Previous Section Index Home Page

1 Dec 2009 : Column 1044

Huw Irranca-Davies: I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his contributions to our previous debate on the common fisheries policy. Several significant states appear to be like-minded and as keen as we are to have radical reform. I have to say that several have different ideas on the way forward, but I believe there is a sufficient body of member nations that are of a similar disposition to ours on the core components of CFP reform. I am hopeful. I know I said it in our other recent debate, but it is not a question of waiting until 2011 and then mulling over what the Commission has brought forward following co-decision and so forth, as it is the next couple of months that are going to be crucial. We have the wind in our sails on this.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The Minister mentioned co-decision, but it rather seemed as if the Commission was doing its best to bypass co-decision and move before it could become a reality, when the direction we need to move in is one in which fishermen's organisations play as full and constructive a part in regional management as they want to, because they are the best people to do it.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The right hon. Gentleman raises another aspect of co-decision that I have touched on-trying to find a way, and we think there are ways, of devolving real responsibility where the buck stops. The buck does not stop only in terms of fisheries management, because it stops with fisheries and marine management, involving those people who I have consistently argued will be the best for long-term management of that marine environment, namely fishermen themselves. I think that there is a real appetite for this.

We recently had a two-day session at the Inter-RAC conference, when the regional advisory councils were brought together in Edinburgh a month ago, and there was almost unanimity on this issue. That meeting, and others, have been attended by officials from the Commission as well, who have spoken about the legal difficulties but with some optimism that it could be done. It is now down to us, with the support of the industry and people with ideas and models, to advance those ideas rapidly. That is what we are set on doing.

One issue I am concerned about, as I said last year, is that of small coastal communities around the UK. I understand the value of fishing to these small, often remote, coastal communities: it is more than simply fisheries and the economy; it is their way of life, their livelihood and also a huge issue for their cultural heritage. It is also part of the UK's heritage as an entity. We need to find ways of supporting vulnerable communities that depend on fishing.

One of my priorities this last year, in difficult times, has been putting the inshore fleet on to a more sustainable footing, which has not been without difficulty. We have decommissioned 65 vessels. On the back of that decommissioning, which was linked to licence capping-not without controversy-we have directly released quota back into the under-10 metre pool. We introduced the licence capping scheme to keep fishing for quota stocks at current levels.

We have also set up the SAIF-sustainable access to inshore fisheries-project through close working between DEFRA and stakeholders in fisheries management, the fishing industry and fishing communities. This is not
1 Dec 2009 : Column 1045
driven purely by fishermen themselves; our argument with SAIF was always on the basis that the issue of fisheries needs to be integrated into regional development, better marketing and extending the line of production so that it is not simply a matter of extracting the raw materials but receiving the end-benefit as well. All that is relevant to the SAIF project. There is an advisory group, which has done some excellent work, bringing together expertise from the fishing industry and beyond to help to drive this work forward.

We are also using the European Fisheries Fund to help our fishing industry to secure a sustainable and profitable future. In 2009, we have offered grants totalling £43 million across the UK for projects ranging from major harbour improvements in North Shields and extra safety gear above the legal requirements for individual boats to Marine Stewardship Council accreditation.

One pan-UK project that I know Members will be interested to hear about is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution man overboard safety system, which enables the RNLI to track vessels and alert their monitoring system if there are difficulties. That could be crucial and I remind hon. Members that I opened the debate with the issue of lives lost at sea. This sort of innovation is something that could really help in the future. The system also includes personal safety devices that alert the skipper if a crew member goes overboard. The system has already saved lives at sea and we hope that on the back of that investment, as many as 1,500 units will be in use by the end of 2011.

