishing vessels rather than the fish. Of course, fish cross national boundaries at sea, but Norway has much better fish stocks than other coasts around Europe simply because they are not members of the common fisheries policy. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Mr. Bradshaw: I do not accept the premise of my hon. Friend’s question. All fishing nations face serious challenges in managing their fish stocks sustainably. There is always an inevitable tension between the fishing industry that tends to want to carry on fishing and the scientists who are rather cautious in their recommendations. Norway faces similar challenges to us in declining stocks and is having to make some tough decisions. It has a coastline that is slightly apart from the rest of the European Union. Few parts of the United Kingdom have coastlines that go for tens of miles without stretching over areas of sea that were traditionally fishing grounds for other nations. It is easier for Norway to manage its fishery unilaterally, but it must negotiate with the European Union in some detail about the stocks in which we share an interest. We profit from being a member of a club of 27 in those negotiations and our fishing industry certainly benefits from the deals that we strike with Norway over access in Norwegian waters.
Mr. Williams: There may be increases in costs due to having to travel to farther flung fisheries than the use of more selective gear. Will there be support for our fishing industry in the interim period?
Mr. Bradshaw: There is already significant public support for our fishing industry, but we must be careful. One of the priorities of United Kingdom policy in recent years has been to try to stop public subsidy for anything that will lead to less sustainable fishing. An important reform of the common fisheries policy agreed back in 2002 was that the European Union should stop paying subsidies, for example, to increase the capacity of vessels. I am not sure about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we should help boats—in the form of payment—to go further and further afield because some of the deep sea stocks that they are targeting are in very poor shape. Those stocks age very slowly and are therefore not replenished very quickly. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Leominster mentions the orange roughy. I would not want to displace fishing efforts close to our shores by encouraging boats to go further afield and deplete some of those deep sea stocks that are very difficult to replace.
Bill Wiggin: When the Minister was considering answering the previous question, I am sure that he had some awareness of how much this was likely to cost. Has he been given any figures by his Department and if so, can he share them with us?
Mr. Bradshaw: It is very difficult. We have not done a regulatory impact assessment yet because there is not anything to go on. It is only possible to talk in general terms. Clearly, if we end up achieving a more sustainable fishery and the recovery of stocks, we would benefit both the industry and the economy as a whole. When we see the concrete proposals, we will assess whether the costs of those proposals—in terms of the extra monitoring or regulation—are outweighed by the benefits that will be guaranteed by stock recovery. However, that is an assessment that we will want to make a bit nearer the time.
Kelvin Hopkins: The papers before us suggest that the measures that have been taken so far have been singularly unsuccessful. Does my hon. Friend agree that if national limits were extended substantially and that member states were given national responsibility for managing fish stocks within those areas, we could solve the problem more effectively than through the common fisheries policy?
Mr. Bradshaw: No, not necessarily. I do not think that the management of our fisheries was particularly good beforehand. I would urge hon. Members to be cautious about running down our fishing industry. This is the fourth year in row that our fishing industry has recorded record value in landing. It is not all doom and gloom. Some of our major ports, such as Brixham and Newlyn in the south-west and some of the north-east Scottish ports, have again recorded record landings year on year under the Labour Government. We have had to take some tough decisions, reduce the size of our fleet and bring it more in line with the health of the fish stocks. There are still very serious challenges in some areas. Cod is in a poor shape. Sole and herring have suffered a big reduction, but a lot of the other stocks are doing very well.
In the next review of the common fisheries policy, the six to 12-mile limit could be reviewed. That is something that we may consider in due course, but it still does not obviate the need for us to work in partnership with fellow European Union countries. It is important that we work together with them and get a sustainable fishing policy. We are moving in that direction, and it is only through such a policy that we will guarantee a secure future for our fishermen, both here and in the rest of Europe.
Mr. Williams: If the discards are landed, from where can they be sold? We do not want to encourage a market in undersize fish.
Mr. Bradshaw: We are concerned about that issue. We do not want to encourage a market in undersize fish. At the same time, we think that the outputs of any discard strategy are much more important than the way the strategy is managed. We will be seeking views on the sort of markets that can be used to sell undersize fish. Some undersize fish already goes into fish meal and the industrial sector. We would be grateful for more suggestions.
