Marine and Coastal Access Bill

Charles Walker welcomes the amended Bill and praises the introduction of Marine Conservation Zones which are critical if we are to achieve healthy fish stocks and a flourishing commercial fishing industry.

New Clause 2: Power to enter into agreements with eligible bodies

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I shall make only a brief contribution. I have served on the Bill in all its forms for about 18 months and I must say that I am extremely pleased that the Government have introduced new clause 2. In four years of being a Member of Parliament, I have never been so over-excited as I am now about this clause. I agree with the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) that it would be ridiculous if he and I were pike, perch or chub fishing on Teddington weir and a marine fishery officer’s boat came sailing past to check our licences. The measure is common sense—we have had an outbreak of common sense in this place—and Sam Coates of The Times, far from criticising it, should be celebrating it in his column tomorrow.

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New Clause 8: MCZs (Marine Conservation Zones): duty to manage and mitigate impacts upon existing activities

Mr. Walker: I listened to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) with great interest. I did not agree with everything that he said, but I did agree that our fishing industry has been extraordinarily badly served by this House and the common fisheries policy. Of course, the interests of commercial fishermen and of recreational fishermen should be convergent, but that is not always the case.

There is also a flaw in marine conservation zones, because they may create great strife and angst if UK fishermen have to sit on the sidelines watching EU vessels merrily trawling through them. That would be an absolute disaster and make a mockery of what we are trying to achieve here—

Huw Irranca-Davies indicated assent.

Mr. Walker: I am sure that the Minister will provide us with great comfort on that point in the future.

Marine conservation zones are critical if we are to preserve and conserve fish stocks. Everyone here is a conservationist—we want to see healthy fish stocks and a flourishing commercial fishing industry. I want to see a flourishing recreational fishing sector as well—I declare my interest at this point—because it is an important contributor to the economy. I know that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) will address that issue later.

We must ensure that commercial fishermen understand that this is not yet another attack on them. However, a marine conservation zone that allows commercial fishing is not a conservation zone—it is just another fishing zone. So I am not entirely clear about the argument on that point. However, let me also reflect on the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox), who said that commercial fishermen have been responsible for very successful innovations to protect and safeguard fish stocks. He mentioned the case of Lundy, and that is an example of best practice. The right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) mentioned innovative new methods of shrimping and catching scallops. Several commercial fishermen are trying different net meshes to ensure that non-target species can escape and do not end up as by-product, which too often is thrown back into the sea for seagulls—a crying shame.

I am worried about the fishing defence. I would have thought that all damage caused by commercial fishermen would be accidental. I cannot see commercial fishermen setting out to cause deliberate damage, but we know that there are certain trawling methods that cause significant damage to the sea bed. There are also forms of fishing that take a high number of non-target species. Yes, that is accidental damage, but it is damage, and that is what we are worried about. We need to find a sensible way forward that allows nursery areas to flourish and lets us restock our inshore waters with bass and other important fish. We also need to ensure that in the medium to long term our commercial sea fishermen see the benefit of the Bill.

I repeat that we have served them badly over the past 30 to 40 years. The CFP affects all fishermen in Europe, but our fishermen used to enjoy the richest fishing grounds and our industry used to employ many hundreds of thousands of people, not tens of thousands of people. Over the past 40 years, we have left far too many fishing families high and dry. I do not want to be a rabid anti-European, because it is not in my nature to be rabid about anything, but I hope that a future Government—whether Labour or an incoming Conservative Government —get to grips with the CFP so that it works in favour of our fishermen more than it does now.

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Mr. Walker: I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I was expressing concern that accidental damage might be a universal get-out clause for the fishing industry.

Martin Salter: I welcome that clarification.

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