HC Deb 23 February 1866 vol 181 cc970-9

said, that perhaps he might be allowed to make a few remarks by way of introduction and explanation to the Question which stood in his name. It might not be generally known that the oyster fishers of the south coast—those, that was to say, west of the North Foreland—laboured under disabilities from which those upon all other coasts were exempt. This, however, was unfortunately the case, and for this reason:—In the year 1839 a Convention was concluded between England and France, the chief object of which was to reserve the exclusive right of fishing within a certain distance of the shore to the subjects of the respective countries. Unfortunately, those who were intrusted with the preparation of the Convention did not confine themselves to this, but drew up a series of regulations which might be found embodied in no less than eighty-nine clauses in the schedule to the Act of 1843, by which the Convention was carried into effect. These clauses contained minute regulations respecting fisheries which ought never to have formed part of such a Convention, and for this reason—that under it they were not applied to places in which France and England had common jurisdiction, but either to the sea within the three mile limit, where the municipal authorities alone had cither interest or power to enforce them, or to the deep sea beyond those limits, which was common to all the world; and in which we might create artificial disabilities for each other, but could not impose them upon other nations, who were free to act as they pleased. The attempt by France and England to enforce special restrictions in localities over which they had no power was not more reasonable than if they were to make Game Laws for the preservation of antelopes in South Africa. The framers of these regulations seemed, however, to have proceeded on the assumption that the whole channel between England and France was under the co-ordinate jurisdiction of the two countries. The moment the attempt was made to carry out the new Act it proved so burdensome that the authorities began at once to modify and evade it by the convenient means of Orders in Council. First, it was decided that the Convention was not in force within the three mile limit. Next, it was held that it applied only to coasts west of the North Foreland, though the terms were clearly intended to have a more extensive meaning; so that, practically, it had been reduced to the deep sea between England and France, which was open to all the world, and fished by Belgians and Dutch, who were subject to no restrictions. Indeed, the latter practical people had set us the example of abolishing all restrictions as to close months and peculiar modes of fishing, and, as it was stated, a marked improvement had since taken place in the condition of their fishing industry. After what had been said, no one would wonder that there was scarcely a clause in the Act about which lawyers did not differ. Sometimes an ignorant, hardworking fisherman became the helpless victim of an over-zealous cruiser or Customs officer; he submitted perforce. As one of the Shoreham witnesses said, "We are poor people, and cannot stand against the Government." "But when powerful companies defied interference a message came down from the Board of Trade that, by the advice of the Law Officers of the Crown, the regulations had better not be enforced. In other cases prosecutions had commenced and never concluded. While there was this general objection to the Convention, that it was framed upon the assumption that France and England had jurisdiction over the whole channel, there was this in addition—that it also took for granted that the same enactments were suitable for the whole wide range. Hence, some were extremely mischievous, and none more so than those which fixed the close time for oysters. These were applicable, indeed, to the shallow water beds near the shore, the only ones the framers of the Convention knew anything of, and followed the well known rule of the months without an "r," in other words, dredging was prohibited from April to September. Unfortunately, the only beds where this could be enforced were those to which it did not apply. The deep sea beds were from twenty to fifty miles from shore, of such enormous extent that boats dredged the! same bank thirty miles apart, and new ones were constantly discovered. In these the fish spawned when they spawned at all, in July and August; and consequently, the month of the whole year when they were in worst condition was September, when the fishing began, and the best in May and June, when it was forbidden. Hence, the dredgers were forced by the shortness of time they had for stocking their beds to bring oysters in at the very time they would not, if left to their own discretion. The Convention was not intended to apply to these banks, which were not known in 1839, and for years the dredgers worked all the year round. But in 1852 complaints were made by the French, and the Act of 1855 was passed, which was so stringent that the Shoreham fishermen were not allowed to carry their dredges in their boats to the east coast, but were compelled to send them by railway, at great expense, till relaxation was procured last year, permitting them to be carried if tied up and sealed by the Customs. In 1859 this subject was brought before the House by Sir George Pechell, M.P. for Brighton, and since his death he (Mr. Cave) had been so impressed with the hardship of