HC Deb 13 September 1887 vol 321 cc496-502
MR. HUNTER (Aberdeen, N.)

said, this being the last opportunity which the Scotch Members would have of saying anything to the Scotch Department before the close of the Session, and as very important appointments to vacancies in the Scotch Fishery Board were to be made in the course of the autumn, he must invite the attention of the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate (Mr. J. H. A. Macdonald) to the representations which had been made to the Government by the Scottish fishermen through their Representatives in Parliament. The fishermen throughout the whole of Scotland were agreed on one thing—namely, that the constitution of the Scotch Fishery Board was most unsatisfactory. The members of the Board were so constituted as to give an undue preference—if he might use the expression—to the fresh water fisheries. At all events, it was so constituted as to lead to the neglect of the sea fisheries; and there was not, he believed, a member of that Board who had any practical acquaintance with the sea and herring fisheries. Now, as these appointments were to be made this year, it was most important that whoever the Government might choose for membership of the Board should be persons practically acquainted with the sea fishings, and particularly with the herring fishing. The fishermen had made representations to the Government to the effect that some means should be adopted to ascertain their opinions with regard to the persons who ought to be appointed. This was not a case in which he thought that representation was of the first consequence, but it was a case in which efficiency was of the first consequence; and he trusted the Government would give their best attention to securing some person—he did not say whether he should be a fisherman or a curer—but, at all events, some person who was practically acquainted with sea and herring fishing. He hoped also the Government would, during the Recess, take into their consideration the advisability of amending the Act under which the Scotch Fishery Board was appointed, so that greater satisfaction might be given to the fishermen of Scotland. There was another point to which he wished the Government to give their attention during the Recess. Recently a Paper was sent round to hon. Members, giving particulars with regard to the mussel beds round the coast of Scotland. He found those beds might be divided into three categories—(1) those which belonged to the Crown; (2) those which were alleged to belong to private individuals, but for the use of which no charge was made; and (3) those which were alleged to belong to private individuals, and for which a charge was made. What he submitted was this—that where mussel beds were established by the industry of any person, it was reasonable that he should have remuneration for the industry which he had employed upon them; but where mussel beds were the gift of Nature, it was most unreasonable and unfair that any person should, under any pretext whatever, be allowed to impose a tax for the use of those beds. The total amount of money received for these beds was very small; and what he would suggest was that the Government should consider whether they might not adopt some arrangement by which compensation might be given to those proprietors who could prove that they were entitled to compensation, and by which all the mussel beds on the coast of Scotland should be taken under the control of the Crown. He made that suggestion because he anticipated that the Crown would grant the use of the beds or the produce of the beds on reasonable terms, and because, also, the Crown would be able to protect the beds from the injurious action of individuals. It was desirable that the beds should be preserved where it could be done with advantage, and he hoped the Government would give their earnest attention to the matter during the Recess. He wished, also, to call attention to an- other matter that greatly affected a portion of his own constituents—it was the action of the Scotch Fishery Board in regard to trawling. Some time ago the Board prohibited trawling within certain extremely narrow limits—namely, in Aberdeen Bay. The people in the locality desired that beam-trawling should be prohibited within three miles of the shore; and, if that were done, he believed that would not seriously interfere with legitimate trawling operations. It was the unanimous opinion of the fishermen in Aberdeen that during the time trawling was prohibited in the bay the white fishing very materially improved. But now the Government, for reasons best known to themselves, had withdrawn that prohibition of trawling. He understood that the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate was to give a statement of the reasons which had influenced the Fishery Board in withdrawing this prohibition; but he did not think the Paper had as yet been published. He would invite the earnest attention of the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate to this point—that the fishermen along the whole coast of Scotland were unanimously of opinion that beam-trawling should be prohibited within the three mile limit. The Scotch Fishery Board had power under the Statute to make that prohibition, and he invited them at the earliest possible moment to carry it into practice. There was only one other point to which he wished to invite the attention of the Government; but it was a matter of great importance in the present position of the herring fishery of Scotland. It appeared that for some years past the price that had been paid for Scotch herrings exported to the Continent had been very seriously reduced. He believed that the curer had not only not been making money, but had actually been losing it, and the fishermen had also been losing money. There could be little doubt that the falling off in the demand for Scotch herrings was, at all events, partially due to the fact that a great many herrings had been caught in an immature condition, and in that condition exported to the Continent, thus diminishing the prestige of the Scotch herrings. The fishermen themselves desired that a close time should be adopted in regard to herring catching for exportation. The fishermen recognized that this could not effectually be done by the Government alone; but they invited the Scotch Fishery Board in connection with the Foreign Office to take measures to procure a general Convention with foreign Powers, by which a close time should be made. The attention of the Board ought also to be directed to another point in connection with a subject brought before the House—namely, the Railway Traffic Bill. He observed a statement the other day by a fisherman at a meeting at Aberdeen who had been fishing from Anstruther that the cost of transit of the fish by railway for the past two years to certain markets had exceeded the amount realized by the sale of the fish when they arrived at their destination. He need not point out that in these circumstances the railway rates were entirely prohibitive, and were fatal to the development of the fishing industry. Of course, this was a question that was a large one, and he did not accuse the Railway Companies entirely of the blame; but, at the same time, he thought it was a matter to which the attention of the Scotch Fishery Board should be directed in order to obtain cheaper transit. It was also worthy of consideration, having regard to the food supply of large towns, whether the Government should not insist upon a special rate for fish carriage. If a low rate of carriage for fish were adopted the railways would recoup themselves by the increased quantity that would be sent over their lines. He invited the attention of the Government during the Recess to these points; and he trusted that before Parliament had again met something effectual would have been done for an industry which, at the present moment, was seriously languishing, and which required the immediate attention of the Scotch Department.


