HC Deb 02 April 1996 vol 275 cc200-2W
Mrs. Lait

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress is being made in securing improvements in the common fisheries policy and the management of fisheries in the United Kingdom. [24809]

Mr. Baldry

The information is as follows. With regard to structural measures for the fishing industry, the main underlying problem for fishermen is the poor state of fish stocks and the size of the fishing fleets. Tackling the problem of over-capacity must remain a top priority in fisheries policy, since our fleet cannot have a viable long-term future unless it is properly structured in relation to the available fishing opportunities.

That it why we increased the decommissioning programme by £28 million last year and have recently launched a consultation exercise seeking industry views on how our decommissioning arrangements might be improved. The closing date for comments is 12 April and we aim to have changes in place in time to start the 1996 round soon.

If our fleet reductions are to work they need to be part of an EU-wide policy. We shall join constructively in the discussions and negotiations in the Fisheries Council on the future arrangements for bringing the European fleet as a whole better into line with fishing opportunities. We have already started discussions by holding seven meetings in different parts of the UK to enable the European Commission to meet our industry and to hear at first hand the views of our fishermen.

The need to adapt applies equally to ports, to on-shore facilities and to the processing industry. We have therefore announced that we are going ahead with grant support schemes under the EU's financial instrument for fisheries guidance. This is in addition to the continuing national harbour grants scheme and existing vessel safety measures.

The UK will also benefit by up to £36 million of aid under the PESCA initiative targeted specially at the needs of fishery-dependent areas. Again there will be supporting national, regional and local assistance.

On fisheries management, the Government have made clear our determination to deal with the problem of quota hoppers. These vessels, although registered in the UK, are effectively owned abroad yet fish against UK quotas and yield little or no benefit to our fishing communities.

Quota hoppers now account for 20 per cent. of the tonnage of our offshore fleet and take about 10 per cent. of our whitefish quota, most of which is landed abroad. This cannot go on and we must be able to ensure that our fishing communities and related industries derive real benefit from the national quotas allocated under the CFP. As announced in March, we are raising this issue in the intergovernmental conference and, if needed, treaty changes will be sought. We have already secured the Commission's agreement that they will study with us the scope for taking practical and effective steps to regulate quota hopping within the existing framework of Community law.

The system of quota management is often criticised by fishermen. This is not surprising when quotas have to be set at low levels in response to falling fish stocks. The industry has been invited to make its own suggestions for improvements to the system we apply in the UK. At the annual review meeting in November, the industry agreed that no significant changes should be made for 1996. However, the Government remain open to any constructive ideas which are likely to be acceptable to the industry as a whole.

As part of our quota management policy, we have made clear our commitment to seeking ways to reduce the adverse effect on the Northern Irish industry of Hague preference in the Irish sea.

With regard to fisheries conservation and science, UK fishermen have laid great emphasis on the importance that they attach to effective technical conservation measures. This is absolutely right, and to address the problems of fisheries conservation, including discards and industrial fishing, I set up a fisheries conservation group consisting of fishermen, scientists and other Government experts to look at the options for new technical measures to help conserve stocks. This will ensure that the UK industry has every opportunity to have the maximum influence on the new Community measures which, at our request, are to be agreed by the end of the year.

We need to increase our understanding of the impact of industrial fisheries on other stocks and on the wider marine ecosystem. At the April Fisheries Council, I shall therefore call for a collaborative research effort in this important area and press the European Commission to propose the introduction of a precautionary total allowable catch for the large sandeel fishery.

A further area which clearly needs serious attention by the fishing industry and fisheries scientists is the understanding of fisheries science and the use by the scientists of the best advice from commercial fishermen. I have set out on a number of occasions the importance of fisheries science in policy decision, including my speech at the University of East Anglia last November explaining the key role which science must play in policy making. We have now initiated a series of regular contacts between industry representatives and our scientists in order to increase fishermen's understanding of the work done by the scientists and to give the industry the opportunity to question the scientists and contribute their own expertise. This will be followed up by meetings between the industry and our scientists in advance of formulating our input into the international scientific advice on the state of the various stocks. I hope that these contacts will result in future in better-informed decisions and a better understanding of how we reach decisions on fisheries management.

As for community arrangements at a community leve,l there is scope for improving the role of the fishing industry in decision making and in getting a clearer regional influence so that those most directly affected by decisions are heard more clearly. I have already put this idea to the Commission and the initial reaction was very encouraging. I shall be taking this up further at the April Fisheries Council when I shall propose the introduction of regional consultative committees to bring together fishermen and officials from the member states active in a particular fishery to discuss issues relevant to that fishery. These committees would cover areas such as the North sea and English channel and could consider any issue of regional relevance, such as the most suitable technical conservation measures and the state of fish stocks.

On the longer-term arrangements for the CFP, we are open to constructive suggestions from the UK industry in particular in relation to the 2002 review. On one important point—the six and 12-mile limits—we have already made it clear that they are not negotiable. The Commissioner has herself acknowledged the desirability of having a clear statement about the future and I shall be seeking to build on this.

On fish marketing, we have encouraged the industry to respond constructively to changing needs, in particular by making better use of the system of producers' organisations. Producers' organisations have already evolved in response to changing conditions in the industry. In the light of those changes, and the recommendations of the recent Sea Fish Industry Authority task force report, we are launching a consultation on the role and function of fish producers' organisations. We will also be seeking views on how various changes to EU legislation on recognition and supervision of producers' organisations should be implemented in the UK.

The importance of the fish market is also reflected in the agreement of Ministers to an increased levy rate of the Sea Fish Industry Authority which will provide funds for their promotional work and open the way for a significant contribution from EU aid.

In conclusion, these are not easy times for the fishing industry. The Government recognise that we are facing a number of difficult issues both on the operation of the CFP and because of the decline in fish stocks. That is why we are taking initiatives across the whole range of fisheries policy in the way that I have described.

Forward to