As a conservationist who represents fishing interests in Northern Ireland, I am naturally concerned about the decimation of our fish stocks and their conservation, especially in the Irish sea. From a conservation point of view, I have a great interest in the long-line fishermen and believe that they have been unfairly treated under the Government's current conservation policy.
The selective nature of long-line fishing precludes almost exclusively catches of under-sized fish. As a conservation measure, the Government should encourage that type of fishing without restrictions. The problem facing the Government appears to be that there are too many boats fishing for too few fish. However, the Government should be aware that they have allowed the unrestricted building of boats of under 10 m which has considerably added to the tonnage. Many of those boats were not for established full-time fishermen, yet they are allowed to fish completely without restriction while established fishermen are losing their livelihood. A conservation policy that is directed only at certain fishermen and vessels is unfair and can never be successful.
There has been much discussion this evening about square mesh panels. I support their use as a conservation measure. Experiments with square mesh panels show conclusively that they have dramatically reduced the discards of immature fish. They have also caught better quality fish with less crushing, and have saved time and effort in sorting large quantities of under-sized fish.
I understand that the Government are planning the use of 90 mm panels for white fish and 70 mm panels for prawns, but trials with 90 mm mesh in the Irish sea fishery showed a fairly substantial loss of marketable whiting. From that we may deduce that 80 mm panels would be an acceptable compromise for white fish.
The prawn fishermen have also experienced beneficial effects on prawn catches, as well as a significant reduction in discarded fish. It appears that, whatever mesh is used in the panel, prawns will not be lost, so I am concerned that the Government are opting for 70 mm panels in prawn gear. The panel is there for the release of juvenile fish—the same fish that will be caught in the white fish gear—so I suggest that the Government should consider an 80 mm mesh for both white fish and prawns.
I have great sympathy for our fishermen who go to sea in all weathers to provide the fish for our consumption. I do not have the same feelings about those who deprive our sea bird population of the means of survival. I am referring to those who send thousands of tonnes of sandeels and other fish not considered suitable for human consumption to fishmeal factories to produce protein which is readily available from other renewable sources.
It is distressing for me to see gannets and herring-gulls squabbling over offal when these beautiful birds should be hunting their own food, which has been taken from them by the over-activity of boats concerned with fishmeal fishing. Other species of bird—notably puffins, kittiwakes and members of the skua family—are now seriously at risk because they have become incapable of reproducing due to the lack of food during the breeding season.
Conservation must go hand in hand with the fishing industry. Without one, there will not be the other.