HC Deb 06 March 1934 vol 286 cc1735-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,085, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1934, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Fishery Board for Scotland, including Expenses of Marine Superintendence, and a Grant-in-Aid of Piers or Quays.

7.46 p.m.


I do not think there is need for much to be said by me in presenting this Supplementary Estimate, which arises as a result of extra expense incurred in the Fishery Board's patrol of the coast of Scotland to put down illegal trawling. Last summer it became apparent that one of the fishery patrol boats reputed to be a speed boat had so lost its speed and sea-worthiness as not to be of any service this winter, and a substitute had to be provided. The opportunity was taken of instituting as an experiment a new form of patrol—the hiring of a certain number of drifter fisher boats concentrated at various strategic points where illegal trawling was most feared and did most damage. That policy has, I think it may be said, been a success. The Supplementary Estimate of £1,010 represents the part of the cost of the hiring for which extra money has to be provided. The total cost was £2,040, but the balance has been obtained out of various savings on the general Vote. It is a clear advantage that the patrol boats engaged on police work against illegal trawling should be, as far as possible, indistinguishable from other boats that are keeping the sea at the same time. This is in peace time a small but successful application of the "Q boat" principle. Without going further into the matter I merely repeat that the experiment has been successful, so successful, indeed, that when, as I hope, we shall be able to renew the general fleet of fishery cruisers we shall adopt a principle of making the new boats also "Q boats." I do not think that I need say more than that at this stage.

7.48 p.m.


I wish to congratulate the Scottish Office on having adopted a scheme which I ventured to suggest many years ago—


Hear, hear!


—but which was then received with, I will not say contempt, but with coldness. It was perfectly obvious to all of us who are interested in illegal trawling that in order to catch illegal trawlers we must have a constable who is disguised, so to speak. In any attempt to catch illegal trawlers with a vessel which can be seen and identified miles and miles away the chances of success are very small indeed, and it is clear that the fishery patrol will have a very much better chance not only of catching offenders, but of stopping illegal trawling if high-power trawlers, which are able to keep the sea and have a good turn of speed, are employed. I would like to ask my hon. Friend how many trawlers this Vote covers, and for how long they have been chartered? The second point to which he referred is also one of great importance—that the vessels employed on this service should be based on the area in which they are to be employed. When the old fishery cruisers were employed a great deal of their time was occupied in going down to Leith, or wherever their station was, to coal, and then go north again. When we put questions as to the time thus occupied we were told that they could do a certain amount of patrolling work on the way to and fro, but, as far as my own constituency is concerned, the fact remained that when a vessel went to Leith she was away for many weeks.

I am very glad that the Scottish Office have now definitely entered on a new method of dealing with the difficulties with which they have to contend. The difficulties are very great. First, there is the difficulty of identifying a trawler who covers her marks and number; second, the difficulty of getting evidence that she was inside the three-mile limit; and, third, the difficulty of getting information to the Fishery Board in order that they may be able to instruct a patrolling boat to get there in time to catch the offender. Of course, the other boat is away long before that can happen. It has been disheartening to inshore fishermen to be told that what they ought to do was to communicate in the first instance with the Fishery Board, for by that time the boat they had seen trawling inshore in the early morning or late at night was—goodness knows where. With the new method of having patrol boats based on the area in which they are to operate, and boats which will be more or less disguised, so that they cannot be recognised as patrol boats until they are on the spot, I think we may hope not only that offenders will be caught, but that would-be offenders may be prevented from offending in future.

7.52 p.m.


