Fisheries

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 1st December 2005.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 2:15 pm, 1st December 2005

The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-3657, in the name of Ross Finnie, on sea fisheries.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 2:56 pm, 1st December 2005

Before I begin, I apologise for the fact that I am not accompanied by the Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development, who unfortunately has had to attend a funeral.

The European Union fisheries council will meet on 20, 21 and 22 December to make its annual decisions on fishing opportunities for the year ahead. As always, it will be an important occasion for the fishing sector in Scotland. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity to set out the prospects for those negotiations and what we wish to achieve.

As many members know, yesterday the European Commission agreed the proposals that it will put forward to the council; in a technical sense, the detailed negotiations have begun. The council negotiations take place against the background of the EU-Norway negotiations, the second round of which started on Monday. I aim for an outcome that promotes sustainable fisheries. Without sustainability, there will be no fish and no fishing. I will also be fighting very hard for a fair deal for Scotland's fishermen and fishing communities.

It is important to see the negotiations in their wider context. Earlier this year, I set out clearly our vision for the future of the industry in "A Sustainable Framework for Scottish Sea Fisheries", which describes how the sector can have a sustainable, profitable and well-managed future. However, the main focus of today's debate is discussion of the negotiations in December, recognising that wider context. I welcome the Scottish Green Party's constructive amendment, which points out that we should not confine ourselves to the December negotiations but should look forward and take the wider picture into account.

As ever, the science is the starting point for the negotiations, which is how it should be. Sound fisheries management must be based on sound science. Through our excellent Fisheries Research Services, we in Scotland are at the forefront of formulating and promulgating such advice. I know that a number of members benefited from an FRS briefing yesterday.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I am sorry to intervene so early, but the minister took me slightly by surprise by referring to the Green party's amendment. Does that mean that he accepts the merit of bycatch quotas to address discards? If so, will he explain how that might work?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The merit of the Green amendment is that it properly points out that wider issues need to be addressed. However, no proposals on those matters will be discussed at the December council, and I intend to confine my remarks to advising and informing the chamber of where I propose to go with matters that will be discussed.

The science is a little bit of a mixed story. It is disappointing that, despite all that has been done on cod since 2002, there continues to be little firm evidence of recovery. The scientists are even less certain than in previous years about precise numbers. However, they are clear on one thing: the stock remains well below its safe biological limit. If anything, the situation is more precarious on the west coast than in the North sea. That has been the case for a while. The advice is for not only zero catches but also action on other fisheries to minimise bycatches.

The haddock stock remains healthy with a much reduced fishing mortality rate and a biomass above safe limits—although there has been a major downward revision of the biomass, which I will come back to. The stock remains dominated by the exceptional 1999 year class and catch opportunities will inevitably decline for the 2005 year class.

There is better news on our other stocks. Television camera surveys have provided clear evidence that the nephrop stock is abundant throughout the North sea and west of Scotland fisheries. Although there are warnings about the need to minimise the impact on cod and to avoid an increase in effort, the conclusion is that the stock could sustain significantly higher total allowable catches. On monkfish, scientific knowledge remains poor, but what we know supports the approach that we have advocated for some time—of a higher TAC and an extended scientific programme, accompanied by measures to ensure that effort will not increase.

The advice on mackerel shows that the prudent, precautionary approach adopted in recent years is bearing fruit. The decline in the biomass has been halted, giving the possibility of modest increases in the TAC.

How the science translates into council decisions depends, crucially, on the part played by the Commission. It is clear that the Commission intends to continue with the task set by the council of securing, or attempting to secure, a recovery in cod. We will argue strongly that, if the science suggests that more needs to be done, the first priority should be to ensure that all member states implement in full the measures already agreed.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

Does that mean that the minister wants equality across the member states? Will there be increased and enhanced policing of every vessel that is registered within the EU?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The issue is not only about increased policing; it is also about an improvement in the information that flows from member states to the Commission. We have been at great pains to increase the volume and quality of the information that we have supplied; that information has enabled our scientists to conclude that we have met our target of a 65 per cent reduction in effort. If there is a call for further reductions, my challenge to other member states will be to demonstrate that they have met the existing requirements; this country should not aim for further reductions before everyone has done that. We will proceed on that basis before our white-fish fleet is asked to accept any more cuts. As Margaret Ewing will have seen, there is a proposal for a further cut in effort on cod. We will accept the science, but we will not accept that measures should be applied to Scotland unless it can be proved that the measures are being applied equally elsewhere.

This time last year, there was much talk of unjustifiably large closed areas and of punitive restrictions on the transfers of days at sea. Both those proposals would have been damaging to our industry, and I am glad to say that no adequate science has been presented to support them. They do not now feature in this year's proposals.

I would be prepared to contemplate new measures for fleets other than the main white-fish boats. There can be no doubt about the impact of beam trawlers on cod. The impact on the nephrops fishery may have been overstated by some, but it is undoubtedly a factor. Any new measures on nephrops would have to be equitable and proportionate and would need to allow the important prawn fishery to continue to thrive. Perhaps most important, they would have to be accompanied by an increase in the TAC. Members in the chamber will have seen this morning's press release from the Commission. I am delighted that it has proposals for TAC increases of 30 per cent in the North sea and 39 per cent on the west coast. Of course, we will support that, because it was our Executive that pursued the matter with some diligence. The proposed increases are the culmination of some very hard work indeed. I take the opportunity to give particular thanks to those in FRS who played their full part in that.

There are proposals for a reduction in effort, but we will again be negotiating on that. We believe that management measures could be put in place to offset the need for that reduction.

I am aware of the importance of monkfish to our fishermen, so it is disappointing that we are little further forward on that issue than we were last year. We have played our part, including through an extensive industry-scientist partnership, in improving our knowledge of the stock and we have proposed management measures to prevent an increase in effort. However, the Commission has so far failed to deliver the promised in-year quota increase. The Commission is aware of our disappointment, but it points to the uncertainty of the science. This year, we will press for either an immediate TAC increase or a firmer undertaking that, if the science shows that an increase is justified—as we believe will happen—it will be delivered early in 2006.

The scientific advice on haddock has a sting in the tail. The stock is crucial for our white-fish fleet and is reported to be healthy but, as I said earlier, a major downward revision of the biomass has been made. I cannot and will not accept the 41 per cent cut in the TAC, which stems not so much from a desire for sustainability, but from the rigid application of a pre-ordained management plan and a desire to make in one year all the adjustments that are required to respond to that substantial reassessment of the 1999 year class. We are in no doubt that such a cut would cause severe damage with no justification, and the science supports our view on that.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

I am interested in the minister's comments on haddock. I assume that he will stress to the council in December the fact that, despite the reassessment of the 1999 haddock year class, we have encouraging signs that recruitment might be good in 2005.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

We have already made that point. We will not necessarily have to make it at the council in December, because, as the member is aware, we manage the haddock stock jointly with Norway. Therefore, much of the determination of the recommendation will emerge from the talks between the EU and Norway to which I referred earlier. On the haddock class of 2005, the scientists and everyone else agree that the emerging class is encouraging, although that has not yet been confirmed. We expect it to be confirmed, but we should remember that the class will not become fishable for another two or three years. However, that will be important and will signify that the work that we have done to reduce effort has been effective.

The range of issues at the council will be as wide as ever and, as always, the result of the negotiations is to some extent uncertain. However, I am reassured by the fact that we have had early consultation with a wide sector of the Scottish industry. We have been fully involved with the scientists and with the regional advisory councils, which continue to play an improved and important role. We have carried out consultation with the industry and have driven forward the science. My team and I have led the discussions and negotiations on our priorities. I give members an absolute undertaking that we will do what the motion sets out: we will pursue the objective of sustainable fisheries, but try to ensure that we achieve a fair deal for our fishermen and fishing communities. I ask members to support the motion.

I move,

That the Parliament supports the Scottish Executive in its efforts to negotiate the best possible outcome from the EU Fisheries Council in December 2005, an outcome that delivers sustainable fisheries and a fair deal for Scotland's fishermen and fishing communities.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 3:08 pm, 1st December 2005

The Scottish National Party welcomes the debate, which is on one of Scotland's proudest and most important industries. We are indebted to Scotland's fishermen for bringing food to our plates; in doing so, many of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. Despite some of the doom-and-gloom headlines in recent years, the industry remains vital to Scotland. We have fishermen who lead their fields internationally and world-class seafood companies. Many of our coastal and island communities remain fisheries dependent.

Every year since devolution, we have had the same debate in the run-up to the festive period. When most people in Scotland are looking forward to Christmas, our fishing communities face a period of uncertainty and anxiety. Many people and families throughout Scotland are wondering what next year holds for them, whether they will be able to pay their mortgages or go on holiday or whether they will have a job in the fishing industry. That includes deck-hands, people who work in fish-processing companies and in the harbour businesses that congregate around our ports and everyone else who is involved in the industry.

The Government keeps telling us that that is no way to run an industry and that we should achieve a sustainable fisheries management regime, yet here we are again, with the minister about to go off to Brussels, without much of a voice, facing a situation in which Scottish livelihoods will be traded among the 25 member states that are sitting around the table. The Government does not care enough to change the way in which things are done, and Scotland has paid a heavy price for fisheries mismanagement down the decades. Fisheries-related employment in Scotland is down, many of our ports have become marinas, many vessels have been scrapped and we are dealing with a part-time fishery in the North sea and on the west coast of Scotland.

One skipper sent me a long, moving note for today's debate, in which he says:

"During the first week in October one of our fishing boats sailed from Kinlochbervie to fishing grounds fifty miles west of the Butt of Lewis where he saw one 50 metre French trawler. The Scottish trawler started fishing in that area and towed on a north east direction. The trawler towed approximately north easterly for 220 miles to a position 100 miles north of Shetland and during all those miles of fishing the skipper never saw another fishing boat."

