§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. CONOLLY
said, that in moving that this Bill be read a Second Time, he 951 did not appear there as the advocate of any particular interest connected with the fisheries of Ireland, but solely and entirely on public grounds, and he should say that legislation on the subject, to be useful, should be impartial. They were told that in the case of these fisheries there were three antagonistic interests—namely, the deep-sea fisheries, the fisheries situate in estuaries, and those fisheries known in Scotland as the "Upper Heritage Fisheries." Now, it appeared to him (Mr. Conolly) that these fisheries, if properly understood, possessed the same interest, although in different degrees. The interests of all were identical on one point—namely, the preservation and keeping up the supply of fish in the best possible manner; and there could be no doubt that the public had a great interest in the matter. By the law regulating fisheries passed in 1842, very great injury was done; and he was in a position to prove that on that occasion, at least as regarded the Irish fisheries, the public rights were altogether disregarded, and disregarded in a most shameful and unconstitutional manner. Previous to 1842 the Earl of Carlisle, then Lord Morpeth, obtained the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry to collect evidence on the fishery laws and the condition of the various fisheries, with a view to furnishing a Report on the subject. The Report furnished by that Commission was anything but satisfactory. With regard to the Bill of 1842, he was sorry to see that it proceeded as if there was no such thing as public rights existing with regard to fisheries in Ireland. It regulated the maximum amount of fish to be taken, and authorised the erection of stake nets and weirs upon the lands adjoining the fishery. The public, however, were not satisfied with this invasion of their rights, and it was found necessary to make some modifications in the provisions of the Act. The disturbances were so great at some of the fisheries, that the strength of the whole police force of Ireland was called into requisition to enforce the provisions of the Act. Some of the persons who were engaged in this defence of the rights of the public were tried at the Waterford assizes; and Mr. Justice Perrin said the parties who had framed the Act had repealed the old Statute Law, and in all probability had even repealed Magna Charta. It was evident, from the working of the Act of 1842, that it was founded upon a wrong basis—that it did not pro- 952 tect the fish in the upper waters, and although it had been to some extent improved by the five subsequent Acts that were passed for that purpose, it was found still more injurious than its opponents originally supposed. It appeared from the Reports of the Commissioners of Fisheries for several years subsequently, that there was an annual decrease in the supply of fish; and the Commissioners stated in their last Report that the seasons of 1850 and 1851 were the worst for salmon that had yet occurred. A series of queries amounting to thirty-three, were addressed to the managers of the various fisheries in Ireland by the Commissioners, and, with one exception, all the answers were unsatisfactory: the supply of fish had considerably decreased since 1842 but there was one fishery in which they had increased, and there was this significant explanation added, that there were no stake nets or bag nets allowed in the river. He had in his hand a return of the prices of salmon in the London market since 1842, and he found that in the months of May, June, and July, when the salmon was generally most plentiful, the price had increased threefold, and the result was the same in the Dublin wholesale fish market. The Bill which he had the honour to submit to the House, proposed to consolidate all the existing Acts—it contained 169 clauses, of which 100 were verbatim consolidations. The sections which interfered with the fixed nets legalised by the Act of 1842, were the twelve numbered from 64 to 76. These clauses asserted the rights of the public in respect to these fisheries; and public rights demanded especially the respect of that House. But existing legislation also deserved its respect, and as he had drawn those clauses chiefly with the view of affirming the principle, he did not intend to adhere strictly to the details, if the House wished to modify them; and that principle throughout was that of making the supply of fish commensurate with the maximum amount of protection. Out of deference, however, to the opinion of the four conservators, and of the interests of those authorised by the Act of 1842 to erect stake-weirs, he did not propose to unsettle that arrangement; but he had reasons for believing that the stake-weir proprietors would come to such a compromise with the public as would enable him to abandon those clauses. Under any circumstances, however, he would retain the clauses which proposed to keep clear 953 for two miles the months of every river and estuary in