HC Deb 12 February 1997 vol 290 cc441-6

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

10.16 pm
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

It is with some trepidation that I raise the issue of the quinquennial review of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, especially the consideration of the listing of the basking shark as an endangered species, although I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. I raise it with trepidation because, as you may have noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my constituency is a long way from the sea, although we have a very good canal system, so the sea is not totally inaccessible. Every attempt so far to put the basking shark on the endangered species list has failed. The time has come for action by the House.

In the long time that I have been involved in campaigning on various environmental issues, I have met many local people in environmental organisations and wildlife and countryside groups who are convinced of the soundness of the case for the basking shark to be listed under schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. They have convinced me, and I hope that, when the Secretary of State makes his decision on 1 April, all the efforts on behalf of the basking shark will have been successful.

I wonder whether it is an accident that the basking shark has been left off the list so far, because it is bizarre that such a species has not been afforded the same protection as the red squirrel and other animals. Speaking to many different environmental groups led me to find out more about the basking shark. I wanted to discover exactly what kind of creature it is and why it is facing the threat of extinction.

Unlike the killer whale, the basking shark is a gentle giant. I understand from those who follow this matter closely that it was a common creature in our coastal waters and was bound up with folklore. It used to arrive in the Isle of Man waters during the hot summer days around May, but nobody knew where it went in September. There is scope for more scientific experiments to gain an understanding of how this creature lives.

There has been a marked reduction in sightings of the basking shark, particularly around the coast of the Isle of Man. The basking shark project in the Isle of Man—which is run by Ken Waterson and various volunteers and is supported by the Isle of Man Government—has raised concerns about this. There is a fear that the basking shark faces a real threat of extinction. We understand that the population status of the basking shark is unknown, and we know that its biological characteristics—including a slow growth rate—make it more susceptible to exploitation.

I shall deal briefly with the role of the Isle of Man Government. Under Manx legislation, the basking shark is already afforded protection, and that protection is based on the work of the basking shark project. The next logical step was for the Isle of Man to apply to the United Kingdom Government for appendix II status under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species at the next round of negotiations, which I understand will take place in Zimbabwe in June this year. The application from the Isle of Man exposed the nonsense that this creature is free to bask in Isle of Man waters, but not in United Kingdom waters beyond the Isle of Man limits.

Fortunately, we have not had a constitutional crisis on this, and I am glad to recognise that the Government have gone some way to making amends. I understand that the Isle of Man will be formally included in the delegation to Zimbabwe, and that Ken Waterson may be part of it. I look forward to being kept informed of the progress that is being made. It is important that the United Kingdom delegation should be able to contribute to the sharks working party which will meet under CITES. The whole episode has demonstrated our failure to get the basking shark on to the CITES appendix II list, and that has highlighted the real fiasco that we now face.

I want a commitment from the Minister that the Government will match the commitment from the Isle of Man, and that they will consider the basking shark under wildlife and countryside legislation. I want the Government to go further, and to discuss whether the Isle of Man, Jersey and other islands should have a say when we deliberate nature and conservation. I am not asking for the islands to play a full part, but it is essential that the Isle of Man should be included. I hope also that the Minister recognises that—in addition to the lack of scientific evidence—an obstacle to all this is the embarrassment of the Government being asked to negotiate internationally on what they were not prepared to do at home as recently as 10 January.

The real obstacle is the Government's unwillingness to take the precautionary approach. There would have been a different outcome to the application by the Isle of Man on 10 January to list the basking shark if the Government had accepted the precautionary approach and the recommendation of various organisations in previous reviews of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

We want the Minister to give a commitment to the precautionary approach tonight. After all, the Government—whichever Government—of the day hold all endangered species in trust for tomorrow, for our children and grandchildren. It is the duty of Governments to ensure that biodiversity is maintained in United Kingdom waters. The Minister cannot pick and choose which threatened species to include, and an excellent case has already been made for the basking shark.

We should be doing far more to strengthen the Wildlife and Countryside Act. It is a question not only of which species are threatened by deliberate acts—trade, hunting and so on—but of the way in which we honour our obligations under the Berne convention and the habitats directive. We also need to protect threatened species effectively from the incidental results of lawful operations, whether in hedgerows, the seas, or anywhere else.

Perhaps the Minister will cast some light on why he has failed to accept the precautionary approach and on the reasons for previous recommendations being overturned. I have met a range of people through my concern for the basking shark, including the chairmen of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and of English Nature.

