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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 July 2008

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Fishing Industry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

9.30 am

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It is good to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr. Weir. Perhaps you could have arranged a breakfast of Arbroath smokies for us to start our day with.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Send us a fiver and I’ll see what I can do.

Sir Alan Beith: I shall concentrate this morning on Northumberland fishing and under-10m boats. Colleagues from other parts of the country will raise other matters. It is good to have the opportunity to look at the state of an industry that is experiencing serious difficulties. We are all interested in what the Minister has to say, and I hope that he will have adequate time to cover the points that will be made in the debate.

I am very conscious of the decline in our fishing industry in Northumberland in recent years. Traditionally, it is concentrated on two larger ports, Amble and Seahouses. The latter has nothing like the number of boats it used to have, and, in fact, Amble has outgrown it in the number of boats frequently fishing. There are also smaller villages such as Boulmer and Holy Island, and a few boats fish out of Berwick. Beadnell is traditionally a fishing area, but the industry has declined there. Many people still depend for their livelihood on the fishing industry, but if things go on as they are, the industry is in danger of virtually disappearing, apart from a few part-time fishermen.

That would be a serious loss to the economy of Northumberland and to the character of fishing communities and the villages from which fishing takes place. Visitors, who are an increasingly important part of the economy in our area, value seeing the fishing industry at work. Fishing assists tourism in our area and has a useful secondary effect, in addition to the production of food, which is the essential function of the industry. Locally sourced food and fish are important from an environmental point of view and, again, positive for tourism, because our restaurants and hotels can continue to serve local food. It is much appreciated by those who enjoy eating in the restaurants and hotels in my constituency.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): I thank the right hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on bringing this important subject to the House before it rises for the recess. Like him, I have a small fishing industry in my constituency, which includes a number of very small boats. Does he share my horror at the fact that more fish are discarded in European waters—thrown back,
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dead, which does nothing for food production or the environment—than are landed legally every year? When are we going to tackle that?

Sir Alan Beith: I shall indeed talk about the discard problem, because it is a perverse effect of attempts at conservation policy that results in many fish being thrown back into the sea with little or no prospect of survival. The discard policy has many drawbacks, particularly for the under-10m fleet. Much the largest part of my local fishing fleet is in that group. Larger boats that were traditionally based locally tend now to operate out of Eyemouth and North Shields, from where many other larger boats operate. Recently, nearly all smaller boats in Amble have been fishing out of Eyemouth for prawns, where the prospects have been better in the past couple of months.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentioned a number of small fishing ports on the Northumberland coast. He will also be aware that fishing continues out of Newbiggin, and that a small number of boats go out of Blyth. Does he agree that the under-10m boats are not the problem, and that, indeed, they could be the solution to the problem of unsustainable fishing? They are mainly family-run, and those families are determined to ensure that the fish stocks are sustained so that children and grandchildren can take over the boats. Does he agree that we should seek to increase the quotas on those boats, not reduce them?

Sir Alan Beith: I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. Of course, I have meetings with some of the fishermen that he talked about, including the Newbiggin and Blyth men, and discuss fisheries in Northumberland with them. Those fishermen have small boats and are traditionally-minded. They want to see a future for their families in the fishing industry, but often the next generation says, “Look, dad, there’s not much prospect for us, so we’d better go in for something else.” The population of those in the fishing industry is ageing.

It costs at least £160 in fuel simply to take a small boat out for a day’s fishing. Fishermen are finding that they cannot even earn the cost of the fuel because they cannot land the fish that they catch, which are plentiful, and they cannot catch the fish that they are allowed to catch because they are not plentiful at the moment. One of the few things that helped our fishing industry to survive was prawns, but lately, in the immediate vicinity, they have not been especially plentiful. In previous years, they were helpful, and as I said earlier, some of the Amble boats have been going for prawns out of Eyemouth rather than fishing locally.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I apologise in advance for being unable to stay for the full duration. In my part of the world, the problem is not so much lack of fish, but lack of quota and the cost of fuel—many boats have to steam out 200 miles to be able to commence fishing. We use fisheries grants to assist with land-based jobs and the development of the fishing industry, but does he agree that it is crucial to invest in more fuel-efficient methods to help the industry through an extremely difficult period?

