Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

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Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend is right. Quota policy is a blunt instrument—there is no denying that. However, we have discussed the matter with other EU members for many years, and it is difficult to find an alternative. There must be a biological limit on how many of a particular species can be taken out of the sea, and there must also be a mechanism for distributing the fish quota among producer organisations and the fishing industry in the UK. Quota management is well understood and easy to enforce, which is why it is the traditional form of fisheries management in all countries, not just the European Union.

I accept, however, that we must find a more sophisticated approach that involves multi-annual quotas and banking and borrowing, which are being introduced in this country and the European Union. We must also consider the issue of by-catch. Although the fisherman to whom my hon. Friend referred was concentrating on the issue of marketable fish that are discarded because of a closed end of quota, the bulk of the discards are juvenile fish caught as a by-catch of normal fishing methods. We must address that through the cod recovery programme.

Mr. Gill: Further to the issue of discards, does the Minister not accept that one of the perverse, but inevitable, consequences of reducing quotas will be to increase discards?

Mr. Morley: Not necessarily, as it depends on the balance between the various stocks. It also depends on the nature of the recovery plan introduced in relation to effort control.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central): My hon. Friend the Minister has painted a fairly gloomy picture. I am deeply concerned about the question asked by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), as I think that it is important not to talk the industry down. My hon. Friend will be aware, from his recent meeting with fish processors from Aberdeen, Grimsby and Hull, that the industry has a positive attitude. It recognises that it has temporary difficulties, but believes that it has a future in the long term. I welcome his comments about having a proper debate early in the new session. If, by that time, the Minister has received the report from the Sea Fish Industry Authority on a 10-year strategy for the industry, it should be published as quickly as possible and form part of the debate. In times of crisis or pressure we need a proper debate on the issues that affect the fishing industry.

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend makes a sensible suggestion. He is aware that we have taken up the Agriculture Committee's thoughtful recommendation to develop a strategy for the United Kingdom fishing industry. As my hon. Friend rightly said, that is under formulation; January or February would be a good time to discuss a range of fishing industry issues.

This has been a difficult year for the industry—there are no two ways about it. But it is important not to talk down the industry and to recognise that because of the measures introduced in the past two or three years—at some pain to the industry in terms of recovery—some stocks are coming back. That is an encouraging sign, which shows that short-term pain can bring about longer-term gain in respect of fish stocks and sustainability.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): I welcome the Minister's assurance that he will be sticking robustly to the science in negotiations with his counterparts in Europe, especially on the potential collateral fallout in respect of whiting, saithe and nephrops from the necessary cut in the cod quota in the North sea. However, the Minister said little about the impact of the draconian cut in the hake quota, especially in the western approaches. I hope that he will elaborate on that matter, because British fishermen, especially Cornishmen, who catch hake in the western approaches are targeting larger fish; their continental colleagues catch juvenile hake and need to catch 200 times as many to get the same value at landing. That is a serious matter. If the Minister wants a satisfactory outcome for hake quotas for the United Kingdom, he must tackle the issue of technical measures and larger mesh sizes to stop the catching of juvenile fish.

Mr. Morley: Yes, I accept the hon. Gentleman's arguments. There is much more of a problem with Bay of Biscay hake stocks than with others. There is a problem with hake stocks generally and I accept the science on it. However, I am not sure that the Commission has interpreted the science correctly; its case for the scale of cuts in respect of northern hake may not stand up to proper, scientific scrutiny and we shall challenge it on that matter.

The hon. Gentleman is right about hake; I have spoken to fishermen from his constituency about the matter and the juvenile hake problem must be tackled. It is true that in the west country fishermen tend to target the bigger species, which is more selective. A fisherman to whom I spoke did not quite take the point that he was killing the breeding stock—juvenile mortality is high; therefore, killing mature fish has more of an impact than killing juvenile fish. However, the key is to get more juvenile fish to survive to maturity and to breed.

