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6 Dec 2007 : Column 1049

It should be borne in mind that the improvement has not been achieved without pain. The United Kingdom white fish effort in the North sea since 2000 has declined by 70 per cent., and in the west of Scotland it has declined by 80 per cent. I am privileged to serve on the national council of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and I often speak to lifeboat crews in different parts of the country. They tell me that they are increasingly called to incidents involving boats with problems at sea. Ten years ago, that simply would not have happened: a fishing boat would have been within range and would have gone to help the boat that was in trouble. The fact that that task now falls to the RNLI is a mark of the change that the industry has undergone.

At a time when attention has suddenly focused on discards, I think the House and all parties should bear in mind the real pain that fishing communities and the fishing industry have undergone in the past when the subject was not quite so politically interesting—certainly not sufficiently interesting to attract the attention of the “Today” programme.

There are, of course, a range of other external pressures on the industry. One of the main pressures on the fishing fleet in my constituency is the high cost of fuel, which is having a serious impact. Fishermen in this country look with some envy and not a little irritation at the situation across the channel, where the French Government are giving fuel subsidies to their fleet. When I raised the matter with Commissioner Borg when I was in Brussels last week, no real answer was forthcoming. The Minister may wish to pursue it with the Commissioner at the December Council.

The industry is also still immensely over-regulated. I was amused to read the following observation in the brief supplied by the Northern Ireland Fishermen’s Federation:

I want to say a few words on the recent EU-Norway settlement, to which the Minister has made reference today. He is right to say that the increases in the cod and saithe total allowable catch figures, in particular, are very welcome. They are not, however, the whole picture, which is immensely complex and still very challenging, not least because the increases for cod and saithe have been coupled with cuts in the TACs for whiting and haddock. Therefore, on the one hand something good is given, but on the other hand something good is taken away.

One benefit of the cod increase is that it affords us an opportunity to tackle in a realistic way the question of discard switch, which I am delighted to say has now found its proper place higher up the political agenda. At Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions today, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) said he risked incurring the wrath of the fishing industry—no doubt the fishermen of Croydon will have been listening closely to what he had to say, and he will be accountable to them for his comments—by drawing attention to the question of discards. On the contrary, the fishing industry has been trying to draw attention to discards for as long as I have been involved
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in politics, and doubtless for some substantial length of time before that. Discards are representative of a situation where quotas do not reflect the balance of the amount of fish in the sea. That is a fundamental problem, especially when dealing with a mixed fishery such as the North sea white fish fishery. Allied to that, I urge the Minister to resist the argument that because there has been an increase in the cod and saithe TACs there should be a commensurate reduction in effort, in particular in terms of days at sea.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): On days at sea, is my hon. Friend aware that the Commissioner proposed a 25 per cent. cut in days at sea for the west of Scotland nephrops fleet—a cut that is not borne out by the scientific advice, which is that nephrops stocks are healthy and the cod by-catch is insignificant? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister must resist that 25 per cent. cut at the Fisheries Council?

Mr. Carmichael: I cannot fault my hon. Friend’s argument. The position with regard to west coast nephrops is particularly clamant. As he has pointed out, there is a negligible cod by-catch, and the sustainability of the nephrops stock—the Scottish langoustine, I think we are now supposed to call them—in the west of Scotland has not been questioned, as far as I am aware. The cut that the EU Commission proposes seems, therefore, to fly in the face of its own science.

The days-at-sea issue will be crucial to the success or failure of the Minister’s visit to Brussels. The devil lies in the detail. At first sight, the proposal appears to be a roll-over in terms of effort, inasmuch as it takes up the question of administrative penalties, and if one buys into administrative penalties one ends up with the same number of days at sea. The Scottish fleet also has a significant number of extra days given to it by virtue of its previous decommissioning effort. However, if the Minister looks at the baseline figures he will see that there is a cut of somewhere in the region of 10 per cent. in that. This might achieve a roll-over for the days at sea this year, but it could stack up problems for us in years to come. I ask the Minister to resist vigorously the cut in the baseline figures in relation to days at sea.

As the Minister observed, a number of other species are available in a white fish fishery, and I commend him on his efforts in drawing attention to that. May I draw his attention to another species, the North sea megrim. The UK position is for a 15 per cent. increase in the total allowable catch of megrim in the North sea. The evidence that I hear from the fishing industry throughout Scotland is that the discard levels suggest that a much larger increase in the TAC could be sustained.

Will the Minister ensure that his officials examine the question of megrim before he goes to Brussels? It is particularly galling for fishermen to have to chuck lots of megrim over the side—it is a high-value species, and fishermen in my constituency get about £5 to £6 a kilo for megrim, which is more than they get even for monkfish. It would be unfortunate not to have a TAC in place when there are fish that will be of value, particularly when the industry’s margins are as pressured as they are. There is also a growing biomass of hake in the North sea, but no quota, and let us have no further salami-slicing on species such as lemon sole,
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because year-on-year cuts seem to be made simply for the sake of it, and without any science to back them up.

