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6 Feb 2008 : Column 300WH—continued

We are involved with the European Union. I am referring to the Commission’s policy to ensure that there is better reporting and that better processes are in place so that we can reduce illegal and unreported fishing in the world. Companies such as Youngs Bluecrest in Grimsby will be able to demonstrate, from the trawl to the processing factory, where their fish have been caught. There are standards, which is important, not least because the consumer wants to ensure that there are good environmental standards. That is part of the equation. If we can reduce illegal fishing across the
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world, there is likely to be a correlation with the amount of by-catch and we will reduce dolphin mortality in that way.

Andrew George: What conversations and discussions has the Minister had with his European counterparts, particularly the French, whom I mentioned earlier? They tell me that they are following the 2004 regulation, but I have not seen much evidence to show that they are taking measures to reduce dolphin by-catch in the pair trawl industry.

Jonathan Shaw: I just wanted to give some perspective on a wider scale and explain what we are trying to do with the common fisheries policy in engaging countries, particularly African countries, that are subject to massive illegal and unreported fishing. They do not have the resources to police their fishing areas properly. I will come to the French in due course.

We know that populations of some cetaceans in UK waters have remained steady over the past decade, but we must not be complacent. That is why the UK has been among the most active of countries in taking steps to ensure that these highly valued species are properly protected.

Cetaceans in UK waters are protected by both domestic and European legislation. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the habitats regulations offer a strict system of protection for cetaceans in our territorial waters. Last year, we introduced the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 2007 and that strict protection now extends to our offshore area.

The UK is a party to the agreement on the conservation of small cetaceans in the Baltic and North seas and to the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic. That is the OSPAR—Oslo and Paris—convention. We continue to be committed to achieving the aims of those agreements through co-operation in research and management measures to conserve cetaceans.

In addition to delivering strict legal protection for cetaceans and co-operating under international agreements, the UK Government have provided some £5.3 million of funding for cetacean research since 1995. To obtain a clearer picture of cetacean abundance and distribution, we have contributed £500,000 to two important survey projects: SCANS II and the CODA—cetacean offshore distribution and abundance—project. Those studies have provided us with a clearer understanding of the abundance and distribution of cetaceans in both UK and European waters.

To understand better the causes of cetacean mortality, approximately £2.3 million has been spent on a scheme for recording the incidence of stranded cetaceans around the UK. That ongoing research, co-ordinated by the Institute of Zoology, provides important data on trends in cetacean mortality. It is the most comprehensive and well funded scheme of its type in Europe. I will ask for details of it and provide that information to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he will find it interesting. The reports from the research over the past three years suggest that the level of strandings has remained relatively
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constant. In fact, preliminary results for 2007 suggest a decline in the number of reported strandings that equates to 200 animals.

Although abundance estimates tell us that populations of studied cetaceans in UK waters have remained steady over the past 10 years, our research on strandings tells us that those species continue to be impacted by certain human activities. We realise that the by-catch of cetaceans in some fisheries is a problem. The Government are committed to working towards reducing that cause of cetacean mortality. That is why we provided an additional £1.6 million for the period 2000 to 2005 for research into cetacean by-catch and associated mitigation measures. Again, that research is ongoing.

In 2003, we published the UK small cetacean by-catch response strategy, which set out our approach to addressing cetacean mortality through fisheries by-catch. Since then, we have continued to work at home and in Europe to implement measures to mitigate the causes of by-catch. The UK has a comprehensive by-catch monitoring scheme, which allows for observers, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, to monitor levels of by-catch per haul in a number of fisheries. That work gives us a better understanding of which fisheries are impacting on cetaceans. We use that information to make annual reports to the European Commission on observed by-catch levels in various fisheries.

The UK’s last by-catch monitoring report to the European Commission estimates that between 2005 and 2006, 460 to 730 porpoises and 410 to 610 common dolphins were killed in pelagic trawl and static net fisheries off south and west England. The abundance estimates that we have for harbour porpoises and common dolphins in UK waters suggest populations in the hundreds of thousands. Given those estimates, the level of by-catch monitored does not suggest that by-catch by the UK fleet represents a significant conservation threat for these species in UK waters.

Andrew George: Does the Minister accept that some of these populations are not as migratory or mobile as perhaps some of those estimates suggest? The decline of some of the very localised inshore populations gives cause for concern. I hope that he will support efforts to research that issue and to support the Wildlife Trust in doing so.

Jonathan Shaw: We need to ensure that we have the best available information. I will certainly have that further conversation with the hon. Gentleman when I go to the south-west.

With regard to activity by French fishing vessels, it is of course for each member state to monitor its own vessels and to report back to the Commission. We have taken the unilateral action of banning pair trawling, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. We argued our case vigorously, but the Commission did not support that. We will continue to argue our case in Europe because we believe that that is the right thing to do. I will keep the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the House apprised of our progress on that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned pingers. Research is being done on that. There is not an effective pinger system at the moment, although we expect new developments, which we want to trial with the industry. His point about co-operation is key to reducing by-catch
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mortality. There must be a partnership and it must be one of mutual understanding from all sides if it is to be successful.

We must be vigilant in addressing other potential threats to cetacean populations. There has been work to assess the potential impact of undersea noise, for example. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee has published guidance for operators in the oil and gas industry. The habitats directive imposes important regulations for conservation purposes.

We have in place a number of different strands of legislation. Our commitment is shown by the money
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that we have put in. We do not rest on our laurels. We know that there is more work to do. There is pressure on the Government. That is right, because these beautiful creatures need conserving and preserving and we want to see their populations grow.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. It was a necessary one for us to have in the House and I look forward to having discussions with him in the beautiful county of Cornwall next week.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Five o’clock.

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