Carl Sargeant Minister for Natural Resources
Since assuming responsibilities for marine and fisheries matters as Minister for Natural Resources I have been considering how best to ensure the effective and sustainable management of our natural resources in the marine environment in line with my wider policy objectives. I remain committed to the objectives and approach set out in the Wales Marine and Fisheries Strategic Action Plan of November 2013, namely a framework for clean, healthy safe, productive and biologically diverse seas.
Since then, this Government has made significant progress towards the different approach to stewardship of the marine environment that we identified as being necessary. We said that it would take years to implement. It still will. But in the first sixteen months we have put in place many important foundations for progress and completed some important short-term actions.
Those who earn their living from the sea, or use it regularly, will recognise this. That is why we have, with very useful stakeholder involvement, established the main tasks required and processes for doing so. All of that, and the positive attitudes and sense of collaboration that we now have, are a solid base for progress. I want to build on that. In the remainder of this Assembly term, I intend to concentrate on making progress on delivering on the main aspects.
In recent months, we have had to take a critical and constructive look at everything we do across my portfolio in the context of the difficult situation for all public services. Additional challenges have arisen at times and in ways that we could not have anticipated, such as the requirements for conservation action on harbour porpoises and the emerging issues on sea bass fishery management.
Accordingly, we have identified the most important strategic priority issues that we need to deliver as quickly as possible. I believe that we are now in good shape and have a clear timetable to deliver on those priorities; I intend to stick to the timetable for delivery of those during the rest of this Assembly term.
My vision as Natural Resources Minister is to ensure that we protect our resources responsibly and reasonably, and in accordance with our conservation obligations; but also in a way that allows people to continue to make a living out of the sustainable use of those resources, as they have done for generation in many cases. This is particularly true for the small-scale coastal fisheries that we have in Wales, notably potting for crabs and lobsters from which generations of many families have made a sustainable living with minimal impact on the environment. I want to provide a solid basis for those who currently earn their living from such low-impact fishing to continue to do so.
I want everyone who makes a living from the sea directly, from whatever sector they are in such as fishing, renewable energy, or tourism , and those who rely on our marine areas for their leisure or sporting activities to realise that the marine environment and its useable resources cannot be taken for granted. Our coasts and our seas are a magnificent natural resource, enjoyed by so many residents and visitors, and used by many businesses. Where access to them is free, it must remain so.
We have to behave in responsible ways; and to be prepared to put something positive into that environment in order to get a material benefit back out. The sea, like any other natural environment, has to be treated as giving us something in return for something. For commercial fishers, this might be guaranteeing to provide appropriate information about catch or other evidence, in return for guaranteed access to a fishery year-on-year with a predictable and reliable volume of catch. For recreational sea anglers, it might be complying with requirements on minimum size and numbers of fish in return for a healthy stock that they can continue to fish for no charge. For those who develop large marine infrastructure, such as for renewable energy, it might be the investment in the local economy, as well as the licence fee, in return for the right to develop and run the site over a given number of years. For those whose business is in tourism enterprises and those who enjoy swimming, surfing or sailing , it might be behaving responsibly and conforming to any relevant rules and laws, and reporting those who do not, in return for the right to continue to enjoy the sea in that way. With that approach we can all use and enjoy our marine environment; and have confidence that we can do so better in the future.
To support that, across all the different demands on our marine space, we need to have a proper framework for managing those different activities. A number of sectors, in recognising the opportunities for sustainable development and growth, are increasingly looking to the sea and its natural resources. There is an opportunity to align policy and plans at an early stage, and to seek to overcome conflict and promote areas of mutual benefit.
The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) provides a really useful opportunity to assess the heath of our seas, and to seek to improve them for the benefit of us all. We remain committed to fulfilling our MSFD obligations and are on course to do so. The Directive requires Member States to put in place measures to achieve or maintain Good Environmental Status (GES) in their seas by 2020. It is consistent with the UK’s vision for ‘clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas’. Implementation of the Directive forms part of a package of policies that will help achieve this vision such as the implementation of the Marine and Coastal Access Act and the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The Directive includes a high-level definition of GES and 11 high-level descriptors of GES which Member States must use as the basis for their national targets and indicators.
