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There is a strong case for new legislation that impacts on freshwater fisheries and the marine environment. I am particularly grateful for the briefings that I have received on the matter from Adrian Taylor, fishery and policies manager at the Environment Agency. I am also grateful to the Atlantic Salmon Trust, The Salmon and Trout Association, and the Fisheries and Angling Conservation Trust. They have made representations to the Minister, who has
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had the good grace to listen. They have presented a powerful case for new legislation on salmon and freshwater fisheries.

Fish are a key component of a healthy, freshwater ecosystem. Their presence in our rivers and lakes shows that water quality is good and that aquatic and waterside habitats are thriving. The return of salmon to rivers such as the Tyne and now even the Mersey, and the presence of fish in many other once heavily polluted waterways, demonstrates how successful efforts to clean up the damage caused by industrialisation can be affected. In rural areas, fish are sensitive to diffuse pollution from agriculture and other sources and declines in fish numbers are often a good indication of wider environmental problems.

Efforts to conserve and improve the aquatic environment are vital to the health of fish populations, as they are for other aquatic forms of life. However, fish differ in one significant respect: they are also an important recreational resource. There are some 3.5 million to 4 million anglers in England and Wales, making angling one of the largest outdoor participation activities. Salmon, sea trout and eels are exploited for food both legally and, sadly, illegally. Those factors give fish an economic and social significance that mark them out, but they also impose threats that other types of life form do not face. For those reasons, freshwater fisheries have long been subject to specialised legislation. Legislation dates largely from the 19th century. Although it has been updated from time to time, its main elements remain unchanged.

I want to draw attention to six specific areas of concern that a new fisheries Bill, or new fisheries legislation enacted through regulation or secondary legislation, could deliver. Climate change in itself could, and probably will, lead to major changes in freshwater habitats. Regulators need to be able to respond to those changes and to have powers to introduce restrictions on fishing in extreme drought conditions.

Moving fish from one water or even one part of the country to another can threaten biodiversity by displacing native with introduced species. We all know about the trouble caused by the American signal crayfish in running water—almost the length and breadth of England, if not farther abroad. Existing powers to control such movements are, quite frankly, inadequate and more comprehensive powers are needed. That was a central recommendation of the Warren review.

Salmon and sea trout stocks are still subject to commercial exploitation in net fisheries. I congratulate the Minister on successfully helping to negotiate the buying out of the Irish drift nets and action on the North sea drift net fishery, but where stocks are threatened, regulators need clear powers to reduce exploitation to safe levels.

The eel may not be particularly fashionable. It is exploited commercially and eel stocks are now in a critical state, having fallen by more than 90 per cent. in recent years. Under existing regulation, there is absolutely no control over fishing for eels. The wildlife trusts have introduced otters into many of our river catchments. That is to be welcomed in some ways, but in others it should ring alarm bells because the eel is the
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staple diet of otters. Without eels in our rivers, the otters will start to predate on indigenous species and migratory fish species.

Fish thefts have been much in the news—and not just thefts from European workers who are not used to our tradition of catch and release, which has caused problems and threatens community cohesion in some areas where urban fishing is important. Fish thefts also take place for commercial reasons. A specimen carp can be worth more than £10,000; a carp of about 20 lb will attract an asking price of about £10,000 or even £15,000. The current penalty for fishing without a rod licence is £2,500. The current penalty for stealing fish under the Theft Act 1968 is £200. What sort of deterrent is a £200 fine to gangs of fish rustlers who are in it for commercial gain?

Many freshwater fish migrate in river systems. Those fish are not just trout, salmon or sea trout, but other fish moving from one area of a river to another at different times of the year to seek spawning beds. Those movements are often hindered by obstructions, such as redundant dams, mills or weirs. The Environment Agency needs new powers to tackle such obstructions.

Ivor Llewelyn from the Atlantic Salmon Trust and Paul Knight from the Salmon and Trout Association wrote:

One of the first things that Lord Cunningham, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, did when we achieved office in 1997 was to commission the review of salmon and freshwater fisheries legislation under Professor Lynda Warren. It is appropriate now, several years down the track, that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to implement that. It may have taken six years, but I congratulate the Government on delivering on an electoral promise if only by a slightly different route.

