HC Deb 02 April 1903 vol 120 cc965-75
MR. WEIR (ROSS and Cromarty)

called attention to the inadequate policing of the seas around the coasts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and to the serious losses sustained by the line fishermen through the depredations by illegal trawling. He was not opposed to trawling, there was plenty of room in the sea for both line fishermen and trawlers; but he did object to trawlers fishing within the three-mile limit prescribed by Parliament, and his complaint was of the lack of energy on the part of the Government in stopping illegal trawling. The cruisers at the disposal of the Scottish Fisheries Board were quite insufficient for the work. They were antiquated boats, with insufficient speed, whereas the trawlers could run at fourteen or fifteen knots. The Scottish Office would probably say that they had no funds at their disposal with which to provide further cruisers. But the Secretary for Scotland was a Member of the Cabinet, and it was his duty to go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and continue to go until he got the money he required. He was afraid the Secretary for Scotland had too much of the modesty which characterised his countrymen. If only they could have the Colonial Secretary as Secretary for Scotland for three or four months! The right hon. Gentleman managed to get millions out of the Chancellor of the Exchequer for all sorts of purposes, but the poor fishermen round the coasts were allowed to starve because the Government would not put a stop to this illegal trawling. There were a large number of cruisers and torpedo boats at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Devonport, and why not let some of them patrol around the coast of Scotland? The Admiralty said those vessels were merely for fighting purposes, but what magnificent exercise it would be for the men to cruise in Scottish waters for the protection of the fishing grounds. He could not understand why the Government did not realise the importance of keeping the line fishermen in the fishing villages, instead of allowing them to be driven off to the large towns and cities. One of their finest national assets was the large body of Scottish fishermen. In the event of naval war, the Government would regret the loss of these men. There was plenty of room both for line fishermen and trawlers, but the trawlers ought to keep outside the three-mile limit. The Government took no steps to negotiate for the exclusion of foreign trawlers from the Moray Firth. The Scottish Office should endeavour to arrange for the exclusion of foreign trawlers from the Moray Firth. If British trawlers registered under the Swedish or Norwegian flag, they were enabled as foreign trawlers to obtain access to the Moray Firth, and thus devastate the line fishing industry. He thought the Foreign Office ought to move in this matter, because the line fishermen were gradually being starved out, and the young men were being driven into the slums of large cities. The Scottish Office were much to blame for not obtaining additional and better cruisers for police purposes in order to put down these robbers of the sea.


said the hon. Member had described the trawlers as villains and robbers, but he had not produced a single fact or argument to show in what way they interfered with the line fishermen.


said what he stated was that there was plenty of room for both, but let the trawler keep outside the three-mile limit.


It was said that trawling interfered with the spat of the fish, but it had been shown that all the spawn did not lie upon the ground, but floated in the sea, and consequently trawling could not produce any effect upon it. No amount of trawling within the three-mile limit could interfere with the harvest of the line fishermen. If the line fisherman was not so prosperous, it might possibly be because he was not so industrious, and had not kept pace, as the trawler had, with the suggestions of modern science, and the requirements of modern fishing. The line fishermen might be using the old gear instead of the new. It was a cruel thing for the hon. Gentleman to make this violent attack, in which he used very strong words with regard to almost deserving class of men. He maintained that trawlers were comparatively few in number. The ground they trawled over was very large, and the same trawler could not scrape over more than a certain amount of ground. The hon. Member had spoken of trawling at fourteen miles an hour, but he believed that that was absolutely impossible, for the rate could scarcely ever exceed two or two and a half miles per hour.


