Nephrops Fishing Industry (Portavogie)

Birmingham City Council Bill (By Order) – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 4th July 1985.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Durant.]

Photo of John Taylor John Taylor , Strangford 8:49 pm, 4th July 1985

I wish to raise on the Adjournment the problems of the Northern Ireland nephrops industry at Portavogie, County Down, which also relate to the fishing port at Kilkeel, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). This afternoon we had a debate about improving stability in Northern Ireland. This is the third debate today on Northern Ireland affairs, because we had one between 2.30 and 5 o'clock this morning. The Minister will agree that Portavogie and its constituency of Strangford are a stable part of the United Kingdom, probably much more stable than many parts of England. In Portavogie, a most attractive village, we have one of the major fishing fleets in Northern Ireland — the other being Kilkeel. Portavogie has 60 boats of more than 40 ft in length.

The fishing industry in Northern Ireland is considerably larger than many people realise, and it contributes greatly to our income and our employment. It is directly responsible for the employment of 800 men on the boats and a further 800 people in the processing industries — a total of 1,600 employees. It contributes about £12 million from the sale of the various fish that are caught.

The fish types vary considerably, but the main ones are mackerel, cod, whiting and nephrops. There are many other fish, including a small catch of scallops. That is another problem that the Northern Ireland fishing industry faces, and I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to say something about that. As he knows, the scallop fisheries in the Irish sea have been closed since 1 June this year, with the exception of the stretch around the County Down coast. So alarmed are the Northern Ireland scallop fishermen that at present they are refusing to fish, and they fear that the existing beds are being over-fished by boats that do not normally come into their local waters.

The word "nephrops" is not often used in day-to-day discussion. In fact, they are prawns, although scientists would argue that they are not exactly the same. Nevertheless, for the remainder of the debate, which could continue until 10 o'clock, although I hope that that will not be necessary, I shall refer to prawns and the various problems facing the prawn industry in the Province.

The Northern Ireland prawn industry is now a significant part of the total industry and comprises 40 per cent. of the Northern Ireland fishing industry's total income. Unbelievably, the prawn catch in Northern Ireland is now 25 per cent. of the total United Kingdom catch. Any damage to the nephrops industry in Northern Ireland would have a dramatic effect on that industry as well as implications for prawn cocktails that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other hon. Members enjoy from time to time. Therefore, it is in everyone's interest to safeguard the prawn industry in Portavogie and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

The apprehension and legitimate fears of the Portavogie fishing industry arise from the existence of the common fisheries policy. Spain and Portugal recently signed a treaty of intent to become members of the EEC from 1 January 1986. Among the terms of accession are provisions relating to the future of the nephrops industry, in which Spain in particular has a direct interest.

I understand that the European Commission is proceeding with proposals on the nephrops industry, and I hope that the Minister will clarify this. I understand that it hopes to introduce a market support scheme. In the Northern Ireland nephrops industry there is opposition to the idea of such a scheme, which is felt to be quite unnecessary. The Northern Ireland fishing industry is able to sell its catch but feels that, if such a scheme is introduced, in parallel with it will be various controls on the number of nephrops that can be caught. That will have complications for the number than can be sold as well as for the number of people directly employed by the industry. I should therefore like to know whether there will be a market support scheme.

How will such a scheme operate? Will the entire catch or only a percentage of it be brought in? What qualifications will be involved in a market support scheme? What other conditions will be applied? Does the Minister envisage the introduction of total allowable catches, which already apply to other fisheries under the common fisheries policy? If there is a TAC for the nephrops industry in Northern Ireland, that will mean reduced catches. That will result in fewer jobs and higher prices for the prawn cocktails that are sold in hotels and restaurants throughout the United Kingdom. This therefore affects consumers throughout the nation as well as fishermen in small villages such as Portavogie which provide 25 per cent. of the nation's total prawn catch.

There is also concern about the size of the prawns. It could well be that, in order to qualify for the scheme, prawns will have to be of a certain size. At present all the prawns that are caught are sold irrespective of size, but it has been rumoured that the European Commission is suggesting a minimum size of prawn of 46 mm. If that is so, 70 per cent. of the present Northern Ireland catch would be illegal, and that would have disastrous results for the prawn industry throughout the Province.

Has the Northern Ireland Office made representations in this regard? Does it recognise that the prawn caught in the Irish sea is a dwarf nephrops? Does it recognise that Northern Ireland nephrops are different from the nephrops caught elsewhere in the European community? Has that special feature of the Northern Ireland prawn industry been bought to the attention of Brussels?

