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Moreover, the Cefas Endeavour did not catch any juvenile fish—fish of less than a year old—but Our Lass II caught 10 boxes’ worth, weighing 400 kg. The
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disparity cannot even be put down to the power of the vessels, because the Cefas Endeavour has a 3,000 hp engine, whereas the engine of the Whitby-built Our Lass II has not much more than 500 hp. When the same experiment took place in January, the scientific vessel caught 15 per cent. of the fish caught by the Whitby vessel. The Minister should draw conclusions from that research; when fishermen say that there are a lot of fish out there, they are often not going out of their way to mislead people on purpose.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) raised a point about the 10-metre vessels, and I want to raise the same issue. Many of the boats that operate out of Whitby and Scarborough are now primarily lobster and crab vessels. There are good stocks of shellfish out there and prices have been good although, as we have heard, they are not so good now. That is due to the increasing cost of credit and the cost of transport—many lobster caught in Whitby are transported to Spain, and that has resulted in prices being depressed. By the way, given that prices are low, now may not be a bad time to introduce a new V-notching scheme for lobster.

As I said, many of the vessels do not go out primarily to catch white fish, but they do catch cod. They catch cod during the summer because they use static lobster pots, which catch some cod. During winter, they put out gill nets at slack water to catch white fish as well. So from November to Easter the vessels catch cod. During the summer they and the merchant do not have to declare a catch of less than 25 kg, but during the winter catches of such fish are an important aspect of their work.

As I understand it, the Minister is trying to root out quotas that are not being used and are preventing latent capacity. He needs to be careful in considering the vessels that do not catch a lot of white fish, because the fishermen involved are still full-time workers to whom white fish are important although they catch shellfish most of the time. There are also the genuine part-timers who do not necessarily rely on fishing for their primary income. The amount of fish landed by such vessels is already looked at, but there should also be analysis of the accounts to see who the full-time fishermen are. That would be useful. We should not eliminate the full-time fishermen who have turned to shellfish catches because of the uncertainty about cod stocks.

Fishing is important to my constituency, not only because of the people out at sea but because of the jobs onshore. The quay at Whitby has a new shellfish holding facility and that is helping us develop our export markets—not only lobster and standard crab, but the velvet crab that we previously had difficulty holding in good condition for export. There are also jobs onshore in processing. Recently, I visited Whitby Seafoods, famous for Whitby scampi; the company processes 3,000 tonnes of fish annually and has a £15 million turnover. Interestingly, unlike the processing plants in Aberdeen, every single one of the 130 staff at the Whitby Seafoods plant is a local person. The company is being developed positively by the Whittle family.

There is also a boat building facility at Parkol Marine Engineering; perhaps when the Minister finds time in his busy diary, he will come to Whitby. We will show him some of the success stories as well as the difficulties faced by fishermen in Whitby. I shall be delighted to stand the fish and chips myself. Parkol is now on vessel No. 25, and it is truly leading the field, exporting many
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of its vessels north of the border. Its current vessel is a twin-rig trawler for Mr. John Clark. It is continuing the long tradition of shipbuilding in Whitby, stretching back to the days of Captain Cook.

Every port that lands fish must have an ice factory. Because of the dwindling amount of fish being landed in Whitby, the economic viability of its co-operative fishermen-owned ice factory is in some doubt. We need to consider that fact carefully. It was particularly frustrating this summer when a French vessel was landing whiting, which our fishermen could not go out to catch, and its crew did not buy any of our ice because they had ice-making facilities on board.

I look forward to the introduction of the marine Bill. What are the Minister’s views about recreational fishing in marine conservation areas? We do not want commercial fishing in an area where fish can spawn and where we can conserve that vital environment. Conservation is at its best in on-land areas where, for example, shooting takes place. I hope that the Minister will consider that recreational fishing, which also plays an important part in the economy of Whitby and Scarborough—with people going out on day trips, and even longer trips—should be allowed to take place in those areas, obviously with certain controls.

Finally, let me pay tribute to the work of the RNLI. We have two lifeboat stations in my constituency. Many of the people who crew those boats are fishermen, but many are land-based. When we have disasters out at sea or ships in difficulty, they are never hesitant to go out and rise to that challenge.