Mr. Goodwill: One selective fishing method that those in the Faroe Isles have used to great effect is long-lining. Of course, that has received quite a lot of bad press because of the rise in the mortality rates of sea birds, particularly the albatross. Will the Minister tell me how a big a problem this is, and if there are technologies available to ensure that it is minimised? It would be shame to lose this excellent type of technology because of disproportionate publicity to the downside.
Mr. Bradshaw: I think that I am right in saying—my officials will correct me if I am wrong—that we have agreed an international protocol to protect the albatross from the potential damages of long-lining. There are technical solutions to that issue; but I cannot remember what they are.
Bill Wiggin: Weights?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, some sort of weights that take the long line deep enough so that the albatross are not diving down to pick up the bait and getting caught on the hooks.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby is absolutely right to say that, in general terms, long-lining can be a sustainable fishery. It can obviate some of the damage done by beam-trawling, for example, or using the kinds of trawl that are dragged along the ocean bottom, or even using indiscriminate netting, which can lead to by-catching of species such as dolphins and porpoises.
Bill Wiggin: The Minister spoke about herring stocks being diminished significantly. Until today, I thought that they were doing extremely well. Does he have extra information, is it a new situation or have I just got it wrong?
Mr. Bradshaw: After the terrible collapse of the herring stock back in the 1970s, when we were in control of our own fishery, the herring industry in the North sea went almost into extinction. The herring is a great success story of the past 20 years, but in the past two years, it has declined again. There have been a couple of years of very poor recruitment. Last year we had to cut the total allowable catch for herring, and it looks as though the advice for this year will be even more drastic. We might need to take quite serious decisions on herring.
As you will know, Mr. Hood, coming from the part of the world from which you do, it is the nature of fish stocks that recruitment varies from year to year. A lot of the science is not particularly well understood. We have had weak recruitment to the herring stock for a number of years, and that will probably mean a reduction of the TAC for next year.
Mr. Williams: If there is any income from the landing of discards, could that not be used to encourage investment in and use of more selective gear? That would encourage more sustainable types of fishery than we have at the moment.
Mr. Bradshaw: That is absolutely right. One of the things that we need to do a lot better—I hope that we can take the industry with us—is to introduce more selective gear. I shall give the hon. Gentleman one example. A Brixham beamer owned by Mr. Mike Sharp has been using a combination of square-mesh cod ends and several strategically placed square-meshed escape panels in the trawler. Mr. Sharp has managed to cut his discards by 60 per cent., the quality of the catch has improved and he has broken the top landing record for Brixham while using that gear. We understand that most other boat owners in Brixham now want to adopt the same technical measures. It shows that sensibly introduced technical measures can have a beneficial effect and can address the discard problem more effectively than a blanket discard ban would.
Bill Wiggin: When did the Commission decide to switch from minimum landing sizes to a minimum marketing size based approach, and does the Minister agree with it?
Mr. Bradshaw: I understand that that change was in the latest general policy paper.
Bill Wiggin: What studies has the Department done to make better use of low-value fish, and which measures to increase their commercial value would the Minister like to see introduced into the UK to reduce discarding?
Mr. Bradshaw: I am not aware that we have conducted any such studies, but if I am wrong, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with clarification.
Mr. Williams: Has the Minister estimated the number of personnel who would be needed to monitor such an approach on vessels? I understand that that is just about the only way that it could be monitored.
Mr. Bradshaw: That is one of the reasons why we must be quite cautious about the costs involved in an effective enforcement regime for a discard ban. We will know more when we have had time to monitor the success or otherwise of the Irish sea pilot, a fairly significant pilot that we are about to undertake with the Irish Government. We will then have a better idea whether the benefits warrant the costs.
Bill Wiggin: The communication suggests that preferential access to fisheries could be given to those with a track record of low by-catches. Does the Minister support such a measure, and what impact would it have on the UK’s mixed fisheries and industry?
