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7.5 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the question of scallop dredging in Lyme bay. I am sure that the Minister needs no reminding that the part of Lyme bay I am describing, which stretches from Beer to West Bay, is mainly though not wholly in the West Dorset constituency that I represent. I thus have a strong constituency interest.

Before I dwell on the detail, I want to talk about our attitude as a nation to what is usually called biodiversity—an important test of the Government’s will to concern themselves seriously with the issue. I hope that in time that technocratic word—biodiversity—will be less and less used, and that people will more frequently talk about what is actually at stake: the rich beauty of the natural environment, not only marine-based, but also land and air-based.

Our marine environment, and the rich beauty it contains, is an important constituent of the pleasure we can take in the natural world around us. It is of course systematically impossible to explain to someone who does not understand or care about the importance of pink sea fans or yellow coral why such things should matter. Many people might say, “I might never see one of these things. I live in a house and I’m not very concerned about what goes on under the sea.” Such a person might argue that it does not really matter whether there are more or fewer species of this or that type of bird or animal. To my mind, such arguments miss a tremendous point: the search for beauty is in part the search for the rich texture that goes by the technocratic name of biodiversity—a view that I think is shared widely throughout the country, and by the Government and Members of the House.

If we take that as a starting point, it becomes clear that methods of farming the sea that constitute a significant threat to the character of the marine environment need to be addressed. That too, as far as I can make out, is common ground on both sides of the House, and between the Government and the rest of us. It is certainly the common view of respondents—the ones I am aware of—to the Government’s consultation paper.

With a concern for the protection of the marine environment goes another principle, which, again, is common ground: the farming of the sea should be carried out on a sustainable basis. We are all extremely conscious that the ability of the world as a whole to fish sustainably is much less than we would like it to be. Fisheries the world over are in grave trouble. We are also conscious that in European waters, the common fisheries policy has signally failed to produce the degree of sustainability that we wish to see.

There are great questions that require great answers, and thank goodness it is not my task this evening to dilate on them. I am conscious that the Minister and others involved in those issues face an enormous task. In this case, however, we have an opportunity to have a direct impact that is not complicated by the great international fisheries issues or the great issues of the
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common fisheries policy. We are talking about something that is directly under the control of the UK Government and of Parliament, which has the ability to set and enforce the rules. We have an opportunity to get the right answer from the point of view of the protection of both the rich beauty of the marine environment and the sustainability of a small element of our fisheries.

The next stage in my argument is, I hope, also common ground. The extremely large heavy metal cones—if I can describe them in that way—that are dragged with considerable force across the sea bed by scallop dredgers wreak havoc with the reefs in the part of Lyme bay I am describing. There is no question but that they constitute an unsustainable form of fishing. In fact, it is wrong to describe what is done with them as a form of fishing; it is a form of collecting objects from the sea bed. They cause significant collateral damage to the sea bed and to what are called in the literature the “biological communities”—the things that live on the sea bed.

Those large metal cones have a knock-on effect, because they also cause damage to a wide range of other creatures living in the sea. Constituents of mine whose livelihood is gained from fishing for crabs and other such creatures, and who use things such as pots, report that they frequently find creatures that have been damaged by the large metal cones. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that it is common ground that we have a desire to protect the marine environment and the sustainability of fisheries. We are talking about a form of fishing—if one can call it that—that does neither of those things, and which, if allowed to act unrestrainedly in this part of Lyme bay, will damage the marine environment quite considerably, and will create the opposite of a sustainable fishery, ultimately defeating its own activities and causing collateral damage to other forms of fishing in the area.

I say that I am glad that all that is common ground, and that the problem is how to deal with the situation—but in recent months I have become increasingly concerned that there is no common ground on this issue. Most of the serious environmental work that has been done suggests one view, while the view put forward by the Government—by preference, I think, but I look to the Minister to inform us further on that point—and by the sea fisheries committees is different. I shall crystallise that difference as the difference between option A and option C; I am sure that the Minister will forgive me for skipping lightly over option B.

Essentially, we face an argument between two parties. There are those who maintain that the collateral economic damage that would be done if the entire area were ruled out of court for scallop dredging would outweigh the benefits; that is the position of the sea fisheries committees. That is a fear, and the Minister may be tempted to share that position, but I hope that I am proved wrong about that. On the other hand, environmentalists have argued strongly for option C, which rules out scallop dredging throughout the area.