I referred to Labour’s charter for angling, which I helped to draw up in 2005. It has been described as the most comprehensive document on Britain’s most popular participant sport. It contains a section entitled “Angling and the Law”, and it is appropriate to use the debate to find out how well the Government have lived up to the promises that we made. My hon. Friend the Minister can relax; the record is fairly good. We say:

The greatest threat to angling comes from the destruction of the aquatic environment through loss of habitat, pollution or the excessive abstraction of water. However, a tiny minority of animal rights extremists have occasionally sought to disrupt angling events and competitions. Their threat to angling has been grossly over-stated by the supporters of hunting, who clearly wish to enlist the help of anglers in seeking to overturn the ban on hunting passed by Parliament.

In 2005, we promised:

Earlier this year, there was an appalling attack by hunt saboteurs in the north-west. They attacked three
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fly fisherpeople, one of whom was an elderly person and another a woman. Those thugs were armed with baseball bats and wore balaclavas. In fact, a syringe was plunged into the arm of one of the anglers. The Lancashire constabulary was nothing short of pathetic. Those characters were apprehended by the fishery owner. Their Transit van was blocked in and the police helicopter was activated, but still no arrest was made.

The police need to raise their game, but the good news is that Parliament has done so. Many hon. Members will have forgotten that when we voted for the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, we created in part 4 a new offence: harassment intended to deter lawful activities. With the new laws that enable action to be taken and criminal charges to be brought against those who seek to disrupt angling or other lawful activities, whether in the urban environment or in the countryside, it is important—I want to put it on the record—that the police use the powers that Parliament has given them.

I was particularly grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), for agreeing to meet representatives of angling governing bodies and me to explore in some detail how we can persuade the police to use the legislation that is now on the statute book.

In the charter for angling, we made a case for a new marine Bill. I am not surprised that the shadow Minister refers to it—he is right to do so—and I join him in wanting to keep up the pressure on the Government to deliver a new marine Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister wants to deliver a new marine Bill, and it is a question of getting the devolved Assemblies in Scotland and Wales singing from the same song sheet.

We said in our charter:

something particularly dear to my heart—

on which there was an exchange between Opposition Members and myself earlier,

We promised management of fish stocks, such as bass, wrasse and mullet, specifically for angling, and we had a commitment to a marine Bill in DEFRA’s five-year plan.

The Labour party should be proud of the fact that it has been the first political party to acknowledge and quantify the tremendous economic benefit of recreational sea angling. I was delighted that the Minister announced that we will have a sea angling strategy, but a strategy will not mean a lot unless it exists in the context of a marine Bill and of ensuring that fish stocks that have been decimated by the over-exploitation of the sea—as graphically outlined in
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“The End of the Line” by Charles Clover—have at least some protection in those areas of the sea that come within the ambit and control of the Government.

The Minister will be aware that WWF, an important stakeholder, published a draft marine Bill last year. It quoted—perhaps not embarrassingly, but certainly trenchantly—from the Government, when they stated their commitment

I look forward to a marine Bill emerging. If that does not happen during this parliamentary Session, I would certainly like to see a White Paper published and the Government’s broader intent set out.

I will turn to the broader issues facing our fisheries and the sport of angling, which depends on healthy fisheries for its survival. Anglers have undoubtedly been a major custodian of the aquatic environment for at least two centuries. Fisheries management maintains and improves habitats on behalf of anglers with the knock-on benefit that what is good for fish is invariably good for other wildlife dependent on the aquatic environment. Although angling is reliant on fisheries, the part played by the sport in managing aquatic habitat should still be officially recognised by the Government as bona fide conservation. We heard earlier from other Members that at least 3.5 million people fish in freshwater and the sea each year. That means that we are delivering an economic benefit estimated at about £3 billion—a significant proportion of which relates to remote rural communities, where other income can be hard to find. Angling, therefore, is of enormous economic benefit, as well as sporting value.

More recently, there has been recognition of the benefit that angling can bring in relation to policies on crime prevention and social exclusion. Angling is a healthy outdoor recreation with a proven ability to take participants away from an increasingly frantic lifestyle and relieve the stress of modern living. Angling has proved to be an excellent conduit for inspiring disadvantaged and vulnerable youngsters to become involved in a healthy pastime and to learn respect for living creatures, with the result that significant numbers of those youngsters can be turned away from crime and drug dependency.

