Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for
Agriculture and Rural Development

Friday 7 December 2001


Discussions with Minister:
Fisheries Issues

Ordered by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development to be printed 7 December 2001

Minutes of Evidence: 05/01/E (Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development)

Membership and Powers

The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Assembly Standing Order No 46. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and has a role in the initiation of legislation. The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.

The Committee has power:

The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 29 November 1999 has been as follows:
Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr George Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong
Mr PJ Bradley
Mr John Dallat
Mr Boyd Douglas
Mr David Ford
Mr Gardiner Kane
Mr Gerry McHugh
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr.

* Mr Dallat replaced Mr Denis Haughey on the latter's appointment as a Junior Minister.


Friday 7 December 2001

Members present:
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Dallat
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr McHugh


Ms B Rodgers ) Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Mr J Prentice ) Department of Agriculture and Rural Development


The Chairperson: Welcome Minister and Mr Prentice. The Committee received the Minister's letter yesterday afternoon and has noted the points made. We will be discussing the EC Food and Veterinary Office visit in closed session. Minister, will you be able to discuss rural proofing with the Committee in January?


The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): I sincerely hope so. My proposals have been submitted to the Executive, who will discuss the proposals and decide whether to agree with them. I had hoped to receive their response by today. However, for reasons that I cannot go into I have not received a response, but I hope to have it by January.


The Chairperson: The Committee will not be meeting with you again until 18 January 2002. If you are unable to have the discussion on that date would you inform the Committee around 1 or 2 January 2002 so that we can put something else on the agenda?


Ms Rodgers: Yes.


The Chairperson: The Committee will now discuss the Fisheries Council.


The Committee is worried about the vision steering group's report. There has not been enough money allocated for that in the Budget. Mr Durkan told the Committee that when decisions are made on the report the Department of Finance and Personnel will be expecting the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to apply for more funds. The Committee would have liked that funding to have been included in the Budget.


Ms Rodgers: I will seek funding as soon as a decision is made on the report and as soon as the Department can quantify the action to be taken. I assure the Committee that I will be making a pretty robust bid at that stage.


The Chairperson: The Committee unanimously feels that the consultation period for the report should be extended if possible. We understand that the final date is 31 December. The Committee has had representations from several organisations and individuals who feel that because of Christmas, and business commitments, they would not have time to comment in the time available. Some of them attended your conference on the report and said afterwards that they were in a better position to comment. However given the pressures I mentioned, they will have difficulty in doing so. Could the date be extended to the end of January 2002?


Ms Rodgers: I will need to consider the suggestion and discuss it with my officials. The problem is that it would delay me in starting to consider what action is needed. I will give the matter some consideration. However, at this stage I cannot give you an answer.


The Chairperson: Let us move to fisheries issues.


Ms Rodgers: Thank you for the opportunity to update the Committee on the prospects for the December Fisheries Council meeting. The Committee has probably seen the media reports indicating that the Commission's initial draft proposals are alarming both to myself and to the industry. I regret that at this stage I can only confirm that view.


There seems to be a total conflict between the scientific advice provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) to the Commission, and the interpretation and action that the Commission is choosing to apply to that advice.


The Commission's draft proposals for total allowable catches are as follows: for nephrops, 14,175 tonnes will be allowed this year compared with 18,900 tonnes last year. This is a further reduction of 25%. For cod in the Irish Sea, 2,300 tonnes is proposed, compared with 2,100 tonnes last year - although the scientific advice warrants an increase in the total allowable catch to 4,000 tonnes.


The proposed total allowable catch for haddock in the Irish Sea is 1,200 tonnes whereas the scientific advice suggests that a total allowable catch of around 1,800 tonnes would be reasonable. The proposed total allowable catch for whiting is 1,000 tonnes compared with 1,390 tonnes last year. There are similar reductions for sole and plaice, which also fly in the face of scientific advice. The proposed total allowable catch for herring is 4,800 tonnes compared with 6,900 tonnes last year.


Essentially the Commission is taking the view that for any species caught in association with cod and hake, or where the advice suggests a recovery plan, the recovery approach will be extended to those species.


Three stocks in the Irish Sea are considered to be at risk - cod, haddock and whiting, and the associated nephrops stock, which, using their justification, results in reducing the nephrops total allowable catch by 25% to 14,175 tonnes. This is absurd considering the scientific advice from ICES and the Department's supporting case to the Commission in relation to last year's 10% cut. The Committee will remember that the Department received a written commitment that the Commission would restore the 10% that was cut, if we could prove that there was a small bi-catch of cod.


I met with local industry representatives yesterday and listened to their concerns about the impact that these proposals will have on the industry if they proceed as they are. I sympathise with the industry and I will be taking up the case with Mr Morley in London next Monday. Mr Morley shares my view that while it would be reasonable to apply a cut where justified on the basis of scientific evidence, the proposed cuts are totally unreasonable given the scientific advice available to my Department and the Commission. I am also seeking the support of Mr Fahey from the Department of Marine and Natural Resources in Dublin. I will see him on Wednesday when I expect him to support the UK on issues relating to the nephrops quota at least.