The pelagic fleet has been a mainstay of Scottish fishing communities in recent years, and I cannot overestimate its importance. In recent years it has kept what onshore business we have going. The proposal this year is for a 42 per cent. cut in North sea herring and a 9 per cent. cut in North sea mackerel. My concern—this is perhaps where the approach of the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) becomes particularly unhelpful—is that there is a substantial disjunction between how the scientists see the health of the stock and how the industry sees it. It is not clear who is right, and I suspect that, as ever, the truth may lie somewhere between the two extremes. The mackerel stock is of particular importance to the pelagic fleet, and if a cut is made where none is necessary, its impact would be particularly severe. There is little cheerfulness or optimism in the pelagic fleet. In my constituency, I have heard rumours of at least two boats considering selling out. If they do, they will sell out to boats outside the United Kingdom, and once gone, they will be gone for ever; we know that from experience in other sectors.

An obvious compromise could be made on mackerel. The Minister may not be able to get what the industry wants, and I accept that there are difficulties in that. Will he negotiate from the position that there needs to be a comprehensive review of the science? There is precedent for that. Will he also negotiate some in-year flexibility for the fleet, because experience tells us—I think particularly of the situation that faced monkfish fishermen in south-west England a few years ago—that as the year progresses it can become apparent that the science on which the quota and the TAC was based was not accurate, and that there is an abundance of fish. Such is the importance of mackerel to the Scottish pelagic fleet that every effort should be made to ensure that any cuts are absolutely necessary in the interests of sustainability, and can be revisited in the course of the year. As I say, there are precedents for that.

I could doubtless concentrate on other aspects of the industry—but I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak.

Bill Wiggin: Sit down then.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman, who gave us 18 minutes on the subject of sea angling and bass, asks me to sit down. It makes me long for the days when the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) was the fisheries spokesperson for the Conservative party—although one would not have put good money on my saying that when she was doing the job.

The Minister goes to Brussels with our best wishes. It is in the interests of all parties, all the communities that rely on fishing for their economic viability, and all who care about the sustainability of fish stocks, that he should be successful.

4.54 pm

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I wish to associate myself with the comments made by all contributors to the debate about the sacrifices by fishermen and the services provided to the industry by others.

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The general impression given by representatives of the industry is that things are better than they have been for some time. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) rightly reminded us of the sacrifices that have been made over the last few years, with the amount of decommissioning and the impact that it has had on the industry. However, fish are getting a good price at the market just now and the Minister makes an important point about a culture change in the industry. For many years, the leaders of the industry were way ahead of their membership in advocating environmental changes and talking about sustainability, but that has now permeated the industry. It has been a substantial culture change. There is now a real focus on quality of fish and a much closer relationship with the scientists, including a willingness to be involved in experimentation on real-time closures and gear changes, which is very significant. The industry, certainly in Scotland and, I am sure, elsewhere, is becoming much more pro-active.

There is some concern at how the Council negotiations will pan out. It is the usual lottery. No matter how good the prospects might be—especially for the agreement with Norway on cod quotas—there is always concern about how they will operate. The Scottish industry would obviously like to see a fair outcome, and has raised three particular points with me. First, given the across-the-board cuts in herring and mackerel, an equitable settlement for the west of Scotland herring TAC is essential to the Scottish pelagic industry. Secondly, it wants agreement on a more precise means of continuing cod recovery by an elevated TAC to avoid discards, and a package of cod avoidance measures to reduce cod mortality. Thirdly, the industry wants a firm agreement on effort control or days at sea for the fleet sectors covered by the cod recovery plan restrictions.

My main interest in the industry is on the processing side. We do not have very many fish catches left in the Aberdeen harbour and things have not been so good for the processors. The reduction in the fleet in the past few years has meant a vastly reduced supply of raw material. The processors are now part of a global market, in which there is much more intense competition. Some other countries can process at much lower cost than we can.

In the Aberdeen area, there have been 50 per cent. job losses and several company closures in the industry, but to balance that, the situation does appear to be bottoming out. The North East Fishermen’s Training Association, which provides in-service training for people in the processing industry, has seen 700 trainees complete their training in the past six months, and there are still 1,000 jobs in Aberdeen.

One of the major problems for the industry was that while the fishing fleet received compensation from Government to help them through the difficult times of decommissioning, nothing was given to the processing sector. That is still a problem and the industry has had to cope with several other serious problems, not the least of which were new environmental health and food processing regulations, which have required massive investment. Although there is a sense that things are bottoming out, there are still more difficulties to come.

The Sea Fish Industry Authority has done a significant amount over the past few years to help the industry through its difficult times. The authority
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sponsors the training course I mentioned earlier. I congratulate it on the work that it does in the industry. There is some controversy at the moment, not least in the city of Aberdeen, about some of the proposals for training in the industry over the next few years, but I am sure that the matter will resolve itself.