I pay particular tribute to a constituent of mine, Les Webber, who set up Angling Projects in Wraysbury, just outside London. His angling resource centre is used by the Metropolitan police, youth groups, and groups of teachers who are responsible for children who are at risk of school exclusion. Many young people have benefited from the tireless efforts of Les and his team of volunteers. I also pay tribute to Mick Watson, who has been seconded from the Durham constabulary and runs Get Hooked on Fishing in the north-east, in Bishop Auckland. He is dealing with kids from ex-mining communities—kids who live in communities where the recidivism rate is monstrous and where there is a huge dependency on drugs and crime. The vast majority of kids who have gone through Mick Watson’s projects have managed to find jobs and turn their lives around, and have benefited from the introduction to the sport. Local authorities can play
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their part, as well. Reading borough council has put funding into a joint package with a local business and the Environment Agency and has established the Reading angling action project, which is introducing thousands of local youngsters to angling on our local rivers and ponds.

The resources on which angling depends are inevitably healthy fisheries and healthy water. The Government must commit to protecting the aquatic environment from water abstraction, inadequately treated sewerage, point-source and diffuse pollution and urban run-off. A properly funded programme of capital water supply projects is required to relieve abstraction pressure from severely impacted catchments, together with the modernisation of sewerage treatment infrastructure throughout England and Wales.

It was only the week before last that I had the privilege of being one of the parliamentary sponsors of the “blueprint for water” campaign, which is a unique coalition of organisations representing some 6 million people in this country. We brought together the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trusts, Waterwise, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Salmon and Trout Association, the National Trust, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Anglers Conservation Association and the Association of Rivers Trust.

As much as Opposition Members might not like it, the driver for clean water will be the European water framework directive in 2015. We face a huge challenge in this country to come anywhere near delivering our obligations under the directive. I encourage all hon. Members who care about the aquatic environment—and who are able to do so—to add their names to early-day motion 306, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), an excellent former Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The 10 steps to sustainable water are: wasting less water; keeping our rivers flowing and our wetlands wet; pricing water fairly and ensuring that we have a proper, comprehensive system of metering; making polluters pay; stopping pollutants contaminating our water; keeping sewerage out of homes and rivers and off our beaches; supporting water-friendly farming; cleaning up drainage from roads and buildings; restoring our rivers from source to sea; and retaining water on floodplains and wetlands. It is nothing short of a scandal that acres upon acres of floodplain have been covered in concrete. People should not wonder why communities around them flood—floodplains are there for a purpose.

Inland fisheries and angling in the UK are in good heart under the Government. The black propaganda campaign of the Countryside Alliance and others has failed. Labour has no secret agenda to ban angling. Labour’s agenda is to encourage more people to take up fishing. Labour has set the Environment Agency a requirement to increase rod licence sales by 10 per cent. by 2010.

Bill Wiggin: Labour has cut its budget, though.

Martin Salter: The Environment Agency’s budget has actually increased by some 35 per cent. in real terms since we took office. In the run-up to the last election, the Conservative party pledged to remove the
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angling rod licence. That would have stripped £16 million out of the pockets of the nation’s anglers. When the hon. Gentleman is considering his review of fisheries policy, he might wish to reflect on whether that was a politically wise move—I put it to him that it was not.

Mr. Salmond rose—

Martin Salter: I am delighted that angling projects the length and breadth of the country are thriving.

Mr. Salmond rose—

Martin Salter: I am proud of the work of the National Federation of Anglers to put forward a national open college network accredited qualification—

Mr. Salmond rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) might be very persistent, but it was not clear that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) had recognised that he was trying to intervene—we want it one way or the other.

Martin Salter: I pay tribute to the National Federation of Anglers for its work on taking forward participatory projects, some of which are now accredited to the level at which they can be taught in schools.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman’s eloquence is heroic, given the instructions that he has received, but there are other Members with fisheries interests to speak, as well as a Minister whose loquaciousness and erudition know no bounds. I am quite certain that those Members could move the time along to 6 o’clock, if the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) feels that he is in need of a rest.

Martin Salter: One of the reasons I had to leave the Chamber was the babbling of the hon. Gentleman in which he made childish party political points about the forthcoming Scottish elections. Quite frankly, the House would have been treated to a shorter contribution from me if it had not been for his loquaciousness. However, I thank him for hurrying me along for another minute or two.

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