Mr. Carmichael: We are discussing a matter that probably affects every fishing community. I declare an interest as a member of the RNLI national council. Does the Minister agree that, regardless of the number of initiatives, the real challenge is to convey the message to the industry? No matter how many devices there are in the market, if they are not used by the industry they will be of no use to anyone.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is right. I think that the work being done on the ground and-let me give credit where it is due-through august publications such as Fishing News, which seems to run stories about these devices every other week, is very necessary. Members of Parliament can also play their part by hammering the message home when they are out speaking on the portside. It is gaining attention, but there is much more to be done if we are to make a real difference.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The Minister mentioned the SAIF project and, in particular, the impact of certain regulations on the vulnerability of the inshore fleet and coastal communities. Can he reassure us that special areas of conservation will be imposed by Natural England in a constructive manner, and that Natural England and the industry will ensure that not just the marine environment but the viability of fishing communities is protected?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Special areas of conservation and special protection areas are designated through the European marine habitats directive. Socio-economics are not a factor, and in that regard this debate differs from our debate on marine conservation zones. I am pleased to say, however, that before the proposals were
1 Dec 2009 : Column 1046
submitted for consultation they were subjected to a period of pre-consultation discussion with fisheries leaders to ensure that there were no unnecessary distractions or scare stories. Projects such as this may occasionally displace certain activities, and we need to work with the fisheries industry to ensure that that is recognised. Natural England is very aware of that, as is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Let me add to the tribute that is always paid on occasions such as this to those in the RNLI who put their lives at risk on behalf of our fishing communities and so many others, year in, year out. Like, I am sure, many other Members, I joined a local lifeboat crew on a training mission, and it was a real eye-opener: it made me aware of the dangers that those crews must confront.

The Minister has spoken of the sustainability of smaller fishing communities. I represent many such communities in Berwickshire. Does the Minister accept that, as well as wishing to unite the fishing and marine environments, we must not lose sight of the need for financial sustainability for those communities? I know that-

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman has been making an exceptionally long intervention, and I am sure the Minister is now able to answer it.

I warn Members that Back-Bench speeches will have to be limited to eight minutes, because time is running out and a great many Members wish to speak. Although interventions add to the debate, Members who wish to catch my eye later are now intervening, and there is something not quite right about that.

Huw Irranca-Davies: In view of what you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall try to cut my remaining remarks short. However, I want to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) about the sustainability of communities and the fleets that are part of those communities, because it is relevant to a vital part of the debate.

As we implement common fisheries policy reform, we need to engage in a frank discussion throughout the devolved areas about how we can deliver a prosperous future-let us scrap the word "sustainable" for the moment-for widely variegated coastal communities that have different types of vessels and experience different aspects of isolation and remoteness. I think that part of the solution is not protectionism per se, but the willingness of Ministers to stand up and say how vessels and fisheries can be made more profitable, how they can produce better harvests, and how fishermen can own production from the point at which the fish are landed to the point of marketing.

I have used this analogy before, and I am sorry that it comes from my own back yard, but we should bear in mind what has been achieved in the marketing of Welsh lamb. Ten years ago, Welsh lamb producers were producing only cheap carcases from the top of the Welsh hills. Now they represent one of our biggest success stories. They have taken command of the line of supply all the way to the supermarket in a co-operative manner, and
1 Dec 2009 : Column 1047
have added value. Some of the fisheries in the constituencies of the hon. Gentleman and others are high-quality mixed fisheries which should not be selling at bog-standard prices-not that there is such a thing-to whoever comes in. There should be a much cleverer way of owning the profits resulting from that supply chain.

As you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, many other Members wish to speak. Let me do what I said I would do, and deal with some of the other aspects rapidly. I mentioned illegal fishing earlier. I am pleased to say that we have taken a leading role on that, and are making good progress. A European Union regulation that will come into force next month introduces new rules on imports and exports of fish and fish products to and from the EU, making it more difficult for illegally caught fish to enter the EU from non-EU countries. We have been working closely not just with importers and exporters but with nations that will be affected, including developing countries. We are trying to work with those countries to encourage them to engage in better governance and to tackle illegal and unregulated fisheries so that they can take advantage of entry to the European market.

