Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this debate and welcome the new Minister to the Front Bench. I also pay tribute to his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon).
In many respects the outlook for the fishing industry in the United Kingdom is better than it has been for many years. The reforms of the CFP mean that a regime that made it difficult for fishermen to run their businesses successfully, led to the overfishing of stocks and devastated the marine environment is, at last, being cast into the dustbin of history. It will be replaced, I hope, with a more sustainable system, where decisions are taken on a regional basis, rather than in Brussels. There are hurdles to overcome, although fishing stocks are probably in a better place than they have been for some time, with cod mortality in the North sea decreasing, biomass slowly increasing and North sea plaice in a better place than it was 10 years ago. Nevertheless, significant challenges lie ahead. The industry in Lowestoft, in my constituency, is a pale shadow of its former self and I fear that the halcyon days will never return.
There are three aspects of CFP reform: a move towards decentralised decision making, which I welcome; the legally binding commitment to fish sustainably, which, again, is very welcome; and the outlawing of discarding. Although that is to be welcomed, the implementation of the ban presents many challenges. This transition will not be straightforward, and the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has identified four hurdles, which the hon. Member for Aberdeen North has outlined. I would welcome the Minister’s response on those four issues when he sums up.
If there is to be a satisfactory transition to zero discards, fisheries science will play a vital role, so I urge the Government against any cuts to this part of the DEFRA budget. The Fisheries Science Partnership, established in 2003—which includes DEFRA, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is based in my constituency in Lowestoft, and the NFFO—has played an important role in bringing a scientific perspective to decision making, and has brought industry and scientists closer together. It is important that we build on that partnership, as that will help the move towards zero discards by 2019.
It is also necessary to build on the catch quota management trials that have taken place to improve nets and gears, thereby helping to avoid unwanted catches. The feedback from the Project 50% trial, on which CEFAS and the Brixham trawl fleet have worked together, is encouraging; overall discards were reduced by 52%, and the most successful boat achieved a 70% reduction. There is also a need to convince consumers to eat less popular types of fish, which would otherwise be thrown away. We need to build on such initiatives as Fishing for the Markets, which seeks to convince consumers that the less popular fish are both edible and tasty. Such a move in consumer demand will not only ensure that the less popular fish are not simply discarded on land, rather than at sea, but will take pressure off more popular fish, such as tuna, prawn, cod and haddock.
The small Lowestoft fleet that exists today is predominantly an under-10-metre one, and the challenges that the inshore fleet has faced in recent years are well documented. These boats comprise 70% of the UK fleet and employ 65% of the fleet’s total work force, yet currently receive only 4% of the total quota available to the UK. It is important that that inequity be addressed. Article 17 in the finalised text of the CFP reform document provides the framework within which justice can be achieved for the under-10-metre fleet. It is important that the Government have its provisions in mind at all times as they set about implementing the reforms. The importance of a strong under-10-metre fleet should not be underestimated. These boats have the least economic impact on the marine environment, and they maximise the social and economic returns to many coastal communities facing significant challenges, such as Lowestoft.
It is important to recognise that the quota problems for the under-10-metre fleet are not localised to the south-east, but are more widespread around the UK coast. I acknowledge the work being done by the NFFO in identifying and dealing with pinch points—the localised problems the fleet faces—but to have a long-term future the under-10-metre fleet cannot rely on handouts from producer organisations, be they annual swaps, gifts or transfers; it is important that it has its own quota. There is a concern that those under-10s whose business model is reliant on access to leased quotas from producer organisations could experience significant difficulties if the cost of quota escalates following the introduction of the discard ban.
Back in July, Mr Justice Cranston handed down one of the most important judgments in recent years regarding the creation of proprietary rights from state licences. In brief, that was a judicial review case brought by the producer organisations against the Secretary of State over the unused allocation of unused fishing quota from the larger to the smaller operators. The larger operators sought to quash the Secretary of State’s decision on three grounds, and the claim was dismissed on all three.
In July, I secured an Adjournment debate to consider the implications of the case. The Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, responded. The judgment provides the Government with an opportunity to secure a more equitable distribution of quota for the under-10s, although I am aware that some experts have described the judgment as contradictory. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the action the Government are taking as a result of the judgment.
Also back in the summer, DEFRA provided an assurance that the publicly accessible register of quota allocations and transactions would be published by the end of 2013. I would welcome an update on when the register will be published. Hopefully, it will dispel a number of urban myths as to who actually holds quota.
In future, quota should be held only by active fishermen and not by those who have sold their boats and no longer have any connection with fishing. I would be interested to hear whether the Government share that view. It is the only way we can ensure that in ports such as Lowestoft, the industry will have a future. The glory days will not return, but there is an opportunity to have a financially viable inshore fleet that will help sustain the allied and processing industries, and that can play an important supporting role in the renaissance of coastal Britain.