Will the Minister expand on where he expects objections to come from in the consultation exercise that he has recently undertaken? Is it the case that the Scottish Office and market forces have been given greater priority than the protection of endangered species such as the basking shark? Why has the Scottish Office had such a large say, when so many people have acted in the best interests of the basking shark?

Is the Department of the Environment perhaps out of step with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? I am grateful to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), the Labour spokesman on fisheries and agriculture. Does the Minister have any knowledge—this is pure speculation and fantasy—of whether the Government have traded 100 tonnes of basking shark liver oil for an as yet undetermined quota for United Kingdom fishing of white fish in Norwegian waters?

I hesitate to put that to the Minister, but I am trying to work out why the basking shark has already been rejected twice for listing. Is it an accidental oversight or is there some bizarre reason? I would welcome an assurance that there is no prospect of Norwegian whaling boats sailing around the Isle of Man, or anywhere in the Irish sea—even up to the Wirral—and harpooning basking sharks. It would be helpful to know what exactly is the current understanding with Norway, and whether at some future stage Norway could fish our basking sharks in return for a white fish quota agreement.

I urge the Minister to take account of what I believe is overwhelming support for the protection of the basking shark. Support has been expressed by English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Marine Conservation Society, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature shark specialist group and the basking shark project in the Isle of Man.

I must pay tribute to the tireless work done by Ken Waterson in the surveillance of basking sharks. Indeed, he has brought together volunteers from all over the world to try to keep tabs on what is happening. The Manx Government, the English Wildlife Trust, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the university of Liverpool have also expressed support. Will the Minister note that that is more support than for any other species proposed for protection in the review?

When the Minister reaches his decision, will he also take into account the JNCC, which has put forward proposals yet again to the Department of the Environment and does not want them to be overturned once again?

Finally, there is concern that failure to protect the basking shark within the framework of our domestic legislation has implications for the undertakings that we have given on biodiversity internationally. The species has been assessed as globally vulnerable under the IUCN red list of endangered species criteria. Other countries are already accepting that it requires protection. The United Kingdom should be playing a leading role in all this. Whatever cuts are being made to the budgets of English Nature—those cuts should not be being made at all—money should be found properly to fund and co-ordinate scientific research.

More help should be given to projects such as the basking shark project in the Isle of Man. If endangered species status is granted for the basking shark on 1 April when the results are known, I hope that the Government will involve themselves in extensive monitoring and be in a strong position to play a leading part in international discussions.

I urge the Minister to heed the warnings that we have been given and to take account of the significant number of Members of Parliament who signed the early-day motion calling for action based on the precautionary principle—action already taken by the Isle of Man Government. I hope that, for the basking shark at least, it will be a case of third time lucky when the Government's decision is made in April.

10.31 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison)

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) has raised an important subject, in which there is wide interest. She need not feel any trepidation about raising the subject, as there is such interest in it; I acknowledge that she has taken a consistent interest in the status of the basking shark.

I shall deal with the position as far as the quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is concerned, but first I shall briefly consider the wider context in which the hon. Lady set out this important issue. She will know of the active part that the Government play in the operation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

While I understand that she is disappointed that the United Kingdom was unable to propose listing of the basking shark in appendix II of CITES—a decision that we think was soundly based on the Government's view that the proposal would not have met the internationally agreed criteria for listing a species in the appendix—I am grateful for the welcome she gave the incorporation of an Isle of Man representative on the UK delegation at the next CITES conference of the parties in June. I am sure that that arrangement will enable the issue to be discussed fully in the conference and its working groups, with additional expert knowledge and interest.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will also welcome the part that the Government's biodiversity initiative is playing, our response under our Rio commitments, and the fact that the basking shark is one of a considerable number of UK species whose status will be monitored by the UK biodiversity group in the next five years. We certainly believe that the current quinquennial review exercise will be helpful in that process and will assist the group in submitting its next report.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the EU habitats and birds directives. As she knows, we are playing a full part in responding to those European commitments on top of our other international commitments.

The 1981 Act is the primary Act for conservation in Great Britain. The JNCC began work on the third and current quinquennial review in 1995. Between mid-1995 and mid-1996, the JNCC sought the views of relevant scientists and non-governmental organisations to arrive at a list of 34 recommendations. The recommendations were that one animal, the bugloss moth, should be removed from schedule 5 and that 12 animals should be added to it; four animals already on schedule 5 should receive increased protection; 17 plants should be added to it. The basking shark is one of the animals recommended for addition to schedule 5.