Mr. Bradshaw: I certainly think that the idea is worth careful consideration. As I just pointed out, where successful measures to reduce by-catch can be shown to work and increase the income of the fishermen concerned, they are a no-brainer. We would be interested to examine whether we could use incentives in the system, or encourage the producer organisations themselves to use them, to reduce by-catch.
Bill Wiggin: If skippers are required to land all the catch, what incentives and punishments will discourage them from discarding illegally?
Mr. Bradshaw: We do not yet have any concrete ideas about that, but one can imagine. Grants are available from EU funding for more selective fishing gear. That is one example of a possible incentive.
Bill Wiggin: It is proposed that temporary closures of some areas might be used to reduce by-catch and discards. How does the Minister envisage that that will fit in with the marine spatial plans proposed in the Marine Bill White Paper, and can he guarantee that a Marine Bill will be in the next Queen’s Speech?
Mr. Bradshaw: As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are already quite a lot of temporary closures in spawning grounds and other areas to protect juvenile and young fish around our coasts. Clearly, those would form part of any marine spatial plan introduced in a Marine Bill. He will understand that I cannot give a guarantee about what will be in the Queen’s Speech, but I hope and fully expect that the Government will fulfil our manifesto commitment—devolved Administrations allowing—by delivering a Marine Bill during this Parliament.
Bill Wiggin: Under Council regulation 1543/2000, member states are required to collect data on discarding. Why is the information not compiled systematically?
Mr. Bradshaw: It is compiled systematically by us. I understand that the Commission is chasing up other member states that have not yet supplied the data.
Bill Wiggin: I am grateful for that reply. The Minister stated in a written answer to me that the UK has been pressing the Commission for a full set of relevant discard data from all member states. Which countries have not provided the relevant data, and are any of them in breach of EU law?
Mr. Bradshaw: I am afraid I cannot give that list. If I can find out the information, I shall, and will write to the hon. Gentleman with it.
Kelvin Hopkins: The last line of questioning suggests that we cannot trust our European colleagues in such matters. We present the statistics and monitor our own fishermen, but they do not, while fishing in what were UK waters. Does that not bring us back to my first question about how many fish are taken out of British waters and how many discards are not even recorded by fishing boats from other EU nations?
Mr. Bradshaw: I am afraid that it is a common myth among Eurosceptics that we are the only people who play by the rules. According to the audited figures for fisheries compliance throughout the EU, we are in the middle. In fact, when Labour came to power, we were rather near the bottom. We have improved since then, I am pleased to say, and enforcement has improved considerably, particularly in Scotland.
Bill Wiggin: What measures specific to each fishery are being drawn up to deal with by-catch, and is cetacean by-catch being considered?
Mr. Bradshaw: We are extremely concerned about cetacean by-catch. We are keen that the European Commission should introduce further measures to prevent it, and we think that the extension of the birds and habitats directive to 200 miles should help in that regard. As we have already done, we are prepared to take unilateral measures where we think that they are justified to protect cetaceans in our own waters.
Bill Wiggin: The Commission’s 2002 community action plan to reduce discards and DEFRA’s 2005 “Securing the Benefits” promised discard pilot schemes. Five years on, what progress has been made, and will the Irish sea pilot begin in August as promised?
Mr. Bradshaw: I hope that it will begin in July.
Bill Wiggin: What discard pilot projects have been ongoing in the EU since 2002? The community action plan proposed them. What data have been collected, and what improved technical measures have resulted?
Mr. Bradshaw: We have developed two discard pilot projects in recent years, the first of which focused on improving selectivity in the north-east coast prawn fishery. I have arranged for a report of that project to be laid in the Library. It considered a series of gear modifications based on the variable placement of square mesh panels designed to allow non-target species to escape. They proved successful in reducing by-catch, in particular of juveniles, and the industry is being encouraged to adopt them more widely. The second pilot is the one to which we have referred. We hope that it will be launched in the Irish sea in July.
Bill Wiggin: When does the Minister expect the draft regulation containing firm proposals to be published? When will he carry out his regulatory impact assessment?
