Peter Aldous calls for a better deal for smaller inshore fishing vessels both in Lowestoft and the UK

10th September 2015

Peter Aldous calls on the Government to use the forthcoming renegotiations of our membership of the EU to reclaim the UK’s territorial waters in the 6 to 12 nautical-mile area for small-scale local fishermen and to urgently implement the much-needed redistribution of fishing quotas to ensure smaller inshore boats get a fair share. 

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)for securing this debate. The issue that I wish to focus on is the allocation of fishing resources—the quotas. There is a pressing need to address the current inequitable distribution, whereby smaller inshore boats continue to get a raw deal. I particularly wish to look at that from the perspective of Lowestoft, which is in my constituency. The port of Lowestoft was once the fishing capital of the southern North sea, but it is now a very pale shadow of what it once was. If fishing is to have any future at all in ports such as Lowestoft, we need to address the quotas, which have very much become the elephant in the room.
 
The reformed common fisheries policy that came into effect in January 2014 provides some sort of framework for addressing the issue, but progress has been slow in implementing its provisions. The situation is becoming urgent and needs to be sorted out quickly. As we have heard, we need to consider using the forthcoming renegotiations of our membership of the EU to obtain further reforms so as to enable a once great industry to have a sustainable future around the whole coastline of the United Kingdom.
 
In years gone by in Lowestoft, one could cross the water, from one side of the Hamilton dock to the other, by walking from boat to boat. Today, the dock is virtually empty of fishing boats. In the past four decades, Lowestoft has been hit hard by over-fishing, wrong decisions by politicians and the vulnerability of the very make-up of the industry, where the large trawlers helped to sustain the smaller boats. The existing quota system has played a major role in removing the larger trawlers, and we now have a situation where the seven affiliated vessels in the Lowestoft producer organisation have a fixed quota allocation of 79,097 units that is landed elsewhere. That is an enormous amount of fish. It was previously landed in Lowestoft, underpinning so many fishing and ancillary businesses. Dutch vessels fishing British quota have an annual turnover of £48 million, yet only 1% of the fish they catch is landed in the UK.
 
In recent years, the small boats—the under-10s—have had a raw deal and they have been hanging on by their fingernails. The root cause of their plight is the fixed quota allocation system introduced in 1999. As the under-10s did not keep records of their catch in the 1994 to 1996 reference period, the quota they received was a best estimate. That was subsequently shown to be a major underestimate, for which they have been paying ever since. There have been attempts to address the situation, but as Jerry Percy of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association has pointed out, the under-10s are starting from such a low level of quota in the first place that an additional percentage simply based on past allocations is of little, if any, use.
 
Since 1999, the situation has got worse. The way the system was devised has meant that the producer organisations have been able to hold or acquire fixed quota allocation units knowing that they can retain them if they do not use them. They can sell or lease them to the under-10s on their own terms, at their own whim and fancy. It conjures up the image of the under-10s taking on the role of Oliver Twist, holding out the bowl for more fish, only to be denied by an overbearing Mr Bumble. Moreover, where reallocations have taken place, they have been profoundly unsatisfactory, as they have neither been permanent nor predictable, and they have invariably taken place towards the end of the fishing season.
 
The 2007 decommissioning scheme exacerbated the problem, creating more “slipper skippers”, with vessel owners entitled to retain the fixed quota allocation units, even when their vessels had been decommissioned. A system has thus developed whereby the under-10s do not have enough quota to make a living and are in effect dying a slow lingering death, while quota held by the producer organisations is not being used. Attempts by the Government to encourage gifts of unused quota have often come to nothing.
 
While the Marine Management Organisation allocates catch limits on a month-to-month basis to each vessel in the under-10 metre pool, in practice what often happens is that the vessels end up with high levels of one species when it is not available and low levels for others when they are abundant. Reallocations of quotas from the producer organisations to the under-10s do take place, but, as I have said, they are neither predictable nor permanent. Such a month-to-month, hand-to-mouth existence is not conducive to building a business. There is an urgent need for a reallocation of quotas in favour of the inshore fleet so that the under-10s can deliver benefits to the communities in which they are based.
 
It is against that backdrop that the Government must focus their attention on the needs of the inshore fleet, including the one that still fishes out of Lowestoft. While nationally under-10 metre boats comprise 77% of the UK fleet and employ 65% of the total workforce, they receive only 4% of the total quota available. Currently, under-10 metre boats fishing along the Suffolk coast receive what has been described to me by one local fisherman as a “miserable share of catch”. The inshore fleet can bring significant economic, environmental and social benefits to the ports out of which it fishes. Unless it is provided with the means of doing so, with a sensible amount of fish to catch, it will continue to dwindle. That would be a real tragedy for many coastal communities.
 
The reformed CFP, which came into effect in January last year, provides the regulatory framework under which to carry out the much-needed redistribution of quotas. Article 17 not only allows for such a reallocation, but actually requires it. There is a legally binding commitment to encourage the sustainable fishing that is carried out by the inshore fleet, which has the least impact on the marine environment but maximises the economic and social returns to coastal communities such as Lowestoft. Not much has happened regarding putting the article 17 provisions into practice. We await the outcome of Greenpeace’s successful application to the High Court for a judicial review of the Government’s failure to implement the requirements effectively.
 
I appreciate that a judicial review might delay matters, but it is important that the UK does everything possible to address the current plight of small-scale coastal fishermen. There was an undertaking to provide the under-10s in England with approximately 25% of the English—not just the under-10s—quota uplift that will result from the implementation of the discard ban in 2016. Will my hon. Friend the Minister give us an update on whether that undertaking will be kept to?
 
I urge the Minister to do all he can to adhere to article 17. If he does, real benefits can be brought to fishing communities such as Lowestoft. That said, we must also have in mind the needs of the fishing industry in the forthcoming renegotiation of our terms of membership of the EU. We should be looking to prioritise access for low-impact fishermen in UK waters within the 12-mile zone. In carrying out any renegotiation of our terms of membership of the EU, the Government should consider: an effective repatriation of the 6 to 12-mile zone for UK fishermen only; a review of the historic rights of other EU member states’ vessels in our waters; and a review of relative stability, the grossly unfair historical share-out of access to fish stocks that the UK lost out on when we joined the Common Market.
 
The Government must deliver on the pledge to reallocate the UK’s inland water quotas to smaller, locally based fishing communities. There is a need to give communities such as Lowestoft a long-term vision of a future in which fishing-based businesses can have a realistic hope of a reasonable living, invest in their businesses with a degree of confidence and, most importantly, create and sustain jobs. The inshore fleet must have proper representation on advisory councils. Skippers of inshore boats must receive an increase in their monthly catch limits so that they are no longer beholden to producer organisations for handouts. Quotas should be held only by active fishermen who bring real benefits to their local communities, not by either foreign vessels or non-active fishermen who hold quotas only as an investment. Any renegotiation of our future membership of the EU should include as a priority demand the reclaiming of the UK’s territorial waters in the 6 to 12 nautical-mile area so as to allow fish stocks to be properly protected, with primary access being given to local fishermen who depend on those waters for their very survival.
 
It is important that we grasp the nettle now so as to give many fishing communities such as Lowestoft the opportunity of a viable future. I sense that if we do not do so in this Parliament, the fishing industry in many ports around the United Kingdom will disappear.
 

Surgeries

Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

 

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