The local fishing industry is also concerned about the prospects for a third cod recovery programme in the Irish Sea from mid-February to the end of April. I accept the scientific basis for a recovery programme, but I am alarmed that the current draft plan tabled in Brussels on Wednesday makes no mention of derogation for haddock fishing in the Irish Sea during February and March. It is an alarming development and one that I will pursue vigorously with the Commission.


I was grateful for the words of support given to me by industry representatives at our meeting yesterday. I assured the fishermen, as I do to the Committee today, that I will do my best at the Fisheries Council meeting to mitigate these unwarranted reductions in total allowable catches, particularly relating to the nephrops quota.


The Chairperson: I am sure that the Committee will support you in this matter. The proposals are alarming and, as you say, unwarranted. In the past it has been hammered down our throats that if science says something, then that something must be done. However, when - for the first time in ages - science is on the side of the fishermen it seems that the Commission is telling us to ignore it.


Minister, if you think it would be helpful, the Committee will write to anyone who you think we should be putting pressure on to back up what you are saying. The Committee is flabbergasted at some of the Commission's proposals.


You have already been strong in your condemnation for what has happened about restoring the 10% that was cut from the nephrops total allowable catch. You were asked to produce a case to illustrate why it should be restored, and you produced a good, scientifically backed case. However, the Commissioner then revealed that his promise stood for nothing. That is unjustifiable. If that is how the Commission is going to work, what possibility is there for you or the fishing industry to achieve a fair playing field?


The cod recovery programme closures elsewhere are to be withdrawn, therefore Scottish fishermen will have more freedom. We have heard a rumour that Scotland wants to impose discriminatory measures on our fishermen to prevent them fishing in the River Clyde. What is your view on that? I do not know whether the Scottish Parliament has the legislative power to do that. Fishing policy is overarching, and it is more than just a matter for the devolved regions of the UK. What is your assessment of the Irish Sea cod recovery plan?


Ms Rodgers: It would be helpful if the Committee made contact with Europe - I welcome any support that I can get. If the Committee wants to write to the Commissioner to express its views, I would be glad of that support.


It would be a matter of great concern if the Scots were to close the mouth of the River Clyde, because it would hit our fishermen at a time when they are already being hit very hard. On Monday, I will raise the issue with Ross Finney, who is taking charge of fisheries in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament does have power to make legislation, but I will strongly argue the case that such action would have a serious impact on our fishermen. I will use my powers of persuasion, and perhaps a few other things, to make him think twice. However, I am not prepared to discuss those.


The Chairperson: It a serious matter. The ban will not be lifted everywhere, and it seems that the only people who will suffer will be our fishermen, which seems discriminatory and very unfair.


When you spoke to representatives of the fishing industry I am sure they told you they do not want to claim compensation. They would prefer to catch fish, particularly when there seems to be so many fish in the sea at the moment. However, if fishermen are forced to curtail their operations, can you decide unilaterally to compensate them, or is it a UK matter?


Ms Rodgers: The UK policy is not to offer compensation for fishing. If I decide to provide compensation, I would have to discuss it with others because it would have implications for other regions. However, if I wish to offer compensation and have the resources to do so, I could make a unilateral decision.


I have undertaken a review of the impact that the cod recovery plan has had over this year and last year. In the light of the results of the review and the Fisheries Council meeting, I will consider the possibility of compensation. I must also consult the fishing industry and other UK regions. If I decide to provide compensation, I will not be constrained by other regions. However, I may be constrained by available resources. My decision will depend on the outcome of the Fisheries Council meeting and the review of the cod recovery plan. If I decide to offer compensation, I will have to ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel for additional money.


Mr Savage: We should do something stronger than just writing to the Commissioner. The Committee and our three MEPs should lobby the Commissioner. The fishing industry is important for Northern Ireland and we cannot afford to take this lying down. The Minister and her colleagues have done quite a bit of work, but the Commissioners should be made aware of the Committee's feelings. We cannot afford to let them walk over us.


Ms Rodgers: Thank you for your remarks. The decision to lobby the Commission is for the Committee to make. However, I doubt whether the Commissioner would have time for such a meeting while the Fishing Council meeting is going on. I am grateful for any support the Committee can give, but I cannot say whether a letter would have more or less impact.


Mr Savage: If our fishermen cannot fish in the Clyde and in the surrounding area, can we stop Scottish fishermen from fishing in the Irish Sea?


Ms Rodgers: No. The mouth of the Clyde is within their three-mile limit, and they can make decisions about it. They cannot make decisions about areas outside their limit.


Mr Savage: It seems that our fishermen and our Department are continually being overruled. It is unacceptable.


Ms Rodgers: I agree. That is why I welcome support in pressurising the Commission to take decisions based on the science - as the Chairperson has said, and as the Commission have always said that they wanted to do. Now that science favours the fishermen the Commission is taking a different decision for reasons of their own.


