Scott lays out vision for British fishing

A speech by Scott Mann at the annual ConservativeProgress conference in London on 4 March 2017.

On Wednesday, 15th of June 2016 – just a week before the EU referendum - I walked out on to the House of Commons Terrace to find before me a single solitary fishing boat bobbing around on the River Thames.

Sitting just a few yards from the Houses of Parliament its crew of just 2 or 3 men waved over to myself and a handful of MPs and researchers.

Holding up their Brexit bunting of flags and banners they wanted their voices heard in the corridors of power.

Away from the Terrace and behind Parliament's thick stone walls the Prime Minister began his weekly question time session in a packed House of Commons chamber.

Just a single boat of a few men would be lucky to attract the attention of some MPs who were catching an early lunch let alone the doorkeepers standing guard.

I deemed their campaign more important than the weekly PMQ theatrics and I made sure that I was on the Terrace ready and waiting to greet them.

As I looked down-river towards the London Eye there appeared an armada of fishing boats coming towards us. Managing to dodge the river cruises and ferries one-by-one they slid under Westminster Bridge and emerged into the shadow of Big Ben. 

On-lookers on Westminster Bridge began to gather as they realised a water-based protest was about to kick off. This wasn't your bog-standard protest in Parliament Square this was a full on fleet of fishing trawlers powering up the Thames.

A throng of fishing boats was now huddled around Parliament. More and more MPs and parliamentary staff began to crowd the Terrace.

MPs began to un-furl their Vote Leave banners and hold them up in an act of solidarity to the many fisherman who had steamed hundreds of miles from far and wide.

Most people walking the streets of London would probably have never seen a fishing trawler before let alone a whole fleet of them. It's easy for metropolitan areas like London to take for granted where their food comes from and how it gets to them.

For many watching that day, it would be the first time that they had seen the actual fisherman who catch their cod their haddock their salmon or their lobsters.

These brave souls sail out in the harshest of weathers to earn their living and put fish on our plates. As if fishing wasn't hard enough in itself they have had to contend with the suffocating rules and regulations of the Common Fisheries Policy that has decimated their industry.

Then as the final trawlers assembled outside Parliament a white vessel emerged from arches of Westminster Bridge. Music blared from its top deck as people stood and jeered down at the fisherman.

They held and waved their  "in-crowd" posters. Amongst this small group of liberal luvvies was multi-millionaire Bob Geldof yelling down his microphone as he tried to offer some "alternative facts" on the fishing industry.

Apparently the UK had some of the most generous fishing quotas in the EU. Apparently the Common Fisheries Policy hadn't decimated our fishing industry at all.

Here we have a group of fisherman who have sacrificed time at sea to instead leave their communities and travel down to London to make it known to the public and to the politicians that the EU is ruining their lives and their industry.

They've been sold down the river and it's time to put down the rudder and change direction.

As the fisherman continued to proudly hold up their Brexit banners we then saw the real contempt from the liberal elite just a few yards away as they threw verbal insults and stuck two fingers up at them.

For me, this was the image that always resonates with me when I think of the EU Referendum. It showed the separation between the metropolitan liberal class and the rural, salt of the earth, communities up and down the country.

Their lives have been ruled by unelected commissioners and the bureaucrats who have impinged on every aspect of their working lives.

Thankfully a week later, the fisherman who sailed up the Thames and the many others up and down Britain who wanted Brexit were vindicated and cheering, while the out-of-touch liberal elites who had looked down on them and sneered were not.

That night of the 23rd June will live long in my memory.

I come from a coastal area which once had a thriving fishing industry. I grew up in North Cornwall as a keen angler with a Dad who built boats for a living.

I don’t come from a family of fisherman, but I know all too well about the damage that the EU and the CFP have inflicted upon Cornish fishing communities and the many many others around the country.

Throughout the EU Referendum campaign, one thing that we heard repeatedly from Remain campaigners was that Cornwall would lose tens of millions of pounds in funding from Brussels.

Aside to the fact that the current funding programme is due to end by 2020 anyway and that the EU had not hinted at any further funding they failed to mention that this was actually British taxpayers’s money being recycled with extra strings attached.

Of course, the assumption that current funding would disappear was fiction, as was most of the Remain rhetoric about economic meltdown and World War Three.

What wasn't fiction, though, was the heinous way in which Cornwall's fisherman had been treated under the Common Fisheries Policy.