I said he could get away from a cruiser at fourteen knots an hour.


doubted whether any trawler could achieve fourteen or fifteen knots per hour. He based his remonstrance upon the fact that the hon. Member had absolutely failed to show, and he defied him to show, that the trawler did any harm whatever to the line fishermen. There was another argument. The needs of this country with regard to fish were increasing year by year. Fish was an admirable and cheap article of diet, and the greater part of it was caught, and must be caught, by the trawler. Line fishermen were perfectly incapable of supplying the wants of this country, and most of the flat fish was caught by trawlers. If the large trawler did any mischief so did the small trawler, and the hon. Member had failed to show what mischief the trawler did. He thought it was rather cruel to make an attack upon the trawlers, who as sailors were some of the best men they could find, line fishermen were not to be compared with them. He always very much regretted to hear the annual attack which the hon. Member made upon the trawlers.


said he did not join in any attack on the trawlers. There must, he thought, be some good reason for the Government enforcing the prohibition on trawling in the Moray Firth; but they wanted to know why that prohibition had not been rendered effective. If the trawlers in the Moray Firth were prohibited from landing their catch at English ports, as they were prevented landing them at Scotch ports, the prohibition would be effective. As to the damage done by trawling, he thought there could be no doubt that in narrow waters there was a risk that the trawlers might fish them out. In some parts of the Moray Firth he believed that had been done by having a great amount of netting going on in the narrow water, and that he believed to be the justification for the action of the Government.


Does the hon. Member suggest that the trawler will fish all the fish out of the sea in the narrow waters?


said he suggested that trawling would unduly reduce the stock of fish and almost fish the sea out. Everybody except the hon. Member opposite would give the Government credit for having some reason for putting a prohibition upon the Moray Firth. He should like to see the adoption of the prohibition which was put on by the Attorney-General many years ago. He thought a good purpose would be served if they could prohibit the catch being landed at English ports.

MR. CATHCART WASON (Orkney and Shetland)

said the position taken on this question by the hon. Member for King's Lynn appeared to him to be peculiar. The hon. Member was evidently one of those who thought that the time was coming when all mankind would be sustained on a small tabloid, and when it would not be necessary for people to maintain themselves by the fish of the sea or the animals of the earth. There could be no question as to the mischief which was being done by trawlers on the north coast of Scotland. In the waters off the coasts of the islands which he represented they were worse than anywhere else. Nearly the whole of the men on board the trawlers were foreigners. There was hardly a British sailor amongst the number. They broke the law, if they possibly could, every day they went out. It was the companies who sent them out and who bribed the men to break the law that they wanted to get at. The Government had helped the Irish fishermen, and what was wanted now was that they should protect the Scotch fishermen against the depredations of the trawlers. When a trawler was convicted he might be fined £70 or £100. If he went to jail he was well rewarded when he came out by the company who employed him. If it was a question of pheasant poaching he had no doubt the sympathies of the hon. Member for King's Lynn would be in the other direction.


Not at all. My sympathies are always with the poacher.


said that after that statement he could well believe the hon. Member's sympathies were with the trawlers. He himself had some sympathy with the poacher who went out to take a few pheasants or partridges, or a deer. He did no harm to anybody. But the trawlers destroyed food. Supposing they did not interfere with the spat or spawn, at any rate they did countless damage by destroying the young fish, which were thrown overboard to pollute and poison the sea. The sea was not a reservoir from which innumerable quatities of fish could be brought up. Fish must have a resting space. It was simply a question of the reproductive forces of nature. The trawlers, in season and out of season, destroyed enormous quantities of food. It had been incontestably proved that an acre of water could produce more food for the people than an acre of land. If that was so why should they neglect this great industry in the way they were doing at the present time? Year by year our fishing was getting less and less. He did not wish to be accused of using strong adjectives, but the language used by the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty would not express his views in regard to trawling. If he did so, he would have to go into superlatives, which would not be in accordance with the traditions of this House. A meeting of the great trawling companies had been held at Grimsby, and resolutions were passed unanimously that something must be done with regard to the depletion of fish in the North Sea. There was a unanimous opinion that the time had come when the Government should take action in the matters The trawl owners, notwithstanding the illegal way in which their business was conducted, found that their dividends were decreasing year by year, and they had to build larger and faster boats. This was not a grievance only of a few fishermen in the north of Scotland. It was a question which affected the whole nation. There were fish enough in the sea practically to feed the whole country, and that was an important matter to be kept in view at a time when everybody was considering how the food supply of the country was to be maintained. It was a criminal, wasteful, and sinful thing — he could not get adjectives sufficiently strong for his purpose—to allow these fish to be destroyed in the way that was now done.

