HC Deb 24 October 1984 vol 65 cc782-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

9.51 pm
Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

At this comparatively early time, I am grateful to have the opportunity of raising the subject of the south-west mackerel fishery, with specific reference to the 1984 licensing arrangements. This important issue has the support of my Cornish colleagues in the House as well as of the representatives of the various fishing organisations in the county. I wish to impress upon my hon. Friend the Minister that the remarks made in this debate, particularly by the Minister, and the outcome of the meeting tomorrow at which he has kindly agreed to receive a small deputation representing Cornish fishing industries, together with me and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), will be closely and anxiously studied throughout the county.

Naturally, we all hope that a satisfactory solution will result from this debate and the talks that follow. The debate has one fundamental theme—the conservation of a valuable fishing resource, the mackerel stock. There are, of course, several related and dependent issues to which I shall refer, but the need for conservation of the mackerel stock is central to my whole argument.

This is, I think, the fourteenth speech that I have made on the subject of fishing in the 14 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, but I believe that it is one of the most important. It certainly must not be considered a routine contribution to our annual fishing debate.

I shall not concern myself tonight with the history that has led to the creation of the current problems. I remind the Minister of just one comment by a Looe constituent, Mr. A. J. Pengelly, who might be described as the doyen of the Looe fishermen, if not of Cornish fishermen. Early in the 1970s, when there was an upturn in the mackerel industry and the number of boats involved in commercial fishing increased with a corresponding expansion in the number of jobs, direct and indirect. Mr. Pengelly said publicly: We must not make the mistake of the past. We must conserve this mackerel stock. He spoke with experience. He is a man in his early 70s who was involved in fishing from Looe in the 1920s when herring predominated, when there was over-fishing and when the shoals disappeared. Likewise, in the early 1950s pilchards became predominent but they subsequently moved away.

My constituent and all those involved in the fishing industry are worried today that the same pattern and sequence of events that occurred in respect of the herring and the pilchard will be repeated with the mackerel.

There are genuine anxieties, indeed fears, about the future viability of the inshore fishing industry. It has long been recognised that the south-west mackerel stock is of mixed composition containing a high proportion of immature fish. The so-called south-west mackerel box was introduced. It was subsequently extended in November 1983. The regulation giving that effect contained a derogation exempting hand liners, gill netters and bottom trawlers from the restrictions. Unfortunately, the exemption for bottom trawlers provided a basis for a continued trawl fishery for mackerel. Hence the reason for some of the problems today.

The European Commission, to its credit, responded and, on the basis of scientific evidence, proposed an amendment to the regulation that the mackerel box should not be opened this autumn for the larger vessels. Much to the surprise of the local fishing industry and of all five Cornish Members of Parliament, irrespective of political allegiance, the British Government argued that the amendment should not be introduced until 1 January 1985. That was in spite of the Government's previous much repeated commitment to conservation and the prevailing scientific evidence about the extent and quality of fish stocks.

In answer to questions from colleagues and myself, the Minister has repeatedly stated that the conservation aspect is regarded as a major consideration by his Department at all times. Naturally, we raised the issue with the Minister and asked why the British Government had taken such an attitude at the Council of Fisheries Ministers in September this year. My hon. Friend replied in a letter to me on 16 October 1984. It is relevant to draw it to the attention of the House. My hon. Friend said—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang]

Mr. Hicks

The letter said: As far as the arrangements for the fishery up to the end of this year are concerned, after taking into account the views of all sections of the UK industry with an interest in the fishery, Fisheries Ministers have decided that the fishery should be opened from 12 October subject to the detailed control arrangements set out in the attached press notice. These arrangements aim to strike a fair balance between all of the interests concerned. As you will see from the final paragraph of the notice, the fishery will be closely monitored with particular attention to the quantities caught, the proportion of juvenile fish and the impact of night fishing within 6 miles of the coastline within the box. The arrangements will be subject to review in the light of this monitoring and changes will be introduced if necessary. We were very surprised that the Minister opposed the commission's recommendation.

