HC Deb 16 November 1987 vol 122 cc891-8

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

12.28 am
Sir Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

My reason for raising the matter of North sea cod quotas is that our fishermen in Yorkshire and East Anglia feel that they are being treated unfairly. Last year the cod catch by the Yorkshire and Anglia Fish Producers' Organisation was 6,800 tonnes. This year's quota was fixed at 3,560 tonnes because of a 28 per cent. reduction in the United Kingdom's quota on 1986. However, the scientists got their estimates and sums wrong. There was a glut of cod in the North sea. Therefore, later in 1987 the United Kingdom quota was considerably increased, but the Yorkshire and East Anglia quota rose to only 6,250 tonnes—well under last year's catch. We believe that we should have had at least 1,000 tonnes more cod quota in Yorkshire and East Anglia and that, because fishermen and other producers will not reach the quotas that they have been given, that will perhaps be used as an excuse by the EEC for lowering our national quota next year. A far better way of conservation is to have a larger mesh size rather than smaller quotas.

Pressures grew on the fisheries scientists in the first half of the year to review their assessment of the North sea cod stock, because fishermen's observations contradicted their scientific advice. Eventually, they revised their recommendations for the North sea total available catch to 175,000 tonnes, a 40 per cent. increase, bringing it roughly on a par with last year's figure. The United Kingdom quota was consequently increased to 74,290 tonnes. Meanwhile, repeated attempts were being made by all the producer organisations to find out what their sectoral quotas would be this year. Repeated promises were made, but we were not given any final confirmation of our sectoral quota for North sea cod until 22 July, the day after a delegation from the Yorkshire and Anglia Fish Producers' Organisation visited the Minister to express concern over North sea cod quotas. The quota allocated to YAFPO on 22 July was 6,250 tonnes, representing 8.4 per cent. of the increased United Kingdom quota that was then in force. That was considerably less than we had anticipated.

In April 1986 our quota had been unilaterally reduced from 7,125 to 6,170 tonnes, with no satisfactory explanation. We expected the restoration of at least some of that 1,000 tonnes cut, but little was restored. We ask the Minister to explain why that was done, because the fisheries association in Yorkshire and East Anglia believes that that has not been done.

By the time the quota was given to us, we had already taken about 5,700 tonnes—over 90 per cent. of our annual quota. That left us in a virtually impossible position for the remainder of the year. Stringent restrictions were applied immediately to our boats for the months of August and September, but we could not avert our annual quota being exhausted well before the end of the year. On 10 September a YAFPO delegation was again invited to meet the Minister, but he declined to give us an additional allocation of North sea cod quota. On 11 September we calculated that our annual quota had run out and we duly informed the Ministry. On 18 September our members' cod licences were revoked so that they could no longer retain on board or land any cod from the North sea.

Repeated requests have been made to the Government to reallocate to YAFPO some of the North sea cod quota that other producers oganisations are not likely to catch, but so far those requests have fallen on deaf ears. The FPO Ltd.—the deep-sea PO, based in Grimsby—recently gave up 500 tonnes of its North sea cod quota, but we have only received our pro rata allocation of that, 44 tonnes. That will not significantly improve fishing opportunities for us.

We did not know the size of the North sea quota until 22 July. We received significantly less quota than anticipated. No special consideration was given to inshore fishermen like ourselves who are dependent on a single stock. That is the position of all our members, for at least part of the year. In Yorkshire, cod is the premium catch all year. In East Anglia, the boats rely on cod from October until March. Drastic cuts in quota are not necessarily offset by significant fishing opportunities for other species.

I agree that some small block allocations have been made to the Yorkshire cobles—50 tonnes—and to boats in the southern part of East Anglia—20 tonnes—in recognition of their particular reliance on the winter cod fishery. However, the bulk of our fleet remains on a 5 per cent. catch only. We have been criticised by the Government for being too generous towards our members in the first part of the year. We have significantly restricted our boats all year, yet we still ran out of quota in mid-September. Most of the Scottish POs have operated higher quotas than us nearly all year, and, right on our doorstep, Grimsby fishermen have had virtually unrestricted North sea cod fishing for most of the year. Even now, they have quota remaining. How can such a quota distribution possibly be fair?

Let me suggest the action that is required for the future. For the remainder of this year, our only hope is to secure an additional quota from the amount that is unlikely to be caught by other POs. However, POs are naturally reluctant to give up any fish at all, and, barring 500 tonnes from The FPO Ltd., nothing has yet been forthcoming. If a reallocation is not made soon, there will be insufficient time left in which to catch it, and the United Kingdom will again fall short of its national quota.