Over recent decades, we have reached a position in which few boats are left fishing Scotland's waters. Nevertheless, we should bear it in mind that Scotland accounts for one quarter—127,000 square miles—of Europe's seas. This is a marine nation.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Is the member seriously suggesting that the amount of sea coverage is the real factor? Scottish scientists have made it clear that the reason why we have difficulties in our fisheries is the state of the stocks.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

What I am pointing out to the minister is how ludicrous it is that a fishing nation should reach a position in which, despite massive seas and rich fishing stocks, few vessels are left. That is due to mismanagement of Scotland's fishing communities down the years by the union, the United Kingdom Government and this Government. Indeed, Scotland is responsible for two thirds of UK fish landings, and fishing is 20 times more important to this country than it is to the rest of the UK. The industry should be booming, not contracting.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

A few minutes ago, Mr Lochhead referred to the union. Will he clarify whether he meant the United Kingdom, or the European Union, which has done so much damage?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Scotland's ills are due to the union with the Westminster Government, which has mismanaged Scotland's fishing communities, and to the fact that the Westminster Government has handed so many fishing powers to the common fisheries policy. We have the biggest marine resource in Europe and the biggest share of Europe's waters, yet we will have the least political power of any nation around the table later this month in Brussels. We have the biggest stake in this month's talks, but the least political influence.

Scotland's white-fish fleet has achieved its effort reduction targets. We have been told time and again that there is no gain without pain. Well, Scotland's fishing communities have suffered plenty of pain in recent years, and now—this month—it is time to get some of the gains. We must find out what the other states that fish the same waters as Scotland's fleets fish have achieved on effort reduction. I wrote to the European commissioner for fisheries, who was unable to tell me what the other states have achieved. We know that our fleet has bent over backwards, and we will hear in Brussels this month that the fleet faces even more cuts. We welcome the minister's assurance that he will stand up to those cuts, but he needs the power to achieve that, and we wish him well in persuading the UK Government to get on board.

Our fleet requires a reward for its sacrifices down the years. It needs access to healthy stocks, the time and space at sea to catch them and workable regulations, which do not tie the fleet up in knots. The fleets, the fishing communities and the onshore sector right around Scotland's coast need stability and the ability to plan ahead.

We have healthy stocks: scientists describe the haddock stocks as robust and healthy, yet we hear of 40 per cent cuts. Again, we welcome the minister's determination to stand up to that. We must remember how important haddock is to Scotland; we get 77 per cent of the EU's haddock quota. It was a great pity that Lib Dem MPs at Westminster recommended that sales outlets the length and breadth of the UK take haddock off their shelves. We must maintain consumer confidence and remind Scotland that those stocks are healthy. It is not the case that all stocks in the North sea are unhealthy.

The prawn stocks are also in a healthy state, and we must ensure that we secure a substantial increase in prawn quotas, particularly for west coast communities, which have been hit hard in recent years. We must ensure that there is no small print that will tie the fleet up in knots so that it cannot access the increased quota.

Likewise, monkfish is a valuable stock for which we must secure an increased quota, so we welcome the commitment that the minister has given. We need to ensure that we maintain Scotland's share of the pelagic stocks without getting bogged down with swaps that may do Scotland down or play off different Scottish sectors against each other.

To ensure that we do not crucify all our fishing communities on the back of cod, we need to separate the management of cod stocks from that of healthy stocks. We need to benefit from increased access to the healthier stocks in the North sea and west-coast waters. We must avoid blanket measures, which are just a recipe for disaster, as the experience of previous years has shown. We should look to smart management such as seasonal closures and real-time closures.

If we are not to be ambushed at the December talks, we need to ensure that the negotiating team has an industry representative who can give advice to the minister. The fleet's requirement for profitability also means that we need help not only with meeting fuel costs but with accessing quota. The talks must address the slipper skipper situation, whereby people from the comfort of their living room lease out quota to active fishermen. Only active fishermen at sea should be given quota.

In conclusion, we wish the minister all the best in the December talks. We wish that he had the powers to negotiate on Scotland's behalf. It is preposterous that he will not lead the UK delegation at the talks, given Scotland's disproportionate reliance on fishing compared with that of the rest of the UK. Only an independent Scotland, negotiating with the full weight and authority of a member state, can deliver the best outcome for Scotland, by returning control of Scottish waters and the livelihoods of our fishing communities to Scotland, where such control belongs.

I move amendment S2M-3657.2, to insert at end:

"notes that Scotland has achieved its effort reduction target for cod mortality in the North Sea; believes that Scotland must now be rewarded for this disproportionate sacrifice and that any further cuts in key stocks must be resisted; calls for the level of effort reduction achieved by other national fleets that fish Scottish waters to be made available; urges the Scottish Executive to help our fishing communities cope with rising costs such as for fuel and leasing quota; urges the Minister to include representatives from the fishing industry in his negotiating team to provide advice, and calls for Scotland to lead the UK negotiating team in Europe later this month and beyond, until control over our fishing grounds is returned to the Scottish Parliament."

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative 3:16 pm, 1st December 2005

It gives me no particular pleasure to remind members that the Scottish white-fish fleet has been reduced by nearly 70 per cent over the past five years. In 2000, nearly 400 boats pursued the shoals of cod and haddock around Scotland's continental shelf. Today, that number is reduced to just over 100. Whereas once Scottish fishermen could decide where and when to fish and for what species, they are today limited to a tight number of days each month. It is little wonder that our remaining skippers too often find themselves in places where they should not be at the wrong time of the year and thereby put themselves and crew members in dire peril.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I am disappointed that the member moved off the statistics. He omitted to mention the fact that the cod stock in the North sea is now below its safe biological limit. I would have thought that that might have been rather pertinent to the opening catalogue of issues that he read out.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

As the minister is aware, the decline in cod stocks is in no way responsible for the demise of two thirds of our white-fish fleet. I will come on to that issue.

Fishermen are sensible and fair-minded people. No one understands better than they do that fisheries need to be sustainable. Equally, they believe that if they must undergo pain in suffering a reduction in catching power, such pain should be shared. Can the minister identify any other EU country that has undergone the massive downsizing that the Scottish demersal fleet has suffered in recent years?

As we know, sound Scottish vessels have been towed away to the breaker's yard while European funds were building up the fleets of the Spanish and the Irish. New-build funding was due to disappear at the end of this year, but it comes as no surprise to those of us who have observed the CFP's workings over the years that, now that the crunch has come, our fisheries partners do not want to give up their new-build moneys.

Limited days at sea have meant sharply diminished catches. The port of Peterhead, which was designed as the largest white-fish landing port in Europe, saw a day—3 March 2004—when not a single box of fish was landed. At the new fish market at Pittenweem, in my native north-east Fife, white fish have not been seen for years. Inevitably, as the economic fabric of our coastal communities has unravelled, so has their social fabric.

What is to be done? Like the music critic Jon Landau, who said that he had seen the face of rock-'n'-roll and its name was Bruce Springsteen, I have seen the future of the fishing industry and its name is the Faroe Islands or Iceland or Norway. All those states have had the good sense to retain national and local control of their successful fisheries. However, I concede that that argument must stay on hold until we have a UK Government that is prepared to negotiate our withdrawal from the CFP.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Will the member confirm what the position is of his future leader? As I understand it, David Cameron does not take the position that Ted Brocklebank has just outlined.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

Mike Rumbles has the advantage over me if he knows who is to be our future leader. However, my understanding is that Mr Cameron has said that, as far as he is concerned, the CFP has not worked. We look forward to continuing to explain to him how we will get out of the CFP.

Realistically, we must wish Ross Finnie determination, stamina and good luck in his role as the back-up man to the UK fisheries minister in the brinksmanship that will take place towards the end of this month. The minister knows better than most the tightrope that he must walk between making concessions to our partners and ensuring a livelihood for what is left of the Scottish fleet. As he is well aware, fishery science is far from accurate. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea claims that the cod recovery plan, to which the minister referred, is not working. It wants a total catching ban. That is simply not going to happen, and nor should it.

Cod is important, but we must stop treating it as an iconic species. Cod disappeared off the Canadian Grand banks more than a decade ago, and there has been absolutely no recovery. Instead, there is now a far more valuable shellfish industry, and the shellfish are no longer being predated by the cod.

Among all the gloomy news from the scientists, the one piece of good news is that nephrop stocks are in rude health off both the east and west coasts. That is perhaps because of the absence of cod. The minister's announcement on the nephrops quota proposals are very much to be welcomed. In the Forth, stocks of nephrops are at a 30-year high, and local boats take virtually no white-fish bycatch. Many other parts of Scotland are similarly placed. Nephrops are now a more valuable fishery than cod and haddock combined. Unless the proposed new quotas are to be accompanied by further catching restrictions, we warmly welcome them.

Also in prospect is a good year class of young haddock in 2005, which will hopefully top the record-breaking 1999 year class. We must resist at all cost the softening-up process that has been going on, according to which we should accept major cuts in the haddock quota.

Despite the quota changes last year, there is evidence that monkfish stocks are relatively healthy. I hear what the minister says, but the French still have a larger quota in west-coast waters than the Scottish fleet does. The minister really must address that anomaly. I hope that he will achieve similar quota increases for monkfish to those of last year. We must build on and encourage the success of our pelagic industry. By and large, herring and mackerel stocks are in excellent shape.

I will say a few words about the regional advisory councils. Some of us had limited expectations of those advisory bodies. Anecdotal evidence from both the demersal and pelagic sectors suggests that our worst fears are being realised. To have talking shops with no real powers discussing pelagic fisheries in the Bay of Biscay in the same breath as discussing west of Shetland pelagic fisheries was always going to be a recipe for bureaucratic buck passing. That appears to be how they are turning out.

That brings me back to the final part of the amendment in my name. The Conservatives on this side of the chamber have seen the future of the UK fishing industry, and it is certainly not within the CFP.

I move amendment S2M-3657.1, to leave out from "an outcome" to end and insert:

"urges the Minister for Environment and Rural Development to press for significantly increased quotas for nephrops and monkfish, coupled with no reduction in haddock total allowable catch and the confirmation of the proposed pelagic quotas to secure a sustainable future for our remaining fishermen and processors, as well as for our beleaguered coastal communities, but ultimately believes that the only solution for the Scottish fishing industry is to leave the discredited Common Fisheries Policy and to regain national and local control of UK waters."

Photo of Eleanor Scott Eleanor Scott Green 3:22 pm, 1st December 2005

I support the Executive motion because I, too, want sustainable fisheries and a fair deal for our fishermen. My amendment seeks to develop that theme and to explore ways in which we can secure a sustainable future for our seas and for our fishing communities.

