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1.32 pm

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am pleased to open the annual fisheries debate. I am also pleased that we have managed to schedule it before the December Fisheries Council, so that hon. Members, especially those with fisheries interests, have an opportunity to register their views.

The fishing sector makes an important contribution to the UK’s economy. Total landings of fish from UK vessels have increased for the second year running. In 2005 they had a value of £571 million, up by 11 per cent. from 2004. I am also pleased to say that exports have also risen to £925 million, an increase of 4 per cent. from 2004.

As I am sure all hon. Members present are aware, the sector also has some very considerable dangers. I am sorry to report that 15 fishermen lost their lives in the last year, including one only two days ago. There is an active search and rescue mission off the coast of Weymouth as we speak. I am sure that the sympathy of the whole House goes out to all the families who have suffered those tragic losses.

Fishing is part of our heritage and an important source of one of the healthiest foods. It provides jobs for more than 12,000 fishermen and many more in the ancillary and processing sectors. Many communities rely on it. Fish stocks are limited, but they are a valuable and renewable resource. Managed effectively, fisheries can be sustainable and profitable. But, if we get the balance wrong, we can cause irreversible damage to marine ecosystems and economic damage to those communities that rely on fisheries. So we need to get our focus and our balance right.

The Government are now developing a 20-year strategic vision to balance the socio-economic benefits with environmental protection, and to set out the roles and responsibilities of the various interested parties. That work is important to help us to achieve a long-term, sustainable and profitable fisheries sector and a healthy marine environment. We will publish our 20-year strategy next year.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I pay tribute to the Minister for the work that he has been doing for the fisheries off my constituency, which has the largest fishing port in England and Wales in Brixham. Why is it that all the forecasts suggest that there will be no more fish to eat in 40 years time? On Friday 3 November, The Times had a whole-page article explaining that we were over-fishing and that the common fisheries policy—under which we throw back dead fish if quotas have been exceeded—is not working. Why will the Minister’s 20-year forecasts give hope to the fishing industry when all the major forecasters say that in 40 years time we will have no fish to eat?

Mr. Bradshaw: Part of the answer is that we need to differentiate between what is happening in our own waters, where we have already taken some difficult
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decisions and put the size and capacity of our fishing industry better in line with the health of the stocks, and what is happening in international waters on the high seas, where there is serious over-fishing that is often unregulated and illegal and rules—where they exist—are not very well enforced. The reports to which he refers will be the global reports that point out that if we do not act urgently, the danger is that the majority of the world’s commercial fish stocks will be seriously depleted, if not extinct, within that timeframe. However, in the UK and the European Union, whatever one thinks of the functioning of the common fisheries policy, we do at least have a policy, a system of enforcement and of total allowable catches and quotas. We are able to get to grips with the problem, although I would not go so far as to claim that all stocks in EU waters are fished at sustainable levels. However, around the UK coast, most are. That is why in Brixham, for example, we have had, if not a record year, a good year of fish landings and incomes.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): On the question of unregulated fishing in international waters—in particular, cold water coral reefs, which we almost discussed at Question Time earlier—will the Minister join me in welcoming the recent accord between and proposals made by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the World Wide Fund for Nature, especially on the Rockall bank and the Queen Elizabeth bank? That is precisely the sort of approach that should be encouraged. Will the Minister meet both organisations to see how their proposals can be taken forward?

Mr. Bradshaw: I certainly warmly welcome the fishing industry working together with environmental organisations, as in the initiative that he mentions. When I began to do this job, one of its most frustrating aspects was not only that fishermen and scientific advisers found it difficult to work together or even begin to accept each other’s points, but that the gap between the environmental organisations and the fishing industry was even wider. When sensible and responsible environmental organisations, like WWF, get together with the industry, we see remarkable results. I meet both organisations regularly and I look forward to discussing that initiative the next time I do so.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend draws a contrast between the relatively good way we nurture our own fisheries and the way it is done by the European Union and, especially, the international community. Does that not make the case for extending our fishing limits to those that existed before the CFP, so that we can do an even better job for fish around our coasts?