The same problem applies to the prawns caught by the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, what I am arguing for will help not only the Northern Ireland industry but the fishermen who catch prawns from bases within the Republic of Ireland. If there are to be various sizes of prawns to qualify for this market support scheme they would have to be graded, presumably on the boats. I should like clarification on where the grading will take place. Will it be on the boats or on shore? If the tails are taken off on the boats and they are graded there, one can imagine the extra workload this will place on the fishermen and, yet again, the increased cost of the prawns to the consumer.

My final point concerns mesh sizes. The mesh size at present is 60 mm and there have been suggestions from time to time that the European Economic Community will require it to be increased to 70 mm. That would discriminate against the special type of nephrops in the Irish Sea because, as I have said, this is a dwarf nephrop similar to that which one finds in the Bay of Biscay but certainly dissimilar from those elsewhere within the European Economic Community.

The concerns facing the nephrops industry in Portavogie are the support scheme, the size of the mesh and the net, the size of the prawn itself to qualify for the scheme, whether there will be total allowable catches or whether we will be able to continue to catch as many nephrops as are caught at present without any restriction because of the ample supply. There is no need to curtail the number of prawns that are caught.

If these problems are being followed up by the Government, there is a good future for the prawn industry in Northern Ireland; but if the Government are not vigorously presenting the special interests of the Northern Ireland nephrops industry we shall certainly have problems which will have to be pursued — and not, I hope, by calling a meeting of the Northern Ireland Committee, because that is something we would wish to avoid for some time. It is a serious matter which requires to be pursued, if the Minister cannot give effective replies tonight, in order to reassure fishermen in Portavogie and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

9 pm

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) for cutting me in on his Adjournment debate in circumstances which render the limitations rather less restrictive than normal.

I note that the Minister of State will reply to the debate, so that we are speaking at three removes from our actual target. He is representing the noble Lord who is responsible for agriculture and fisheries in the Government of Northern Ireland but that Government does not have responsibility for negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Economic Community in fisheries matters, so the real target of my right hon. Friend and myself is Her Majesty's Government in their relations with the European Economic Community. It is in that context that I want to follow up what my right hon. Friend said by underlining two considerations which ought always to be in the mind of those who are negotiating on behalf of our part of the United Kingdom—indeed, that part of the United Kingdom concerned with fisheries in the Irish Sea—with the European Economic Community.

Although I hesitate to do so, I am impelled to insert at this point a grammatical observation. It occurred to me, though I shudder at the thought, that my right hon. Friend might have been guilty of solecism in assuming that nephrops was a plural and that there was such a thing as a nephrop or a nephrops industry. It will be realised that nephrops is a word like cyclops and means something which looks like a nephron or kidney, which is what a scampo looks like—if that is the singular of scampi — when it is nicely curled up and is having its tail taken off in a force 8 gale in the Irish sea. Nephrops is the singular as well as the plural of this remarkable species. That is enough of pedantry — perhaps too much.

Those of us negotiating on behalf of the United Kingdom ought to have two facts firmly in mind. First, it should not be assumed, unless the facts bear it out, that in discussing a species one is discussing something which is unitary in European terms. Very often the species, as it presents itself in the North sea, is different, in peculiarities, in size, in habits and in plentifulness, from the same species in the rest of the European waters. Consequently it is easy for fishermen surrounding the Irish sea to suffer from the natural vice of the European Economic Community of harmonisation and of assuming they are dealing with the same thing in all parts of the European Economic Community and what it now calls its waters. It is not the same thing and I wish to underline the fact, which my right hon. Friend emphasised, that the Irish sea nephrops is distinctively different from nephrops in most of the rest of the European waters and that therefore measures of control or regulation ought to take full account of those species differences between the Irish sea nephrops and the rest.

My second observation goes deeper still and is of a social as well as a biological character. It relates to conservation. We tend to talk about conservation as if it was a bright new idea that had dawned upon us in the past 15 years. Total allowable catches are laid down in the context of the common fisheries policy as a new gift to mankind, as though nobody had ever thought before of the conservation of fish resources round our shores.

Those who live by the fish, and whose ancestors have lived by fishing for generations, have worked out a symbiosis with the fish that provide their livelihood. They have always been alive to the requirements of conservation. Therefore, they have worked out systems of fishing, modes of fishing, types of catch, and periods of fishing which are peculiar to the particular fishery but which are nevertheless highly conservationist. Yet it is possible for the EEC to come blundering into that socially mature environment with notions of conservation, steamrollering what has been going on for generations, to the benefit of all, including the fish species.

