Sea Fisheries

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:31 pm on 13th December 2001.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 3:31 pm, 13th December 2001

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-2546, in the name of Ross Finnie, on sea fisheries, and on the two amendments to that motion. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 3:35 pm, 13th December 2001

I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate sea fisheries ahead of next week's meeting of the European fisheries council. It gives this Parliament a valuable opportunity to discuss matters that are vital to Scotland and to ensure that we set our priorities for the case that we must make at that meeting. Today, I will outline how I view the current state of our fisheries and describe how I would like things to move forward. I will then set out our approach to the December fisheries council.

This time last year, we said that life for the fishing industry would get harder before getting easier. This year it has felt as if we have been in the eye of a storm. The various stages of the cod and hake recovery plans are under way, but they are biting hard. We have experienced quota cuts and closed areas and we face the prospect of further changes to fishing gear next year, but I believe that this is a storm that we can come through. Yes indeed there is pain, but it is pain for a purpose: the long-term sustainability and viability of the fishing industry.

Sustainability is essential to support the fragile rural communities that depend heavily on the industry. More than 7,000 people are employed in the catching sector alone and a similar number are involved in processing and other downstream activity. More than that, the industry has great significance in purely economic terms. The landings into Scotland by all vessels in 2000 were valued at around £310 million and Scottish boats landed nearly £70 million-worth of fish abroad.

If we are to achieve sustainability—sustainability of fish stocks and economic sustainability—we must work hard towards a better balance between fleet capacity and catching opportunities. That is why we announced last March our intention to have a decommissioning scheme. I am pleased to announce today that we will offer decommissioning grants to 108 of the 197 vessel owners who made eligible decommissioning bids. On that basis, the scheme will remove more than 12,300 tonnes of capacity from the fleet—which is more than 18 per cent of the tonnage capacity of those eligible to apply to the scheme.

Accordingly, the scheme will contribute significantly towards our policy aims for the industry. Officials will write to all scheme applicants over the next few days, advising them of the results of their decommissioning application. I am sure that the Parliament will wish to welcome the announcement that I have made today. It represents the delivery of an unprecedented investment in the fishing industry. We expect that the £25 million set aside for this scheme will be fully taken up.

Of course, we continue to face a number of challenges; I want to refer briefly to two of them. The review of the common fisheries policy is vital. We are committed to delivering a revised CFP that takes account of Scottish needs and that results in a sustainable and competitive fishing industry that closely involves stakeholders in the management decisions that affect them. We have made good progress on that and the European Commission's green paper reflects most of our key priorities.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Does the minister welcome, as I do, the fact that the European Commission's green paper acknowledges that the CFP has failed? Does he concur with the Commission in acknowledging the need for the scientific basis of decision making to be much more allied to the experiences of fishermen? Does he share my disappointment at the way in which the Commission is handling the proposed total allowable catch—TAC—for prawns?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

On the first point, I share Mr Scott's welcome. I assure him that I will come back to that point. I am extremely upset about the TAC and I think that every member of this Parliament is not only upset but extremely annoyed about it. We must proceed on a basis that is understandable not just to those in the Commission but to the fishermen, to whom it must also be acceptable and explicable. It is not a matter for the Commission or for Government ministers—it is a matter for fishermen and their livelihoods. They deserve a level playing field.

As members will know, the Commission's draft proposals take account of most of the Scottish priorities and will deliver the key change on regional management as well as the traditional elements of relative stability, the six and 12 mile limits and—how modest of Mr Scott not to mention it—the Shetland box.

The second set of future challenges will be the recovery plans. They are more complex. I discussed the prospects for the cod recovery plans with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation when I met its representatives last week. We agree that we need to form a clear picture about what has been achieved so far, so that we are clear about the baseline and can then consider how best to get to the end objectives. I find it slightly worrying that the Commission might move on apace, without pausing to reflect on the many measures that have been put in place as part of the recovery plans. I intend to draw that to the attention of the Commission. I can assure the Parliament that it is my firm intention to involve the Scottish industry in all those matters at every step. I want to ensure that the industry's views are heard in Europe.

With the industry's help, we have been able to achieve good progress on stock recovery without the extreme impact that some of the Commission's initial proposals would have brought. We have done so by working together in a constructive manner. That is something that I intend to continue.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

There is much uncertainty about the outcomes of the new technical measures. What evidence is the minister taking to the table to demonstrate that such uncertainty must be taken into account before the Commission rushes to conclusions?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

That is the very point that we are making. We were on the very point of introducing 80mm square-mesh panels. We did much analysis on that and our industry was quite amenable to moving to 110mm panels. However, with no pause, the Commission has now moved to 120mm panels. We share Mr Davidson's view. We want to take the evidence that we have gathered and for the Commission to reflect on the impact of all the measures before we move to the next stage. There is a great danger that the train will run away without the Commission realising that real changes are taking place and that fishermen are making substantial contributions to that effort.

In terms of our more immediate challenges, the ongoing talks with Norway and the Faroe Islands are taking place today in Brussels. We have been negotiating hard to achieve positive results in those talks, but this year the negotiations have been particularly hard because our main currency for swaps, blue whiting, is a stock in danger of collapse. In spite of that, we are confident that the best deal for Scotland will be achieved and that the damage will have been minimised. In particular, we look forward to the prospect of a much better haddock fishery in the North sea next year and in future years.

Therefore, at the December council, my approach will be to support reductions in quotas where there is solid scientific evidence to back such a move. However, we will fight and resist cuts for the sake of cuts.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

The minister will be aware of the deep anger and concern in my constituency over the proposed 25 per cent cut in the prawn quota. As Ross Finnie said, any proposal must be based on science. There is a strong feeling in my constituency that the proposal has no scientific basis. That is a dangerous precedent for the Commission to set.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I agree wholeheartedly with that and I will comment on it at some length in a moment. I will take Mr Lochhead's point if he is quick.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

What is the minister's response to the proposed reduction in the quota for monkfish, which is also a valuable species?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Some of the Commission's proposals are reasonable. We will support increases in the west of Scotland cod quotas. We recognise monkfish as an important stock for Scottish fishermen but must acknowledge the parlous state of that stock. The quotas in recent years have been set much higher than was advised by scientists, so some reductions in quotas appear to us to be necessary.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

No, I have to move on.

I will not support—I repeat, I will not support—the Commission's increasingly ridiculous position on nephrops. I am profoundly disappointed by the European Commission's proposals and I intend to oppose them vigorously. Nephrops stocks are very important to the Scottish fleet, particularly the inshore fleet that operates out of small rural communities. The fundamental point that I wish to make to the Commission is that if it plays ducks and drakes with the scientific advice, it threatens to undermine the whole process of TAC allocations. I cannot make that point strongly enough. Nephrops stocks are healthy, but the Commission wishes to cut the quotas because it believes that that will protect cod, which is sometimes caught with nephrops.

We in Scotland have presented the Commission with overwhelming evidence to disabuse it of that notion. Ninety-four per cent of the vessels that catch nephrops do not catch any other species. It is nonsense for the Commission to assert otherwise and we will resist those assertions. The problem is undermining the whole process. I have already written to Franz Fischler to express our concerns. We will also circulate a note to all member states advising them of the strength of our case. I advise the chamber that I have already had a discussion with Elliot Morley and I am pleased to say that, as a consequence, we are at one with the United Kingdom position on the issue.

I will attend the fisheries council as part of the UK team and, in those negotiations, I hope that we can use our position of strength to pressure the Commission into revoking these unacceptable cuts. I invite Parliament to endorse the negotiating position and support the Executive's motion.

