Total Allowable Catches and Quotas 2002

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Mr. Morley: It is the same.

Mrs. Winterton: It is not. The key issue is the common resource, found in the treaties of which the Commission is the guardian. Both the preamble and articles of the latest Commission proposals refer to the fact that access to Community waters and resources will be equal for all Community fishing vessels. That is entirely in accordance with Community law, which is determined by the treaties to which the UK is a signatory.

5.31 pm

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): It is a joy to come to talk about fisheries, with a particular interest in Scotland, and find you in the Chair, Miss Begg. I have not before been to a Committee that has been chaired by you and I am very pleased to be here.

I do not have any expertise in this area, although I have a long-standing interest. If hon. Members look back at previous Parliaments, they will find that when I was a member of this Standing Committee I made the then Conservative Government aware of the fact that they had signed up to treaties that were costing us greatly. I recognised that the price of Mrs. Thatcher's famous rebate was that she sold out the Irish box to the European Union, thereby destroying the livelihoods of a large number of fishermen in Scotland and elsewhere. That deal had not been flagged up at all by the Government of the day, who had assured us that they would defend the Irish box to the end. It seems that they meant to the end of the meeting, not to the end of their term in office.

Mrs. Winterton: Will the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that I have tried to flag up what might happen to the Scottish deep sea fleet if some of the proposals that we believe might be introduced come into place? Will he work with the Opposition to ensure the best deal for it?

Mr. Connarty: I recognised some oblique references that might have been relevant to Scotland, but with the Under-Secretary in the Committee, I have no need to look to the Opposition for support. I think that this particular Minister has been one of the most determined advocates of all of the agricultural and fishing interests that he, with his portfolios, has had to represent. That is why it is such a pleasure to be back here supporting the Government's motion today, although I cannot vote on it because I am not a Committee member.

I wish to bring to the Committee some of the briefings that I have received from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, with which I have had

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sporadic but always positive contact since the days when we were fighting the Conservative Government's proposal to sell out the Irish box so that Mrs. Thatcher would get the rebate. I am a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, and we would have preferred to debate total allowable catches before the agreement was finalised in December 2001 but we had no chance to do so. I thank the Minister for supplying the Committee with supplementary information to update that matter.

The Scottish Fishermen's Federation brings together the seven fishermen's associations in Scotland with one voice, which I hope is a counsel on behalf of the industry and for good common sense in European fisheries. It has no fundamental difference with the Government's assessment of the state of stocks; it is important that it starts from the same point, even though it may have different suggestions. It says that the problem with some allocations is that although they are meant to relate to national catches, they actually relate to national landings. The federation foresees a problem: although it would appear that the allocation of quotas prevents people from entering British waters to fish, climate change and the warming of the sea have meant a huge increase in sea bass and red mullet stock, which people can fish—those are not part of the allowable catches for the main species. The problem is ensuring that people fish for only non-quota fish, which becomes a question of policing. That concern is expressed in the briefings, which will be discussed in detail with the fisheries protection authorities.

The federation welcomes the fact that restrictions on fishing in the Shetland box have been retained, which it values as highly as it valued the Irish box before that was put out to common access by all other European fisheries. It also welcomes the allocations being made according to the relative stability principles and their effect on coastal communities. It expresses concern that in preliminary discussions there has been talk of those being breached to allow a free-market approach to the distribution of fishing rights. The federation would strongly urge a defence of those principles by the Government should they come under serious discussion. At the moment, they are just ideas.

The federation speaks at length about the risk of collateral damage. It stresses that the factor of total allowable catches, not total allowable landings, is a great problem. We should change the debate so that people do not just think in terms of catches. For example, because of the quotas, total effort is transferred to what is called high grading—landing only the most valuable fish—which leads to an increase in the discarding of fish because only landings count. Fishermen do not like to do that, but they are aware that it is common practice, and it concerns them. People can increase the value of their available quota by landing only the most valuable fish. That is wrong, and the federation says:

    ''This will lead to excessive discarding and will increase mortality beyond the levels foreseen by the TAC''.

