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It is difficult to establish exactly why the Government have reversed that decision. It is also difficult to understand why the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) is nodding at every phrase that I say. During a recent fisheries debate, he chastised me for supporting a minimum landing size for bass. I have quotations from him that query the wisdom of the Government’s going down that road in the first place. Perhaps I should let him speak so that he can explain his absurd attitude.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): As we have until half past six, I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. What has changed is that the Government have not responded with an alternative. My difficulty with the minimum landing size as a stand-alone measure was that the purpose is surely to get professional fishermen to change the sort of gear that they use. As a stand-alone measure, the minimum landing size does not achieve that, but as part of the bass management plan it does. That is why I am nodding, why I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman secured the debate, and why I am disappointed that we are not seeing the joined-up thinking on fishing that we were promised by the Government. That is a great shame.

Martin Salter: At the risk of sounding churlish, I must say that those political gymnastics are worthy of the Liberal Democrats, who, of course, are not here. One must welcome support wherever it comes from—be it from the Conservatives, or from other sources.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is a reasonable man. He has sought to be reasonable in everything that he has done. He may have made a decision that, in my view, is fundamentally wrong, but he has attempted to engage all sides in the process. The hon. Member for
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Leominster has raised an interesting point. We need to weigh in the balance the impact of establishing nursery areas. We also need to weigh in the balance the impact of increasing mesh size from 80-90 mm, say, to 100 mm.

We need to know what the Minister plans to do about inshore netting. Although bass spawn at sea, there is a mass migration to the coastal waters around Britain, particularly around the west country and in the English channel. Those shallow inshore waters are most vulnerable to commercial exploitation. Not only do we need nursery areas and increased net sizes, but, if we are to do the right thing by long-term fisheries conservation, we need to limit inshore netting and trawling in some of those sensitive areas. Of course, the marine Bill, which has cross-party support, will give us the opportunity to do that.

The Under-Secretary made it clear in his announcement that he is prepared to review the decision. In the face of the science and the change in the direction of travel, what would trigger that review? What would make him question his decision?

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I am sorry to have missed the first eight minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s speech because the debate started early. As he knows, I have tabled some written questions about the subject, and I have two active and articulate constituents, Kevin Aston and John Halton, both recreational fishermen, who have made representations to me about the importance of maintaining the balance between recreational and professional sea bass fishing. Has the hon. Gentleman received any intimation from the Under-Secretary or anyone else of why, when the previous Minister marched us a long way up the hill, encouraging us to believe that a new balance would be struck between the interests, we have been marched down again? Has the evidence changed? Has the European Union applied some sort of pressure? Has commercial fishing put pressure on the Government? From where does the hon. Gentleman believe the pressures have come to cause such a significant change? My constituents have been badly let down. They believed that their responsible representations meant that they had some Government encouragement.

Martin Salter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Much as Conservative Members would love to blame the European Union for everything from climate change to the price of cheese, its hands are relatively clean on the issue that we are considering.

The Under-Secretary is more than capable of speaking for himself, but I believe that he has taken note of representations from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which is a well-funded and effective lobby, as, indeed, it should be on behalf of its members. The Under-Secretary has shown concern, especially for the small boat fleets off the south and south-west. Many fishermen are frustrated by their inability to get more of the cod quota. That hit the headlines in recent days.

That does not negate my point that it is incumbent on us to take the long-term view. The science shows that, although the minimum landing size for bass would mean a short-term depletion in the fish available to be
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caught by the commercial sector, there would be a long-term increase. The Under-Secretary must recognise that. We are considering centimetres—the difference between 36 and 45 cm. That difference means doubling the weight of the sea bass, which is a valuable species for recreational fishing. Just as people spend a lot of money to catch quality salmon—far more than salmon would ever fetch on a fishmonger’s slab—people will spend a lot of money to enjoy quality recreational bass fishing on the fly, by bait or by using lures, plugs and spinners.

Bass is an immensely valuable resource, which we should protect. Global warming means that stocks of juvenile bass have risen to some extent, but the recreational fishery is undervalued if only stunted bass are available through the removal of a great proportion of the stock at too early a stage in its life. That is why the decision is wrong and represents short-term thinking. That is bad for local economies in the long run.

Many strategy documents come out of DEFRA, and that is welcome. The Under-Secretary has published the recreational sea angling strategy, which promises more and bigger fish, while at the same time not raising the minimum landing size for bass—the most important fish for recreational sea fishing.

Here and in meetings throughout the country, I have tried to make the Government’s case for a sea licence. There is an argument for a sea licence, although I absolutely agree with the National Federation of Sea Anglers that it could be implemented only if sea anglers see a significant improvement in the sport available to them. The decision that has been taken—this extraordinary U-turn—drives a coach and horses not only through the recreational sea angling strategy, but through any attempt that I or others could make to create a consensus on a sea rod licence.