It is also relevant to point out that at the meeting held at the Ministry in London on 3 October 1984, when all the interested parties had their regular consultative meeting to discuss the south-west mackerel fishery, Dr. Lockwood, a Ministry scientist, stated that the scientific recommendation was that there should be a nil quota for the mackerel box. However, he also stated that, if 5,000 tonnes of mackerel were taken out, he could live with that. If 10,000 tonnes were taken, that would cause him concern, and 20,000 tonnes would leave him very worried. Although my hon. Friend has never confirmed this, we believe that the Minister accepted, at least in advance theory, the figure of 20,000 tonnes.

Therefore, in spite of the European Commission's proposal, and the Minister's scientific advice about mackerel stocks, he has decided that the fishery should be open, and it was opened on 12 October. As a result, 17 Scottish trawlers came south and two fish processing factory ships, known as Klondikers, one from the Soviet Union and one from East Germany arrived. They thought that vast quantities of fish would be caught, which would be sold directly to the Klondikers.

I can report to the House what has happened 13 days after the south-west mackerel fishery was opened and licences had been given by the Department to these larger vessels. Some 11 of the 17 Scottish trawlers, together with the two fish processing factory ships, have sailed north. The crews of the other six have gone back home, leaving their vessels tied up. It is hardly surprising that local fishing interests are both annoyed and frustrated. There is little, if any, mackerel for them either.

The ludicrous situation that has developed provides the Minister with an opportunity to correct his earlier mistaken decision. On conservation grounds, I ask him to withdraw immediately all the licences that have been issued. There is little, if any, fish in the south-west mackerel box and such a decision would be eminently sensible and practical as well as being in the long-term interests of a well-managed mackerel fishery.

If my hon. Friend is not prepared to make that decision immediately, will he extend the condition forbidding larger vessels from fishing inside the six-mile limit at night as well as during the day? That would at least give the local inshore fishing fleet an exclusive six-mile offshore band in which to fish.

All of us who have the interests of the Cornish inshore fishing industry at heart believe that the decision that was taken is not in the interests of the local fishery or of the conservation of this valuable fishing stock. That is why we ask the Minister to reconsider that decision.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)


Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Paul Dean)

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) has informed me that he has the agreement of the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) and the Minister to his intervening.

10.6 pm

Mr. Harris

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) for the valuable service that he has performed in drawing attention to this whole sorry saga, which is the only way in which one can describe what has happened to the mackerel stocks, not just this winter, but since 1966.

The problems have reached a climax. The fishermen warned us repeatedly that if the situation continued unchecked, there would be no fish off the south-west about which to argue. Sadly, we seem to have reached that position.

My hon. Friend was right to describe the astonishment of the Cornish fishermen at the proceedings of recent weeks, including the meeting of Fisheries Ministers in September. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has an impossible job. He is trying to get compromises that keep conflicting interests happy and in many cases that cannot be done if the emphasis is to be put on conservation. All Cornish Members have based our claims on conservation.

When the Minister asked for a postponement of an amendment to the regulation to deal with the bottom trawling loophole, he was saying, in effect, "Save me from temptation, but let me have a little more time in which to indulge in breaking the law." To be fair and accurate, what the Minister has done is to perpetuate a dodge in the Common Market regulation which everybody knows about and which the Commission itself has recognised. For reasons which I understand, the Minister has said that the loophole should not be closed until 1 January. We were afraid that by opening the fishery much earlier than in previous years and by setting a quota of 150 tonnes per week for individual boats—higher than in recent years — the Government would encourage a stampede of Scottish boats to the south-west. The boats would fish like crazy between the opening date and 1 January when the new regulation comes into force. That has not happened, but only because the mackerel have not been there. My hon. Friend is right to urge the Minister to seize this opportunity to think again. If the mackerel reappear, so will the big trawlers from Scotland and the klondikers, and the stocks will be hammered yet again for a few months.

