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8.57 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): This is an important Bill. It has been long in the gestation, but is welcome and, I believe, addresses many issues that are of enormous potential benefit to the communities on our coasts and to the environment. It will have major consequences for my constituency. North Essex is a largely coastal constituency which includes the southern shore of the Stour estuary, the southern shore of the Tendring Hundred, the Colne estuary and all the associated tidal creeks and Mersea island, off the Essex coast at the mouth of the Blackwater estuary, which will be familiar to the Secretary of State. Perhaps I should, like the Secretary of State, declare a very minor interest. My wife owns a little beach house on the Essex coast, although I shall not be dealing with the matters of coastal access that might make that interest relevant.

The Essex coast still supports a fishing industry, and in my constituency oysters remain extremely important to the local economy and to our cultural heritage. My objective is the survival of the non-sector fishing industry—commercial vessels which, although measuring less than 10 metres, require the allocation of fishing quota under the European Union common fisheries policy—and the survival of the native oyster industry. In fact, the two industries are mutually dependent. Oyster fishermen have traditionally supplemented their oyster catch by catching other fish outside the oyster season. Owing to the restriction on 10-metre vessels, that now requires an additional licence, which in turn requires a minimum amount of fish to be caught regardless of other activities that may be undertaken. The practice encourages overfishing—if the quota is not used up, it is lost—and imposes unnecessary penalties on fishermen as a result.

The inshore fishery around Essex requires nurturing and protection. In particular, the hatching grounds of the native Colchester oyster in the outer Blackwater estuary need more specific protection than they have enjoyed historically. Historically, the oyster beds where the young oysters are brought on are protected by ancient several orders and specific leases from the Crown Estate to the oyster fishermen. However, they dredge
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their young oysters from well outside that area, an area that is vulnerable to indiscriminate trawling and fishing and requires protection. Perhaps there is a case for marine conservation zones to provide such protection. I am disappointed that the Minister in another place seemed to be saying that the marine conservation zones should not be used for fishery management and protection. If they are not used for those purposes, one of the main points of the Bill will be missed.

The North Essex test of the Bill is whether the sustainability of the inshore fisheries is protected and improved; only then will Essex fishermen and their successors enjoy a sustainable industry. The Bill must also provide for recreational fishing, which I believe is one of the most unsung and under-exploited generators of employment and tourism income in the Essex area. The potential for sea bass fishing off the Essex coast, for example, is enormous and it could provide huge benefit to the area. However, I fear that the licensing regime being introduced for recreational fishermen is acting as a deterrent. Furthermore, so many of the bass are caught by netsmen. That reduces the size of the fish, and it is their size that is of particular attraction to sport fishermen. A more enlightened approach would recognise that the commercial fishermen are not the only interests to be addressed; the recreational fishermen represent a legitimate interest, and one that is perhaps more consonant with the conservation of stock.

Beyond the North Essex test, there is a wider, national—or even international—test for the Bill. It is whether it will challenge the failure of the common fisheries policy. The Bill applies only up to the 6 mile limit; it does not address the whole of the cod crisis in the North sea, for example. However, I hope that it will be a step towards making politicians more accountable for how they treat the public seas. Conservation should be the highest priority for the Government and the fishing industry; indeed, the interests of conservation and the fishing industry should go hand in hand to ensure the future of our marine habitat and the livelihoods of those who rely on it.

I urge people to watch “The End of the Line”, the compelling but sobering film by my constituent Charles Clover, who wrote a book of the same title. It sets out how mankind is simply fishing our seas, species by species, to complete extinction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said earlier, we have become used to talking about “peak oil” in energy policy, but we have already passed “peak fish”. The film describes how that level was reached some 15 years ago, although we never realised it. The Chinese bureaucrats were lying about how much fish the Chinese had caught year after year.

In fact, the total global fish catch is now in structural decline because fish stocks have been so over-exploited. More and more effective means of catching fish ensure that every year we catch a higher and higher proportion of the fish that are left. As my hon. Friend pointed out, scientists estimate that, on current trends, there will be virtually no fish left in the sea by 2048. That will have many consequences for the marine environment and global warming. Believe it or not, the defecation of fish puts alkaline into the sea, increasing its carbon absorption qualities. If we remove the fish, the sea will cease to absorb so much carbon dioxide. The issue is of massive consequence; a third of the world’s population is fed on
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fish. Were the fish stocks of the world to collapse, there would be an immediate security and international humanitarian crisis.