I understand the sentiments behind the two other amendments that have been lodged, and I will comment on them briefly before speaking to my own amendment. Although I appreciate the desire to announce increased total allowable catches, I say to Ted Brocklebank that what we need is a sustainable future, rather than a breathing space for one year. I say to Richard Lochhead that fishermen's reports are part and parcel of scientific advice. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation has stated that it is

"formally committed to ever closer co-operation with the scientific community in sharing experience and knowledge".

I also say to Richard Lochhead that cod stocks are still in a dangerous state. While the suffering and efforts of the industry deserve acknowledgement, we still need—sadly—to be thinking about support rather than rewards.

To both Ted Brocklebank and Richard Lochhead, I say that we need to play an active part in the common fisheries policy. We cannot get away from the need to manage the seas on a multinational basis.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

How has Norway's fishing industry managed to thrive despite the fact that, when Norway takes part in international agreements, it is not part of the common fisheries policy?

Photo of Eleanor Scott Eleanor Scott Green

In many ways, Norway is almost part of the CFP in all but name, as it is so heavily involved in negotiations with the European Union fisheries.

Photo of Eleanor Scott Eleanor Scott Green

I need to move on.

To Ted Brocklebank and Richard Lochhead, I say that we need to play a part in the common fisheries policy—I maintain that we cannot get away from that. If we believed that pulling out of the CFP was possible, desirable or viable, we would advocate doing so because we believe in more regional management. The simple fact remains, however, that we cannot pull out of the CFP. We need to improve the CFP, not abandon it, and I would like Scotland to play a leading role in doing just that.

We know the process by which EU fisheries decisions are made. Research and assessment of stocks take place throughout the year, but we continue to end up with ministers arguing far into the night and with results that seem to be as much a reflection of ministers' stamina as of the application of sound science. Despite near-universal recognition of the need for a long-term approach to sea fisheries, and despite much hard work throughout the year by all interested parties, the future of fish stocks and of fishermen's livelihoods still hangs on the outcome of the December talks. There must be a better way.

We are still not managing fish stocks sustainably. The fishing industry has suffered much in recent years and if we seize too much on faint signs of recovery of key stocks, we could still push them over the edge. If we do that, the sacrifices that fishermen have made in recent years will all have been for nothing. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has consistently recommended a TAC of zero for cod. Its advice for this year is that a zero catch in all fisheries might just result in stocks recovering to the lower limit for future exploitation by 2007. That is a sign of recovery, but it still signals a stock that is in a dangerously weak condition rather than one that is ripe for harvesting.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

Does the member accept that although ICES has given similar advice on cod stocks to places such as the Faroes and Iceland for the past decade, the highest biomass of cod anywhere in North sea waters is around the Faroes, which have studiously ignored the advice of ICES for 10 years?

Photo of Eleanor Scott Eleanor Scott Green

We can learn lots from how Iceland and the Faroes have managed stocks. I will deal with that in discussing other measures that we can take.

A good year class in haddock in 1999 has been a lifeline, but it was due more to luck than to good management. Subsequent year classes have been nowhere near as good. There are signs that this year's class may be an improvement on that of the intervening years; perhaps that means that some of the decommissioning and slashed quotas and days at sea have served a purpose.

One element of the CFP that we particularly dislike is the phenomenon of discards—there is no good reason why we should throw perfectly good caught fish overboard. One aspect of an improved CFP that bears consideration is the development of bycatch quotas, to which my amendment refers.

I note that neither the minister nor the North sea regional advisory council objects in principle to closed areas, which have been proven tools for regeneration in Iceland's fisheries and others throughout the world. I acknowledge that they are not without difficulties, but I urge the minister to impress on the Commission the need for more progress on that.

I welcome the advice to maintain the North sea sand eel closure. We need to exercise the utmost caution with industrial fisheries and with deep water fisheries, which I do not have time to go into, unfortunately.

The scientific advice can be hard to take, but at least we have some good news along with the bad this year. We should not question the validity of the science, although we should accept that some of it involves uncertainty. I repeat the call that I and my colleagues have made in Parliament for a greater role for on-board observers—throughout the EU fleet, not just on Scottish boats—to monitor catching and to gather information.

Draconian cuts in TACs are never welcome and members will be tired of hearing Greens citing the collapse of the Grand banks cod fishery, so I have another example—the anchovy fishery in the Bay of Biscay, which has now collapsed. National interests prevailed over last year's advice to cut what was a 38,000-tonne TAC to 500 tonnes. A 30,000-tonne TAC was granted. This year, the fleet's best efforts managed to land no more than 200 tonnes of anchovy. If we get it wrong, nature will just cut the quota anyway, perhaps for ever. We must ensure the future of our fishing industry not for one year, but in perpetuity.

I move amendment S2M-3657.3, to insert at end:

"and calls on the Scottish Executive, beyond the December Council, to press for changes to the operation of the Common Fisheries Policy to support healthier and more sustainable seas through a broad range of measures complementary or alternative to total allowable catches, including marine protected areas, regeneration zones and on-board observers, and to consider bycatch quotas to address discards and the innovative use of European fisheries funds to support profitability and sustainability."

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 3:28 pm, 1st December 2005

The key to recovery in our fishing industry that will allow it to have a sustainable and successful future will be a strategy that manages our fisheries effectively by protecting stocks while securing for the industry a more profitable future. Those goals must inform the quotas that are agreed under the CFP for the coming year.

Each year we wish the minister well in his negotiations in Brussels, and each year it is clear that the negotiations will be challenging. Despite that, the minister has had substantial success in advancing the case for the Scottish industry and in securing important agreements for Scottish fishermen's benefit, such as last year's increase in the haddock quota. There is no doubt that this year's negotiations will take place against the backdrop of difficult scientific advice, but I am confident that the minister will secure the best possible outcome.

That is, of course, vital for the north-east of Scotland not just from the point of view of the economic viability of the industry but because of its social impact. Nine of the 10 most deprived areas in Aberdeenshire are dependent on fisheries. Fish processors in the region and in Aberdeen city, which still face challenging market conditions, will also be looking keenly for ministers to achieve the right outcomes from the negotiations.

The minister was right to highlight that the Executive will not put viability of stocks at risk or support reductions on healthy stocks that would threaten the industry's viability. It is important that we heed the scientific advice, but I am pleased that the minister has made it clear that any major reduction in the haddock quota as a result of the reassessment of the 1999 year class will be resisted, because that would not be justifiable in sustaining the industry.

The SFF points out that five of the seven stocks that are central to the industry are currently assessed as being safe or healthy. We all want to see improvements in that, but quotas should reflect the condition of the stocks. It is also important to ensure that an adequate number of days at sea are allocated to fish quotas. It should be acknowledged in this year's negotiations that the Scottish fleet has already had to undergo substantial restriction of effort in the reduction of days at sea.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Does Richard Baker therefore agree that in order to ensure that any restrictions and conditions concerning days at sea are not unworkable, the fishing representatives from the SFF and other organisations should, in effect, be part of the negotiating team, so that no deal is ever agreed without their having been consulted fully about the small print?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Ross Finnie's experience in leading for us in the negotiations is substantial and his track record is successful. I also know that the minister is in constant negotiation with organisations such as the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. I am sure that their points of view and opinions will be well represented by Mr Finnie in the negotiations and that they will be in close contact with Mr Finnie about the negotiations, which is right and welcome.

In general, whatever the final agreement for next year's quotas, it must be acknowledged that Scotland has already made a huge contribution in reduction of effort with regard to vital stocks such as cod. Priority should be given to ensuring that other member states are contributing at the same level. I very much welcome the minister's strong words on that issue.

As the Scottish Fishermen's Federation said in its briefing paper, after five difficult years, in recent months we have seen a degree of stability and cautious optimism in the industry. I hope that the minister is able to come back with agreements on quotas that will sustain that progress.

It is also important to plan for the longer term, in which the Executive is leading the way. The sustainable framework for Scottish sea fisheries is being implemented in collaboration with the industry and maps out a successful and sustainable future for it. The Executive is continuing to press for reform of the CFP, which I believe is the right strategy.

We have heard again calls for Scotland to pull out of the CFP, as if that were a panacea for the difficulties of the industry. Such calls are simply political opportunism; I do not feel that it serves the debate to return endlessly to such arguments. Of course we need reform of the CFP—the establishment of the regional advisory councils is a welcome development in creating the kind of localised management that we want. Given that they are just starting up, it is pre-emptive to be cynical about their progress.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

Will Mr Baker be kind enough to discuss with his colleagues in Aberdeen and the north-east what they think of the meetings that have taken place with the regional advisory council? That is not my suggestion—it is from the white-fish and pelagic fishermen.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I am happy to speak to those people about that. With the establishment of the regional advisory councils we see the beginning of the progress that we want. They have only had their first meetings. Mr Brocklebank wants them to fail, which is why he makes those points.

It is ridiculous to pretend that we can rip up the CFP and renegotiate agreements and that, as a result, there will suddenly be more fish in the sea, so we will be able to completely ignore scientific advice. That is a recipe for destruction of the industry, not for its successful future. It is not simply that pulling out of the CFP is impossible without pulling out of the European Union; it would not benefit the industry to do so.

Reform of the CFP is the only way forward and the Executive is leading the way on that. In the short term, we need a good deal for the industry in this year's negotiations. The minister has delivered that before and I know that he will do all that he can to deliver it again. I hope that his efforts are successful and that we can look forward to a profitable and sustainable future for our fishing industry.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat 3:35 pm, 1st December 2005

One of the pleasures of speaking from the back benches is the ability to take part in fisheries debates, which I did regularly in the House of Commons between 1983 and 1999. Trawling through the old debates, I discovered that, 17 years ago today—Thursday 1 December 1988—I opened my speech in a fisheries debate by saying:

"I welcome the opportunity of this debate in advance of the meeting of the Council of Ministers ... It will help the Minister to understand how anxious hon. Members on both sides of the House are about the drastic cuts in the total allowable catch, particularly those for cod and haddock."—[Official Report, House of Commons, 1 December 1988; Vol 142, c 912.]