I have a paper produced by the Cornwall Inshore Fishermen's Federation, which sums up the whole situation in one paragraph. It states: In 1983 MAFF attempted to prevent the deliberate misuse of the EEC conservation measure of the Box by monitoring pseudo-bottom trawling with a view to prosecution. Now that same misuse is being encouraged by MAFF. This is contrary to the interests of the EEC fishing industry and so to UK fishing. It is in response to demands from various sources that prefer short term profit to the long term benefit of the industry. It should be prevented now. Cornish Members say amen to that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) also has permission to intervene.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks)—on this occasion I should like to call him my hon. Friend—on raising this matter. We have constantly warned successive Governments and Ministers that the degree of catching being allowed off the south-west coast of Cornwall would one day oblige the House to discuss what we would do in the event of a near total annihilation of the stock. Tonight we are discussing one of the great follies of mankind. The south-west had a resource which at its peak employed hundreds or thousands of people. If some of the large boats had been banned, it could have continued to do so. The industry is now a mere shadow of its former self. It is very sad that we should have to hold this debate.

The cause of the greatest astonishment to the people of the south-west has been the fact that at long last—to our disbelief — we succeeded in convincing the European Commission that there must be a stop. It is not the Commission but the Minister who has said "No, not yet. You can have one last go at the non-existent mackerel." If any mackerel are found, they will be sold for 4p or 5p a pound, if the fishermen are lucky. The whole industry has been sold over the past 10 years at 4p or 5p a pound, because that is the going price for mackerel.

The Minister should withdraw the licences and allow the recovery to start from the present level. If the ban does not come into force until 1 January, the recovery will start from a lower level and will take even longer. The minimum position advocated by the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East deserves the Minister's support.

10.14 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) for raising this subject. I recognise the importance of the south-west mackerel fishery to my hon. Friend and to the Cornish fishermen. It is a subject with which I have been much concerned since I became the Minister. I have given it a great deal of thought, not least in relation to the recent decisions, and I am glad to have an opportunity to spell out the Government's thinking.

Like my hon. Friend, I shall refer briefly to the background. The western mackerel stock is one of the major fishery resources available to the fishermen of the United Kingdom. Under the common fisheries settlement, we are allocated 58.7 per cent. of the total Community availability and our quota for 1984 amounts to 234,700 tonnes. The fishery is of great importance to the livelihoods and commercial viability of all the different categories of fishermen and vessels engaged in the industry, including the purse-seiners, the pair trawlers and, of course, the handliners—especially in the south-west, to which so much reference has been made tonight.

In view of the importance of the western mackerel stock to our industry, one of the Government's principal concerns — I have stressed this before and I stress it again—has been to ensure that the Council of Ministers, which is the ultimate custodian of the CFP, pays due regard to the vital need to ensure the conservation of the stock in the long term for the benefit of all the fishermen and other industries dependent on fishing.

I stress that, although, quite naturally, short-term considerations often loom large in the minds and pockets of fishermen. However, their real interests with regard to their livelihoods is not well served if we do not ensure that the stock remains healthy and plentiful. I wholly support the emphasis that my hon. Friend placed on that aspect tonight. However, consistent with that objective we have sought to maximise the opportunities available to the United Kingdom industry as a whole, which includes the processors.

The protection of the juvenile components of the western mackerel stock found in south-western waters has been a long-standing preoccupation of international and United Kingdom scientists. As long ago as September 1980, a limited box arrangement was included in the Community's technical conservation regulations. Last year, in line with the scientists' advice, the Commission proposed the introduction of an enlarged box within which fishing for mackerel, other than with gill nets and handlines, would be prohibited all year round. We supported that proposal as being consistent with our objectives, and it was adopted, with certain modifications by the Council of Ministers on 4 October 1983, to take effect from 16 November. Among the modifications was an important one that underlies this debate tonight—the derogation for trawls, Danish seines and similar nets of appropriate size towed on the bottom. The purpose of that derogation, which was introduced in the course of the Council's deliberations and not, I may say, at the United Kingdom's request, was to allow traditional trawl fishing for demersal species within the area of the box to proceed, which in some cases involved an unavoidable mackerel by-catch.

The derogation for bottom trawling meant that a number of trawlermen were able, with specially adapted gear, to take substantial quantities of mackerel within the area of the box — less than in previous years but sufficient to give concern to the scientists from the conservation point of view. I should emphasise that under the Community regulations as they stood, the fishermen concerned were acting within their legal rights and that our sea fisheries inspectorate, in its monitoring and enforcement activities in the fishery, found no evidence of illegal trawling as the rules stood. None the less, from a conservation point of view the scientists considered that the derogation for bottom trawling was in practice a serious weakness in the effectiveness of the box in achieving its aim of protecting the juvenile mackerel on which, as I stressed before, the future health of the fishery so depends.