4.41 pm

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I, too, welcome the Minister to his new role. Although I have only been in the House since May 2005, he is the third Fisheries Minister with whom I have spoken in these annual debates. The hon. Members for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) both had difficulty pronouncing the name of my constituency, but I am certain that the new Minister will have no difficulty whatsoever. He has brought a good tone to the debate that is appreciated on both sides of the House.

My constituency is an island and a maritime constituency, whether that relates to merchant seamen away for weeks, or sometimes months, oil workers in the North sea or, closer to home, fishermen around the islands, some of whom fish much further afield. Given that the population of my constituency, which is, in effect, the Outer Hebrides, is the smallest of any parliamentary constituency—although geographically it is probably one of the largest, being the length of Wales; my office is 150 miles from my house—I have known many of these fishermen for quite a while, some of them since before I came into Parliament; indeed, I attended primary school with some of them.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, the main concern in my constituency is the threat to the sustainable and successful Scottish langoustine, or prawn, fishery. The original plans, as they emerged from the Commission, seemed to involve closing the west coast fisheries. I hoped we were moving away from those plans, which were rightly described as draconian. According to John Hermse of Mallaig and North West Fishermen’s Association, such a closure would have meant the tie-up
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of a staggering 400 boats from Kinlochbervie southwards. Duncan McInnes of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association has pointed out that that would include 50 boats in my constituency alone. If that were done, it would be a “Ravenscraig”. It would be worse than a major commercial bank failing in the City of London. It would be utter devastation. For fishermen, it would be a choice of curl up and die, or disobey whatever regulation or rule had been imposed. I was pleased to note the Minister’s words earlier.

Some strand of alarmist talk emerges from the EU annually. That does the EU and, particularly, the common fisheries policy, no favours whatsoever, and it is annoying and alarming for those of us who are involved. The EU CFP has little credibility anywhere in the world, and such pronouncements do not help it in any way, shape or form. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out that we are giving away £3.3 billion in the value of UK fisheries that are transferred elsewhere in the EU. That might be one of the reasons why the Scottish Fisheries Minister wants to get out of the common fisheries policy—a large part of that £3.3 billion will come from Scotland.

Western Isles fishermen feel that there should be a roll-over of the prawn quota—the total allowable catch—this year at the same level, which is also the position of the Scottish Government. According to the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, the TAC has been set using some of the most up-to-date surveying work, which employs television surveying. Scientists say that stocks are healthy, so there is no scientific justification for a cut. I am glad that the Minister said that there will be no blunt cuts. Scotland has been leading the way on the use of selective gear and real-time closures.

I am glad that the Minister plans to visit the west coast of Scotland soon, and I invite him to Stornoway for a number of reasons. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, the Minister should hug the industry close, and he is more than welcome to come to Stornoway to try to do that. There is an airport close to the harbour, so it will be quite easy for him to get in and out; there is a large fishing vessel fleet of the type we are talking about; and as it is my constituency, I will ensure he gets a very good welcome.

After I intervened earlier, the Minister said that he would like to discuss west coast issues with me after the debate, and I appreciate that. It is an example of the tone that he has brought to the debate, to which I referred earlier. It is a tone of co-operation, allowing us to work through the problems as they emerge. If he goes to Stornoway, fishermen might point out the nature of the Swedish grid, which is emerging as a possible solution to some of the difficulties that have come out of the Commission. Fishermen feel that those have been unsuccessful in Denmark, and that they might even be dangerous. I do not know whether they are or not, but I feel it would be remiss of me not to pass that information on to the House, as safety concerns are paramount in the fishing industry. It is an industry that really does not need any more dangers.

The industry in Scotland has led on conservation measures. Fishermen are already recommending 110 mm rigid panels 15 to 18 metres from the cod end. I am sure that the Minister already knows those details, but it is important to put them on the record. Any
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species recovery effort on the west coast must use a recovery plan and not result in the displacement of fishermen or the culling of fishermen’s jobs.