I move,

That the Parliament calls on the Scottish Executive to seek to negotiate an outcome from the Fisheries Council meeting in December 2001 that reflects the need to preserve stocks for the long term and represents the best achievable deal for the Scottish fishing industry.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 3:46 pm, 13th December 2001

In moving the amendment to the Executive's motion, I welcome this crucial debate and wish Ross Finnie well in his new post. However, we are disappointed that we do not seem to have a dedicated fisheries minister any longer.

Our fishing communities have had a turbulent 2001. There have been quota cuts and North sea closures, and the industry has conducted a dignified campaign for a compensated tie-up scheme. The industry ends the year by going through the pain of decommissioning. That scheme is over-subscribed, which highlights the industry's low morale. I do not think that any of us can begin to imagine the difficult weeks ahead for those involved with the 108 vessels that might be leaving the industry after a lifetime. There is as much uncertainty at the moment as there was at the beginning of the year.

The minister's immediate priority in Brussels next week must therefore be the rejection of the damaging and foolish proposal to slash the nephrops quota. Europe cannot be allowed to pick and choose when it listens to the science. Officials cannot get away with ambushing the industry after conducting months of talks. I do not need to tell the minister about the horrendous impact that the proposal would have on the catching and the processing sectors throughout Scotland.

Cutting the quota would also displace the fishing effort from healthy stock to more fragile species. Surely that is the last thing we need. If fishermen are to take the regulations seriously, they must be credible. The minister must refuse to leave Brussels until Europe has accepted the evidence that proves that the bycatch of nephrops, or indeed of monkfish, is negligible. Those two fisheries have sustained the industry throughout 2001 and the proposals would be utterly devastating.

The Commission even has the cheek to use the bycatch argument while it is proposing an increase in the cod quota. To whom are those officials accountable? Should not the minister be calling for their heads to roll, given that they are clearly not up to the job?

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Does Mr Lochhead agree that there is a difference between the aspect of the Commission that has dealt with CFP reform and the aspect that he has just described? On the whole, Commission officials who have dealt with CFP reform, such as Christophe Nordmann, have been amenable to the Scottish case.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I agree, but there are specific individuals who are coming up with ambush tactics year after year. They are the officials to whom the minister must turn his attention.

Ports are already worried about the latest threat to scallops, following the absurd proposal for a new testing regime that could destroy the industry. The minister must also turn his attention to that matter when he is in Brussels. It is another example of faceless bureaucrats acting against Scottish interests.

The minister should instruct the Commission to attack industrial fishing with the same zeal with which it is attacking Scottish stocks. If the Commission is serious about rescuing stocks and reducing the bycatch, it should be proposing a far bigger reduction in industrial fishing in the North sea. Proposals to increase the quota for Norwegian pout or to implement a minimal cut on sand eels are a slap in the face not only for the industry in Scotland, but for conservation itself. The minister should bring back from Europe a plan to phase out industrial fishing—to ensure that human consumption is given priority. He should help the aquaculture industry in Scotland to prepare for the changes ahead. I would like the minister to comment on that when he sums up.

The Commission's apparent lack of understanding of Scotland's need in fisheries reinforces the case for a decentralised common fisheries policy. We could have no better reason than what has happened in recent weeks for decentralising policy and returning more power to the fishermen and the scientists of member states.

Fishermen cannot be prevented from catching other stocks, on which their livelihoods depend, in a vain effort to protect cod. As members said to the minister, Europe must listen to fishermen. As the minister knows, some fishermen think that cod stocks have moved north in recent years, perhaps because of climate change. Ross Finnie must raise that with the European Commission next week.

I will now deal with recovery plans. It is essential that we give the industry time to catch its breath— as the minister said—before we proceed further. The measures that have been agreed must be given time to work. The industry led the way on the 90mm square-mesh panel, new mesh sizes and many other technical measures. They came on top of this year's closures and the fact that we are in the middle of decommissioning. Surely it makes sense to wait until we have conducted a full economic and conservation assessment before more pain is inflicted on the Scottish industry. The minister should tell us his plans for Brussels that will give the industry time—I welcome his brief mention of that.

It would make better sense to introduce zonal management early and allow that to deal with recovery plans in coming years. The minister must propose that to Europe. I would welcome hearing in his closing remarks a guarantee that he will do that.

The SNP welcomes the emphasis of the Commission's proposals on effort limitation rather than relying simply on TACs, which are intended to distribute fishing rights, not to conserve stocks. The Commission has expressed unequivocal support for compensated tie-up schemes. Days-at-sea schemes, or tie-up schemes, will require ministers to untie the purse strings. I ask the minister to make it clear that he does not close his mind to any of the measures that the Commission has laid on the table and that the industry supports. The £25 million that the industry has wrung out of the Government must not be the end of the matter. Investment must continue. As the minister well knows, the support for our fishing industry is pitiful compared with the support for other member states' industries.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

While he criticises the level of spending, does the member accept that £27 million is the biggest ever single investment in the Scottish fishing industry? Will he recognise that the Commission has said that decommissioning, rather than tie-up schemes, represents much better value for money in producing long-term sustainability for the industry?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The member is well aware that other countries, such as Spain, give their fishing industries far more financial assistance. That is clear. We welcome the cash that the Scottish Executive delivered, but, as Elliot Morley acknowledged, that was the result of a dignified campaign by the fishing industry earlier this year.

The industry's pain has been caused by the failed CFP. That is why it is important that we get the best out of the review, as the minister said. Protecting our historic fishing rights and decentralising the CFP must be our top priorities in the negotiations.

To improve Scotland's chances this month, it is imperative that Ross Finnie—a minister of Cabinet rank, with responsibility for more than two thirds of the UK's fishing industry—is designated the UK's lead minister in Europe. There is no point in sending a Cabinet minister to Brussels merely to carry the bags of an under-secretary of state from London. That is ridiculous. Scotland has the predominant interest in the UK fishing industry and Scotland should represent the UK, just as Flanders will represent Belgium. That makes sense for Scotland.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The member is in his last minute—in fact, he is over time.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I apologise; I am closing.

The SNP urges the minister to pursue a policy that conserves fish stocks and our fishing communities. When necessary, he should refuse to take no for an answer. We look forward to hearing his response to the issues that have been raised and commend the SNP's amendment to Parliament.

I move amendment S1M-2546.1, to insert at end:

"; further calls on the Executive to seek an increase in nephrops quotas in line with scientific advice and ensure that the outcome of all the negotiations recognises the mixed character of Scotland's fisheries and takes into account the many conservation measures already agreed by the industry; further calls upon Ministers to retain an open mind with regard to fisheries management measures proposed by the industry and financially supported by the EU, and urges the Minister for Environment and Rural Development to seek designation as lead UK Minister on the EU Fisheries Council for the forthcoming negotiations on quotas and the Common Fisheries Policy in order to secure the best possible deal for the catching and processing sectors."

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 3:54 pm, 13th December 2001

I wish the new minister well in his negotiations on behalf of the Scottish fishing industry.

The proposed cuts in prawn quota will damage fishing communities throughout Scotland that are already reeling from the recent falls in income. Fraserburgh, for example, is the largest prawn port in the UK. The smaller vessels in Eyemouth and Pittenweem on the east coast will be particularly affected. A cut of 22 per cent in quota will obliterate their livelihoods; it is even worse for the west coast, where fishermen will treat a 25 per cent cut with cynicism and derision.

Recently, fishermen have been far more willing to accept scientific advice than they were in the past, but all that good work will be undermined if the Commission's proposals for cuts in nephrops, or prawn, quota are implemented. Why has there been no communication of the Commission's intentions in that regard in all the talks that have taken place with fishermen's representatives in the past year? Why, if the Commission states that it based its proposals for quotas on scientific advice, has it clearly not done so in this case? Why does it attempt to link cod stocks with fishing effort for prawns when there is clearly no connection?

