On Wednesday 29th March 2000, Malcolm Gilbert and Andrew George MP for St Ives were summoned to Nobel House (MAFF headquarters) for another meeting with Elliot Morley MP (Minister, Fisheries), Peter Winterbottom and Simon Waterfield (MAFF).
The offshore bass fishery
The low catches by the UK offshore winter fishing vessels in February and March this year were discussed and the irony of the fact that neither the weekly nor the monthly limits were even approached by any of the vessels. Peter Winterbottom reported that sufficient bass had been tagged (585) to meet the objectives of the offshore tagging study. He also strenuously pointed out that just because the fish were not caught, did not mean to say they were not there. He thought that locating the fish was something of a lottery and they were having to strain a lot of water – it was a matter of luck whether they found the fish or not.
Malcolm retaliated by saying that not only were they straining massive amounts of water with the sort of gear they were using, but they also had the most advanced sonar technology with the capability of searching up to four thousand metres at 360 degrees. Winterbottom then pointed out that he did not think the bass were in significant trouble as a stock, and Malcolm responded that numerically he fully agreed because of successful recruitment, but that it was the age structure of the stocks that was causing such concern – as pointed out by their Pilot Study on the fishery of early 1999, and to the best of his knowledge the same size structure of fish were being captured this year. He further pointed out that we had had it confirmed at DG14 (EU Fisheries) that as a general principle, overfishing of EU stocks led to a downward spiral of individual fish sizes in many species, and we believe bass to be amongst them.
Fisheries Conservation Group
Malcolm asked the Minister whether it would be possible for recreational angling to have representation in the Fisheries Conservation Group. Peter Winterbottom immediately jumped in and said that at the last Fisheries Conservation Group meeting when bass was discussed, in November 1999, anglers had a spy in the room by the virtue of the fact that David Rowe (NFSA) was present. Malcolm pointed out, with respect of course, that David Rowe was there representing Devon Sea Fisheries Committee, and he wanted to know why we could not have someone there representing recreational anglers in their own right.
The Minister pointed out that the fishing industry were currently feeling very threatened by a number of environmental NGOs and anglers, and he thought it might be counterproductive to bring into the Fisheries Conservation Group interests other than on an industry-only basis.
Malcolm responded by saying that anglers have in fact not only felt threatened, but for years had the quality of their legitimate recreational pursuit severely damaged by commercial overfishing. The Minister refused to budge.
Malcolm then brought up the subject of dolphins and immediately was advised by the Minister that his Department has absolutely rock solid evidence of dolphin mortality from the bass trawling boats.
The Minister went on to say that his Department had suspected this for some time, but of course the fishermen were denying it – blaming the entanglement netting side of the industry whilst the entanglement side of the industry were blaming the trawlers. He said that it is an EU problem and has to be addressed from an EU perspective. Reference was made of the drift net fishery which is being phased out due in part to alleged cetacean catches. The Minister reported that France had gone to the European courts to oppose the closing down of the drift net fishery and had recently lost their case for the third time. The Minister said he would have no problem at all in recommending to the EU a complete closure of the bass trawl fishery.
At this point Andrew George MP requested what sort of time scale did the Minister think this might involve, and he replied that he expected to be provided with all the evidence within the next two to three months. He also pointed out that he had already this week had a meeting with Lindy Hingley, the wife of a Brixham beam trawlerman, who is very concerned at the cetecean bycatches. He is very impressed with her and she is pressing hard for a complete review of cetacean kills by the fishing industry. The debate moved on to observers on these boats and it was, of course, confirmed that at present within the EU fleet, observers are not obligatory. When Malcolm suggested that they ought to be obligatory, the Minister thought we were some way away from that at the present moment.
Malcolm then brought up the issue of tag returns, and pointed out that since it was costing so much money to tag these fish and to administer the whole scheme, he thought that three pounds was quite ridiculous as an incentive for returning tags. The Minister’s response was to express surprise and he thought that perhaps anglers would and should be willing to return tags even if there was no reward. Malcolm pointed out that, be they anglers or commercials, there should of course in the ideal world be no problem with tags being returned to the appropriate authorities, but the reality is that there are those who are apathetic and what a pity to jeopardise the results of the whole study just because of such an unrealistic amount. Malcolm achieved absolutely no recognition of any validity on this issue at all.
Malcolm then requested that the Minister pay particular attention to any jingoism. He pointed out that in his opinion there appeared to be a degree of jingoism on both sides of La Manche. The Minister expressed surprise. Winterbottom began to look uncomfortable, and retorted that he could indeed confirm that CEFAS had experienced some problems with IFREMER. Malcolm pointed out that in our meetings with French anglers we would be doing everything within our power to ensure that jingoism did not play any part of what is after all a mutual problem.
Malcolm then reported on our meeting with DG14, and how we had had very considerable support from a number of MEPs which had led to us being invited to Brussels. He also quoted paragraphs of Fischler’s letters, which demonstrated some ambiguity between what he was saying and David Armstrong’s opening gambit when we walked into the room (we were advised that the CFP has no remit for the recreational sector). Malcolm also said that he thought we were responsible for the ICES study, which Winterbottom conceded.
Malcolm reported that we were due to meet the French recreational anglers again in April and that there were some fairly serious French press going to be reporting on our discussions, and that we saw this as an opportunity for building a better understanding between the two member states.