10.44 pm Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury):
Salisbury may be landlocked, but my father taught me to fish in river, loch and sea. As a teenager, I tied my own flies for trout fishing in the chalk rivers around Salisbury. Family summer holidays were spent sea fishing around the Summer isles, Raasay and the Fal estuary in Cornwall. Now I regularly watch, with envy, the sea anglers of Portsmouth, Southampton and Poole.

In the 1950s and 1960s there was a large supply and a wide variety of inshore fish: not so now. There are many reasons for that, but I am not in the blame game tonight; I want to look firmly forwards.

I am grateful to the Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society (BASS) the National Fedaration of Sea Anglers (NFSA) and the Sea Anglers Conservation Network (SACN) for their briefing and advice over many months. I speak tonight on behalf of at least 1 million sea anglers who fish the inshore waters of our islands at least once a year, including about 375,000 bass anglers.

Sea fishing is part of our heritage, and an important part of our economy. However, it is no longer basic fishing for the pot. Sea angling is a multi-million pound leisure activity. Today, the angler uses expensive, high-technology tackle, chosen from a wide choice of specialist gear that is available internationally, and today he and she is conservation minded.

Anglers travel long distances to the coast to fish. Many take their families with them, staying in rented accommodation, bed and breakfast, hotels and pubs, contributing much to the local economy. They support many jobs such as tackle manufacturing, the retail industry, mail order business, boat builders and chandlers, boat hire businesses, marinas, electronics, bait suppliers, clothing and footwear suppliers, a thriving specialist press and media and, of course, tourism. The fact is that recreational sea angling is now far more important economically than commercial inshore fishing.

A decade ago, MAFF’s Directorate of Fisheries Research at Lowestoft and Portsmouth University’s centre for economics and management of aquatic resources published a report that found that sales of commercially caught bass were worth about £4 million, while 361,000 bass anglers spent £18 million on their activities. In 2000, the National Assembly for Wales commissioned a study that found that sea angling made an economic contribution to coastal Wales of £28 million, whereas commercial inshore fishing netted £9 million and offshore commercial fishing yielded just £12 million.

The study suggested that sea angling had huge potential for growth and that modest, low-risk public investment would stimulate local economies, underpin coastal environmental programmes and encourage conservation of fish stocks. However, the study warned that poor recognition of the economic significance of recreational sea angling resulted in little Government support. It also warned that heavy commercial fishing of some species, especially illegal netting for bass, was undermining the resource base for recreational anglers.

Last year, an independent report commissioned by the Countryside Council for Wales and English Nature put the value of commercial landings in England and Wales at £35 million, while recreational angling generated £140 million for the coastal economy.

Anglers have done their best to make their voice heard during the consultation on the Government’s welcome review of the Common Fisheries Policy. I bring their concerns to Parliament as part of that process. I support the view that certain of our fish stocks should be managed principally for recreational sea angling, so please will the Government accord sports fish status to certain species, including bass? As a matter of priority, will the Government intervene to tackle illegal and damaging inshore gill-netting.

Defra is currently researching the economic benefits of recreational sea angling. The sea angling community expects that it will confirm that the value of sea angling in many coastal communities today is at least equal to that of inshore commercial fishing, which has existed in many places for hundreds of years. Overseas evidence indicates that when stocks are managed to produce plenty of mature fish, the number of recreational anglers increases proportionately. This activity and its economic multipliers support many livelihoods, afloat and ashore, which are every bit as valid as those within the commercial sector.

The sea angling sector is seeking an equal partnership with the commercial sector and inshore fisheries management and regulation to provide taxpayers who fund sea fisheries committees and the Environment Agency with a sustainable and best value return from commonly owned resources.

I therefore ask the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) whether, with well over 1 million recreational sea anglers in Britain, the Government agree that the socio-economic impact of recreational sea angling is now at least equivalent to that of inshore commercial fishing? Has he got the message that the sea angling sector is seeking the Government’s assistance just to balance the needs of commercial fishermen’s livelihoods with those of recreational sea anglers through the sensible conservation of marine resources and sustainable harvesting?