Mr Bradley: I support the Deputy Chairperson. Last week, the Committee discussed lobbying in Brussels for different issues and this is a prime example of where we could begin. Often in the past we were in a dilemma; we were torn between scientific evidence and the evidence of the industry. We decided to support the industry as far as we could. However, the situation has changed. Scientific evidence now supports the industry, and that leads me to believe that there is a hidden agenda in Brussels that we are not aware of.


I agree with the Deputy Chairperson's suggestion that someone - the Chairperson, the Deputy Chairperson, or someone else - should lobby the Commission, and be seen to be helping the industry. Scientific evidence favours the fishermen and I do not understand why the Commission is going against it.


The Chairperson: We must go to the top and see the Commissioner; seeing officials will not help. If the other MEPs and myself ask for a meeting with the Commissioner, it would be very difficult for him to refuse. He would be put on the spot. We need to meet the top person, and get it into his cranium that we are backing what the Minister is seeking to do for the fishermen.


Ms Rodgers: I welcome any support I can get.


The Chairperson: Meeting a junior official would be an insult to the Committee and would get us nowhere. It would be just like putting a document from the Northern Ireland Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on his desk. Getting the other two MEPs on board would help.


Mr Savage: There is no point going to the Commission unless we meet the man at the top.


The Chairperson: The Committee will discuss this later.


Mr Armstrong: It seems that we have always been on the hind tit as regards fishing ever since we joined the Common Market. It has always placed restrictions upon the fishing industry, and it is time that we met these Commissioners.


Mr Kane: In relation to the monitoring and appraisal of projects, the rural development side of the Department has been criticised for poor appraisals. Guidance states that projects seeking grant assistance over £50,000 must be accompanied by a full independently prepared economic appraisal.


The Chairperson: That matter is coming up later. I will call Mr Kane first when the matter is being discussed.


Mr Dallat: I am in favour of going to meet the Commissioner, but I hope that we have a plan of action ready before we go. There is no point in going there to do something that the Minister has already done. We must give some thought to how we can change the Commissioner's mind.


The Chairperson: The Committee will need to discuss that matter and see what proposals we can make. The first task will be to see if we can get a meeting with the Commissioner. When is the Fisheries Council meeting, Minister?


Ms Rodgers: It will be on 17 December and 18 December.


Mr Ford: I agree with what has been said. I remember talking to the Minister a year ago about scientific evidence, and how departmental scientists would co-operate with fishermen to put together a decent case for this year. It is most disappointing that having done that, and having had complete co-operation across the industry in Northern Ireland, the Commission is now turning it down. I agree that we should do whatever we can in the way of lobbying.


The Minister referred to support from Elliot Morley. Has she been lobbying others in the Fisheries Council, or is that something on which the Committee might seek to make an impact?


Ms Rodgers: I have spoken, and written, to Elliot Morley several times. He has written a very strong letter to the Commission on foot of their turning down the request to restore the 10% cut after evidence was presented. He fully supports our position. As Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr Morley will undoubtedly be lobbying other Ministers.


My officials have spoken to Frank Fahey's officials, and I am going to see him on Wednesday. I am confident that I will have his support on nephrops. I am in touch with others, such as the French; but as I am sure you will understand, they have different priorities. It is a dog-eat-dog situation out there. I will look for support wherever I can get it.


The Chairperson: I suggest that myself, Mr McGrady and a representative of the Official Unionist Party should meet with Mr Morley this week and press him along the lines on which the Minister is lobbying.


Mr Ford: The Minister used the phrase "dog- eat-dog". If that is her attitude, then there is clearly an issue around the dynamics of the Fisheries Council, as opposed to the Commission. If lobbying were to take place, presumably it would not be impossible to also lobby the current Chairperson of the Council.


The Chairperson: The trouble is that Council Members will not be in Brussels. They go there to attend the meeting.


Mr Ford: I understand that the current Chairperson is Belgian. It may be possible to do some lobbying there as well. Perhaps the Minister's officials and our Committee staff could discuss lobbying in detail later.


Ms Rodgers: The only people who have an interest in area 7 are the French, the Irish and the UK. Nobody else would be interested in our lobbying.


Mr McHugh: The Commission pushed the science aspect strongly. That is what it based its decisions on, and now it is ignoring that science. Is there a precedent for the Commission's behaviour? Do we have any comeback on this matter or is the Commission's decision absolute? Can we appeal it?


Ms Rodgers: The Commission makes the decision. All we can do is try to influence it before it makes its final decision.


Mr McHugh: It is not a case of law?


Ms Rodgers: I am not a lawyer, but I do not think it is a case of law. It seems that, having told us over the past few years that it had to follow scientific advice and make cuts, the Commission is now making cuts despite scientific advice that supports an increase in total allowable catch. They are now twisting the scientific evidence - saying that, although they can increase the total allowable catch for various species, over-fishing of nephrops may result in a by-catch of cod or whiting. We made the case for cod, now the Commission says they are concerned about whiting. This is about people using statistics for their own ends. I will make a strong case against that, and Elliot Morley is fully behind us.


The Chairperson: Thank you for coming today, Minister.

16 November 2001 / Menu / 28 January 2002