Amess says fishing faces its 'greatest ever challenge'

David Amess MP Image copyright bbc
Image caption David Amess MP says it is an outrage that fishermen were prosecuted for being poor at paperwork

The MP for Southend West is very proud of his constituency and particularly the role played by its sea-faring constituents.

"Boats have been working the waters for centuries," he told MPs.

"Indeed, boats from the local fishing community were used to rescue injured people from Dunkirk.

"The fishermen and the wider community have a long history of patriotic support."

But David Amess warned the debate in Westminster Hall that the industry which has adapted and survived throughout the ages, is now facing its greatest ever challenge.

"The threat comes not from our old friend the sea but from within our ranks, and it threatens to strike at the heart of Britain's ancient fishing fleet," he declared with a flourish.

Harsh sentences

The threat, as Mr Amess sees it, comes from the Marine Management Organisation.

This body set up to oversee fishing quotas in the UK has, according to Mr Amess, become "an increasingly vindictive organisation", subjecting fishermen from the under 10 metre fleet to harsh sentences for minor offences.

"Sentences can be so extreme that some fishermen receive the same punishment as drug dealers and gang members," Mr Amess complained.

The main source of his anger was a decision by the MMO to prosecute a friend of his, Paul Gilson, an experienced fisherman from Leigh-on-Sea and described as "an honest and hardworking man".

Mr Gilson was fined £400,000 for failing to keep proper paperwork, which meant that he was unable to account for fish which he had caught, purchased or sold.

Mr Gilson may have to sell his house to pay the fine.

Mr Amess called the sentence "an outrage" but said other fishermen from the under 10 metre fleet were also being prosecuted for being poor at paper work.

"The quota cartel hits (them) particularly hard," he said.

"They are fishermen, not bureaucrats, and it is madness that they spend as much time doing paperwork as they do fishing."

Mr Amess feels this is all part of a wider problem which makes life much harder for fishermen with small boats.

He complained of the "absurd and restrictive rules on quotas" which meant many used their quota so fast that they either had to spend long periods ashore, throw away fish or try to rent more quota from larger fishing organisations.

He said it was wrong that smaller boats comprise 85% of the UK fleet and yet only received 4% of the annual quota.

'Ludicrous legislation'

The Environment Minister Richard Benyon agreed that the present quota system was "bizarre".

He revealed that in the next few weeks he would be publishing proposals "that will lead to enhanced fishing opportunities for the under 10 metre fleet".

Image copyright PA
Image caption MP David Amess believes that fishing faces its 'greatest ever challenge'

And he urged MPs to have faith in the MMO which he said was "a committed organisation trying to do its best in a complicated world, where the vast majority of fishermen do good, but some sadly do not."

Mr Benyon added that no distinction was made between the size of vessel when it came to prosecuting offenders and prosecution only happened after "careful and detailed consideration".

But Mr Amess still believes there is a real problem facing the region's fishing industry.

"It has survived everything that mother nature can throw at it, but it seems that it might just be defeated by our own ludicrous legislation and pointless policy making," he concluded.

"Something has to be done."