Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witness (Questions 60-79)

WEDNESDAY 9 MAY 2001

MR ELLIOT MORLEY MP

Mr Mitchell


  60. Could you just tell us what this rejuvenation is?
  (Mr Morley) Yes. It is a matter for DETR in discussion with the local councils. Very roughly, it would fulfil a very similar role to the old PESCA programme, if you remember the PESCA programme, where you could provide financial support for regeneration, elements of investment, some infrastructure works within the ports. I think it could be used in very similar ways to that.

  61. Will that not represent a very small amount of money because £5Ö million to do two things—retraining and rejuvenate—over all the ports that are jumping up and down saying "Can we have a share of this money" seems a little thin on the ground?
  (Mr Morley) Well, not when you take into account that this is additional in terms of the overall budgets of the Regional Development Agencies, of which fishing ports can be included within that for general economic regeneration and general economic investment. This particular sum of money has been ring-fenced for fishing ports in recognition that many English fishing ports are suffering as a result of reduced landings and the impact that has on the whole knock-on consequences through the processing industry and all the allied industries that go with it.

  62. Can it be used for a broad range of projects or does it have to be based on the fishing part of the port?
  (Mr Morley) I think there is a fair degree of flexibility within that but the intention is to benefit and to provide alternative employment within fishing dependent areas.

  63. And improve the quality and value of fish caught is one of the uses of your £11 million?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  64. Which I gather is going to be allocated over the next three years.
  (Mr Morley) That is right.

  65. How will that quality aspect be implemented because I presume that is trying to improve the price and return to the fishermen?
  (Mr Morley) That is designed to invest in such things as new ice making facilities, which I know is an urgent need in Fleetwood, for example, and also to modernise fish holds for example, to improve their refrigerator capacity, because it is about, as you quite rightly say, improving the quality of the fish landed and maximising the price that the industry can get from it. There does seem to be a development of a two tier market with a lot of imported white fish which is going into the processing industry and a premium market for good quality fresh wet fish, such things as the restaurant trade, for example, the export market. We want the industry to have the maximum returns in relation to their catch. It is an area where some public investment is justified in that.

  66. Right. Let us move to sustainability. Mr Portus, writing to the Committee on behalf of South Western Fish Producer Organisation Limited, made a bold statement and I would just be interested in your reaction to it. He said "The risk of any stock being exploited to extinction is infinitesimal. Once a stock reaches the point where commercial exploitation ceases to be viable the fleet leaves it alone and it recovers". This is conservation on auto pilot. How do you respond to that?
  (Mr Morley) I think that is a pretty irresponsible statement. To argue that we do not have to worry about fishing stocks because of commercial extinction because the industry will simply adjust to another stock, I think is a very, very dangerous argument. We have, of course, the Canadian example where the stock was fished so low it has not yet recovered. There are other factors in that such as temperature, for example, but nevertheless many scientists believe that if you fish a stock below its safe biological spawning biomass then there is a very great danger it may not recover. I do not think that any responsible fisheries manager could take that as a serious policy, to simply allow people to fish stocks out on the basis that once they have fished it out they will leave it alone.

  67. Let us go to the other end of the spectrum where you and your Department have made some efforts to define how you will improve the balance between the fishing effort and marine fish stocks. In the MAFF Annual Report for 2001 on page 18, objective 7, PSA target, and I quote, it says "Improve the balance between fishing effort and marine fish stocks by reducing effort by 20 per cent in those sectors of the UK fleet with most over-capacity". Could you describe to the Committee how you decided that the effort reduction had to be 20 per cent and what measurable results will occur as a result of your achieving that target?
  (Mr Morley) I think that is based on scientific advice on a range of fish stocks. I think that is probably an average figure overall because the effort does vary from particular stocks. The effort reduction figures would vary on particular stocks. Effort reduction can be through a combination of measures. We have just been talking about decommissioning, that is one way of reducing effort, but of course bigger mesh sizes, the closed areas, they also have an effect on reducing effort. We are probably well on target overall in the North Sea for reducing effort along those figures.

