Despite opposition from some MPs representing commercial fishing interests, the groundbreaking Marine and Coastal Access Bill completed all its stages in the House of Commons and is now expected to become law in advance of the Queen’s Speech on 18th November 2009.
This Bill establishes a network of Marine Conservation Zones to protect species and habitats from exploitation and to allow for better recruitment of many fish species. It will set up a Marine Management Organisation to regulate marine activities and help enforce laws to protect the marine environment. The Bill is also the vehicle by which much of the 2001 Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review will be implemented. This will include new byelaws creating powers to tackle fish removals and thefts.
Attempts were made by a number of MPs, led by Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby), to water down the Bill by allowing commercial fishing interests to carry on exploiting the proposed Marine Conservation Zones thereby rendering them pointless as nursery areas which would allow fish stocks to replenish and recover. The MPs proposed a new Clause 8, which was promoted by the National Federation of Fishing Organisations representing the commercial sector.
In challenging Mr Mitchell and the commercial interests, Mr Salter said:
Martin Salter: I am listening, as I suspect many hon. Members are, with some incredulity to the arguments being made by my hon. Friend. Will he clarify for the House his earlier statement that it is impossible to introduce conservation measures that restrict commercial fishing? Does he not see that that statement might be a problem for some of us?
Mr. Mitchell: I am surprised at my hon. Friend’s incredulity, because the interests of commercial fishermen and anglers are much the same.
Martin Salter: No, we are in favour of this Bill.
Mr. Mitchell: I am defending the interests of fishing as an industry and as a leisure activity—I would have thought that my hon. Friend would have supported that. My assertion is that fishing is an agent of conservation, and one cannot have marine conservation areas, which are intended primarily to conserve the marine environment, by also placing added restrictions on fishing. That defeats the purpose of the marine conservation areas.
Martin Salter indicated dissent.
Mr. Mitchell: Well, if my hon. Friend wants to tell me that fishing is damaging the environment, he is wrong.
Martin Salter: I shall certainly continue the exchange. Does my hon. Friend recognise that probably precisely the same speech was made in about 1988-89, just before the collapse in the cod stocks off Newfoundland? It is precisely because the fishing industry does not recognise the value of conservation, engages in overfishing and opposes steps to allow fish stocks to recover and replenish themselves that fishermen lost their jobs?”
In a speech following his earlier interventions Mr Salter expanded on the damage that commercial overfishing is doing to the marine environment.
“Let me begin by identifying an absurdity that has featured in a number of statements made today. Members have said that it is not possible to create a patchwork quilt of marine conservation zones—that they will not work. Every Member has been lauding the achievements of Lundy as a no-take zone. That is the first patch in the patchwork quilt that we need to establish around these shores, if there are to be any fish left for the people of Great Grimsby and elsewhere to fish for.
It is a pleasure to follow a number of speeches, particularly those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) and the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker). However, I must take issue with what the hon. Member for Broxbourne said about accidental damage. There is nothing accidental about beam trawling. Beam trawling is an environmental disaster. If we were to translate it to the agricultural field—pardon the pun—it would mean a farmer ploughing the same field seven times in a single growing season. Beam trawling does long-term environmental damage and cannot exist alongside conservation and sustainable fisheries. They are completely opposed, and such damage is not done accidentally.
There need not be a conflict between fishing—whether commercial or recreational—and conservation, provided that the fishermen decide to come down in favour of conservation. Turning to my own sport, I have lost count of the number of arguments I have had with salmon anglers who opposed the bringing in of the rule of returning spring salmon before 16 June. It has finally got into the psyche of Britain’s game anglers that we cannot continually remove spawning fish from the food chain and expect a run of salmon in subsequent years. Fishermen can be conservationists, but the choice is theirs, and fishermen or their public representatives who choose to oppose the single most important piece of environmental legislation affecting the coastline and seas of this nation have clearly not opted to come down on the side of conservation.”
Subsequently Austin Mitchell and his supporters withdrew their proposal and the Marine and Coastal Access Bill was passed unamended.
Later in his speech Mr Salter paid tribute to coarse anglers for overwhelming endorsing proposals to introduce new catch and release byelaws in freshwater.
“I turn briefly to the Government amendments that seek to amend and improve the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975. The Environment Agency has just concluded a consultation on the removal of freshwater fish that the Bill allows for. The consultation overwhelmingly came down in favour of a catch-and-release regime for our freshwater fisheries. Henceforth, the archaic, anachronistic system of regional byelaws is to be replaced with a national catch-and-release regime for coarse fish, which is long overdue. Yes, there will be some exceptions for fishery management, predator fishing or conservation purposes, but in their response to the Environment Agency consultation as part of this Bill, freshwater anglers overwhelmingly came down on the side of conservation, and it is to their credit that they did so.”
Summing up his support for the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, Mr Salter said:
“I would like the last word in my contribution to go to a trawlerman. Mr. Dave Murphy was a trawler captain for Interfish until two years ago, when he became the outreach officer for the Finding Sanctuary project. He says:
“Protecting habitats has got to do fish stocks good in the end. I’ve had the opportunity to make my life fishing. I’d like my two boys to have the same chance.”
That is what the Bill is about: ensuring that the fish stocks that we value, and that we want to see protected and enhanced and flourish, are there for future generations.”