Mr. Bradshaw: I hope that the draft proposals will be published, if not under the Portuguese presidency, under the presidency after that. However, that will depend on whether other member states are as keen as us to see progress made. When those proposals are published, we shall be publishing our impact assessment as we always do.
Bill Wiggin: Do the Minister’s European counterparts share his commitment to tackling by-catch and discards?
Kelvin Hopkins: I am pleased about the answer that the Minister has just given about our being the greenest country, but is not the logical answer the fact that we have the longest coastline and the biggest potential fisheries, and that the other European Union nations are less concerned about such matters because they do not affect them nationally in the way that they affect us?
Mr. Bradshaw: Oh dear, Mr. Hood. I challenge my hon. Friend to say what he has just said in front of the Spanish, French or the Irish Parliament. He is absolutely right that we in the United Kingdom have a strong interest in fisheries. We are a major fisheries nation, but other nations have strong fisheries interests. Nor would I disqualify those nations in the European Union, some of them landlocked with no fishing industry, which share our concern about the environmental health of our oceans. They have been useful to the British cause in fighting for tougher measures to protect fish stocks and, most recently at the International Whaling Commission where we managed to regain our majority and where, mainly with the aid of some EU friends—I do not know whether hon. Members are prepared to call them friends—we agreed that we all have a role to play in protecting the world’s oceans.
Bill Wiggin: Why is the worldwide discard rate estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations at 8 per cent., while the rate for some stocks in the United Kingdom waters often exceeds 50 per cent. and, in Europe as a whole, 20 to 60 per cent.?
Mr. Bradshaw: I do not know why the figure internationally should be lower than that, but I suspect the reason for the relatively high discard rate in European Union waters is the mixed nature of our fishery. A lot of fisheries that are prosecuted in other parts of the world tend to be single-species fisheries with fewer discard problems. One of the reasons why we have such a mixed degree and thus such high discards is that we are a rich fishing ground in the north-east Atlantic with many migratory species. That makes it much more difficult, as I said earlier, to discriminate between species when out drawing a net or even a long line.
Bill Wiggin: What level of discarding does the Minister think can be prevented purely through technological measures and improved selection of gear?
Mr. Bradshaw: It depends, but a considerable amount, as I have shown by the award-winning scheme in Brixham. In that case, it was 60 per cent. and it would be good if we could go even higher.
Bill Wiggin: What discussions has the Minister had with Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland on tackling discards?
Mr. Bradshaw: I have had a number of discussions with my Norwegian and Icelandic counterparts on the discard issue. I cannot recall whether I have discussed it with my Faroese counterparts. I probably did, but it was quite some time ago. Those discussions have been very useful, but the fisheries of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Norway are very different from ours. They have similar challenges to ours, but the discard bans in Iceland and Norway operate in different ways and with differing degrees of success. It would not be right to suggest that there is some simple solution from another country that can be adopted. We are keen to learn from them and so those discussions were very useful, but they do not necessarily point to a solution.
Bill Wiggin: What discussions has the Minister, his European counterparts or the Commission had with New Zealand regarding the use of deemed value? They have an effective scheme in New Zealand, which has reduced discards and could help to improve knowledge of our fish stocks.
Mr. Bradshaw: I have had number of discussions about fisheries with my New Zealand colleagues and visited there two years ago to discuss fisheries, among other things. The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me as I cannot, from the recesses of my mind, remember what the significance of deemed value is, but I will ensure that my officials find out and give me a full briefing. However, the fishing industry in New Zealand is very different to ours and there is not such a mixed fishery. The north Atlantic fishery is unique in its complexity and variety of species. That is a challenge that we face, whether we are in or out of the common fisheries policy.
The Chairman: My customary generosity allowed the question on New Zealand, which treaded away from the European Union a wee bit.
Bill Wiggin: I am grateful for your generosity, Mr. Hood, but I brought New Zealand up because it has one of the successful discard schemes.
What progress is being made at European level to establish a discard atlas? Are all European countries providing as much information on discards as the Minister would like?