Mr. Bradshaw: No, I do not think that it does. I would not go so far as to boast that we had a wonderful fisheries management system in contrast to other EU countries. The position in the European Union is variable. Countries in northern Europe, such as this one, tend to have a more responsible and conservationist approach. We tend also to have better enforcement which leads to better profitability for our industry and a more sustainable fishery. The answer is
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not to try to renegotiate our obligations under the European treaty. All the legal advice, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, is that to do so we would have to withdraw from the European Union as a whole, which would be very damaging to our overall economic interests.

Moreover, fish do not respect national boundaries. If we did not have the CFP, we would have to invent something rather like it, because we have to reach agreements with our neighbours. Even then the agreements would not be much use, because the fish swim around anyway.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Following on from the previous question, does the Minister believe that Norway has a particular advantage, in that it has retained control of all its waters and annually goes toe-to-toe with the entire 25 member state EU? Does he therefore agree that the suggestion that we should have total control of our waters is a good one?

Mr. Bradshaw: The circumstances that Norway faces are different from those faced by the UK or the rest of the EU, as it has an extremely long coastline and is located on the north-western extremity of the European continental mass. However, I do not agree with the Scottish National party’s policy of withdrawing from the CFP. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), the consequence would be a withdrawal from the EU. That would be economically disastrous for Scotland, given the importance of the financial services sector there, for example.

The right approach is to reform the CFP, as we have done successfully in recent years. We need to make it more sustainable, and to continue winning some of the arguments with our European partners, as happened in respect of the regional advisory councils. An attempt to withdraw from the CFP would be futile and necessitate total withdrawal from the EU. That was the Opposition’s policy for about 10 years, but even they now realise that it is hopeless and have abandoned it.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): My question is inspired by the wisdom of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). What percentage of English fishing entitlement, by value or landings, remains in the hands of English companies or of people in English coastal communities? I have seen estimates as low as 20 per cent. Will the Minister confirm that?

Mr. Bradshaw: No, but I shall endeavour to do so before the end of the debate. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is present today. Instead of asking a question like that, he would do better to draw attention to the front-page headline in the latest edition of Fishing News, which says that Peterhead is heading for a record year. I think that Peterhead is in his constituency, and it would make a welcome change for him to congratulate the Government on what we have achieved for his constituents and for the fishing industry in his area.

Mr. Salmond: Answer the question.

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Mr. Bradshaw: I assume that the hon. Gentleman is here to make a speech. I shall therefore proceed with mine.

As I was saying, there are many conflicting demands on our seas and they need to be managed more effectively. We are therefore also bringing forward a marine White Paper to give us a modern framework that will take us towards our sustainable development goals, streamline regulation and make our marine laws more effective.

We need to take account of the very diverse range of interests in our marine environment. For example, sea anglers make a significant contribution to the UK economy, but their interests have not always been sufficiently recognised in fisheries management. We have therefore tried to make sure that their interests are better represented on inshore fisheries management bodies, for example, and we are currently working closely with recreational sea angling interests to produce a sea angling strategy for England. Again, that strategy will appear in the new year.

Although landings and incomes have been good this year, many of our fish stocks are still in a fragile state. We need to ensure that compliance is maintained if we are to safeguard stocks for future generations. Already, the introduction of the registration of buyers and sellers in 2005 has helped us to ensure compliance with quotas, and it has also boosted fish prices by reducing illegal landings. It was strongly resisted by some in the industry—and even some hon. Members—but is now widely welcomed as one of the best things to have happened to the fishing industry for some time. That shows that it is right for politicians to have the courage of their convictions and take difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions in the long-term interests of our fishing industry.