An alteration in the law was wanted. They did not want very much. What was suggested by the hon. Member for the Leith Burghs would go a long way to help them. It would go a long way to help if the Government would make the law such that the companies and the managers of the companies would have to go to jail and not the poor men who obeyed their behests. The hon. Member suggested that an arrangement should be made whereby the coastguardsmen would be employed to a greater extent than at present, because he believed they might be of the greatest service in protecting the interests of the fishermen. In many cases this would be a labour of love for them. They could render great assistance in the capture of trawlers if the Admiralty would furnish cruisers with small steam launches. If the Lord Advocate and the noble Lord the Secretary for Scotland would use the influence they had in the Government, they could get a better class of boats to protect the coasts than were employed at present. The trawlers could at a pinch go at ten or twelve knots a hour. These vessels had a constant habit of trawling inshore, and within the three-mile limit, a bag or sack being pulled over their numbers so that they could not be identified. Something might be done by insisting that trawlers should have their numbers clear and legible.


I am not going to interpose my self in the controversy between the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Member for King's Lynn, both of whom have proclaimed their poaching proclivities. I leave them to fight that matter out between themselves. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty has repeated on this occasion a speech which I have very often heard before, and which is very easy to make. It is exceedingly easy to declaim about the grievances of fishermen and to blame the Government, and I only welcome the appearance of the hon. Member for King's Lynn in this debate, because it has served to show that the subject is not an easy one, and that when it comes to a question of enforcing the law you will find that opinion is not all on one side. I had the honour to sit on a Committee of this House which passed the Undersized Fish Bill, and it was impossible to attend to the evidence given before that Committee without having borne in upon one's mind after all, how ill-informed even experts are in regard to this subject. I confess my own sympathies are entirely with the line fishermen, and I think that any ordinary person would come to the conclusion that it would be impossible to carry on trawling, as it is carried on now, without a certain amount of destruction of immature fish. But at the same time, when you come to the expert evidence the subject is not clear, and certainly it is not made any clearer by the results of the statistics gathered together in the interesting report which the Fishery Board of Scotland promulgated last year. But, after all, what has been the position of the Government in this matter? It is one of which the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty cannot complain. We, at least, have done more than any other Government did before. We introduced that statutory limit of three miles all round the coast, and gave the power of closing large areas by by-laws. Now the hon. Member complains that the Moray Firth is not effectually shut. I am well aware of that. It is useless to ask us, on a matter of administration, to prohibit the landing of fish in the English ports, as we prohibit the landing in Scotch ports; and for the simple reason that we have statutory powers to do the one and not the other. The subject of the Moray Firth is greatly complicated by the fact that most of the fishing ground is beyond the territorial limits for really effective measures of control, and therefore we are necessarily hampered by the consideration that other nations have a right of fishing there. The hon. Member knows also that we have, as far as lies in our power, helped the movement for an International Inquiry into the supply of food fishes and its diminution, especially in the North Sea. But nobody thinks of the Moray Firth as a breeding ground for food fishes; the breeding grounds of food fishes are on the east side of the North Sea, and the International Commission, to which we have contributed a considerable amount of money, is pursuing investigations in regard to that subject. So far as the Scottish Office is concerned, I repudiate entirely any idea which is brought out by the declamation of the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty that there has been the slightest degree of supineness on the part of the Fishery Board of Scotland. The Board have done their very best to police the limits of the sea which, by law, they are entitled to police.


said that he did not complain of the Fishery Board, but of the want of fishery cruisers.


