We have seen how crisis in some other fisheries has forced improvements. But this is high risk. If left too late, there is no guarantee of recovery.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am particularly delighted to welcome so many fishing directors here this evening because, in company with considerable numbers of other people, I have long felt a mounting concern about the immense threats to fish stocks all around the world and therefore to the viability of such a vital food source for our successors, not to mention the future of the fishing communities that depend on the continuation of such a resource. You clearly have a very difficult job to reconcile so many conflicting demands and pressures from all sides (some might say it is almost impossible!) and the last thing I want to do is make your task any more complicated by addressing you like this.

I understand that the theme of today's events has been stakeholder involvement in fisheries management. I am delighted to hear it because, as some of you will be aware, I have long subscribed to the view that it is only by bringing people together that it is possible to find solutions that work in the long-term. The term “stakeholder” is relatively modern, but the importance of dialogue and discussion to resolve problems is not.

I know that many of you in this room have consistently recognized the importance of the whole subject of fisheries management and I can only imagine it has been endlessly frustrating that, perhaps, the wider world was not taking notice of what you have been trying to say and do. I happen to feel that the debate around the marine environment is rather like that which surrounded climate change in the 1980s. In those days, climate change was something about which a few people were trying very hard to make their voices heard – dare I say it, not least myself! – but no-one wanted to listen. The subject was, quite literally, out of sight - and so it was out of mind. Now, we find that Governments, companies and individuals are scurrying around desperately trying to find answers to a problem which, had it been addressed twenty years ago, would have been considerably easier to solve.

But I happen to think that we must learn from the climate change debate and understand that we have no time to wait around, however invisible the problem may be. Action is needed most urgently.

To illustrate the point (and you must forgive me for trying to teach some European Union grandmothers to suck fish eggs!) I would just like to share with you a few facts and figures - and no gathering to discuss fishing would be complete without some!

• 75 per cent of the world's fish stocks are estimated to be fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted and that proportion is growing. The direction of travel is the wrong way.

• Globally, and this is a very conservative estimation indeed, over 7 million tonnes of fish that are caught are discarded against total catches of around 84 million tonnes. And the proportion discarded in individual fisheries, or with particular fishing techniques, can be much higher. Over half, or more, of a single haul can end up being thrown back, with little or no prospect of the discarded catch surviving. Can I ask how it is that this is allowed to continue? How can it be right to perpetuate such an immoral waste? I have yet to find anyone prepared seriously to defend the practice and it brings no credit to managers or the industry. You will forgive me, I am sure, for taking this opportunity to urge that the problem is tackled with a sense of real urgency – otherwise how can any claims to be operating “sustainability” possibly be justified? Does it not become intellectual dishonesty to make such claims?

• Three of the top six human causes of damage to the marine environment in the North East Atlantic are due to fishing. I have no doubt the same pattern is to be found elsewhere.

• On average, the annual increase in efficiency of fishing vessels is thought to be about 2 to 4 per cent each year – a percentage known in the jargon as ‘technological creep' - and some estimates pitch it at much higher than that. Or, to put it another way, over the past twenty years the same number of boats has developed the capacity to catch around 50 per cent more fish.

• Fish are the primary source of animal protein for about one-sixth of the world‘s population and it accounts for 40 per cent of the diet of Africans. And when you consider that the European Union has only recently purchased fishing rights as far away as the Solomon Islands, in the Pacific, as it has long done from West African nations desperate for foreign currency, it is surely possible to see just what a risk this poses to the long-term capacity of some of the world's poorest people to feed themselves.

Without doubt, the fishing industry has become a global business and it therefore has a global impact. I was surprised when I learnt that here, in the United Kingdom, 50 per cent of the fish caught are exported. And over 70 per cent of the fish we eat is imported. That rises to 90 per cent in the case of cod bought in fish and chip shops.