Mr. Bradshaw: I am not aware of what progress is being made on a discard atlas, if any, but I accept the premise of the question. It is very important that we know where the problem is, where it is worst and where the most can be gained from trying to combat it through the action plan. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the level of discards depends on not just the geographical area, but the type of fishery. It is much higher in the beam trawl fishery than the demersal trawl. In some fisheries it is very low indeed. We already know a fair amount about it, but we do not know enough about the best way of combating it.
Bill Wiggin: Does the Minister believe that the measures forthcoming from the communication will be in place to significantly reduce by-catch and discarding to ensure that Europe’s fisheries are abiding by the maximum sustainable yield principle and the Johannesburg 2015 targets?
Mr. Bradshaw: That is part of the process, but the maximum sustainable yield principle can be pursued regardless of what happens on the discard action plan.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 8179/07 and addenda 1-2, Commission Communication, A policy to reduce unwanted by-catches and eliminate discards in European fisheries; and agrees with the Government’s initial assessment of the proposal that it represents a sound basis for debate, but that the discussion of possible solutions needs to take full account of the mixed nature of many of the EU fisheries and balance the socio-economic interests involved, whilst the UK are mindful of the importance of effective enforcement and control and the resource implications thereof.—[Mr. Bradshaw.]
5.9 pm
Bill Wiggin: Tackling by-catch and discards is one of the biggest challenges facing our fishermen and the marine environment. The Conservatives want to see an end to the unsustainable management policies and practices that perpetuate the loss of 880,000 tonnes in the North sea alone. In no other industry could so much natural resource be woefully wasted in such an inefficient and controversial manner. By the estimates of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it is not uncommon for discard rates of certain fisheries to exceed 50 per cent.
The rates that the Minister has given for 2006 highlight the urgency of the situation. By the end of that year, almost as much cod was discarded as was caught. In the first quarter, the discard rate for North sea cod was 7.9 per cent. By the fourth quarter, it had grown to 43.8 per cent. In the third quarter, the rate for North sea haddock was 66.2 per cent. In the same period, west of Scotland whiting reached a staggering discard rate of 83.5 per cent.; 246.3 tonnes was discarded, while only 48.6 tonnes was landed. Fisheries cannot be sustainable when discard levels are that high.
Cod stocks in both the North sea and the west of Scotland are described as being outside safe biological limits, but estimated discard rates at both of those fisheries stood at between 37 and 70 per cent. during the third and fourth quarters of 2006. In addition to the impact on fish stocks, the by-catch of species such as dolphins, porpoises and other cetaceans damages the environment. That is not mentioned in the communication, but should be considered as proposals are taken forward.
Five years ago, we were promised progress on discards along with the package of common fisheries policy reforms. The 2002 community action plan made a range of proposals to reduce discards in European waters including pilot projects to reduce discards, consultations on the implications of a discard ban, policies to deal with total allowable catch and quota-induced discards and a legal ban on discards from 2006. Those sentiments were well thought out, but there has since been little delivery. By the Minister’s own admission in his answer to a written question from me:
“There hasn’t been the detailed analysis at Community level of the various options identified in the report that was anticipated.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 1365W.]
So, how can we be certain that the measures in the communication will fare any better or that they will materialise into proposals, in the near future, that are both practical and acceptable to stakeholders? The current proposals have been welcomed, but so was the seemingly shelved 2002 community action plan. Taking forward and implementing the proposals will be the true test of Europe’s political will finally to tackle discards and to establish sustainable European fisheries that are fit for the 21st century.
It is not only the European Union that has been failing on its commitments to reduce discards: DEFRA has not exactly moved at light speed. In its 2006-07 marine and fisheries business plan, it promised that the environmental impact of fishing would be minimised through the tackling of discards, but that has yet to happen. “Securing the Benefits” promised discard pilots to help us
“better understand the factors that lead to discarding and how they might be tackled”,
but the Irish sea discard pilot, arrangements for which were supposed to be finalised by last December, is not even scheduled to begin until the end of July. Further, the conclusions and modelling of the potential benefits of possible solutions from the North sea nephrops pilot are still being peer reviewed and a paper is not expected for another year.