The fishermen of County Down, whom my right hon. Friend and I represent equally, have worked out over the generations a pattern of fishing for scallops as well as for nephrops that is calculated to yield the maximum benefit to the nephrops and to the fishermen, if such a coincidence of interest can be conceived. Therefore, it would be wrong to intrude a system of subsidy and support upon those fishermen, together with the attendant rules as to time, size of catch, net dimensions and so on, which would cut right across the truly conservationist habits that prevail on the coast of Northern Ireland.

I will not persist upon the point, but this is an illustration of how damaging our membership of the European Community, with its harmonising and universalist assumptions, can be to the interests of the inhabitants of parts of the United Kingdom, not least those who, like our constituents, live in one of the peripheral provinces.

I appeal to the Minister of State to convey to us this evening the assurance that he will brief his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and say to them, "When you have to deal with the enlarged Common Market, with those predators from Spain and Portugal who have been let into the game, bear in mind that when they appear to be talking about a species, they are not necessarily talking about a species as it affects the fishermen of Northern Ireland, and that when they purport to introduce schemes for support of the industry, those schemes may be a curse in disguise to those who have worked out the modalities of their own industry in a manner that is profitable to them; do not let them assume that the fishermen are not alive, in their present practices relating to size, method and period of catch, to the interests of conservation."

The fishermen are the great conservationists. The European Economic Community has nothing to teach the nephrops or the scallop fishermen of Northern Ireland on the subject either of nephrops or scallops or of conservation as it affects those species.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North 9:10 pm, 4th July 1985

I have listened with intense interest to the speeches of the right hon. Members for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) and for South Down (Mr. Powell). I have to confess that I am not an expert on nephrops, and I welcomed the right hon. Member for South Down's wise, not pedantic, description of the singular and the plural. This is an important matter for all those who are concerned. It is their livelihood.

The right hon. Member for South Down said that conservation is not a new concept. In order to survive, from the very beginning the human species has had to create a balanced environment. It knew that once a species became extinct it had gone for ever. Man has evolved a relationship with his environment and does not need Parliament to tell him how to achieve it.

The right hon. Member for Strangford referred to the fact that my noble Friend Lord Lyell is responsible for agriculture in Northern Ireland. One the other hand, I am responsible in this House for agriculture and take an interest in it. I know how important agriculture and fishing are to the Province.

Nephrops, commonly known as prawns, is the most important species for the Northern Ireland fishing industry. In 1984, nephrops landings in Northern Ireland were 4,030 tonnes, worth £3·1 million, representing 40 per cent. to 41 per cent. by value of total fish landings. This is an important issue for the people of the Province. Approximately 600 people are employed in nephrops processing, producing mainly scampi for the United Kingdom and Irish markets. Approximately 20 per cent. of the total United Kingdom scampi market comes from Northern Ireland.

Portavogie is the second largest of Northern Ireland's fishery harbours. Approximately 590 people are employed there, either directly in the fishing industry or in its ancillary industries. In 1984, 1,156 tonnes of nephrops were landed there. This represents 15 per cent. of total fish landings in Portavogie and 25 per cent. of total landings of nephrops in Northern Ireland.

The Government were pleased to be able to help the fishing industry at Portavogie through the recently completed major harbour redevelopment scheme, to which we contributed nearly £4 million in grant aid. I know that the fishermen at Portavogie have made good use of these facilities, particularly during the past winter season when, I am informed, there were large landings of white fish.

The right hon. Member for Strangford referred to the concern — I shall pass on this concern to my noble Friend — felt by the Northern Ireland fishing industry over a number of European Community proposals relating to nephrops, which, it is feared, may have an adverse effect on the Northern Ireland industry. Besides passing on this concern to my noble Friend I shall try to deal now with the points that have been made in this debate. I shall write to the right hon. Members for Strangford and South Down if I am unable to deal with any of their points from the Dispatch Box. It is the job of Northern Ireland Ministers to defend the interests of Northern Ireland, wherever they can, so I shall ensure that these points are also passed to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. When any European Community measures on fisheries are considered, my noble colleague who is responsible for fisheries matters in Northern Ireland and his officials ensure that the position of the Northern Ireland fishing industry is taken into account, so I am sure that this Adjournment debate will be studied carefully by my noble Friend and his officials.

