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Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries Study

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:18 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:18 pm, 5th November 2019

We are all very privileged to be in the final Westminster Hall debate not only of this Session but of this Parliament, as we prepare for a general election. I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Aldous, with whom I have had many debates on these issues. He has been a champion for the inshore fleet, particularly around East Anglia. Of course, his constituency is also home to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is the national headquarters of our fisheries science agency and has a truly global reputation.

My hon. Friend was also with me on the Fisheries Bill Committee, which he mentioned, so he is familiar with our White Paper and our approach in the Bill. Sadly, that Bill has now fallen with the end of this Parliament. However, I believe that the principles we debated in Committee will be as relevant as ever when Parliament returns and when we leave the European Union. That is why the Government are committed to bringing back a fisheries Bill.

In the original Bill, we set out a number of important approaches. Clause 1 set out a whole series of fisheries objectives, including objectives for fishing sustainably and towards maximum sustainable yield. It was also very clear that we would take control of our exclusive economic zone, which means controlling access out to 200 nautical miles or the median line.

There were also ideas to improve the way in which the discard ban works. For example, a discard disincentive scheme would create a national reserve that fishermen with out-of-quota stock could access, and they would have to pay a penalty so that there was no incentive for them to target vulnerable stocks. In addition, we would have made it easier for them to avoid their current problem of choke species. Our fisheries White Paper was also clear that we would depart from relative stability—the EU sharing arrangements—and move to a new and more scientific sharing arrangement, based on zonal attachment, to which my hon. Friend referred.

We have also been clear that as we depart from relative stability and transition to this new and more scientific approach, under which we will have additional catching opportunities, we will use a different methodology to allocate any new quota coming into the UK. Although we want to keep some stability in the short term by keeping the current fixed quota allocation units for existing quota, additional opportunities will be distributed using different criteria. We are interested in giving additional quota to the inshore fleet—the under-10 pool, as it is currently described. We may tender some quota to existing producer organisations, based on their track record of sustainability. We will also, as I have said, keep some of that quota back for a national reserve.

Into the mix of this quite exciting change for our fisheries policy comes the Renaissance of East Anglia Fisheries initiative. As my hon. Friend said, there are many groups involved, including the local authority, Seafish and a number of local groups. I commend the work he has done in holding the ring and organising many events to promote its objectives. Indeed, I was very pleased to be able to attend the launch of the report.

The historic reason why relative stability does not work for many of our coastal communities, in particular those around East Anglia, is broadly as follows. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, most of our fishing fleet were catching cod in Icelandic waters, we were fishing less in our own waters, and other countries—mainly near neighbours in Europe—were fishing in those UK waters. It was very unlucky for us, in the way that sometimes happens to our country, that just as we were driven out of our Icelandic fishing grounds, where we had historic rights—we were driven right out to 200 nautical miles, following our defeat in the third cod war—we had already given the European Union control of our waters. The sharing arrangements were therefore set in concrete. To compound matters, the catch data that some of our smaller vessels had was not as comprehensive and detailed as the data that other EU countries purported to have. That created an unfairness in the sharing methodology, which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, has continued to this day.

I turn now to the points raised by my hon. Friend and the report. I have to say that he had many asks, but I will try to deal with as many of them as possible. First, there was a proposal to close the inshore pool and to have instead a system based on effort or hours at sea. As my hon. Friend knows, our White Paper was clear that we want to pilot such a system. When it comes to the inshore fleet, there is a case to be made that sometimes an effort-based regime is more appropriate for those smaller inshore vessels, because they have a small amount of quota for a large range of stocks, and a quota system does not work that well for them. There are, however, drawbacks to an effort-based system. A pilot in Ramsgate about seven years ago was not particularly successful, so we need to learn the lessons. Nevertheless, I am open to doing it. A quota system will always be the right approach for larger trawlers and offshore vessels, because an effort-based regime is not the correct approach when it comes to pelagic fish, which have very large stocks.

Secondly, my hon. Friend asked that we require offshore vessels to land their catch in the UK and to restrict their fishing within the 12 nautical miles. He will be aware that we have given notice to quit the London fisheries convention. That expired in July. Therefore, when we leave the European Union, the historic access rights that some foreign vessels have had to fish within the six to 12-mile zone will expire. It is our intention that the 0 to 12-mile zone—our territorial waters—will be predominantly reserved for British vessels, and we will seek to restrict the access of foreign vessels to those waters.

We are also reviewing the economic link. That could include requiring vessels to land a greater proportion of their catch in the UK, so that what they catch is of benefit to communities such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We must, however, take into account certain considerations when adopting such an approach. Last year I visited the Faroes, which required 100% of catch to be landed in the Faroes. However, their fishermen complained that that meant that they were, in effect, captured by processors and did not have other market alternatives. There are, therefore, reasons for allowing some catch to be landed outside the UK, but we are seeking to strengthen the economic link.

A number of the other issues raised by my hon. Friend relate to funding. We will replace the European maritime and fisheries fund. We have also announced a new domestic maritime fund, precisely to support fish processing and harbour and port facilities to help projects such as that under discussion.

The report proposes that the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities and the Marine Management Organisation should be combined into a single force. There is a reason why IFCAs were created. Previously they did not have an enforcement role; they had a management role and the MMO did all the enforcement. There was criticism that individual localities did not get the attention that they felt they deserved, and that is why IFCAs were given an enforcement role. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right that there is a case for joining up more closely the efforts of the IFCAs and the MMO. That is why we formed the Joint Maritime Operations Coordination Centre, where everybody—from the coastguard to the MMO and IFCAs—can work together to co-ordinate their assets in a single approach to the issue of enforcement.

Finally, my hon. Friend says that we should manage stocks as a mixed fishery and implement more effective controls for fishing mortality. CEFAS, which is based in Lowestoft, has done a lot of groundbreaking work. Our chief fisheries scientist, Carl O’Brien, has been a leading light in developing some of the methodologies for mixed fisheries analysis, and this is something that the UK is keen to pursue.

In conclusion, I welcome the REAF report commend my hon. Friend for his work. As for where we go from here, I stand ready to work with him in the future, should we both be returned to this place, to further develop the thinking. When it comes to administrative support for the project, I know that Seafish has been involved and I think it would also be good to engage the local enterprise partnership in the process, to help to support bids. The time will come, however, when REAF will, I presume, want to turn its ideas into a grant bid to one of our maritime funds—either an existing fund or a future one—and at that point my Department and the MMO would stand ready to assess that application. My hon. Friend will be fully aware that I cannot give any cast-iron guarantees that it will get support, but I can guarantee that it will be given full consideration. I thank my hon. Friend again for his work and I commend him for the points he raised.