Aldous Calls for Fishing Reform in House of Commons Debate

Waveney MP Peter Aldous today called for an urgent review of the current regime imposed on local fisherman which has almost destroyed the Lowestoft fishing industry.

Aldous secured an end of day Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons on Thursday 14th October 2010 at which he raised the dire situation facing local fishermen.

The key points highlighted by Mr Aldous were:

  • The Common Fisheries Policy is over centralised and fails to respond to local needs. The forthcoming review in 2012 provides an opportunity to address this problem.
  • The regime fails to achieve its prime objective of conserving fish stocks and causes damage to the marine environment. Young fish are caught before they mature and there are inadequate incentives for the long term management of stocks.
  • The British under ten metre fleet make up 85 per cent of the British fishing fleet, but they get just under 4 per cent of the quota available.
  • There is a common perception that all fishermen have overfished the sea but it is important to distinguish between deep sea trawlers and the in-shore fleet, who fish in a sustainable way with long lines.
  • Fishermen are forced to discard large quantities of healthy fish once they have reached their quota. One Lowestoft fisherman reported discarding dead 1300 kilograms of skate in five days of fishing. There are 8 other similar sized boats in Lowestoft, which suggests 11.5 tons of dead skate thrown back into the sea in five days.
  • If fishermen were allowed to land just 20 per cent of discards they could cover expenses instead of operating at a substantial loss.
  • Quota has become a tradable commodity owned by investors, known as ‘slipper skippers’ who lease the quota to fishermen at substantial profit.

One local fishermen reported that whilst the deep sea trawlers have left Lowestoft they still operate and fish the same grounds. When they occasionally come to rest in Lowestoft the fish are transported by lorry to Belgium where much is then purchased by Lowestoft based companies and transported back to Lowestoft.

Aldous set out ways to improve the situation for local fishermen:

  • A move away from top down micro management by the EU with the Commission not involved in day to day management of fisheries.
  • Management should be carried out locally by fishermen, scientists, such as CEFAS, who have their headquarters in Lowestoft and representatives from MMO and DEFRA.
  • The quota system should be relaxed and replaced with a maximum hours at sea means of maintaining fish stocks and controlling fishing which will will eliminate discards with fishing hours being varied over a year to take account of the level of stocks and weather conditions.
  • Science should play a lead role in the future management of fisheries, both monitoring the amount of fish caught and recording fishing activity. For example, Vessel Monitoring System could be fitted to all vessels to provide detailed information on the state and seasonality of individual fisheries.

Mr Aldous said:
“I was pleased to secure this important debate in the House of Commons and place on record the terrible situation Lowestoft fisherman find themselves in. These hard working people simply want to make a reasonable living in what is a traditional industry in our area. I will continue working with local fisherman to do what I can to ensure they achieve a better deal for the future and I am looking forward to welcoming a delegation of local fishermen to meet with the Minister.”

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FULL TEXT OF PETER'S SPEECH

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to debate the future of the east coast inshore fishing fleet. This matter is of great importance, both to the fishing fleet in Lowestoft, in my constituency, and to other ports along the east coast and elsewhere in Britain. Although there is much wrong with the way in which the industry is governed today, I shall say from the outset that I exempt from any criticism the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is responsible for the natural environment and fisheries.

As a shadow Minister and now as a Minister, my hon. Friend has spent a great deal of time travelling around the coast, meeting and listening to fishermen, hearing at first hand their worries and subsequently doing what he can to address their concerns. That includes obtaining additional sole quota in August when the east coast fleet had no fish to catch. Last month, he and I met Lowestoft fishermen and discussed with them the problems that they face, and he subsequently came back with considerable speed to arrange for a delegation of fishermen from Lowestoft to meet him in Whitehall in December to discuss their plight more fully.

Much of Lowestoft, as it stands today, was built on the back of the fishing industry. As well as a substantial deep sea fleet, a network of supporting industries grew up, including shipbuilding, net and rope manufacturing and processing factories. Ross Foods has long since gone, though Birds Eye remains as an important employer, despite no longer processing fish from its factory in the town. The railway used to run into the fish market, and fish sold in the morning was on London dinner tables in the evening. "Fresh fish from Lowestoft" was and still is an evocative cry, although sometimes today it rings hollow because the fishing industry is much diminished and is facing a fight for its very survival. Most of the deep sea trawlers have long gone, as have all but one of the shipyards and many of the supporting industries. However, an inshore fleet remains, which, with the right policy framework, can not only survive, but flourish.

I am conscious that time is short, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I shall set out the problems that the fleet faces, not only in Lowestoft but along the east coast, and conclude with a few thoughts on how a sustainable and financially viable long-term future can be secured.

Inshore fishermen face five problems. First, the common fisheries policy is over-centralised and fails to respond to local needs. It is too cumbersome, unwieldy and centralised, and the forthcoming review in 2012 provides an opportunity to address the problem.

Secondly, the regime palpably fails to achieve its prime objective of conserving fish stocks and causes untold damage to the marine environment. Young fish are caught before they mature and there are inadequate incentives for the long-term management of stocks. Thirdly, the British under-10 metre fleet gets a raw deal, despite making up 85% of the British fishing fleet.

