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"inefficient, expensive and too complex"
Of course, when debating the future of our fisheries, we cannot simply look at the industry. A more holistic approach must be adopted that takes into account the fact that fisheries play a vital environmental, as well as recreational, role, with UK waters housing 50 per cent. of total UK biodiversity, and recreational sea anglers contributing £538 million to the economy and supporting 19,000 jobs.
Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that three years ago the Conservative policy was to get out of the common fisheries policy because it is so disastrous, but a U-turn was performed by his current leader. Is his leader minded to do another U-turn and actually help the fishing community by getting out of the CFP?
I am not going to waste my breath going down this long avenue of discussion, as we can address it on another occasion and we are currently talking about the fishing industry. If I ever find myself in the lucky position of holding the office the Minister present occupies, I will put all my energies into pushing at what
I believe is an open door in Europe, in the light of the green paper that the European Commission recently published. I will talk about that shortly.
I look forward to the day when Parliament can debate fisheries in a positive and upbeat fashion, rather than approaching the industry as one that seems, usually through no fault of its own, to lurch from one crisis to another. How much better it would be to take this opportunity to applaud the industry for sustainably harvesting the seas in a way that contributes to a healthy product that is much needed for our food security and our national well-being. That is a future to which we can all aspire.
I wish to speak about not only the industry but the marine environment. I am of the opinion that those two strands are not at odds: they are two sides of the same coin, with fishermen playing a fundamentally important role in the achievement of a sustainable future for UK fisheries. As I have travelled around fishing communities, I have been struck by how many fishermen are the sons and grandsons of fishermen, and by how many want their sons and grandsons, in turn, to go into the business. The concept of stewardship is alive and well in coastal communities, and we in Parliament must do all we can to support it.
I cannot help but feel that the use of a sweeping term such as "the UK fishing industry" is misleading in some way. The UK fishing industry houses a diverse range of interests that could not be more different in the way they operate and even in the species they fish for. The UK is home to a diverse and varied fishing community, ranging from recreational sea anglers and small independently owned inshore vessels to large commercial vessels backed by producer organisations. The industry is home to the inshore, offshore, under-10 metre and over-10 metre fleets, as well as the trawlers, pole and line vessels and producer organisations. More diversity could not be housed in one industry. One of the most useful statistics I have been given is that 51 per cent. of the UK catch is landed in three ports, which means that 49 per cent. is landed in 280 ports. I want to make sure that those 280 ports remain viable, and that the people who support the fishing industry in those communities can have an industry of which they can be proud.
Mr. Weir: I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that fishermen need to be consulted on changes in the marine environment, particularly in respect of offshore renewables, about which many fishermen in my constituency have serious concerns? I have put them in touch with the developers and their concerns are being addressed, but it is important that fishermen feel part of that negotiation and do not have things imposed upon them.
Mr. Benyon: I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I have not given the Scottish marine Bill the same detailed examination that I gave our marine Bill, for obvious reasons, but I can say that the concept of marine spatial planning-although that term is ghastly, it is important-was vital in the English Bill. Fishermen should be involved in that decision right from the start. There is much in terms of marine conservation and marine renewables that can work together if things are done in the right way.
Unfortunately, it is not just our use of language that has failed to reflect the diversity I was just discussing. More worryingly, the approach taken to the management of our fisheries has, to date, failed to take into account the diverse range of interests and issues confronting us. A micro-managed approach to fisheries has meant that for too long we have been trying to push square blocks into round holes, forcing the whole industry to conform to over-centralised regulation without taking into account the difference among its constituent parts. As a result, fishermen are struggling to survive in some areas, whereas there is latent capacity in others; and there are shockingly high rates of discard of certain species of fish and dwindling stocks of others, as well as disproportionate allocations of quota between sectors.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): On discarding, is my hon. Friend aware of a voluntary trial in the west country by south-west trawlermen? They are experimenting with increased mesh sizes and changing their gear to try to reduce the number of unwanted fish that are caught, and early reports indicate that there has been a 60 per cent. reduction in discards. Is that not the sort of bottom-up, voluntary approach we should be encouraging?
Mr. Benyon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because that is precisely the point I am coming on to make. The Minister touched on this issue, but I believe that much more can be done to empower fishermen to be the solution, rather than being seen by too many people as the problem. The scheme that my hon. Friend outlines is an absolute model for management in the future. I shall discuss why that is so important and why it remains my intention to see it work in the future.
I will take this opportunity also to pay tribute to the Scottish fishing industry. I have been impressed by what I have seen in the way of real-time closures, the conservation credits scheme, the technical measures that have been adopted and the serious approach taken to sustainability responsibilities that the fishermen themselves have implemented. Scottish fishermen must not take all the praise, because a lot of good work is going on in England-in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere.