Moreover, the long-awaited Marine Bill is still only at the White Paper stage, with no hint of when it is likely to be formally introduced. Although fisheries seem set to be excluded from future legislation, in order to understand more about our seas, marine spatial planning and protected and closed areas, a Marine Bill could have a role to play in reducing by-catch and discards. If the right policies are to be made to deal with by-catch and discard, the science and knowledge base on which decision-makers rely must be improved. Of the 47 finfish stocks that are of most interest to the UK, only 12 are classed as being within safe biological limits. Thirteen are outside those limits, while safe biological limits have not been defined for six of them and there has been no scientific assessment of 16 of them. That situation must be improved. I hope that the communication will provide an opportunity for full and comprehensive scientific assessments to be undertaken to understand the nature of our marine life so that it can be managed in a sustainable way.
In 2004, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution suggested that a mandatory, full reporting scheme should be introduced. In mixed fisheries such as the North sea, a strong knowledge base is especially important, because technological measures alone and changes to gear might not be enough to prevent by-catch. The use of more selective gears, mesh sizes, bottom-set gillnets and escape panels can reduce by-catch, but they must be complemented by a management and quota system that rewards good practice. That is the key to success: by using more selective gear, the opportunity to catch the wrong species is reduced. That might be the right area on which to concentrate. Implementing suggestions such as giving loans to fishermen to help fund their replacement gear might be an effective way to speed up the process.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about escape panels. Does he think that any particular difficulties arise as a result of varying sea pressures and depths in relation to escape panels? He knows a great deal about the divergence in size of trawlers. Could that apply across the board, or is it specific to a species or area?
Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman makes a good stab at sounding knowledgeable about that, but the problem with escape panels is not that people are not using them, but the depths at which they are used. It is not to do with depths, but with the cost of the gear, which is why—I am sure that he will agree with me—it is important that the Department is creative and innovative in helping fisherman. Whatever depth they choose to fish at, it should get them to invest in the type of gear that will be effective at reducing the unwanted catch. I am delighted to have taken that intervention and if he wants to have another go on the subject of depths, I shall be even more thrilled.
We know that by themselves blanket bans on by-catch will not prevent discards, and the Minister must ensure that in his discussions with the Commission he makes it clear how damaging that would be to the UK industry and to the environment. If a requirement is introduced to land everything that is caught, sufficient incentives must be in place to reward fishermen to land their entire catch rather than discard illegally.
In the absence of enforcement officers on board every vessel, there would be little point in expecting fishermen to land all their catch and then hand it over for nothing in return, when they have experienced handling costs and forgone income to land it. As well as the minimum marketing size, the Minister should ensure that serious consideration is given to improved quota flexibility and the “by-catch bank” model operated by Iceland to safeguard the incomes of fishermen. That means that the money received from the sale of unwanted fish is used to pay fishermen a long-term stable price for those fish.
No one wants an end to discarding more than people in the fishing industry, with whom it is essential that the Minister works closely. They may be hit the hardest by what the Commission staff working document describes as the significant additional short-term costs that would come with a discard ban.
As with previous proposals in the past few years, this communication is promising, but we need to turn those promises into practical policies. Our fishing industry and the environment do not need another discussion on an ambiguous set of proposals—however well-meaning—instead they need action and coherent policies that can be built upon. I therefore welcome the motion and the Minister’s comments that more needs to be known about the issue, particularly about costs, enforcement, the implementation of the discard ban, the mixed nature of UK fisheries, and the measures that must be adopted to prevent illegal discarding. It would be helpful if the Minister kept the House and the fishing industry regularly updated and notified of what progress he makes with the proposals. I also hope that the Minister presses forward and encourages his European counterparts to put the tackling of by-catch and discards at the top of the European agenda. This communication must not be yet another false start.
5.17 pm
Kelvin Hopkins: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate because I am not an appointed member of the Committee, and I will therefore obviously not participate in any vote. However, it is right that someone raises the concerns of many hon. Members about the common fisheries policy in general, of which this is a sub-problem.
The common fisheries policy was established a long time ago and we joined it almost as an after-thought when we signed up to the membership of the then European Community. However, joining the common fisheries policy need not have happened. The rest of Europe was so keen for us to join that they would have accepted us not joining; but, we did and it was a great mistake. A number of hon. Members have raised that point on many occasions.