Another conservation measure that has emerged in the fishing industry in the islands—the Minister referred to the importance of local solutions to particular difficulties—was touted to me by one of the fishermen I mentioned at the outset, a man who was in primary school with me. It is a call for a restriction on horsepower in the Minch to about 500 hp. Donald Archie MacNeil, a fourth cousin, has been instrumental in calling for a horsepower restriction. He was probably the first person to mention it to me. The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association supports it, as does the Mallaig and North-West Fishermen’s Association. Processors in the islands support it as well, and given the breadth of support, I hope that the Minister will consider the idea. Bigger and faster boats give the fish less chance to escape from the net when they are trawling. The prawn fishermen of the Western Isles have come up with their own solutions, and I hope that they will be listened to.

We come back to the problem of discards. When I was a child, and perhaps long before that, discarding would be termed a sin, plain and simple—a waste. We need accurate data on discarding. We still need to know what the cod discard was last year. Discards have been blamed for some changes in the eco-system. The bonxie, or great skua, has grown in numbers and is devastating the populations of many other seabirds. According to a report in The Scotsman a couple of weeks ago, that rise in numbers could relate to the tonnes and tonnes of fish that are discarded at sea. It seems that they are not just rotting in the sea; something is feeding on them, and it could be the bonxie. Anyone who has seen this ferocious bird knows that it will attack anything, including man. It would be galling if the practice of discarding were not only causing fishermen to lose money, but causing extra damage to nature as well.

I draw the Under-Secretary’s attention to the specific west coast issue of the dogfish—the spurdog, which also turns up in many shops as rock salmon. Dogfish is not a targeted fishery in the west coast of Scotland. It has a TAC of 739 tonnes, but, crucially, no landing can include more than 5 per cent. dogfish. Consequently, between October and February, many dogfish, which end up in nets—that cannot be avoided—are dumped. According to fishermen, probably only 25 per cent. of the annual TAC is caught, so many tonnes of fish which do not even exceed the quota are dumped. If the Under-Secretary could tackle the 5 per cent. rule, that would go some way towards making the improvements that fishermen want.

Scottish fishermen have welcomed the cod recovery plan, although it is challenging and I still have reservations about its science, and, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said, the age of the science. I hope that it will enable more fish to be landed, if discards are tackled and real-time closures are included. Richard Lochhead, the Scottish Fisheries Minister, has described it as “trailblazing”, and I am sure that all hon. Members wish it well.

We anticipate further problems from Europe with the special areas of conservation around some of the islands at the southern end of the Hebrides. A deaf, bullying
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and bureaucratic Europe appears to steamroller them out, with little consideration for local opinion. It is almost de rigueur for Europe to devise such proposals, regardless of local feeling and the damage that could be done to an already fragile economy. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take cognisance of local communities’ concerns, make representations in Europe about them, and note that, for centuries, we in the Hebrides have balanced our needs with nature’s needs and nature’s power, which we know only too well.

There is another problem in the islands, which I will demonstrate to the Under-Secretary if he comes to Stornoway. Perhaps he can use his good offices with the Treasury to address it. Fishermen in some ports pay duty on the fuel as they buy it and have to claim it back, which leads to cash-flow problems and several other difficulties for them. Establishing the principle of all fishermen accessing duty-free fuel would be a great and welcome help to the fishing industry. It would probably cost the Treasury nothing and save some extra bureaucracy.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned helicopters. The change to the Sikorsky S-92 has meant several limitations. Safety is important and, from time to time, helicopters have to come to the aid of people who are fishing, so we want to ensure that the current helicopter is as good as previous one.

I have mentioned the nephrops quota, roll-over, conservation measures, real time data, gear, horsepower and discards.

Mr. Carmichael: I sense that the hon. Gentleman is reaching a conclusion and before he sat down I wanted to congratulate him on a measured speech, which is remarkably lacking in a partisan tone. On reflection, does he believe that some early, unilateral initiatives, such as the moratorium on quota transfers, were perhaps a mistake, in that they were partisan? If they were not a mistake, what does he believe that they have achieved?

Mr. MacNeil: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He knows that a consultation is going on and that the results will appear soon. However, he understands that fishing in Scotland is community and family oriented. We want to maintain the fisheries quota in Scotland—I hope that he agrees that it should not be lost to Scotland. The SNP Government have done the responsible thing in seeking ways to keep that quota in Scotland, close to the communities and families that especially benefit from it, so that their birthright is not lost.

