by Paul Goodman
The combination of an Early Day Motion signed by almost 250 MPs and a Commons debate – courtesy of the new Backbench Business Committee – leaves a government with little alternative but to give way. It's thus worth reading carefully the motion which the House passed yesterday in relation to the Common Fisheries Policy and fish discards –
That this House welcomes the Fish Fight campaign; and calls on the Government to vote against proposed reforms of the EU Common Fisheries Policy unless they implement an ecosystems-based approach to fisheries management, end discards in relation to all fish and shellfish with derogation only for species proven to have a high survival rate on discarding, require that all fish and shellfish are harvested at sustainable levels by 2015, ensure the involvement of fishers and other stakeholders in decision-making processes and enable the UK to introduce higher standards of management and conservation in respect of all vessels fishing within its territorial waters, taking into particular account vessel size and environmental impact."
In other words, the Commons has urged the Government to block changes to the Fisheries Policy unless discards mostly end. Goldsmith is particularly exercised about the "12 mile issue", and perhaps the best means of looking at the subject in the round is to quote most of his speech, which I do below. Sheryll Murray also addressed the Commons for the first time since the tragic death of her husband, and Conservative Home welcomes her back.
Here is the bulk of Goldsmith's speech:
"The motion is about the scandal of fish discards. Up to half the fish caught in the North sea are thrown back into the water either dead or dying, as a direct consequence of perverse EU common fisheries policy rules. Members will know that there was an overwhelming public reaction following Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign. More than 600,000 people signed petitions calling for an end to discards, and many of them wrote to their Member of Parliament calling for immediate action. Their concerns are clearly mirrored here in Parliament, where the second most supported early-day motion since the general election calls for a discard ban. In addition, we have a Minister responsible for fisheries and a Prime Minister who have both recognised the absurdity of the current rules.
The time is right for a debate of this type because CFP negotiations are at a crucial stage. The European Commission is to make formal proposals in June or July, and decisions are to be taken some time in October, so now is our chance to give the Government a mandate to take the strongest possible line in those negotiations.
It is difficult to know exactly how many fish are being thrown away, because records are not kept and discards are not monitored. However, the EU estimates that in the North sea, between 40% and 60% of the total catch is discarded. The research of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs more or less backs up that figure. In other UK fisheries, the total is probably even higher. For instance, in the west of Scotland area, the Scottish Government believe that as much as 90% of the total cod catch is discarded. Partly because of that horrendous and mind-boggling waste, the European Commission’s own scientific advisers estimate that 72% of assessed EU species are now overfished.
It is grossly unfair that so often the fishermen get the blame for that madness, because most of the discards are the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of decisions imposed on them by politicians. To add insult to injury, those laws are supposed to be about conservation…
…As all Members will know, reform of the CFP is complicated and hugely contentious, but whatever reforms are agreed, they must include a discard ban. We know that there are alternatives. For example, we could replace landing quotas with catch quotas so that by-catch that would otherwise be discarded had to be landed. The UK has already been piloting a scheme for cod involving six vessels in England and 17 in Scotland, and results so far suggest that it is working. Discards of cod are down to, I believe, between 1% and 7%. In addition, fishermen are using more selective gear and managing to catch more valuable fish.
In addition to the pilots in our own waters, a discard ban has been operating since 1987 in Norway, where over-quota or unwanted species are landed for a guaranteed minimum value and sold to the fishmeal industry, with the proceeds used to reinvest in and support the fishing industry. To make a discard ban easier, we will have to do everything we can to help fishermen access and use more selective gear so that they can avoid the unwanted fish in the first place.
Consumers also have a clear role. A significant percentage of fish are discarded because there is no market for them, and the Government can boost that market through their vast procurement programme. We spend £2 billion each year on food for the wider public sector, and that is an obvious tool that the Government can use. However, there are obviously limits to what a Government can do to shape a fashion, and it is worth mentioning non-Government initiatives such as “Hugh’s Mackerel Mission”, which is intended to help stimulate new markets for less popular species. It is a valuable campaign, and I urge Members to support it.
Discards are the most visible flaw in the CFP regime, but they are only part of the problem. In addition, the motion calls for radical decentralisation, and I wish briefly to focus on that. One of the key demands from our fishing communities, and in particular from the under-10 metre fleet, is that we assert our control over what are wrongly described as our sovereign waters—the 12 nautical miles surrounding our coastline. I say “wrongly” because whereas the British Government can legally impose whatever rules and regulations they want within those waters, from six to 12 miles out those rules will apply only to British vessels. It is clear that higher standards are a good thing, but only if they are fair and we have an even playing field. That is categorically not the case in our waters.