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Sir Alan Beith: My hon. Friend makes an important point about a factor that particularly affects larger boats because of the distances that they steam in order to fish. However—I shall return to this point—there could be a problem if we simply make more, larger boats, and make them more fuel efficient and economical so that they can catch yet more fish, while the small, relatively fuel-efficient boats remain excluded because the larger boats have the quotas. There could be a danger in doing that. I am in favour of fuel efficiency for large and small boats alike, but we must be careful not to produce unintended consequences. The fishing industry has experienced far too many of those from all sorts of policies. Small boats could unintentionally be further squeezed by such a policy.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman might well be coming to this point, but is not the real problem the unfair distribution of the quota? There is 3 per cent. for the under-10m boats, which make up 50 per cent. of the work force; and 96 per cent. for over-10m boats, which make up the other 50 per cent. of the work force. That is unfair. The Minister has expressed sympathy, but is it not about time that some action was taken to redistribute the quota?

Sir Alan Beith: I was coming on to the lack of quota for small-boat fisheries.

The situation became especially serious earlier this year—not for the first time—and came to a head in April and May, when fishermen in the north-east received notices that North sea whiting, skate and ray fishing would close; that North sea cod would be decreased from 2 tonnes to 100 kg per calendar month from Thursday 1 May; and that North sea plaice faced a similarly drastic decrease. The House can imagine the impact of that notice. Fishermen were saying, “There is absolutely nothing that we can go out for. If there are no prawns, what else can we do?” It led to anger in the fishing community and there were protests. Many people got in touch with me about their individual plight. I put some proposals to the Minister about what could be done, some of which are coming to fruition, although others are not. I hope that he will talk about those later. The notice led to despair in the industry, because people were not allowed to catch the fish that were there, but they were allowed to catch fish that were not there, and they would incur high fuel costs going for any fish. As I say, it was a moment of real despair.

That background relates to the problem of historical records. The Department had no data for the under-10 m fleet, and the quota problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) derived from that lack of historical data. Fishermen in the under-10m fleet felt keenly that that was grossly unfair. They represent a significant number of those who earn their livelihoods from the fishing industry, but they have a ridiculously nominal element of the whiting quota, which is so important to them. That needs to change. We need an admission that the figures used to calculate the original quota for the under-10m sector were plain wrong: they were unfair, they did not reflect the well managed, small-scale historical fishing effort by the under-10m boats, and they have allowed a great injustice to persist.

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There are various ways in which the problem could be solved. The under-10m boats could be given a period without quota, during which collection analysis could be carried out and they could be issued with new quota. Alternatively, that could be combined with a days-at-sea restriction on small boats. When a more general days-at-sea proposal was introduced, it was received with great anger by the fishing industry, but the situation is now so desperate that the industry is asking to be given a days-at-sea restriction so that fishermen can at least fish whiting, which they are wrongly excluded from fishing. The whiting fishery has been making a good living for the larger boats in many areas, which strengthens the feelings of operators of smaller boats about the subject. There is plenty of whiting around—indeed, it is difficult to avoid it as by-catch. One fisherman told me, “Whiting are positively suicidal in their determination to enter the nets when you’re trying to fish for something else, but you have to put them back in the sea.” That is a very unsatisfactory situation.

The situation could have been put right by using the Hague preference arrangement and doing a swap. The UK was allowed an extra 1,400 tonnes of whiting. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs carried out a consultation and suggested that the extra quota should go to the under-10m fleet. However, I gather from speaking to the Minister earlier that, tucked away in another announcement, which I shall discuss in a moment, was an indication that we have not made the progress that we want on using the Hague preference to get some whiting for our small boats.