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister has inherited a disastrous problem with the under-10 metre quota? The previous Labour Government introduced fixed quota allocations, pinned the under-10 metre quota to a grossly underestimated figure and then failed to address the situation when it came to light with the registration of buyers and sellers. Our Minister has inherited a problem arising from the inaction of the Labour party when it was in government.

Peter Aldous: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree that the Minister has inherited an unenviable problem. There is a common perception that all fishermen have overfished the sea and are now reaping their own whirlwind. However, it is important to distinguish between deep sea trawlers and the inshore fleet, which fishes sustainably with long lines.

The quota system, which is meant to conserve fish stocks, has spawned the obscene practice of discards. Fishermen go out to sea and once they have reached their quota they throw back perfectly healthy fish that they cannot land owing to the threat of criminal prosecution hanging over their heads. A Lowestoft fisherman has told me how only two weeks ago in five days he had to throw back dead 1,300 kg of skate; eight other similar sized boats have probably been forced to do the same. That makes 11,700 kg of dead skate thrown back into the sea in just five days-11.5 tonnes in one fishery. When one takes into account the fact that this is happening all around the British coast, one realises that the waste, destruction and pouring of money into the sea is mindboggling. In that fisherman's own words, the system not only stops him making a living and making long-term business investment plans but is decimating a national resource. If he was allowed to land just 20% of his discards, he could cover his expenses instead of operating at a substantial loss.

The final problem that we face is that quota has become a tradeable commodity, with legal entitlement. It is often owned by faceless investors, known as slipper skippers, who have no connection with the fishing industry and who lease the quota to fishermen at a substantial profit. That should be contrasted with the sugar beet regime, where ownership of quota remains with British Sugar, which makes it available to individual farmers both large and small.

The problems have created a frankly ridiculous and unsustainable situation. As I mentioned earlier, most of the deep sea-trawlers have left Lowestoft. However they still operate and fish the same grounds, although, as the quota was sold to a Belgian, the boats are now based in Belgium. Now and then the boats come to rest in Lowestoft, where the catch is unloaded and driven by lorry to Belgium or Holland. Much of it is then bought by Lowestoft-based processors and driven or flown back.

That is the position in which the inshore fishing fleet finds itself today. If the regime remains unchanged, the fleet, both in Lowestoft and elsewhere around the UK coast, will cease to exist. It is important to remember that just as farmers are the guardians of the land, fishermen are the custodians of the sea. None of them wishes to be aboard the vessel that catches the last fish. They all have an interest in creating and managing sustainable fisheries.

There is a solution, there is a way forward and there is a better way of running the industry. I do not have the answers and nor do the bureaucrats or officials, but I know the people who do: the fishermen, the scientists and the others who work in the industry.

Let me set out five ways in which the situation can be improved. They are based on proposals made by the WWF and those running the east sea fisheries district. First, there must be a move from the current top-down micro-management. The EU's role should be to set high-level objectives. The Commission should not get involved in the day-to-day management of fisheries around such a large and diverse continent.

That takes me to my second point: the day-to-day management should be carried out locally by fishermen, scientists such as CEFAS-the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which has its headquarters in Lowestoft-and representatives from the Marine Management Organisation and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. These are the people who know the fisheries best. Such an approach, with management decisions being taken by those who are involved in each specific fishery, is very much the big society in action. It involves politicians getting out of the way, departing the scene and leaving those who know best to run their own industry.

Thirdly, the quota system should be relaxed and replaced with a maximum hours-at-sea means of maintaining fish stocks and controlling fishing. That will eliminate discards with fishing hours being varied over a year to take account of the level of stocks and weather conditions. If necessary, fisheries can be closed when stocks run low.

Fourthly, it is important to use science in the future management of fisheries, both monitoring the amount of fish caught and recording fishing activity. For example, a vessel monitoring system-a VMS-could be fitted to all vessels that would provide detailed information on the state and seasonality of individual fisheries. That will help provide better information to assist in marine planning decisions, not only on fishing but on wind farms, dredging and marine conservation zones.

Finally, I am mindful of the fact that today the North sea is an increasingly crowded place. As well as fishing grounds, there are shipping lanes, dredging areas and wind farms. The latter have an important role to play in Lowestoft's future, but more about that on another day.

It is important that the marine environment is managed sustainably and responsibly. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 provides a framework for that, although it is important that decision making takes place locally, that all interested parties are involved and that decisions are made promptly with the benefit of all the facts that science can provide.

At the current time, the outlook for the fishing industry in Lowestoft and along the east coast does not appear bright. In the past, however, Lowestoft has adapted to change and has bounced back. The challenge that politicians across Europe must address as a matter of the highest priority is to provide a proper policy framework in which the inshore fleet can rejuvenate itself and move forward, providing a fair living for all those working in it. The comments of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, which were reported in today's Financial Times, provide encouragement that the seriousness of the situation is now appreciated.

The Sam Cole Food Group, fourth-generation Lowestoft fish merchants, has recently made a bold decision and invested £2.5 million in a new processing factory. We owe it to those fish merchants and all those working in the fishing industry in Lowestoft and elsewhere around the British coast to do all that we can to reverse 30 years of decline in an industry that is at the heart of this island nation. I personally will not sit back and rest until a fishing regime that has almost destroyed the Lowestoft fishing industry is itself discarded and thrown overboard.

6.12 pm

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