Last year, the Commission reduced prawn quota by 10 per cent, stating that if the UK could demonstrate that prawn fishing has a low impact on the cod fishery, that 10 per cent would be reinstated to the fleet. That was accepted, albeit reluctantly, by the Scottish fishermen, whose efforts to comply with conservation measures have been by far the best in Europe. Imagine, then, their despair and disbelief at the cuts, which are certainly not based on scientific advice.

Had the quotas been based on science, the prawn TAC for next year would have risen to 18,000 tonnes rather than dropped to 12,000 tonnes. Add to that the huge reduction in monkfish quota and we have a recipe for disaster for the Scottish fishing fleet. A 40 per cent reduction in one year, in any stock, is a step too far. It would reduce the value of the monkfish sector by £10 million. Will the boats involved in that fishery simply not turn their horsepower into the mixed fishery of the North sea, where cod is a serious bycatch?

Returning to the prawn quota on the west coast, where a cut of 25 per cent is envisaged, there is plenty of evidence that cod bycatch is negligible. In 2000, cod landings in the Western Isles were valued at £34,500 and the vast majority of them were caught by vessels targeting white fish with static nets west of the Hebrides—an area where no prawns are caught. During the same year, Western Isles prawn landings amounted to £4,614,000. Those figures demonstrate that there is no significant connection between prawn and cod catches. The same applies in the three other main west coast grounds where prawns are the main target species. The bycatch of cod is minute and becoming less, as an increasing share of the prawn TAC is taken up by creel fishers, who have no bycatch at all. It is ludicrous to expect inshore prawn vessels to take a 35 per cent reduction in earnings to save cod that they are not catching. The realistic option is to restore the west coast prawn TAC and accept that the technical conservation measures introduced into white fish nets will reduce the minute bycatch of cod on the west coast.

Talking of west coast issues—and scallops—reducing amnesic shellfish poisoning levels to 4.6 micrograms per kg would close the fishery for nine to 10 months of the year and wipe out the markets, the processors and the scallop vessels. There has never been any problem of illness associated with Scottish scallops, which are tested at 20 micrograms per kg—the internationally recognised level.

The minister must give his support to the industry in its time of need. Indeed, while the Executive must call for an increase in prawn quotas, it must also rectify the ridiculous proposal of a 5 per cent increase in the Norwegian pout fishery. That fishery is the most damaging to bycatch of other species. What forces are behind that suggested increase? Not only are Scottish fishermen to be hit by quota cuts; vessels that also fish in the Norwegian sector need an extra set of gear with 120mm mesh size. That is handicapping them by £5,000 per vessel. The minister will probably say that state rules forbid aid on that issue, but I point out to him that no action is being taken to stop the regulation, which is an extra burden to Scottish vessels and is therefore, in effect, state aid to other member states by default.

In conclusion, I demand that the Scottish Executive obtain a fair deal for Scotland and scrutinise moves by other EU states in the crucial period leading up to the review of the CFP.

I end by asking the minister whether he knows why Mr Gordon Adam, a Labour member of the European Parliament from Northumberland, is seeking to undermine the efforts that are being made in the Shetlands to secure more quota for local fishermen.

I move amendment S1M-2546.2, to insert at end:

"; in particular calls on the Scottish Executive to seek to overturn the proposed cuts in nephrops quotas in favour of figures based on scientific advice; calls for a significant cut in industrial fishing; notes that the change in net mesh sizes will put an unfair burden on Scottish fishermen who fish both EU and Norwegian waters, and further calls on the Executive to press for retention of the internationally accepted 20-microgramme testing system for scallops to promote the survival of the Scottish scallop industry.

Photo of Elaine Thomson Elaine Thomson Labour 4:00 pm, 13th December 2001

This year has, without doubt, been one of the most difficult for the fishing industry—for catchers and processors. Hard decisions have been taken. With the minister's announcement today, some will probably leave the fishing industry for ever. Those decisions needed to be taken to put us where we are today: beginning to look forward to a more optimistic future. Many problems must still be overcome, but the brave actions taken by fisheries ministers over the past 12 months are beginning to put the industry on a more stable footing and to build a sustainable future for the long term.

It is essential that we ensure that both sides of the fishing industry—catchers and processors—have an economically viable future based on sustainable fish stocks. That has to be the central pillar on which all policy must be developed. This year's fisheries council meeting will undoubtedly be difficult. The focus must be on preserving stocks and on quotas that are in line with scientific evidence. The proposals for nephrops are clearly at variance with scientific evidence.

I welcome the minister's commitment to achieving the best possible deal at the talks in Brussels and the actions that he has taken to pursue the matter so far. This is probably the first year since the Parliament started in which—on the nephrops issue, at least—everyone in Scotland is speaking with one voice, with parties and fishing organisations supporting the minister and the UK delegation in the forthcoming negotiations. Much more can be achieved by all the stakeholders in the fishing industry working together. That is a point that was made strongly at a recent Scottish Fish Merchants Federation dinner in Aberdeen.

SNP members constantly harp on about irrelevancies such as the make-up of the delegations, totally refusing to see that the best interests of the fishing industry will be served by a strong UK voice in Europe bringing much greater voting power than Scotland would ever have on its own. The Scottish minister will be in Brussels, bringing vital Scottish experience and input to the negotiations and working with the UK minister to ensure that we end up with the best possible deal.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

On unity in the industry throughout the UK, will Elaine Thomson, who is speaking for the Labour party, take the opportunity to condemn the Labour MEP from south of the border who is protesting against efforts by Shetland fishermen to protect quota for new entrants and for the local community?

Photo of Elaine Thomson Elaine Thomson Labour

It is essential that we concentrate on the Scottish interests and that we all work together. What we will have—

Photo of Elaine Thomson Elaine Thomson Labour

No, I do not think so.

Next year, the common fisheries policy, which is widely recognised as having failed, will be reformed. The UK response was built on wide consultation with all fishing interests by the European Committee of this Parliament in its inquiry into the CFP reforms. Those views were then adopted by the Scottish Executive. They formed the building blocks of the UK response. That is an example of devolution working for Scotland.

The long-term future of the fishing industry will be much improved by a CFP that resolves issues such as the current overcapacity in boats and moves towards zonal management. I do not believe that it will be helped by temporary tie-up schemes, which people throughout the industry and across Europe have said are not a good use of money.

Over half of all fish stocks are currently at or beyond maximum sustainable levels of exploitation. Some fish stocks, such as cod, are also affected by environmental factors such as increasing sea temperatures, which are thought to be caused by global warming. We need to tackle much of that. Much has been done over the past year, such as the cod recovery plan, the decommissioning of 18 per cent of the fleet and the introduction of technical and other measures, but we need to do much more in a number of areas.

For example, we need to consider the faster introduction of electronic auctions and to continue to improve the quality of fish when they are landed. A lot of money goes to fish catchers to help them look after the quality of fish once they have been caught and before they are landed. Such improvements will ensure that there is an industry in the future.

We must build on those areas to achieve an economically and environmentally sustainable fishing industry in Scotland. I support the Executive's motion.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That was a model of good timing. We now move to the open debate. Only four minutes can be allowed for each speech.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 4:05 pm, 13th December 2001

I hope that Elaine Thomson did not suggest—as I thought that she did—that we will not get good fish stocks until we solve the problem of global warming. That would mean that we would have to wait a wee while.

I am sure that Rhona Brankin remembers the first speech that I made in Parliament on 14 June. [MEMBERS: "No."] She will remember it, because I will remind her. I spoke about fishing and the excellent work of my predecessor as member for Banff and Buchan. I note that he and many others spoke in the debate in the Palace of Westminster last Thursday, which started at 2.13 pm and finished at 7 pm. It is a matter of regret that our debate will be a mere 90 minutes—in fact, it will be less than that—when the industry is much more important in Scotland than it is down there.