The sea angling community is concerned that committees and groups set up by the Government are overwhelmingly biased at present towards the commercial sector. That case was strongly made by the National Federation of Sea Anglers to the Minister in connection with the Strategy Unit’s current review of British Fisheries. I therefore very much hope that when considering the future protection of our marine resources and sustainable harvesting of fish the Government will give consideration to the recreational sector proportionate to the support afforded to the commercial fishing sector.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West):
I endorse every jot and syllable of the case that the Hon. Gentleman has made on behalf of Britain’s 1 million sea anglers. May I draw his attention to the fact that there is a commonalty of interest between the 2.5 million freshwater anglers, of whom I am one, and sea anglers. The overfishing of our inland fisheries by commercial interests has led to predators such as cormorants coming inland and fishing out wonderful rivers such as the river Avon and many others the length and breadth of the country. There is therefore a commonalty of interest between freshwater fishermen and sea fishermen, and there needs to be a commonalty of approach to deal with the common problems that both those wonderful sports face.

Mr. Key:
Yes, there is such a commonality of interest. I am particularly glad that the Hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) is in the Chamber, because I know that he fishes in the river in Salisbury, and is extremely knowledgeable about these matters. He is quite right, there is a commonalty of interest. We are all concerned about the impact of the cormorant inland, and there is a huge debate to be had about that, albeit perhaps not tonight. However, the Hon. Gentleman is correct, and I endorse what he said. However, I might add that the sea angling community is distressed that it has taken a Member of Parliament from an inland constituency and another from Reading to raise this issue in the House. Apparently, there is a dearth of interest among coastal Members of Parliament from all parties, which needs to be addressed.

All recreational sea angling from the shore and a significant proportion from boats takes place in inshore waters within six miles of the shore. Those inshore waters are being denuded of breeding stock and immature fish, and natural habitats are being destroyed by indiscriminate netting and trawling. Commercial fishermen have to throw back undersized fish that are already dead or die shortly afterwards. I therefore hope that the Minister agrees that sea fisheries committees should better enforce existing rules, have substantial representation from sea anglers and be cognisant of the benefit that sea angling brings to jobs and tourism.

How do the Government propose to ensure that recreational sea angling is given equal consideration in Government decision making while responsibility for marine resources is split between Defra, which handles commercial sea fishing, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which handles recreational sea fishing? There has been acrimonious interministerial correspondence in recent years arguing about who does what and what representation there should be, but it is important that the Government either take urgent steps to ensure that DCMS. plays a far greater role in determining policy for sea fish stocks or do something to bridge the gap between the two Departments.

That division of responsibility has already resulted in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport not being involved in consultation on the UK’s priorities for the common fisheries policy review. That review is central to conserving stocks that are vital to both sea angling and commercial fishing. While Defra is the sponsoring Department for the commercial sector, DCMS, through Sport England, partially funds the National Federation of Sea Anglers, which represents more than 1 million sea anglers. In Defra’s discussions about fish stocks, the interests of the commercial sector take precedence over sea angling instead of receiving equal consideration. Another clash occurred when the Government said in responding to the salmon and freshwater fisheries review that the Environment Agency had a duty to enhance the social value of fishing as a widely available and healthy form of recreation. The Government added that this duty should be put on a statutory basis as soon as practicable because of the contribution that fisheries make to economic development, particularly in rural areas and to recreation. That was the finding of the salmon and freshwater fisheries review.

We now hope that the sea fisheries committees will take the same line, which they are not doing at present.

The Environment Agency has been extremely helpful. I am grateful to its parliamentary team for briefing me in advance of this debate. There is one point worth making. In the Environment Agency response in August 2002 to the Defra consultation on the review of the Common Fisheries Policy, it stated in paragraph 3.9:

Recreational sea fishing is a major and growing resource, particularly in the recovering urban estuaries. Good quality sport for a range of species is enjoyed by thousands of fishermen across England and Wales. To date, many of these anglers feel that they have little representation of their interests. The Agency would wish to include full recognition and representation of the recreational fishing resource within the revised Common Fisheries Policy.

We endorse that.

It has been a privilege to speak for hundreds of thousands of sea anglers around our coasts. Now I and they await the Minister’s response.

10.55 pm The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw):
I congratulate the Hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) on securing the Adjournment debate, and particularly on its subject, which is an important element of our fisheries whose voice, I accept, has not always been heard as it should have been.

Sea angling is a selective, environmentally friendly and low-impact fishing activity, and an estimated 1.2 million anglers engage in sea angling every year in the UK. As the Hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, as well as the substantial economic contribution that they make, they clearly have a role to play in the management of the marine environment, particularly in inshore and coastal waters.

The reformed Common Fisheries Policy reflects the UK’s goals for a policy based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. I shall deal a little later with the improvement that has taken place in our Department since we became the Defra rather than the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and have taken more notice of environmental and sustainability factors. That is at the core of sea anglers’ concerns.