It is clear that the current system of quota management is not working. It has served to encourage discarding and has driven many fishermen out of business. This Government have repeatedly stumbled over quota allocation-for example, distributing quota among the 10-metre and under and over-10 metre fleets in a completely disproportionate and haphazard manner. That has resulted in the 4,833 10-metre and under vessels receiving only 3 per cent. of the national quota, compared with the 96 per cent. that goes to the over-10 metre fleet, which has about 1,500 vessels. As I have said to the Minister before-he wants to corner me on this-I am not in the business of impoverishing one sector to the benefit of another, but even those running large producer organisations say to me, "If you get into government, for goodness' sake do something about the under-10 metre fleet in England and Wales." That is because it has for too long suffered from the completely disproportionate sharing of the cake.
A further example of not quite getting it right is the somewhat unusual idea of a "cod quota lottery" for this year's remaining under-10 metre area VIId cod, which was recently proposed by the Marine and Fisheries Agency. The scheme proposes that rather than the remaining cod quota being split between the 183 cod catcher vessels in area VIId, 36 vessels would be chosen at random in a lottery draw to receive the allocation of quota between them. I have a copy of a letter from the MFA explaining the scheme. It is dated 20 November and it states:
"Applications for the draw are invited now and that list will be closed on Thursday November 26th."
If the idea were not bizarre enough, I discovered that no consultation was made with the inshore sector about the lottery. It is being sold as a way of making the allocation of cod quota in area VIId "fair to all", but in the fishermen's opinion it is doing the exact opposite, creating infighting and a completely unlevel playing field in the sector.
When I meet fishermen up and down the country I hear the same story of the reality of fish stocks not being reflected in quota. We absolutely must underpin quota allocation with science, but that science should be informed by the fishermen as well. Partnerships between scientists and fishermen are a great step forward and a genuine opportunity to obtain coherent data on fish stocks that would, in turn, allow us to manage our quota more effectively. I hope the Minister will do all that he can to encourage those partnerships and gain a better insight into UK fish stocks.
On one of my visits to the east coast, I was made aware by a local fisherman of a scheme called the environmental responsibility fishing project, which was abruptly cancelled last month. The scheme took 30 under-10 metre vessels, removed restrictions on what they caught and allowed them to land all of their catch. Apparently, the scheme's purpose was to give the Marine and Fisheries Agency a better indication of what levels of stock there were in a particular area.
The boats were allocated 2 per cent. of total allowable catch, but they ended up catching around 20 per cent. because of the amount of cod in that area. They finished catching cod in late May, but at the beginning of November, just as the cod season was about to begin, they were told that the scheme was cancelled. They were given 500 kg of quota a month, which most of the vessels were catching in a day. Naturally, there was considerable concern among the fishermen about how to make a living in the period up to the next quota year.
It is my understanding that the fishermen involved in the scheme got no warning that the experiment was going to be stopped. If there is a theme here, it is that
fishermen are not being consulted when they should be. Many had to invest considerable amounts of time and money in getting sustainable gear for selective fishing, but they cannot now pursue those methods as they are not in possession of any additional quota. I understand that pilot schemes have to be stopped if they are not working, but the apparent lack of consultation with the fishing industry is more than worrying.
I am under no illusions: if I were to be in the Minister's place after the election, I would not have a magic wand to wave to solve the many problems that the industry is facing, but the industry is in crisis and the issue of quota allocation is complex. A quota system that suits one sector of the fishing industry might be completely unsuitable for the other. It is therefore imperative that we move away from a blanket approach and that we look at quota not only on a fishery-by-fishery basis but also in terms of vessels.
That is a prime example of how the CFP is not working at the moment. Most of our fisheries are mixed and micromanagement from Brussels simply does not work here. Innovation, localism, devolved powers-those are the way forward. Whatever we have to do, there must be a fairer way of dividing up quota than the one that we have currently.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has spent a commendable amount of time talking about the 10-metre and under sector. As I am sure he has found out from his travels north and south of the border, in many cases it is that sector that supports the village-based industry. Would he be willing to extend the localism that he is talking about as far down as those components of the village-based fishing industry?
Mr. Benyon: I absolutely am giving that assurance to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because I think that localism is best. I shall come on to talk about the over-10 metre sector as well, but I am encouraged by the direction of travel in the debate. The Minister has also touched on the fact that there is a fair amount of agreement here. There is an opportunity to devolve power so that fishermen, even at a really local level, can take control of the industry. The inshore fisheries and conservation authorities may be the appropriate vehicle by which they can reverse the burden of proof so that they can be trusted to deliver genuine change and police themselves. I shall deal with that briefly in the short time that I have left.
Discards are a further symptom of the failure of the current system of quotas, as a number of hon. Members have noted already. According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, 45 per cent. of cod caught in the North sea last year were discarded. Much higher levels of discards are reported in more inshore waters. The reality of discards can be seen on the north-east coast, where fishermen operating in a mixed fishery are being forced to discard the whiting that is being caught in abundance due to a reduction in TAC.
