Saturday, January 22, 2005

Drawing in the net will save our fisheries

By Owen Paterson MP, shadow fisheries minister. Reproduced from the Yorkshire Post, published earlier this week.

When the woes of the fishing industry are aired, almost always someone will suggest that "overfishing" is the reason why British waters – the most productive in Europe – seem to be suffering from terminal collapse.

But blaming fishermen for that is like blaming car workers for producing too many cars. In the final analysis, the responsibility lies at the doors of the managers.

In the case of the fishing industry, the managers neither live nor work in this country. They are the officials of the European Union and they are based in Brussels, currently headed by a Maltese politician who has no experience whatsoever of fisheries management.

Collectively, they work to a rigid bible called the European Union Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). With that, they develop equally rigid, one-size-fits-all management rules, revised in a great hurry at the end of each year and imposed on the fishermen without consultation.

By their own admission, none of these people have any expertise in fishing, and, by common consent, the policy they administer has been a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster.

Furthermore, it is beyond reform. It is a system that forces fishermen to throw back more fish dead into the sea than they land, it has caused substantial degradation of the marine environment, it has destroyed much of the fishing industry, with compulsory scrapping of modern vessels and has devastated fishing communities.

That is why the Conservative Party is implacably opposed to the CFP: not specifically because it is a "European" policy but because it is a bad policy. It does not work. We have looked at reforming it and, with that in mind, I have visited fisheries in the Falklands, in Norway, the Faeroes, Iceland, Canada and the USA.

There, I have seen numerous examples of successful fisheries – in stark contrast to the sad, ailing enterprises in British ports – and have been impressed at how profitable and sustainable modern fisheries can be when they are run on good management principles, using the best science.

What I found startling though was that there was no one perfect system, no single way of running a fishery. Everyone had their own ways of doing things and their own systems. The only thing they all had in common was National control – they were run by national authorities with a strong element of local management.

This experience convinced me that fisheries cannot be managed successfully on a continental scale, as they are with the CFP. They need local control. That is the reason why Michael Howard stated that the Conservatives will return our fisheries to National and Local control.

That is also why I set about producing a "Green Paper" which was launched last Monday, setting out the principles by which we would manage our fisheries, once they were returned to that National and Local Control.

Although we mean what we say – that we will repatriate our fisheries – our critics claim we cannot do this as we need the permission of all our other 24 EU partners – and they will not give it. That is nonsense. Although we are members of the EU, Parliament is still sovereign and if it decides that we should leave the CFP, then all we need is an Act of Parliament.

Others claim we would be forced to leave the EU if we did that, but that also is nonsense. No one took action against either France or Germany when they failed to keep to the EU’s Growth and Stability Pact, much less attempted to drum them out of the EU.

Even then, there are fears that we would then have to invest in large numbers of gunboats to keep the ravening hoards of foreign fishing boats out of our waters, but that again will not be the case. We have no intention of excluding foreign fleets, many of which have historic rights to our waters which pre-date the CFP.

We take our cue from the Faeroe Islands which after a near collapse of their industry, instituted new management regimes and then enjoyed consistently increasing catches, including cod catches up 38 percent, increased fish stocks and a prospering industry, ending up with more fish in the sea, not less. We intend to repeat this experience, on which basis there are more than enough fish to go round.

Finally though, we are told that "fish know no boundaries" and therefore it would be folly to manage British waters by ourselves. Here, we actually agree. But, actually, fish do observe some boundaries, those set by the natural ecosystems in which they live. Those ecosystems – especially in the Atlantic – transcend the artificial, political borders set by the EU and the CFP.

The health of our fish stocks depend on us working with Norway, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and even Canada and the USA. None of these countries are in the EU and we will be able to co-operate with them far more freely than we can do now, shackled by the CFP of "little Europe".

Only then, we believe, can we give fishermen in Britain and the rest of Europe the prosperity and stability, the same time, protecting the marine environment. They – and this proud nation – deserves no less.

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