The UK is also leading the way in protecting commercially fished species. Action is needed urgently if bluefin tuna is to be commercially sustainable. We have publicly supported Monaco's proposal to give this species the highest protection possible under the convention on international trade in endangered species. As a result of the international pressure, and with the strong support of the United Kingdom, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas demonstrated at its annual meeting its willingness to take tougher measures to protect bluefin tuna. However, we shall keep a close watch on whether the measures are implemented quickly enough to conserve this iconic species.

We have been working hard to protect sharks, skates and rays, which are in serious decline. We ensured that the Council's conclusions on the European Commission's shark plan of action, agreed in April, were strong, clear and robust. We are proceeding with work under this plan of action ourselves, funding scientific research that will help us to protect and manage those threatened stocks. The UK has made a bold decision to increase the protection offered to sharks by banning the removal of shark fins at sea by UK-registered fishing vessels. Any sharks caught by UK vessels will now have to be landed with their fins attached to their bodies, so there is now no risk of wasteful shark finning.

The UK is also dealing with the incidental catch of seabirds in fisheries operations. Every year many seabirds die unnecessarily, and that is seriously affecting some seabird populations. Internationally, we are working through the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, and we are putting pressure on regional fisheries management organisations to reduce by-catch. We are playing a leading role in championing seabird protection in Europe by challenging the European Commission at the November Council meeting to introduce an EU seabird plan of action.

A major theme of our work is integrating fishing with other marine activities. I have mentioned the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, with which Members will be very familiar; I thank them for their support in
1 Dec 2009 : Column 1048
putting it on the statute book. It establishes a new system of marine planning. Along with the devolved Administrations, we have published high-level marine objectives to which we have all agreed, and which will feed into the marine policy statement that we are developing to guide the marine planning process under the Act. For the first time, we will be planning all the activities in the our seas in a properly integrated way.

The Act introduces better licensing for marine developments, and the conservation of marine biodiversity through marine conservation zones. Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee have set up four regional projects, which are doing extremely well. The conservation zones will help us to deliver our commitments under the European Commission's marine strategy framework directive, which requires us to achieve "good environmental status" for our seas by 2020.

The Act also creates the Marine Management Organisation, which will be the Government's delivery body in English waters and UK offshore waters. I have appointed the chairman-designate, and staff from the Marine and Fisheries Agency, which is being subsumed into the Marine Management Organisation, are already moving to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in preparation for the vesting of the organisation in April. In order to put this to rest, I want to put it clearly on the record that, contrary to speculation in the regional press, we have measures in place to ensure that levels of service are maintained during the transition. The MFA is currently recruiting new members of staff for its headquarters, to replace those who are not relocating. The first two groups of new recruits have already completed training in London and are now working in Newcastle. More new staff will begin work over the coming months, complementing the experienced staff in the 18 offices-which we often forget about-all around the UK coast. So it will be business as usual.

At the local level, inshore fisheries and conservation authorities will ensure that we have an integrated approach to our marine resources. They will replace sea fisheries committees, and they will modernise inshore fisheries management in England. They must seek to balance the social and economic benefits of exploiting the sea fisheries resources of their districts with the need to protect the marine environment from, or promote its recovery from, the effects of such exploitation. They will draw on local knowledge to solve local problems through local decision making. Following consultation, I have decided that there will be 10 inshore fisheries and conservation districts. Last month, we brought together members and staff of the sea fisheries committees to discuss how the new authorities can best respond to their new duties, using the achievements of the sea fisheries committees as their springboard.

Having sprinted through my speech in order to leave time for other contributions, I hope Members will agree that over the last year we have made significant progress towards achieving sustainable fisheries and integrating fishing with other marine activities. We have moved forward in protecting our marine environment, and progress on common fisheries policy reform and other initiatives are good news for fish stocks and fishermen. Although there will be difficult choices in the coming year, we have firm foundations on which to build. I look forward to hearing the views of Members.

