Such rearguard action has gone on ever since Prime Minister Ted Heath abandoned British fishing to the Common Fisheries Policy. The fishing industry became, in the words of a Scottish Office Minister, “disposable”. Equal access to our common resource signalled a smaller and far less powerful British industry.
We have fought a rearguard action, which is now reaching its nadir. The forthcoming European Council meeting threatens a disaster for the industry because the conservation campaigners are proposing 40 quota cuts, with only 27 remaining stable or being increased.
The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has called this a “breathtaking galaxy of cuts”, which will ravage the industry.
We are at a turning point because the cuts to quotas threaten the viability of the fishing industry, especially the English fishing industry. The Scottish industry is inevitably stronger because it is nearer the fishing grounds and is better protected by its Ministers and its Government than the English industry has been.
The problems are compounded not just by cuts in the total allowable catches, but by the discard ban, which is to be introduced in two stages. That will be very messy and difficult. I believe that a discard ban is impossible unless every fishing vessel is equipped with closed-circuit television so that catches can be monitored. Alternatively, perhaps we could send unemployed Methodist Ministers to serve as observers on all the vessels – and Church of Scotland Ministers to serve on the Scottish vessels – to give us an honest account of what is going on.
Moreover, if fish are to be expensively dumped in landfill rather than being discarded at sea, we shall need more ports at which to land them, and we do not have those ports, because they are being closed.
Why are we faced with all this? We are faced with it because the Common Fisheries Policy was not revised in the way in which it should have been in the recent 20-year revision. That revision provided an opportunity for power to be transferred to the regions, and for the industry to control its own fishing, policing itself and maintaining its own stability.
However, Brussels would not give up control. The result is that the policy is still controlled by diktat from the top and is enforced in the different areas. It is still decided on quotas and, if we have quotas, we are going to get discards.
We have to achieve sustainable fishing with a fleet that is matched to the fishing opportunities, but we will not achieve that through the brutal enforcement of targets using excessive haste. A term much used by Grimsby fishermen is “festina lente” – take it slowly. I say to the conservationists, let us do this in rational, reasonable, slow steps. Or, as the Prime Minister would say, “Calm down, dears!”
Fishing has changed. It is no longer done by the kind of rapacious privateers that we used to see. Stocks are building up, and fishing mortality has halved in the north Atlantic since 2000.
We need to have sustainable catches, but we also need a sustainable industry. That does not mean just the small boat industry; it involves the commercial fishing industry as well.
If these cuts go ahead as prophesied, the effect will be to ravage the small boat industry. It will be more serious than the conservationists envisage. We need profitable companies and profitable small boats. So why rush into the measures proposed for this coming year? Let us postpone the multiple sustainable yield target. Ministers have the latitude to postpone it to 2020, rather than introducing it in 2015. I urge them to postpone it, to maintain catches without cuts and to bring in the discard ban slowly and more partially – species by species – rather than promptly and all at once. We should let the build-up of stocks continue, and match the effort to that rather than to some target ordained in advance that is perhaps unreachable by 2015.
We need to help the fishing industry; let us not restructure it by bankruptcy. Fishing has an interest in having a sustainable catch and a sustainable industry, because that is the interest of future generations.
If we destroy our interest – if we cut down fishing drastically now and stop the training, the family connections, the growth of communities dependent on fishing and the investment by companies that has gone on – we are not going to be able to restore the industry later. So let the industry get involved in the management of the stocks. Let us recognise that it has a future and work to preserve it.
• Austin Mitchell is the MP for Great Grimsby who spoke in a House of Commons debate on fishing. This is an edited version.