HC Deb 04 May 1866 vol 183 cc441-5

said, he rose to call attention to the present state of the public Oyster Fisheries of Ireland, and to a trial at the last Spring Assizes in the county of Sligo, where the validity of the title of an Oyster Licence, granted by the Fishery Commissioners of Ireland, was, for the first time, called into question, and to ask Mr. Attorney General for Ireland, if it is the intention of the Government to introduce a Bill to carry out the "recommendations" of the Royal Commissioners on Sea Coast Fisheries by granting titles which shall be "final and conclusive." He might remark that whereas one of the principal causes of the present poverty of Ireland was the want of industrial employment for its people, its oyster fisheries, which were capable of vast extension, might furnish employment for large numbers of the population, create a hardy race of seamen for the public service, and supply the kingdom with an excellent article of food, the demand for which was increasing as rapidly as the supply were diminishing. The east coast of England was the best adapted for oyster culture in this country, but the temperature of the sea-water was too low, and the Herne Bay Oyster Company had been advised by Mr. F. Buckland to construct large banks on the shore and heat them by means of hot water pipes. Now, the south and west coasts of Ireland, having a higher temperature, were well adapted for oyster culture, but the public oyster beds through neglect, improvidence and over-dredging, were undergoing a rapid process of destruction, the great increase in the value of the article and the construction of railways to many of the ports having greatly aggravated the evil during the last few years. The Fishery Commissioners of Ireland had done what they could to enlarge the supply, but with few exceptions their efforts had been without success. In the Reports Of the Fishery Commissioners for 1844, 1850, 1851, 1855, 1857, 1859, 1864, and others, they deplore the steady and continuous deterioration of the public oyster beds of Ireland. The public oyster beds in Ireland would have been more completely exhausted still but for the fact, that in the neighbourhood of most of them there were private beds in which a good supply of oysters had been kept up, and the young oysters floated from the private beds, and, settling down upon the public beds, kept up a supply there. The great demand for oysters of late years had led to many of the private beds being encroached upon; and when the owners took legal proceedings, it was found almost impossible to establish, without a licence from the Fishery Commissioners, a legal right to hold a portion of the bed of the sea. Under these circumstances, some very valuable private beds had been abandoned, and in a short time they were completely exhausted by being over-fished. He believed it probable that in a short time there would not be a dozen private oyster beds on the coast of Ireland, except those which were held under licence from the Fishery Commissioners. This state of things had been admitted in 1845, when by the 8 & 9 Vict. c. 108, power was given to the Fishery Commissioners to grant licences to private individuals to hold for oyster beds parts of the bed of the sea between high and low water mark. It appeared that in France ground so situated had been successfully applied to the purpose of oyster beds; but in Ireland such ground was unsuitable for the purpose, because oysters were very susceptible to the influence of frost, and a severe frost occurring when the tide was out, would destroy an oyster bed so placed. In 1850, therefore, a new Act was passed empowering the Fishery Commissioners to grant licences for ground lying beyond low water mark, and a considerable number of such licences were granted; but many persons who obtained them found that the task of cultivating oysters was more difficult and expensive than they had anticipated, and the work was therefore not carried out. The Commissioners thereupon consulted the Law Officers of the Crown, and under their advice licences were in future granted upon the condition that the ground should, within a time named, be planted with oysters to the satisfaction of the Commissioners. Licences so granted were until recently universally believed to give an indefeasible Parliamentary title to the ground, and in such belief, many persons had invested large sums of money in planting oyster beds on the coast of Ireland. However, in March last a decision was given which showed that such licences were not worth the paper on which they were written, and that the only course for persons who had expended money in planting the grounds to adopt was to dredge up their oysters and give up the undertaking. Sir Robert Gore Booth, a gentleman of property, having invested a large sum of money in planting oyster beds in Sligo Bay, prosecuted some men who had attempted to fish for the oysters. The men were tried at the Sligo Assizes before Mr. Justice O'Brien, who in his charge to the jury laid down the law distinctly, that if the ground in respect of which the Commissioners had granted the licence had at any time been public fishing-ground such licence was void; and, indeed, the Act contained the provision that the Commissioners should not license to private individuals any ground which had previously been a public bed. But any one who read the whole clause would see that it was intended that this question should be determined previously to granting the licence, and the Commissioners did, in fact, hold public inquiries before granting any licence, and deter- mined whether or not the ground had been a public bed, and the determination of the Commissioners had always been considered final and conclusive. Now, however, it appeared that their decision might be disputed years afterwards, and after a very large sum of money had been spent upon the ground; and the case of Sligo had created the greatest dismay among those engaged in the cultivation of oysters on the coast of Ireland. One gentleman, who had expended £14,000 or £15,000 in this way in four years, wrote to him to say that, in consequence of the decision, he had given orders at once to contract all operations as much as possible with the view of giving up the speculation. Another gentleman, Captain Wray, who had obtained a licence of 400 or 500 acres in Crew Bay, and who had been getting dredges of a superior description for deep-sea fishing, expressed the greatest alarm at the present state of things. The Royal Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Sea Coast Fisheries not only on the coast of England, but also on that of Ireland, had made several recommendations which he thought ought to be adopted. Among their recommendations were the following:— While we do not consider it expedient to impose any general restrictions upon the fishing of inshore oyster or mussel beds, we strongly recommend that every legislative assistance be given to individuals or corporations who may desire to form private beds for oyster or mussel culture.…We are disposed to think that the most convenient course would be to empower a public Board to grant leases of the sea bottom, after making proper inquiry into the circumstances of each case. Such power should only be exercised after proper notice to the public at the place proposed to be so dealt with, and with due consideration of the interests of the existing fishing population; and an appeal from the decision of the Board should be given to the Privy Council, whose decision should be final and conclusive as to any claim of the public to dredge or fish over the ground so granted. What he desired was that the Government would give effect to the recommendations of the Commissioners; and he thought that as much money had been expended in the belief that the licences granted were good the provision should be of an ex post facto character, and all existing licences should be declared good and valid. The local inquiries should be made compulsory, and not left optional, as they were at present; and the decisions, when made, should be published in some manner or another, so that the public might learn what had been done. He believed that the Fishery Commissioners of Ireland would be able in a couple of days to frame such an Act as would remedy the defects in the present state of things. Such a measure as he had indicated would, he believed, meet with no opposition from Irish Members, and would occupy but little of the time of Parliament, while it would tend much to develop the industry and the natural resources of Ireland, affording at the same time a remunerative and continuous employment to the maritime portion of the population. He earnestly hoped that the Government would deal with the question during the present Session, for if not, he feared that there would be a regular raid upon the licensed oyster beds on the opening of the next season.