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Session 2000-01
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European Standing Committee A Debates

Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

European Standing Committee A

Monday 11 December 2000

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

4.30 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. You will be aware that, in effect, this is the major fisheries debate of the year and the one opportunity that Members usually have to discuss the fishing industry. To my certain knowledge, the subject has in years past sometimes received a full day's debate and, in recent times, been subjected to at least a half-day's debate. I understand why the Government want to conceal the debate in the relative obscurity of this Committee, but do you, Mr. O'Brien, have the right, if you felt it right to do so, to say that this matter should be more properly heard on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls). I have taken part in all fisheries debates, which have always taken place on the Floor of the House. They have always been full-length debates, in which all hon. Members have had the opportunity to express their views. Such matters affect the whole of this Parliament. There is an opinion abroad that, because such measures come from Europe, we can do nothing but rubber-stamp them. It is a point of fact that we should have the opportunity to vote against such measures if we felt it necessary to do so.

The Chairman: Order. I am sure Government Front Benchers have heard those comments. They are not points of order for me. I have been summonsed here to chair the debate.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I am happy to deal with the points of order that have been raised about the nature of the debate. It is true that it has been the custom to hold this debate on the Floor of the House, but we wanted to hold it prior to the Fisheries Council debate on stocks and quotas. This sitting has therefore become the annual fisheries debate—a custom that I respect. It is important that hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent fishing areas have a say in such matters, and I very much regret that, because of the timing of prorogation, it has not been possible to hold such a debate on the Floor of the House,.

It is essential that hon. Members have the opportunity to scrutinise such proposals before the December Council. I was anxious that they had the chance to do so, which is why a Scrutiny Committee has been arranged at short notice to consider the long explanatory memorandum. That is not to say that I do not accept the points that have been made about the need for a full debate. I have raised the matter with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and strongly put the case that, as we are holding this debate in Committee prior to the Fisheries Council, we should hold our annual debate in the new year.

I shall concentrate my remarks very much on the total allowable catches and quotas, but hon. Members should be aware that—whatever the outcome of the Fisheries Council—there is widespread agreement that we need a North sea cod recovery programme. Indeed, we need a hake recovery programme in the south-west, too. The details of that recovery programme will not be discussed until January. There are important issues to be debated following the Fisheries Council, and hon. Members should consider this debate on the setting of the quotas and TACs as phase one of a multi-phase approach to deal with fish stock management in the North sea. I am not the Leader of the House, so I cannot make promises on business, but I sympathise with the points that have been raised and undertake to ensure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the strength of feeling about the need for a proper, thorough debate, in order that a host of issues can be raised.

This is the second year that the European Commission has produced a single consolidated text instead of submitting more than 20 separate draft regulations covering TACs and quotas. That is a welcome improvement. Sadly, however, that procedure has not speeded up the Commission's proposals. We, as the United Kingdom Parliament, have made it clear that we are anxious to receive the proposals as early as possible so that the industry and hon. Members have time to consider them, and we shall continue to press the matter.

There is no doubt that negotiations at this year's Fisheries Council will be difficult. North sea cod stocks, in particular, are in poor shape. I do not believe that there is disagreement among various parties about that. The main debate will be how to tackle such a problem. The difficulties in this year's negotiations are compounded by the serious scientific advice on the state of a range of stocks and the scale of quota cuts that will be needed if stocks are to be managed sustainably—a matter that demands careful consideration.

I accept that quotas and TACs are just one approach to fisheries management. I do not want members of the Committee to think that I, as Minister, or the Government think that only one approach should be taken. We should also be thinking of other ways in which to manage fish stocks.

Mr. Gill rose—

The Chairman: Order. No interventions must be made on the Minister's statement. Questions will be taken afterwards.

Mr. Morley: Despite the efforts of the Commission to obtain the advice sooner, the scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea arrived only in November. It has to be analysed, and then we will try to make the proposals. The scientific advice of ICES is in accordance with the precautionary approach. It aims to keep stocks well above levels at which they are in danger of collapse. I have made it clear on several occasions that it is important to follow the scientific advice on setting fishery stocks.

Last year, the advice from ICES was one of the most severe for a decade. Its advice this year is even more severe. That is of great concern because scientists believe that cod in both the North sea and the west of Scotland is at risk of collapse. Northern hake is also in poor shape. Many other stocks are now also assessed as either outside safe biological limits or as fished at excessively high levels. As a result, scientists have recommended significant cuts for many stocks, including most of those that are important to the United Kingdom industry. Although the situation in the North sea is poor, in many ways it is even worse in the west of Scotland, where the cod stock is close to collapse. Big cuts in the TAC are recommended. The biggest proposed cuts in the TAC are of stocks that are of particular interest to our industry.