There are three key stages to the implementation of the Directive. We have completed Stage 1 of an initial assessment of the current status of our seas and set out characteristics of GES for our waters, with more specific environmental targets and indicators to underpin this; and Stage 2 detailing the monitoring programmes to measure progress towards GES.
For Stage 3, by December 2015 we need to establish a programme of measures to achieve GES by 2020 (which must be operational by 2016) and programme of measures reported to the Commission by March 2016. These proposals are subject to a UK wide public consultation open until 27 April 2015. As part of the consultation process the Welsh Government held a stakeholder event on 6 March.The Welsh Government was pleased to welcome over 40 stakeholders from a wide cross section, with a range of sectors being represented.
We are committed to delivering a Marine Plan, and have already come a long way to achieving it. Our intention for the marine plan is to make planning the various activities clearer for all involved. This will help our seas to realise their potential to make a greater contribution to our wellbeing, to achieving sustainable marine-based economic growth (“Blue Growth”) and fostering an environment to increase the level of sustainable jobs.
The Welsh Government, along with the other UK administrations, is committed to the March 2011 UK Marine Policy Statement (MPS). The EU Maritime Spatial Planning Directive, which came into force last year, builds on the requirements and principles of the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009). There is a statutory duty for the Welsh Government to introduce a marine plan. The Marine Plan we are developing will have an important role in achieving robust sustainable management of our seas for the long term future of our seas. The Plan will provide clarity for decision makers and all those carrying out activities in the marine area. Our Welsh National Marine Plan will cover both the inshore region (0-12 nautical miles) and offshore region (beyond12 nautical miles) of Wales and will be a single marine plan for Wales.
We are now drafting the Plan, and will continue to engage with stakeholders throughout 2015 as we do so. A series of public meetings was held to facilitate engagement during the consultation on a draft vision and objectives. Most respondents and stakeholders welcome the establishment of a new planning system and support the proposals overall. There were helpful suggestions for amendments, to the vision, the structure of the Plan and the Strategic Scoping Exercise (SSE), which are informing the drafting of the Plan.
We will be in a position to publish the first Welsh National Marine Plan for consultation by the end of this year. We have come a long way with the gathering of evidence in support of the plan. That is now being collated and shared with key people and organisations in the industry who are working with us to develop the Plan. ;We have also been able to establish an online portal that makes available for the first time a wide range of maps and information. http://lle.wales.gov.uk/apps/marineportal/
Some of the issues to be covered in the Marine Plan are still matters of UK Government competence, although there is obviously fluidity about the devolution situation at present. They relate to defence, larger scale energy projects and off-shore marine licensing and conservation. The uncertainty about who has longer-term responsibility for the latter has meant that we have had to wait slightly longer than originally intended to take forward the Marine Plan. The consultation on the Welsh National Marine Plan will obviously take account of the constitutional arrangements that have developed by then.
I recognise the importance of protecting our marine environment through appropriate conservation measures. I want to underline my commitment to fulfilling our obligations to do so. Substantial areas of our seas are already designated as marine protected areas reflecting their national and international importance for marine wildlife. In order to improve our approach to Marine Protected Areas (MPA), and to take account of additional tasks, we have re-scoped our work to ensure focus is given to Wales fulfilling its contribution to an ecologically coherent network of MPAs in UK seas.
We are already aware of some challenges in the MPA network such as the need to identify Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for the protection of harbour porpoise. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) has been working with the four country agencies to undertake the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of harbour porpoise data with the aim of identifying possible sites for SAC designation. This process has identified a number of potential sites around the UK which includes 3 marine areas in Wales. Natural Resources Wales has started sharing information about the potential sites that may be consulted on later this year. I expect to receive formal recommendations from Natural Resources Wales in early summer. If I decide to proceed with the proposals the process will continue during 2015, with formal consultation over the summer.
We also know we need to classify further Special Areas of Protection (SPAs) to strengthen the protection for birds within the MPA network. Because this will involve the same areas of sea as the potential harbour porpoise SACs we will combine this work to provide marine users with a more comprehensive view of potential new protection areas in Welsh seas. This work will be added to our existing MPA project with the aim of classifying any new SPAs and submitting candidate SACs for harbour porpoise to the European Commission by end of 2015 to follow the timetable that has been agreed across the UK.