There was good news in the Westminster debate. Elliot Morley said that he has

"close and friendly contacts with the Scottish Executive".—[Official Report, House of Commons, 6 December 2001; Vol 376, c 561.]

I hope that Mr Morley will put flesh on those sentiments and that our minister gains leadership in the forthcoming negotiations. I say to Elaine Thomson that I am sure that Mr Morley would trust Mr Finnie with all UK votes. If not, why should Scotland and Mr Finnie trust Mr Morley with ours? There is a strong case.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Does the member accept that if the SNP had its way and Scotland left the rest of the UK, Scotland would have less influence on fishing matters than even land-locked Austria, which has 10 votes?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I thank the former minister for that. I am aware—as she is—that an independent Scotland would have more votes in the European Union than it currently has as part of the delegation. Furthermore, those votes would always be cast in the Scottish interest. Many small countries in Europe are in a similar position.

Before I turn to my main point, I would like to mention an important matter to which the minister will be happy to respond—the west coast herring fishery. Since 1997, the quota has shrunk by 56.5 per cent and proposals for this year would mean a further year-on-year reduction of 17.5 per cent. That, like a number of other issues that have been raised in the debate, is apparently unjustified by the published science.

Will the minister give an assurance that he will fight that cut on the grounds of weak science? If it proves necessary, will he invoke the Hague preference? The skippers are unanimous that the stock is in good condition.

It would be a sorry occasion if I did not say something about the decommissioning scheme. There has been a 100 per cent over-subscription of the scheme—197 boats. Of those, 108 will get their money. There will be a lot of disappointment. That tells us a lot about morale in the industry.

Distributing the available quota over fewer boats will help—that must be given a modest welcome—but it is certainly not a conservation measure, despite what Mrs Winterton, the Tory spokeswoman in Westminster, thought. It is critical to long-term sustainability that we address conservation. Juvenile herrings are out there in great numbers and if we do not have a fleet to catch them, we will not have a viable industry.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I am out of time. The EU is indicating increased support for compensated tie- up schemes. We must have scientific results so that we can consult fishermen, argue the case here and elsewhere and bid for funds. Conservation is about conserving communities and fishermen as much as it is about conserving fish. I ask the ministers to go for it, to take the lead in Europe and to stand up for Scotland.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 4:10 pm, 13th December 2001

I will speak for a little less than my four minutes, because, if the Presiding Officer will allow it, my colleague Tavish Scott, in whose constituency fishing is vital, has a good deal to say and would like to speak for a little longer.

I have two points to make, but because of what I have heard in the debate, my second point will be different from the one that I first thought of. First, I welcome the statements of support for Ross Finnie—from all parties—as he goes into battle on our behalf. It is important that we sing from the same hymn sheet, because the previous divisions and discord in the Parliament and in the fishing industry were unhelpful. We should weigh in behind the minister so that the case is pressed to the maximum effect.

My second—and new—point is that so far the debate has concentrated, perhaps rightly, on boats, skippers and crew and on landing catches. However, when we talk about the fishing industry, we should remember the shore-side aspect. Elaine Thomson hinted at that when she mentioned fish processing. It does not send a good message to zero in on boats and on landing fish and to forget about people who work in fish factories and the industries that are dependent on them, such as packaging and transport and even sparkies and joiners.

Members tend to forget about that aspect of the industry. An example is the fine and beautiful old burgh of Wick, which is in my constituency. Members who have seen George Washington Wilson's pictures from the turn of the century, will know that, around 1900, Wick harbour was jam-packed with herring boats. Since then, there has been a steady decline in the industry in that part of Caithness. Although the people of Wick and the harbour trustees are doing their best to manage the situation, it is fair to say that the general economy of the Wick area is at a low ebb—to use a nautical phrase. Over the years, that has come—gently and in many ways—from the decline in the fishing industry.

I will make a point that I have made to the minister before—I know that he recognises it. In his good work, he should not forget the shore-side aspect of the industry. The fishing industry is bigger than boats and skippers—it must get together with the Scottish Enterprise network and talk to Wendy Alexander. Even if we solve the problem by reducing the size of the fleet and allowing stocks to recover, a residue of economic ill health would be left in areas such as Wick. Although the situation might be fine on the briny, it would not be fine on the shore because people who had work in the past would no longer have it.

The Parliament and the Executive must take a holistic approach. If they do not, we will be left with the Wicks of this world. Wick is a lovely old town with fine people who deserve all the help that we can give them.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I am sorry, I am going to sit down because I have spoken for too long. I ask the minister to work as closely as possible with the Scottish Enterprise network. I commend the motion.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 4:13 pm, 13th December 2001

I welcome the opportunity to be involved in a sea fisheries debate once again. The sea fisheries industry is very important to Scotland. Peterhead is the biggest white fish port in Europe. We have communities such as Shetland, where up to 40 per cent of the economy is dependent on the fishing industry. Many coastal communities—such as those in Orkney, Mallaig, the Western Isles, Eyemouth and Fife—are fisheries dependent. We are not talking about an industry that is of marginal importance to Scotland, but an industry that accounts for over 15,000 jobs across the country, exports worldwide, produces a food that is a vital part of a healthy diet and—most importantly—is an indigenous industry that can be sustainable in the long term.

Sustainability is at the heart of fisheries management. That is why I welcome the announcement of the decommissioning grants for the white fish sector. That £25 million forms part of the biggest-ever single investment in the Scottish fishing industry and I am glad that certain SNP members have welcomed it, albeit in a lukewarm fashion. Such investment is a vote of confidence in the future of the Scottish fishing industry. It will not be easy to create a long-term future for the industry and restructuring the white fish sector is fundamental to that sector's sustainable economic viability. The fisheries council meeting will present a few challenges, some of which have been highlighted this afternoon. However, I am confident that the UK negotiating team will fight Scotland's corner as always.

That point brings me to the SNP's amendment. Reading through it, I initially thought that it made some sense and that there was a lot in it that we could all agree on. For example, we have already received Ross Finnie's assurance that a fair deal for nephrops will be at the top of the UK's priorities at the council meeting. However, as we read on, we reach the SNP's sad old ideological obsession with who leads at the fisheries council. Once again, the SNP is intent on picking away at the Scotland Act 1998.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

No, I want to make this point because I passionately believe in it.

The SNP is simply raising the issue as an excuse to argue that more powers should be transferred to Scotland with the ultimate aim of tearing Scotland away from the rest of the UK. I strongly believe that the SNP is playing politics with the Scottish fishing industry; however, the industry will see through what the nationalists are doing. Devolution gives Scotland the best of both worlds: it gives us the strength of the UK negotiating for Scottish interests and the opportunity to engage in Europe to develop the country's own distinctive identity.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

No. The member is in her last minute.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

We are best placed to achieve that as part of a powerful UK delegation. The SNP should stop whingeing. Scottish fishing communities are interested not in who says what at the fisheries council, but in getting a fair deal for the industry. That is what Ross Finnie will be fighting for at the fisheries council meeting.

Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, a unique relationship involving fishermen, scientists and the Scottish Executive has developed and I have been privileged to play a small part in that process. I want to put on record my appreciation of the very constructive role that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation has played in working with the Scottish Executive. Furthermore, I thank the Scottish sea fisheries officials, who play a vital role at the heart of UK fisheries management and are of the highest quality. Although I believe passionately that the Scottish fishing industry has a future, we have to make that future happen. We can do that only by working together constructively. I therefore ask the chamber to support the Executive motion.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 4:18 pm, 13th December 2001

One of the pleasures of my two years as convener of the Rural Development Committee was the opportunity that it gave me to learn a great deal more about the fishing industry. Although the industry existed almost at my back door, I had very little understanding of it. I have since found myself speaking in most of the Parliament's fisheries debates. Indeed, it was interesting to hear Rhona Brankin give us the benefit of her crash course in the subject, as her appointment as fisheries minister came as something of a surprise to her. However, I think that the chamber is grateful for what she achieved in that time.