Some things do not change, such as the Tories' and the SNP's idea that we need not bother about the science because we need only make some changes to the constitutional arrangements for the seas to be teeming with fish, all of which will have been educated as to where national boundaries lie.

The minister referred to the negotiations between the European Union and Norway, which will be fundamentally important, not least in terms of haddock stocks. Over many years, I have been concerned that those negotiations are carried out between officials and are not engaged in by ministers. Given just how fundamental the outcome of those negotiations will almost inevitably be, I wonder whether any effort has been made to elevate them to ministerial level, even if it were the country that holds the presidency that negotiates on behalf of the EU in that circumstance.

I know that some concern has been expressed about the fact that, because the United Kingdom is holding the presidency during the coming negotiation, we will live up to our reputation as being the world's best umpire. It is not always easy for the holder of the presidency to stake out the national interest. However, I have fishermen in my constituency who tell me that when the Dutch held the presidency, they made sure that they got a good deal for their beam trawler fleet. The same has been said about other countries that have held the presidency. I hope that the minister will reassure us that the fact that we are in the chair does not mean that we will be pulling our punches in terms of trying to safeguard the interests of our fishing communities.

Inevitably, much is focused on haddock and the concern that there might be a double-digit percentage cut in the TAC. I have talked to representatives of the industry in my constituency, so I am aware of the view—which is shared by people in Shetland, too—that in spite of what the minister said about the downward revision, we still have relatively healthy stocks of haddock. The exceptional 1999 year class increased the spawning stock biomass and the 2005 spawning was good, as has been mentioned already. Anecdotally, fishermen are reporting that the size of some juvenile haddock indicates that they will be available for catching next year rather than in two or three years. The minister is right to say that he will not accept the proposed level of reduction in the TAC: he will fight that case with the strong support of members on the Liberal Democrat benches.

Among the big changes over the years have been changes in mesh size. How much of that has been reflected in the science? As I understand it, many scientists are still estimating a discard level of about 33 per cent. I agree with the Green party that none of us likes the waste that is implicit in the discard system, but the experience of many fishermen is that the discard level has come down quite significantly. The report on a boat in my constituency that had an analysis done over the course of 17 hauls showed that there was 67 per cent haddock, 2 per cent cod, 30 per cent other species and only 1 per cent discard. I believe that the discard level has come down and that that should be factored into the science.

Back in September, when the fisheries commissioner was visiting Scotland, the minister said:

"Scotland has provided clear, robust data to show that we have already exceeded the target for the main whitefish fleet and the Commission has accepted this.

We want to see clear evidence that other Member States have made the same effort before the Commission brings forward any further recovery proposals in the run up to December's Fisheries Council."

We would echo and support the minister's comments. Real efforts have been made and it is important that we have some feedback on what has been done by other countries. We need to know that our fleet will not be expected to take another hit simply because other countries have not lived up to what was expected of them.

The introduction of regional advisory committees is a welcome step on the road to regional management committees. We should not lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal is committees that manage fisheries in particular regions rather than committees that simply provide advice. Nevertheless, the introduction of advisory committees is a welcome step.

The minister has strong cards when he puts forward the case that he made today. We have exceeded the agreed 65 per cent reduction in fishing for cod, our fleet has been restructured, and we have embraced technical conservation measures. We on the Executive benches are confident that the minister will negotiate to try to secure a deal that is in the best interests of our fishing communities and which recognises the future viability not only of the industry but of fish stocks; putting the viability of the stocks and the viability of the industry hand in hand will stand the minister in good stead as he negotiates for us in Brussels later this month.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 3:41 pm, 1st December 2005

Although I cannot claim the political longevity of Jim Wallace, I have endeavoured to speak in every debate on fishing in the past six years and, in doing so, I have always argued the case for the west coast in general and Mallaig in particular.

As Ted Brocklebank pointed out, nephrop is now our most valuable fishery stock and it forms a perhaps disproportionate part of Scotland's valuable export market because it is consumed throughout Europe as a delicacy. For the past six years, I have made pleas, on what I consider to be a valid scientific basis, for an increase in the total allowable catch for nephrops. I was therefore extremely pleased to discover this morning that the European Commission has proposed increases that are based on the scientific evidence, such as it is. It would be churlish of me not to congratulate all those who were involved, including the civil servants at Fisheries Research Services and the fisheries organisations. That includes, not least, John Hermse and John MacAllister of the Mallaig and North West Fishermen's Association and Robert Stevenson of the West of Scotland Fish Producers Organisation. It is their solid work that brought us to a position at which, at long last, the Commission seems to accept the evidence that has always indicated that nephrops are not under pressure.

However, I say to the minister—I think he is well aware of this—that if there are to be conditions with regard to effort, it is essential that the representatives whom I mentioned be consulted about the impact of those conditions before a decision is made. When I made that point to Richard Baker, he replied fairly that the minister is in constant contact with those people. That is true, but it is not the point. It is not enough for there to be contact: it seems to me that there must also be input from the people who know exactly what the conditions will mean, otherwise we will end up with a nonsensical result such as we have seen recently, whereby effort restrictions in the North sea have meant that vessels did not have time to do any fishing because they used up their days and months simply by sailing to the appropriate fishing grounds.

That is why the SNP argues in its amendment that the fishing representatives should be a part of the team. I am confident, following discussion of the matter at the briefing yesterday, that some progress has been made. Perhaps the minister will say whether the representatives of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, the Mallaig and North West Fishermen's Association and the Western Isles Fishermen's Association who wish to turn up at Brussels—under their own steam and at their own cost, of course—will be made welcome at Scotland House and kept fully informed by officials. There would be no breach because they would not be in the negotiating room, but they would be able to contribute, in a structured way, to the conclusions. I am fairly confident that that basic point has been accepted. Perhaps my Christmas is about to come early as I give way to the minister.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I would not necessarily wish to make the whole of the member's Christmas come early—that might disappoint other members of his family. However, I wonder whether the member agrees that what he suggests is, in fact, the proposal that I put to the fisherman. Facilities will be made available at Scotland House to enable them to engage in the negotiations. The member first heard of that offer from the fishermen themselves.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

This seems to be an extremely festive exchange. I am pleased that that is the case. The issue is difficult—it would be foolish of me to suggest that it is easy, particularly in the light of the bizarre negotiations that are undertaken in the early hours of the morning. Nonetheless, no matter how difficult things are and how tense things may be, the voice of the fishermen must be heard and taken into account before any deal is struck. I am delighted to hear that progress seems to be being made towards that end.

The Green amendment mentions an apparent alternative, which has not been clearly canvassed. The Greens do not say whether they want TACs. They want on-board observers—I presume that every boat would have an observer—but goodness knows how much that would cost. They also want marine protected areas.

Two proposals have been made that I want to deal with briefly, one of which is the proposal for a marine national park for the west coast. That proposal—or half-baked idea—is opposed by virtually all the fishermen to whom I have spoken. They do not know what the idea means, other than that it will mean more regulation, more costs and more restrictions.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I would take an intervention, but I am in my final minute and so cannot do so. I am sorry.

All but two out of 100 members of the Mallaig and North West Fishermen's Federation objected to and opposed the Highland regulating order that would introduce new levels of bureaucracy to the Highlands. I do not have time to canvass on that matter, but I urge the minister to say whether, when we seem to have received a good response for the west coast from the European Commission, we might start to see a new conservation bureaucracy and new green tape entering into the equation. That would truly be ironic and might have prevented the late Hugh Allen—who did so much to promote the cause of the west coast—from having that wee dram tonight if he were around.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative 3:47 pm, 1st December 2005

I have come to the chamber armed with six pages of arguments, which is unusual. I intended to make those arguments, but I realise that the minister has perhaps just outsmarted us a little with his announcement. That aside, I associate myself with the comments that Jim Wallace made. He said that this is December, so this must be another fisheries debate.

I remember wanting to get into the argument at Westminster about Maastricht, but I did not make my maiden speech on that because of the demand to speak. I ended up taking part in the fisheries debate, in which I took great pride in promoting the views of the Clyde Fishermen's Association and particularly emphasised the prawn fisheries. Needless to say, even then, I also took the opportunity to have a go at Europe and the common fisheries policy.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Some things never change.

The minister talked about sound science. At that time, the Clyde fishermen and the scientists argued constantly about the state of the prawn stocks in the River Clyde and on the west coast in general. The argument continued year by year, in virtually every debate that took place. The Clyde fishermen took their own protective measures—they created a days-at-sea measure of their own and fished only from Monday to Friday. Nowadays, with fishing windows of 31 days, Clyde fishermen still impose that limit on themselves. Perhaps the fishermen were the best judges. They introduced their own preservation measures, which were important for the future of sustainable stocks. They did so not only on the basis of scientific evidence—which went contrary to their own beliefs—but because they wanted a reasonable industry and reasonable lifestyles in the future. They succeeded in that goal.

My objective today would have been to ask the minister to seek at least a 30 per cent increase in prawn quotas for the coming year, but the minister has gone further than that in stating his belief that a 39 per cent increase has been achieved in the TAC on the west coast and a 30 per cent increase has been achieved on the east coast. That is very welcome and it probably reflects the landings of prawns from waters not only around Scotland but in the wider European fishing areas.

I would like to take the unusual step of congratulating the Greens on one aspect—one aspect only—of their amendment. It is worth our while to refer to bycatch and discard. I think that we all want the issue to be addressed and perhaps not enough attention is paid to it. The minister disappointed me slightly in that he failed to respond to a question from Mr Stevenson, who asked for some detail on that issue after the minister had suggested that he would accept the Green amendment. The minister might not have the details today, but he should follow up on the matter and, in the not-too-distant future, reach a conclusion on it that totally stops the current discard practice, albeit that—as Jim Wallace said—the expansion in net sizes has perhaps acted as a limiting factor. I advise the minister to listen to what Ted Brocklebank said about the Faroes. The Faroes seem to have attacked and got in control of the discard situation. It would be welcome if we could apply a similar policy here in Scotland and perhaps in the EU overall.