On nephrops, officials have regularly consulted the main representatives of both catchers and processors, and as far as possible they have been kept informed of developments, and their advice sought on the implications, which are of concern to everybody, for the Northern Ireland industry.

Basically, two points are raised. The most immediate concern to the industry is probably the proposed private storage aid scheme for nephrops and the minimum marketing standards that will be introduced as a consequence of the scheme. The first point of concern is the marketing scheme and the second is the standards that are being imposed and whether there will be a limitation on catch. I shall deal with both issues.

While the details of the scheme have not yet been finalised, I understand that the industry has been informed of the outline structure around which the scheme will be constructed. The private storage scheme is not mandatory. It will be up to those concerned to decide voluntarily whether to take part, and I believe that it is the wish of the nephrops fishermen in the area not to be involved in the scheme. There is no question of a limitation of catch.

Photo of John Taylor John Taylor , Strangford

The Minister has emphasised that the scheme will be optional and it is interesting to have that confirmed. He also underlined the fact that there is strong opposition to the scheme by the Portavogie fishermen. If the scheme is optional and one opts out of it, does that mean that one does not have to comply with the grading sizes of nephrops?

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

I shall deal with that. Meanwhile, I was trying to deal in two parts with the main points that the right hon. Gentleman raised. The first is, as it were, the straightforward point about the scheme, under which, say, 20 per cent. is taken off the market and stored, to be brought back on to the market at another time.

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, the fisherman can sell that quantity. There is no point in storing what can be sold. I may be primitive in my view that they are better if they are fresh. Having been on Strangford lough and having eaten nephrops—I almost called them prawns; I must not be accused of deviation from the ultimate truth —the very fact that they have come ashore fresh, their death warrants having been signed only a moment previously, seems to make them taste at their best.

The marketing standards, however, will be mandatory. I am now dealing with the second part of the issue, and it is clear that this aspect will have to be watched by the Northern Ireland fishing industry and those who speak on its behalf. In setting the standards, due regard will be given to the size variation between nephrops stocks in different water around the United Kingdom, particularly the smaller sizes of nephrops which are landed from the Irish sea.

When I was in Northern Ireland this morning I was shown a map of the area between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and it resembled almost an inland sea. Though having been in the Royal Navy in a previous incarnation, I had never seen the area as an inland sea, particularly bearing in mind all the ships that came across from America during the war. In that it is almost surrounded, it is a different area, and the species in it are different.

The right hon. Member for South Down said that species were different everywhere. It is not that they might have been different had they been planted somewhere else; history continues, and they were not planted anywhere else. They are there, in that existence, and the very fact that they do not stay that size elsewhere must be recognised. Apparently in the open sea, including in the Atlantic, they are larger, and the difference in mesh, therefore, matters greatly.

I was about to refer to them as people. They are so lovely to eat that I see them almost as individuals. Even if these nephrops do not grow to the size of nephrops elsewhere imagine their embarrassment when all their lives they have wanted to be eaten but have been too small to be caught in a net.

One is reminded of "Alice in Wonderland." Lewis Caron could have written a wonderful story about these beings. Here they are in Strangford lough wanting to be eaten by, among others, the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, and myself, but are never caught because they are too small to stay in the net. Clearly, that must not be allowed to continue. For the sake of the nephrops and the people who would enjoy eating them, something must be done. As there is agreement on both sides of the House about it, we could have a unity of parties on the issue.

Photo of Mr Stuart Randall Mr Stuart Randall , Kingston upon Hull West

I was not aware that Alice wanted to be eaten.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

I am not so sure. I could almost quote from the book. We must not overlook the way in which the walrus danced. In any case, nephrops were not thought of at that time.

The right hon. Member for South Down spoke of conservation. The idea of conservation, both on the fish side—although they are not consulted about it—and on the human side, is to make sure that we have some to eat not only this year but next year.

As I say, the marketing standards will be mandatory. In setting the standards, due regard will have to be given to the size variation. I understand, however, that the most recent proposals for standards discussed in Brussels would he regarded as acceptable by the Northern Ireland industry, and this will obviously be followed up by the right hon. Member for Strangford and by my noble Friend.

The right hon. Gentleman referred also to nephrops being brought into the system of total allowable catches and quotas as a result of the settlement reached on fisheries following the accession of Spain to the Community. During the negotiations with the Spanish, we secured agreement to the exclusion of Spanish vessels from fishing in the area known as the Irish box until the end of 1995. This includes the whole of the Irish sea, and thus the waters which are fished for nephrops.

