Fisheries: Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2001

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Mr. Nicholls: May I take the Minister back to the problem of baby fish and under-age species? If I am right, he is saying that it is a by-catch and discard problem and that it is not caused deliberately. If he were running his own fishing policy in his own fishing waters, he would be able to insist on methods of catching that were far more species-specific than anything that can be achieved now. Although some juvenile species are caught as a by-product, the main reason for their being caught is that a number of our EU partners want to catch under-age fish.

Until the Minister can come up with a policy to deal with that problem, simply worrying about the discard will do no good. What has to be done—not even the Minister can manage this—is deal with the eating habits of those with whom we share our fishing waters. Unless he can do something about that, he will have to admit that he cannot do anything about the problem of catching fish below the age of sexual maturity which lies at the heart of our debate.

Mr. Morley: It is true that some countries have a market for small fish. Indeed, Scotland traditionally has a market for small haddock. However, that does not compare with the very small fish for which markets can be found in Spain and elsewhere.

I like to be optimistic. The European Union has a collective approach to enforcement, part of which is trying to squeeze out the market for small fish through onshore enforcement. The Spanish authorities have been taking quite a hard line. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be the ideal, but even if we had complete control over our own waters and put in place measures to protect juvenile fish there, and remembering that the UK does not have a traditional market for small fish, most of the other countries using the shared waters of the North sea, the English channel and the western approaches would not be included in those measures. Without a Europe-wide approach, our fishermen's efforts would be for nothing. The common fisheries policy offers a potential advantage, because Europe-wide agreement is much better for fish conservation than national measures.

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend mentioned the proposed deep water quotas. Why are the French using their presidency to push that through? It should be agreed by the North Atlantic Fisheries Commission. If quotas are enforced on EU vessels, that will leave stocks free to be caught by the Faroese, the Russians and others. It seems a barmy proposal. Is it just a piece of perfidious foggery?

Mr. Morley: One can understand why the Commission is attracted to the idea of applying TACs to species that could be under threat. However, my hon. Friend makes the fair point that it is rather unfair to EU vessels to have TAC restrictions that do not apply to non-EU vessels in that same fishery. The logic must be to pursue the matter through the North Atlantic Fisheries Commission, and I shall argue for that.

Mr. Gill: From what the Minister has said, it seems that, if we had control over our national waters, we could impose our own closed areas; indeed, we would probably have done so before now. What is the problem in the Council of Ministers? Having co-operated with our partners in the common fisheries policy for the best part of 27 years, how is it that such common-sense measures have not yet prevailed?

Mr. Morley: That is not quite right. We have the plaice box and mackerel box, and several areas designated internationally—certainly in the European Union—for conservation measures. There is a case for further closed areas. Whether a closed area will benefit the fishing industry and conservation depends on where it is and what effect it has. Some areas, about which people have talked, where there would be benefit fall outside our limits. To make matters work, we must have European agreement. Fisheries management is much more effective on a European basis than on a national basis.

Mr. Quinn: Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that, if the North sea recovery plan is to have any chance of success, we need to take strict action on industrial fishing vessels? Does he agree that there should be an exclusion on industrial fishing in the North sea?

Mr. Morley: I agree. I was glad to secure agreement in the Council for the Wee Bankie closed area. In fairness, the Danes were constructive and worked with us in our continuing scientific analysis of that closure. By considering the impact of sea bed feeding inside and outside a closed area, one is able to draw scientific conclusions. That is helpful in relation to the on-going argument about the impact of industrial fleets. There is a strong argument to extend the range of closed areas, and to reduce the total allowable catch and wind down the size of the industrial fleet in the North sea. Our priority should be fish for human consumption. Fish for industrial use are of secondary importance.

Mr. Andrew George: If the Minister means what he says about seeking agreement on a Europe-wide basis, does he not notice the growing European consensus that action should be taken about the short-term fuel problems? The Irish Government, like the French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian Governments, are now taking action in their own country. Those countries recognise the fact that, although most people hope that the high cost of fuel, which has risen during the past couple of years, is a short-term problem, significant quota cuts early next year would put impossible pressure on the fishing industry. If the United Kingdom Government could support the industry, albeit in the short term—the Minister has suggested that he is not in favour of short-term measures—it would help to soften the blow of the cuts.

Mr. Morley: I was in Dublin last week in bilateral talks with the Irish Minister, and we discussed his proposals. As I understand it, many of the measures relate to the training of fishermen. We have recently announced a commitment of £500,000 to the UK fishing fleet so that we can provide free training for fishermen. We will pay for it. The Irish action is not entirely dissimilar to what we have put in place.

I understand the pressure for short-term measures because of fuel costs. I accept that fuel costs for the fishing fleet are a real problem, but it is difficult to deal with that through a short-term measure. Fuel is tax free for the fleet, so we can do nothing in terms of fiscal measures. We could use other means, and I am not afraid to explore suggestions from the industry, but the situation is not easy. We do not want a subsidised fishing industry in this country or in Europe generally. That would not be good for sustainability or environmental management. The trend, as marked up by the World Trade Organisation, is to move away from subsidies for the fishing industry, especially those that increase capacity while keeping unsustainable parts of the industry going when they would otherwise restructure themselves naturally.

The issues are complicated. I return to my acceptance of the case for financial support of the UK fishing industry. However, I want such support to be clearly targeted with clear outcomes, and to be part of a long-term strategy, not a short-term fix.

Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Environment Agency's involvement in the scientific assessment of estuary nursery stock, particularly in the Thames estuary? If he is, would he like to comment on the TAC allowance for sole and whether he feels that the drastic decline in stocks around the North sea and in the estuary is due to overfishing or to an ecological disturbance through, for instance, marine dredging?

Mr. Morley: The decline in stocks is primarily related to fishing, although that is not to say that there are not other contributory factors. Dredging could be one such factor, and my hon. Friend will know that we now apply environmental impact assessments to any application for dredging. We consult the industry, and if we think that dredging in a particular area is detrimental to juvenile fish or breeding and spawning areas, we will not give permission for that dredging. However, the principal reason for the decline is fishing. Sole is a very desirable, valuable fish and many fishermen are keen to catch it, and that is the principal reason for the decline.

Mr. Steen: If fishermen are not to break the law in terms of the working time directive, they will have to ensure that they catch enough fish when they are out at sea, in limited time, using fuel, and they will not be able to make ends meet. In that case, decommissioning becomes a possibility. Is the Minister planning to increase the money available for decommissioning? Will he ensure that every boat that is decommissioned in Britain is also decommissioned in Holland, France and Spain?

Mr. Morley: The Dutch have introduced a decommissioning programme for their fleet. It is one of the measures that people have claimed is a fuel subsidy package, but the bulk of the programme is for the decommissioning of beam trawlers because they are having financial problems. The rest of the financial package provides financial support for fishermen using beam trawlers who want to start using other types of equipment. Under FIFG, we can do that ourselves.

I am concerned about the hon. Gentleman's comments about the working time directive. My colleagues in Government and I worked hard to ensure that there was maximum flexibility in the way in which the working time directive was applied. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and other hon. Members who represent fishing areas have also made representations. Most of our fishermen are defined as share fishermen, and are therefore exempt from the working time directive. This should not be a major problem for the fishermen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Sir Robert Smith: The Minister may know that there is considerable concern among fishermen that not only does fishing put pressure on fishing stocks, but there are other sources of imbalance in the North sea stocks. Does he share their concern about the abundance of saithe and its contribution to the declining numbers of sandeels, which are a resource for other demersal fish? Would he support more scientific effort to examine whether the saithe stock should be more actively managed, to regain the natural balance?

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