I am extremely concerned about a wider environmental issue. The situation with respect to seabird populations this year is linked to the decline in fish stocks, and I cannot help but relate that to the problems that we have with sand eels and the hoovering-up exercises in the North sea. I am well aware that in July this year the sand eel hoovering-up exercises were brought to an end. Perhaps that came too late to address the current situation, but in the on-going discussions the minister could perhaps seek continuation of the moratorium on sand eel fishing.

I wish the minister well in his venture into Europe. I hope that, as other members have suggested, he has fishermen alongside him in his negotiations and I hope that the outcome, which is already successful to some extent, will be a really good one for Scotland in general, white-fish fishermen included.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 3:53 pm, 1st December 2005

I am grateful to the minister for his opening remarks and his generally optimistic outlook on the negotiations ahead. I wish him well, as other members have done, at the fisheries council.

As the minister and Jim Wallace said, it is particularly important that other member states implement effort reduction in the way that has happened in Scotland and also that they abide by and implement regulations. It is a frustration among fishermen that the Scottish fleet always seems to be one that takes the reductions or implements the measures whereas others perhaps do not. His work on that matter would be particularly valuable.

Following his visit to Eyemouth in my constituency, the minister knows that our local fishery depends on haddock and prawns. Our 80 boats rely very much on sustainable stocks. My understanding from Eyemouth and St Abbs is that this year the prawn fishery has done well and that although the haddock fishery has been a little slower than had been hoped, it was still a good fishery. It is therefore very important that the work of the minister and the scientists to demonstrate the difference between the haddock and prawn fisheries and the cod fishery in the southern North sea is maintained. Clearly and obviously, to sustain that position we must continually present information on bycatch. It is very welcome that the TAC for prawns is to rise by 30 per cent in the North sea. However, it is clear that the 41 per cent cut in the haddock TAC is unjustified and well over the top. A quota cut must be justified to the fishing community.

The further difficult issue that needs to be discussed is the problem of the displacement that will be brought about by an effort limitation and a reduction in TACs. For example, off the Northumberland coast, there is an important prawn fishery for boats from Eyemouth and St Abbs, but Irish quadruple-rigged, 90ft boats are fishing that area. If, as I am told, they are there because their quota has been used up, there ought to be some way of ensuring that that sort of thing does not happen.

I turn briefly in the final few moments available to me to the question of developing markets. A new and exciting idea is to have a live prawn fishery in which prawns and nephrops are caught to be sold in a live condition.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Does the member agree that it will not help the market for haddock for Lib Dem MPs to tell people to stop buying it?

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

One Lib Dem MP may have gone off-message for a short while, but I contrast that with Richard Lochhead, who is off-message the whole time.

Developing new markets is important and I would be grateful if I could discuss with the minister at a later date the possibility of developing the live prawn fishery.

It is acceptable to talk about harbour facilities briefly because that is important in ensuring a sustainable fishery. This is my first chance in Parliament to record my thanks to the minister for his grant to Eyemouth Harbour Trust some months ago, which allowed the trust to pay off a substantial debt and which was much appreciated. However, there are continuing problems: we need help with the fuelling facility and with dredging the inner harbour. I may have lulled the minister into a false sense of security by not mentioning the ice plant recently, but it is still on the agenda, as he will hear in due course.

There are other issues: for example, the seal population in the North sea, particularly along the Berwickshire coastline, is causing difficulties. However, because of the measures that have been taken, the fishery is in a good state in general and it is important to keep it that way. I wish the minister every success in his negotiations and in ensuring the same success that he had last year and a viable and sustainable future for our industry in Berwickshire.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP 3:58 pm, 1st December 2005

In relation to the knowledge that some urban politicians, particularly those from Glasgow, have of the fishing industry, I am reminded of the story of the wee laddie in the Glasgow school who, when asked to name a fish beginning with "s", replied, "Single." I was very glad therefore to take up the invitation of the cod crusaders to visit Peterhead and Fraserburgh a year ago and to witness for myself the devastation that those communities have suffered over the past five to 10 years from the decline in the fishing industry. I was also glad to witness the steely determination of those communities to continue with the often very dangerous work of going out to sea to catch the fish and bring it home to the rest of Scotland. The fishermen put their lives in danger and sometimes their families do not know whether their brothers or fathers will return home.

Therefore, I am sure that although those communities have suffered devastation, they will survive—they seem to have a determination to survive. However, they think that their concerns are being ignored, particularly by a European Union that seems to rely much more on scientific data than on the real data of the fishermen themselves. Far too many studies are open to question and are undermined by the reality of fish stocks compared with the predictions of scientists. We have to recognise that defending the eco-system is a priority, but it is a twin priority along with defending the long-term viable future of the fishing industry for Scotland. If the fishing industry was as important to England as it is to Scotland, the UK ministers who sit at the table discussing the quotas in Europe would be fighting a damn sight harder for better deals for it.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Is the member telling us that we should ignore everything that ICES has said over the past 10 years? Does the member reject what ICES says about all the other stocks in the North sea, which is that they show no signs of recovery, their reproductive capacity is reduced, or their status is unknown? On what basis should we reject the scientific evidence?

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

Robin Harper will be aware that the latest ICES report gives the starkest warning yet that fishing pressure must be reduced to the lowest levels for many stocks and that the vicious circle of inaccurate fishing data and poor management must be broken.

The argument is twofold. Inaccurate fishing data have been used to fuel the quotas of the past five to 10 years. Unfortunately, it is the fishing communities of Scotland that have suffered the consequences of that inaccurate data. I am not for ignoring scientific advice, but it has to be taken with more balance in future. We have to listen to those who fish the seas and look to them for data about stocks and the sustainability of the industry.

The shadow of the European Union is cast across the whole fishing industry. The Tories say that they would withdraw from the common fisheries policy. The SNP may not want to withdraw from the policy, but it says that it wants to renegotiate it. The difficulty that we have more and more with the European Union is that it is imposing restrictions on our country's ability to manage our natural resources in a way that we consider democratically fit.

The same applied to the Caledonian MacBrayne debate only a few months ago. We were told who will arrange contracts for ferry and fishing vessels and how those contracts will be arranged. The same applies to the European Union. It is time for the renegotiation of all the so-called agreements, and not just at UK level—I believe, as does Robin Harper, that that should be done by an independent Scotland.

In an independent Scotland I would hope that our arrangement with the European Union would be based not just on reference to the eco-system but on the sustainability of the fishing industry for Scottish communities. The decisions on how many fish can be caught and how many parts of the sea can be fished should be the democratic decisions of elected politicians here in Scotland, not the decisions of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. The SNP needs seriously to reconsider its strategy for independence. Claiming to be genuinely independent while accepting the dictates of the European Union does not amount to real independence as far as democracy in Scotland is concerned.

I hope that the minister will fight tenaciously to ensure that the UK ministers do not sell Scottish short again.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour 4:05 pm, 1st December 2005

As I am sure you will appreciate, Presiding Officer, I am keen to ensure that a west coast perspective—especially a Western Isles perspective—should be a feature of this afternoon's debate. We have already had the Orcadian perspective, ably articulated by my friend Jim Wallace, who, as he reminded us, is a veteran of fishing debates both here and in another place.

Over the years, the Western Isles fishing industry has diversified in relation to the stock and marketing opportunities that are available. Our fleet of some 320 vessels, employing 700 at sea and a further 200 in the processing sector, is keenly awaiting the outcome of the talks that Ross Finnie will attend in Brussels later this month.

Our fishermen and processors welcome the minister's statement regarding quota and his determination to ensure an increase in prawn quota for the west coast. The requested increase is firmly based on sound scientific advice and evidence from new camera technology, not on the inane ravings of the nationalists. The increase requested and outlined by the minister would take the total allowable catch in the Western Isles to more than 16,000 tonnes, which was the level prior to the reduction that was imposed years ago without any scientific justification. As Ross Finnie knows, the prawn fishery is of fundamental importance to the islands, where the three main processors, the 10 live prawn buyers and nearly 150 boats from Barra to Lewis are dependent on a fishery with first-hand landing values of £5.5 million last year. That is hugely significant. We want an increased quota, but there must be no increase in the effort exploiting it. The industry would welcome a prawn licence regime, if that could be introduced.

I am sure that Ross Finnie will factor into his negotiations the fact that the cod bycatch in the west coast of Scotland prawn fishery is negligible. It should not really feature in the discussion to determine the cod quota.

The minister is aware of the importance to the west coast trawl sector of the highly valued species monkfish. I hope that he and his UK counterpart will secure a realistic increase in the TAC for that shared stock.

Many in the Western Isles welcomed the announcement that one of the first two inshore fisheries groups will be constituted there. I do not share Mr Brocklebank's analysis of the groups' effectiveness and of the role that they will play in future debates on our industry. For the first time in the history of the industry in the islands, the Western Isles inshore fisheries group will allow the industry to be at the centre of conservation-led development. I am sure that the group will be the tool for developing underexploited fisheries, such as those for cockles and razor-fish—two species for which there is growing demand across the European Union.

I hope that the group will take further action to protect scallop stocks, by insisting that we again amend the legislation governing inshore fisheries, to change the size of the bar that is used to tow scallop dredges. We are already reaping benefits from the radical change that we made two years ago. That legislative measure helped to protect stocks, jobs at sea and jobs in our factories. However, more is required, so that we will finally put an end to predatory displacement of fishing effort from other parts of Scotland. I sincerely hope that when we come to implement that industry-led amendment, on the advice of the Western Isles inshore fisheries group, the nationalists will support us. We will never forget their betrayal of Western Isles fishermen two years ago, when they opposed industry-led conservation measures because they insisted on taking instruction from London and from Mr Alex Salmond, who was and is interested only in portraying himself as the so-called saviour of the east coast fisheries. I am sure that the Greens, too, will have repented, that they will have amended the position that they adopted two years ago and that they will support us when we come to implement the change.

We welcome the fact that, from January next year, product testing of scallops will be ended. That will result in no further area closures, which have caused severe disruption to both catching and processing sectors.

I turn to the issue of high fuel costs. There is no doubt that those are having a crippling effect on many in the industry. I ask the minister whether it is possible to secure a level playing field with the vessels of all other member states. Can the subsidy that is apparently being provided by the French Government be applied to UK vessels? I simply do not know the answer to that, but I hope that the minister will respond.