I would like to associate myself with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir R. Hamilton). My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on what is being done. I do not say that everything which we should like is being done, but I think the introduction of these new drifter boats for police and patrolling purposes will be effectual. This morning I had a letter from a very well known fisherman in the Moray Firth, and I would like to draw the attention of my hon. Friend to his complaint. It is not so much a complaint of illegal trawling as of seine net fishing. In the past the cruisers have been used for the purpose of stopping boats which were using the seine net. In some parts of the Moray Firth the seine net is just as abominable to the line fishermen as the illegal trawlers, and this fisherman tells me, and I have no reason to doubt his word, that the seine net fishermen watch the cruiser or drifter, and the moment that she has, quite legitimately, gone to another part to watch the white line nets the illegal seine net boats come in and destroy the livelihood of the line fishermen in the upper reaches of the Moray Firth. I refer particularly to the ports of Avoch, Cromarty, Balintore and Portmahomack, and they even go as far as the constituency of my hon. Friend whom I see sitting on the other side of the House. I, therefore, hope that now that the Department have started the good work they may second—I think that is the proper word—one of these new drifters to that part of the upper regions of the Moray Firth. I am very glad to be in a position to support this Estimate. I think it is one which shows that the Fishery Board of Scotland and the Scottish Office are doing their level best to secure fair play for the line fishermen.

7.55 p.m.


There were one or two points in the speech made by the Under-Secretary about which I was not perfectly clear. One of them was as to the purpose for which these drifters were to be hired, whether they were required, as the right hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Sir Ian Macpherson) has said, in connection with seine net fishing or, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir R. Hamilton) said, for illegal trawling. Everyone will be agreed that efficient policing is necessary, and I think there will be equal agreement among all who have read the reports in the last few years that the policing which has existed was not efficient. We have a number of steam cruisers varying from 25 to 40 years old, and they are continually out of commission undergoing repairs. The repairs bill is out of all proportion to the value which they are, and by the use of drifters or a hydroplane we could accomplish a great deal more than a large number of steam cruisers are doing just now. The Under-Secretary stated that these drifters were required on account of repairs which had been found necessary to one of the boats, but in the Vote it states that the reason is the increased prevalence of illegal fishing. So far as the East Coast of Scotland is concerned I can speak for the constituency from which the bulk of the trawling in Scotland is done, the base from which about three-quarters or more of the trawlers of Scotland set out, and I think I can say that it is true of Abereen that the amount of illegal trawling by vessels from that port is quite insignificant.

I have heard it said, and I have no reason to doubt it, that the number of skippers who go in for illegal trawling might be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yes, five altogether. According to the figures given in the last three reports there were something like 38,000 sailings of trawlers from the port of Aberdeen, and the total number of convictions during that time was 14, which, I think, is a very small number, taken over three years. Chiefly, it is three trawlers which are repeatedly brought to my notice—three convictions which took place lately. Those certainly were cases of illegal trawling, but they happened after a long period of stormy weather. There is no doubt that most of the illegal trawling which has been done has been the work of men who were "down and out," following a long period of stormy weather. These skippers had sold most of the furniture in their houses, and could not get food for their families, and they did go trawling illegally. I am not excusing illegal trawling, but merely accounting for what happened in the three cases upon which charges against Aberdeen are usually based. I am certain that the amount of illegal trawling along the East Coast is small; but when we pass to the question of seine net fishing it is a different question.

I asked a question in the House as to the number of convictions for seine net fishing. I cannot give the exact figures, because I could not hear them, and have not got the written reply, but from what I heard there is no doubt that the convictions for seine net fishing during the past three years are very much more numerous than the convictions for illegal trawling on the East Coast. I am told that the seine net boats are smaller and do not make the same comparison. Trawlers vary from about 90 feet to 140 feet, but the smallest trawler is not very much larger than the largest seine net boat. But in any case punishment is not usually inflicted by the foot in the measures which have been taken against illegal trawling and illegal sailing. With reference to the Fisheries Board of Scotland which is considering these policing matters, I should like to know what is the representation of the trawling interests.

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Captain Bourne)

The hon. Member must postpone that question for the main Estimates.