I am also heartened by the increasing collaboration between fishermen and scientists. In particular, the fisheries science partnership is helping to improve the standard of scientific data produced and to make that data more relevant to the issues that directly concern the industry. In the past year, moreover, the Department has made available money from its own budget to help individuals and the regional advisory councils to develop their ideas on improved fisheries management.

I announced in June this year that modernised sea fisheries committees will deliver improved management of fish stocks and the marine environment in coastal waters out to six miles, while keeping the important local input to decision making. We will equip the SFCs, through the Marine Bill, with the management tools to achieve healthy fish stocks and sustainable coastal waters.

Just as climate change can be effectively tackled only at international level, so the protection of marine resources needs concerted global effort. The UK continues to have a leading role in promoting international sustainable fisheries. We recently helped to secure a UN agreement to end destructive trawling of the sea bed over the next two years. We have also been working with the international regional fisheries management organisations to deliver sustainable fisheries across the world’s oceans. Illegal fishing in international waters is a key challenge to proper fisheries management, and we are implementing the proposals of the high seas task force—which I chaired—on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

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Mr. Steen: I am very interested in the work that the Minister has been doing on the world scene in respect of fishing stocks. Did he see the science and technology briefing in the The Economist a few months ago? It said that the world was going about conserving fish stocks in the wrong way and that, instead of attempting to preserve stocks of individual fish species, a better approach was to conserve entire ecosystems. What is the Government’s line on that?

Mr. Bradshaw: As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I am an avid reader of The Economist. We think that there is a lot to the ecosystem approach, although it needs further development. However, when we publish the White Paper, he will see that it is central to our thinking.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that the Government are seriously considering incorporating marine protected areas in the White Paper? That would be very popular among children in my constituency, who are worried that there will be no fish left when they grow up.

Mr. Bradshaw: I can confirm that the Government have stated already the intention to create a network of new marine protected areas. I think that schoolchildren in my hon. Friend’s constituency recently did a project on this matter. There is growing evidence around the world that marine protected areas can play a significant role in preserving marine biodiversity and fish stocks. That thesis is also supported by evidence gathered around our own coasts.

Mr. Salmond: I know that the Minister understands the importance of the marine climate change impacts partnership report—not least because it was published by his Department. It calls for the European Commission to give serious consideration to the weight of evidence suggesting that cod species are moving north not because of over fishing but because of climatic change affecting their food supplies. If that is true, it undermines the basis of the cod recovery plan, and renders senseless the restrictions on the fishing of species such as nephrops or haddock. Supplies of those species are plentiful, and the restrictions were an attempt to make cod return to waters that are no longer suitable. Will the Minister assure the House that he understands the importance of those findings, and say what efforts he has made to make them available to the European Commission?

Mr. Bradshaw: In contrast to the impression that the hon. Gentleman gave in his question, I have managed to secure significant increases in the catches of haddock and nephrops in recent years. I hope to do so again next week, but he is right that there is a scientific debate about the impact of climate change on the marine environment. There is no doubt that warming has caused us to see species off the south-west coast that normally inhabit waters much further south. Other evidence suggests that cod have been moving north, but I caution him against concluding that we should therefore adopt what I call a “sod the cod” policy. The 2005 year class—to use an argument that I shall deploy at the Fisheries Council—was a relatively good one. As cited on the front page of this week’s Fishing News, the
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hon. Gentleman’s own fishermen are reporting seeing a growing number of young codlings in the North sea. There remains strong evidence—at the moment, the balance is that the North sea still lies perfectly within the range of growth of cod populations—that there is potential for cod recovery. Although it is absolutely right to study these issues carefully and to take climate change into account when we adopt our fisheries policy, I am not yet in a position to go down the road that the hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating.

Mr. Carmichael: The good year class of 2005 is an important point. My fishermen are also confirming the same reports of seeing young codlings being caught, but does the Minister accept that if we have a 14 per cent. reduction in the total allowable cod catch, it will mean an increasing number of fish recruited to the stock being discarded? Surely that is not in anyone’s interest.

