Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

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The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that we have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister, which should be brief and asked one at a time to give ample opportunity for us to proceed. We shall move on to the debate at 5.30 pm.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Given the proposed savage cuts in quotas to which the Minister alluded and the current fuel crisis and under-investment in the fishing industry, does he genuinely believe that the UK fishing industry has a future, in either the short term or the medium term? If so, what does he as the Minister responsible propose to do to secure that future?

Mr. Morley: I do believe that the industry has a future. This is a difficult period; there is no denying that. Fuel prices have impacted on the fishing industry, especially on sections with vessels that have high fuel consumption, such as the beam fleet. However, I disagree about investment. There has been significant investment in the industry, along with much new building, innovation and development of new species and stocks. There are encouraging signs of potential recruitment in stocks such as haddock, which has a good year class coming through. Whiting seems to be increasing, as does saithe, and nephrops stocks seem to be quite good, too, so it is not all doom and gloom. However, there is no doubt that it will be a difficult year for the industry, on top of a range of cuts and increased fuel prices.

In examining the implications of the recovery programme, one matter that I shall discuss with the industry, along with the details of the programme, is whether a case can be made for structural measures to help it deal with some of the challenges. I am prepared to sit down and discuss the matter with the industry.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I am glad that the Minister recognises the impact of the recent fuel crisis on the fishing industry. As he will know, trawlers leaving Whitby have further to go because of environmental problems in the industry. Can trawlermen in my constituency look forward to any short-term aid to help see them through the short-term problems that will be experienced as a result of the package that he is proposing to negotiate at the end of the week?

Mr. Morley: I must be frank with my hon. Friend: there is not much chance of our giving subsidies for fuel as a short-term measure. We cannot do that; it is not legal, and in many ways it is not desirable in tackling the problems that the industry faces. I recognise the difficulties that the industry is experiencing, to which my hon. Friend has referred on many occasions. We should try to tackle those problems on a permanent basis, and if the industry is experiencing structural and overcapacity problems, we should be working on those aspects. If investment is needed, we should be considering where that investment should go. One area of investment that we should be considering is in quality, to maximise the return that fishermen gain from their catch. Funds are available for that, and I am prepared to discuss the matter with the industry.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he was going to concentrate on the scientific evidence, because the proposal to cut nephrop fishing by 20 per cent. is causing most concern in the north Northumberland and Berwickshire coastal fishery. I was pleased to hear him say that the evidence for such a cut is less than scientific. It seems dubious to cut someone's income by 20 per cent. for the rather fanciful objective of possibly saving some cod in the by-catch. Will the Minister be robust and take a red line with him to the Fisheries Council, and make it on nephrop?

Mr. Morley: I am always interested in red lines, as long as people do not step over them. The hon. Gentleman is right: I have made it clear to the industry that I am prepared to take difficult and tough decisions based on scientific research. That will impact on the industry and cause it short-term pain; there are no two ways about that. However, I find it hard to justify cuts that will cause the industry pain when there is no scientific basis. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that that is true of North sea nephrops—I do not see a scientific basis for a cut of 20 per cent., and I will resist it. Although I understand the Commission's position on the impact of mixed fisheries and the need to reduce the effort on cod, there are ways in which to target reduced effort as part of a proper recovery plan. One does not need to take such a broad sweep approach, which means cuts in other quotas that are not justified on a scientific basis.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): My hon. Friend the Minister, in his master exposition of a disastrous situation, mentioned the Hague preference. We did not invoke that last year, even though it would have triggered an automatic catch for this country. We could have invoked it but did not because the Minister accurately predicted that we would not catch the quota—as we did not. Does he think that we might invoke it this year? Under the Norway-European Union agreement, the cod quota stands at 45 per cent. but, in that agreement, haddock and cod are linked so that, should we catch the quota this year, North sea haddock fishing will automatically stop. Will the Minister invoke the Hague preference to prevent that from happening?

Mr. Morley: I agree with my hon. Friend, who knows the industry well, that the cod and haddock fisheries are linked through the quotas. I stand by my decision of last year in not invoking the Hague preference, for which I was criticised by the industry. The outcome of one's overall negotiating position can become an issue, and I did not feel that invoking the Hague preference was justified for what would have been paper fish. I was not prepared to argue for a quota that the industry could not catch. Frankly, too much of that sort of thing has happened in the past—it has led us into the problems that we face today. Contrary to what the industry often believes, all Ministers want to do their best for it, and its needs tend to influence them deeply. In the past, that has led them to argue for unsustainable positions on quota.

I have made it clear to the industry that I want to be guided by science on the question of quota. The position that I took last year has been justified by events, as people in the industry will privately concede, although they did not say so in public. The same will apply this year: invoking the Hague preference is not automatic. I argue strongly that it is a right for this country, which we have enshrined within the principle of relative civility. That is the position that I will take. I will consider carefully how we invoke Hague preference and what the impact might be, but as part of an overall negotiated outcome. We must consider what we want to be the total package of fish stocks for the entire country and all regions of the country.

Mr. Nicholls: What horrified people in the west country were not simply the annual, ritually proposed cuts. As the Minister rightly says, the cut proposed was way beyond the scientists' recommendation. Apparently, scientists have said that the stock of whiting is within safe limits in areas VIIb to VIIk. That is a catch of particular interest to fishermen selling out of Plymouth, Looe and Brixham. However, cuts to the quota are proposed. As for sole in area VIId, scientists say that the quota could be raised, but the Commission talks of reducing it. I have seen it stated in the press that fishermen, who after all should know something about the matter, believe that sole in area VIIe are abundant and sizeable.

The Minister's remarks that his decision will be based on science come as some reassurance. Does he accept that a lie is given to the entire process by the fact that baby fish—fish below the age of reproduction—are not simply a by-product or a discard under the common fisheries policy? It is actually illegal to catch fish below the age of sexual maturity. If the Commission wants to be taken seriously on this matter, it must meet the Minister's objection about sticking with the science as the basis of the system. It is unsustainable for the Commission to posture as it does—saying that it is worried about fish stocks while allowing underage fish to be caught because it suits the eating habits of some EU partners. That is a difficult issue, which must be grasped.

Mr. Morley: This is a difficult issue, and, unusually, I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the matter. The issue of the minimum landing size for a range of species must be addressed, but there is logic in what the Commission says. The minimum landing size is linked with mesh size. If one wanted to raise minimum landing size and cut discards, one would probably have to increase mesh size. Currently, minimum landing sizes are based on fish that are a proportion of the discards happening now—the Commission has made those discards marketable. Changing the minimum land size would not alter the discards. I happen to agree that that approach is not right; it sends the wrong signals. I would prefer a bigger mesh size and bigger minimum landing size. As part of the negotiations, I shall make sure that the change to the Commission's proposals on the minimum landing size for plaice, which we negotiated last year, will become permanent this year.

I would be the first to admit that the common fisheries policy has its faults. Traditional fisheries management is applied in relation to quotas and TACs in Norway and Iceland, which also have problems with declining cod catches. I am not saying that such management cannot be improved or that we should not address issues such as the juvenile by-catch.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): This morning on Radio Scotland, a North sea fisherman complained that the quota system was a blunt instrument to control fish stocks. His biggest complaint was about the amount of discards. In his words, we are throwing away perfectly good food. I was pleased to hear the Minister talking about reducing juvenile discards. Will he expand on the proposals, for which he will press, to cut discards?

[MR. LAWRIE QUINN in the Chair]

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