In my view, the Government need to re-examine the figures on which they base their quota distribution for next year, and explain convincingly why YAFPO has run out of fish quota well before the end of the year, rather than other POs that gave their members more generous quotas.

There must be an end to the wild fluctuations of 30 to 40 per cent. which we frequently see in total allowable catches from year to year. Such enormous variations do not encourage rational forward planning. We need to know what our sectoral quota is going to be much earlier in the year. To manage it properly, we need to have it by mid-January at the latest, rather than mid-July. We need more effective technical conservation measures. Our fishermen are committed to conservation because it is their livelihood. We contend that quotas have limited value for conservation, as they are easily circumvented on the continent—witness the Belgian experience this year. Any fish that is inadvertently caught in excess of the quota must be dumped back into the sea, by which time it is already dead.

Both we and the scientists agree that far too much immature cod is being caught in the North sea, but they place their faith in the quota system. To prevent the unnecessary slaughter of young fish, we say that measures are needed, such as larger mesh sizes, larger minimum fish landing sizes and prohibitions on fishing in areas where there are significant concentrations of spawning or immature fish.

I hope that the Minister will give a sympathetic reply to my points. I shall now make way for some of my hon. Friends who feel just as strongly as I do.

12.38 am
Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Sir J. Ridsdale) for giving me time briefly to put one or two points that are especially important to the Bridlington fishermen.

The fact that 90 per cent. of the quota had been used by the time that the 1987 quota was finally allocated by the Government at the end of July was a particular blow to the Bridlington fishermen, who are 90 per cent. dependent on one species — North sea cod. Their position is much worse than that of fishermen in areas where the fishing effort is spread over a number of species.

I feel, therefore, that special consideration should have been given to YAFPO when the Government obtained an extra 1,000 tonnes of North sea cod quota from the Germans under a swap arrangement. Despite representations from me and from the industry, that did not happen. We received only 84 tonnes, the rest going pro rata to other areas that still had quota left.

We felt even more aggrieved when recently The FPO Ltd., the deep sea fish producers' association based in Grimsby, gave up 500 tonnes of North sea cod quota. As that FPO is based on the Humber, special consideration should have been given to the east coast fishermen in YAFPO, who by this time were restricted to a 5 per cent. by-catch. Once again our fishermen received only 44 tonnes—a pro rata allocation—the balance going to areas such as Scotland that still had plenty of quota left.

Due to poor weather in October, the landings of cod in Scotland have been lower than expected. If no Government action is taken, it looks as though the United Kingdom cod catch could be 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes below the 1987 quota. That would be tragic, as the Bridlington boats will have been unable to fish for cod for almost five months. That could reduce the United Kingdom's total quota for next year.

The following immediate action is required. There must be a reassessment of the take-up of quota and a reallocation of the likely shortfall to FPOs that have no quota left for normal fishing. What is even more important is that this should never happen again. It is essential that the basis of the allocation of quota should be re-examined and made more equitable. Something is clearly wrong when Bridlington boats run out of quota by August, despite strict catch restrictions, while Grimsby has been free fishing all year, without any catch restrictions, and still has quota left. If that continues next year, the obvious answer will be for Bridlington boats to leave YAFPO and join the Grimsby FPO. That shows just how stupid the present situation is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich pointed out, we need to know the quota for next year by January so that we can manage it effectively.

Quotas are inefficient and have been proved to be an unfair method of conserving fish stocks. YAFPO maintains, and I agree with it, that the best way to conserve fish stocks is to prevent the slaughter of young fish. Much bigger net sizes are needed. Fishermen in Bridlington and in the rest of YAFPO have set an example by voluntarily increasing their mesh size. We feel that this gesture should be recognised by the Ministry and that it should mean that they qualify for an increased quota next year.

I appreciate that in the EEC negotiations my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and his colleagues have been fighting for increased mesh sizes. This is another example of the EEC acting against the interests of this country. The situation in Bridlington is desperate. I emphasise the word "desperate." Urgent action is needed to get surplus quotas reallocated. For far too long Scotland has had too great an influence in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—probably because it has a Member in the Cabinet. We look to my hon. Friend the Minister to start the pendulum swinging back and to give English east coast fishermen a fair crack of the whip.

12.42 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Sir J. Ridsdale) for initiating a debate on the North sea cod quota. It is one of the major interests of fishermen along the east coast of the United Kingdom. In his typically generous and fair-minded way, he has allowed my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) to join in the debate. Both my hon. Friends have, as I expected, referred to problems that are causing concern to fishermen in their constituencies. However, I am sure that they will bear with me if I seek to set local concerns against the wider background.