We must also remember that the Parliament is invariably and universally behind the fishing industry and usually demonstrates a fair degree of unanimity on the subject. In fact, when we have debated the importance of the fisheries negotiations in Brussels—this debate will be the third such occasion—the whole chamber has clearly backed the minister as he or she goes off to Brussels to represent Scotland's interests as part of the UK delegation.

That said, it is always interesting to hear the debate develop. First, the fisheries minister—this year it was Ross Finnie—stands up and tells us what he is going to do. We agree with the majority of what he proposed today.

Then a speaker from the SNP—it is usually Richard Lochhead—stands up and tells the minister that what he said that he was going to do is the appropriate thing to do. There is rarely any difference in that. This year, however, a piece of variety was provided by Stewart Stevenson, who stood up to tell us one or two new things. He has not been present at one of these annual debates before and he reminded us that the terrible Tories are doing much damage in London.

For our part, we nod and wink at our compatriots around the chamber and indicate that, this year, we will be lending our support to the unanimity of the Parliament, as we always do on this subject.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The member unreasonably accused the SNP of simply repeating what the minister said in his opening speech. Of course, that is nonsense. Will the member accept that one priority that the minister must have in Brussels next week—which he did not mention but the SNP did—is to tackle industrial fishing?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

That is dealt with in our motion and I am proud to associate my party with that demand.

I want the minister to address one or two issues in Brussels.

Jamie McGrigor talked about the pressures that fishermen are under with regard to the gear that they use and the requirement to provide new gear in the near future. Is there any way in which the minister could assist those fishermen who, because of the financial constraints that they are under and the fact that their banks are no longer willing to support them, are unable to supply new gear?

Jamie McGrigor, referring to prawns, made a point that has been made in this chamber several times. Is the Government willing, in applying pressure to the European Union, to take the European Commission to court over the impact of its measure on the prawn fishery if there is no other alternative? The European measure would have a negligible effect on the cod stock but would, undoubtedly, have an impact on our fleet. The French threatened to take the European Commission to court over the coley stocks earlier this year and the Commission caved in.

For the benefit of Richard Lochhead, I ask whether the Executive will push the Commission for the introduction of a strategy that will systematically reduce industrial fishing over the next few years and will lead, hopefully, to a ban on such fisheries in the North sea.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 4:22 pm, 13th December 2001

I am an unlikely interloper in a fisheries debate. When I said that I was going to speak in the debate, I was asked what fishing had to do with the Scottish Borders. When I said that I wanted to speak about the plight of the fishermen in Eyemouth—in particular the prawn boats—my questioner was utterly surprised that there was still fishing there. There is, but it is not thriving. The fishing community there dates back to the 13 th century, growing, as all fishing communities have done, around its harbour and its fleet. It suffered the worst fishing disaster known in Scotland, on 18 October 1881, when more than 189 fishermen—129 of them from Eyemouth—lost their lives when they put out to sea to meet their tithes to the church. In recent times fishermen are again taking to the sea in more and more dangerous conditions in order simply to make a living.

Fishing is still core to the town's tourism, with a seafood festival in June and a herring queen festival in July. There are currently 61 members of the Eyemouth Port Association, 40 of them fishing prawns. The threat of a further 25 per cent reduction—in the face of scientific evidence that others have referred to—will, when added to last year's 10 per cent cut, push a vulnerable local industry and community close to the edge.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Christine Grahame said that she was speaking for the fishermen in the Borders, the area that she represents. Surely, however, there are also fishermen that she should be representing in the south-west. Has she no interest in those fishermen?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Yes, I do. I am using Eyemouth as an example of a vulnerable community. I am talking about fishing communities of that size throughout Scotland. I have simply had more meetings with the Eyemouth fishermen than with any others. I speak after having spoken to them today on this matter.

The Eyemouth fishermen have negotiated and accepted the use of larger mesh nets to prevent smaller fish and prawns being caught. David Shiels, of the Eyemouth Port Association, told me that he thought that that and other measures, along with proof that cod was not taken by prawners, would lead to the removal of the 10 per cent cut. I understand that that proof was given but that the cut remained.

The wider issue of discards must be addressed. As a laywoman, it appears to me that, despite all the mesh measures, the fact that good fish are being tossed dead back into the sea is simply irrational. Where is the conservation in that?

If the further cuts go ahead, they will have serious effects on the economy of Eyemouth and surrounding areas, some of which I have described. There would be a knock-on effect on local suppliers. According to David Shiels of the Eyemouth Port Association:

"vessels are already operating too close to the red line".

He predicts that quite a few further firms and vessels will go to the wall. Members should set that against a crash in the prices for fish on the quayside: £12 to £15 for haddock, £6 to £10 for a box of whiting and £10 for a box of monkfish.

The situation is desperate and has given rise to a desperate plea from just one of the many fishing communities in the south of Scotland. I stress the word community because, when the fishing declines, so will the entire economy.

However, Eyemouth is a fighting community. I recommend the article in the Fishing News of 30 November this year, which refers to the dreadful disaster in 1881. It is called:

"EYEMOUTH—THE FISHING TOWN THAT REFUSED TO DIE".

Eyemouth still refuses to die

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The member is closing her speech.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I am winding up.

Eyemouth needs advocates who will genuinely plead the case against a cut in quotas. I trust that Ross Finnie will be able to deliver.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 4:26 pm, 13th December 2001

I welcome Murray Tosh to his serene position in the chair.

I begin by agreeing with Rhona Brankin. She made an important point about the unanimity of view that should exist in Scotland when a fisheries minister is going to Brussels. I do not apologise for repeating the point. The work of the cross-party group of Scottish MEPs on the European Parliament Fisheries Committee is extremely important. The work that all four main parties do is constructive. It plays a significant role in aiding the Scottish case. I wish that we could do more of that at such times.

In the limited time that is available to me, I will raise three constituency points, following a series of meetings with the Shetland Fishermen's Association and fishermen in my constituency. The first relates to TACs and quotas. I share the concerns that Richard Lochhead raised about the monkfish quota. My concerns relate to the scientific advice. The SFF's analysis, which it was rightly asked to do by the Scottish Executive environment and rural affairs department, suggests that the levels are stable, certainly in the North sea. I believe that that should be reflected in the final TAC. I respect the fact that there may be differences of view with regard to the west coast, but I do not believe that the Commission's proposals for a 40 per cent quota cut are appropriate to the North sea. The minister should resist them firmly in the council next week. The other aspect to bear in mind on monkfish is that the figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, on which I believe the proposal was based, relate to scientific evidence from 2000. They could therefore fairly be said to be somewhat out of date.

Monkfish is a high-value species. A 40 per cent cut in the quota would be utterly devastating for the Shetland industry. The suggestion that I think the Commission is making—although I do not believe that the Commission knows what its policy is on this—that we can simply solve the problem by mesh sizes is utterly inappropriate. Anyone who has seen a monkfish knows that, no matter whether the mesh size is 80mm, 90mm, 110mm or 120mm, a monkfish cannot swim through it. The logical extension of that position is a closed area for monkfish. All that that would achieve is a repeat of the difficulties that we had earlier this year, because closed areas just lead to displacement of effort and other stocks being hit all the harder. That series of options should be severely restricted—indeed opposed—by ministers.

My second point is on the cod recovery plan, or—as it now appears to be called—the cod and hake recovery plan. I have two points that I ask the minister to clarify in his closing speech. I am concerned that the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency is employing a very strict interpretation of 110mm and 120mm nets that are carried on board vessels. That appears to relate to the 2002 proposals and the 2003 proposals. My information is that what is effectively a one-net rule is not being interpreted as such in other member states. I hope that the environment and rural affairs department will be able to quickly clarify those rules to the industry.

