Peter Aldous more optimistic about the future of fishing in Lowestoft

3rd December 2015

Speaking in a debate on fisheries policy, Peter Aldous tells MPs he is optimistic about the future for Lowestoft fishing and calls on the Government to honour its commitment to encourage sustainable fishing that has the least possible impact on the marine environment while maximising economic and social returns to coastal communities. He also calls on the Government to ensure the inshore fleet has a realistic quota available, that the discards ban is properly implemented with the necessary port infrastructure in place and also calls for a halt to electric pulse fishing - at least until full scientific research has been carried out.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing the debate.

Last month, I attended the annual festival of the sea service at Christ church in Lowestoft, which is the most easterly church in the UK. That was an opportunity to acknowledge and thank fishermen and their families. When we eat our meals, we should not forget the risks that they take to put fish on our plates. We should also acknowledge, as many Members have, the work that the RNLI, the Fishermen’s Mission and other support groups do around the coast of these islands. Our coast is one of the British Isles’ main assets, but at times it can be unforgiving.

Our current fisheries policy is set out in the CFP, which was reformed in 2014. The reforms consisted of three parts: first, a legally binding commitment to fish at sustainable levels; secondly, more local decision making; and thirdly, the phased ban of discards. If those policies are implemented, they can bring significant benefits to the coastal communities we represent. I represent the port of Lowestoft, which was once the fishing capital of the southern North sea.

Kelvin Hopkins: I used to know Lowestoft well in my youth—[Interruption.] It was a long time ago. When I was a youth we used to go to Lowestoft, where there were many fishing boats. Would the hon. Gentleman like to contrast the number of fishing boats in Lowestoft now with 50 years ago?

Peter Aldous: Indeed I would. Although the hon. Gentleman casts his mind back to his youth as being a long time ago, he must have extremely good eyesight, because he has read what I was coming on to.

In days gone by—I will not say anything about the hon. Gentleman’s youth—it was possible to cross from one side of Hamilton dock in Lowestoft to the other by walking from boat to boat. Today, that same dock is virtually empty of fishing boats. The trawlers that underpinned the industry have gone. The vessels in the Lowestoft Fish Producers’ Organisation are now largely based in the Netherlands. Their fixed quota allocation of 79,000 units is landed elsewhere, not in Lowestoft. The industry that remains in Lowestoft is an under-10 metre inshore fleet of 10 to 12 vessels.

When we have debated this subject previously, I have been pretty pessimistic and said, “Time is of the essence. We’re at one minute to midnight. We have very limited time to save the industry in Lowestoft.” Today, I am more optimistic. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, although I am conscious that it might be an oncoming train. I believe there is a real future for the industry in Lowestoft, and not only because of the announcement about CEFAS that I mentioned.

We can build a new, 21st-century fishing industry in Lowestoft. The future of the port is beginning to become clear: it is a sustainable and exciting future, involving offshore wind and fishing working together. Two weeks ago, it was announced that the construction base and the operations and maintenance base for the East Anglia One offshore wind farm would be in the port of Lowestoft. It has also been announced that the construction base for the Galloper offshore wind farm will be in Lowestoft.

The fishing industry, through Associated British Ports and other interested parties, is now providing us with the opportunity to work together to invest in the fish market and to secure a long-term future for fishing in the port. My vision is of an inshore fleet of approximately 25 boats that can help to underpin the processing businesses and smokehouses that remain in the town to this day. It will not be easy to achieve that vision, and I will outline the five challenges we need to address in order to deliver that goal.

First, the Government need to honour the legally binding commitment in article 17 of the reformed CFP to encourage sustainable fishing that has the least possible impact on the marine environment and that maximises economic and social returns to coastal communities such as Lowestoft.

Mrs Sheryll Murray: Does my hon. Friend agree that to have a productive and healthy fish market, we need not only the quality of supply from the inshore fleet but also the quantity of supply from the larger offshore vessels? We must never forget that one complements the other.