The total allowable catch—TAC—for North sea cod is set each year by the Council of Ministers of the European Community in the light of the available scientific advice and of consultations with Norway, who shares joint ownership of the stock. The United Kingdom is guaranteed, under the 1983 common fisheries policy settlement, the very favourable share of 47 per cent. of that part of the TAC available to the Community. That represents over twice the share allocated to any other member state.

The scientific advice on the North sea cod stock is provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. The ICES scientists, who, of course, include our own scientists, have been drawing attention for some years to the overexploitation of the North sea cod stock and the consequent decline in the spawning stock. The management advice for 1987 was that fishing mortality, which corresponds with fishing effort, needed to be reduced by at least 30 per cent. to allow more of the cod to reach spawning age. The scientists preferred a TAC of 100,000 tonnes but recommended that in no circumstances should it exceed 125,000 tonnes. Faced with this advice and in agreement with Norway, the Council of Ministers set the TAC at 125,000 tonnes, which was a sharp reduction on the 1986 level. The United Kingdom quota was set at 54,770 tonnes.

In May this year, however, ICES approved an upwards reassessment of the strength of the 1985-class of North sea cod, which first entered the fishery in late 1986 and early 1987. That reassessment, based on an international young fish survey, is now considered to have been rather overoptimistic, but the ICES advice in May was that if the current TAC was maintained, the reduction in fishing effort would have to be much higher than intended and the TAC could safely be increased somewhat while allowing a significant recovery in the spawning stock.

In the light of that advice, the United Kingdom pressed the Commission to approach Norway and propose an increase, which it accepted. Agreement was reached on an increase to 175,000 tonnes, which the Council formally adopted on 30 June. The United Kingdom quota was revised at a level of 74,290 tonnes—from 54,770 tonnes—which is higher than our total recorded catch last year. In August we negotiated a quota swap with Germany which brought us an additional 1,000 tonnes. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friends will recognise that the Government have done everything possible to obtain for British fishermen the maximum possible availability of North sea cod, consistent with the scientific advice on the conservation of the stock.

I must emphasise the importance of following scientific advice. That represents the only rational hope of conserving stocks for future years. I know that fishermen can always produce anecdotal evidence that seems to challenge the validity of that scientific advice, but my right hon. Friends the Minister and Minister of State, who are more involved in fisheries matters than I am, are fully satisfied that the development of the cod fishery in the North sea this year has been entirely consistent with the overall view taken by scientists. There is a scarcity of mature cod and a relative abundance of young fish as my hon. Friends have said, but the essential need from a conservation point of view is to allow a sufficient proportion of these young cod to survive to maturity to rebuild the spawning stock on which all our future livelihoods depend.

Sir Julian Ridsdale

Will my hon. Friend comment on the larger mesh sizes, or was he about to do so?

Mr. Thompson

I shall. I come now, with apologies to my hon. Friends, to the matter which touches them most closely—how we have managed the United Kingdom quota in 1987.

The arrangements for managing our quotas have been devised and refined in close consultation with the United Kingdom industry as a whole. In matters like this, there will inevitably be conflicts of view and differences between different groups of fishermen, but our aim has been to operate on a basis which is accepted as widely as possible as fair and reasonable.

In the case of North sea cod and certain other white fish stocks, the fisheries departments have gone so far, in terms of involving the industry, as to introduce a system of sectoral quotas which allows individual producer organisations to obtain a share of the United Kingdom quota for the year to manage as they think best in the interests of their members.

For fishermen outside such sectoral quota arrangements, the fisheries departments monitor closely the level of catches against the residual quota availability and, in regular consultation with the organisations concerned, take appropriate action. This year, it was necessary to impose monthly catch limits per vessel from as early as February, and they have been maintained and intensified, despite the increase in the United Kingdom quota which I mentioned earlier, as the year has advanced. But I think that the fishermen whom my hon. Friends represent are fishing under sectoral quota arrangements and I will briefly describe those.

Sectoral quotas are calculated on the basis of the share of the total United Kingdom catch taken by vessels in membership of the organisation in question over a recent reference period. There clearly has to be an objective basis for calculating such quotas and the only reasonable basis which we have been able to devise, in consultation with the industry, is on the basis of vessels' track records. The system, as it operated up to this year, involved awarding a provisional sectoral quota on the basis of the organisation's share in the previous year, with a deduction for safety, and, once the final catch figures for the previous year are known, the recalculation of each organisation's definitive sectoral quota. Unfortunately, because of complications introduced with the method of calculation to provide adequately for vessels with incomplete track records, the calculation of the definitive sectoral quotas this year was not completed until July and my hon. Friends complained bitterly about that. We are approaching next year's arrangements on a different basis to avoid that undesirable element of delay. Once the organisations have got their sectoral quotas, whether provisional or definitive, it is up to them to manage their members' fishing to remain within the quotas. They are also obliged to report their total catches regularly to the fisheries department concerned.