The Prime Minister has talked about vision. We need to talk about vision if we are serious about protecting the harvest that our oceans can deliver for us. My worry is that the decision that has been taken is short- term and lacks the vision to which we must all aspire.

Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a fantastic contribution. As an angler and a member of the all-party angling group, I do not underestimate the significance of the issue throughout the country. I have been contacted by many people about it. Angling is the biggest participant sport in the country, with approaching 1 million sea anglers. With another hat on, my hon. Friend is chair of the all-party angling group. Does he have any plans to convene an emergency meeting to forge an all-party consensus and take the issue forward?

Martin Salter: I think that I have now. I am particularly minded to forge an all-party consensus in light of the helpful comments made by the hon. Member for Leominster, who I believe might have something to say.

Bill Wiggin rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I must remind hon. Members that I have allowed some latitude with one intervention. Regardless of time, Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople are not allowed to make a speech or an intervention in these debates.

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Martin Salter: It is probably worth putting on record that the hon. Gentleman was nodding his assent. I would welcome any opportunity to work with hon. Members across the political divide, as I have sought to do on angling and conservation, to see whether we can test, probe and challenge the decision, and encourage the Minister to come forward with the review that he promised.

In conclusion, this is a sad day for sea angling. Bass—one of the few fish that I have never caught—is a totemic species. It is highly sought after and a valuable resource. It was recognised as being worthy of protection by the Prime Minister’s strategy unit. We had a fine policy in place. We had done the heavy lifting, but in the final furlong there has been a change of heart. I know that the Minister is a serious politician, so I hope that he will listen seriously to the representations that I and thousands of others will continue to make. I hope one day to return to the House and praise him for making the right decision in respect of an important British fish species.

5.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing this debate, as it provides an opportunity to set out more background to my recent decision on bass and to describe measures that I intend to take with a view to delivering benefits to sea anglers. I am grateful to him for his invaluable work in raising the profile of angling in general and, in particular, for his active involvement with sea angling representative bodies.

I am aware that many of those bodies wanted to come together with one voice. My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly to ensure that that happens, so that there is effective discussion and dialogue with the Government. It makes it much easier for the Government if there is one voice. Bringing those bodies together is not easy work. It is time-consuming work and I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend has said some kind words about me. We have been close friends since we came to the House. One never knows what is going to happen, but when we both walked in here for the first time as Members of Parliament for our respective constituencies in the south-east region, little did he or I imagine that we would one day be discussing this matter from our respective positions. He knows of my high regard for him, and for the way in which he has brought together the sea angling community. I assure him that I will continue to work with him and with that community.

Let me deal first with the decision on bass. I announced on 25 October that the minimum landing size for bass would not be increased from the current EU size of 36 cm to 40 cm. I made this decision after full consideration of the evidence and following a meeting with the fishing industry and angling representatives. I brought together the anglers and representatives of the industry for a presentation by scientists at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science—CEFAS.

Before making this decision, I was aware that the consultation on the issue had generated some 2,800 responses. That is a large postbag for a fisheries issue.
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The replies demonstrated that views were generally polarised between anglers who were strongly in favour of an increase and commercial fishermen who strongly opposed it. Against that background, whatever decision was reached was likely to be contentious. With this in mind, my approach was to ensure that my decision took proper account of the science and all the other evidence. I was also clear that I would not reach a decision until both parties had had a chance to put their case to me.

The meeting that I convened at the beginning of October gave me the opportunity to hear the views of those who have been closely involved with the debate. Commercial bass fishermen and bass anglers made it very clear to me how important bass was to them. The meeting also gave an opportunity for the scientific advice on bass stocks to be fully debated. This advice from CEFAS scientists has been that the bass stock appears to be fished sustainably and that a succession of successful year classes, together with a suite of effective management measures, has resulted in a doubling of bass stocks since the mid-1990s.

That view is endorsed by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—ICES—whose report I have here. ICES advised the European Commission in 2004 that bass stocks around the UK coast appeared to be fished sustainably. For example, it reported:

The same report also noted that the package of bass conservation measures introduced in the UK in the 1990s—including the creation of 37 key bass nursery areas, which we closed to directed fishing for bass—had met their objectives.

The science—from ICES in 2004 and our own scientific advice—has remained consistent since the consultation. However, the circumstances in which I am making my decision have changed. My hon. Friend was right: I am particularly concerned about the impacts on the under-10m fleet in the short to medium term. It is difficult to quantify the impact on the profitability of individual vessels, but it is clear that bass between 36 cm and 40 cm makes up an important share of the catch for these vessels.