Mr. Bradshaw: I accept that. The recommendation from the Commission is for an even bigger reduction, which we do not think makes sense for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman highlights—that with a good year class of 2005, a TAC reduction of that level amounts to a much bigger reduction in effort on account of the larger number of fish available for catching. That will inevitably lead, in our view, to increased discards, which the whole House deplores.

Emily Thornberry: Is it not right then to look carefully into having a cod bycatch quota? The European Commission has proposed a cut in the cod quota of only 25 per cent. while the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommends catching no cod at all. The difficulty is that there will be a large cod bycatch, so we need a quota for that, too, in order to address the problem fundamentally.

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend may recall, though she has not been a Member of the House for as long as me —[Interruption.] Has she?

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): That sounds pompous.

Mr. Bradshaw: I did not mean to sound pompous. I was about to say that ICES has given the same advice for the past five years—a period for which I am not sure that my hon. Friend was in the House. I am sorry that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) accuses me of being pompous— [Interruption.]

ICES advice is offered annually. It is the job of ICES scientists to provide advice based on their scientific research, but it is then the job of the Commission, its own advisers and Ministers to come to a balanced view in the light of the mixed fisheries in the North sea. If ICES advice for a zero cod catch had been implemented in the North sea in any one of the last three years, it would have been completely devastating for the UK industry. It would have meant that fishermen could not go out and fish for haddock, prawns and other stocks that are in a very good shape because of the drastic measures on cod. We need to take tough decisions on cod and we may need to take some tough and painful decisions on cod next week, but it does not make sense either in the short or the long term to go for a zero catch on cod because of the devastating impact on the fishing communities in some Members’ constituencies.

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Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I support my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on bycatch. It may be impractical to have a zero quota for by-catch, but there are opportunities to limit it through technical measures. The Minister will know from correspondence over many years on the issue that in the Irish sea, some beam trawlers targeting other species use such a small mesh size that they catch a huge by-catch of cod. That may be one of the reasons why the cod recovery programme in the Irish sea has not succeeded.

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend, who represents her constituents in Fleetwood so assiduously, makes an important and valid point. In next week’s negotiations, we hope to persuade the Commission to be a bit cannier in its approach and to look at some of the technical measures that could be taken rather than propose these drastic blanket reductions. That would enable some of my hon. Friend’s fishermen to fish a little more if they adopted technical measures to allow the cod to escape from nets.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Bradshaw: I need to make some progress, as I know that many hon. Members will want to make their own contributions.

In the international activity that I referred to, we work very closely with the Department for International Development to help developing countries with the sustainable management of their valuable local fisheries. Over the last year, the UK has also remained at the forefront of moves to defend the international moratorium on commercial whaling. We have also led the condemnation in recent weeks of Iceland’s decision to resume commercial whaling. I summoned the Icelandic ambassador to explain his actions and the UK led 25 countries, plus the European Commission—representing more than a billion people—in a formal diplomatic protest in Reykjavik, condemning Iceland's action. We are urging all EU and accession states that are not members of the International Whaling Commission to join it as soon as possible.

Some hon. Members have already alluded to the major event before the end of the year. It is, of course, the December Fisheries Council, where next year’s total allowable catch and other measures will be decided. The Commission recently published its proposals for agreement at the Council. Given the poor state of some key stocks, some tough decisions are likely to be necessary. Broadly speaking, the scientific advice supports cuts in quota for cod, herring and flat fish, but for other stocks important to the UK fleet, such as prawns, mackerel and haddock, some increase in catch may be possible.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The Minister knows from his visits to Amble and from our conversations that handline fishing for mackerel—a conservation manual alternative that the fishermen want to use—is restricted by the lack of historic quota for smaller boats. Has the Minister made any progress on that and has he spoken to the Scottish Minister, as I have, to see if some arrangement can be reached to allow people to pursue this fishery?

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