  68. You say, understandably, it is due to scientific advice but, when you decided this was going to be your target, as a Minister did you sit down with those providing this objective advice and look at a range of figures so that you could say: "Well, let us say if it had been, say, a 30 per cent reduction there would have been a proportionate increase, perhaps in a shorter space of time, of the stocks under the greatest pressure"?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  69. In other words, is there a model that people can play tunes on to decide what the relationship is between your target and the rebuilding of the fish stocks which Mr Deas was telling us about earlier?
  (Mr Morley) That is right. There are models. I have not sat down quite as formally as you are suggesting in relation to deciding on a particular model but in terms of the discussions that we are currently having on phase 2 of the cod recovery programme, that is linked with mesh sizes and calculations on improving the survival rate of juvenile fish. What has been produced there by my own Department is a chart of different mesh sizes, different combinations, amount of fish lost, reduction in effort and also the economic loss to the industry as well. There are figures available on a range of options which give you a range of results so that you can go for a much bigger reduction in effort but, of course, a much bigger subsequent loss to the industry. There are different options you can choose.

  70. Can you just give us a feel of the management strategy for sea bass to ensure long term sustainability of stocks because clearly your target forms part of that. Can you just try and put it into context for us.
  (Mr Morley) Yes. I think the key to it is to reduce juvenile mortality, if you want my opinion on this. There are all sorts of different objectives, issues, outcomes, but in the end I think that the principal problem with European fishing is the sheer killing power of the fleet and the fact that so few juveniles are surviving to maturity to breed. Therefore, the safe level of the breeding biomass has been falling for some time. We need to reverse that trend. I think that has to be the key objective and there are a number of ways that you can do that and, of course, there are a number of options and these are choices which have to be made.

  71. You have followed a traditional line of reducing fishing effort by looking at power of vessels and mesh size.
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  72. One of the biggest contributory factors to the unequal battle between man and fish is modern fish finding technology. Have you thought about de-rating the effect of that equipment?
  (Mr Morley) That is a very interesting suggestion. You could make a very viable argument on that basis but you could only do that if it was done on a European basis. You could not do it unilaterally and, therefore, put our vessels at a disadvantage compared with other vessels. It does raise quite difficult issues in terms of should there be restraints on the technical improvements in relation to the fishing vessels. That is a very hard question to answer because you are back into the realms again of should you interfere with investment within the sector who, of course, are trying to improve their returns and putting money into that new technology or should you have some kind of artificial restraints to try as part of sustainable management? I think these are questions which do deserve some consideration but I would not say there are easy answers to them.

  73. There are never easy answers in this particular area.
  (Mr Morley) Certainly not in fishing, no.

  74. Can you give us a flavour of how you see the general level of support amongst the industry for the current stock recovery programme?
  (Mr Morley) I think there is support amongst the industry. There are differences of opinion which are inevitable. There are arguments about timing of the closures, which in some cases are not unreasonable. I think there was probably an argument for an earlier closure in the Southern North Sea, for example, and that is something that we need to give some thought to. These large scale closed areas are a new concept in relation to fisheries management and, of course, we do have to evaluate the benefits of them. I do believe they do offer a range of benefits. I think they are justified and we did get the majority support within the industry to implement these measures and I very much appreciate that. I think it does demonstrate that the industry are taking conservation management a lot more seriously these days than they have in the past.

  75. Can I just take you on because Wyre Borough Council have written to the Committee and I ask this question because one ward of Wyre Borough happens to be in my own constituency. They say—and this is talking about the Fleetwood Fish Forum—". . . The Forum agrees with the cod recovery programmes which are now in force in the Irish Sea, West of Scotland and the North Sea, but feels that it should be extended to include all species which are being fished outside of safe biological limits". They go on to say "The Forum also feels that the beam trawlers in the Irish Sea should be included in the cod recovery programmes, as they are in the North Sea. Evidence has proved that these vessels have a significant catch of cod and juvenile fish". Now, you mentioned a moment ago your own thoughts on reducing juvenile mortality and here we have the Fleetwood Fish Forum making a contribution to the debate. I would be very interested in your reaction to that?
  (Mr Morley) I very much value the views of the Fleetwood Fish Forum. I have met them on a number of occasions. We do take this seriously. What I would say, Chairman, is that the beam trawlers were not excluded from the Irish Sea cod recovery programme, they were actually barred from the Western side of the Irish Sea. We did put observers on the beam trawlers to actually look at the cod by-catch level and it was very clear from our observer programme that the cod by-catch level on the beamers was much higher on the Western side of the Irish Sea than on the Eastern side where it was actually minimal, frankly, so that was taken into account in the way that the closure was operated so beamers were not excluded from it.