As in previous years, no adjustment has been made in the proposals for national quota allocations to take account of the Hague preference, which provides a safety net for quotas of certain species for the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. That device was hard won by the United Kingdom. It is disliked by member states that lose quota as a result, especially when severe cuts in TACs are recommended. The United Kingdom has always acted responsibly when invoking Hague preference, and I am still considering what invocations we should make this year. Above all, I shall be looking for the outcome that best furthers the interests of the United Kingdom industry and promotes the achievement of our objectives in those difficult negotiations. I am looking for an overall package from those discussions.

The Commission's proposals for TACs in 2001 generally follow the advice of ICES but, in several important cases, are even more severe. Moreover, for stocks that are caught together with cod or hake, the Commission is proposing cuts in TACs of 20 per cent.—even when there is no specific advice on them. We would usually expect the TACs to be rolled over. I understand the reason for the Commission's action. It is concerned about reducing efforts on cod. It recognises that it is a mixed fishery and part of its solution to the problem is to reduce the quotas on a range of mixed species that are caught with cod. I do not necessarily consider that that is the right way in which to deal with the problem. Nor do I think that it is justified—an approach that I shall explain in a moment.

Some of the proposed cuts, particularly on flatfish and nephrops, are certainly excessive and difficult to justify given scientific evidence. I have made it clear in meetings with the industry that I will base the United Kingdom approach on the scientific evidence. That is right, proper and responsible. Of course, if the Commission is arguing for cuts that are not based on scientific evidence, there is a case for challenging those figures—and that would be my position. The industry is facing a difficult time as a result of the decline of those stocks, and we must not make that worse with unnecessarily severe cuts in other stocks. Instead, we must ensure that properly targeted measures are developed under a cod and hake recovery scheme.

I want to emphasise that seeking less severe cuts than those proposed by the Commission does not mean that we are failing to take the scientific advice seriously. ICES provides it in good faith, and after thorough stock assessment and analysis we cannot ignore it. However, in a profoundly difficult year, it is hard to justify going beyond what ICES is arguing for.

I would strongly support a North sea cod recovery plan. I am pleased that the industry has made it clear that it wants to work alongside the Commission and ourselves in developing that, and I have made it clear that I am anxious that the industry be involved at all levels, as it has been on the Irish sea cod recovery plan, which, I am glad to see, is showing signs of improvement.

North sea cod is going to be the focus of this year's negotiations. Catch levels are already well down. The quota that was negotiated last year has not been fully taken up by the industry. Frankly, it has been difficult to find the cod to catch. There does not seem to be much prospect of an improvement in the cod fishery over the next couple of years. The number of young fish recruited to the fishery in 1998 was by far the lowest in more than 30 years. In those circumstances, not only is a deep cut in the TAC for next year inevitable, but special recovery measures are needed, and we will be talking about those.

Although the TAC for cod was cut by 39 per cent. for 2000, the UK fleet has not managed to catch its full quota, which confirms the problem. It has been suggested that there is now nothing we can do to help the cod recover. The argument is that cod are victims of global warming and that higher sea temperatures have drastically reduced recruitment. That is only part of the story, although it is fair to say that cod tend to breed best when the temperature is lowest. There are now so few mature cod in the breeding stock that fishing has become dangerously dependent on the level of juveniles recruited to the fishery each year, which can vary significantly. Current levels are low, so it is inevitable that there will be exceptionally steep cuts in TACs. We must rebuild that stock and reduce the discards of juveniles. We must tackle that issue and that of juvenile mortality to avoid such variations in TACs and the dislocation that that brings to the industry.

ICES has recommended that, in the light of the high probability of the collapse of cod stocks, a stock rebuilding plan is required in the North sea and west of Scotland. There is no doubt that the scientific advice should be taken seriously. The industry accepts that, just as it accepts the northern hake recovery plan. I appreciate the support that we have had from the industry in the Irish sea cod recovery plan, which demonstrates such improvement that there may be a case for arguing for a slightly increased cod TAC in the Irish sea.

I have grave concerns about proposals from the presidency for deep water species, and I will make sure that that concern is voiced. Given the outcome from the Norwegian discussions—which were fair in the circumstances—negotiations between the EU and Norway are important in setting the scene for proposals on cod, haddock and whiting in the forthcoming Fisheries Council. The Council negotiations might be the most difficult for some years—certainly since I have been the Minister responsible. I recognise the impact and the potential socio-economic impact on the industry as a consequence of some of the cuts. However, stocks are under severe pressure, and unless we take action to deal with the problem it will jeopardise the future sustainability of the fishing industry in the UK and in Europe. I also recognise that TACs and quotas are only one approach. We need to consider the technical gear, the possibility of closed areas and, above all, how to minimise juvenile discards.

My objective at the Council will be to secure the best overall deal for the UK industry, consistent with science and the need to ensure sustainability in our fishing industry. I have consulted in some detail with the industry, and I shall have further meetings with it. I want to involve the industry in the discussions to ensure that when we proceed, especially in the recovery programme, we have its input, views and, I hope, co-operation in implementing recovery programmes.


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