The overall TAC is not being caught but the UK quota means that vessels have had to discard whiting from March onwards this year. If the proposed reductions go ahead next year, they claim that they will be discarding from January, and that is a prime example of the current inflexibility of the EU's TAC and quota system.
However, I was pleased by the Minister's confirmation that the Government are backing the Aalborg declaration of earlier this year. That has shown a commitment at last to tackling discards, as it allows fishermen to land all of their catch. The Minister will be aware that that reflects a policy discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster over the past year. The commitment is welcome, but it would have been better if the UK had been able to take the lead and put its own policy on discards in place. We need to go further than these headline announcements. We need to be firm in calling on the EU to take a more flexible approach and give the UK the opportunity to pilot schemes for local management in our fisheries to reduce discards.
We should not be making disjointed and largely unsuccessful efforts to confront the issues facing our industry. The Minister touched on decommissioning, but I think he is on thin ice with that issue. If I had been in his position, with the millions of pounds that have been spent on decommissioning, I think I could have made a better job of rebalancing the industry. I would have held the quota that he allowed to remain with individuals as a national asset and given it- [ Interruption. ] It was in the Minister's gift to give it to whatever groups of fishermen he felt had been unfairly treated.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I am sorry for wasting other hon. Members' time by intervening on this point, but it is important that we hear the hon. Gentleman's view. Is he suggesting that we give it to the under-10s? Because that was what we did.
Mr. Benyon: The Minister gave a small amount to the under-10s, but if that quota had been held, millions of pounds of decommissioning money could have been spent much more effectively on rebalancing the industry. I will be happy to discuss this with him at any time, but I think he got that one badly wrong.
Of course, the EU and member states have an oversight role, but day-to-day management must be devolved to a local level. Irresponsible fishermen must be taken to task, but they are the minority. The majority of fishermen are responsible stewards of our seas, and they are keen to be trusted and given the responsibility to make a difference to the fisheries on which they rely.
I draw hon. Members' attention to the common fisheries policy Green Paper, because it gives the industry an opportunity to become less decentralised. I commend the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations for producing a very good paper, in which it talks about an approach of sustainable fishing plans, which is similar to a policy that I have discussed as I have gone around the country. The proposal is for three to five-year plans in which technical measures and accreditation schemes could be assessed, and the burden of proof could be reversed. The approach would not only have additional benefit for fishermen, because how much more fun would it be for someone to work for the MFA or the marine maritime organisation if they could say not, "You can't do this, and if you try that, we'll criminalise
you," but, "We'll educate you, provide you with the means by which you can change the way you fish, and support you in trying to fish more sustainably"? That would be a much better way to proceed, so I pay tribute to the NFFO for bringing its proposal forward as part of the debate on CFP reform.
The top-down, centralised approach that has been followed thus far cannot continue if we are to achieve sustainable fisheries. With CFP reforms on the horizon, we must seize the opportunity for wholesale reform that decentralises day-to-day management of fisheries to a local level. We must trust fishermen's knowledge of their fisheries and allow them to lead the way on fisheries management. Regional advisory councils already provide an effective model for that, and if the new inshore fisheries and conservation authorities created by the 2009 Act are implemented effectively, they will offer real potential for devolving responsibility to where the knowledge really lies.
Getting the reform right is of utmost importance to thousands of British fishermen. The current version of the CFP has been almost universally acknowledged as a disaster for both the fishing industry and the health of the marine environment. It has failed to provide a sustainable future for our fishermen and failed to protect our fish stocks. There is no room for back-seat politics when it comes to CFP reform. If I am lucky enough to find myself in the Minister's position, my party and I will engage at every level in the EU to ensure that we get the best possible deal for the future of fishermen. The European Commission has opened a window of opportunity for the radical reform of the common fisheries policy and it is imperative that the Minister and anyone who follows him exercise as much influence as possible over the reforms.
As I have said, the issues affecting fisheries do not begin and end with the industry. If our fisheries are to have a sustainable future, we must take steps to conserve fish stocks and rebalance the industry so that effort does not outstrip supply. The 2009 Act has provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to carry out meaningful and effective conservation measures for our seas. The creation of marine conservation zones, IFCAs and the Marine Management Organisation is a positive step in the right direction. It was a pleasure to work on the Act as it proceeded through Parliament, and the cross-party consensus that operated in a bid to put the legislation on the statute book was a model of how to take such a measure through the House.
We have, however, done the easy bit. I remember seeing a look of satisfaction on the faces of many hon. Members as we passed the Act, but MCZs must be thoughtfully implemented and properly managed. Enacting a Bill is, in a sense, just a process-it is the outcomes that really matter. It is imperative that the designation of MCZs is an ongoing, flexible process that addresses the wide range of environmental challenges facing the marine environment. We also need a buy-in from fishermen, but that will be achieved only if we work with them, rather than impose measures on them. The Minister commented in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on conservation areas and special protected areas. If Natural England is true to its word, MCZs will be implemented in a balanced process that will involve fishermen at an early stage.
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