Fisheries debate: "Sustainability is key" says MP

Charles Walker urges the Government to press ahead with Marine Conservation Zones to ensure fish populations can recover and start to restock our over-fished seas.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): It will not have escaped your attention, Mr Deputy Speaker, that Broxbourne does not have a rich maritime history. However, I enjoy our seas very much. I have a 16-foot Orkney made by Gus Newman of StormCats on the island of Islay, and a beautiful boat it is, too. I am proud to give him a plug in the Chamber this afternoon.

The common fisheries policy has been an absolute disaster for this country. It has been a failure of politics. Commercial fishing in this country is now almost a minority pastime. In saying that, I do not intend any disrespect to those brave men and women who fish commercially, but the fact of the matter is that over the past 40 years our commercial fishing fleet has been laid low.

Too often, scientific advice about the state of our commercial fishery stocks has been ignored. I know there are concerns about the merits of certain scientific advice. However, legend has it that 100 years ago in the North sea it was possible to stand an axe up on the backs of herring, and, as we know, the North sea was stocked to the gunwales with cod, pollock and other commercial fish. That is no longer the case. Too often, we are removing fish from our oceans and seas before they have had a chance to spawn even once, and that is not sustainable.

In the last Parliament, I and the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), served together on numerous Joint Committees considering marine conservation zones. I know Members hold different views about the merits of marine conservation zones, but they do provide a safe place for fish to breed—for fish to restock not only the conservation zone itself, but the seas around those zones.

Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that today’s written ministerial statement delaying announcements on marine conservation zones for a further six months creates even more uncertainty?

Mr Walker: I know that the Minister faces an enormously challenging job in reconciling the various interests of fishermen, conservationists and recreational fishermen, but, having served with him on those Committees for the best part of two years, I also know that his heart is in the right place. If anyone is capable of doing the right thing and making the right argument and putting the interests of this country first, it is my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. I doubt anyone in this Chamber could meet a finer man.

[Interruption.]

Yes, or would wish to meet a finer man.

We must give our seas the opportunity to restock themselves by providing a mechanism for them to do so. If in 100 years or 50 years—nay, in 20 years—we are to continue to have a commercial fishing fleet, then sustainability is essential.

Besides owning a small Orkney fishing boat, I am also chairman of the all-party group on angling. There are many hundreds of thousands of recreational anglers, who spend many millions—indeed, hundreds of millions —of pounds each year in our seaside communities.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a compelling argument, but does he not agree that recreational sea angling is far more than just a hobby? Rather, it is an industry that brings £1 billion into the UK economy, and it supports many of the 37,000 jobs that angling creates in this country. Does he therefore agree that our Ministers should work hard to try to protect that industry for the benefit of future generations?

Mr Walker: My hon. Friend makes a fine point. It is estimated that recreational sea fishers spend about £1 billion a year on fishing tackle and staying in the many wonderful seaside resorts and communities around our coastline. Their interests cannot be separated from this debate, because they did not create the problem but they are now living with it. So this debate goes beyond our commercial fishermen and stretches into almost every community in this country, because the hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy our coastline live in every community in this country.

So sustainability must be the key to this debate, but we do need a certain robustness in our dealings with the European Union. Forty years ago, we brought to the party the richest fishing grounds in the world—that is no exaggeration. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark)—I call her my hon. Friend—too many parts of our seas are now the equivalent of ocean deserts, and that is simply not acceptable. However, we do still have the opportunity to restore our once proud fishing industry to the position that it once occupied. We can do this—it is within our powers—but we must be robust in our dealings with the European Union. Things cannot continue as they have done for the past 40 years. We need to get our act together and we need to sort this problem out while we still can recover the position.

1.51 pm

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