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In the months ahead, I hope that the Minister will look at ways we can introduce and encourage more sustainable methods of fishing, such as through the use
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of long lines and gill nets. Many vessels in the inshore potting fleet along the Yorkshire coast already use gill nets in winter.

Mr. MacNeil: On a point of information, the hon. Gentleman may know that the Faroese have quite a sizeable long-line fishing fleet. The method seems to work very well for them, so perhaps his fishing fleets could look at adopting it.

Mr. Goodwill: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and the automatic baiting systems and the measures that are in place to protect albatrosses mean that long lining can be very effective.

One problem with the use of gill nets is seal predation. Fishermen can get around that by having the nets out only during short periods of slack water rather than for 24 hours at a time, because in that way it is the nets that do the fishing.

I may be skating on thin ice with this question, but does the Minister feel that the number of seals in the North sea is at a sustainable level? Should there be more of them, or fewer? What level does he think is appropriate? It is a very difficult matter, as every fisherman I have spoken to tells me that there are too many seals in the North sea. That is why I believe that DEFRA should determine what is an ecologically sustainable level for those creatures.

We have heard a lot in the debate about recreational angling, but it is worth noting that many former fishermen now take recreational anglers out to sea. It is therefore not merely a hobby: people earn their living from recreational angling, and it is very important that they are supported.

Concerns have been expressed to me about the proposed marine conservation areas. Will there be areas where no fishing at all will be allowed? Will recreational fishing be allowed? If I were the Minister—many people here may be thankful that I am not—I would be cautious when considering restrictions on fishing from the shore, which is an activity that many people enjoy. In marine conservation areas—those national parks out at sea—it is important to keep the freedom to fish from the land. Let us not forget that in our national parks, one group that contributes to the most sustainable aspects of the environment is the shooting fraternity, which contributes to the environment. It would be a mistake to say that the conservation areas should be complete no-fishing zones.

A lot of environmental damage is done through marine aggregate dredging. The Olympics will require millions of tonnes of gravel, much of which could be dredged from the sea. I am sure that the Minister remembers the Marchioness disaster, in which a pleasure boat was hit by a dredger, the Bowbelle. That dredger was not dredging the Thames and going out to sea to tip; it was bringing in marine aggregate. Big applications have been made that would affect the north-west and southernmost roughs on the Dogger bank. Those are the spawning grounds of our fish, and we should be very careful about that activity.

I mentioned the problem of discards; we really must get to grips with that. Some of the solutions may lie in better fishing methods. Certainly, the Yorkshire fishing
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fleet feels a degree of optimism. After a massive decline in the numbers of vessels and people working in the industry, we are now reaching something like a sustainable level, and we have turned the corner. After Christmas, when the Minister has a bit more time, will he accept my invitation and come to either Scarborough or Whitby, and perhaps spend a day out at sea on a fishing vessel? It is interesting to learn about such things first-hand. I suggest Mr. Gordon Quinn, one of the Whitby skippers; it is quite an education to talk to him, never mind go out to sea with him. I wish the Minister luck in his negotiations. He certainly has my good wishes, and I hope that he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors.

5.12 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I always want to come along to such debates and speak on behalf of the fishermen of Hastings and Rye. The issue excites me because I have always lived in Hastings and Rye—well, Hastings, anyway—and the fishermen are an integral part of our local community. They are the true conservationists. For centuries, they have exercised their birthright to fish in the channel as inshore fishermen, and to bring prosperity not just to their society but to the wider community. That is at risk. Last year, I said it might be the last year that that happened, unless something changed. Thankfully, the industry has survived to face another Christmas, thanks to a good stock of sole that has come late in the year. The consequence is that the fishermen are still in business—but only just.

Last year, at a meeting with Tony Blair—the then Prime Minister—Paul Joy, Graham Coglan and Ronnie Simmons, from local fishermen’s societies, explained just how dire the circumstances were. That was accepted by Tony Blair, who asked the then Minister if he could do something about it. Today, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister; he came to Hastings and Thanet and looked at the situation, and he has accepted that we needed to take action. Now we need to take it.