It's very easy to sit in a campaign office in Westminster and spout the virtues of being a member of the EU and produce scare stories but go down to an actual fishing community on the coast of Cornwall and you'll see the real consequences of our membership over four decades.

Knock on a few doors and speak to the families who made a living on the sea.

They'll tell you how hard things have been under a policy where your politicians have to go into a room and fight for quotas of fish in your own territorial waters.

The fact that their historical fishing grounds were overrun with foreign trawlers carrying huge quotas was, funnily enough, unmentioned in Remain campaign literature.

The total number of fishermen in the UK is around 12,000, down from around 20,000 in the mid-1990s. The number of fishing vessels in the UK fleet has fallen by 28% since 1996.

It's shameful that we saw a situation where fisherman were paid to burn their boats their livelihoods. You don't have to travel far along the Cornish coast before you come across a fishing village.

Of course, fishing boats can be seen down on the beaches or floating in the harbour, but the vibrancy of these coastal communities has gradually diminished over the years.

Cornwall produces a fantastic quality of fish, and I believe it can become the "Waitrose of the world" if we take back full control of our waters get on to a sustainable footing and get our fisherman catching the fish and exporting it abroad.

However at the moment, the amount of fish that our fisherman have been able to claim has reduced and we now find ourselves having to preserve certain species because EU policy has allowed them to be dangerously overfished.

That's why a domestic fisheries policy will also serve the interests of conservation as well as commerce.

Now that Britain has voted to leave the EU we can forget about the reduced quotas the harsh regulations under the CFP and having to throw fish back in the sea and look forward to getting out of the CFP and giving our waters back to our fisherman.

In the months since the referendum, Remainers have continued to put forward soft Brexit ideas by wanting to stay members of the Single Market. Wanting to stay a member of the Single Market but having no place at the table is possibly the worst deal you could ask for.

There is no such thing as soft or hard Brexit - just Brexit.

Thankfully, the Prime Minister has confirmed that we will be ceasing membership of the Single Market with no half in-half out arrangement.

We can now look forward to the end of the CFP and the beginning of a domestic fisheries policy which is accountable to Parliament and Whitehall.

This said, although I want to see British fisherman and British trawlers being put first and having the lion's share of the quotas, we should not turn our back on our fishing friends across the channel or those British fisherman who land fish in foreign countries.

British fisherman will want to fish in EU waters and land fish in EU countries, and European fisherman want to catch fish in British waters.

There is no problem in this, providing Britain's waters are managed exclusively by British authorities and not from Brussels.

British vessels land around 400 thousand tonnes of fish each year in the UK, and between 200 thousand and 300 thousand tonnes abroad.
Therefore, our foreign markets are very important, and this includes the EU.

I'm sure we can come to an agreement on this so that British fisherman get a fairer deal in our own waters, while allowing a level of access to European boats and markets.

However, there must be red lines, such as the free movement of people and territorial waters.

Any request from Brussels that we maintain freedom of movement or that we share fishing grounds under a European authority and a common policy must not be accepted.

Once we leave the EU, it is imperative is that our fisherman are put first, and that we have proper policies and authorities in place to make sure that stocks are managed better quotas are fairer and that the industry can grow and thrive.

At the moment, the CFP is doing the very opposite.

Landings by the UK fleet were down in 2015 by around 7% compared to 2014 and the value of landings is 11% lower in real terms than in 1994.

There are markets emerging all over the world which we can take advantage of through the new Department for International Trade and I want to see our fisherman in Cornwall putting more fish not just on plates in Cornwall, but on plates around the world.

The UK is a net importer of fish. Net imports stood at around 238,000 tonnes in 2015.

Of course there will be various types of fish and shellfish which we will always have to import but it is absurd that we have to import fish that can be found in our own waters.

One species that I take a particular interest in is seabass. In fact I have been named by the RSPB as the parliamentary Seabass champion, or if you prefer, Dicen-trar-chus lab-rax.

The European seabass is an important commercial fish species. It is also one of the most important fish species for recreational fishermen in the UK due to its “fighting prowess”.

Evidence shows that there has been a population decline in recent years.

In 2010, the quantity of sea bass at breeding age was 15,000 tonnes but in 2014 was estimated to be 11 to 12,000 tonnes. This was the result of dangerous levels of overfishing under the Common Fisheries Policy on the EU's watch.

In 2014, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommended that a seabass management plan was urgently needed to reduce the fish mortality.

