Peter Aldous leads a Parliamentary debate on the future of the East Anglian fishing fleet

16th November 2016

Peter Aldous leads a Parliamentary debate on the future of the East Anglian fishing fleet. He calls on the Government to take the opportunity of Brexit and the consequent withdrawal from the common fisheries policy to put in place a brand new policy framework that can give fishing in East Anglia a fresh lease of life and bring significant benefits to the ports and communities in which the industry is based.

 
I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of the East Anglian fishing fleet.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am pleased to have secured this debate. With Brexit pending, it provides a well-timed opportunity to highlight the challenges faced by the East Anglian fishing fleet, and the policies that are needed to reinvigorate an industry that has been an integral feature of the East Anglian coast for nearly 1,000 years.

In recent years, the industry has been reduced to a very pale shadow of its former self. Although I am not looking to turn back the clock and wallow in nostalgia, Brexit does provide an opportunity to put in place a new policy framework that can give fishing in East Anglia a fresh lease of life and bring significant benefits to the ports and communities in which the industry is based. It is an opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper.

 

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just about the East Anglia fishing community? It is also about other fishing communities, such as mine in Plymouth, down in the south-west, where they are very much hoping for better facilities in order to produce better fishing.

 

Order. This is a debate about the future of the East Anglian fishing fleet. Unless my geography is wrong, I do not think that includes Plymouth.

 

I think I would say two things. A lot of what I am going to say about the East Anglian fishing industry does relate to the south-west fishing industry, but I would also make the point that we need localised management going forward to address the specific issues of local fisheries. That was one of the problems with the common fisheries policy. We want to develop our own East Anglian policy. In the same way, my hon. Friend should develop a policy for his industry in the south-west, and likewise in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) wants to intervene.

 
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to local community involvement. We need to have that across all the fishing communities, wherever they may be in the United Kingdom. In my constituency of Strangford, the fishing industry is also very important. The Irish Republic has introduced a six-mile limit, which is totally out of order—
 

Order. That is too long an intervention.

 

A lot of what I am going to say is important for the whole of the coast of the British Isles. Our withdrawal from the common fisheries policy provides an opportunity to put in place a policy framework in which the East Anglian fleet and all those who work in the industry are given a realistic opportunity of earning a good wage and securing a fair return on the investment in their boats and equipment. That is the very least they deserve in what is the most dangerous trade in Britain.

It is appropriate to quietly reflect on the challenges faced by all those who go to sea, their families and those who support them, including the Fishermen’s Mission, so ably run from Lowestoft along most of the eastern and southern coast by Tim Jenkins, as well as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution crews in Lowestoft, Hunstanton, Wells, Sheringham, Cromer, Happisburgh, Gorleston, Southwold and Aldeburgh. Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Melton, the skipper of the Serene Dawn from Lowestoft, who lost his leg while at sea. His courage, determination and humour shone through. We owe it to people like him to grasp the opportunity that now presents itself.

The East Anglian coast, along with its ports, harbours and fishing villages, has been shaped by fishing over the last millennium. A significant industry and way of life grew up all along the coast, focused on such places as King’s Lynn, Wells, Sheringham, Cromer, Winterton, Great Yarmouth, Gorleston, Lowestoft, Pakefield, Kessingland, Southwold, Walberswick, Dunwich, Aldeburgh, Orford, Felixstowe and Ipswich. Part of the industry was and still is focused on shellfish such as crabs, shrimps and mussels, while large commercial fleets and allied industries grew up in the larger ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, where the industry was underpinned by herrings, the silver darlings of the North sea.

 

My hon. Friend mentioned King’s Lynn, in my constituency. The Wash shellfishery is one of the best and biggest in Europe and the shrimp fishery has had record catches this year, which is very good for exports. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Marine Stewardship Council is now recommending that 14% of the shrimp fishery be closed down, which could have very adverse consequences?

 

I was not aware of that precise detail. The shrimp industry is an integral part of the industry in East Anglia. We do have to keep in mind the risks as well as the opportunities presented by Brexit.