the case that he had frequently introduced it at the risk of appearing importunate. In 1863 Mr. Fen-wick, M.P. for Sunderland, and himself, moved for a Royal Commission, and, though the Motion was resisted by the President of the Board of Trade, a majority of the House decided that sufficient cause had been shown; and he might, perhaps, take it as some evidence that it was not considered a very unreasonable proceeding by the powers that be, since his co-conspirator was now a Member of the Government which then opposed the Motion. He heard before this that communications had been made to the French Government, but the reply was that they must have the whole Convention or none, and the impression was that they pressed this point, which could be of no importance to them, in order to get rid of all. After two years' inquiry, the Commissioners had come to the same conclusion with himself, and recommended the termination of the Convention and the repeal of the Acts enforcing it. They asserted that the restrictions were injurious to the fishermen, by paralyzing their trade and inducing them to break the law; injurious to the oyster-beds, which, according to all evidence, were most productive when most worked and cleared from mud and weed; and injurious to the public, by restricting the supply at the very time the oysters were most fit for food. He hoped, therefore, Her Majesty's Government intended to carry into effect the recommendations of the Commissioners with the least possible delay. He had heard of arrangements for an International Commission to go again into the whole matter; but surely this was unnecessary in a question which was more one of principle than of detail—whether, namely, any restrictions should be imposed upon our fishermen in respect of seas which were open to all the world. The time was drawing near when the restrictions would be again in force—when, after a most stormy winter, which must have unusually curtailed their operations, the fishermen of the southern coast would find their means of livelihood suspended by an arbitrary law, while they would have the mortification of seeing whole fleets pursue beyond an imaginary line the honest industry from which they were debarred. He therefore implored the Government to consider whether notice of the termination of the Convention could not at once be given to the French Government, and, without trespassing longer on the patience of the House he begged to ask the Question, Whether the Government intend to carry into effect the recommendation of the Deep Sea Fishery Commission respecting the Deep Sea Oyster Fishery?


said, that in the interest of a large number of his constituents, he must entirely endorse the statement of the hon. Gentleman, and join in the hope he had expressed, that the Government would see the necessity of taking immediate action upon the Report of the Royal Commission, and that if it were really necessary to settle the matter by an International Commission, the Government would get it appointed forthwith. He should like to see the powers of the French Convention largely altered, if not totally repealed. Since 1843 the regulations of the Convention Act had been nothing but a fruitful source of jealousy, difficulty, and misunderstanding, not merely between the fishermen of England and France, but also between our own fishermen and the Government of this country. Not only had those provisions been extensively evaded with the knowledge and consent of Her Majesty's Government, but the highest legal authorities differed as to the manner in which the regulations ought to be interpreted. It was a moot point, for example, whether the provisions of the Convention had any force within the three mile coast line, or whether they referred only to the deep water. And he further believed no one could say where the coast line commenced and where it ended. If you put the question to the Board of Trade, they would tell you probably that the coast line regulations applied to the whole of the southern and eastern coast. If, on the other hand, you asked the fishermen themselves, they would answer that the Board of Trade had itself drawn a line from the North Foreland on one coast to Dunkirk on the other, north of which the coast line regulations had no application; and, in point of fact, when a year or two since the Board of Trade tried to enforce its own view on the Colchester fishermen, the fishermen of Colchester defied the Government to send cruisers after them; and though he never heard that a naval engagement had taken place, he believed that a civil action was still pending between the Board of Trade and the Colchester fishermen on this question. The Commissioners, in their Report, forcibly pointed out the difficulty of carrying out the law, and the uncertainty attending its administration. They said— It is obvious that the uncertainty attending the law must be very prejudicial to the interests of the oyster trade, and, in fact, the law is administered very differently, according to the views which the commanders of cruisers take of the Convention. A dredgerman of Colchester thus described it to us:—'The commander of one cutter will come on board a vessel and say, You ought only to have oysters of such a size; and another will say, You ought not to have a dredge on board; and a third, that we ought not to be here; and the next that we ought not to be there. What with all these different opinions, we never know what we ought to do. In point of fact, the interference