  76. Let me ask you how are you going to monitor the effectiveness of these various recovery plans? How are you going to judge whether they are going to be successful? What are the criteria by which you assess it? There is always a very fearsome debate about the level of fish stocks at any one moment in time. Usually about October or November each year a fearsome debate starts where a challenge is always put forward as to the viability of information. Yet the long term sustainability of the fishery, in judgment terms, now depends on you being able to make some very exacting measures for how successful all these programmes are going to be, not just from the perspective of next year but over a period of years if sustainability is to mean anything.
  (Mr Morley) The measurements are clear: the numbers of fish in the different year classes, so that we can measure the year classes to see whether or not there is an increase in a year class which will lead to an increase in the spawning biomass. The problem, of course, is that there are some natural fluctuations within fish stocks as well, so this is why you always get some arguments about whether or not programmes are successful and whether or not stocks are going through a natural down cycle or the impacts of fishing. Nevertheless, I think our scientific advisers have the experience to measure this and have the experience to interpret the actual figures. I do not think there is any doubt, even within the industry, that many stocks are in a dangerous situation and, therefore, these forms of actions need to be taken.

  77. Let me just ask you one last question. One of the features of the Annual Fisheries Council at the end of the year is the vast amount of horse trading which goes on when either new policies or quotas are put forward. This sometimes seems to fly in the face of the kind of experienced, scientific evidence that you have just alluded to. It would be interesting to have just a word or two from you about how other Member States see all of this because you have given us some very good responses with entirely virtuous replies to the lines of inquiry that have been pursued. Do you think there is any stomach amongst Member States in general to stop horse trading, to look at the science and go with the flow of the guidance it gives, or is that just for the birds, we are going to see them back every year?
  (Mr Morley) I think there has been a shift within the Council of Ministers and you have experienced it yourself, as indeed has the Chairman. What you are saying is not wrong in relation to the way that the Council has traditionally operated. I think that more and more countries are coming to the conclusion that they just cannot go on in this way and that it is in nobody's interest to try to talk up quotas from the scientific advice. Certainly at the last Fisheries Council I cannot think of a stock where people were arguing to go beyond what the scientists were saying. Just about every country accepted the scientific advice even though for nearly all of us, especially the North Sea States, it meant quite drastic cuts in quotas, the biggest cuts in quotas probably that there have ever been. Really there was no serious attempt to argue against that. The attitude of the Commission has changed as well. In the past, even when I first became Minister in 1997, the Commission would put forward proposals that were clearly designed to be changed, so that you could say "we have persuaded the Commission to give us X amount of extra fish". As the years have gone on, and indeed last year, the Commission has put forward generally quite realistic proposals on the science and has been really very resistant to move from them, and has not moved from them, much to the anguish of some Member States who traditionally had expected to see that kind of movement. I think that is the right approach. I think it is much better to stick to the science and where there is some room for argument— We did have some argument at the Commission because the Commission this year were recommending cuts in quotas that went beyond what the scientists were saying. I think when you recommend cuts going beyond what the scientists are saying it is not unreasonable to challenge on what basis the Commission is making those proposals. That was where the argument was this year. The argument was really centred on where the Commission was going beyond scientific advice. I think there has been a genuine shift in the Council of Ministers.

  78. Can we move on to the issue of a level playing field, or a level fishing ground, because fishing is a much misunderstood industry, particularly by former Ministers of Fishing it seems to me. It does have a genuine grievance in the sense that it does not get the same degree of financial support from its Government, or indeed from Europe, that competing industries get, but it does get the continuous imposition of charges which competing industries do not have to bear. The NFFO this morning gave us a few instances, like inspection charges, the cost of satellite equipment. You could add dock and port charges to the list. Is it reasonable that these charges should go on increasing? Most of them are not imposed by MAFF but by other departments. Is it reasonable that these charges should go on increasing as a burden on an industry which is in such financial difficulty?
  (Mr Morley) There is always going to be an argument about such things as charges and there is always going to be an argument about how reasonable it is to apply charges on to the industry. That is a legitimate debate and we are obviously going to have that debate and I am always willing to listen to representations from the industry. We should not assume that all the costs in the UK industry are higher than competing European industries. We have already had a discussion about such things as social taxes, corporation taxes, business taxes, which are significantly lower in the UK for our industry—

  79. That is not for all taxes.
  (Mr Morley) Just let me finish. It is significantly lower for the UK industry than it is for other European industries.


 
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