I was even more surprised to learn that fish found in our supermarkets may well have been caught in the North Atlantic, transported to China, filleted there and then brought back to the United Kingdom. Even our humble whelk can find itself caught off the Welsh coast and served as a delicacy in South Korea – where, for some reason, it is known for its aphrodisiac qualities (which just shows that molluscs must have all the fun!).

You might ask if this globalization matters? Well, apart from the appalling tally of food miles, I, for one, think that it does (and I cannot be alone in thinking this) - not least because the actions of one group of fishermen will affect the livelihoods of fishermen and whole populations elsewhere. It means that everyone from catcher to retailer is affected by global market forces. Even local artisanal fishermen are not exempt. Decisions in one country will affect the sustainability of fishing off the coast of another. Fishing communities, particularly in poorer countries, are vulnerable to circumstances over which they have little or no influence. And it matters because powerful and prosperous countries can have a direct impact on the health and quality of life of people in the developing world.

The sheer scale and complexity of the issues surrounding catching fish in a sustainable and equitable way might easily encourage anyone to decide that the task is too difficult. But the fact that you are here at all gives cause for optimism. We have represented in this room a formidable range of expertize: managers, scientists, academics, environmentalists and, most importantly, fishermen themselves. And it is significant that this representation spans more than 27 countries.

It seems to me that there is a real opportunity now to capitalize on this breadth of experience and this desire to work together for the good not just of the fishing industry and those who depend upon it, but for the good of the marine environment and the creatures that depend upon it – after all, if we lose that environment (and it seems to me we are getting perilously close to that situation in many parts of the world) we have lost fishing anyway.

You don't need me to tell you that the inter-actions between fisheries and the remainder of the marine environment are complex. They are not always properly understood, despite many years of high quality research. But WWF published an excellent Marine Health Check recently and reported a depressing picture in the seas just around the United Kingdom alone, showing that sea-life is in decline and, most worryingly, the habitats that nurture and sustain it are being damaged and reduced. We know this, and yet, worryingly, it is a fact that less is known about the impact of human activity on what goes on under the sea than in almost any other sphere.

But it is not just marine life that is suffering. Coastal towns and villages in too many parts of this country and throughout Europe that once thrived on the riches of the seas have become hollow shells of the vibrant communities they once were, and still ought to be. This fact is part of the sustainability equation and is, rightly, a significant factor in the political realities of fisheries management.

These issues are hugely complicated and it therefore makes sense to draw on the full range of expertize and knowledge represented here tonight. Of course, sometimes there will be differences of view, but I cannot believe that anyone here is frightened of lively discussion or robust challenge. If there was one right answer, I am sure that it would have been found by now. On the contrary, this seems to me to be a collective endeavour that has to be conducted in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect if progress is going to be made.

From discussions with some of you earlier this evening, I am confident that this is possible. It is apparent that there is a great deal of common ground and, encouragingly, the evidence from around the world points to the value of co-operation.

In New Zealand, for instance, there are successful examples of co-management with the fishing industry. The industry has a role in enforcement as well as shaping policies. The result is a profitable and sustainable industry. And an industry that recognizes that its responsibilities extend beyond catching and selling fish. This state of affairs was not achieved painlessly, or overnight. The present system evolved from a period of crisis some 25 years ago. That crisis was caused by over-investment and over-fishing, leading to poor fish stocks and poor profitability - a story which I suspect will sound rather familiar to many people in this room...

But we don't have to go to the other side of the world to find other examples of co-operation. Fisheries managers and scientists in Iceland and the Faeroe Islands have also developed systems of management in collaboration with their industries. There are, of course, differences of approach between the countries, but, as with New Zealand, the spur for change was a dramatic decline in fish stocks, dire economic consequences and the realization that things could not be allowed to go on as they had. Admittedly none of these places have fisheries as complex as Community waters with their mixed fisheries and many competing fleets, but nevertheless we, too, are at that point of catastrophe – and I use that word deliberately - which caused those countries to rethink their whole approach. So we must do it too, before it really is too late.