The Government intend to be as open as possible in our consideration of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee's recommendations. To this end, a public consultation exercise began on 29 January. The consultation period expires on 1 April. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that, until the exercise is concluded and the views of all interested parties have been considered, it is impossible to predict whether the recommendations will be supported and acted on. Although I can give no indication of the likely outcome of our consideration of the JNCC's recommendations in respect of any of the 34 species concerned, I feel that I should respond to the concerns raised by the hon. Lady about the basking shark.

In its current recommendation, the JNCC claims that there is still inadequate data on the population status and vulnerability of the basking shark. As the hon. Lady said, it is a gentle creature and I believe that it is our largest fish. However, it can be vulnerable. She suggested that protection was justified on the basis of the precautionary principle. The lack of clear, comprehensive scientific data for the species in British waters makes the task of assessing the merits of the case difficult.

The shark was similarly recommended by the JNCC's predecessor, the Nature Conservancy Council, in earlier quinquennial reviews of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in 1986 and 1991. Insufficient data about or evidence of an immediate threat to basking shark populations in UK waters meant that it was not listed for protection after those reviews. In its current recommendation, the JNCC recognises that the basking shark is notoriously difficult to monitor, with few verified records. The notable exception, as the hon. Lady said, is the Isle of Man waters.

It has been long been accepted that the primary threats to the species are, first, directed fisheries and, secondly, accidental disturbance and capture by man. Evidence from around the world suggests that where the species is targeted, it suffers severe declines from which it may not recover. At present, there is no UK basking shark fishery. The hon. Lady mentioned the position with Norway. Norway has a quota to take 100 tonnes of basking shark liver from UK waters. Only 5.8 tonnes, or roughly 15 basking sharks, were recorded in 1993, and nothing was taken in 1991, 1992, 1994 or 1995.

Evidence of damage to or loss of stocks commonly cited relates to directed fisheries in Canada during the 1950s and in Ireland between 1947 and 1975. Similar findings have been made in other shark fisheries off California and Florida. It is important to remember that such declines were the result of targeted fisheries and occurred in waters some distance from the United Kingdom, where different climates, both of population and meteorology, exist.

Ms Walley

Does the Minister agree that, while sightings are not scientific data as such, the evidence from the Isle of Man over five years has been of a drastic reduction in the number of sightings? We should take account of that surveillance, because fewer sharks are being seen.

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Lady has made an interesting point, and we shall consider the position scientifically during the consultation. We welcome views and evidence coming forward as part of the debate and during the consultation period.

The impact of accidental capture, or by-catch, of basking sharks in fisheries targeting other species is less clear. To date, British voluntary fisheries recording schemes have provided no evidence of incidental capture of basking sharks in nets deployed for other marine stocks.

What is clear is that there appears to be a relative lack of robust scientific evidence concerning the basking shark in British waters and further afield within the north-east Atlantic region. It would appear appropriate, therefore, to investigate further the data available for the basking shark before reaching any conclusions. In part, the public consultation exercise will facilitate such a review.

Additionally, however, I would anticipate—this responds to the hon. Lady's point—that it will be necessary to hold one or more focused meetings to ensure that the Government consider all available information and evidence before reaching any decision. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to welcome the work that the hon. Lady has done to stimulate a debate on this species. I am sure that she will want to work with my Department to ensure that all the facts are made available as part of that debate.

Having spent some time discussing the basking shark specifically, I remind colleagues that the approach that I have outlined and that the Government will be taking to ensure that an informed and appropriate decision is taken in respect of the basking shark will also be applied to all the other 33 species subject to the JNCC's recommendations. The Government will be open in their considerations and would welcome information from all interested and affected individuals and organisations.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the Norwegian quota, and I accept his description of the take over the years. However, in the context of abiding by the precautionary principle that was laid out so clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), would the Minister, from his Department, be prepared to recommend to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that the fishery for basking sharks should be closed until more information is collected on the status of the basking shark and the effect on populations around the UK coast?

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Gentleman's point speaks for itself. He will agree that we have to look at the evidence and debate it before we can reach conclusions such as the one that he suggests, but I hear what he says in that respect.

I hope that, once the formal public consultation exercise concludes on 1 April 1997, we shall be able to reach a consensus decision on each species so as to enable those species which require additional protection to be added to schedule 5 or 8 as soon as possible thereafter.

In the course of this short debate, I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Lady about the rigour of our approach towards protecting this important species and other species under the auspices of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, our other commitments under the Rio convention and our European commitments, under which we are protecting much of our animal life and biodiversity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.