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That is difficult for fishermen to cope with, because they do not like to see saleable fish discarded, yet the system pushes them in that direction. The federation says that that is regrettable, with which I agree.

The federation is concerned about how we approach total allowable catches and capacity. It quotes some figures: from 1998 to 2001, catches of cod were down from 33,497 tonnes to 15,000 tonnes; haddock was down from 65,167 tonnes to 41,000 tonnes; whiting was down from 76,444 tonnes to 10,000 tonnes. In the same period, tonnage per vessel went down considerably. In 1998, there were 585 vessels, and in 2001 there were 510. The number of vessels has not gone down in proportion to the decrease in allowable catches. Tonnage per vessel was 211 tonnes per vessel in 1998, 188 tonnes per vessel in 1999, 152 tonnes per vessel in 2000 and 139 tonnes per vessel in 2001.

The federation states that

    ''fleet capacity is seriously out of balance with the fishing opportunities available in the current year. Average landings per vessel show a decline of almost 34 per cent. since 1998 and, as a result, fishing entitlement is spread ever more thinly.''

It discusses a number of ways in which to deal with that. Something must be done when there is a system of allowable catches and an industry with so many vessels on the water. It discusses the question of decommissioning and the option of a lay-up scheme. I will not go into detail, but I hope that the Minister will sit down with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and discuss its figures.

The federation also talks about the possibility of a supplementary effort limitation with a 20 per cent. decommissioning target, which it says would

    ''retain enough capacity in the fleet to operate recovered stocks at or near maximum sustainable yield''.

We have to look at the situation and plan positively with the industry, which is committed, and with Members of Parliament, many of whom represent industries from within the Scottish parliamentary contingent, who represent those coastal areas.

The federation states that a laying-up scheme covering 180 fishing days at an average of £1,000 per day would cost £7.2 million in its first year. As stocks regenerate, however, that figure would come down to perhaps £1 million in the fifth year. Overall, it would cost £20 million over five years to do what the federation has been urging us to do. It took to the high seas to sail down the east coast and up the river Forth when the Scottish Parliament was discussing the matter, despite it not being in the Scottish Parliament's gift to take such action.

The frustration felt by Scottish fishermen is real. The scheme is not a get-rich-quick scheme for the fisheries or fishing communities. It is a genuine attempt to make total allowable catches sustainable and to permit them to grow in the long term. I hope that today's resolution will be passed and that the Committee takes into account the serious concerns and positive and constructive suggestions from both the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and other federations around the UK.

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5.43 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives): I am pleased to have an opportunity to add a few words to this important debate, which comes at an important time. As the Minister pointed out in his opening remarks, the debate could have been timed to coincide with the publication of the route map for the common fisheries policy, which I know we want to debate intensely and heavily later this year. That was an opportunity, and it is an enormous disappointment to us all that that publication has been delayed for reasons about which some will speculate. A lot of us know, however, what is going on behind the scenes, and my well-informed sources suggest that the UK Government have not caused the delay.

The hon. Member for Congleton suggested that I was making light of the Conservative's proposal. As far as I am aware, the Conservatives do not have a policy on fishing. Nevertheless, the proposal comes from a Back Bencher, although I presume it is supported by Front-Bench Members, and, as far as it is clear, concerns the repatriation of British fishing policy. That is fine in theory, but I should like to see some workable proposals on paper. It was perhaps appropriate that I made light of the proposal during Thursday's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions because no serious proposals are coming from the Conservatives, and I am left with no other option than to make light of it. We should be concerned about the future of the common fisheries policy, and it is right that we should robustly criticise its absolute failure. The hon. Lady should be well aware that Liberal Democrats have for years strongly and robustly criticised its failures. Indeed, Members of Parliament of all parties have identified its very clear failings.

The only way in which to move forward is to come up with robust alternatives to the common fisheries policy, and to engage robustly in the debate that is presently going on in Europe. The Conservatives are putting their heads in the sand if they believe that they can jump out of the reality before them.

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