For example, in 2004 the UK banned pair-trawling for bass within 12 miles of the south-west coast of England, to protect dolphins and porpoises. Although our own fishermen adhered to the law, the ban did absolutely nothing to prevent French and Spanish trawlers from continuing to catch bass in those waters, which was both wrong and unfair. If those rights for foreign vessels are to be retained, it seems to me that they should come with an absolute and non-negotiable obligation to adhere to our own rules. That is why the motion demands, among other things, that any reforms of the CFP must
“enable the UK to introduce higher standards of management and conservation in respect of all vessels fishing within its territorial waters”.
That is an absolutely fundamental issue. If we reassert our control over those waters we will not only provide welcome relief for our smaller boats against the onslaught of the factory fishing vessels, but we will be able to establish an intelligent, ecosystem-based management system and ensure the health of our fisheries indefinitely.
If we were able to reassert control over our waters, we would also be able to set the rules on science. With the active involvement of those who depend more than anyone else on the viability and health of our marine environment—the fishermen themselves—we would be able to get the policy right. That would also allow us to do something even more important—to recognise in law and in our regulatory regime, finally, the difference between smaller, traditional fishing vessels and their giant industrial competitors. It is an absolute mystery to me why successive Governments have always chosen to view the latter, the so-called fishing lobby, as the true voice of fishermen.
More than three quarters of the UK fleet is made up of vessels of 10 metres and under, which represent about 65% of full-time employment. Under the previous Administration, the 5,000 or so 10-metre and under vessels were given just 4% of the national quota, compared with the staggering 96% that was given to bigger boats, which number fewer than 1,500. It is staggeringly unfair, and if we were able to organise ourselves in the way that we chose within those 12 miles, we would be able to recognise the madness of that system in law.
It is an obvious observation that the smaller vessels are restricted in where they can go and what damage they can do, simply because of their size. The tools that they use do not compare with those available to the industrial factory fishing vessels, some of which have lines that would stretch from Parliament to Brighton, and purse seine nets that are big enough to swallow two millennium domes—which is a nice thought in some respects.
Whereas the interests of the smaller fishing communities are necessarily aligned with conservationists and consumers, the tools of destruction used by the mega-trawlers are fundamentally incompatible with any kind of sustainable future. That has finally been recognised at EU level, in word if not in deed. The new EU Fisheries Commissioner, Maria Damanaki, has said:
“We…believe, based on scientific information, that small-scale fisheries are more sustainable and have a lower environmental footprint…Small-scale fisheries are also…more friendly to employment, and this is a key issue. We also recognise that small-scale fisheries are very important for the survival of coastal communities, for their identity, culture, history and way of life.”
Hear, hear to that, but let us see that finally translated into law. It is time for a clear and forceful policy distinction between the interests of the small-scale, more traditional fisherman, and large-scale operations…
…I shall conclude shortly, because I know that there is great demand among hon. Members to speak. For all Ted Heath’s “pure brilliance”—his words, not mine, as no one will be surprised to hear—he was wrong to surrender our fishing rights as a price worth paying for our entry into the European Economic Community. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) about that. However, we have an opportunity to empower our brilliant fisheries Minister to right some of those historical wrongs. We can end discards, restore control over that key 12-mile zone, and set rules that allow both our fishing communities and our marine environment to survive and flourish. I strongly urge all hon. Members to support the motion.
From the Conservative benches, Mark Spencer, Oliver Colville, Eric Ollerenshaw, George Eustice, Sarah Newton, James Morris and Peter Alduous also spoke. I suggested earlier that the Government's under pressure over the issue, but wouldn't want to give the impression that Richard Benyon, the Minister, is unsympathetic. The core of his reply was as follows:
The Government share the priorities expressed by the motion. I can reassure the House that those will remain at the heart of our thinking as we press strongly for a reformed CFP and continue to address discarding in the UK fleet. I am fully behind the intentions of the motion, although I am not sure that it reflects the full scope of the Government’s ambitions for CFP reform. We have an intensive diplomatic effort ahead to negotiate the reform we need, and we must get the detailed measures right, including those on discards. We can do that only by working with our fishing industry to develop effective measures. I welcome the tabling of the motion and the spotlight that the Fish Fight campaign has shone on the current CFP’s failings at a time when we have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to overcome them."