I thank Mrs Murray, who spoke, as she often does, with authority and with knowledge and experience of the fishing sector. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to participate in this debate and for going ahead with it—by the way, that is not something we can trust in any longer with the business of the House. The fact of the matter is that we are discussing this issue because it is of such importance. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions this morning, and I look forward in particular to the responses of the Minister and also the shadow Minister, who has deep knowledge of the issue.
I represent the fishing village of Portavogie. It is the second largest fishing village in the whole of Northern Ireland. It used to have 130 boats in the harbour. A person used to be able to cross the harbour without touching the water, just by walking across the decks of the boats. That is no longer possible, as the number of boats has reduced to 75. Why is that? It is due to EU bureaucracy and red tape. There are other key issues, including crew. The fishermen and fisherwomen of Portavogie look forward to leaving the EU and to being unfettered and free. Boy, we cannot wait. We look forward to that occasion.
Leaving aside the fact that this will be the last EU Fisheries Council at which the United Kingdom plays a full role, it is far from business as usual. Previous EU decisions dictate that fish stocks will be managed, by 2020 at the latest, according to the principle of maximum sustainable yield. The Minister knows the issue well. Importantly, the EU’s landing obligation, or discard ban, will be fully implemented from
With those factors in mind, the landscape for this December’s negotiations in Brussels will be complicated enough, even without Brexit in the background. In the Irish sea, fishermen will always contend that there is room for improvement with fisheries science. We need to put on record the commitment of Northern Ireland fishermen to that science. Discussions are ongoing to utilise the industry’s assets to expand acoustic surveys of the demersal species in the area, which have been valuable in changing the perception of Irish sea herring in particular. We are working with nature, and sometimes what goes up comes down. That is a flaw in the concept of maximum sustainable yield, which argues that all stocks can be maintained at a maximum level. Nature just does not work like that. It is not straightforward by any means.
The industry has accepted the scientific advice for the most economically important fishery in the Irish sea for Northern Ireland, which is nephrops—prawns. Portavogie prawns are renowned the world over. They are exported across Europe. They are a brand name, and it is important to put that on the record. Any change to the total allowable catch should reflect the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which includes scientific assumptions on survivability.
To be specific, our aim should be for a TAC that reflects the landing figure plus dead discards. That principle has been accepted for other species with high survival rates. The result should mean a percentage reduction in TAC that is in the low 20s, not the 32% advocated by Brussels. Again, I express some concern. We met the Minister last week, which was most constructive and helpful, and I thank him for that. We met the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, the Irish Fish Producers Organisation and my hon. Friend David Simpson. I look to the Minister to address the discrepancy and make a commitment on that.
The TAC for whiting is the top priority for the Irish sea in 2019. Of all the TAC issues, Irish sea whiting has some rather unique issues and is a priority. The Commission has proposed a TAC of 612 tonnes for next year, solely to cover the bycatch in the nephrop fishery. The fishing of the nephrop fishery by the UK fleet outstrips that of the Republic of Ireland by a factor of four to one, which again underlines its importance. That approach is unlikely to win support from the Republic of Ireland. Its application of the Hague preference would see it secure more than half of the quota in a fishery where it takes about 20% of the catch. We do not share the faith that some have that the Republic of Ireland would be willing to apportion the Union quota on the grounds of need without using it as a swap currency to extract other quota species from the UK. The conclusion is that we need to aim for Irish sea whiting to be treated uniquely, by making it a temporary prohibited stock—in other words, removing it from the list of TAC species.
The imposition by Ireland of the Hague preference mechanism continues to hang over quota allocations. As the United Kingdom leaves the common fisheries policy, the Hague preference will no longer apply to Irish sea stocks. That outdated quota distribution methodology will fall, and at the very least UK fishermen in the Irish sea will immediately recover the one third of their quotas for cod, whiting and plaice that they have annually handed to the Republic of Ireland, and which the Republic of Ireland has gratefully accepted, despite its feigned economic and social concern for the community in Northern Ireland.
That feigned concern extends to the hard sea border that the Dublin Government have erected and maintained against fishermen from Northern Ireland. The Minister knows the voisinage agreement very well, and I do not need to go into the issue in any detail. It was among the issues highlighted in the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The recommendation was clear: encourage the Dublin Government to resolve their side of the reciprocal agreement, or face the UK’s withdrawal from that agreement. Interested parties in the Republic of Ireland talk about the noise coming from Northern Ireland on the issue, and they have every right to acknowledge it. However, they should not forget that about 40% of the fish and shellfish captured by the Irish fishing fleet come from UK waters.
It should be left to the United Kingdom’s fisheries administrations to decide how quotas are allocated. Quotas are a massive issue within each jurisdiction, reflecting the different nature of the fishing fleets in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are better together; let us work together on this matter as well. The Fishing (Access to Territorial Waters) Bill recognises the principle of equal access by UK-registered fishing fleets to all UK waters.
Increased TACs, be they as a result of decisions made at the December Fisheries Council or of a new fisheries agreement with the UK, will be pointless unless we have the ability to catch the fish. That comes back to the key issue of crews, which the Minister and Members know about. Filipino crews are consistently dependable. They come to work, do the business and commit themselves totally to it. We spoke to the Minister about that last week, and I know he shares our concerns, as does the shadow Minister. We look forward to some help in persuading the Home Office to put those fishermen into the skilled category, thus enabling them to become part of what we want for our fishing fleets across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As the Minister prepares to wish his EU opposite numbers “bon voyage” at the end of next week’s Fisheries Council, we send him good wishes in his endeavours. He has proven himself to be a friend of the industry in Northern Ireland and the whole of the United Kingdom. His judgment, and that of his officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and the Departments in Scotland and Wales, is fundamental to securing a deal that is in the national interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. We look forward to a sustainable result.