I welcome the fact that the reformed CFP is more inclusive than before, as it will need to be to ensure sustainable fisheries management. Although much of the CFP is specifically directed at the commercial fishing sector, a number of useful gains to recreational sea angling came out of last December’s review. Those are the retention of the UK’s 12-mile limit; provision for member states to introduce conservation measures within their 12-mile limit, provided such measures are not discriminatory; provision for the establishment of regional advisory councils; and Community action to reduce discards.

I am aware of the figures cited by the Hon. Gentleman about the considerable economic contribution that sea anglers make. They and the associated industry make an important contribution to the coastal economy. Defra recently commissioned an economic evaluation of that contribution, a study welcomed by sea anglers, and we hope to receive its findings by the end of the year. The report will cover a range of issues, including identifying key areas of sea angling activity in England and Wales, assessing the economic contribution of sea angling, including the indirect benefit, and identifying key trends and future proposals for the sea angling sector.

The sensible conservation of marine resources is certainly in the interests of both anglers and commercial fishermen, although the latter sometimes take some convincing. We shall continue to aim for a balance in Community fisheries policy that will ensure recovery of threatened stocks and preserve a viable degree of activity for communities that rely on fishing. We shall continue to press for the increased application of an ecosystems-based approach, including multi-annual management plans and action to reduce discarding and to avoid the unnecessary by-catch of endangered species.

Anglers are now represented by ministerial appointees to most sea fisheries committees in England and Wales, and their local issues can be fully considered. My Department is considering the terms of reference for a study of fisheries enforcement issues. That could have a far-reaching impact on sea fisheries committees, and we shall ensure that the voice of recreational fishermen is heard. Sea anglers’ interests will also be taken into account in the review of inshore fisheries management.

The No. 10 Strategy Unit has been tasked with developing a strategy for a sustainable fishing industry in the UK, of which I am sure the Hon. Gentleman is aware. Sea anglers’ representatives have been closely and productively involved with that project, and the National Federation of Sea Anglers is a member of the strategy unit stakeholder advisory group.

The establishment of regional advisory councils under the reformed common fisheries policy was intended to increase the participation of those affected by the CFP to secure better and more regionally focused fisheries management. There will undoubtedly be areas of an RAC’s work in which sea anglers can make a valuable contribution, and I would encourage them to become involved where they can.

The Hon. Gentleman spoke of threats to certain stocks, and of some of the equipment and techniques used by commercial fishermen whom he believes to be in contact with those on whose behalf he has spoken tonight. The latest science is not quite as depressing as he seemed to suggest. Certainly, the measures that he recommended do not seem necessary at this stage. The Government do, however, take a precautionary approach to stock levels, and we shall continue to keep the situation under review.

We recognise that the continuing development of certain fishing gear and techniques such as gill netting and trawling can, like all forms of fishing, have damaging effects on stocks. That is why technical conservation measures such as mesh size restrictions to allow undersized fish to escape are integral to the common fisheries policy, and they continue to be evaluated and developed.

The Hon. Gentleman described what he saw as a turf war or a conflict between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, whose job was to represent the interests of recreational fishermen, and the Department for Environment, Food and Regional Affairs, which was primarily responsible for commercial fishing. That is a bit of a simplification, especially, as I said earlier, given that Defra was formed after the last general election. I have not been in my job for long, but I hope that one of the benefits has been its becoming a Department that is more open to environmental concerns and the importance of sustainable fisheries. Our Department works hard with scientists to ensure that our assessments of fish stocks are realistic, and that we do not allow any activity that would damage them. It is in everyone’s interests, both commercial and recreational fishermen, that stocks are at healthy levels and that our policies ensure that they are.

Both the Hon. Gentleman and, in an intervention, my Hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) mentioned cormorants. I am well aware of the issue: licences have crossed my desk for the culling of cormorants where they seem to pose a threat to inland fisheries in particular. I am also aware of the large rise in the cormorant population. It is a complex matter. The arguments about why the cormorants are moving inland and why there are more of them need to be balanced. It may be because there are more fish farms now and fish farms are doing quite well in our rivers, which are much cleaner than they were a few years ago.

Members may be interested to learn that today my Department hosted a major conference on the impact of cormorants in Bristol. As soon as I have some useful feedback and conclusions from that conference, I shall ensure that Members have access to it as early as possible.