Total allowable catches will be set for nephrops in certain sea areas from 1986 to prevent unrestricted fishing for nephrops by Spanish vessels in the sea area in which they are allowed to fish. While Spain has been allocated a relatively small share of the total allowable catch in these sea areas, no proposals have yet been made for the allocation of the remainder of the nephrops total allowable catches between the existing member states, and this remains a point of negotiation.

I note that the right hon. Gentleman referred to the possible effects of the Hague agreement—he obviously had this in mind, although he did not say it—on the setting of individual member states' quotas in the Irish sea. If quotas are to be set, we shall aim to ensure that the United Kingdom quota is sufficient to meet the needs of all United Kingdom nephrops fishermen in this area. I think that that is one of the big concerns that have been raised.

I note also the industry's concern about the proposal to increase the minimum mesh size when fishing for nephrops from 60 mm to 70 mm, which was clearly stated by the right hon. Gentleman. While I can understand the industry's concern, there is obviously a responsibility on those concerned with fisheries management to ensure that in the longer term sufficient fish resources are available, and mesh sizes are an important factor in the rational management and improvement of stocks. I am aware from what has been said elsewhere of the long-term link between the two. I have been informed that quite a few of the nephrops fishermen are happy with a larger size, although some obviously are unhappy about it. There will have to be consultation with the fishermen and the people who are involved in the making of the agreements.

An EC scientific working group has been established to advise on the conservation benefit of an increase in mesh size for both nephrops and white fish taken as a by-catch. One of the Department of Agriculture's fisheries scientists is a member of this group, and it is expected that the group will report to the Commission soon. The critical issue is the advice given on conservation and the effects that this will have. I have studied the question this week. Since nephrops here are smaller than in the rest of Europe, special consideration will have to be given to the situation or they will be severely disadvantaged. I understand the point, and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman and I see eye to eye on this crucial issue.

As the issues develop, the position of the Northern Ireland industry will be fully considered and the regular consultation that has been taking place with the main spokesmen of the industry will continue.

I wish also to mention scallops because the right hon. Member for South Down has raised the matter with me, and I have passed on his comments to my noble Friend There is concern about the effect of stopping fishing on the borders of the Republic. I am informed that an air review is made weekly of the number of boats fishing for scallops. This is the service that takes air surveys of the fishing fleets to ascertain what is happening. I am informed that since 1 June, when scallop beds elsewhere in the north Irish sea were closed, those who advise the Department — this is why we have hon. Members and Ministers present to discuss the matter in the House — have considered the current level of fishing to be not excessive, given the present state of the scallop stocks. The right hon. Gentleman said that nobody is doing such fishing in the area. I find it most odd that no Northern Ireland boats are fishing there. There are always odd things about Northern Ireland and, indeed, marvellous things about Northern Ireland. However, I will leave the matter there, and undoubtedly I shall be further enlightened tonight or at some future date in private conversation. The position is kept under constant review. The beds will be closed to fishing, if necessary, to prevent the overfishing of the scallops. I know that the right hon. Members for South Down and for Strangford will keep me and my noble Friend informed about the fisheries at Kilkeel and Portavogie.

I realise that this is an important matter——

Photo of Mr Stuart Randall Mr Stuart Randall , Kingston upon Hull West

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I listened with interest to the points that he made about the scallop fishermen. I have an interest as I represent Kingston upon Hull, West and I have 155 constituents who rely upon that industry. I was wondering whether the Minister would tell us what effect the accession of Spain will have upon scallop fishing in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

One can sometimes go off hon. Members, when one gives way.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

Of course, I shall now reply in ministerial fashion as you would expect, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has asked a most important question. It is so important that we are still considering it, and I trust that by tomorrow I shall be able to answer him. I know that the hon. Gentleman will keenly await the note that I shall send him, which will be an illumination for me. I am delighted that he asked the question, so that I can add further to my knowledge of the fishing industry and life in Northern Ireland.

We are aware that scallop and prawn fishing is vital to Northern Ireland. It has provided a livelihood for people for over 100 years. There has been natural conservation. We are in negotiation with the EC, in particular now that two other countries are to become members, to maintain the safeguards to ensure that the fisheries are not destroyed and that people's livelihoods will continue. The industry is a benefit to the Northern Ireland tourist industry. The prawns and nephrops add to the attractions of Northern Ireland. I am surprised that during the last debate, about free tickets or something in Birmingham, no mention was made that Northern Ireland is the best place to go from Birmingham.