The European fisheries fund, which will replace the current FIFG programme, will run from 2007 to 2013. Again, we appreciate that the islands have greatly benefited from the current regime. Stornoway pier and harbour, piers at Gravir, Benbecula, Kallin and Eriskay, the processing sector on Barra, Uist and Lewis and the important aquaculture sector have all benefited from European investment and intervention. We hope that that continues under the European fisheries fund and that we will see progress on infrastructural and port development. Hopefully, the minister and his team will pursue aggressively all those issues. I wish him and the UK team the best when they go to Brussels to raise the flag for those communities.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party 4:10 pm, 1st December 2005

Six years into devolution, where are our fish stocks and what is the future of the fishing communities that depend on their trade? Looking at the outcome of January's fisheries council, could we say that the present negotiation mechanism is the best way to deal with the future of Scotland's fishing industry? Could Scotland's stocks and fishing effort be improved if we were directly represented in Europe? Of course it could. The fisheries council is the minister's focus in this debate, but members have been looking at the fishing industry in general and at what happens between council meetings.

It is important to note that there may have been developments that might aid the fishing industry and the stocks. Beginning with Ted Brocklebank, several members have discussed the regional advisory council system. That is developing too slowly—it is only an advisory body. It is interesting that Alasdair Morrison, who appears to have left, mentioned Scottish inshore fishery advisory groups, the first two of which will be set up in Berwickshire and the Western Isles in spring next year. We welcome that, and particularly what the minister said about them. He said:

"Local fishermen will now have more power to plan for and react to local circumstances and to develop new planning measures that suit their geographical conditions and the needs of their fisheries."

If the inshore fisheries group can do that, why can we not have a convention for the future of Scotland's fishing communities? A Scottish fishing council comprising industry representatives could be established to discuss the issues locally and Scotland-wide each year. That SNP proposal would add to the logic of what the minister said about the inshore groups.

Discussion on scallops and several other stocks highlighted the problem with inshore and deeper-sea fishing. There are boats that can fish both. The idea of an overall Scottish policy in a convention for the future of Scotland's fishing communities can bring those two major sectors together. It is important that we make progress on that.

Although the Shetland box is not up for negotiation, it is important for many of us. It may not be the best conservation measure, but scientists are clear that retention is better than abolition. As far as I can see, our ministers will be debating such matters in Europe in the near future and it is important to state that the SNP believes in the retention, not the abolition, of the Shetland box. It is important that the minister gives us his views about that.

My colleague Richard Lochhead talked about the need to have active fishermen and coastal communities with the ability to catch. It cannot be the case that the current form of organisation can continue for much longer; too many people sit with their baffies on deciding what places should get the licences and where fishing should take place. That cannot be a good way of running any industry and I would like to see some progress.

We are glad that there is a degree of stability in haddock stocks and we hope that the minister will maintain our ability to catch haddock. However, there is conflicting advice on climate change. An article in The Times today reflects the current debate. Recent information has suggested that cod have been migrating further north because the seas are cooler there. However, future climate change could lead to a far colder area because of the north Atlantic drift and the weakening of the gulf stream. It could be that, in five or 10 years' time, we learn that it is not overfishing but climate change that is playing the major part in the reduction of stocks. Does the minister have any clear idea on the effects of climate change on the present settlements?

In the international agreements, it is interesting to consider one of the deep-sea species that is still in reasonable supply—although that comment is slightly qualified in the ICES report. ICES will advise that the current fishing pressure on blue whiting is too high and has to be reduced in line with the long-term management plan that was agreed for the stock by the EU, the Faroes, Iceland and Norway in 2002. There is no reason why Scotland, as one of the major catching countries, could not be directly involved in those kinds of negotiation. The fact that negotiation can involve several countries that are not in the EU suggests that Scotland should be at the top table.

The SNP raises the issue of the CFP in its amendment to the motion. The amendment

"calls for the level of effort reduction achieved by other national fleets that fish Scottish waters to be made available".

That is fundamental. The minister goes to talks and we have to hear from him who is robbing Scotland of its fish.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I remind all members that mobile phones and Blackberries must be switched off. They may not be set to vibrate; they must be off because they are interfering with the sound system.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 4:17 pm, 1st December 2005

As has been said before, the big wheel is up in Princes Street gardens and the ice rink has been laid down, so it must be time for the fishing debate. Unfortunately, a bit like the big wheel, the debate just keeps going round and round. Richard Lochhead in particular keeps coming up with the same old constitutional arguments and the same lack of understanding of how the EU fisheries council actually works. Year on year, we hear the same thing—that we should go in there on our own, with a separate Scottish minister, and so get a much better deal on fisheries. However, that does not show understanding of how the European Union operates. It is not one member, one vote; the larger countries have more votes and more clout in council meetings than the smaller countries. Scotland would have to persuade England to back its position before it is even at the same place in the negotiations as it is now. At the moment, we go into the negotiations with an agreed UK position that largely reflects what we want here in Scotland. We negotiate from that position of strength in the council.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I am looking for an example. Can the member tell the chamber of any independent small country, with independent member status in the European Union, that fails to protect its national interest?

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

That is a completely fatuous and pointless comment. We protect our interests in the European Union from our position in the United Kingdom delegation. We do that effectively through our minister Ross Finnie, who participates not only in council meetings but in important bilaterals that take place around council meetings, where many of the decisions are made. That is what we do to try to get the best deal for Scotland.

We have heard a number of valuable contributions to the debate and, for once, I even agree with some of Phil Gallie's points. However, we must get away from the continuous and false debate on the common fisheries policy. Yes, the CFP has failed, and that is why my party has consistently argued for reform and why the Scottish Executive has fought for reform and is achieving it. However, we cannot just walk away from the common fisheries policy. It is not constitutionally possible to do that.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

Iain Smith says that it is not constitutionally possible to withdraw from the CFP. Does he agree that the United Kingdom holds sovereignty over UK waters and that we have merely ceded control of fisheries management to the European Union, not given it away?

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

We have signed the European Union treaty, part of which is that we cannot pick and choose which bits of the European Union we want. We must decide whether we are in the EU or out of it. Anyway, it was Mr Brocklebank's party's Government that signed the relevant treaty.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

It was a Conservative Government that signed the most recent treaty on the matter—it signed away any rights that we may have had over fisheries.

Even if we were out of the CFP, we would still have to conduct negotiations with the EU on fisheries, just as Norway has to do. Who is to say that we would get a better deal from being out of the CFP? I think that we get a better deal from being in it.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

In the short time that I have left, I will talk about issues that relate to my community in north-east Fife, where the nephrop fishery is important. I am delighted with the minister's announcement that the European Union proposes a 30 per cent increase in the North sea nephrop TAC. That is important for our communities, as it will allow a sustainable level of catch for the nephrop fishermen. I hope that the minister will confirm that increase when he comes back from the council and that, if so, he will ensure that a fair allocation of the increased TAC will go to the under-10m sector, which is important for the Pittenweem fishermen. However, we do not want too large an increase in the TAC for nephrops in one year, because we must ensure that the market price is sustained so that our fishermen continue to get a fair return. My colleague Euan Robson made the important point that we must ensure that we do not have displacement from other fisheries. We do not want people to come in and scoop up the extra allowable catch so that it does not benefit the communities that have long been involved in the nephrop fishery.

I have long argued that the sand eel fishery should be closed, as it damages the environment and the important biodiversity of the sea. We must remember that we are not the only beings who eat fish; other animals, including other fish and seals, eat fish stocks, too. Sand eels are an important part of the marine food chain. If the sand eels are all gone, the animals that currently eat them will start eating our prized white-fish stocks, which is why the sand eel fishery must remain closed.

I have raised with the minister on several occasions the possibility of opening the sprat fishery in the Firth of Forth, which would allow fishermen in north-east Fife to diversify. It is important that that be reconsidered. We want decisions that are based on good science, so I have asked the minister to provide me with the scientific basis for FRS's decision that opening the sprat fishery would not be safe because of the potential bycatch of juvenile herring. I await the minister's response on that, but I would be grateful for an assurance that he will keep the matter under review. The ability to diversify into the sprat fishery would aid the long-term sustainability of fishing communities in my constituency.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 4:23 pm, 1st December 2005

The debate has been interesting and there have at least been signs of consensus on some issues. Many references to history have been used to call, understandably, for sympathy for the present fate of our fishermen, given the healthy industry in the past. I will start with an interesting piece of history: in 1700, the Dutch fleet of 300 to 400 boats, which provided employment for 8,000 people and made the Netherlands a rich country, harvested 50,000 tonnes of fish a year, which were marketed throughout Europe. Today, technological advances mean that one trawler that is manned by six people can lift the same tonnage of fish out of the North sea in one year. That is the impact that our fisheries have, not just here, but worldwide. Surely, in everybody's minds and hearts, there is an increasing realisation that the problem is not just for the North sea, but for the world.

In the North sea, five stocks are healthy or nearly healthy; however, 13 are in a desperate condition, and on five of those ICES has recommended zero catch. In response to Tommy Sheridan's comment that the science is inaccurate, I should point out that ICES said that that was the case only with regard to monkfish; indeed, it recommended a precautionary quota for those stocks. However, on all other stocks, ICES has asserted strongly—and rightly—that the science is as accurate as it can possibly be.

I say to Ted Brocklebank that it is simply ludicrous and diversionary to suggest at any point in this debate that we could pull out of the CFP. That would mean a complete renegotiation of our entry into the EU, which is impossible.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I see Ted Brocklebank shaking his head at that, but I assure him that what he suggests is not possible.

I agree with Richard Baker that we should press for CFP reform. Indeed, I commend the Executive for taking that very approach. As for RACs, I—and the Green party—agree that it is still early days. When they are working, we can perhaps progress to regional management; however, we must give them a chance to develop.

Jim Wallace referred to the Commission's proposed cuts in 1988. [Interruption.]

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

One moment, Mr Harper. I ask SNP members to stop their conversation.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

If the cuts that Jim Wallace referred to had been implemented—I know that they were not—I wonder what cod and haddock stocks would be like now. The depredation started that long ago not because of the CFP or the Commission but because the fisheries ministers of European nations—including our own, I think—were not prepared to agree to those cuts.

