HL Deb 11 July 1995 vol 565 cc1466-8

2.47 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have figures for discards by the British fishing fleet of (a) undersized fish and (b) fish banned from being caught.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay)

My Lords, the marine laboratory at Aberdeen has collected discard data from the mid-1970s. The data are published in aggregate form through the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and guide its advisory committee on fishery management when reporting to the European Commission and others. Its advice allows total allowable catches to be set after due allowance has been made for fish mortality and discarding.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I asked how much the percentages were and not who published the figures. Will my noble friend please tell me what are the figures?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, the figures are necessarily complex because they deal with different types of fish from different parts of the sea. Therefore, while the original data go straight to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, as I said, so that its advisory committee can analyse them, the data which are more useful for everyone probably relate to the broad percentages of discards of different types of fish.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, what are the percentages?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, in haddock and whiting fisheries, discards amount to some one third of those catches but, for instance, in cod discards the percentage is very much lower.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, will the Minister accept that he is having a difficult baptism on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box in charge of fisheries and agriculture? Perhaps I may welcome him to the Dispatch Box. In order to make an early name for himself, will he introduce legislation to ensure that all the undersized fish do not go to the chip shop where I buy my fish and chips?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind thoughts. Any fish which cannot be landed legally in this country are, on the whole, not landed. So the undersized fish that he might get in his fish and chip shop may come from another source.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the size of fishing net mesh is a most important factor in the control of fish stocks? Does he believe that enough emphasis is given to the enforcement of the size of fishing net mesh?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, my noble friend has raised a very important point. Since 1992 we have been conducting initiatives on the different configurations of mesh. For instance, the UK pioneered the square mesh panels in nets which have had considerable benefits. The European Union last revived the technical conservation rules in 1992. The Commission has agreed to re-examine the rules, including the mesh sizes used in western waters, in time for the Council to reach decisions by the end of December 1995.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I too congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. Of course, we have met before when discussing other matters.

This is a difficult problem and the fact that fish are thrown back and are of no use to anyone except a number of sea birds almost defies common sense. The average person has great difficulty in understanding what it is all about. Do Her Majesty's Government still reject the abolition of discards on the ground of cost? Will the Minister seek a fresh opinion as regards the recently established common fisheries policy advisory group, assuming that the group will continue its work following the changes that have taken place in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? I am sure that all noble Lords will find difficulty in understanding why we are throwing good fish back.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind thoughts. We certainly have met previously in discussions on a number of different matters. It is generally impossible, in particular in the North Sea mixed fisheries, to have totally clean catches of a single species or size of fish. That is because the different species such as cod, haddock and whiting of all ages and sizes often shoal together and are therefore caught together. Fishermen discard fish either to comply with fisheries regulations relating to quota uptake or the minimum landing size or because poor markets exist for fish of certain species, sizes or quality.

Our reluctance to ban discarding has nothing whatever to do with cost. If one were to ban discarding, in particular in the North Sea where the catches are mixed, one could not penalise fishermen for landing undersized fish or fish of a stock for which the quota has been exhausted. The review of the CFP, which is undertaken by a special group, is continuing. We are drawing into the group the expertise of the industry and its recommendation will be put forward to the Commission in due course.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that outside the plaice box in the North Sea the amount of fish discarded from the trawlers which wait for the fish to come out to them is up to 90 per cent.? Is my noble friend further aware that some estimates put the total discard of fish at up 50 per cent? If that is the case, is it not a crazy way to run a conservation policy?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I can only reiterate that within the North Sea it is impossible to avoid discards. Even discards have some place in the marine eco-system. It has been estimated, for instance, that up to 1 million sea birds in the North Sea survive on discards.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the discarding of undersized fish does nothing for the conservation of fish stocks? Will the Government consider expanding the decommissioning scheme, thereby reducing the effort?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, there have been two decommissioning schemes to date and we have recently announced a third. The Council of Ministers has asked the Commission to bring forward proposals to address the problem of discarding. However, as regards these waters, we have already taken measures to prevent discarding. MAFF is funding trials into the use of, for instance, separated trawls. All those measures should produce the required percentage of discards.