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[Albert Owen in the Chair] — Backbench Business — Fisheries

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:28 pm on 2nd December 2010.

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Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 4:28 pm, 2nd December 2010

it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in my first annual fisheries debate. Like others, I wish it were taking place on a larger stage, which would have done credit to the industry that we are here to represent. I congratulate Dr Whiteford on securing this debate.

Although I am pleased to be here, I am acutely aware that these are difficult times for the fishing industry in Lowestoft, in my constituency, and around Britain. In many respects, the industry is in the last-chance saloon. It is up to all of us to ensure that it is sustainable and not only conserves fish stocks but gives our constituents who work in the industry a viable future in which they can earn a reasonable living and have the certainty needed to make long-term investment decisions.

As I said in the Adjournment debate that I secured on 14 October, the Lowestoft fishing industry is a shadow of its former self. However, I believe that it could have a viable and brighter future if the European Commission and the Government make the right decisions now and in the coming two years. To get to that better future, a number of obstacles need to be overcome and a number of vested interests challenged. A difficult and tortuous road lies ahead of us.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for the way in which he has approached what many may regard as an unenviable task, and some may describe as a poisoned chalice. He has been to Lowestoft to meet fishermen on two occasions, and this morning he hosted a delegation of fishermen from Suffolk to listen to their concerns and hear their ideas for the future of their industry. One of those fishermen is in the Public Gallery this afternoon and I thank him for listening to us.

Time is short, so I shall first set out the problems that confront the Suffolk fishing industry, and then make some proposals for the way forward towards a brighter future. In my opinion, five problems need to be addressed. First, the current regime fails to achieve its prime objective of conserving fish stocks, and causes untold damage to the marine environment. Young fish are caught before they are mature and there are no adequate incentives for the management of stocks.

Secondly, the current regime is not only bad for fish, it is bad for fishermen. The industry lurches from one crisis to the next, and it seems that the role of each successive Minister is continually to apply a sticking plaster to ensure that a particular fishery or group of fishermen gets over those crises. Fishermen find themselves unable to make a living or make long-term investment plans. Ultimately, many leave the industry.

Thirdly, one immediate problem faced by the industry is ensuring that fishermen survive the next year before the review of the common fisheries policy in 2012. The initial prognosis is not good; Lowestoft fishermen are faced with a cut to their whiting quota from 4 tonnes to 500 kg per month. The European Commission's proposals for TACs and effort control mean that British fishermen are facing severe cuts in quotas. Regulation by TACs is a flawed process, and I question whether some of the proposed quota reductions are based on genuine, well-founded science.

Fourthly, we must throw overboard the obscene practice of discards as soon as possible. It is destroying fish stocks, it repulses fishermen, and the British public are appalled by it. As I mentioned in my Adjournment debate, in Suffolk we estimated that in five days in late September, nine under-10-metre boats threw overboard 11.5 tonnes of skate.

Finally, the British under-10-metre fleet gets a raw deal. It makes up 85% of the British fishing fleet, but it gets under 4% of the available quota. Today, most of the Lowestoft fleet is made up of under-10-metre boats that fish inshore in a sustainable way with long lines. That is the type of environmentally friendly industry that we should be encouraging. At the forthcoming CFP review, that fleet must receive a more equitable share of the quota.

Looking to the future, the first challenge to confront in the short term is to ensure that our fishermen get the best possible deal in the forthcoming Council of Ministers on 13 December. The Minister's task is not an easy one and I urge him to do all that he can to secure the best deal for Britain. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations set out a clear guide on the course that he should pursue, and I urge him to challenge the science behind the Commission's proposals, which in many respects appears illogical.

There is also a role for our MEPs, as this year for the first time, fisheries policy needs to be agreed jointly with the European Parliament. The future of many fishermen depends on whether those negotiations can provide them with an income with which to pay their mortgages and living expenses. If they go out of business, the boats go, as does much of the supporting infrastructure, and they will never come back.

Looking ahead to the CFP review, much good work has been done on which the European Commission and the Government can build. That includes the SAIF-sustainable access to inshore fisheries-report from August 2010, work by the WWF and GLOBE, and the catch quota pilot study carried out by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, CEFAS, details of which were set out in its interim report in September.

I urge the Minister to pursue a four-pronged approach. First, there should be a move away from the current top-down micro-management that has worked so badly and led to so many of the problems faced by the fishing industry today. In future, the EU's role should be to set high-level objectives. The day-to-day management of fisheries should be carried out locally by fishermen, CEFAS scientists and a more streamlined regulator. It may be that the Marine Management Organisation should devolve its responsibilities to the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities.

Secondly, there must be an increased use of science, with fishermen themselves playing the lead role in monitoring the amount of fish caught and recording that activity. That information can be used to manage fisheries in a proactive, responsible and sustainable way. It is vital that all parties work together and that trust, which has been missing in recent years, be re-established. It is important to remember that fishermen are the custodians of the sea. Lowestoft fishermen always say that they do not wish to be aboard the vessel that catches the last fish. Fishermen want to create and then manage sustainable fisheries.

Thirdly, a variety of tools should be used in the local management of inshore fisheries. It is such fisheries that I am concentrating on, as the Lowestoft fleet is almost exclusively an under-10-metre fleet today. Effort control in the form of a maximum-hours-at-sea approach has a role to play in eliminating discards, but other controls should be used as well, such as catch limits and a variety of technical measures.

Finally, there must be an equitable redistribution of quota to ensure that the inshore fleet is treated fairly. The quota system needs to be put on a more commercial footing, rather than being based on "grandfather's rights". It is very much the elephant in the room. If necessary, the legal status of quotas needs to be clarified and challenged.

I am grateful to you, Mr Owen, for bearing with me. In conclusion, I wish the Minister well in the tough and difficult negotiations that he faces both in the next few days and over the next year or so. He has approached his job with serious resolve, enthusiasm and a willingness to listen. Many people and communities around Britain are dependent on him for a successful outcome to his negotiations both next month and at the CFP review. I wish him well.