I believe that Fergus Ewing and I now agree that the whole purpose of marine national parks is to give local people control over a local resource. Such parks have worked extremely well in other parts of the world. It might well be that some parks will decide to establish no-take or closed zones. We thoroughly recommend that, in some circumstances, such zones should be established, but any decision in that respect would be up to the park's management.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I want to address everyone's remarks. I will come back to the member if I have time.

Phil Gallie, who has left the chamber, pointed out that Clyde fishermen fish only five days a week. That provides a good example of how coming to an agreement can be a very positive step for fishermen.

I believe that Euan Robson agreed that a 41 per cent cut in the haddock TAC could not be justified. However, I hope that when the minister attends the fisheries council he will listen to the arguments for making some cuts if there is any doubt about recovery. After all, it is by no means certain that there has been the same recovery in the 2005 stock that we saw, happily, in the 1999 stock.

During the debate, several members agreed with the science when it allowed increases in quotas and disagreed with it when it did not. We must get away from that kind of approach. For example, Alasdair Morrison, who has also left the chamber, rubbished the science when it said that quotas should be cut, but said it was absolutely wonderful when it allowed a 16,000 tonne take.

I back Rob Gibson's call that we need details of the contribution that other European countries have made. Such information is absolutely essential if we are to be able to judge the validity of the assertions that Scotland has taken more than its fair share.

Iain Smith mentioned sand eels, which are very important indeed. From the evidence that we have received from RSPB Scotland, possibly the worst damage to the ecology of the North sea has been caused by the overfishing of sand eels. Such overfishing affects bird populations, including some populations that exist uniquely around the rim of the North sea.

I welcome the fact that the parliamentary briefing from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation accepts that

"Proper use of this natural resource is a national duty falling on the fishing industry and the administrations."

Indeed, the briefing's second bullet point confirms that the industry

"is acutely aware of its responsibilities ... in harvesting fish sustainably."

The third bullet point accepts that we need to improve the healthy stocks in the North sea.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Mr Harper, you must wind up now.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I give the minister my best wishes for the negotiations. I ask him to remember the words of Burns:

"... Man's dominion

Has broken Nature's social union".

Those words apply to what has happened in the North sea. It is about time that the situation was repaired.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 4:31 pm, 1st December 2005

Although I wish the minister every success in Brussels in salvaging something for our hard-pressed Scottish fishing fleet and for the people in the north-east, the Shetlands and other parts of the country that rely on the fishing industry for their livelihoods, I have a sense of déjà vu that does not fill me with confidence. Frankly, that should not be the case.

The ICES report states that

"Haddock in the North Sea and Division IIIa" were at "Full reproductive capacity" and that the haddock stocks were "Close to target" for

"Fishing mortality in relation to high long-term yield".

Given that the Scottish demersal fleet depends on haddock, the ICES report should be good news. Why, therefore, has ICES recommended that the quota be cut by 41 per cent—from the current 66,000 tonnes to 39,400 tonnes next year—despite the fact that, as Ted Brocklebank pointed out, the fleet has been cut from 400 boats to fewer than 130? We could face a drastic cut in the TAC for haddock, which is the main white-fish species on which the Scottish demersal fleet depends, despite the drastic decline in our haddock fleet.

I do not see how the Scottish fleet or, for that matter, the UK fleet—I agree with Tommy Sheridan on this—can be expected to kowtow to unelected European commissioners who clearly have no regard for the future livelihoods of people who continually risk their lives to bring fish to our tables. I hope that Mr Finnie—and Mr Bradshaw, too—will stand up for our fishermen. They must not simply accept Brussels diktats with a handshake and a smile.

The industry's leaders are shocked by the proposed cuts in haddock quota. George MacRae, who is the head of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, has stated:

"There was no previous warning of this, no discussion with the industry and no consultation with those affected ... Everyone has regarded the haddock stocks as being in good condition. The catch reduction is not due to inadequate stocks of haddock".

The fishermen's feelings were put in a nutshell by Alex Flett, who is the skipper of the fishing vessel the "Courageous 3". He said:

"We fishermen never see ICES taking marine samples in our working areas of the North Sea, where it is clearly evident that the cod stocks are in a far healthier state than the scientists claim ... Assessing the cod stock is one thing but to try to get them back to the level of the glory days is pure fantasy. With global warming and sea temperatures rising, and new species such as squid appearing in abundance in our waters, it is obvious that major environmental change is under way ... As the Gulf Stream continues to slow and sea temperatures gradually rise, the cod will naturally migrate slowly north, as they have been doing for many years. Cod stocks in Northern waters are big and at an all time high in Northern Norwegian waters".

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Does the member care to confirm whether that absolutely profound statement on climate change is a personal opinion or one that is backed by any scientist?

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

There has been a great deal of discussion about it. I remind Mr Finnie that that was a quotation from a fisherman—and I would like to know who is listening to the fishermen.

Turning to the subject of prawns, I am obviously glad about the increase in the nephrop TAC, which has been promised to our fishermen for many years. Last year, a 12 per cent increase was achieved for the west coast, which brought us back to 1999 levels. A further increase of 30 to 40 per cent was within the TAC guidelines. The fishermen of the Western Isles, Mallaig, Oban and the Clyde estuary have continually been calling for such an increase for years—it is better late than never.

I turn to the situation in the area west of 4° . Scottish boats have been unable to fish for monkfish because of a lack of TAC and a lack of quota, despite the much-lauded 47 per cent increase last year. Hardly any of the deep-water fleet boats from Lochinver and Kinlochbervie have been fishing the area west of 4° , or area VIa, since April. That is because most of the 47 per cent increase went to area IVa.

Instead of fishing in their traditional areas, those boats have been forced to fish in areas 250 miles west of Ireland on the Porcupine bank, which is a highly dangerous area. When that fishery finished, they moved over to the North sea and fished for haddock. They could not fish their traditional Scottish waters for monkfish because of the lack of quota, and they were unable to take advantage of deep-sea species—particularly black scabbard, whose fishery ended in February, and blue whiting, whose fishery finished in March—because nearly all the quota for deep-water species was given away to other nations by Franz Fischler two years ago. It is galling for those Scottish fishermen to know that French boats are still fishing Scottish waters, particularly given that they are fishing valuable species such as monkfish. The French are monitored only once in every four landings at their home ports and, like the Spanish, they get a fuel subsidy; I do not think that they carry many on-board observers, either.

I note that the Green amendment calls for "marine protected areas". I have some sympathy with that, but I remind Eleanor Scott that the west of Scotland already has four areas that are partially closed. One is in the Clyde, and one is the so-called windsock between Scrabster and Lewis. There are also the Darwin mounds, north-west of Lewis, and there is a further area near Rockall. Those are all existing protected areas.

On stocks, I heard Euan Robson mention seals. I remember that the minister, Ross Finnie, mentioned the possibility of a seal commission about four years ago. Has anything happened on that? People sometimes blame fishermen for the depletion of stocks, but we should never forget that many more fish are taken from the sea by seals, cetaceans, fish-eating birds and other fish than are ever taken by fishermen.

Ted Brocklebank is right. Our fishermen are suffering because of the rules of the CFP. TACs and quotas work for pelagic stocks, but not for a mixed demersal-bottom fishery. The only way that we will get that changed is through a Conservative Government and, thank God, that will not be too long now.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 4:39 pm, 1st December 2005

I will begin by delineating a number of areas where there is fairly clear agreement. I can find something to agree with in each of the propositions that have been put forward by the various political parties. In particular, I highlight Ross Finnie's commendation of the FRS scientists. That illustrates something very important: that we have the skills, the talent and the ability to deploy research scientists for the benefit of the industry and of the natural environment. I will come back to that later.

Phil Gallie, unexpectedly, showed me that we have something very important in common. If I understood him correctly, our maiden speeches were both on fishing. I made my maiden speech 1,645 days ago on 14 June 2001. I worked that out during those parts of the debate that have been a little tedious. However, I have risen to the challenge and I intend to change the tone.

Ted Brocklebank's amendment is largely sensible, but he spoils it at the end by moving on to matters beyond the Parliament's remit—I am surprised that, as a unionist, he does that. The amendment talks about local control of UK waters, over which we have no influence whatever and over which SNP members do not particularly wish to have influence. That is a shame about the amendment, but there we are.

Now freed from the burdens of office, Jim Wallace made a particularly interesting contribution when he spoke of the crucial role of the Norway-EU negotiations, which significantly determine our fishermen's access to the haddocks in the North sea. He may of course wish to consider that that perfectly illustrates the point that another model is available for how countries with significant fishing interests interact with the European Union in ensuring that their national interest is progressed.

On balance, we cannot support the Greens' amendment, but it nonetheless addresses a vital issue—discards. Frankly, that the European Union and countries in the common fisheries policy have failed meaningfully to engage on that issue over the years is a shame with which we are all tainted, because that involves a key distinction between how the European Union seeks to manage fish stocks through the common fisheries policy and the approach of the small nations to our north—Iceland and the Faroes. The Greens make a valid point by bringing discards to the debate, albeit in a context with which we disagree.

There is heartening news on something that I have, since I first spoke on fishing, banged on about, as have others—the industrial fisheries, which are prosecuted largely by the Danes. We are seeing some retrenchment from the predations of the more than 1 million tonnes that they had as a quota in the not too distant past to a situation in which the effect of their industrial fishery is felt so strongly that, at last, the food that cod and haddocks eat—sprats, sand eels and pouts—are protected because they are scarce. That is because the ecology of the North sea—like that of all seas—interacts at every point of action with other points. The relative withdrawal of the Danish industrials is a welcome development that I think will be commended throughout the chamber.