Seemingly overnight in the last part of the 20th century, those silver darlings—the herrings—disappeared, and an entire industry has been annihilated as a result of overfishing, red tape and poorly thought-through policies coming out of both Whitehall and Brussels, the high cost of fuel and changes in eating habits. With it, the whole edifice has come crumbling down. Ancillary industries such as boatbuilding, repairs and food processing have largely disappeared, although Birds Eye and processors such as Sam Cole remain significant employers in my constituency.

Lowestoft was the fishing capital of the southern North sea. In years gone by, 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 particularly hard hit by wrong decisions by politicians and the vulnerability of the make-up of the industry, whereby large trawlers helped to sustain the smaller boats. The way that the quota has been allocated has been a major factor in Lowestoft’s dramatic decline, as it has taken away the trawlers that were the cornerstone of the industry. The six affiliated vessels in the Lowestoft producers’ organisation have a fixed quota allocation of 80,419 units this year. That is a significant amount of fish, but none of it is landed in Lowestoft—68% goes to the Netherlands and 32% to Scotland. Those boats—the Wilhelmina, the Ansgar, the Margriet, the Hendriks Brands, the Sola Fide and the Sol Deo Gloria—bring very little if any economic and social benefits to Lowestoft.

Today, the Lowestoft fleet and much of the East Anglian fleet is made up of small boats, known as the under-10s, which get a raw deal in terms of quota. Nationally, the under-10s comprise 77% of the UK fleet and employ 65% of the workforce, yet they receive only 4% of the total quota. That is not enough for skippers to sustain a business, let alone earn a sensible living, and that story is not unique to Lowestoft. It is a tale all along the East Anglian coast and beyond. The under-10s face significant challenges, including being forced out by a lack of quota, poor markets and unfair competition in fishing grounds from other sectors.

Brexit provides an opportunity to address those inequities. There is a need to reallocate fishing quota based on performance and impact so as to support small fishing communities such as those along the East Anglian coast. There is the added benefit that, by restoring fishing stocks to healthy levels, it will be possible to create more resilient marine ecosystems and preserve future fishing opportunities.

This may appear to be a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it is important to set the forthcoming negotiations for withdrawal from the common fisheries policy in a political context. Most of the East Anglian coast voted heavily for Brexit. Although I personally did not, believing that the reformed common fisheries policy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) played such an important role in creating, provided an opportunity to regenerate the industry in East Anglia, I accept the outcome of the referendum. We now need to pull together to put in place a UK fishing policy that enables fishing to flourish along the East Anglian coast and around the whole of the UK. It is vital that we leave no stone unturned in doing that; otherwise, communities will have an even greater sense of alienation, isolation and abandonment.

Post Brexit, it is important to give local inshore fishermen a fair deal and not forget them. Their industry is vital to the future of the coastal communities in which they live and work. Moreover, they have a key role to play in marine stewardship. To enable the East Anglian fleet to realise its full potential, we need to address the unfairness of the current system, in which three companies hold 61% of all quotas and fishing rights in England.

It is important to remember that fishing policy is not just about fishing. It has a key role to play in the regeneration of coastal Britain—parts of the country that have had a raw deal in recent years. If we put in place the right policy framework, fishing can play an important role in revitalising the economy in those areas. That involves breaking out of ministerial silos and working closely with other Departments. Although I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister is already doing so, I urge him to work closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, our hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who has responsibility for coastal communities.

Brexit is a unique opportunity to reverse the years of social and economic decline in coastal areas, to rebalance the economy and to close the gaps between marginal and well-off regions and communities. As the New Economics Foundation pointed out in its report, “Blue New Deal: Revitalising the UK Coast”, fishing is one of five sectors that can help to revitalise coastal Britain. The others are aquaculture, tourism, energy and coastal management. Well-managed fisheries that allow fish stocks to grow to their maximum potential can lead to healthier marine ecosystems that produce and sustain more fish, provide more jobs and contribute more to the local economy.