Of the work that has been done to establish the economic damage that would occur if the whole area were ruled out of bounds for scallop dredging, a study produced by Homarus looks, to an amateur eye such as
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mine, rather more carefully produced than the broad figures given by the sea fisheries committees. I am inclined to believe that the economic damage is likely to have been estimated in a sensible way by Homarus. Again, I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that. If Homarus has correctly estimated the economic damage caused by the wider exclusion zone envisaged in option C, the arguments for option C become enormously strong.

The main reason why I wanted to hold this debate tonight was to put something firmly on the table for the Minister and his Department. It is critical that whichever option is chosen, it should not simply be a set of rules, or a dead letter. It should end up being an enforceable proposition. The strongest argument that the sea fisheries committees have used in favour of option A is that through voluntary agreement it has been possible to achieve something. By common consent, in the recent past there has been acceptance by scallop dredgers in Devon and further afield that they should not dredge in areas where there is a voluntary agreement preventing such dredging. There has therefore been a self-enforcing mechanism for narrowly defined areas.

The danger is that if we introduce a ban for a wider area without proper enforcement, we will end up with an ineffective ban, and an ineffective ban is no ban at all. I hope that the Minister will recognise that if the arguments for wider exclusion along the lines envisaged in option C are strong, as I believe they are, the concomitant needs to be a serious reappraisal of what is necessary if we are to enforce option C. I hope that he will recognise that that is intimately connected with the issue of the speed with which the Government deliver the forthcoming marine Bill. There is cross-party consensus on the intention behind that Bill, but the Bill has not yet seen the light of day.

Tonight, I hope that the Minister will tell us that he accepts the broad principles of the need to preserve the part of the marine environment that we are discussing, and to preserve sustainable fishing of that environment. I hope that he will accept that the economic analysis of option C, carried out on behalf of the wildlife trusts, is probably near the truth, and that the arguments for option C—the wider exclusion zone—are therefore very strong. However, if we move in that direction, I hope that he will ensure that we have an effective enforcement mechanism, so that we do not have a meaningless ban that is a dead letter.

7.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing this important debate. It is evident that the future of Lyme bay is close to his heart, and rightly so. It is a beautiful part of his constituency. I, too, feel strongly about the area and the various activities that take place in and around the bay.

In my capacity as fisheries Minister, I have met many people and organisations with a vested interest in the area. I have visited Lyme bay and held a series of meetings and discussions with a wide variety of stakeholders, ranging from the conservationists at Wildlife and Countryside Link and the Devon Wildlife
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Trust to fishing trade bodies such as the Shellfish Association of Great Britain and local fishermen in Brixham. Last month I was pleased to launch a public consultation on how best to protect the bay. The consultation is looking for views on which features need to be protected and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the best way to enforce safeguards in an area that is home to a rich variety of sea life and is being considered for designation as a special area of conservation.

In addition to the meetings that I have held with stakeholders, a team from my department at DEFRA has been working closely with a number of organisations in the area to find a local solution to the Lyme bay issue. I know that, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, local fishermen have already volunteered to stop scalloping in part of the bay, and they are working closely with Plymouth university to undertake a thorough study of the Lyme bay scallop fishery and the other seabed life in the area. My department has also asked the Seafish Industry Authority and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science to look closely at the Lyme bay situation. A host of organisations are helping to inform us so that we can make the right decision.

I am keen that a local solution be found that takes into account both the environment and the socio-economic impact that a ban on scalloping may have, particularly in view of the fishing industry’s claim that a total ban could cost the region up to £3 million. That is the figure that the industry has given us, and we will consider all the information. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the wildlife trusts. We will consider their views as well, with the support of our scientists at CEFAS and our officials.

Lyme bay is economically important for a range of activities, many of which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. We need to consider how the biological resources of Lyme bay can be exploited in the most sustainable way that is compatible with its importance to the marine environment. The Lyme bay reefs are important not just to his constituency or to me, but to all of us. He spoke about their beauty, and he is right. The pink sea fan and sunset cup coral are rare and threatened. There are some wonderful pictures in the Devon Wildlife Trust’s document entitled “A 16-year search for sustainability”. One has only to leaf through it to see the wonder of the biodiversity—a word that I know the right hon. Gentleman does not like, and I agree with him. It is technocratic, but we know what we mean.