All of that has had an impact on fishermen in my area. Two boats have been sold, and others have moved up the coast to Eyemouth for the prawn catch, although 44 boats from that area, as well as many others from as far away as Lowestoft, are already working those prawn grounds. Of course, prices for prawns are good, but it is unheard of for fishermen from Amble to have to work away from home for significant periods of the year. That is not the sort of fishery that the small-boat fishery is intended to be; it is intended to be a local, well managed, conservation-minded fishery.

The experience with mackerel has been no better. The fishery opened on 22 March, with 300 tonnes in quota for the under-10m sector in the Moray firth, but nothing at all for the under-10m sector in the north-east. That has been the case for the past three years. Small-boat fishermen fish for mackerel by hand-lining, which is as conservation-minded and low-efficiency a method as one could possibly imagine. However, currently—certainly until the announcement a few days ago—the only way that one can fish for mackerel was out of an unpowered rowing boat or sailing boat, so draconian are the restrictions under which the industry operates. Mackerel is very popular, but all the mackerel used in the restaurants in the north-east comes from Peterhead or Cornwall, so it is several days old by the time we get it. It must be refrigerated and transported over long distances, which is not good in terms of reducing food miles and encouraging local sourcing.

We had an announcement on the mackerel fishery last Friday, which is very late in the year. Under-10 m boats have been allowed an allocation of mackerel as the result of a swap, with mackerel quota being provided by producer organisations. I very much welcome that, but such a small quota tends to be used up very quickly.
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An added problem is that mackerel tend to move down the coast, so a high proportion of the stock is often caught by those who have quota before it ever reaches the area in which our local boats can catch it.

Andrew George: My right hon. Friend mentioned mackerel and Cornwall, and I should perhaps say that I was not talking about increasing capacity when I mentioned fuel efficiency earlier; in fact, I want to control capacity. However, fishermen from my area fish in the mackerel box and face constraints on the type of fishing method that they can use. Indeed, all the fish is caught by mackerel hand-liners, just as it is off the coast of Northumberland, as my right hon. Friend said. Does he not agree, therefore, that we need to reconsider the division of the quota? The vast majority of the quota—more than 90 per cent.—is taken up by purse seiners, one of whose boats can catch in a week what all the Cornish fishermen can catch in a year.

Sir Alan Beith: My hon. Friend makes an important point. That fishery is well sustained by the low-efficiency method of hand-lining, and if vast quantities are fished using excessively efficient methods—that concept might seem odd in other industries, but it is important in the fishing industry—we will all lose. Not only will the distribution of the ability to catch be unfair, but the stocks themselves will be damaged. There were other elements of the Minister’s announcement on Friday. He talked about North sea plaice, turbot, brill and herring, but he announced only limited developments, and they have come late in the year. By the time such announcements are made, fishermen have got into further financial difficulty.

The monthly limit for haddock for the under-10m sector is 3 tonnes. However, fishermen say that there is so much whiting in the sea that if they want to catch 3 tonnes of haddock, they will probably have to throw away about 30 tonnes of whiting because so much of it comes into the net at the same time. There is a similar problem with a big by-catch of cod in the prawn fishery. That indicates that the methods that we are using do not meet the conservation objective that everybody shares of ensuring that there are stocks for the future. That is the whole purpose of quota and fisheries policy, but if we throw so much fish overboard, we are making a nonsense of conservation policy.

Furthermore, if people need to sell a certain tonnage of fish to pay for the cost of the trip—the fuel and the basic income of, in many cases, just the two men on the boat—they must catch even more to have enough landable fish. They end up catching fish that they cannot land and throw it back in an increasingly difficult attempt to meet their bills. They do not improve conservation at all because they are throwing back into the sea fish with few or no survival prospects.

At the same time, fuel prices are a problem. Obviously, that is not a problem of the Government’s making, but they must consider it when they look at the industry’s future. Other Governments have helped their fishing industries more directly to meet the high cost of fuel. There are also cash-flow problems as a result of fuel duty, and those tend to hit small boats in particular. The Minister is aware that there is a lot of concern about the matter—so much so that he sent a letter to the Berwick Advertiser. He or his office must have pressed
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the button on his e-mail, because he wrote to explain why he was not giving money to help with fuel prices. He said:

I have to say that one month’s worth of fuel for a typical trawler would go an awfully long way in the under-10m fishing fleet. Those in the small-boat fishery who read that letter would think that the Minister had not quite realised how desperate they were, because although their fuel use is much more limited, they still face the severe impact of fuel prices.