Ireland for the passage of fish. All the new portions of the Bill, he might add, were founded upon the principle that the public had rights in respect to these fisheries, and with a view to the supply and maintenance of a permanent stock of fish. The Government would do well to weigh this question, for if they summarily rejected this Bill, without giving the country a distinct and sufficient reason, they would engender the most general and the most unmistakeable dissatisfaction. This was a period particularly favourable to a measure like this, which arrayed against it no party hostilities, and was simply one of those measures which would tend greatly to the improvement of the social condition of the people, which it seemed the special mission of the present Government to effect. If he were allowed to go into Committee, he would be prepared to justify every provision which he sought to enact as new, the consolidation of the present Acts, and the terms on which he thought a compromise might be effected with the proprietors of stake-weirs situated injuriously at the mouths of rivers. The whole scope of the Bill was to assist nature rather than to thwart her, which had been the effect of past legislation; and he, therefore, might reasonably hope for the best results. It had often been said, looking at Ireland, and all the advantages given her by Providence—her fertile soils and noble rivers—that never was there a country—So blest by God—so cursed by man!Be it his to remove, by the consent of the House, some part of the curse, and he confidently hoped she would inherit the blessing.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
§ LORD NAAS
said, no one could be more ready than himself to bear testimony to the diligence exhibited by his hon. Friend in getting up this subject, and the intimate knowledge he had exhibited of it in all its details; neither did any Member of the House feel more deeply than he did the great importance of the question. It was a question of immense difficulty, involving complicated interests, which had from time to time, more than any similar question, occupied the attention of Parliament, and had been in Ireland a most fruitful source of litigation. But he must confess that the remarks of his hon. 954 Friend had not altered the opinion he had formed regarding it. The impression on his mind was that it was perfectly impossible that any independent Member of that House could deal satisfactorily with the question. He would briefly refer to the course of past legislation on the subject. In 1842 an Act was passed which repealed or consolidated twenty-six former Acts of Parliament, extending over the whole period of our Parliamentary history, the first dating as far back as the reign of Edward IV. This Act created an entirely new fishery code. Since that Act passed it had been found necessary, within the short space of ten years, to amend it, and in that time no less than six Acts of Parliament, bearing on the subject, had received the sanction of that House. He would not affirm that the state of the law regarding the salmon fisheries of Ireland was satisfactory. No doubt there had been of late years an unprecedented decrease in the supply of fish yielded by them. This had been attributed by many to the operation of the Act of 1842, and also to various causes which that Act of 1842 did not affect. Amongst these might be specified the increase in the number of stake-nets, and also the greatly increased amount of drainage, rendering all parts of the country near the beds of rivers more liable to floods. But whatever might be the real cause of the increased supply, it was undoubtedly the result of over-fishing. There was no doubt whatever that there was at present a far greater amount of salmon caught in Ireland in the course of a year than could be obtained from the fair product of the fisheries. The fact was, that the salmon were not now allowed to ascend the rivers to feed, and he believed that to be the main source of the falling-off in the supply. That being the case, it seemed to him that legislative interference was undoubtedly necessary. But his hon. Friend proposed to deal with this question in rather a peculiar manner. In every fishing river of Ireland there were three or four great interests concerned in the fisheries. There were the proprietors of the coast fisheries, and those on the lower parts and mouths of the rivers; then there were the owners of fixed engines, made of wood or other material, salmon weirs; and, thirdly, there were the proprietors in the upper part of the rivers. The way in which his hon. Friend proposed to deal with this question, and increase the supply of fish, was by sweeping 955 away one of those interests altogether [Mr. CONOLLY: No, no!] That was the effect of the Bill as it at present stood.
§ MR. CONOLLY
said, the 66th Clause laid the foundation of a fairc ompromise, by prohibiting stake-nets at the points where they were calculated to be most prejudicial, and allowing the upper proprietors a fair share of the fishery. He did not propose to interfere further.