said, he wished to endorse and confirm all that his hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hunter) had said. He urged the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate to bring the matters referred to before the attention of the Secretary for Scotland. He desired also to say that he believed it would be highly beneficial if the mussel beds in his neighbouring county were placed under the charge of the Fishery Board. He was strongly convinced of the advantage of entrusting to the Fishery Board the control of the salmon fishings, now so badly exercised by the Crown Land Commissioners. A large revenue was now collected in Kincardineshire from the sea salmon fishings, and, as past experience showed, very indifferently collected, but would be carefully and well carried out by the fishery officers of the Fishery Board. He would also ask the Lord Advocate to bring to notice the necessity of improving the fishery harbours, for upon those improvements depended the extension of the Scotch fisheries. The appointment to the Fishery Board of a skilled engineer, on a salary, instead of one remunerated by fees, was a much-needed change. All these changes would be brought forward at the be ginning of next Session, and the action taken thereon inquired into.

THE LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. J. H. A. MACDONALD) (Edinburgh and St. Andrew's Universities)

The points which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hunter) has brought forward are before the Scotch Office at the present moment; and the opinions which he and other Scotch Members have at various times expressed upon it will receive, and are receiving, our best attention. My hon. and learned Friend referred to five points. The first question, of the Fishery Board, I think it must be plain to anyone that it is highly desirable there should be a representation on the Board which would be satisfactory to the fishing community themselves, as giving them confidence that there was someone on the Board who thoroughly understood their wants and requirements. I may say that that matter has been fully considered; but, as I pointed out before, there may be very great difficulty, possibly, in obtaining proper representatives of the fishermen among the fishermen themselves. It may not be easy to obtain fishermen of sufficient experience who can afford to lose the necessary amount of time to discharge the duties of an unpaid office. But we do hope that we shall be able to find someone who, if not altogether a practical fisherman, should be a person whom the fishermen will be satisfied will efficiently represent them on the Board. The question of mussel beds is one of great importance, and I may say that every Scotch Member will recognize that it is also a question of great diffi- culty. It will require to be considered with the greatest possible care; because it would be the most disastrous thing possible to make any change at all, if it were not effectual in increasing the store of mussels, and preventing them being frittered away, as too often, I am afraid, from the improvident habits of the fishermen, they have been frittered away in the past. With regard to beam-trawling, it must not be forgotten that this question is at present in an experimental stage. It is not allowable for the Scotch Fishery Board to take steps permanently shutting up any fishing ground until they have thoroughly satisfied themselves that fishing by any particular mode would be injurious to that fishery. They are at present engaged in experimental efforts with a view to determining this point, and it is quite evident that one of the most practical modes of arriving at a judgment upon beam-trawling is to allow beam-trawling in a particular district at one time, and to prohibit it at another time in the same district. This is exactly what has been done in the case of Aberdeen Bay. It has been prohibited for a certain time. It is now again open, and the result of this double experiment must be valuable in guiding us as to what is to be done round the whole country. My hon. and learned Friend has referred to the depreciation in the value of Scotch herrings during the last few years. That is a matter which also requires very careful consideration. I remember very well myself when the attempt to have a close time for small herrings in Scotland led to many disastrous scenes, and sometimes loss of life, on the West Coast in former days. It is a matter which requires grave consideration, and I shall take care that it is considered during the Recess. The last question which my hon. and learned Friend raised was in regard to railway rates. I am afraid that we in Scotland are too weak to effect anything in the matter, unless we are backed up by the more powerful interests in England, which are also deeply interested in the question. Trading people of all classes suffer most dreadfully in consequence of the extraordinary present arrangements of railway rates. But it certainly presses espeally hardly upon those who follow the fishing industry, which is an industry for which it is imperatively necessary to have the means of rapid transit to proper markets. I can corroborate what my hon. and learned Friend has stated—namely, that in some cases it has been distinctly proved that the cost of transit to suitable places in England is so high that the fish, when delivered and sold, actually do not realize as much as the rates that have been charged. That is a deplorable state of things which, it is hoped, may be met in some way or other; but I am afraid that I cannot undertake that the Scotch Fishery Board will deal with the question of railway rates.