“The End of the Line” has been described as the marine conservationists’ equivalent of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. It has been shown all over the country, including at Harwich’s Electric Palace cinema in my constituency. It has also been shown all over London and the rest of the country. Unless we address the agenda raised by that remarkable film, we will rue the day. It is a call to arms to the citizens of the world to hold the politicians accountable for the destruction of life in our seas—life on which our own well-being ultimately depends.

I close with some remarks about the judgment in the European Court of Justice that I raised with the Secretary of State during his opening remarks. The WWF launched a court action, appealing that the cod quotas had been set not according to scientific advice but according to political pressures in the North sea. The Court ruled that even though the WWF is represented on the North sea regional advisory committee, it had no locus standi to represent what the Court called a “sufficient interest” in the decision that it sought to challenge.

That means that environmental organisations that should be able to act in the name of the citizen have no means of challenging the legality of the EU’s decisions about fish. No other Government in the world are so utterly immune to legal challenge in that way. That flies in the face of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Aarhus convention, which was intended to set down minimum standards on access to environmental information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental issues. That raises a fundamental question that goes to the heart of the purpose of the Bill. Who owns the fish? Who owns the marine environment that we are seeking to protect? Who is liable for its degradation? Who is accountable for neglecting to stop its destruction and decline?

As a boy, I grew up regularly being taken to the west coast of Scotland, to sail in that remarkable part of the world. Even during my lifetime, a sense has grown that the bird life and sea life and the fecundity of the sea there are a shadow of their former selves. As I work around the Essex coast in my constituency, there is a sense of doom and decline about the bird life, and the vibrancy of the marine ecology and the vulnerability of those who live off it. Unless the Bill strengthens the environmental imperative and has at its heart a scientific assessment of the vulnerability of the marine ecology, it will fail in its primary objective.

9.8 pm

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and I agree with, I think, every word that he said.

A hundred years ago in 1909, most of the British fishing fleet had no engines. The boats were sailboats, and virtually all of them were made of wood. Not one had sonar to identify where shoals of fish were. Today, our fishermen have a fleet of modern, steel-enclosed, sonar-equipped, satellite-guided vessels. They have weighted and gated trawl nets that extend for 2.5 km, yet the astonishing fact is that the British fishermen of 100 years ago caught 13 times more fish than we do today. For all
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our modern technology, we can do little more than vacuum up ever smaller fish in ever smaller numbers. We are fishing down the food chain.

Almost exactly two months ago, the European Commission put out its green paper on the common fisheries policy. Among its findings, we learn that 88 per cent. of the EU’s stocks are overfished and that 93 per cent. of North sea cod are caught before they can breed. Globally the position is little better, with 80 per cent. of marine stocks either fully exploited or over-exploited.

A paper published in Nature six years ago, in 2003, concluded with the stark assessment that the global oceans had lost more than 90 per cent. of large predatory fish. However, if the average length of the fish caught off the west coast of Newfoundland fell by 1 metre between 1957 and 2000—and it did—we must not imagine that we are dealing with a collapse simply of fish and fish stocks. Rather, we are dealing with a collapse of whole ecosystems. Both target species and a huge biomass of by-catch species have been removed from continental shelf seas. With the mechanical impact of fishing gear being dragged across the sea bottom, we have seen the dreadful alteration of ecosystem structure and habitat degradation.

By-catch is not simply other fish. It includes the death of 40,000 albatrosses a year from long-line baited hooks in the Southern ocean, on lines that stretch for an almost unbelievable 150 km. By-catch also includes the 400,000 dolphins caught and drowned in yellowfin tuna nets. The point is that if we impact on one species, we impact on the whole ecosystem. That is why the loss of sand eels around the UK coast has, in turn, been accompanied by a startling decline in arctic terns, kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins.