What action needs to be taken? Of course, we congratulate the Minister on his fortitude, but also on his ambitions for the forthcoming EU discussions and debate. I am sure that he will do the best job that he can, but we know in reality that the amount of stock available will still be very limited. We also know that that will leave the under-10 m fishing fleets in enormous difficulties. Let me briefly explain why I say that the situation in towns such as Hastings and Rye is dire. Both our local fleets consist of about 32 boats. Those are small numbers; in the great scheme of the economy, that is not big, but the fleets are important to the local economy, both for tourism and beyond. If they got their whole catch—all the cod, plaice and sole that they were permitted to catch—it would bring each boat £400 a week, despite the good prices in the past year. That money has to maintain two or three workers, plus the boys ashore—the people who help on land—and it must pay, too, for the cost of fuel and maintenance of the boat. It works out at a wage of about £90, which is not sustainable. The fleet is accredited as a sustainable fleet, but an income of £100 a week is economically unsustainable. I have thrown my prepared speech on the Bench, because every year I come to the Chamber with a 20-minute speech but I have only six minutes in which to make my contribution.

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With such a limited ability, fishing in my constituency cannot continue unless something is done. It is simply unsustainable to maintain fishing fleets in the under-10 m sector unless they are allowed a higher quota. The Minister gave the figures this week. Some 640 vessels in the over-10 m sector share 96 per cent. of the allocation, and 2,379 under-10 m vessels share just 3 per cent. They do not all go to sea—perhaps only a third do so—but even if they did, the calculation of 96:3 is simply unacceptable, and it will be challenged. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that if the problem is not sorted out, people will ask the courts to make a decision about whether such distribution is legal.

This is an historic problem. It has not suddenly arisen, but it requires a contemporary answer. I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the history of how it all happened. There was plenty of fish when the distributions were originally made, and the over-10 m sector which, in turn, gave rise to producer organisations, was given a share of the quota based on its track record or catch. Unfortunately, the under-10 m fleet, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) has reminded us, did not sit at the table, because it was not invited to the party. The then Government therefore handed out 96 per cent. of the catch to the big boys—perhaps that is why big fish are their particular interest—and left 3 per cent. to be distributed by the administration among the vast number of smaller vessels. That was wrong then, and it has become wronger, as there are fewer fish now.

May I bring to my hon. Friend’s attention, too, the fact that those Governments who decommissioned vessels did so only in the over-10 m sector? Consequently—and quite rightly—there is more stock to share out. However, it is not shared out across the industry; it is shared out in the over-10 m sector. As that policy, with which I do not disagree, is carried out, more stock per boat is shared out in the over-10 m sector, but nothing has happened in the under-10 m sector. It is a wrong on a wrong, which simply must change. The Minister may well decide to introduce decommissioning in the under-10 m sector as a solution, but that is not the entire answer. Because of those historic ills, I encourage him to take early action, as it is morally justifiable to find more of a share for the under-10 m sector.

The sector needs that share because of economic factors, and because of the problem of discards. There is a dispute between scientists and fishermen, and on Hastings beach people say that there is so much cod in the English channel they can walk on it. [ Interruption. ] Well, perhaps some of them have supernatural powers. However, there is plenty of cod, and fishermen are discarding more in the sea than they are taking out, which is disgraceful. I believe that we should never kill animals except for food—I am a member of the anti-hunt brigade—and it is almost as immoral to throw back good food and thus waste it as it is to chase foxes. I hope that will encourage my hon. Friend to act, as we have to do something about the problem. The solution is probably to allow the fish at least to be brought aboard rather than discarded, and decide what we do about it after that. In Hastings we have the best fed seagulls in Christendom because there is so much dead fish along the coast. That has to stop.

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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I hope very much that there will be a solution before next year and that I will be here, still speaking for an industry in Hastings and Rye.