§ LORD NAAS
could only deal with the Bill as he found it, and must contend that the effect of the clause would be what he had stated. The opinion of the stake-net owners was, that their rights were in all cases guaranteed by the Act of 1842, and that they had as good a right to take the fish in their stake nets as his hon. Friend who held a fishery granted by charter. They said that they possessed a Parliamentary right to their fishery; and he could not conceive that the proprietors of stake-nets were prepared to sacrifice their rights for any compromise with the upper proprietors; and it would be inflicting a great injury upon them if in any measure brought forward, those rights were infringed. The hon. Gentleman proposed, then, to increase the supply of fish by sweeping away one interest altogether from the rivers of Ireland. He (Lord Naas) must express his belief that it would be necessary for the Government to deal with this question, and to propose a measure which would have the effect of increasing the supply of fish; but he believed that Government would inflict a great injustice were they to propose any measure which would have the effect of destroying rights that existed by Act of Parliament. Since the passing of the Act establishing those rights, they had been in many cases sold and resold, and a proposal to touch them involved grave questions of property. The titles of proprietors were dear to them as establishing those rights, and he could conceive no greater infringement of the rights of property than an Act of Parliament to sweep them away altogether. He believed, however, that a measure was required affecting the interests concerned, and that it would be necessary for any gentleman holding the situation which he had now the honour to fill, should the diminution of supply continue and be aggravoted, to propose a measure considerably reducing the period of the fishing season, with the view of limiting the power of capture. His hon. Friend proposed to create a new fishery board in Dublin, and 956 to take away the jurisdiction at present exercised by the Board of Works in Ireland. He was not prepared to deny that this might be a salutary measure, but it was evidently a matter for the consideration of the Government. It involved the creation of a new Government board, and many important details which it was impossible that a private Member could efficiently deal with. He assured his hon. Friend, however, that if the Government should be enabled to take the matter up, they would give this part of the subject the fullest attention. He believed that the Bill, as it at present stood, would inflict great injustice upon some most valuable and important interests in the south of Ireland; and under these circumstances, in the present state of public business in this almost expiring Parliament, he hoped his hon. Friend would not further press the measure. He would only add, that he had the greatest objection to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. He had served on many such Committees, and he had never known any good come out of them, and, except in very peculiar cases, he should always oppose the reference of any Bill connected with Ireland to a Select Committee. If his hon. Friend would withdraw the Bill, he promised that the subject should receive the most careful consideration of the Government.
§ MR. MONSELL
said, he was glad to hear that it was the intention of Government to oppose this Bill. He could corroborate the statements which had been made by the hon. Member (Mr. Conolly) with respect to the decrease of fish, which, in the part of the country where he (Mr. Monsell) resided, had taken place chiefly since the House had begun to legislate upon the subject. In order to show the impossibility of this question being dealt with by a private Member, he might mention that one of the provisions of this Bill went to prevent the erection of stake weirs within a certain distance of the mouth of a navigable river; the mouth of a river being defined to be, when it began to be two miles wide. Great injury would be inflicted upon the proprietors of the river Shannon by this clause, as the weirs for a very considerable distance up the river must then be destroyed. He mentioned this to show the necessity of the subject being taken up by Government, who would consider the interests of the whole country.
§ MR. F. SCULLY
said, he willingly expressed his satisfaction that the Govern- 957 ment were about to take up the subject, which would at once put an end to all the uncertainties that prevailed, and which acted most injuriously on the supply of fish. Parliament voted annually 14,000l. to improve the deep-sea fisheries in Scotland—a similar sum voted for the use of Ireland might be employed most advantageously to increase the supply of fish. He hoped that such legislation would take place as would finally settle the question, for the effect of continual alteration in the law relating to fisheries was to weaken confidence and to prevent the improvement of the country. This Bill omitted many provisions which might be usefully introduced, while it contained others which would be highly injurious. It related only to estuaries, and omitted all attempt to deal with the upper waters, where the chief difficulties occurred. It was the duty of the Government to deal fairly between the conflicting interests in the upper and lower waters. The millowners had in many cases been the means of destroying great numbers of fish, and he thought that there should be some mode adopted by which they should be compelled to provide a passage for the fish over the mill weir. He thought also that no weirs should be allowed to remain in estuaries, rivers, or tide-ways, if it could be proved that they had been illegally established. The Government should also see that the duties which had been neglected by the Board of Works should be performed by a board of fisheries. He hoped the hon. Member for Donegal (Mr. Conolly) would withdraw this Bill, which had not received, and was not likely to receive, the support of any of the Irish Members.