However, it is not just what we take out of the sea that alters those ecosystems. The input into coastal waters of sediment, sewage and nutrients from agriculture and industry has led to widespread eutrophication. Dead zones are now common in the Baltic sea, the Kattegat, the Black sea and the gulf of Mexico. In those areas, it is as though evolution were running in reverse, as higher trophic fish give way to lower trophic species, corals and sea lions die, and jellyfish become the dominant planktivores in a soup of algae and bacteria. The senior researcher at the Scripps institution of oceanography has called the process “the rise of slime”.

Not only is the loss of biodiversity devastating to the food supply of a global population that is predicted to rise from 6.7 billion to at least 9 billion by 2050, but there is increasing evidence that species diversity is vital for the resilience of marine fisheries. A study in Science by Worm et al in 2006 found that low diversity is clearly connected with low productivity of fisheries and that commercial fisheries face collapse in less than 50 years unless the trends are reversed. The study found that low biodiversity is associated with lower fishery productivity and more frequent collapses of fish stocks. It also found a lower propensity to recover after overfishing than in ecosystems that were naturally rich in biodiversity.

Perhaps nowhere is the fragility of our marine eco-systems seen better than in the effects of global warming and rising levels of CO2 in our atmosphere on coral reefs. Some of the carbon dissolves in the upper layers of the ocean, making today’s water 30 per cent. more acidic than before the industrial revolution. That acidity affects the pteropods and other forms of life with
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calcium carbonate shells or skeletons. Coral is particularly at risk from the acidification of the oceans. Coral reefs are some of the oldest and certainly some of the longest-living structures on the planet. One quarter of all sea species spend at least part of their lives in a reef. Globally, 500 million people depend on such reefs for their food and livelihoods. Yet coral bleaching from warmer oceans and increased acidification from higher atmospheric CO2 are putting increased stress on reef ecosystems. Last year, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network published a paper entitled “Status of Coral Reefs of the World”, in which it was estimated that 19 per cent. of coral reefs were already lost, with a further 15 per cent. under imminent threat and a further 20 per cent. facing loss before 2050.

To us in Britain, coral reefs sound distinctly tropical and remote, but cold water coral is particularly at risk from acidification, because colder seas tend to be more acidic anyway. Only 11 years ago, here in the UK, we saw the destruction of part of the Darwin Mounds, the extensive colonies of cold water coral off the north-west coast of Scotland, almost as soon as they were discovered. The reason for that ecological vandalism was that trawlermen were eager to get at the large bounty of fish that gravitated to the reef. A bulldozer with an aqualung could not have done a better job of destroying it.

I have tried to set out clearly the very real need upon which this Bill is predicated. In that the Bill aims to initiate flexible, integrated coastal zone management in UK waters, including inshore areas and the exclusive economic zone, it is the first serious attempt to set out in statute a framework for marine planning and licensing and a coherent network of marine protected areas that can help to manage our marine environment. Much of this task is being placed under the authority of the new marine management organisation, and offshore fisheries are managed generally under the auspices of the EU common fisheries policy. It is worthy of note—and, of course, welcome—that the Commission is currently reviewing the CFP. I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the timing of the Bill is propitious in ensuring a seamless integration with a revised CFP.

I want to turn briefly to some of the elements of the Bill that have been mentioned so far, and particularly to the need to take into account socio-economic factors. Section 4.2 of the European Commission’s green paper makes an important point, which the Bill as it stands does not yet fully take into account. It states:

I believe that Ministers would do well to heed that advice and to integrate it into the body of the Bill. The prioritisation of short-term socio-economic considerations has led to the setting of quotas for European fish stocks 48 per cent. above scientific recommendations, resulting
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in chronic overfishing in the European area. Earlier, the Secretary of State referred to the need to take sound scientific advice, and I absolutely agree with him on that. Tragically, however, history shows that politicians have always been keen to ignore that scientific advice when socio-economic and political considerations have come into play.

The other issue is that of quantity versus quality, and the question of whether we should designate a proportion of the sea for marine conservation zones. There is now considerable scientific literature discussing the area of marine habitats that need to be protected to ensure the viability of the protected habitats and to contribute substantially to fisheries management. Reviews of that literature by Balmford et al in 2004 suggest that a target to sustain fisheries outside marine protected areas is in the region of between 10 and 50 per cent. of the area of the world’s oceans, with a modal value of approximately 30 per cent. In addition, the World Parks Congress has explicitly called for marine reserves to cover 20 to 30 per cent. of all marine habitats by 2012. It is important to look at the science in this context, because this is not simply a question of quality; quantity affects quality, and that factor, too, must be integrated into the Bill.