A change in fishing quota allocation that encourages less environmentally damaging practices and acknowledges the contribution of the coastal small-scale fleet to the unique identities of the fishing communities in which they are based is vital to achieving that. Research by the New Economics Foundation shows that restoring UK fish stocks to a healthy level and promoting low-carbon emissions through quota reallocation across the fleet would lead across the country to an extra 457,000 tonnes of fish being landed annually, an additional £268 million pounds of gross value added and a 24% increase in employment, equivalent to 4,922 new jobs. Doing that will strengthen coastal economies and enable fishing to become more financially and environmentally sustainable.

I will quickly comment on the Brexit negotiations, in which I anticipate the Minister will play a pivotal role on fishing. I urge him to ensure that there is a fishing pillar to the Brexit negotiations. The industry must not be a sacrificial lamb, as many feel it has been in the past. He has rightly focused much of his attention to date on reclaiming control of our territorial waters and ensuring that the UK is able to take responsibility for our waters out to 200 miles or the relevant median lines. He has a far better grasp of the relative strength of his negotiating hand than I have, although from my perspective, having briefly studied the provisions of the 1964 London convention, the United Nations convention on the law of the sea and the Fishery Limits Acts 1976, it appears that he should be able to put together a coherent legal argument. I wish him well in what I am sure will be tough bartering that will make the annual December Fisheries Council meeting look like child’s play.

The Minister has highlighted the significant potential fishing opportunities that will arise from Brexit once we have taken control of our territorial waters. More fish will be available for UK fishermen to catch. However, I urge him not to rest on his laurels once he has achieved that; it is not the endgame. To ensure a bright future for the East Anglian fishing fleet, he needs to address other issues in his negotiations. First, he must ensure that the nought-to-12-mile zone is exclusively available to the inshore fleet—the smaller, UK passive-gear vessels that are at present pinned into the six-mile limit, as any pots or nets set outside that area are often towed away by foreign vessels, such as Dutch electro-pulse beam trawlers, which are currently decimating our stocks.

 

On that issue, the six-mile limit that has just been imposed by the Republic of Ireland on fishermen from Northern Ireland is something that concerns us in the United Kingdom. Is the hon. Gentleman also concerned about that?

 

I think that is something we need to look at. I am very much East Anglian-focused today, but I respect the hon. Gentleman’s position.

Creating such a zone for the inshore fleet will have significant benefits for fish stocks and the wider marine environment. Secondly, it is necessary to address the elephant in the room—the flagship issue. Lord Justice Cranston’s 2012 High Court judgment appears to provide the basis for a step-wise repatriation of UK quotas, which should bring significant benefits to Lowestoft, where the Lowestoft Fish Producers Organisation currently lands no fish.

Thirdly, it is important to bear in mind the fact that the East Anglian fishermen who specialise in shellfish, such as those in the Wash, export to EU countries, and the processing industries do likewise. Their interests need to be safeguarded in the Brexit negotiations. Many small-scale fishing businesses currently rely on shellfish due to a lack of access to finfish quotas. The Government should therefore give them more such opportunities. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should work closely with the Department for International Trade to open up new global markets for shellfish and the processing businesses, such as in the far east.

I am aware that the negotiations will not be straightforward. There will be a lot of devil in the detail, and a lot of issues will need to be disentangled, as reciprocal fishing rights in many fisheries go back over centuries. That means that it will take some time to complete the exit negotiations, and it will be necessary to put in place transitional arrangements. In his reply, will the Minister confirm that that and the other issues I have mentioned are firmly on his and his colleagues’ radar?

Although there is much to be done in the short term on the Brexit negotiations, I would like to look ahead and think strategically about the shape and future of the new, UK fishing policy and what it needs to incorporate so that the East Anglian fleet can flourish and play an important economic, environmental and social role in the communities and areas in which it is based. I suggest that the new UKFP that replaces the CFP should include the following ingredients. First, it should be set in a wide context and take account of the fact that it is not just about fishing. We need think holistically. A good, sustainable fishing policy has a positive impact on the whole community and the area in which the industry is based. Fishing is part of a wider, healthier environment. It is about attractive seascapes, good wholesome local food, local tourism, and local heritage, culture and identity.