Clearly, we all want fuel efficiency. We should not waste fuel in any industry, and certainly not in the fishing industry. I would therefore be glad to see the Department support improvements that prevent fuel from being wasted in the industry, but that would have to be handled in a way that did not squeeze the small boat sector; because those boats do not steam very far anyway—only relatively limited distances—they do not use fuel on anything like the same scale, and they fish efficiently. If it becomes economic for the largest boats once again to take large quantities of fish, that could squeeze the small-boat industry. The impact of any scheme to help with fuel efficiency must be tailored so that it does not squeeze out the small-boat fishery, but helps it to deal with its particular problems.

Mr. Denis Murphy: I want to take up the point about fuel efficiency. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned prawn fishermen, and I am sure that he is aware that, as a result of the quota restrictions, quite a number of people from Blyth and Newbiggin must steam 140 miles in a day, instead of the normal five to six, just to try to earn a living. Surely that cannot be right either.

Sir Alan Beith: Exactly. That is a further effect of the diversion of local boats to a more distant prawn fishery, which in turn results from the fact that they have not had quota to catch the fish that are there and that can be landed according to good conservation principles.

The Minister obviously knows that there are serious problems, and he is about to produce a consultation document, specifically directed, I understand, at the needs of the small-boat fishery—the under-10m fishery. It is supposed to be coming out this month, I think. The end of July is when almost everything tends to rush out from Government Departments. We all have to absorb it during August and make representations. I hope that that document will come soon. However, if we are getting into another long round of consultation like the one that we had about the Hague preference on whiting, and nothing much is to happen for a long while, I am afraid that more boats will be put on the market and more young people will decide there is no future for them in the industry. Time has to be allowed for a consultation process, but the situation may be more urgent than that. More boats would be sold now if there were a market for them. It is only because of the lack of buyers that more fishermen do not sell their boats. I do not know what we shall get in the consultation paper—perhaps we shall get hints from the Minister later—but the situation is serious and must be addressed with some sense of urgency.

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Another matter that affects the industry in Northumberland—and the whole industry—is an aspect of the draft Marine Bill, with which the Minister has been very busy, and on which he recently carried out a presentation for Members. Some general matters arise, such as the position we may get into if we have protected zones in which we can control what our own fishing fleet does, but not what other countries’ fishing fleets do. That would be unacceptable, and I know that the Minister has that problem in mind.

In this context I want particularly to mention—I am sure it will interest the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) too—the proposal that the inshore fisheries and conservation authority for Northumberland should combine the existing Northumberland sea fisheries area with that of the North Eastern sea fisheries committee, which stretches down to Yorkshire. That proposal is universally regarded in Northumberland as likely to be very damaging to the Northumberland fishing industry.

The present Northumberland sea fisheries boundary is well recognised and understood, fits with local authority boundaries in the area, and has byelaws in relation to many species of fish that are very different from those of the adjoining area. An enormous travelling distance would be involved in dealing with an authority stretching down to Yorkshire, particularly for fishermen serving on the sea fisheries committee, and the representation of the Northumberland fishery on such a large body—bearing in mind that fishermen are only one element in the representation—could be very small. We might be lucky to get one person on the authority. We are only at the draft Bill stage, but I hope that the Minister will recognise the strong feeling that there should continue to be a conservation and fisheries authority for the existing area of the Northumberland sea fisheries committee, with its distinctive problems and needs. I hope he will heed that warning.

More generally, my warning is that very few people will be left in the industry if we do not ensure that in Northumberland the under-10m boats get the opportunity to fish for the fish that are there, and that they can do so in traditional and conservation-minded ways. That will require urgent action by Ministers.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. I hope to begin wind-ups at about 10.30 am, so I encourage brevity in speeches.

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