1 Dec 2009 : Column 1049
8.12 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in my first fisheries debate as the spokesman for my party.

I welcome this important debate, and the opportunity to turn our full attention to the serious issues that face our fishing industry and the health of our seas. With the December European Union Fisheries Council and its negotiations for the 2010 quota allocation fast approaching, this debate is most timely. Today, the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament met, and on 14 and 15 December the Minister and others will be taking part in the Fisheries Council. It is also good to see so many Members present with interests in coastal Britain, the fishing industry and related matters such as angling, which is an extremely important activity for so many people.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that tourist destinations such as the Isle of Wight could benefit from some joined-up thinking in respect of commercial fisheries and policies that affect sea angling?

Mr. Benyon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is clear to me from my visits around coastal Britain that we can learn a lot from other countries, where activities such as recreational angling, which I am sure we will hear a lot about in this debate, are integrated much more with tourism. In Ireland, for example, on the approach roads to coastal ports there are signs advertising not only hotels but boat hire, tackle shops and so forth. The industry there is much more integrated. This also has an impact on the fishing industry, in which so many people are involved. We can learn a lot, and we can do a lot to try to make these industries more integrated.

This year more than ever we are debating fisheries during uncertain times for the UK fishing industry. At present, the UK pelagic fleet is facing uncertainty as international negotiations over mackerel with the EU, Norway and the Faeroes continue to drag on, while the white fish sector continues to be squeezed by reduced quotas and days at sea. Moreover, the implementation of marine conservation zones, and the formation of the Marine Management Organisation and the new inshore fisheries and conservation authorities, is under way.

Before I continue, I would like to take this opportunity to join the Minister in paying tribute to our fishermen, who do a very dangerous and increasingly difficult job catching the fish that end up on our plates. In the last 12 years, 120 UK fishermen have died at sea-51 in the under-10 metre sector and 69 in the over-10 metre fleets. Fishing remains one of the most dangerous jobs, and while we talk on a political level in this debate, it is important that we remember that the realities at sea affect not only livelihoods and communities, but the lives of thousands of people. I am also indebted to many fishermen and others in coastal communities for the time they spent with me as I travelled around coastal Britain seeking solutions from those who live and breathe the issues we are discussing. I also wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), who did a lot when holding the post I now occupy. He is a hard act to follow.

1 Dec 2009 : Column 1050

The most recent figures show that there are some 12,761 fishermen in the UK. About 80 per cent. of them are regular and the remainder are part-time. The total number of fishermen is down by a third since 1997, with the catching industry in the UK landing about £645 million-worth of catches, which can result in £800 million to £1.2 billion-worth of economic activity. Behind every fisherman and vessel there is a fishing community, with about five onshore jobs-down from 10-for every fisherman. While much of today's debate will relate to fishermen, we must remember the shore-based jobs as well.

In the past, this annual debate has been limited in scope. We should remind ourselves that the health of our seas is a national concern. I think many of us who were involved in the passage of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 were taken aback by the amount of organisations and ordinary people who lobbied us on that Bill. The Co-op's customer polling showed that a vast number of people across the land-not just in coastal Britain-are now taking an active interest in the health of our seas. If we add the 1.3 million sea anglers, we realise how important a national issue this is.

Consumers have a key role to play in the future of our fisheries. Through the choices they make in supermarkets, they can support innovative schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council accreditation scheme, which has genuine potential to help achieve a sustainable future for our fisheries.

UK household consumption of fish continues to increase. The amount of money spent on fish by consumers jumped from £1.96 billion to £2.57 billion between 1996 and 2005, so this issue has an impact on our food security as well as our economic security. However, while the consumer demand for fish rises, it is no secret that the UK's fisheries are struggling. Dwindling fish stocks and a patchy understanding of the overall state of stocks, overcapacity, wasteful discarding, mismanagement of quota, top-down micro-management, and a common fisheries policy that even Commissioner Joe Borg has described as

Next Section Index Home Page