Consequently, a number of emergency measures were introduced to attempt to protect the stock. These included a commercial trawling ban and a three fish bag-limit on recreational anglers. 

Despite these measures in June 2015, the Council once again warned of depleting bass stocks.

It advised that total landings by commercial and recreational fisherman in 2016 should be no more than 541 tonnes in the Central and South North Sea, Irish Sea, English Channel, Bristol Channel, Celtic Sea.

Now, in 2017, we are once again seeing big restrictions on how much seabass can be landed.

The seabass is a wonderful fish, but it has been failed by the EU an organisation which tries to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to fishing just as it does to farming under the Common Agricultural Policy.

This is another vital sector in Britain which has been suffocated by regulation.

The plight of the seabass cannot be cured overnight but I'm looking forward to the day when Britain has left the EU and can implement its own policy to ensure its survival.

The lack of restriction on commercial fisherman over the years has meant unfair treatment of recreational anglers who have a minimal effect on seabass stocks.

A domestic fisheries policy needs address the plight of seabass and other species which have suffered under the CFP.

For seabass specifically we need to see a greater emphasis of restriction on commercial fisherman and not on recreational anglers.

I do hope that by the time we leave the EU, seabass numbers will have started to noticeably recover but they need a long term policy in place which ensures a sustainable footing for decades to come.

By having a policy which is made and implemented in Britain and which doesn’t have to give way to foreign trawlers will be more effective in protecting species which are under threat.

I also want to mention the discarding of fish which is one of the most controversial issues of the CFP.

We currently find ourselves in a situation whereby fisherman are throwing fish back in the sea even when dead often because they have no quota or because they are too small.

The House of Commons's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee found that approximately 1.7 million tonnes of fish are discarded annually, corresponding to 23% of total catches. In some fisheries, discard rates can be up to 90% of catches.

We can't have dead fish which were perfectly healthy being thrown back into the sea and I was pleased to see the UK taking a lead in Brussels on introducing a discard ban whereby fishermen targeting pelagic quota species such as mackerel and herring, having to land all the quota fish they catch.

Although I welcome measures being introduced under reformed CFP to address discards, it is once again the failings of a one-size-fits-all approach that has led to this situation where you're having to un-pick things.

A domestic fisheries policy needs to make sure we have a sustainable fisheries system whereby fisherman aren't scared to land more fish than what they were allowed to catch.

Of course we want to deter fisherman catching more than permitted on purpose, but a mechanism needs to be in place whereby dead fish are never wasted again.

There is one final thing I would like to raise with you, conference, which is the "fishing for plastics" idea which I know has support from environmental groups, and is something I know would be welcomed in coastal areas such as Cornwall.

We unfortunately see a huge amount of plastic enter our waters either in the form of bottle, plastic bags or pieces of packaging. It kills wildlife, pollutes our waters and can be a health hazard on beaches.

Cornwall is surrounded by water and relies hugely on the attraction of its beaches to pull in tourism.

The last thing I want as a Cornishman and as an a local MP is for visitors to arrive at a Cornish beach and be welcomed by a pile of plastic bottles or bags floating around.

The 5p plastic bag charge has seen a huge reduction in the number of bags being used.

However there are many bags and other plastics which are entering our waters from overseas as well as from Britain itself.

Considering that we have thousands of fishing boats trawling around our seas, it seems logical that we use these resources to not just catch our fish but to catch plastic as well.

I know many fisherman will be reluctant to do this – not because they don’t want to protect the environment, but because of the financial implications of landing plastic on land.

Many local authorities charge for the handling of the plastic which is idiotic.

That's why I want to see the Government explore the idea of a "fishing for plastics" scheme either within a domestic fisheries policy or under a separate policy whereby fisherman are rewarded for landing plastic.

It could create a whole new process of recycling, with ports and harbours having facilities for the collection and recycling of plastics as well as the landing and selling of fish.

Fisherman would have the plastic taken off their hands, and rather than a charge being levied upon them, they get a recompense for their efforts. This could be with cash, or fuel and resources, or maybe even fish quotas?

It is early days for such a policy, but I think it is that kind of approach that could really help clean up our seas. Fisherman wouldn't be forced to collect plastic but there would be an incentive for them to do it.

To conclude, conference, I believe in Britain, and I believe we can lead the world with our trade, our skills and our policies.

We must never again allow communities up and down this great nation become excluded.

I stand with the fisherman, and I will be fighting to ensure a Red, White and Blue fisheries policy is implemented.