I agree with what hon. Members have already said about the issue of disturbance. In relation to the defence, it is ridiculous that an act carried out for the purpose or in the course of—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

9.20 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): This debate has centred almost entirely on conservation. I do not wish to denigrate its importance: serious conservation measures are long overdue. But what is also long overdue is a sensible regime for making maximum use of our offshore waters as an environmental defence, because that is what they offer us in terms of marine renewable energy.

We have a nascent wave and tidal stream power industry, which is teetering on the verge of commercial exploitation. One of its great barriers is the consenting regime, which is, frankly, diabolical. It is one of the biggest hurdles to the small companies that are involved in these efforts. It is also, and has been, a disincentive for major projects such as large offshore wind farms, as it takes three years to get through the environmental consenting process—twice as long as in any other European country. Does this mean that we have had better quality decision making? I think not; it has just taken longer.

Let me quote a wonderful example of exactly what I mean. Marine Current Turbines has deployed in Strangford loch in Northern Ireland a 1.2 MW tidal stream turbine. It has been developed over many years and it is working beautifully. It has no measurable environmental impact whatever, yet it took two to three years to get environmental consent, which was granted most grudgingly, mainly because conservationists—in this particular instance, marine ecologists, namely seal lovers—took the narrowest perspective they could possibly take.

The seal populations of the area had already changed quite drastically over recent years. Why had they changed? It was not because there was a turbine and the seals were afraid that it would mash them up. No, it had
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changed because of global warming: habitats and ecosystems were moving north, so the seal populations changed accordingly. Even now, because of the restrictions on it, this machine is allowed to run for only half a tide a day. It has to have two marine mammal observers on it at all times of its operation, yet no seal has ever come near it; seals are far too smart. It is totally benign. It is costing this company £4 million to carry out this environmental monitoring on a project that started out with a £10 million total value—it is totally disproportionate.

That is why there are serious concerns in the renewable energy industry about the balance of the Bill and how it will be implemented. The limit for reference to the integrated pollution control is 100 MW, but it will be some years before either wave or tidal stream technologies are ready to be deployed at more than 100 MW. By definition, all the projects will be less than 100 MW. They are none the less of very great strategic significance. We have in our coastal waters a raw energy resource that at the very least can supply half of our renewables target for 2020 and is in itself a weapon to resist climate change, which, even after the depredations of industrial fishing, brings the greatest long-term threat to our marine ecosystems. It is my contention, and that of the industry, that there is and should be no conflict whatever between conservation zones and the installation of renewable energy devices. In fact, there is a synergy; clearly, if there is a farm of turbines, fishing is not allowed there, so fish stocks get a chance to regenerate. This synergy must be promoted. Fortunately, some NGOs—notably WWF—have cottoned on to this and see this holistic truth, which is vital.

I suggest that the MMO, which according to the Bill is to be the consenting organisation for marine energy projects of less than 100 MW, is not, under current plans, equipped to do that job. It is projected to have one and a half staff to deal with marine energy, which is quite absurd. It would make far more sense if all marine energy projects were to be referred for consent to the IPC with the MMO being a statutory consultee. I am not suggesting that it should be cut out; obviously it will have an important monitoring role. But, as envisaged, the MMO is not equipped to do the important job of consenting. It is vital that the consenting process be streamlined and improved. We do not want the constant repetition of investigations for every individual project. Once there is a machine such as the MCT turbine, and once its environmental benignity has been clearly established, which it has, we can safely say that it could be put down anywhere without damaging marine mammals or anything. The environmental consenting process could be simplified immediately.

The other factor is that the industry is at a critical stage. Given the credit crunch, getting investment into offshore marine projects is extremely difficult at the moment; in fact, it is practically impossible. Investors have shut up shop. They do not need any further disincentive to resist the temptation to invest, and excessive consenting costs and the excessive duration of the consenting process are serious impediments.

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