Of course, even where a fishery is regarded as efficiently run on sustainable grounds, there are still problems. Inescapable is the constant unpredictability of fish stocks, the difficulties of marine research, market pressures, external factors such as the growing threat of climate change, currency fluctuations and so on. However, where reform has been in partnership with the fishing industry, with scientists and others who have an interest in the marine environment, strategies can be found to help cope even with these difficulties. And I think that we should take heart that, while not all problems can be solved at once, it is possible to make incremental progress.

I am sure that many of you are able to point to examples of home-grown collaboration. There are examples here, in the United Kingdom. There is an excellent initiative called “Invest in Fish” in South West England which I launched 18 months ago. Fishermen, environmentalists, local authorities, development agencies and others are working together to develop an integrated, long-term approach to fisheries and environmental management in the community.

I am particularly pleased that a Marine Protected Area is being considered as one of the management options. As some of you may know, earlier this year our highly-respected Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution produced a report on the fishing industry, entitled “Turning the Tide” which advocated a system of Marine Protected Areas as part of a comprehensive package of measures. And, while I fully accept that this would perhaps not provide all the answers, it is a proposal with which I have a great deal of sympathy, not least because in the right circumstances these Protected Areas have been proved to work so well elsewhere.

Indeed, here tonight, we have one of the world's experts in this area of research, Professor Callum Roberts, and if you have not read his work I do urge you to do so. He has dispelled a number of myths about the efficacy of Marine Protected Areas, and has shown that they could work in temperate waters with migratory fish stocks and I would suggest that they are one effective tool in the armoury of weapons at our disposal. The challenge is for you and everyone involved in fisheries management to identify how these MPAs can best be employed in our waters. I am well aware that there are various views about them, but if we are not extremely careful the debate could run for ever and, meanwhile, fish stocks disappear and the communities that rely upon them die… and the precautionary principle is not invoked.

In any event, I have long felt that we should treat the sea as we do the land where we have Environmentally Sensitive Areas to protect our most fragile landscapes and wildlife. I have never ceased to wonder why on earth we cannot do the same for our marine environment and set aside areas in which fishing is not allowed, or only allowed when more environmentally-sound methods, such as hook-and-line and traps, are used. This must be common-sense if we are to help our seas recover and become more productive – and so ensure a future for our desperately hard-pressed fishing communities.

“Invest in Fish South West”, which I was mentioning a moment ago, is an example of the more holistic approach increasingly being taken to reconcile the needs of fisheries and the wider marine environment. Closer still, in Scotland, new arrangements are being developed to put Scotland's important and extensive inshore fisheries under the active management of fishermen and other stakeholders. A number of inshore fisheries groups, about twelve in total, will be established around the Scottish coast. They will develop area management plans, with advice from experts, in line with a national strategy which was, in turn, developed by an advisory group of all interests. I have seen this kind of approach working very well in Loch Torridon, off Scotland's West coast, where a voluntary three-mile exclusion zone for trawlers is protecting a local prawn fishery and thus the livelihoods of local communities. It has amply proved that through co-operation everyone is a winner.

The approach being taken here in Scotland is a distinctive Scottish strand of a wider vision, launched last year by the British Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, to build a lasting and sustainable future for the fishing industry throughout the UK.

While these types of initiatives can make an important contribution, the scale of managing shared waters in the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and other seas would seem to me to call for more than anything any individual country, or the Commission alone, could deliver.

I can fully accept that managing multi-jurisdictional fisheries is immensely difficult. Add to that: mixed fisheries with a vast number of commercial species, highly migratory stocks, all the uncertainties of fisheries science and wide variations in the marine environment - and the European Union probably has the most difficult fisheries to manage in the world.