The Commission submitted a proposal in May 1983 to amend the Council's regulation, in effect, to remove the bottom trawling derogation. That proposal came forward too late for it to be properly considered before the 24 May Council and the matter was returned for further work. Modifications were discussed at official level, including the need to provide a slightly more liberal by-catch rule for genuine demersal trawlers. The Commission suggested a maximum of 25 percent. of all pelagic species, including mackerel. The proposal was then put on the agenda for the Council on 10 September.

I now come to the point of tonight's debate. We circulated the Commission's May proposal to all the main industry organisations and during the following months various sections of the industry made their views known to us both through a number of hon. Members and directly to me. It was, of course, one of the subjects of our debate in the House on 3 July.

I quickly learned when I came to have fishing responsibilities that it is not only a question of taking account of conflicting individual national interests in the Community and promoting British interests — almost invariably, there are conflicting interests within the United Kingdom as a whole and it is rarely possible to please everyone. A Minister has to be lucky to find himself in a position to do that on fishing matters — and so it has proved in this case. The Scottish pelagic fleet, and some others, made no secret of their view that the proposal to do away with the exemption for bottom trawling was unnecessary and undesirable. The south-west handliners strongly supported it on the grounds of conservation. Processors and some fishermen in the south-west wanted to see a limited trawl fishery continuing for smaller boats. I made it clear in the debate on 3 July that the Government would explore the implications of the Commission's proposal and of any alternative approaches that emerged with a view to reaching as well-balanced a solution as we could, taking fully into account the need to conserve the stock. In the course of the preparatory discussions before the Council meeting it became clear that other member states supported the Commission's proposal, as we did in principle, and that there would be no support for any alternative approach involving a limited fishery, whether for small local boats or otherwise, as some people in the south-west urged. There was no way of getting such a proposal on the table, given that the Commission would oppose it, let alone agreed in the Council.

Consistently with our objective of conservation and in the light of the clear scientific advice, we accordingly supported the Commission's proposal. But in order to give adequate notice to the fishermen and others affected and to avoid changing important rules likely to affect the take-up of our mackerel quota in the course of the quota year itself, we considered it right that there should be a short delay in the implementation of the decision to 1 January 1984. That was also agreed in the council. I recognise that for some sections of the fishing and processing industry this decision to close off any trawl fishery for mackerel within the area of the box for at least the two remaining years for which the regulation will run, will have been unwelcome, I know that it is unwelcome to some south-western interests.

I also recognise that for others, particularly the handliners about whom my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) talked, it would have been preferable for the decision to take immediate effect. The Government, as in all these matters of conservation and management of fisheries, have had to strike a balance, and I believe that it has been a reasonable one.

I now turn to the detailed management arrangements for the fishery until the end of the year. The first thing to be said is that these arrangements had to reconcile the conflicting interests which I have already described. Representatives of all those interests took part in a foil discussion of the problems at a consultation meeting on 3 October and the solutions which finally emerged took account of all their views. My decisions were taken after having considered all the points of view carefully. I assure my hon. Friend that I considered with great care all the implications of these issues and all the representations that we received. Indeed, I was criticised for not coming to an immediate decision following our considerations at the meeting of 3 October. The reason I did not do so was that I wanted to be quite sure that our decision had a reasonable basis.

As tonight's debate has shown a number of factors had to be taken into account. I cannot go into all of them in detail, but it may help the House to understand the complexity of the problem if I run over them briefly. There was the paramount need to ensure the protection of the juvenile stock which tends to concentrate in this fishery — I stress that aspect; the importance of ensuring adequate supplies for human consumption markets, including the requirements of onshore processors including those in the south-west; the need to protect the interests of the south-west fishermen, including the handliners and those whose use of fixed gear can be affected by other fishing methods; the request to provide early catching opportunities for Scottish fishermen, given the exceptionally late arrival of mackerel in the Minch and the closure of the west of Scotland herring fishery—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland knows that there was strong pressure on that front; and finally, the fact that the United Kingdom had only taken some 45,000 tonnes of its 234,000 tonnes western mackerel quota.