This will complete our suite of SPA and SAC sites in line with our marine obligations under the European ‘Birds’ and ‘Habitats’ Directives. We will use our MPA network stocktake and gap analysis to identify if we need to do anything further to complete our network contribution by protecting nationally important species or habitats. We will consider extending the scope of this work if our marine conservation remit is increased to cover the offshore area.
Good progress has been made in developing an approach that builds on existing expertise to secure long term, consistent and effective management of our MPAs. This will ensure we have a well managed network of sites that are in good condition. The scope of this work will now need to be broadened to take into account any new harbour porpoise SACs and additional SPAs before agreeing a way forward.
Fisheries are probably our longest-established marine activity and one that has made for centuries a vital economic, social and cultural contribution to many communities. They continue to do so and we are committed to supporting and enhancing our commercial fisheries, and to working with the fishing industry. We have to be realistic about the wider context in which we now have to operate and manage fisheries, and the challenges that come with it.
Firstly, across the world, many stocks of fish species have become depleted over recent years. There is a public perception, sometimes mis-placed, that wild capture fisheries are not sustainable. For Welsh fisheries, particularly because a large part is targeted on shellfish, that is much less the case.
Secondly, many of our coastal waters are designated as European Marine Sites and have to be protected in line with the relevant obligations. Some more areas may need to be designated, as explained above. Allowing appropriate fishing activities in these areas should be an ambition if there are stocks in those areas that can be sustainably used; but to do so requires a very high-level of evidence and significant co-operation from fishers to provide it.
Thirdly, more generally we need a much better evidence base about fish stocks and the ecosystems that they inhabit, to allow us to make decisions on fisheries in accordance with our obligations for fishing sustainably (at Maximum Sustainable Yield) under the Common Fisheries Policy. We have a number of programmes and initiatives in place to address this, working with fishers who have a vital role in delivering this.
Fourthly, I acknowledge that fisheries legislation is not always as flexible and up-to-date as it might be. However, we continue reviewing the existing Welsh fisheries legislation, including the Byelaws which Welsh Government took over from the Sea Fisheries Committees. We will update these on a prioritised basis, taking account of stakeholders’ views.
Fifthly, I recognise that most fishers in Wales run small boats and small businesses and they work extremely hard to make a living which is never guaranteed. There is not always a strong tradition of co-operation between fishermen.That has begun to change in a very positive way in recent years, and the Welsh Fishermen’s Association is a key part of that. I am also grateful to the representatives of many fishing associations who give their time, experience and ideas in working with Welsh Government on the three Inshore Fisheries Groups. That co-operation with Government, and between fishers, must continue and improve further in order for economic returns to be maximised and to have effective collaborative management in fisheries.
That move towards co-management is already shaping our thinking. We have a very constructive engagement with stakeholders in identifying the priority tasks to take forward as regards updating our fisheries legislation and management. In the coming months, we will focus on reviewing the fisheries for sea bass, for scallops and for whelks with a view to identifying new measures during the coming year and implementing as quickly as possible. This will be in addition to very important work required under the Common Fisheries Policy, particularly to implement the proposed “discard ban”.
Another priority for this year will be to identify the impact that the non-commercial sector has on many of our most important fisheries and the economic importance of this activity. There are many people who enjoy fishing for recreational purposes in our seas. However, it is wrong that anyone should seek to sell illegally any fish caught in this way. This is unfair on commercial fishermen and I intend to address this through giving clear information to restaurants and pubs about their responsibilities in buying legally-caught fish. More generally, we will ensure that the impact on fish stocks by those who are not licensed commercial fishers is appropriately addressed as we update legislation on different fisheries.
Also, I intend shortly to present an Order to the Assembly to update our legislation on crustaceans. This is an important piece of work which has been taken forward over the last two years to improve the management and sustainability of some of our most important fisheries for crabs and lobsters in particular. I also intend to make a statement shortly on the issue of “Historic Access Rights”, on which the then Minister for Natural Resources and Food made a written statement on 11 February 2014.
We will also take forward important work in the next year on the management of the cockle fisheries, the management of the skates and ray fishery, a review of the Fisheries Buyers and Sellers legislation and the development of an Aquaculture Plan for Wales. I expect that those tasks will reach completion in the year after the end of this Assembly Term in April 2016.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Assembly returns I would be happy to do so.