The Lyme bay reefs may be internationally important. Natural England is currently analysing data to see if they should qualify as a special area of conservation under the European Union’s habitats directive. We expect to receive Natural England’s initial advice on that next year. It is clear that those reefs are fragile and highly vulnerable—an issue brought into sharp focus by the recent disappearance of the Exeter reefs in the western part of the bay. That is why we worked with the fishing industry last year to put in place a voluntary agreement, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. That agreement was introduced 15 months ago, and it has held.

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The protected areas were introduced according to the best available evidence at the time and they protected 92 per cent. of the known locations of pink sea fans. However, pink sea fans would be more widely distributed outside the survey areas and they represent only one aspect of the ecological importance of the Lyme bay reefs. That is why we have asked for more information on the ecological and economic importance of the reefs and are consulting on a full range of options for their protection. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the options, which I shall outline briefly: confirmation of the current voluntary agreement; statutory protection of the four closed areas; closure of three larger areas covering 25 square miles of the reefs; and closure of one larger area covering 60 square miles of the reefs.

We will also consider other options based on the information provided in response to the consultation, and we will consider what the right hon. Gentleman has said this evening. The consultation, which we have extended for a couple of weeks to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to make their case, closes on 21 December. I will consider the responses carefully and develop a solution for fisheries management in Lyme bay that helps deliver our vision for sustainable fisheries in tandem with nature conservation. I hope to announce my decision in the new year.

It is important that the right decision is made. Lyme bay could be the flagship for future decisions on marine protected areas policy. The sea is a massive resource that belongs to us all. Only by working together can we achieve a marine environment that is good for nature, recreation and our industries. As we said when we published the White Paper and as the Prime Minister has said, the marine Bill, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, will be the first of its type anywhere in the world. The draft Bill will be published in the spring. There will be consultation on it and it will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. It will be the first such Bill in the world and it is vital that we get it right. This House wants to have input, as does the other place.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I have a simple question. Do we need the Bill in order to act?

Jonathan Shaw: No, we do not; that is why I shall make my decision earlier in the year. However, the Bill will inform future policy.

The Bill will provide a framework in which to consider the interactions to which I have referred and their cumulative impacts on the environment. It will help us to be more efficient in our use of marine space by considering activities that are compatible and even mutually beneficial when put together. It is vital that we take the decision in the context of our wider vision for marine conservation and sustainable fisheries.

Surrounding our island are waters that are among the richest marine environments in the world. It is vital that we bring the conservation standards in our seas up to those that currently apply on land. Given our wonderful marine life, it is amazing that we have not considered that point before. Environmental agencies have campaigned on the issues for 50 years; next year, we will all have the Bill and we look forward to the scrutiny.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that we have a series of well-developed nature reserves on land, and we need to increase the number and extent of
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marine nature reserves in our seas. As the Minister responsible for that area of policy, I am keen to ensure that we protect the many rare, threatened and valuable habitats in our territorial waters.

However, the protection of marine habitats is not the only important factor; the sea is important for a wide range of other reasons. Our climate and the seas surrounding us lend themselves perfectly to a number of renewable energy sources such as wind farms and tidal power schemes, which are seen by many as vital to help us tackle the increasing threat of dangerous climate change. The sea provides us with more significant economic benefits and supports coastal communities through traditional industries such as transport and fishing. It is vital for us to work with stakeholders across the board, and across the country, to ensure that there is space for all those activities while at the same time ensuring that we protect and conserve our marine ecosystems.

As I said, we are keen to protect our traditional industries, such as fishing. Our vision for marine fisheries, “Fisheries 2027”, sets out what we want to
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achieve from fisheries and the essential role played by the fishing industry and others in moving us to a more sustainable footing. We want a fisheries sector that can provide a long-term economic and social benefit not only for the industry but for wider society. It is imperative that, as with any human activity, we ensure that associated environmental impacts are minimised.

I firmly believe that we can balance conservation with economic growth, not only in Lyme bay but throughout the waters of our marine environment. We must agree that those are our goals, and I have no doubt that the Government have the energy and commitment to pursue them vigorously. I am proud to be the fisheries Minister who will bring forward the draft marine Bill and see it into legislation. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this important and timely debate to the House. I will make my decision based on all the information available, including what has been said in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eight o’clock.

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