Secondly, we need to start with a clean sheet of paper. We must not simply transfer the common fisheries policy to UK law through the great repeal Bill and then amend it. As the Institute of Economic Affairs noted, the CFP is not an effective way of managing fishing rights, so we need our own bespoke UK fishing policy, although I would like it to include policies that mirror articles 2 and 17 of the CFP, which promote a sustainable approach to fisheries management.

Thirdly, the new policy should be underpinned by science. That means that the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is based in Lowestoft, should have a pivotal role in monitoring and enforcing management. Fourthly, the management of fisheries needs to be localised. That could mean that there should be an enhanced role for the Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority. Fifthly, as I have said, the quota needs to be reallocated and it should be available only to active fishermen. It should not be held as an investment by large organisations with no involvement in fishing.

Finally, special emphasis and real effort must be focused on building up strong and resilient supply chains all the way from the net to the plate. They should include fishermen, boat builders and repairers, markets, merchants, smokehouses, processors, mongers, fish and chip shops, restaurants and food stores. This is something we need to do better in the UK. There are lessons to be learned from other industries and other countries. We need better supply chain integration and marketing at home and overseas to promote high-quality domestically caught fish and fish products. A new coastal producer organisation, as proposed by Jerry Percy of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, can help to achieve that, building on the good work of Seafish. There may be a role for local enterprise partnerships, such as the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, and it is important that Government make necessary funds available to them and to others to do the work.

I sense that I have spoken for far too long, and we need to hear from the Minister. In conclusion, therefore, as we approach Brexit it is important to have in mind the three R’s: repatriation, reallocation and regeneration.

 

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate. He is a long-standing champion of the fishing industry generally and the under-10 metre sector in Lowestoft in his constituency specifically. Lowestoft is also home to CEFAS, the world’s greatest centre of excellence for fisheries science, and long may it continue to be so.

My hon. Friend described some of the history of the decline of fishing in areas such as Lowestoft and along the east coast. The reasons are varied. He highlighted the decline of the herring industry, for example, and the fact that herring became a less popular fish in this country. Further north, the decline of fishing in places such as Grimsby can be plotted against the cod wars and the UK long-distance fleet being displaced from the waters around Iceland. Now that we are leaving the European Union, however, we have many opportunities to reform and change the way we manage fisheries in our exclusive economic zone.

My hon. Friend made it clear that he had campaigned to remain. I should probably point out that I campaigned to leave, and one of my reasons for doing so was my experience as a Fisheries and an Agriculture Minister over three years, which meant that I saw up close how EU law works in practice, as well as in theory. That made me conclude that we would do better if we took back control and made our own laws—we could get things done and change things when they needed changing.

In the specific context of fisheries, I highlighted two issues in the referendum campaign. First, at the moment we allow the EU to lead for us in important negotiations on pelagic species such as mackerel, and on the North sea with countries such as Norway. Those negotiations would be more effective if we had a seat at the table. Secondly, leaving the EU gives us an opportunity to revisit the allocation of quotas, which in some cases is unfair—parts of the fleet do not get a fair share of the agreed international quota.

Now the referendum is over, however, it is important that we all stop fighting the referendum campaign. For me, the real challenge is to put together a new type of partnership to recognise what the people of this country were telling us: they want us to take back control, although they also want us to put in place a close working partnership with other countries. They want us to be an outward-looking country, which we certainly will be as the UK.

In the referendum campaign, I was also clear that some things would not change. First, we will still fish sustainably and in line with the science. The UK has been the champion of sustainable fisheries. Secondly, we need to have some kind of quota or effort regime to restrict fishing effort, because in a mixed fishery that is the only way to have sustainable fisheries. Thirdly, I was very clear that we must continue to strive to end the shameful practice of discarding perfectly good fish back into the sea. That remains a manifesto commitment and an objective of future policy. Finally, the reality of fisheries is such that there will always need to be a large degree of international negotiation. That will not change.

