Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:10 pm on 7th December 2005.

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Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:10 pm, 7th December 2005

I echo the Minister's comments: I am delighted that there is a full day's debate on fisheries, giving the industry its due importance. Like him, I begin by offering our condolences and sympathies to relatives of the fishermen who were lost last year. According to figures from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, 24 fishing vessels were lost and, sadly, nine crew members died last year. Preliminary figures for this year show that there have been five deaths. We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the brave men who risked their lives every day to supply us with one of our most popular and healthy foods.

The industry should be providing prosperous and sustainable long-term employment in some of our most remote communities—I emphasise the word "should". Two years ago, having visited only one serious fishery, which was in the Falklands, I took on shadow responsibility for fisheries, so I made it my job to visit the fishing communities on our coasts. It has been a huge pleasure and privilege to learn about the industry and the communities that depend on it, but it has also been deeply sad and depressing. Whether it was Whalsay in the far north of the Shetlands—where the nearest railway station is Bergen—Peterhead, Stornoway—in the western isles—Whitby, Hastings, Plymouth or Brixham, an appalling picture of the desolation of our marine environment and the destruction of our fishing communities emerged.

One example encapsulates the problem. In Fleetwood, which I have visited on several occasions, there was a fleet of 140 vessels in the 1960s; today, there are five. I met an engineer who used to employ 60 people; he now employs one fitter. There is no clearer example of the insanity of the current system than my experience when I sailed overnight in the trawler Kiroan. The owners fish for plaice in the Irish sea. They are allowed 22 days fishing per month with 80 mm mesh, at which they are viable, and only 17 days if they use the more environmentally friendly 100 mm mesh, at which they are unviable. I asked them to use both mesh sizes and they trawled twice during the night. The 100 mm net came up twice with two thirds saleable adult fish. Twice, the 80 mm net came up absolutely bursting—almost too full to pull on board—with 90 to 95 per cent. of tiny baby plaice, which were all dying.

I told the Minister about that a year ago, yet when I went back to Fleetwood this autumn I was astonished to learn from the same fishermen that 80 mm cod-ends are still being used, with 80 to 90 per cent. discards. The owner of the Kiroan told me:

"Things have never been worse. Nothing has been done over the past eight years to make fish stocks better. The position on cod is worse than ever due to tiny mesh sizes."

It is hard to understand how intelligent, sane human beings can enforce such a policy. He went on to say that the Faroes and Norway have bigger mesh sizes, and those problems do not occur. That is my central point. We do not have to inflict that damage on our marine environment.

In the past two years, having already seen order and prosperity brought to the Falklands by local control, I have also made it my job to visit successful fisheries. I visited Norway, the Faroes, Iceland, Newfoundland and New England and I am flattered that the Minister trotted after me to some of those successful fisheries. Yesterday, I spoke to Oli Breckmann, who is a Conservative MP in the L'gting, the Faroes Parliament. By contrast to what we have just heard, my notes of the conversation spring off the page:

"Cod stocks are improving as food is improving. Coley is fishing well. Fish prices are improving and there is a buoyant mood in our industry. We are confident that cod is recovering. Haddock is OK. There is very little grumbling amongst our fishermen. Fishermen's incomes are considerably improving. We expect to improve our tax due to higher volumes and higher prices. It is absolutely ludicrous for the EU to be cutting our capacity. Here, we are improving capacity and efficiency, discarding old vessels"— not fish—

"and buying new ones. Four new trawlers have recently arrived from Iceland so we are dumping old vessels."

They are opening some areas near the shore to summer fishing of flatfish, as the fish were "dying of old age", and using selective gear to let cod escape from the top. They maintain a discard ban and the most important thing is to land everything. The sand eel fishery has been stopped as the fishing industry did not want to restore it.