5.19 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): For the west of Scotland fleet, the mainstay stock is nephrops. The nephrops stock was not scientifically assessed this year. However, the latest scientific assessment, which was presented in last year’s scientific evidence from ICES, showed healthy nephrops stocks all the way along the west coast of Scotland.

For example, quoting from the ICES advice, in the North Minch, nephrops stocks increased sharply between 2001 and 2003. The higher level of abundance in 2003 was maintained in the most recent survey. In the South Minch, the population fluctuated without trend between 1995 and 2000, but remained more stable and at a slightly higher level from 2001 to 2003. A further increase in abundance in 2004 was maintained in the latest survey.

The results of television surveys in the waters beneath the firth of Clyde suggest that the population of nephrops has increased steadily since 1999, with the latest estimate being the highest in the series. A similar survey in the sound of Jura suggested that the nephrops population had been fairly stable during the previous five years. In the sea lochs where there are important creel fisheries, the surveys also show that the stocks are strong. So, without doubt, the nephrops stocks are healthy.

Scientific investigation has shown that by-catches of cod when fishing for nephrops are low in the waters off the west of Scotland. The fishermen there have for a long time been practising a real-time closure. In the spring, when there is a concentration of spawning cod in the firth of Clyde, the spawning area is rightly closed to fishing boats in order to preserve stocks.

Given all the scientific evidence that the nephrops stocks are healthy and the cod by-catch is very low, and given the real-time closure, there is no excuse for cutting the nephrops fishing effort. Despite all this, much to the dismay of the west of Scotland fishermen, the Commission has proposed a massive 25 per cent. reduction in days at sea for the west of Scotland nephrops fleet. That is totally unjustified and is not based on any scientific evidence. I urge the Minister to ensure that the proposal is rejected out of hand at the Council meeting.

A related issue that I raised with the Minister at the all-party group is the need to restore the 28 days at sea that were removed last year from the west of Scotland 70-89 mm fishing vessels that catch less than 5 per cent. by weight of cod. Those 28 days were deducted after last year’s December Council. The Clyde Fishermen’s Association has told me that the deduction was applied as a result of an administrative error and was applied by mistake, not by intent. The CFA told me that the Scottish marine directorate agreed that an error had been made and did its best to get the Commission to correct the situation, but that has not happened.

Mr. MacNeil: The deduction occurred as a result of an error in the translation of documents, and has had a serious material effect for fishermen. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing it to light.

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Mr. Reid: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The error has certainly had a serious effect. I urge the Minister to ensure that it is corrected at this year’s Council and that those 28 days are restored. There should be a mechanism for correcting administrative errors during the year, without having to wait till the next Council.

There is widespread agreement that the annual horse trading at the EU December Council is no way to manage our fisheries. As was said by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), many of the voting participants come from landlocked countries and have no interest in fishing. We must move away from that annual horse trading to regional management by those who have a stake in the future of the industry.

This year’s proposal from the Commission of a 25 per cent. cut in days at sea would leave the west of Scotland fleet in an unsustainable position and is completely unjustified. Given how the negotiations work, I suspect that the proposal is a negotiating position and that the Commission is actually looking for a smaller reduction. However, we should not fall for that; there is simply no reason for any reduction whatever, and I hope that the Minister will resist the proposal. Since he secured his post, the Minister has engaged constructively with the industry and the all-party group and I wish him all the best at his first EU Council, which will be an interesting experience and unlike anything he has experienced.

I conclude by emphasising again that the Minister must make every effort to ensure that there are no cuts in days at sea for the west of Scotland nephrops fleets.

5.25 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I was pleased to contribute to last year’s fisheries debate and remind the House that fisheries are not just the preserve of the commercial sector, but provide the resource on which recreational angling depends. I welcome the opportunity—admittedly, I have only a few minutes—to update hon. Members on developments in freshwater fisheries. I particularly want to highlight the work of the fisheries section of the Environment Agency. I also want to draw Members’ attention to the work of the Anglers’ Conservation Association, of which I am a member; I declare that interest.