Our regulatory impact assessment identified that, with an increase to 40 cm, the costs to the industry would have been around £1.4 million in the first year, with reduced landings for three to four years, and subsequently recovering to the levels that pertained before the increase. This sector of the fleet has faced a number of additional pressures this year in relation to the availability of quota species. Inshore netters fishing for sole, cod and plaice have been particularly affected in 2007, and, as a non-quota and plentiful species, bass is an important displacement stock for those fishermen.

I am also concerned about the effects of any increased minimum landing size on discards of bass—when fish are thrown back into the sea, often dead. That is a key issue for fishermen and for managers, and the European Commission has recently produced proposals to reduce the number of discards in key fisheries. The largest discard impact would have been on trawlers in the
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eastern English channel. At 40 cm, an estimated 55 tonnes of bass would have been discarded—and would probably have died—from UK inshore trawlers each year out of an average trawl catch of around 230 tonnes.

Finally, when I reached my decision I bore it in mind that we now had a clear indication that other member states and the Commission would not support an increased MLS, as we had originally hoped.

I have heard the argument, which my hon. Friend advanced, that the MLS should be increased, as it is currently set below the spawning size for bass. I should clarify that although 42 cm is the average size at which female bass will have spawned once, it is not necessary to introduce an MLS of 42 cm to ensure stock sustainability, given the current scientific advice that the bass stock is being fished sustainably at a MLS of 36 cm.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Having been a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and having conducted investigations of fisheries in the past, I think it fair to say that scientific advice is not constant, but varies significantly over a period. Is it not better to take the cautious route, and consider whether we should increase the minimum landing size?

Jonathan Shaw: In making decisions of this kind, we have to weigh the competing demands. I am trying to explain why I reached my decision within the competing demands represented by the wishes of anglers who have presented the powerful case articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and the representations made to me by fishermen. I will, however, make some further points which are relevant to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew).

I too have heard the argument that an increase in the MLS would have generated an increase in angling activity which would outweigh the financial impact on commercial fishermen. I have some sympathy with that argument, and I accept that managing fisheries to take account of anglers’ requirements could develop the sport and lead to increases in angling-related expenditure on items such as tackle, bait, travel and accommodation. Bass anglers have made that point as part of their case for an increase, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West referred to it as well. Our analysis was less certain: despite the large increase in the stock in recent years, the evidence that we had on bass angling showed that the number of bass anglers over a similar period had not changed significantly. Our analysis also showed that many shore anglers would not see the benefits from an increase, as most bass inshore measure less than 40 cm.

Generally there are limited data available relating specifically to angling for bass. I accept that that is a shortcoming, and I aim to address it through a research and development study that I announced along with my decision on bass.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: I am interested in the fact that the Minister has a research and development study in mind.

One of the greatest expenditures in recreational sea bass angling is the boat. That is certainly the case for
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those who fish off north Wales and in the Dee estuary in my part of the world. That expenditure is often entered into with a repayment term of some years, so predictability of risk is needed.

Counting the number of recreational sea bass fishermen must also be looked into carefully. I cannot believe that the figures are as constant as suggested, given that I am told by people—even by one of my neighbours—that they fish regularly and often invite friends, who are therefore introduced to the sport in a way that might mean that they are not counted in the statistics.

Jonathan Shaw: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West.

Martin Salter: I thank the Minister for giving way, and I say to him that I have no intention of bobbing up and down to interrupt him.

Does the Minister feel well served by the data put before him? It is not possible to define a bass angler. They are not spawned on the moon and exported down to Britain. Bass is a sporting species. Many trout, salmon and coarse anglers, for example, enjoy bass fishing, but they might not appear in data. From my extensive contacts in the angling world, it is my contention that bass angling is becoming more popular but is at risk as people are frustrated at the lack of availability of decent-sized bass to catch. Baby bass angling has not got a strong future, and that is where we are at present.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for those interventions. I accept that there are shortcomings in respect of the available data. We must improve that, and I will say a little more about the matter shortly. This is an important sport, and we need to understand it better because it makes a significant contribution to communities—coastal communities in particular.

The regulatory impact assessment identified that other measures might achieve the aim of the increased MLS without the substantial cost to the fishing industry. We also need to ensure that the bass fishery remains sustainable. That is the reason for my announcement of a package of measures which will provide benefits for bass stocks and anglers.

The measures include a review of the current series of 37 nursery areas around the coast of England and Wales, which have proved so successful in protecting juvenile bass. We will also be considering having more nursery areas where significant new juvenile populations of bass require protection as a result of climate warming causing bass to spawn further north and with greater success. We will also explore the pros and cons of strengthening protection in the existing areas.

I have announced that we are funding a pilot study to explore whether closing specific coastal areas to fishing would let more bass in local populations grow bigger, and the practicalities of doing so. We will also review inshore netting restrictions where there is the potential to deliver benefits to anglers.

In respect of all those areas, I hope that I can rely on my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and sea bass anglers to work with the Department and to ensure that our review process delivers what we all want.

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