to which we are subjected has regularly paralyzed our trade. We are obliged to act contrary to the law; if we did not we should starve, or should have to seek some other mode of gaining a living.' The Government must feel that all that perplexity and misconstruction must be very prejudicial to the trade affected by it; and therefore he must express his earnest hope that, if immediate legislation on the subject were impossible, the Government would use their best endeavours to have an International Commission in order, if possible, totally to repeal the present vexatious regulations, or at all events to have the moot question of the coast limit thoroughly determined. He joined with the hon. Member for Shore-ham (Mr. Cave), in asking the Government to effect some relaxation of the close month system. The close time extended from the 1st of May to the 30th of August; and deep sea fishing was during that time prohibited to the deep sea fishermen of England and France, although dredging was carried on within the coast line with the connivance of the Government and deep sea fishing was not interdicted to the fishermen of other nations. The fishermen of Essex, as well as those of Sussex, looked upon that as a very great hardship. There was only one unanimous opinion among all engaged in deep sea dredging—that it would be a great boon to the trade if the close month period were, if not abolished, at least relaxed so as to allow of deep sea fishing during the months of May and June. The facts of the case he believed to be that the spawning or "spatting" time, as it was called, of the deep sea oyster was at least two months later than that of the oyster in beds within the coast line and in shallower water, certainly the deep sea oyster was never better, or in finer condition, than during the months of May and June. Another reason which rendered the relaxation of the close month system imperatively necessary was the fact that the Convention was originally drawn up under the mistaken idea that a certain period for lying fallow was essential to maintain the productiveness of the oyster beds. That was an entirely exploded notion. All the authorities on oyster-culture, including Mr. Frank Buckland, agreed that, the more they dredged an oyster-bed, the more productive it was; and that to let a bed lie fallow for any length of time was tantamount to causing its destruction, by the accumulation of mud, sea grass, and sea vermin of all kinds. And in this respect the natural history of the sea resembled that of the land, that these months of May and June were precisely those in which the greatest growth of sea grass took place, and in which repeated dredging was necessary for cleansing the beds, if for no other purpose. If, therefore, the months of May and June were given for the carrying on of the deep sea fishing, not only would the supply of oysters in our markets be increased, but the oyster trade would be materially benefited, and a great improvement effected in the condition of thousands of hard-working men now dependent on that calling for their subsistence. With regard to the formation of private companies, he believed there were many parts of this coast where the French system of oyster-culture might be fully and fairly tried. But in appropriating any ground for that purpose care ought to be taken to avoid any ground where public fishing was already extensively carried on, and where a public right might be said to exist. Before grants were made the grounds ought, as much as possible, to be put up to public competition, and some guarantee should be required that they would be effectually worked, that a large increase in the supply of oysters would be the consequence of any such grant; and that it was the intention of those who applied for a grant to cultivate the ground in an efficient manner, and not as had been tried before now, under pretence of forming a company to get a monopoly of public ground into the hands of a few fishermen only. He thought the whole question, not of our oyster fisheries only, but of our fisheries generally, was one of great importance, and he trusted they would receive an assurance from the Government that immediate action would be taken upon it.


, as representing the people of Colchester, who thought they alone possessed the real "natives," wished to say a few words on that subject. He could confirm all that had been said by the hon. Member opposite in reference to the deep sea fishing. In conjunction with other gentlemen he had been to the Board of Trade, in order to induce the Department to interfere in regard to the treaty with France. One great object of the fishermen on our eastern coast was to obtain an extension of the period of fishing for the deep sea oysters, which were in the finest condition during the months of May and June. That fact, however, had not been discovered at the time when the treaty was made, and the fishing months were fixed. The object of the Coln Fishery Company was at present to obtain a positive assurance as to the line of demarcation over which the French Treaty extended. The East coast fishermen held that they ought to be enabled to fish in the German Ocean, from which they were supposed to be excluded by the French Convention.


desired to add his testimony to that already given, as to the excellent condition in which the deep sea oyster was in May and June, and impressed upon the Government the necessity of their speedily taking the whole subject into consideration.