The main elements of the arrangements set up in the light of those interests are as follows. First, vessels fishing for mackerel within the box are subject to a 150-tonne weekly quota. Secondly, fishing within six miles of the: Devon and Cornish coasts during daylight is prohibited to vessels more than 10 m long, leaving the fishing during the day to the handliners. Thirdly, there is a 24-hour ban, except for vessels under 10 m and handliners, on fishing in the Start Point area to protect local fixed gear interests. It should also be remembered that there is a prohibition on fishing within three miles of the Devon and Cornish coasts by all vessels more than 60 ft long, under the local sea fisheries committee byelaws, which applies 24 hours a day.

Finally — this is an important point — we have undertaken to keep those arrangements under review, with special attention being paid to the proportion of juvenile fish taken and the impact of night fishing within six miles of the coastline, and to introduce changes if necessary. While I was considering those matters, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives contacted me to discuss night fishing. I assured him then and I assure him again now that it is not an empty commitment to keep the matter constantly under review. We shall be watching carefully between now and the end of the calendar year to see what the effects are, and I assure him that if matters turn out not as we expect, we shall be prepared to make changes.

Those measures represent substantial safeguards to the interests of the fishermen for whom my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Truro have spoken. I recognise that the local handliners would have preferred a 24-hour ban on larger vessels within the six-mile limit, but the day-time ban is a new step that demonstrates our concern to achieve a fair balance, to protect their interests and to give them some help. Another point that must be stressed is that the basic decision on bottom trawling, which will apply from 1 January, is a further significant assistance to the handliners, and is a decision that has been taken. The hon. Member for Truro said that he had urged for a long time that a decision be taken along those lines. It has been taken, and the scheme will operate from 1 January. I repeat that we shall monitor closely all aspects of the fishery, and the rules will be strictly enforced by our fisheries inspectorate and our fishery protection forces.

In view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East said about scientific evidence, I should say that our scientific advisers believe that a limited fishery from now until the end of the year is unlikely to make a significant difference to the longer-term health of the stock. That depends upon the amount of juvenile mackerel likely to be taken. That is why we shall monitor the fishery closely, especially in relation to the proportion of juvenile mackerel in the catches. We have warned the industry that the arrangements will be subject to review in the light of such monitoring, and that changes will be introduced if necessary.

It is less than two weeks since the fishery opened, and although it is difficult to forecast how it will run for the rest of the year, there is no evidence so far to show that the measures are anything but effective.

Mr. Penhaligon

There are no fish.

Mr. MacGregor

Of coruse, I recognise that there are problems with the present stocks of fish, which is why catches of mackerel in the area have been light. However, I have already said that we shall monitor closely this fishery an the new arrangements during the weeks ahead.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, Sourth-East said, although several Scottish trawlers arrived for the opening they have not made significant catches of mackerel, and several have now returned to the Minch fishery following the arrival of the mackerel off the west coast of Scotland. If the Minch proves to be productive, and if catches in the south-west continue to be low, it is possible that there will be no large influx of vessels to the south-west fishery. I should stress that there will be another eight weeks of fishing before the Christmas break, and I repeat that thereafter the mackerel box will be fully protected by the new rules.

In conclusion, I should say a word about the outlook for the western mackerel fishery. For the years immediately ahead, reduced catches seem inevitable as a result of poor recruitment from the 1982 and 1983 year classes, which were well below average. That is a biological fact quite independent of the conservation measures taken. What happens in the medium and longer terms will depend upon the strength of the 1984 and subsequent year classes. The improved protection afforded by the box, at least during the next two years, will help to ensure that the new year classes will make their maximum contribution to the fishery in due course and should, we hope — that is the intention — avert the spectre of stock collapse which, had no effective action been taken, could have hung over us.

I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives. I recognise his anxiety, and I am therefore grateful for this opportunity to spell out the position. Should events prove to be such that the stock is threatened, I assure him that we shall take action before the end of the year. However, thereafter, the box with the new arrangements will be in place.

The Question having been proposed afer Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.