I welcome the Minister to his first fisheries debate. I was delighted that he made a number of references to the importance of recreational angling; that point was replicated across the Chamber. Being Fisheries Minister is not easy; after all, the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), said:

wise words from a politician who has scars on his back as a result of having done the job. I wish the Minister well, and if he is short of bedtime reading during the Christmas holidays, I heartily recommend “End of the Line” by Charles Clover—a fairly apocalyptic snapshot of the state of the ocean’s fisheries in particular.

I turn briefly to the work of the Environment Agency. Hon. Members will be aware that it is the lead body for protecting and improving the freshwater
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environment. Not only does it regulate, enforce and prosecute the users and abusers of our waterways, but it is charged with increasing participation in angling.

I hope that the Minister has had the opportunity to read two important documents from the agency. The first, “Our Nation’s Fisheries”, gives a useful snapshot of the state of freshwater stocks. The overall picture is reasonably encouraging, but behind the generalisations there are serious concerns. Coarse fish numbers are increasing in many of our rivers. In the most recent survey, fish were present at more than 98 per cent. of sites and 50 per cent. of sites contained eight or more species. That is a big improvement on a decade ago, when many more rivers were grossly polluted and their fish communities were restricted to a few or a couple of species. However, salmon stocks have been seriously depleted, and stocks of multi-sea winter fish particularly so. In 2002, 70 per cent. of rivers failed to meet their conservation limit, and 46 per cent. achieved less than half the limit. As the Minister will be aware, the news is not all bad. Salmon stocks on some previously polluted rivers, including the Tyne, the Tees and rivers of the south Wales valleys, have recovered dramatically. However, there is no cause for complacency.

I hope that the Minister has also had the opportunity to look at “Fishing for the Future”, the angling participation strategy produced by the Environment Agency. The agency draws attention to its new statutory obligation to maintain, improve and develop salmon and freshwater fisheries. It has a participation target, which aims to deliver an extra 100,000 anglers by 2010. In the past three years, it has exceeded that target. Licence sales have risen and angling is doing well under Labour; we are catching bigger and more fish—at least I am.

However—here is the rub—there is the issue of DEFRA grant in aid, which I raised in DEFRA questions earlier. A properly funded fisheries budget for the Environment Agency is crucial. I urge the Minister to consider what has happened to the ratio between funding for EA fisheries work delivered through the rod licence income and that delivered through grant in aid. In 1995, 44 per cent. of the total budget came from grant in aid and 52 per cent. from rod licence income. Now, 29 per cent. of the budget is delivered through grant in aid and 68 per cent. through rod licence income. Contrast that with navigation, where grant in aid has increased from £8.3 million in 2004-05 to £13.3 million in 2006-07. It is clearly unfair for the increased burden to be borne by rod licence holders.

I wish to turn to the excellent work of the Anglers Conservation Association. Not all that is done to protect our rivers, streams and canals is done by the Environment Agency—anglers have been putting their hands in their pockets for years. The ACA was established in 1948, backed with funds of just £200. Three years later, it forced a city corporation to spend £1.8 million, worth £30 million at today’s prices, on a new sewage works to prevent pollution. This year alone, it has settled 30 legal cases concerning pollution with sewage, pesticides, sediment, fertiliser and slurry. It has lost only three cases in its 60-year history, and just this week successfully negotiated £500,000 in compensation from Thames Water for its disgraceful pollution of the beautiful River Wandle, London’s only chalk stream within the boundary of the
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M25. I wish the ACA well; it is a great shame that only about 10,000 of Britain’s 2.5 million freshwater anglers are members.

Hon. Members will be pleased to know that the constituent parts of recreational angling—the National Federation of Anglers, the Specialist Anglers Alliance, the Salmon and Trout Association, the ACA and the Association of Rivers Trusts—have finally come together to provide a united voice for angling. It is important that angling, as a guardian of the waterways, is able to punch its weight in this place and elsewhere.

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