observed, that living in the neighbourhood of an important fishing station on the coast of Ireland, he wished to call the attention of the President of the Board of Trade to the condition of this branch of industry in Ireland, and to the desirability of giving the earliest possible effect to the recommendations of the Commissioners. It would, no doubt, be within the recollection of the House that, when Mr. Fenwick, the late Member for Sunderland, moved an Address to the Crown for a Royal Commission to inquire into the Sea Fisheries of the United Kingdom, the Government opposed the Motion, which, however, was ultimately carried by a small majority. He thought the country, and especially Ireland, had reason to rejoice that the Motion was successful, for the inquiry had proved to be one of great national importance. He had himself attended some of the meetings of the Commissioners in Ireland, and he could bear testimony to the intelligence, zeal, and urbanity with which the inquiry was carried out, and which resulted in the production of an enormous amount of useful evidence, terminating with a valuable Report, which he had no hesitation in saying was one of the most complete and trustworthy that had been presented to Parliament for a very long period. The Commissioners made two recommendations with respect to Ireland, which he wished to impress upon the Government. They stated that there was a great falling off in the number of boats and men employed along the coast. In the year 1830 there were 13,119 vessels of all classes, and 64,771 men and boys employed in the trade. In 1836, when the stimulus of bounties or loan funds was withdrawn, the number of vessels fell to 10,761, and the men and boys to 54,119. In 1845, immediately before the famine, the number of vessels was 19,883, and the men and boys 93,073; in 1848 (after the famine), the number of vessels fell to 15,932, and the men and boys to 70,111; while last year the number of vessels was but 9,300, and the hands had fallen to 40,946. This showed a diminution within the last twenty years of 10,583 boats, and of 52,127 men. The Commissioners added that the numbers given for 1865, reduced as they were, still appeared to be large as compared with the produce of the fisheries indicated by the railway returns and the supplies in the principal markets. But it was explained to them that a very small portion of the 40,000 men and boys stated to be employed in the fisheries were fishermen in the true sense of the term. The fishing population in many parts of Ireland had not yet recovered from the depression and ruin caused by the famine; while the subsequent emigration had taken off the ablest of the fishermen, leaving behind the old, the feeble, and the incompetent. These causes naturally led to a considerable falling-off in the general supply of fish from the Irish coast; but the Commissioners were of opinion that, if double the number of men made a living wholly or in part by fishing twenty years ago, it was not to be supposed that over-fishing within the last few years could have contributed to that result. They believed that "with greater enter-prize, skill, and capital, a greatly increased supply of fish might be produced from the seas round Ireland." The Commissioners recommended that all Acts of Parliament which profess to regulate or restrict the modes of fishing pursued in the open seas should be repealed, and that unrestricted freedom of fishing be permitted hereafter. Finally, they recommended that all restrictions which prevent foreign fishermen from entering British or Irish ports for the sale of fish be removed in Great Britain and Ireland, and that measures be taken to secure the like freedom for British fishermen in foreign ports. Previous to the withdrawal of the bounty system the fishing trade flourished to a certain extent on the Irish coast, because an inducement was offered to invest capital in that particular enterprize, but the bounties were discontinued because they were considered contrary to the principles of political economy, and the trade decreased. Now, however, he was happy to say that since the Commissioners had held their inquiry a more hopeful feeling prevailed in Ireland. Their Report was received with general satisfaction. Since its publication seven or eight joint-stock fishing companies had been started. One of these had a capital of £30,000, and so well was it thought of by the public that the shares were at once taken up, and there was not one to be had in the market at present. One or two steamers intended to be employed in the trade were also in the course of construction, in the hope that the present unwise and unjust restrictions would be removed. The removal of these restric- tions would give an immense impetus to the trade in Ireland, would furnish remunerative employment to a great number of people, and would supply the English markets with an abundant supply of cheap and wholesome food. There was another subject in connection with the subject of Irish fisheries which he wished to mention, as it was essential to the success of the trade. Twenty years ago a sum of £20,000 was granted to assist persons interested in the fishing trade in the construction of suitable piers. That sum had been all expended, and he was sorry to say that a considerable portion of it had been diverted from its original object, for, instead of piers being built to accommodate fishing-boats, the money got into the hands of landowners, and it was expended for the accommodation of turf boats and for other purposes. Now, he begged to represent that unless some funds were found to build piers, and to provide harbour facilities for fishing-boats on the south and south-west coast of Ireland, it would be impossible to carry out the recommendations of the Fishery Commissioners. Tramore, in the county of Waterford, for instance, was a considerable fishing station, and the persons interested in the trade raised two-thirds of the sum necessary to entitle them to get one-third from the fund, and after this great effort had been made they were told that there was no more money, as the whole fund had been exhausted. Another essential element for the development of the Irish fisheries, in addition to carrying out the recommendations of the Commissioners, and providing suitable piers and harbour facilities, would be the placing of the fisheries under some vigorous and efficient central authority. This was a matter of great importance, and he ventured respectfully to urge it upon the attention of the President of the Board of Trade; also the desirability of giving immediate effect to the recommendations of the Royal Commissioners.