We are working on new policy, and a huge amount of analysis is going on. My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that many of the issues that he highlighted towards the end of his speech are indeed ones that we are looking at—I will touch on some in more detail. Broadly speaking, however, we have a good starting point in the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, which sets down certain principles on how we should manage fisheries in our exclusive economic zone—inside 200 nautical miles or the median line—and requirements such as the duty to co-operate with other countries, which we of course would do. They, in turn, have a duty to co-operate with us. The convention sets it down that we should have regard for historic access rights, but other countries should have regard for ours. Crucially, however, in our exclusive economic zone we will have the opportunity to change technical measures when they need to be changed, far more quickly.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues specific to Lowestoft that I will touch on. First, he highlighted the fact that many of the vessels in the Lowestoft Fish Producers Organisation are foreign-owned—many are Dutch—and that a large amount of the catch is landed in the Netherlands and in Scotland. We are looking at that issue. We are about to review what is called the economic link, which is a set of conditions and criteria with which foreign-owned vessels must comply. We are looking at strengthening the link so that more benefits can be returned to local fishing ports such as Lowestoft, for whose vessels the quota was intended. We are planning to consult on the link and we will be looking at it as part of our longer-term review of things such as the concordat with other parts of the UK and as we develop future fisheries policy.

 
Will the Minister comment briefly on the point I made about the shrimp fishery and the Wash, and the damage that could be done by the MSC?
 

My hon. Friend has raised the issue with me. It is a matter for IFCA, but I have asked officials to keep me informed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney drew attention to the under-10s. As he knows, we have a manifesto commitment to rebalance quotas towards the under-10 metre fleet, because the historic problem from when the quotas were set is that the under-10s probably did not get a fair enough share of the quota. We are already delivering on that manifesto commitment. Only this year, we made it clear that in the discard uplift of the quota, the first 100 tonnes and then 10% thereafter would go to the under-10s. That means that this year alone they have already had 1,000 extra tonnes of fish, 573 tonnes of which are in the North sea, including more than 200 extra tonnes of haddock, 100 tonnes of saithe and 159 tonnes of plaice. We have already started to deliver on that and, as we roll out the discard ban, there will be further increases for the under-10 fleet—notably, cod is likely to be added for the North sea.

My hon. Friend mentioned access to the six-to-12 nautical miles zone, which dates from the London convention of 1964 and so predates us entering the CFP. We have had strong representations from the industry, however, that it would like to see that reviewed and to have exclusive access for our inshore UK vessels in the nought-to-12 zone. We are looking at that, but we have not yet taken any final decisions.

My hon. Friend mentioned the challenge of pulse trawlers. Indeed, I visited Lowestoft in his constituency back in June and I met local fishermen, who expressed that concern to me. I then asked CEFAS to do some work urgently to review the impact of pulse trawling, because there are potential issues of concern—countries such as Japan have already taken action to curtail or prevent pulse trawling. I therefore assure him that CEFAS are looking at the issue.

My hon. Friend mentioned flagship issues. A lot of that goes back to the important Factortame test case, which was a big tussle between the sovereignty of Parliament and EU law. There is an opportunity to re-examine that as we leave the EU, but again we have made no prior decisions. The area is complex and we should recognise that the licences, vessels and attached quotas were sold by UK fishermen—we have to recognise that—but I also believe that through the changes to the economic link, which we are planning to consult on, we can go some way towards addressing that concern.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of trade. It is important to note that for countries such as Norway, which are in the European economic area, the customs union does not cover fisheries. Norway and Iceland, for example, therefore have separate preferential trade agreements with the EU. We will obviously be seeking to do something similar as we negotiate future trade agreements with our European partners. We are also keen to open new markets in countries such as China, Japan and others in the far east.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of science. We will continue to engage CEFAS closely on that. We are committed to sustainable fisheries. When it comes to adding value to fisheries in the supply chain—something else he mentioned—we have set up a seafood working group led by Seafish, pulling together industry to see how we can improve the structure of the industry and the value it gets for its catch.

Finally, I confirm to my hon. Friend that as we approach Brexit the Department is working closely with every other Department, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, and he is absolutely right that we have a great opportunity as we negotiate future policy to get something that works for our coastal communities.

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