I mentioned discards of cod and especially dogfish, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will consider that. I wish him well in his negotiations. Outside the Chamber, we have always got on personally since I arrived in Parliament—I hope that that is not a career-hampering endorsement. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said that there was little partisanship in my speech, but I have left it for the very end—I assure hon. Members that it is gentle partisanship, however. I want the Minister to imagine being at the top table in Europe with his friend the Fisheries Minister from an independent Scotland, alongside the Irish Minister, and to think how much stronger the voice from the British Isles would then be.

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4.55 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and the approach that he has taken in his job.

My constituency is on the west coast of Scotland, just south of that of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), and many of the problems to which he referred have been raised by the fishermen in my constituency, too. The current Commission proposals for 2009 could put the entire fishing fleet in my constituency out of business, other than those vessels using only creels or pots. The Commission’s proposals are to ban fishing on the west coast inside the 200-metre contour line unless certain conditions are satisfied. However, as nearly every fishing vessel that operates from a port in my constituency fishes inside that line, the effect would be devastating on the industry and the wider community.

The condition that the Commission has proposed which causes the problem is the one that I raised with the Minister in my earlier intervention, namely that if vessels were allowed to fish within the 200-metre contour line, the Swedish grid would have to be incorporated in the fishing gear. However, hardly any effort has been made to assess the effectiveness of the grid in the conditions off the west coast. The Clyde Fishermen’s Association is concerned that it will prove impossible to incorporate the grid into its members’ fishing gear. The problem appears to be the grid’s rigidity when fitted to vessels of the type used off the west coast.

New ideas such as the Swedish grid should not be introduced unless they have been thoroughly tested and proven to work safely under the exact conditions in which they will have to be used. I was encouraged by the Minister’s response to my intervention and wish him well in his negotiations in Brussels. I hope that he will be able to block the regulation, because the grid simply has not been properly tested.

The Clyde Fishermen’s Association has put forward an alternative proposal, which is to increase the size of the square mesh panel from 90 mm to 160 mm, which would allow the cod to escape while still catching nephrops. That is the same objective that the Swedish grid is supposed to achieve, so I hope that the Minister will give careful consideration to the Clyde Fishermen’s Association’s alternative proposal. The Clyde fishermen fish for nephrops, whose stock is healthy. The Commission’s reason for introducing the Swedish grid is to prevent cod by-catch. However, previous studies have shown that the cod by-catch when fishing for nephrops off the west coast is negligible. Increasing the square mesh panel to 160 mm would achieve the same ends as the Swedish grid, but unlike the Swedish grid, it is proven technology. I therefore urge the Minister to do all that he can to block that untested proposal.

Another concern of the Clyde fishermen is the proposal to cut the nephrops total allowable catch by 15 per cent. The proposal seems to be based purely on average landings from recent years and not on any scientific evidence that the nephrops stock is in danger. However, basing the future TAC simply on landings from previous years is a badly conceived principle—it is known as the “use it or lose it” principle—and should be rejected. A TAC should be based on scientific evidence. I also understand that there is a proposal on the table to reduce the fishing effort by 25 per cent. However, in
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view of the healthy nephrops stock and the insignificant cod by-catch, there seems to be no justification for that proposal, so it, too, should be opposed.

Let me turn to the effects of the credit crunch on the fishing industry. I was on the isle of Tiree in my constituency a couple of weeks ago and spoke to fishermen there. They fish for velvet crabs using creels. There are several boats based on the island so, bearing in mind its smallness, they provide employment to a significant proportion of people living there. The same applies to many other remote communities around our coasts. The crabs are exported to Spain, but the effect of the credit crunch has been to halve demand, which clearly puts at risk jobs on the island of Tiree and in many similar communities. The velvet crab market seems confined to Spain, but this is a good, healthy British food, caught sustainably in British waters, and we should encourage more people in this country to eat more such food. I thus urge the Minister and his DEFRA colleagues to mount a campaign to persuade people in Britain of the benefit of eating British crab—a healthy food, caught sustainably, as I said—and at the same time to save jobs all round the British coast.

Finally, I turn to the future of the common fisheries policy. I was encouraged by the Minister’s approach. We need to move from regional advisory committees to regional management committees and I certainly wish the Minister well in following that approach. I also wish him well in the December Council. As I said, I am encouraged by the approach he has adopted; all power to his elbow.

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