I also have a significant worry—which I have made clear in repeated letters to the Executive—about small, low-powered, inshore seine-net fishing vessels. When she was in her previous job, Rhona Brankin was probably fed up with me asking about the issue. However, it is an important issue for a small number of boats because of the effect that 110mm or 120mm meshes would have on them. Those small vessels, which are low-powered and carry fewer crew, catch arguably the best-quality fish, which are landed and go to market as quickly as possible. Those boats play an important role and the department should consider quickly how it can support that sector.

The North Atlantic Fisheries College ran a trial with a Shetland boat, the MVF Harmony. The trial was funded by the £1 million package that was announced by the former fisheries minister earlier this year. The trial results make it clear that the adoption of either of the cod-end net designs that were tested would reduce discarding of undersize haddock or whiting, but would also have a substantial, short-term economic impact on single seine netters. I hope that the ministers will take that point on board.

A third of Shetland's economic output depends on fishing, which illustrates its importance to my constituency. My survey of the crisis in the whitefish industry during the summer showed the knock-on effects for shore-side businesses. That is a significant point to note when considering the overall impact of decommissioning on fishing constituencies.

I hope that the minister will have the support of the whole chamber when he argues Scotland's case at the fisheries council next Monday.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

As we are slipping slightly behind time, I must reduce the time allocation to three minutes for the remaining three speakers. I call Dr Winifred Ewing, to be followed by Robin Harper.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Yes. The time allocation will impact on Mr Smith. There is nothing I can do about that.

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party

I congratulate the minister on a robust performance. I wish him every success in his negotiations. I liked the determined cut of his jaw, but I cannot see how its determination would be lessened if he were given the strength of being the lead minister. I simply cannot understand, with my long 20-year experience as a member of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee, why that should be the case.

I remember the assurances given by the Scottish Office ministers who came to talk to MEPs about the devolution settlement. Those ministers also attended the meeting of the European Parliament Legal Affairs and Internal Market Committee, which came to Edinburgh. I told Mr McLeish at that time that I would write down his exact words, which were:

"When the Scottish interest dominates, the Scottish minister will be the lead minister."

I have quoted those words before and I will quote them again.

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party

I will not give way, as Rhona Brankin has not given way to me many a time. That is just the way that I feel about it.

In the negotiations, I believe that Ross Finnie will be well armed with all the information that he needs. I liked his arguments about the scientific evidence and other points. However, we are getting many more new rules and measures, so could there be an assessment of the measures that are already in place? Will that happen? Is the minister aware that the uncertainty is causing problems in recruiting crews? That is the information that many of my constituents give me.

I thank the minister for the information on the update of the decommissioning. Will that be completed by the spring? I understand that it is possible that it will be. Having said that, I have always welcomed the decommissioning, contrary to what Rhona Brankin keeps saying. I just wanted a tie-up scheme, such as those in the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium, as well.

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party

I am not taking an intervention from Mrs Brankin, because she never gave way to me in the many debates that we had.

I welcome the decommissioning, but we turned down European money that was available in other countries. We do that commonly. We are the only member state that turns down European money, because the UK will not match it. I fail to see where the great clout that the UK gives us is.

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party

No, I will not give way.

In my years on the European Parliament Fisheries Committee there were four members from the Labour and Tory benches—there were no Liberals at that time. Those members voted consistently with Spain; it is no wonder that they all lost their seats. That is what they deserved. There must be compensation. The Commission is now— [Laughter.] It is not a funny subject, as Mr Tavish Scott well knows. If the Commission is to encourage tie-up schemes, as it seems to be doing, or the limitation of days spent at sea, it follows, as night the day, that there must be compensation.

On industrial fishing, I must quote—

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

How much will the compensation cost?

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party

The European Union is willing to give us some of the money. All we have to do is to match it, in the way that other countries do.

I ask the minister why we turn a blind eye to the privileged treatment on industrial fishing that is given to Norway. That country has secured an increase in its quota, although it is not even in the EU. Why do we turn a blind eye to the privileged treatment given to the Danes? Will the joint study that was promised to be undertaken by the UK and Denmark and published by the end of the year be made available? Perhaps the minister could ask that question when he attends the council.

Will the minister support zonal management committees, which I think most of us and most fishermen's associations agree with? Alan McCartney's last act, as it were, as a fisheries spokesman in Europe was to have his report on the matter of zones and local management approved unanimously by the European Parliament Fisheries Committee. We are all beginning to accept the view that we need to encourage that.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 4:36 pm, 13th December 2001

This debate reminds me of the film "Groundhog Day", in which the central character is forced to relive a day over and over again until he finally gets things right. We appear to be following a similar plot line here. [MEMBERS: "Whoa!"]. Once again, we gather in the chamber just prior to a meeting of the European fisheries council. Once again, scientists are informing us that our fish stocks are in an alarming state. Once again, the Executive has been asked to achieve the seemingly impossible by trying to reconcile the need to conserve stocks while achieving the best deal possible for the Scottish fishing industry.

The current situation is the result of too many years of excessive fishing, due to substantial overcapacity in the EU fleet. Too many boats are competing for too few fish. The situation with regard to fish stocks is still alarming, and our backs are against the wall. If we are serious about securing the future of the fisheries sector, there is no way to avoid a significant reduction in both catches and fishing. Such tough decisions represent

"another black day for European fishermen ... But if we want to avoid the complete extinction of some fish stocks, which would spell the end for our fishermen, decisive action is the only way forward. We have to preserve what our fishermen make their living from - fish."

Although I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiments of that statement, it is not my own. That is an almost verbatim quote from Franz Fischler, speaking just last week. He also made a plea to fisheries ministers to

"show courage and resolve to refrain from political horse-trading and set" total allowable catch quotas

"at levels that ensure sustainable fisheries."

The Executive must take note of that. The Executive should look beyond the setting of fish quotas for the coming year, and should seek to influence the review of the common fisheries policy—[MEMBERS: "Slow down."]—so that the measures adopted ensure the recovery of stocks and bring about sustainable fisheries and safeguard the marine environment. I can now slow down. [Applause.] Such measures can include multi-annual quotas, stock recovery plans and an ambitious programme of fleet reduction.

I commend Rhona Brankin on what she achieved as Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development, but the entire European fleet needs to be reduced by 50 per cent. We could get close to that target in Scotland tomorrow if there was another £27 million available, which is being queued up for. In addition, fishing-free areas could be designated and an ecosystem approach could be taken to manage the marine environment.

Something must be done at a European level about the unacceptable level of blackfish landings. That undermines everything—both the science and the strategies. There shall be condign punishment for boats caught at it and for people who trade in or process the blackfish caught. Unless we take concerted action, rise above political considerations and commit ourselves to achieving mechanisms that will truly achieve the conservation of our fish stocks, we will surely find ourselves repeating this debate, groundhog-style, next year, the year after and even the year after that if there are any fish left.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Despite Robin Harper's valiant efforts, there is time for Iain Smith to make only two or three bullet points. He has a maximum of two minutes.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 4:39 pm, 13th December 2001

I will not do what Robin Harper did, and try to make a four-minute speech in two minutes. I will cut down my remarks and get to the points that I wish to make.

The minister is well aware of the situation in Pittenweem. I thank him for taking time out to speak to fishermen there to get a clear picture of what is happening. He knows that even the current prawn quotas are not high enough to allow fishing to be economically viable in smaller communities. For boats under 10m in length, which nowadays form the bulk of the fleet that operates out of Pittenweem, the situation is very difficult. They cannot even buy quota to improve their future prospects. We need to solve that problem.