At the core of the debate is a difficult and fundamental clash, to which Tommy Sheridan referred, between science, the interests of science, the objectivity of scientists and communities' needs. Until we find a way to join communities' interests to scientists' discussions, we will probably have a more sterile debate than that which we must have if we are to act responsibly and create a sustainable future for our communities.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

The member mentioned the interests of scientists. What does he mean by that?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

If I said that, I meant the objectivity of scientists—I am obliged if I used the wrong word—because objectivity is the point. Communities have an economic and emotional response to the problems—that is a proper interest—whereas scientists respond objectively. However, the science has a difficulty. We are like somebody prospecting for oil: we drill a few oil wells in the hope of discovering something about what is at the bottom of the hole, but we never understand the whole system. We see only a very small amount of what is going on. Scientists are challengeable.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Would the member say that the evidence of fishermen in the Clyde over the past 10 years, and more recent evidence from fishermen in the North sea about haddock, has been much more reliable than the scientific evidence?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The voice of practitioners who are engaging with the ecology and the stock must be heard. That is precisely why we made the point that fishermen, with their experience and understanding, should be much closer to the decision-making process. We welcome the minister's response to a point that we have made repeatedly, as have others. We are grateful that we have had a response.

I turn to costs more generally. I have a note that shows that in December 2003 a litre of fuel was 15.7p, currently it is 28p and last month it was 32.1p. The Spaniards are over-subsidising by more than six pence a litre. They will be slapped down by the European Union and the Spanish Government will be fined, but the fishermen have had and will retain the economic advantage that has come from something that their Government should probably not be doing.

I will end with a quote from a fisherman, who said:

"This year will be remembered as the year when most white-fish boats improved their top line gross, but finished with less profit, no profit, or with the feeling that it's time to get out—and not because of lack of fish on the grounds. The ever-increasing price of fuel, and poor TACs that have been cut continually over the past year, have created the situation of buying quota, leasing quota and, unbelievably, buying days to work."

We need change now and we hope that the minister can move the game up the park.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 4:47 pm, 1st December 2005

In many ways this has been a good debate, although it has also been entirely predictable in many respects, given that the SNP, the Conservatives and the Scottish Socialist Party—an unusual combination—are opposed to the common fisheries policy in principle.

We must get the matter into perspective and distinguish between what the CFP says and the processes whereby we reach decisions. I draw to members' attention the simple fact, which Jim Wallace pointed out, that in the North sea fisheries—the fisheries in which we are engaged most actively—we are engaged with stocks that do not understand international waters. The only way to deal with that is to engage with the other member states as they are. The SNP and others who are against the CFP seem to believe that it would be better if we had a range of independent negotiations. We will never manage the stocks successfully if we do not engage with not just the Norwegians, but the Swedes, Danes, Dutch, French and Belgians. All those nations have an interest. It is nonsense to suggest that we can get over that simply by declaring independence or by declaring that we are coming out of the CFP. The negotiations will have to take place.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

Does the minister accept that North sea cod—that much vexed subject that we keep talking about—is of direct interest only to Scotland and Denmark and yet the voting on that species will be taken by a range of countries with no direct interest in it, including some countries that do not even have water around them?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I will address some of the myths about the process. I am not aware of any serious decision being taken at a European Council of Ministers meeting where a non-fishing nation has sought to use its influence or vote on those matters. That that happens is one of the myths.

I return to the process. It is, as someone said, about the politicians and the people. The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission arrangements, the Norwegian discussions and the coastal states' discussions should all result in a better outcome. However, the record of politicians across Europe and outwith the EU in dealing with these matters at whatever level is not good. Simply declaring a different process is not necessarily going to produce the desired result.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Is the minister disagreeing with the call from his colleague, Jim Wallace, to have politicians running the negotiations between Norway and the EU instead of officials?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I will come back to that point.

The second point that I want to make is about my position. Again, people seem to be besotted by a seat at a European Council of Ministers meeting. Let us be clear about the fact that negotiations of substance on the stocks that are of particular importance to Scotland are dealt with largely at a technical level, in the Commission or between the Commission, the presidency and the relative representatives. I can assure this Parliament that I have represented Scotland in those discussions for the past four years. I have not attended more than 30 council meetings without making my point extremely clear. I have the ability to do so with the backing of the UK Government.

I welcome the comments that Stewart Stevenson made about scientific advice. People have played ducks and drakes throughout this debate, particularly the Conservatives and, with respect, the SNP, whose speakers seemed to be saying occasionally that they accepted that there was good science but that they wanted to distinguish between what bits of it they wanted—

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

We have 350 scientists at FRS, the vast majority of whom are Scots and all of whom have good qualifications. They are internationally renowned as experts in a difficult field. We should be careful about knocking the scientists.

Ted Brocklebank said that the decline in cod stocks was not the reason for the position that we are in. That is to misunderstand totally the position of the cod stocks relative to the other white-fish stocks that we in Scotland prosecute. All those stocks share the same fishing grounds, which causes us great difficulties as we attempt to respond in a responsible way to the science that is before us.

I am grateful to the Greens and other members for broadening the debate and saying that we need to consider issues that seem to be moving slowly, such as that of discards, and that we need to consider alternative management arrangements. Our difficulty with closed areas is that we have not devoted enough scientific effort to getting to the bottom of whether that could be a recommended management arrangement in the North sea.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Will the minister reject any cuts that are imposed on Scotland this month if it transpires that the other member states have not achieved their effort-reduction targets?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I have made it absolutely clear that we will not accept effort cuts unless we have that evidence. I cannot be clearer on that subject.

I welcomed Richard Baker's remarks about the importance of the social impact. That theme was picked up by others.

I welcomed Jim Wallace's speech. Alasdair Morrison called him a veteran; I could not possibly refer to my colleague in such derogatory terms. He mentioned the importance of changing the terms of the debate between the EU and Norway and the possibility of introducing more ministerial involvement in that. I share that view and we have made that point. I was fortunate enough to be in Brussels last night and, as the talks between the EU and Norway were progressing, I had the opportunity to speak to Commissioner Borg. However, I would welcome those meetings being conducted in a structured, rather than an ad hoc way.

On the UK presidency, we are not at the back of that at all. We will conduct our negotiations and I hope that, because of the fact that the UK holds the presidency, we will be able to secure earlier understanding of the relevant issues.

Of course, scientists and the Commission are giving much more regard to the issues of discards, mesh sizes and square-mesh panels that are being advanced by the Scottish industry.

I am grateful to Fergus Ewing for our small festive exchange. I am sure that those who read the Official Report tomorrow will enjoy that. On the proposed marine national park, we should be clear that an area will not be closed to fishing just because it is an area of particular interest. That is not the intention. Sustainable development can still be pursued in a marine national park.

I suspect that the matter of the Highland regulating order should be taken up with Highland Council. My view is that regulating orders ought to reinforce local inshore fisheries groups' own regulations. As the minister, it is not for me to tell organisations whether they should apply for regulating orders, but it seems to me that such orders are more appropriate in a clearly defined fishing area where they can give good support to the prosecution of conservation.

As always, Phil Gallie made a robust contribution. At first, I was not sure whether Maastricht was in Aberdeen, but it appears that he got lost and ended up in a debate on fisheries.

Euan Robson raised interesting questions about effort limitation and, particularly, about displacement. He was not alone. We are conscious that, when we grant increases in TACs, as we undoubtedly will in relation to nephrops, we have to be clear that effort will not be dissipated and that there will not be displacement as a result.

To Tommy Sheridan, I can say only that, although we have to be informed by the science, we also have to be clear that we are trying to get the right balance between the imperative of the science, the economic interests of the fishermen and the impact on communities. That is what sustainable development is about and that is what the Executive is endeavouring to pursue.

I am grateful to Alasdair Morrison for his perspective from the Western Isles. He pointed out that the value of the measures is some £5.5 million. He was the first to mention the potential French and Spanish schemes for assisting with fuel costs. I hear what Stewart Stevenson says about that, but we have to leave the matter with the Commission, which is investigating it. Sadly, there has been no agreement between the member states on the proposed European fisheries fund.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

The minister has not referred to industrial fishing for sand eels, which I regard as an important environmental issue. Does he want to comment on that?

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Order. There is too much conversation.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I am absolutely clear that we support the continuation of the restriction on fishing for sand eels and that those fisheries should not re-open.

Rob Gibson said that RACs are not developing quickly enough. I was disappointed by Ted Brocklebank's remarks on the RACs. I was in Aberdeen on Monday as part of my consultation with the fisheries and I am bound to say that a lot of people there are keen on the development of the RACs. On the point that was made earlier about the Shetland box, the Commission has already accepted the proposal from the relevant RAC that the Shetland box should be retained. We are already seeing results from the RACs and, given the rate at which they are engaging with the Commission, we are hopeful that they will push the work forward.

Iain Smith, rightly, drew our attention to the importance of the nephrop fishery and its particular problems. I also assure him that we will continue to keep the sprat fishery under review and I will respond to his letter on that.

Robin Harper gave us a bit of history. It is important to note that the depredation of the fishery has been going on for a long time. I agree that politicians have played ducks and drakes with the science and that we have to get away from that if fishing is to have a future.

I say to Euan Robson that I am concerned about some of the issues that he raised, particularly the use of quadruple-rigged vessels. We do not support that practice and we want to end it. Doing so is important to the development of our inshore fisheries. He also talked about the development of a live shellfish fishery. Of course, such fisheries exist in some parts of Scotland, and they have been economically successful, as our fishermen have been able to obtain a premium for trading in those stocks.

Jamie McGrigor asked about the 41 per cent cut. I am amazed that he did not know the answer to his question—I would have thought that a fisheries spokesman would have known the content of the EU-Norway haddock management plan and that applying the mortality rate of 0.3 that is contained in that plan against the significant decrease in the biomass would result in the figure of 41 per cent. We simply do not know why he had to come to the chamber to ask that question.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

I am afraid that the minister is already out of time.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The forthcoming talks are merely the conclusion of further work. Of course, I acknowledge how the Commission has been pressed by the member states—and by Scotland, as part of the United Kingdom, in particular—to bring forward the details of the discussions so that we could actively engage with our fishermen at a much earlier point this year. The Scottish Executive and I, as the Minister for Environment and Rural Development, were able to start our consultations immediately after the summer and were therefore able to be much better prepared to deal with the proposals and to understand the science and what ICES has proposed. We have increased our level of engagement with the fishermen, they have increased their level of engagement with the science and we will engage with the fishermen in the talks in December. I can only repeat my undertaking that we will seek to respect the science, but also to get the best possible deal for Scottish fishermen and the communities that depend so much on them.