Major reform of the Common Fisheries Policy was agreed in December 2002 and I am only too aware that this was not easily secured, but I would urge that the momentum created then is not lost. There have been very large cuts in fleet sizes already, but even so this year at least two fisheries have had to be closed under emergency procedures. And, presumably, where capacity exceeds available stocks, further adjustment will be needed. I realize this is a painful process, but failure to acknowledge reality will bring equally unwanted consequences. Fishermen trapped in the downward spiral of low or negative profitability are unable to invest to improve competitiveness. Safety is at risk as skippers and crews push themselves to the limit and beyond to make ends meet. Recruitment of skilled crews becomes impossible and youngsters look for more rewarding and more comfortable ways of earning a living. 

But the effects go wider even than this. If we do nothing, we are sacrificing the future of our children and grandchildren to pay today's bills. And I, for one, do not want my grandchildren accusing me of doing nothing while we still could. If sustainability means anything at all, it is about handing on this world in a better state to future generations and it also means, incidentally, living off the income and not the capital of the seas – and, at the moment, that is certainly not what is happening in far too many of our seas.

I hate to say it, but decisive, courageous and timely decision-making is essential if we are to start putting things right. As we all know, when faced with difficult choices, the preference can be to deny the evidence. To postpone. To fudge. To demand more information and more research. To do anything, in order to avoid the unpopular decision. Such reaction is understandable and predictable. Unfortunately, the end result is almost invariably crisis instead of managed change.

We have seen how crisis in some other fisheries has forced improvements. But this is high risk. If left too late, there is no guarantee of recovery. Just look what happened when the Canadian Government over-ruled the advice of their scientists and allowed fishing to continue on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. When decisive action was finally taken, it was simply too late. The whole eco-system has changed and one of the world's most prolific cod and haddock fisheries has been wiped out, with little prospect of recovery. What is left is fishing for crabs and shrimps. Although profitable now, local economies and communities were wrecked in the process. And, does it really make sense to wipe out a species in the uncertain hope that another, further down the food chain, will be able to plug the gap? And what happens once we have exhausted that species? Or when millions and millions of consumers in China and India demand ever-greater quantities of fish, not to mention many other of the world's resources…?

Personally, and speaking as a mere observer, it seems to me that a particular problem in fisheries is that decision-making has often been an adversarial process and, as a result, mitigates against inclusive discussion. If anyone is in any doubt about this, reflect upon the image of the annual negotiations on Total Allowable Catches and quotas, in which many of you are, I know, involved. Grey-faced, haggard Ministers and officials emerging from negotiations that have stretched through day and night, while in the wings are anxious fishermen waiting for make-or-break decisions. And the rest of us are left puzzled by the whole process, not to say the outcome…

That is why I particularly welcome the creation of the Regional Advisory Councils as part of the 2002 Common Fisheries Policy reform. It does seem to present a real opportunity to begin to change the way things are done, and to encourage inclusive discussion and reach consensus. 
As with all such new ideas, I doubt that initially this will be an entirely comfortable experience. There may be suspicion or polarized views to start with and those differences will need to be worked through. Above all, there will be a need for patience and a large helping of goodwill. But the Regional Advisory Councils do seem to provide a basis for making the shift from confrontation to dialogue.

The challenge for everyone involved: member states, the Commission, members of the Regional Advisory Councils is to make the idea work and to turn them into more than talking shops. I have been so encouraged to hear of the solid work already being done by the North Sea Regional Advisory Council and the progress made in establishing others. Six out of the seven Regional Advisory Councils are represented here this evening and I do hope that you feel able to take the opportunity to discuss how to build on the early progress achieved so far.

Ladies and gentlemen, the fishing industry is part of our shared heritage. It is not a homogenous and uniform unit of production. It operates in a vulnerable and precious environment and responsible fishing is in the interests of all of us.

You will be served fish this evening from sustainable sources off the United Kingdom coast and caught in ways that do not damage the environment. We should look forward to the day when every fish dish not only contributes to a healthy, nutritious diet but has also done nothing to diminish the environmental and the cultural legacy we leave our children.