[MR. BILL O'BRIEN in the Chair]

Mr. Mitchell: What is the Minister's position on industrial fishing? If there are to be strict cuts in quotas and a new regime encompassing closing spawning grounds, different mesh sizes, and so on, all of which are necessary, it is ludicrous that we should also allow industrial fishing. The present system is bound to mean that young, edible cod and haddock are caught, turning the fishing grounds into a primordial soup. Why is industrial fishing not stopped in the crucial areas?

Mr. Morley: It should be stopped. My hon. Friend knows where I stand on industrial fishing, as my views have been consistent for a long time. The United Kingdom has made some progress in introducing closed areas for industrial fishing of sandeels for the first time. The problem, however, is lack of definitive science; when we argue about the matter in the Council of Ministers, it comes down to science and what can and cannot be demonstrated. I feel that, if the bulk of the biomass catch from the North sea is taken as industrial fishing, it must impact on the availability of food and potentially on the juvenile species. The TAC for sand eels is too high and should be reduced. I shall certainly raise that point in the Council.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the Minister speak about enforcement by both EU and non-EU nations? It would be unacceptable if Britain enforced any agreement to the letter but other nations took advantage of the situation as fish species recovered.

Mr. Morley: That is an important consideration, particularly for the proposed deep water TACs which I mentioned. There is a potential problem with deep water stocks. We do not know enough about them, but we know that they tend to grow and reproduce slowly. The presidency proposes to set TACs for those stocks, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that, under the present proposal, TACs would apply only to the EU fleet. International fleets would not be subject to them. From the UK perspective, it would be better to agree effort limitation measures on deep water stocks through the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission—the international body—so that they apply to all vessels from all countries that pursue deep water fisheries. That is the best way to proceed, and I shall take that approach.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): The Minister has often mentioned the problems of junior fish being caught and by-catches, and ways of trying to tackle those problems apart from quotas. Will he say how much closer we are to getting square mesh panels outside Scotland? Clearly, that makes so much sense in tackling the problem as he suggests.

Mr. Morley: I agree, and I applaud the industry-led initiative—it is all the better for that—to introduce square mesh panels. We have submitted to the Commission the regulations for such panels in the English fleet. They have probably come back by now. We will apply that measure to the whole UK fleet as quickly as possible.

Mr. Quinn: I am sure that the Minister recognises that, for every job at sea, there are 12 shore-based jobs in the industry. He is also aware of the thriving recreational fishery. Will the quotas have an impact on that fishery? It takes a negligible catch from the sea, but makes a vital contribution to local economies such as those of Scarborough and Whitby.

Mr. Morley: As they stand, the TACs apply to all fisheries, including the recreational side. Some rod boats can take significant catches, which is why we need to take into account the potential impact on overall stock management. However, I agree that recreational fishing is an important economic activity around our coast. It has considerable regional importance and is completely legitimate.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): The Brixham fishermen, who come from the second largest fishing port in England and Wales, recognise that the Minister is doing his best and the difficulties that he faces. However, I wonder whether he recognises the problems that they face. First, the working time directive means that they can spend only so long at sea. Secondly, fuel constraints place an enormous burden on them when they go to sea. Thirdly, their fishing quota will be cut so savagely that they are unlikely to be able to make a profit. Many fishing captains believe that they will not make a profit this year.

In those circumstances, what does the Minister propose to do? Does he propose a larger compensation scheme? Does he propose that boats should be decommissioned or that some European boats should not be allowed in English waters?

Mr. Morley: We have agreements on the latter point; there are rights of access for EU vessels, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Many Brixham vessels do good fishing off the coast of France, so he should also bear that in mind. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that beamers in particular are having a difficult time because of fuel costs, and the beam-trawl fleet also has an overcapacity problem. I am prepared to consider some of those problems, but if it means using public funds I would much rather address long-term problems and try to bring about long-term solutions than subsidise short-term problems, which may not necessarily go away. Such problems may be suppressed for a short time, but sooner or later they will have to be dealt with. I accept the case for some public support, and some money is available through financial instrument of fisheries grant, but it must be used to tackle long-term problems and gain long-term solutions.

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