Peter Aldous calls for reclaiming of territorial waters between six and 12 nautical miles

Peter Aldous welcomes the new common fisheries policy, but warns there is still much to be done to secure the promised better future. He calls for a fairer system to ensure quota is allocated to active fishermen and a greater share is given to the under-10m fleet. He also calls for reclaiming of territorial waters between six and 12 nautical miles to be a priority demand of any renegotiation of the terms of our membership of the EU.
 
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and my friends the hon. Members for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie) for helping to secure it. I also pay tribute to my friend the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who has just spoken in his final annual fisheries debate. He has been a steadfast supporter of the industry in this place for almost four decades, and I wish him all the best as he leaves not for pastures new, but for fresh waters.
 
As we consider the future of the industry, my views are mixed. On the positive side, from the beginning of this year the new common fisheries policy is in place, which provides an opportunity for the industry and those who work in it to have a better future. Special thanks are due to the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who worked so hard to secure that deal. However, there is a great deal of work to do to secure that better future, both for the industry nationally and locally in Lowestoft in my constituency.
 
There are numerous hurdles to overcome. Achieving maximum sustainable yields by 2015 where possible, and by 2020 at the latest, will not be easy. Neither will the elimination of discards, for which it is vital that the Government work very closely with the industry to ensure a smooth transition. Improved nets and gearing, good use of the best science, such as that provided by CEFAS in my constituency, and such initiatives as “Fishing for the Markets” will be vital, but it will not be straightforward.
 
The forthcoming meeting of the Fisheries Council on 15 and 16 December presents the Minister with a real challenge. Some of the proposed total allowable catches, if implemented, will place some fleets at real risk of being unable to survive, and the current parlous state of bass stocks must be addressed urgently. I also urge the Minister to take steps to stop electric fishing by Dutch trawlers inside North sea special areas of conservation, particularly the Haisborough, Hammond and Winterton SAC and the north Norfolk SAC. That activity is potentially in breach of article 6 of the habitats directive in an area where the UK has environmental obligations.
 
The issue that I really want to home in on this morning is the reallocation of quota. The fleet in Lowestoft today is a pale shadow of what it used to be. It is an inshore fleet of under-10 metre boats. Their fishermen, like so many of their colleagues around the coast, get a raw deal. Altogether they comprise 77% of the UK fleet and employ over 65% of its total work force, they currently receive only 4% of the total quota available in the UK. Unless that problem is addressed, they will continue to dwindle, and that will be a real tragedy for so many communities.
 
What is good for the under-10s is largely good for the ports in which they are based. They deliver significant economic, environmental and cultural benefits for their communities, many of which are among the most deprived in the country. The income they generate stays largely in their communities and permeates down a supply chain that has been built up over many decades but has sadly been much eroded in recent years. That is very much the case in Lowestoft, where it is now a small industry, although the infrastructure is still there and, with the right policy framework, it could deliver a lot more for the area.
 
The reallocation of quota is not an easy task. Fishing communities around the UK have their own unique special interests which they rightly guard jealously and fight for vigorously. In some respects, the Government could not be blamed for taking one look at the problem, placing it in the “too difficult” category, and moving on to the next challenge. This would be completely wrong and a dereliction of duty. It is vitally important that they, and all of us, face up to this problem. Article 17 of the new common fisheries policy sets out the criteria that member states should follow in allocating fishing opportunity. If the Government pursue that course and take full account of economic, social and environmental considerations for local communities, many of the problems faced by the inshore fleet can be addressed.
 
At present, under-10 metre boats fishing along the Suffolk coast receive what one fisherman described to me as a “miserable share of catch quotas”. The under-10 metre fleet is allocated a very small percentage of the TAC decided at European level, which is then augmented by swaps organised by the Marine Management Organisation from the producer organisations. Without these swaps, the under-10 metre pool would not exist. The MMO allocates catch limits to each vessel on a month-by-month basis. Individual skippers will be unaware of what their respective catch limits are until the envelope drops on their doormat at the beginning of each month. In practice, vessels can often end up with high catch levels for one species when it is not available and low levels for others when they are abundant. Reallocations of quota are neither predictable nor permanent, and they invariably take place towards the end of the season. This month-to-month, hand-to-mouth approach is not conducive to building a sustainable business.
 
Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the MMO is maintaining its function in monitoring the data in a timely and accurate way, or even competently?
 
Peter Aldous: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention. I would say that there is certainly room for improvement. The way in which we collect the data needs to be addressed, and I will come to that in a moment.
 
The work of fishermen still fishing out of Lowestoft in the inshore fleet should be contrasted with that of the seven affiliated vessels of the Lowestoft Fish Producers’ Organisation, which are now controlled by fishing interests based in the Netherlands and in Aberdeen. These large vessels hold fixed quota allocations totalling 79,097 units, but their contribution to the local economy is limited. When they were based in Lowestoft, they helped to sustain the smaller boats. Their departure has partly contributed to the collapse of the port as the capital of fishing in the southern North sea, and has exacerbated still further the decline of the inshore fleet. Across the UK, Dutch-controlled vessels fishing British quota boast a total annual turnover of £48 million, yet only 1% of the fish they catch is landed in the UK.
 
Article 17 provides the cornerstone for a root and branch reform to address these inequities and to ensure that economic, social and environmental benefits accrue to local communities. The judgment in the High Court in July 2013 in the case that some producer organisations brought against the Secretary of State for carrying out a very modest redistribution of unused quota—the case was dismissed—provides helpful guidance as to how we can move forward. Mr Justice Cranston was sympathetic to the view that fishing quotas and the fixed quota allocation system should always be considered against the backdrop, and based on the principle, that fish are a public resource. This dates back to Magna Carta. He also expressed the opinion that the producer organisations and their members have no proprietary interest in the fishing stock itself and that fixed quota allocations give no right to any specific amount of fishing stock in advance of the annual ministerial decisions on quota that will take place later this month.
 
There is a need for more information and a better understanding of what is happening in the industry. The fixed quota allocation register first published last December is a welcome step forward, but more information is required on how much quota is held by non-working fisherman, and on quota transactions. The current trading system is complex and opaque. This information will show who benefits from the nation’s fish resources and whether they are providing maximum economic and social benefit to their local communities. This is the first necessary step to the introduction of a new, fairer quota allocation system.
 
There is also a need to gain a full understanding of the under 10-metre fleet as to what percentage of those licence holders in receipt of monthly catch limits are active and how many may have made no or minimal landings in the past six to 12 months, and if not, why not.
 
Sheryll Murray: On the 10-metre quota, does my hon. Friend agree that the total lack of action and recording over a number of years by the Labour party allowed the sector to expand beyond what the available quota could allow it to keep it stay viable?
 
Peter Aldous: Personally I would not want to be partisan, but mistakes were made during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
 
There is a need to establish how much of the under 10-metre fleet quota is gifted by the producer organisations and what the effect would be if those so-called gifts were withheld. It is wrong that one sector of the industry is so dependent on another for its very existence. With that information to hand, the Government could put a fairer system in place whereby the inshore fleet has proper representation on advisory councils; skippers of inshore boats obtain an increase in their monthly catch limits and are no longer beholden to the POs or dependent on hand-outs for their very existence; and quota is held by active fishermen who bring real benefit to their local communities, not by foreign vessels that turn out once a year or by inactive fishermen—slipper skippers—who hold quota as an investment and a trading commodity.
 
Conservative Members are committed to a referendum in 2017 on the UK’s future membership of the EU and a renegotiation of the terms of our membership beforehand. In those negotiations, the reclaiming of our territorial waters in the six to 12 nautical mile area should be a priority demand. The current system is unworkable and unfair, and that reclamation would allow the Government to put in place measures that properly protect fish stocks and the marine environment and give priority access to local fishermen who depend on those waters for their survival.
 
Much has been achieved in the past four and a half years in putting in place policies that will enable the industry to move forward and have a better future. However, the actual delivery is yet to come. It is complicated and a real challenge, but we need to get on with it, as time is very much of the essence. We are very much at the 59th minute of the 23rd hour.
 
In years gone by in Lowestoft, it was possible to cross the water from one side of the Hamilton dock to the other from boat to boat. Today the dock is virtually empty of fishing boats. However, if we put in place the right system of management, fishing will be able to play an important role in the future not only of Lowestoft, but of many other communities all around these four nations.
 
12.8 pm
 
 

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

Next Surgeries - 2018:
Beccles, Saturday 3rd February

 

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