I apologise if I have gone beyond the point, but I thought that that was a question which might concern policing. In the circumstances I submit to your Ruling. There is another point I would like to raise. I raised it in my main question, and it was as to certain trawlers which had been challenged when they were four or five miles from land and were said to have been ordered to heave their gear, and to put out farther to sea. The answer which I got was that these trawlers were not ordered to heave their gear and to proceed to sea, but that occasionally trawlers which were slightly outside the limit were warned, in cases where they were getting too near, and were in danger of getting within the three-mile limit. That hardly meets the question of two cases which have been reported to me, and possibly the Under-Secretary will have them looked into. In one case, a ship called the "Tina Nutting" was fishing at 5 a.m. on 9th September. She had gone six miles east-north-east of Aberdeen, and the distance from land was five miles. She was hailed by a cruiser and ordered to heave her gear and put to sea. She obeyed. The other case is that of the "William Hastie," which was four miles from Stonehaven at 8 a.m. on 11th November. Her skipper was informed that he was too close to the three-mile limit and he was ordered to proceed to sea. The skipper refused, but was not prosecuted. Those are cases where something might have been done to allow the skipper to board the fishery cruiser in order to check his bearings. It is always more difficult for the skipper of a trawler to take his exact bearings than for the officer of the fishery cruiser, because, for one thing, he is not accustomed to the sextant.


It appears to me that the hon. Member is again trying to raise matters which arise on the main Estimates.


In those circumstances, perhaps I had better postpone any further remarks which I have to make upon this subject. I hope that the Under-Secretary will consider the points that I have raised. As far as the east coast is concerned, the illegal trawling which is done is insignificant. What we have to consider is the Moray Firth question, and the amount of seine net fishing. It is generally recognised that seine net fishing is a much more destructive form than trawling, and I hope that the result of the effort which the Scottish Office are making will be to put down illegal seine net fishing and that they will not brand trawl fishermen with illegal fishing. I am quite certain that the number who indulge in that practice is extremely small, and is negligible.

8.4 p.m.


The hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Burnett) seemed to be asking as one of the main points in his speech for representation of the trawl fishermen upon this policing commission. He might just as well ask for a representation of burglars at Scotland Yard. He said that there were only few cases of illegal inshore trawling, by a few men who are down and out.


From Aberdeen and upon the east coast.


Yes, but I can only reply to the hon. Member that those fishermen are not so down and out as the inshore fishermen whose sole means of livelihood they have destroyed systematically, month after month and year after year, during the last three or four years. They have become worse and worse. During the last nine months their operations have reached scandalous proportions. They come right in and fish under the noses of the wretched inshore fishermen, and it is not the slightest good the inshore fishermen attempting to complain, because by the time a complaint has got through to the Fishery Board of Scotland, the boats are miles away. One of the worst parts for this sort of thing is that portion of the coast 40 miles or 50 miles north of the constituency of the hon. Member for North Aberdeen, from Aberdeen Bay to Rattray Head. It is one of the best bits of coast for inshore fishing that I know, and I am sure that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) would entirely agree with me in that. It is exceptionally good for inshore fishing, and the trawlers come in, on their way back from the main fishing ground in the north. They come right up, almost within 100 yards of the coast, and they sweep the whole of the white fish out of that particular stretch. The hon. Member for North Aberdeen seems restless. Does he want to interrupt me?


I should be glad to know whether the hon. Member could bring forward any evidence to prove what he says. Judging from the convictions, there have been very few cases of that kind. With regard to the men being down and out, I am certain that the trawling skippers who have recently been convicted are just as much down and out as any seine net fisherman.


I do not want to enter into a competition as to which class of fishermen are more down and out, but I think that the trawl-net fishers have suffered less than any other section of the fishing industry during the last two or three years. I can give the hon. Member the evidence of many of them. I can give him the evidence of 5,000 inshore fishermen from the North coast of Scotland to say what the trawl fishermen had been doing. Because of the increased prevalence of this evil, and the hopelessly inadequate means of bringing illegal trawlers to book, I believe that this measure is not only vitally necessary but very much over-due, and I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland whether he will give special attention to the parts of the coast which I have mentioned and which I know have been very inadequately defended. I agree that Moray Firth requires protection too. There is a particular stretch which is very near to Aberdeen, and for that reason the defences may have been more neglected. Upon that stretch there has been very inadequate protection. I ask the Under-Secretary to consider the possibility of placing one of the drifters at Aberdeen itself, Peterhead or Fraser-burgh. From that section of coast the drifter could easily work round to Moray Firth.

8.8 p.m.