After a long-winded explanation of the background, I come to the problems of the Yorkshire and Anglia Fish Producers' Organisation. I understand full well the concerns raised by my hon. Friends in relation to that organisation. The producers' organisation had meetings with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in July and again in September and there has been a considerable correspondence, including with my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich, so I can assure my hon. Friend that the ground has been very thoroughly covered, but I shall briefly outline the position as we see it. YAFPO elected to take a sectoral quota for cod at the beginning of the year and undertook the responsibility to manage it. YAFPO's provisional allocation, given in March, was 3,560 tonnes. This represented the organisation's 1986 share, which was 8.1 per cent. of the original United Kingdom quota for 1987, with a safety margin deducted. It was clear that the definitive allocation would be a little higher, but YAFPO had at that stage no reason to expect that it would be substantially higher. The prospect of an increase in the TAC did not become clear until mid-May, yet by the end of April YAFPO had, as I understand it, taken over 3,000 tonnes and by the end of May had in fact exceeded the provisional allocation for the year. YAFPO did impose quota restrictions on its members in March, April and May but these were substantially more generous than those imposed by fisheries departments on the non-sectoral fisheries from February onwards.

Help came in the form of the increased TAC which gave YAFPO another chance to get its fishing under control. Even though the calculation of the definitive allocations was delayed, YAFPO had no reason to assume a substantial increase over their 1986 share of 8.1 per cent. in fact the final allocation notified to YAFPO in July was 8.4 per cent. of the revised United Kingdom quota, amounting to 6,250 tonnes. However, the quotas set by YAFPO for its members for June and July were only slightly below the levels of March to May and were again very substantially higher than the quotas applied to the non-sectoral fishery.

Mr. John Townend

I do not wish to delay my hon. Friend, but as time is pressing perhaps he will address himself to two matters of great interest to us. How can it be that Grimsby, which has had no restrictions and free fishing all year, still has plenty of quota left? Secondly, when we had 1,000 tonnes from Germany and 500 tonnes from FPO Limited, why was not a larger allocation made to YAFPO so that the fishermen could continue fishing, rather than allocating it to other areas which still had quota left?

Mr. Thompson

I was just coming to that point.

It came about that YAFPO found itself in early September having exhausted its sectoral quota. The organisation approached my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and asked for help, in particular for a preferential share of the 1,000 tonnes that we had obtained from Germany, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington put it, on swap.

My right hon. Friend made it quite clear to YAFPO, as he had to, that he was not in a position to give it more cod quota without obtaining the agreement of others in the fishery who had a claim to it. He undertook, however, to give its case what support he could. Accordingly, the matter was discussed at a meeting with the North sea white fish industry generally on 22 September, at which we obtained agreement to an additional allocation to YAFPO of 150 tonnes above its pro rata share of the 1,000 tonnes, giving a total quota increase of 234 tonnes. That additional 150 tonnes was justified in terms of compensation for opportunities which YAFPO had lost as a result of others' overfishing to the west of Scotland, but other organisations similarly affected were not given any compensation this year—so YAFPO received preferential treatment, albeit on a limited scale.

We have, of course, continued to monitor closely the non-sectoral fishery and the uptake of the other sectoral quotas. We have recently been able to persuade one organisation, the Fish Producers Organisation Limited of Humberside, to release 500 tonnes of its uncaught balance for reallocation to others in greater need. But given the current state of non-sectoral fishery and the fact that all other sectoral groups had taken at least 86 per cent. of their quota, we had no alternative but to reallocate the 500 tonnes on a pro rata basis, giving YAFPO an additional 44 tonnes. We shall continue to monitor quota uptake and pursue any further scope for reallocations, but I have to say that we have little hope of finding further quantities, as most, if not all, of the sectoral groups, as well as the non-sectoral fishery, expect to have difficulty living within the quota which they have left.

The limited relief that we have been able to give YAFPO has, as I understand it, allowed YAFPO members to resume landing cod within strict limits. My hon. Friends are understandably concerned at the severity of those limits as they affect YAFPO members whom they represent. My understanding of YAFPO's latest catch position on the basis of my Department's figures up to 24 October is that it has 169 tonnes left.

I hope that what I have said will have helped to put the problems facing the fishermen whom my hon. Friends represent in a wider perspective. I assure my hon. Friends that I will draw the points that they have made—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes to One o'clock.