The nephrops catch has been mentioned quite a lot. One of the issues that the Sea Fish Industry Authority has raised with me is the significant problem of dealing with shellfish waste. There are masses of regulations on the disposal of waste and a huge number of bodies seem to be involved. According to the list I have in front of me, for England alone the bodies include DEFRA, Animal Health, the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency and local authorities. The industry feels that it is in some difficulty. It has looked at various forms of disposal of the waste from processing shellfish. Landfill is not an option and neither is in-house treatment, because there are major legal restrictions and high costs. The industry has looked at other waste disposal outlets, but there seems to be a lack of suitable alternatives. Utilisation at sea is permitted only for certain shell types. In relation to land application, there are huge legal restrictions. The product needs treatment before it can be used in that way and the costs are enormous. Will the Minister look at this issue? It is a serious problem for the industry.

On the progress of the marine Bill, we hear, particularly from the voluntary sector in Scotland, that there are some difficulties with the Scottish Executive when it comes to agreeing elements of the Bill. I understand that there will be reserved matters and devolved matters. I hope that agreement can be reached quickly on the marine Bill.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) made the most extraordinary speech. He seemed to suggest that if we had a Tory Government, there would be more and bigger fish in the sea. That is a huge change compared with what we heard from the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). In fact, for most of the past 10 years, the Tory policy on fishing has been to pull out of the common fisheries policy. We do not hear that much any more, so I assume that particular Tory policy has been dumped. If getting the right Government means bigger and more fish in the sea, that is quite extraordinary. I have brought my children up to believe that, under a Labour Government, there is more sunshine, but at least I have some evidence for that: the city of Aberdeen has been the sunniest place in Britain for two out of the last three years. I am waiting to see the evidence of the hon. Member for Leominster.

5.2 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): It certainly has not been too sunny in No. 10 Downing street in recent weeks.

Many people in my constituency come from a proud tradition of those who have earned their living on the sea. Members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have continued to put themselves in harm’s way to help those who are in mortal peril. Recently, there was a tragic case in the entrance to Whitby harbour, and the lifeboat men were called. Many who join the RNLI do not come from a fishing tradition but have jobs on land. Sadly, our fishing fleet is now much depleted and the
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fish-processing jobs on land are also in decline. I am pleased to say that one area has been wiped out entirely: the whaling fleet that used to ply its trade from Whitby. I hope that, when the Minister goes to other negotiations, he will make sure that that situation remains the same in other parts of the world—in particular with regard to the humpback whale, which should continue to be protected.

Captain James Cook set sail in 1768 on the Endeavour to view the transit of Venus and to rediscover New Zealand and Australia. The Endeavour was built in Whitby. I am pleased to be able to start with a good news story and to say that shipbuilding is alive and well in Whitby. Parkol Marine Engineering Ltd goes from strength to strength, and it launched its 21st boat, the 175-tonne Radiant Star, on 17 November. At 22.8 m, the vessel is 0.5 m longer than the Our Lass II, which was built for Locker Trawlers Ltd. of Whitby. Parkol Marine employs 25 workers and has a healthy order book, with two twin-rigged trawlers on order for Fraserburgh and an 80 m crabber on order for the Orkneys.

If the Minister is interested in visiting Parkol Marine, he should come up to Whitby and see a launch. It is a spectacular operation, with a massive crane from the Netherlands being used to lift the boat off the quay and into the water. If he likes a good party, he should try and come when the Orkneymen are in town for a launch. He might even take the opportunity to come out to sea with one of the potting vessels, when he could see the discards being returned to the waters. That is a real problem, but one of the realities of life.

The cod fleet is much depleted, with 10 full-time trawlers in Whitby and a similar number in Scarborough. The message from the fishermen that discards are a criminal waste is loud and clear. They do not just resent the money that they see being thrown away, but the fact that it is good fish that are being thrown back. This year, the scientists recommended a 15 per cent. increase in cod quota, but the Fisheries Council went for a freeze and that may be one reason why there have been so many discards.

The Commission has plumped for an 11 per cent. increase in the cod quota next year, and I hope that the Minister will hold the line on that, no matter what some other EU countries say. I have spent some time negotiating in other sectors within the EU, so may I advise him that he should watch out for some countries that one might not expect to have a view on fisheries? Countries that do not even have a coastline may have done deals with Spain or other fishing nations, and he may find that they have strong views as a result. Perhaps some of the skills that he developed in the Government Whips Office will prove to be of help with them.

As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, there should be no reduction in days at sea, as that would be a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. One fisherman told me today that the industry could live with the 25 per cent. cut in whiting and haddock quotas as long as the Government hold the line on the cod catch. Everybody says that stocks are improving, and prices have risen over the past 12 months.

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