The question is where these cruisers are to come from. The Fishery Board does all that it can do up to the limit of its resources. The hon. Member suspects the Admiralty of want of enthusiasm in regard to this policing service of the sea; but I can assure him that that is not so. It is not altogether an easy piece of work to get a cruiser from the Admiralty, and, after all, the Admiralty may consider that their first duty is in another direction, and that the police protection of local interests is not their first duty. I would remind the hon. Member that he is here on somewhat dangerous ground, because undoubtedly, although everything that the Admiralty has done for us is no more than our right, if he drives us beyond our right, he will see that a great deal more has been done for Scotland in this regard than for Ireland. In other words we have not been shabbily treated in this matter by the Admiralty. The hon. Gentleman's complaint is not against our administration, but that we have not more money put at our disposal. I cannot give any hope to the hon. Gentleman that any more money shall be put at our disposal by the Treasury; but we will do in the future, as we have done in the past, our utmost to carry out his wishes.

SIR ROBERT REID (Dumfries Burghs)

said that within the last year or so a fishing industry in the Solway Firth—one of the most dangerous Sections in the whole sea-coasts of the United Kingdom—had been suppressed by a decision of the courts of law. He referred to the "whammling" fishing. It was a very serious and a sad thing for a number of men who could ill afford it to have their houses, their boats and nets, with which they carried on the most risky of all possible fisheries in the estuary of the Solway, rendered useless. This subject had been brought before a Royal Commission a few years ago; and that Commission were unanimous in recommending that this "whammling" system of fishing should be permitted within certain limits. That recommendation was approved of by the fishermen themselves, and indeed was partly suggested by the fishing interest. Nothing had been held out to them that anything would be done by the Government for these men whom he represented, and who were deserving of consideration. They had nothing to do now but to engage in trawling, which was specially prohibited in the Solway; and that had already led to fatal action. He was not going to trespass on the time of the House by suggesting methods which might be necessary for relieving the condition of these men. He based his case on the recommendations of the Royal Commission; he asked and wanted nothing more. He did not intend to press the Lord Advocate unduly to answer the question which he put to him; for an answer given to a question on a matter of this kind on the spur of the moment might be less favourable than if mature consideration were given to it. But he hoped that the Lord Advocate would take this matter into his mature consideration; and if he could be of the least service to his Lordship, he should be happy to offer it.

MR. BIGNOLD (Wick Burghs)

said he understood the Lord Advocate to say that there was a divergence of opinion amongst the experts on the Immature Fish Committee, but he ventured to think there was one point on which, most certainly the experts were all agreed. It was an admitted fact that the herring spawned on rocks in-shore, and the first act of the young fish when coming to life was to swim upwards and out to sea, whilst the first act of the round fish was to sink and swim to the shore. The consequence was that the trawler, with his trawl down, say, on an average of an hour and a quarter, would take in a very large proportion of young round fish, and when the trawl was drawn upon deck, it would be found to contain rocks, stones, wood, sea-flowrers, and innumerable immature fish. At least one-third of the "take" of a trawler was so broken by the contents of the net that it was immediately heaved overboard to feed the dog-fish. One fact could not be traversed, and that was that the sea afforded a living to thousands of line and driftmen twenty years ago. Now contemporaneously with the appearance of the trawler it would not yield them sufficient to pursue their calling and pay their expenses. The three-mile limit had been in existence since 1839, but it was only during the last few years it had been so ruthlessly violated. The Moray Firth, closed to British trawlers though open to foreigners, had met with worse treatment than any other waters. Quite recently twenty British trawlers flying the Norwegian flag had dropped their trawls in the Firth. This was an unfriendly act for a friendly Government to attempt to excuse. He could endorse every word of the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty as to the terrible misfortune which had overtaken this deserving industry. He understood the Government had made representations to Norway, and though the three-mile limit being a national obligation could not be altered without the signatories of the North Sea Convention, yet still he hoped that the Government would make a determined effort to save the line men by a better policing of the North Sea.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

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