Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 43 of Session 2002-03, dated 13 November 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today DEFRA needs to get smarter and tougher in catching and penalising those who infringe fishing regulations, and urged the Department to address the ludicrously wasteful practice of discarding over-quota fish.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 43rd Report of this Session, which examined fisheries enforcement in England. Sustainable fish stocks are essential for the economic survival of the fishing industry, and so effective control and enforcement is vital. The value of fish landed by the United Kingdom fishing fleet each year is some £400 million, including fish worth £150 million landed in England and Wales. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spends around £11 million a year enforcing fisheries regulations in English and Welsh waters, and a further £17 million on conservation.

The Committee found that the Department should aim to reach a greater consensus with the fishing community on a longer-term vision of a sustainable fishing industry, and the catch levels, mix and quality that it might be able to support. They should seek to promote greater understanding of the measures needed to achieve such an outcome, as a basis for enlisting fuller voluntary cooperation in fisheries conservation and management.

The probability of a fishing vessel being subject to physical inspection at sea or on landing fish is low, being just 1% and 6% respectively on any day of fishing. The probability of documentary checks being carried out is higher, at some 60-70%. If detected and prosecuted, fines are on average only some 1.7 times the value of the infringement. The low probability of detection and of prosecution may encourage some fishermen to conclude that the potential economic benefits of over-fishing outweigh the risk of detection and penalty. The Department should therefore increase the options for pursuing and penalising infringements.

Discarded fish is often already dead or dying when thrown back in the sea. Discards may arise because, for example, the fisherman's quota has been exceeded, or because of a desire to land only the best quality fish, or through bi-catches. Such discard practice is wasteful, and undermines the credibility of fishing regulations. The Department should consider whether there would be benefit in seeking changes in current European Union enforcement legislation to allow the landing of discards and over quota catches but with proceeds being used to fund research or greater enforcement activity, as is already the case in Iceland.

Some countries have greater success in conserving fish stocks, though as in the case of Iceland and New Zealand they may benefit from waters and fish stocks which are more isolated and less open to fishing from foreign vessels. Nonetheless, the Department should be alive to opportunities to identify and share best practice on fisheries enforcement with other countries, both within and outside the European Union, and to maximise the effectiveness of enforcement through co-operation with other fishing authorities.

Mr Leigh said today:

"Sustainable fish stocks are essential for the economic survival of the fishing industry, so it is worrying that the probability of catching fishermen who infringe the regulations is so low and that the fines imposed are unlikely to be an effective deterrent. DEFRA needs to get smarter and tougher in catching and penalising those who infringe but, perhaps more importantly, reach greater consensus with the industry in order to secure fuller voluntary co-operation in fisheries conservation and management.

DEFRA also needs to find a way of tackling the ludicrously wasteful practice of discarding fish, which might account for 70% of fish mortality in some species or locations, for example by allowing this fish to be landed but using the resulting 'profit' for the benefit of conservation."

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