Captain McEWEN

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and his Department upon the success of the steps which they have taken to mitigate the evil of illegal trawling. Just for the sake of clearness, I would like to put one question to him. Is this new system, of an agglomeration of drifters at certain points, merely a temporary expedient to bridge over the period between now and the time when further protection vessels have been provided?

8.9 p.m.


As we all seem to be staking a claim for Q boats, I feel I must enter mine also. The important part of the coast which I have the honour to represent can certainly make its claim. It is a good claim. In the Firth of Forth at this time there is constant illegal trawling, daily and nightly. It goes on throughout the year, though it is limited in area. The illegal trawling there is intense, and it deserves attention. I should like to put a suggestion in the form of a question. The Under-Secretary has been considering an addition to the number of Q boats; will he consider a proposal to have one or two smaller fast motor boats placed along the coast? This is merely an alternative way of arriving at the same end instead of, or in addition to, the others.

At the present moment, even with the new drifters, disguised and numerous as they are, there is still a difficulty of getting into touch with them when a case of illegal trawling becomes evident. In the Firth of Forth there have been countless cases of fishermen seeing the boats. They have then had to go to the Fishery Office in Anstruther and the officer there has had to make up his mind whether it was a proper case. That takes him a long time. Then he has had to ring through to Edinburgh with a request for the "Brenda" and by that time the trawler has disappeared. It would be worth while considering the other method of small fast motor boats as an additional means of overcoming the nuisance. While we congratulate the Under-Secretary and his Department upon the steps which they have taken, we must not for a moment imagine that enough or nearly enough has been done to remove this pest from our coasts.

8.12 p.m.


I must once more make a statement in regard to what I have been hearing here to-night from hon. Members who represent the sea coast parts of Scotland. The fish supplied by the trawlers has some relationship to the big towns. I have no objection to the Supplementary Estimate, but I hope that it will not be taken for granted that those of us who represent industrial towns, for which an abundant supply of fish is necessary, are consenting to anything further being done outside the three-mile limit. From what I can hear, this Supplementary Estimate is to provide a more effective means of catch- ing the so-called illegal trawlers. The Government are entitled to carry out the law, but, so far as the big towns are concerned, without the trawlers, I am informed, the great mass of the people who consume fish in Glasgow could not be supplied. I am informed that without the supplies which come from the trawlers, the market would to a large extent be ruined and that prices would soar. The consequence would be that the working people would be greatly affected. While there is no objection to the Government carrying out the present law in a more effective way—I suppose that that is the object of the Government—we must not be taken as consenting to anything being done to extend the limit, because that would affect the supply of fish, which is a practical necessity of life to the industrial towns.

8.15 p.m.


My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir R. Hamilton) asked how many drifters were hired, and for how long the Supplementary Estimate kept them. Two were hired from the 1st December, and two in January, and the Supplementary Estimate covers their hiring until the end of the financial year. With regard to these drifters, and also to the various questions which have been raised about seine net fishing in the Moray Firth and so on, I am a little unwilling to state exactly where the drifters are at the moment, because I think that that would be rather a mistake, but I have no hesitation in saying that one of them is on the East Coast at present, and I think it is not incapable of casting an eye on the Moray Firth.

With regard to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby), as to whether these drifters were meant to deal with seine net fishing as well as with illegal trawling, the answer is that they certainly are, and that applies also to the West Coast. I will not give the figures, because they were given to-day in answer to a question, as to the convictions for illegal seining and trawling. I think my hon. Friend knows now that the convictions during the last three years for illegal seining were more numerous than for illegal trawling. I must not, however, be held to convey that anybody could deduce from that fact that there is more illegal seining than illegal trawling. It only means that the seiners are easier to catch.

Several of the other questions raised seem to me to be, if I may say so, rather beyond the scope of the Estimate, but with the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), who raised the question of the general fish supply, we are entirely in agreement, and there is nothing in the policy of maintaining the law which will in any way reduce the fish supplies available for town and country. There is ample room in the sea for the trawler, the seine net fisher, and the inshore lining fisher. The object of this Supplementary Estimate, to the limited extent to which it applies, and for the limited period for which it applies, is to give fair play and a fair place to all the people concerned in the industry.

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