Mr. Breckmann reckoned that fishing was responsible for about 10 to 20 per cent. of mortality in the Faroes and confirmed that the industry is self-regulating. That is popular with fishermen. There is collaboration between fishermen and scientists. Above all, they know that cod numbers are decided by phytoplankton and protoplankton, which depend in their turn on temperature and salinity.

A few weeks ago, I talked to Höskuldar Steinarsson of the directorate of fisheries in Reykjavik. He said:

"Things are going well without a doubt".

Yesterday, I talked to Paul Howard, executive director of the New England fishery management council. Their policies of days at sea in closed areas have led to a huge revival of fish stocks and improvement in the marine environment. I give one example that is easy to understand. Closed areas have led to scallop landings increasing from 12 million lb in 1996 to a projected 43 million lb in 2005 and 78 million lb for 2007. In the USA, 20 fish species have been removed from the over-fished list in recent years.

On the basis of many weeks of travel and long hours of discussion with people who run successful fisheries that actually improve the marine environment, we published a Green Paper in January, describing how our seas should be managed for the benefit of the nation. There is not a single original idea from me in the paper; it is a compilation of the best practices that I have seen working in other fisheries. Our policy objectives are clearly set out:

"Our policy is to manage the sea fisheries in UK waters in such a manner as to safeguard the natural environment; to rebuild and preserve our fish stocks and wildlife; to maximise the economic value of exploitable stocks, both in the short and in the long term, commensurate with the natural resource available and the environmental impact of so doing; to create a stable, equitable framework within which the fishing and allied industries can operate, including the recreational fishing sector and tourism; generally to protect the interests of the United Kingdom."

We set out a management framework with a series of tools and controls that have worked effectively in successful fisheries. The most important is effort control based on days at sea instead of fixed quotas. The immediate effect of adopting an effort control system to conserve fish stocks is that Government bodies, scientists and fishermen will be relieved of having to administer the labour-intensive and unpopular system of quota control. For many fishermen, it also relieves them of the double burden of having to deal with the EU imposition of quota controls and days at sea, with a significant reduction in bureaucracy.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which reported a year ago, stated:

"We recommend that the UK Government should move towards managing fisheries on the basis of effort controls."

The two best examples that I saw of such controls were in the Faroes and New England, where days at sea have completely rid fishermen of any incentive to cheat and land black fish and have broadly eliminated the hideous problem of discards. Above all, fishermen are co-operating with scientists. That is fundamental. In the UK, I am afraid that there is still a poisonous distrust in many areas between the scientific establishment, environmentalists and fishermen. The key gain is accurate data—that is fundamental because there is such a high level of discards and black fish landings that neither the Government, ICES or the EU commission know exactly what is going on. They are flying blind.


Posted on 8 Dec 2005 9:59 pm (Report this annotation)

We need to educate people on how to eat fish....a campaign to make fish interesting...irresistable and appealing...maybe the fact that most fish still looks like a fish when lying on the fishmongers slab... whereas dear old daisy the cow or poor old shaun the sheep can be and are more easily 3 and 6 oils are essential to all...yet all the advertisements I have seen have made fish unappealing and frankly horrid even though they were actually advertising cereal!!!!...seems a strange combination never the less true....seems absurd....or are the ad men sending our young subliminal messages to encourage them not to eat fish at all....I wonder...

Jonathan Carr
Posted on 25 May 2007 5:40 pm (Report this annotation)

Owen Paterson has done a fine job highlighting the shortcomings of the EU's Common Fisheries (One size fits all) policy which has comprehensively destroyed our fishing industry. He also rightly points out that where national control and ownership exists in Norway, Iceland and the US, these problems can be overcome or don't exist. However, he supports a political party that refuses to solve this problem by leaving the EU, so it's all just a lot of wasted time and hot air! His party was going to re-patriate fishing, or so we were told when they last wanted our votes. Now it appears that Cameron has done a U-turn on this and shunted good old Owen into the sidings. He has to obey the will of our rulers in Brussels! Puppets or what?