When the scientific advice was issued from Europe, fishermen were quite hopeful that this year there would be an increase in the nephrop quota. It is unbelievable and unacceptable that the European Commission is proposing a cut in that quota. Last year the Commission cut the nephrop quota by 10 per cent, even though there was no evidence that that was necessary. The Commission was given plenty of evidence that the cut was wrong and it should have restored the quota to its previous level. For it to propose cutting the quota further is totally unacceptable.

We need to examine carefully the operation of European fishing policy. Fishermen in the east neuk of Fife cannot understand why the Firth of Forth prawn fishery should be part of a quota system that is designed to protect species that do not live in the Firth of Forth. That makes no sense. We need to consider managing fishing grounds, instead of focusing on the global picture and ignoring scientific advice. We also need better scientific advice—advice that tells people where they can fish and at what times, with minimum damage to the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.

Those are the main points that I wanted to cover. However, I would like to make two other quick points. First, can we have a scientific study into the possibility of reopening the sprat fishery in the Firth of Forth? Secondly, we need to consider the issue of industrial fishing of sand eels. Sand eels are the base of the food chain in the sea. Hoovering them out by industrial fishing will cause serious damage to that food chain and will seriously damage stocks.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I am grateful to Mr Smith for staying within his time. We now move to wind-up speeches.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour 4:42 pm, 13th December 2001

I very much welcome this debate before the negotiations on catch limits and quotas for 2002. I agree with what Jamie Stone said about members from all parties supporting the minister in the negotiations and I add my support to theirs.

Although this debate is about fisheries quotas, some members have mentioned the scallop fishery. I support the arguments that they have made. The scallop fishery is not a matter for this debate, but it is very important. If we fail to include the industry in our considerations, it will suffer severe damage.

I agree with many of the points that have been made today. I do not want to repeat all of them, but I emphasise the point that Elaine Thomson made about the importance of the processing industry. I know that she has a strong constituency interest in that industry and in the communities that it supports in Aberdeen.

I am also extremely concerned that the work that has been done to bring fishermen and scientists together appears to be being undermined by the European Commission. In the past we have been told that quotas and catch limits are based on scientific evidence, but this year that evidence appears to carry no weight. Such an approach can only breed distrust within our fishing industry.

The proposed cut in the prawn quota is also extremely concerning. I welcome the minister's comments on that. The scientific evidence would appear to suggest an increased quota, but the Commission has proposed a drastic reduction. The prawn fishery is extremely valuable both to Scotland as a whole and to small, remote communities. Inshore fisheries are very much involved in the prawn fishery, which sustains many of the rural and remote communities in my constituency. The proposed cut in quota would threaten their viability. I support the Executive's fight to ensure that those cuts do not go ahead. That will help to safeguard the future of those communities.

The Scottish Executive's decommissioning scheme allows fishermen to leave the industry, making the industry more profitable for those who remain in it. Last year we had too many boats chasing too few fish. I hope that the decommissioning scheme will redress the balance. Last year there were also concerns about crewing numbers. Rumours abounded of boats going to sea undercrewed—that has grave safety implications. However, it is difficult to attract crews into an industry in which profit margins are low.

Decommissioning would allow boats to crew to acceptable standards and would enable fishing crews to have a decent standard of living.

The decisions that we make now will have long-term implications for the future of the industry. Everyone must be signed up to a sustainable fishing industry. I am glad that Rhona Brankin underlined that point. The existing quota limits do nothing to address sustainability—in fact, I would argue that they harm sustainability. To my mind, the waste involved in throwing back over the side dead, over-quota catch in a mixed fishery is obscene. There must be a better way.

We must look forward to the reform of the common fisheries policy. Local management of fisheries is the only measure that will work. There will be a new impetus to conservation when those who carry out the conservation strategies reap direct benefits. We must have an overall EU policy of sustainable fisheries, but that policy must be managed locally. That would provide sustainability for the communities that we serve and that we have mentioned this afternoon.

I am disappointed that the SNP made this a debate on the constitution rather than one on fishing, as fishing is far too important for that. However, I am pleased that the SNP backed the minister's stance in the negotiations. I hope that the minister can make progress with the support of the entire chamber.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 4:46 pm, 13th December 2001

We welcome Mr Finnie's appointment as the third fisheries minister in as many years. However, that appointment is of great concern to the industry, as the previous minister, Rhona Brankin, was well accepted and had worked hard to get herself up to speed on the subject. This is a critical time of the year and Mr Finnie will have to enter the negotiations immediately. I find Rhona Brankin's removal from the job quite insulting to the industry. Surely the political considerations of the Executive could have been dealt with after the new year. That said, I wish Mr Finnie well.

Today's debate was based on the view that, whatever happens, the quota must match the science. That is the message that has been sent from every part of the chamber and it does not matter how it is wrapped up. I have attended conferences at which the fishermen and the scientists did not get on and I have watched them come together gently. As was mentioned, any risk to that new-found partnership and relationship must not be tolerated. We must all—particularly the minister and his team—do everything possible to ensure that that is the basis on which the management of fishing stock moves forward.

We see drastic cuts being made overnight, but we do not see all the evidence for those cuts. That undermines the confidence of the industry. Many members talked about the difficulties that the industry faces with cash flow and the fact that the banking industry lacks of confidence in the boats. They also spoke about a lack of confidence in recruitment and the future. Those issues must be explained very carefully in Europe.

When we talk about Europe, we usually want a level playing field. On the mesh rules, however, we want the same flat sea. Our fishermen cannot go out to sea encumbered by rules that do not apply to others who fish the same waters.

As soon as we can, we should reform the CFP and implement a system of zonal management, in which those who are at sea are supported by the Government to contribute, along with the scientists, to the management of stocks. A number of issues relate to that reform and zonal management, such as the 6-mile and 12-mile limits and relative stability. I could go on at length, but—

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

I do not have time.

We must make sure that we get that system right.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

One or two points have been raised in the debate— [Interruption.] Presiding Officer, I wish that, given that this is an important debate— [Interruption.] I come from a fishing family—

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

I understand why emotions are running high in the chamber, but the constant, boorish interventions when members are speaking are an insult to the industry.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

The member should not be so sanctimonious.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

I accept that Mr Scott has great knowledge, but I wish that he had got his colleagues to deal with the problems.

I am grateful that the SNP has now backed our position on industrial fishing. I hope that we can encourage the Executive to take the same route, as our amendment calls for.

Rhoda Grant mentioned the obscenity of discards, which is an issue that must be discussed at length. We cannot continue to allow discards and should do away with the problems of black fish, which may be appearing again. The industry does not want go down the black fish route. Fishermen want to be able to hold their heads high and do a decent job for a fair return, reasonably supported against their competitors.

I hope that we can leave the chamber in a united mood and give the minister every encouragement. We have respect for his ability, as he has done well in the other briefs that he has been given by the Executive. However, it is important that the fishermen's representatives who are in the public gallery take back to their communities the message that we are all behind the moves towards sustainable fishing communities both on sea and on land.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 4:50 pm, 13th December 2001

It is perhaps salutary to begin with a reminder that, while we risk our political lives, reputations and careers in this chamber, fishermen put their actual lives at risk every day.

I endorse the remarks of Winnie Ewing and others about the increasing difficulty in obtaining crew, which is being experienced all around Scotland—Mallaig in my constituency is certainly no exception—and which must exacerbate the risks to fishermen's working lives.

By and large, there has been a sense of unity in today's debate, although the odd note of dissonance has been struck. I support the minister's efforts to negotiate the best achievable deal for the Scottish industry. There is a need to preserve stocks, but it is hard to see how any member—no matter their party—could conceive of voting against the motion, which states what any MSP should do in virtually any circumstances. By contrast, motherhood and apple pie are issues of extreme controversy.

