The amendment and new clause relate to sand eel fishing. The amendment raises similar issues to those we have debated on electric pulse fishing. I will not press the amendment or the new clause to a Division, but I raise the matter in order to highlight the importance of pursuing an ecosystem-based approach to future management of fishery stocks. I am particularly grateful to the RSPB, the Angling Trust and Fishing for Leave for their guidance and advice.
The sand eel, which is a small, energy-rich shoaling fish, is a key prey species for many seabirds, underpinning the breeding success of terns, kittiwakes and puffins. Sand eels are also eaten in large numbers by harbour porpoises, other sea mammals and commercially important table fish, such as cod, whiting and mackerel. As such, the sand eel plays a pivotal role in the food web between the primary productivity of plankton and the top predators.
Diminishing abundance of sand eels, however, in combination with other pressures in the marine environment, has driven a major decline in the UK’s seabird population. In Scotland, 12 indicator seabird species were 50% less numerous in 2015 than they were in 1986. To address that impact, in 2000 the EU created a closed area of 20,000 sq km extending offshore from the coast of north-east Scotland to Northumberland. It is a box that keeps the Danish sand eel fishing fleet, which has almost all the EU sand eel quota, away from sensitive seabed colonies. This industrial seabed fishery continues elsewhere in the North sea, mainly on the Dogger Bank, of which the UK part is a key focal area for the fleet. RSPB research indicates that the Dogger Bank fishery could have a detrimental impact on kittiwake productivity on the adjacent Yorkshire coast.
Related to that, the sand eel stock assessment model used by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea to set EU catch limits does not address the needs of seabirds, cetaceans or other marine wildlife when setting levels of commercial exploitation of sand eels, such that insufficient sand eel is set aside for the wider ecosystem. In failing to cater adequately for the needs of seabirds and other marine wildlife, the management of the fishery at present falls short of meeting an ecosystem-based approach.
To improve the situation, the RSPB suggests three alternatives, the first of which is stopping sand eel fishing in UK waters. The UK could champion that approach as an exemplar in pursuing an eco-based system. That is already done off the US coast. There would be very limited financial cost to UK commercial fishing, though there is the risk of reciprocal denial by Denmark of UK fishing opportunities in Danish waters for white fish. I am also mindful of advice provided by the Angling Trust that there are five species of sand eel in UK waters, all with the genus Ammodytes. The only one that has generated widespread concern is the industrial fishery for Ammodytes marinus in the North sea.
The other four species are subject to very small levels of fishing mortality. Ammodytes tobianus is the species targeted for bait—both commercial and recreational—and it is estimated that the combined landings of both anglers and fishermen who catch their own and commercial catches are no more than 50 tonnes a year across the whole UK. The Angling Trust is concerned that the provisions would prevent anglers from fishing for tobianus to use as bait, as well as having a hugely negative impact on businesses in the angling bait market, such as the market leader, Ammodytes, a Cornwall-based company that catches and processes Ammodytes tobianus for the bait and aquarium markets.
The second option is to make the total allowable catch of sand eel more precautionary by reducing fishing mortality, leaving at least one third of the stock for the provisioning needs of seabirds, cetaceans and other marine wildlife. The third and final alternative is to extend the existing sand eel closed area south to Yorkshire and the Humber, to cover the Dogger Bank area.
I am conscious that I have probably delayed Committee members’ lunch, but I believe that how we manage sand eel fishing provides an extremely relevant case study as to how future UK fisheries can be managed in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive way, adopting an eco-based approach. I would welcome the Minister’s view of how he sees the system operating in practice according to the Bill’s provisions.
Following the hon. Gentleman’s speech, we are all now aware of the humble sand eel, which is an important component of food webs in the north Atlantic. It is at the bottom of the marine food chain and is part of the diet of cod, mackerel, porpoises and seabirds such as Arctic terns and kittiwakes, especially in breeding season.
We also need to be aware of research led by the British Trust for Ornithology and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee that indicates that populations of kittiwakes, terns, fulmars and shags are impacted by sand eel farming in the North sea. Those conservationists are concerned that the boats that catch thousands of tonnes of sand eels each year to be turned into animal feed and fertiliser deprive seabirds of a vital source of food.
We have heard calls for a ban on sand eel fishing in the central North sea, most recently from the Fishing for Leave representative in our evidence session, but we would like more evidence about the practice. I would be grateful if the Minister dealt with how we can pick up the points raised by the hon. Member for Waveney but also ensure there is sufficient scientific evidence and understanding of the stock baseline for sand eels, which seem at the moment to be missing from the debate.
Anyone seeking evidence of the issue the hon. Member for Waveney raised is more than welcome to come and visit us in Orkney or Shetland and look at the cliffs. Cliffs that were once white with seabirds and other things—evidence of seabirds—are often empty at times of the year when they should be full. That causes enormous concern in our community. It is a good example of the way an ecosystem-based approach can bring benefits to the community beyond the fishing industry. Nature tourism is one of the liveliest and most rapidly growing sectors in our local economy, and it is a welcome boost. The sand eel fishery self-evidently has been a foolish enterprise for many years, and I very much endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments and his efforts to end it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, having got important concessions on the Dutch fleet, turns his attention to taking on the Danes. As he knows, sand eels are a shared stock, but about 90% of the sand eels caught in the UK’s exclusive economic zone are caught by the Danish fleet around Dogger Bank, although Sweden also has some interest in this area.
We are giving consideration to the issue, but, as my hon. Friend acknowledges, access to the sand eel stock is the most important access that Denmark receives from the UK, so we will have to consider it in the context of our annual fisheries exchanges. There is a full data assessment for the stock, and ICES provides annual recommendations for a TAC on sand eels in the Dogger Bank area. In recent years, with the exception only of 2016, the TAC has been set in line with ICES recommendations.
The issue with a unilateral ban on the fishing of all sand eels in all UK waters is that we would be likely simply to displace that fishing activity, so there would be unsustainable catches of sand eels in waters outside the UK EEZ. However, my hon. Friend highlighted a number of measures we could consider to address that. First, as he pointed out, the so-called Wee Bankie sand eel fishery has been closed since 2000. As we leave the EU, I certainly would like to explore whether we could consider a similar closure in a particular area to try to protect the sand eel population closer to shore, where birds are more likely to be, so they have a food source.
The second approach to which my hon. Friend alluded is to do something more akin to what we do in some shellfish sectors. We have a principle in cockle fisheries of reserving a proportion of cockles for wading birds so we do not deprive them of a food source. Local inshore fisheries and conservation authorities take into account the needs of wild birds when setting catch limits for cockles. Given the way ICES advice is generated, based as it is on maximum sustainable yield, it tends not to place great weight on such considerations, but there is no reason why, in the context of future UK-EU bilateral negotiations, we should not seek to argue that there should be more restraint on species such as sand eels where they have an important role as a food source for birds.
This is a complex area, and some scientists would say that it is not just sand eels that are used but other species, too. However, I am certainly happy to say that we will look at it, and I hope my hon. Friend does not feel the need to press the amendment to a vote.