In recent months, demonstrations from fishermen who are concerned about the common fisheries policy have taken place by the Thames. I profoundly believe that those most qualified for and effective at policing fisheries are those nation states where the waters exist. If there were no common fisheries policy and national waters were defended, we would have the biggest fisheries in the European Union. That would be of tremendous benefit to our economy. Not just nationally, but in terms of fish stock for everyone, if each country had the responsibility to defend its own fish stocks and national waters, it is obvious that fish stocks would not be as depleted as they have been and we would not have had such problems.
In future, I hope that the Government will consider the possibility of substantial reform of the CFP so that it reverts to much larger national waters and defended areas for each nation state. I think that, had it not been for the CFP, our fishing industry would now be rather larger, because we would have much greater national fisheries. It is also highly likely that we would not have had the depletion of stocks that we have had.
With regard to policing, this is pure speculation on my part, but I am deeply suspicious that foreign boats coming to what are in effect British waters—
The Chairman: Order. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in coming along to the European Standing Committee today and his participation in it, but it would be helpful to the Chair if he spoke to the motion that we are debating, which is on discards.
Kelvin Hopkins: Thank you, Mr. Hood; the very next word on my piece of paper is “discards”. Discards and by-catches are best policed by the countries where the fishing industries are based. It is very difficult for Britain to police by-catches and discards from Spanish trawlers, French trawlers or whatever. I am also concerned that by-catches may not be being discarded. They may be landed secretly and sold off for fishmeal or whatever. That is at least a possibility.
Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point about policing illegal discarding, which we hope will indeed be illegal. I should like him to tell me how he thinks that we should solve this difficulty. How does the Royal Navy carry out the task of, or does he even think that we should take responsibility for, arresting or stopping a foreign fisherman in our waters illegally discarding?
Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important and difficult point. It is very easy to police fishing boats coming back to British ports; it is very difficult to police foreign boats at sea using the Royal Navy.
I will finish on this point. I was one of those who had great sympathy for Iceland over the cod war. Iceland has a very small economy: it is about the size of that of Bedfordshire, where I live and part of which I represent. Iceland has used its small gunboats to try to stop its fisheries being plundered by foreign boats. It was clearly heavily dependent on its fishing industry. We are a much bigger economy and much stronger, but we would do well to look after our own fishing stocks rather better than we have done in the past. To do that, we need substantial reform of the CFP and a return to very much larger national waters.
5.22 pm
Mr. Williams: I welcome the tone of the motion before the Committee and I support any proposals that will cut by-catches and discards. Nothing brings the common fisheries policy into greater disrepute in the eyes of the public than the fact that more than 800,000 tonnes of fish are discarded in the course of fishing to feed the nation. The public find that very hard to understand. Indeed, at an event on Saturday involving the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust, I was asked to sign a petition to ensure that the Marine Bill is introduced in the Queen’s Speech—a red fish with many gold signatures will land on the Minister’s desk shortly. That organisation said that discards were one of its key concerns.
I urge the Minister to ensure that enough research is done, particularly in our mixed fisheries in the North sea, which are difficult to fish. Research is needed in relation to more selective gear and other technical matters that will cut discards, but certainly Liberal Democrat Members support the motion and urge the Minister to be very active in pursuing the suggestions that have been made.
5.24 pm
Mr. Bradshaw: I thank hon. Members for their very constructive contributions this afternoon. I can reassure the hon. Member for Leominster that we will keep hon. Members informed as these proposals develop. We will also bear in mind the comments made here today and take those into account.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 8179/07 and addenda 1-2, Commission Communication, A policy to reduce unwanted by-catches and eliminate discards in European fisheries; and agrees with the Government’s initial assessment of the proposal that it represents a sound basis for debate, but that the discussion of possible solutions needs to take full account of the mixed nature of many of the EU fisheries and balance the socio-economic interests involved, whilst the UK are mindful of the importance of effective enforcement and control and the resource implications thereof.
Committee rose at twenty-four minutes past Five o’clock.

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