Given that this is supposed to be a debate, one question arises: what on earth is the basis of the Commission's proposals to reduce the nephrops quotas—by 25 per cent off the west of Scotland and by 22 per cent in the North sea—when the science indicates that the opposite is required? That is a mystery to which no answer has been given. It is a deep mystery, because we know from Tavish Scott and others that, at the time of last year's 10 per cut, the former minister, Rhona Brankin, indicated that the Executive would use its full force from January and throughout the year to ensure that evidence was produced to show that the 10 per cent cut was unjustified.

Last year came and went, yet we are no further forward. We know that a lot of work was done behind the scenes. I believe that evidence was submitted to the Commission in July. I know for a fact that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and other representative bodies have spent the year travelling to and fro between Scotland and Brussels, where they presented the factual case. We all know the detailed arguments, which we have read about in briefings and discussed with our constituents.

With all that lobbying by the Executive and the representative bodies in favour of a reinstatement of last year's 10 per cent cut, why has the Commission made its proposal despite the ICES scientific advice, which, as was pointed out, might even be slightly out of date? The reduction in TACs and quotas has been justified on the ground that it is in accordance with scientific advice. There is absolutely no justification for that.

That is why we are pleased to support the minister's line that the Commission's position is increasingly ridiculous. I have never before heard any minister use such language about the European Commission. Of course, the Commission's position is far more serious for those whom it will affect. One must seriously wonder how such people can be expected to have any confidence in the European Union if the Commission makes such proposals.

Perhaps today's debate should have taken place after we had found out the answer to that question. The question is the mystery at the heart of the debate and no one has ventured a solution. Although we wish the minister well in his efforts, I hope that we will say with one voice that the outcome of the negotiations must be an increase in the nephrops quotas.

That brings me to the SNP's approach. We have always supported a decommissioning scheme, so we welcome the fact that such a scheme has been achieved. The credit for that achievement must go to the fishermen, who campaigned in a dignified way. It would be churlish not to recognise that. Our amendment invites the Executive to seek an increase in nephrops quotas; Ross Finnie has said that that is what he will do. It calls on the Executive to acknowledge the mixed character of Scotland's fisheries; the minister referred to that mixed character in his opening speech. It also says that we should take into account the many conservation measures that have been agreed by the industry; the minister dwelt on that in his opening remarks. However, it asks ministers to

"retain an open mind with regard to fisheries management measures proposed by the industry and financially supported by the EU".

The minister did not mention that, so I hope that he will take the opportunity in his closing speech to say whether we are, once again, going to turn away money from Europe that every other country grabs at.

This may be controversial for some members, but our amendment also says that the minister should be the lead UK minister on the EU fisheries council. For once, I agree with former First Minister Henry McLeish. He argued for the same thing. However, in the same way as Labour said goodbye to that First Minister, it has apparently said goodbye to the commitments that were made. I hope that the minister succeeds in achieving his targets in the negotiations at the fisheries council.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 4:56 pm, 13th December 2001

By and large, there has not been much disagreement across the range of issues covered this afternoon. However, I intend to pick up on one or two key points.

Fergus Ewing alluded to the issue that Richard Lochhead and Stewart Stevenson made much of—what the Commission had to say about the level of support that should be given on effort. I do not know where the SNP is coming from in suggesting that the European Union is moving towards giving a more prominent role to tie-up schemes of any shape, size or form. I will quote from a recent European Commission document on effort limitation:

"Days-at-sea systems have drawbacks. Above all, they make no contribution to permanent reduction in fishing effort. Decommissioning, by contrast, addresses the root of the problem of excess fishing effort, which will have to be addressed in any event at some stage. It permanently improves the situation of the remaining vessels of the fleet."

The SNP amendment is deficient because, in fact, the European Union is not adding one penny piece to the support that is available. It is therefore fallacious to say that an additional financial system is available.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Does the minister acknowledge that, only two days ago, the European Commission, when announcing its proposals for recovery plans, not only made tie-up schemes an option but actively encouraged the use of such schemes? The Commission is making even more money available for those schemes. Perhaps the minister should use up-to-date information.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The phrase used by the European Union on lifting the limits that member states might use did not imply that the European Union is spending one penny more—or one euro more, I should say.

I want to pick up on other issues that members raised. Richard Lochhead asked whether we would invoke the Hague preference. As he is well aware, it is up to us whether we invoke it. We reserve our position; I will certainly invoke it if necessary. However, Mr Lochhead will understand that we have to know where we are in the negotiations before we consider doing so. I do not wish to advance our position on that.

Stewart Stevenson expressed concern about the scientific advice on west coast herring. I do not know where he got his information because, this year, ICES has made no new assessment of herring. In the absence of such an assessment, it seems reasonable to argue for a roll-over of this year's quota as opposed to the 15 per cent cut that was proposed.

Tavish Scott raised a number of detailed points. There is no one-net rule. Guidance has been issued to fishermen on that. [Interruption.]

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I ask for some courtesy from the chamber. I am finding it extremely difficult to hear what the minister is saying in response to detailed issues that are important to many of us.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I agree. It would be helpful if members could take heed of that point.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I hope that you are not asking me to raise my voice, Presiding Officer.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Your voice is fine, Mr Finnie—it is the babbling in the background that is the problem.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Perhaps I can return to the points about the 110mm mesh. The evidence on that issue will be reviewed by mid-2002 and will inform the debate on how to proceed.

The final point was on monkfish and we are not entirely agreed on that. Our view is that, although monkfish is an important stock, it is in a difficult state and so we must accept some reductions. However, we will be careful about the level of any reductions.

Christine Grahame was greatly informative about the state of Eyemouth in 1881. I am grateful to my colleague, Euan Robson, for keeping me up to date on the state of Eyemouth and fishing in 2001.

Points were made about the processors. We all understand that processing is a crucial downstream activity. We must also accept that there will be no processing unless we get the TAC allocations, a forward position on effort limitation and reform of the common fisheries policy. Those are all key elements. There were one or two other points in relation to scallops. We must accept that it was our industry that supported and promoted a three-tier system. However, I accept the point that the current trigger level of 4.6 micrograms per gram is not sustainable. It is not a matter for discussion at the forthcoming fisheries council.

Our efforts will take a balanced approach. We are determined to ensure that the outcome is based on science. I can only repeat what I said at the outset of the debate, which is that I have no intention of leaving the EU in any doubt that to promote a TAC for nephrops is ridiculous. Such a measure threatens to undermine the whole process of the annual TAC review. That is my position and I intend to keep to it.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The minister will appreciate that the biggest issue facing the industry and next week's negotiations is the proposed cut in the nephrops quota. Will he go on record saying that he will rule out no option to ensure that the proposed cuts are overturned, even if he has to use the courts?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I do not think that even Mr Lochhead would expect me to reveal my entire hand and negotiating position. I have made my position clear—I cannot be any clearer. The Commission's proposal is ridiculous. I will not accept a proposition that threatens to undermine a serious annual negotiation for TACs. That is my position.

On the other stocks, I hope that we will be able to reach a position that is adequate and based on science. I accept that we are still in an unsatisfactory position in relation to industrial fishing stocks. We continue to discuss those matters with our Danish counterparts. I regret deeply that we have not been able to bring those discussions to a conclusion earlier and that we are still not in a position to deliver what we had hoped to when we discussed the issue a year ago. We are making progress. Although no cut is proposed for the Norway pout, we are pleased to see the beginnings of a reduction in the sand eel catch. The current proposal is to reduce that catch by 20 per cent.

I am absolutely convinced that we can proceed to the meeting—from Sunday evening through to Tuesday—on the basis that we are seeking to get the best practicable solution for the Scottish fishery. I assure the Parliament that I will do everything in my power to bring that about.