Peter Aldous: That is a point well made. The nature of the fish market has probably changed over the years, in that it is no longer only about the merchants in it; we must bring the public into the fish market as well.

There are opportunities to address the article 17 commitment on sustainable fishing. Research carried out by the New Economics Foundation shows that coastal communities can derive significant social benefits from having an active port with fishing vessels. That, in turn, can play a significant role in revitalising and regenerating the towns and villages all around the British coast that we represent, therefore achieving the goal we so often talk about of rebalancing the economy.

The second challenge is the elephant in the room: quotas. We need to ensure that the inshore fleet has a realistic quota available to it. I covered that issue in quite a lot of detail in the debate we had in this Chamber in September, so I will not go into the same detail again, other than to repeat that the under-10s have been treated poorly in the past. I compare them to Oliver Twist in the workhouse, holding out their bowl for more fish, only to be denied it by an overbearing Mr Bumble. That still applies.

I acknowledge the work that the Minister is doing in top-slicing 25% of the quota uplift in England and allocating it to the under-10s, but much more is needed. The industry also needs to play its role in keeping accurate records, so that we avoid the problem the under-10s had in the 1990s when they were not keeping those records. That is one reason why they have had such a poor result in the past.

Mrs Sheryll Murray: I do not know whether my hon. Friend was around the fleet at the time, but it was not a question of the fishermen not keeping those records; they were not required to keep the records according to EU legislation. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—the equivalent of DEFRA at the time—estimated their catches.

Peter Aldous: I thank my hon. Friend for correcting me; she has far more historical knowledge than I do. That tells us that fishermen must not rely on others to do the hard work and the recording, they must do it themselves. The Marine Management Organisation is doing a sampling project at the moment, carried out by CEFAS, to address that particular problem.

The third challenge is the discards ban. It is right that we eliminate discards, but for the inshore fleet the road to doing so will not be an easy one along which to travel. We have heard from around the coast that port infrastructure needs to be significantly upgraded so that we can address that problem. There is real concern that the discard ban could yet bankrupt many inshore interests if not carried out properly.

To be fair to the Minister and his officials, I know that they have been working with the sector, through Jerry Percy of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, to develop a workable approach to implementing the new rules. That approach must meet the spirit and requirements of the new legislation, but we must ensure that it does not have grave unintended consequences. The MMO needs to take a pragmatic and sensible approach to implementing the legislation and must not be over-zealous.

A similarly pragmatic approach is required for the management of sea bass stocks, which are particularly important for smaller coastal fleets. As we have heard, the current proposals present real challenges. I direct the Minister to the detailed proposals from the Low Impact Fishers of Europe organisation—LIFE—which I believe would safeguard the interests of both bass as a stock and fishermen. I urge the Minister and his European colleagues to look at those proposals closely.

My final point, which has been touched upon, is the massive increase we have seen in electric pulse fishing, particularly by Dutch vessels. There are major concerns about the impact that that is having. It is estimated that 105 such vessels are currently charging around the North sea, using a system that is causing significant damage to fish stocks and leaving fish to die on the seabed. We are transferring discarding from taking place on land to taking place at the bottom of the sea, which flies in the face of everything the Government and responsible British fishermen seek to achieve. I urge the Minister to halt that practice, at least until full scientific research has been carried out, hopefully by CEFAS.

Significant challenges remain, but my tone has changed from being pessimistic about the future of the Lowestoft industry to being more optimistic. I acknowledge that significant hurdles remain along the way. There will be plenty of shouting and plenty of banging of tables, as there always is in fishing, but I believe that together, fishermen, their representatives, scientists, the Government, the managing organisations, the European Union, MPs and MEPs can deliver an exciting future. It will be very different from what took place in the past, and we must do our best to ensure that it is sustainable, that we do not just move from boom to bust, and that it provides those working in the industry with an opportunity to earn a wage that reflects the risks that they take—both the risks in investing in their businesses, and the risks to their very lives by going to sea.

2.50 pm

Surgeries

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

 

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