§ MR. H. HERBERT
wished to impress upon the Government the importance of dealing with the subject, because it was an undoubted fact that since the last legislation, and in consequence of that legislation, there had been a great decrease in the produce of the Irish fisheries. He hoped, therefore, that some sound measure would be passed upon this subject, for he believed that no step could be taken which would be attended with greater advantage to the country. He believed that the arbitrary and ill-judged interference with private rights which had been exercised by the present Board of Works had led to no public advantages, but had, on the contrary, been one of the causes of the decline in the number of fish. He trusted that the pretest Bill would be withdrawn.
§ CAPTAIN JONES
said, that he believed that every fish that came into the rivers might be taken during the open season, but he believed that that season was at present too long. He did not think that the proper remedy for the present state of things was to allow some to fish and to prevent others, but to lengthen the close season, and to protect the fish in the upper waters during the spawning season. He approved of the attempt to consolidate the law and to establish a fishery board; but he thought that the subject should be left in the hands of the Government. He had hoped that the hon. Member for Donegal would, after the general expression of opinion, have consented to withdraw his Bill; but as he had not done so, he would move that the Bill should be read a second time that day six months.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ SIR WILLIAM SOMERVILLE
hoped that his hon. Friend (Mr. Conolly) would not press the Motion to a division, as he did not think that he would benefit the Irish fisheries by forcing this measure on a reluctant House of Commons at the present moment. He was glad to hear that the Government were about to enter upon the consideration of this subject, for the annual decrease in the produce of the Irish salmon fisheries was a most serious thing for that country, and was a point which called for the most anxious attention of every one interested in that country. He believed that the noble Lord (Lord Naas) was mistaken in the belief that great benefit would be derived from an extension of the close season. In his inquiry he hoped that the noble Lord would not lose sight of the vested interests created by the Bill of 1842. If the noble Lord determined upon doing anything on this subject, he would suggest that he should begin to do it with as little delay as possible. It was difficult to resist the impression that the falling-off in the produce of the fisheries was in some degree owing to the recent legislation on that subject. The noble Lord had properly remarked, that the difficulty of dealing with the subject was increased by the opposite interests which existed. It was difficult to persuade the owner of a stake net not to avail himself of it to the greatest possible extent for his own private advan- 959 tage; but what was desirable was, that the owners of the fixed weirs, the owners of the stake nets at the mouths of rivers, and the other interests connected with the subject, should be induced to look at it as if they were all concerned in the same matter. He believed that there were not in Ireland two more excellent officers than the two Commissioners who had the control of the fisheries.
§ MR. WHITESIDE
thought the legislation which had taken place upon the subject of Irish fisheries furnished a very instructive lesson to the House. A considerable number of Acts of Parliament had already been passed, and the present Bill, which was proposed to consolidate former statutes, contained no less than 169 clauses. He admitted that previous legislation had not been very successful, but he doubted whether any legislation could be devised which could assist the operations of nature in producing more salmon. It was impossible that a measure of such great magnitude could be perfectly discussed and passed in the present Session. His hon. Friend proposed that there should be two boards of Commissioners. That, in his opinion, was a matter for the consideration of the Government. His hon. Friend proposed to protect the navigation of the Irish rivers; but the existing Acts gave sufficient power to prevent obstructions to the navigation. There were clauses in the Bill which would interfere with existing rights, and he thought the House ought to pause before they consented to sweep away rights which were created by Act of Parliament. No doubt it was expedient that an inquiry should be instituted to ascertain the causes of the diminution of salmon in Ireland; and the hon. Member (Mr. Conolly) must admit, from the statement of the noble Lord the Secretary for Ireland, that there was a disposition on the part of the Government to do everything that was necessary for that purpose. His surprise was, not that there had been a diminution of salmon, but that a single salmon was to be found in Ireland. It was impossible for salmon to grow large when they were killed young, or to multiply before they were married. If any legislative measure could be devised to remedy the evil, he was certain the Government would consider it their duty to propose it to the House.
§ MR. FREWEN
said, that great injury had been done in consequence of the Act of 1842 fixing one close season for the whole of Ireland, whereas previously each 960 river had had its own close season suited to the habits of the fish in that particular locality.
§ MR. CONOLLY
said, that in withdrawing the Bill, he did so, relying on the assurance that the noble Lord (Lord Naas) would take up the subject as soon as possible, with the bonâ fide intention of dealing with it as it required.
§ Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn. Bill withdrawn.