HC Deb 19 June 1947 vol 438 cc2346-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

The subject I wish to bring before the House this evening is related in some measure to the important issues debated earlier in the day, for it concerns the accommodation by international agreement of interests which sometimes conflict and which have an over-all bearing on the economic life of this country and others. I want the House to consider the danger which seems to be approaching in regard to over-fishing in the North Sea, and although I wish to limit the scope of my remarks to that area, the considerations which I hope to put forward apply not only to the North Sea but to all waters in the vicinity of these islands; indeed, the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) raised this matter at Question Time when he referred to the situation in regard to Southern Irish waters.

The Minister of Food has just launched a vigorous and, I hope, a successful campaign to increase the consumption of fish, a food I believe to be high in nutritive value. We are not, as a nation, a great fish-eating community; compared with such countries as Norway, Denmark, Holland and Portugal, fish takes a very much lower place in our national diet; but it must be conceded that the situation is improving and the consumption of fish is already 130 per cent. of what it was in the prewar period. The success of any campaign to increase fish consciousness and the desire of the community to eat more fish must depend on certain factors. It must depend, first of all, on the quantity of fish available for sale, secondly, upon the quality of the fish when it reaches the housewife, and, thirdly—and this is very important—on the variety in the types of fish offered to the public. The restriction of retail licences and the proposals envisaged for wholesalers ease the position as regards the distribution of fish once it becomes available at the ports; it is at the production end that I believe that difficulties will arise. I am not suggesting that there will ever be a famine in fish, but I do believe that unless resolute action is taken soon we shall suffer severely both in the matter of quality and in variety.

It is conceded that the best quality fish is caught in home waters, that is to say, in the North Sea and in adjacent waters round our coast. This is done by the smaller type of trawler and by the inshore fishermen, and if supplies in these waters are unduly depleted not only is the production of fish itself imperilled but the industry also is adversely affected, both on the side of the owners and on that of the working fishermen. Supplies in home waters and indeed in all waters for that matter can only be maintained if the fish are allowed to mature up to the age of spawning, that is to say, if they are caught before they reproduce—and their capacity to multiply themselves is immense—the supply will be cut off at the source. I suggest that the North Sea is already showing unmistakable signs of over-fishing. The demand for fish is so great, not only in this country, but in all European countries adjacent to the North Sea—particularly in view of the short supplies of other foods—in order to supplement their food supplies, that the intensity of fishing in the near waters is beyond the capacity to be borne.

Britain is only one of many countries which fish the North Sea. I do not think it is generally realised how the power of the large trawlers has grown. During recent years, not only has the size of the vessels increased, but there is an extension of the actual trawl apparatus itself. Already these vessels have to go farther and farther afield. The farther they go to get their catches, the more the quality of the fish deteriorates. The result may be that the taste for fish in this country will be spoiled in consequence, with the result that the industry will suffer in the long run through not providing sufficient quantities of high quality fish.

The huge modern trawler is probably not affected by these considerations. It is able to make long voyages to Bear Island and the Barents Sea, landing the coarser type of haddock, cod and plaice which oust the more delicate turbot, plaice and soles caught in nearer waters. Let us recall what happened after the first great war. The North Sea fishing ground had been rested for over four years, and, in spite of submarine warfare and mines, the fish bred without hindrance. The result was that these waters became well stocked with a good variety of fish. After that war, intensified, unrestricted fishing took place by all the neighbouring countries, and within about three years the bottom was knocked out of the North Sea fisheries. The same thing applied to other parts of the coast.

In 1920, the value of wet fish landed by British vessels was over £21 million; in 1924, it was £15 million, and in 1938, £12 million. At the same time, due to over-exploitation, there was a drop in tonnage caught in the North Sea of over 30 per cent. between 1920 and 1935. Added to this—and this is a most disturbing element in the situation—the percentage of fish landed and recorded as "small," that is to say, fish caught before they reach maturity, increased between 1913 and 1935, in respect of cod 32 per cent., haddock 83 per cent., plaice 72 per cent., and sole 41 per cent. This meant that by the time the last war started the North Sea was in very poor condition as regards supplies of fish.

Again, history repeated itself. The seas were rested for six years. By the end of the last war there was an abundant supply. Indeed, it was confidently asserted that there was no danger of over-fishing the North Sea for over a decade. Estimates were given that there was so much fish there that we could fish to full capacity for over ten years. I want to make it clear that I am not referring to the herring. There is a school of opinion which holds that it is impossible to over-fish the herring. I hope they are right, because, properly prepared, there is not a more succulent or nutritive fish in the sea except, perhaps, the salmon, and certainly not at a comparable price. But there is a difference of opinion, and people high in the fishing world dispute the view that it is impossible to over-fish herring. That, however, is a different issue.

In the inter-war period, both the Government and the industry became seriously alarmed at the position. In 1936, the Report on White Fish recommended an international agreement with a view to the adoption of common regulations for vessels of all European countries fishing in waters frequented by British vessels. Then the regulations applied only to British fishermen while the vessels of other nationalities could fish without restriction in the same waters. An international Convention was agreed in March, 1937, and an international Sea Fishermen's Conference in 1938 attempted some measure of agreement.

Since the war, the Government, fully alive to the possible exhaustion of the fishing grounds in near waters last year, decided to take definite action. They called an International Overfishing Conference in London. This met from 25th March to 5th April, and was attended by representatives of 12 European countries and one observer from the U.S.A. The whole problem was thoroughly investigated, and the statistical material produced even a year ago made it evident that drastic and concerted action was necessary. Since then the position has deteriorated. I will give one example which serves to illustrate the general position. In January, 1946, 70,000 cwt. of. hake were landed from near waters. In January, 1947, the quantity had dropped to 30,000 cwt. It is extremely difficult to get unanimous agreement on matters affecting so many countries even on so obvious a measure as the preservation of their own fishing grounds. I willingly conceive that each has its own problems. The overriding situation has been the acute food shortage in Europe. Nevertheless, it is essential that the long view should not be lost. Agreements were reached that the size of mesh should be increased, and the size limit below which certain kinds of fish should not be landed was also approved. These, to my mind, if they are strictly enforced, will go a long way to conserve the grounds as it will make possible the growth of immature fish to the spawning size and thus ensure a renewal of the stock.

One very important consideration failed to get agreement. That was that the size of the fishing fleets should not be increased above the pre-war level. This would not injuriously affect us, as today I think we are fishing above 73 per cent. of our prewar fleet, but such countries as Denmark, which has increased its fleet to 153 per cent. of its prewar size, cannot be expected to reduce their own tonnage. Another proposal very strongly advocated in some quarters is for the compulsory closing of the fishing areas during certain periods each year. This will cause a certain amount of readjustment in the industry and would be difficult to enforce, but serious consideration should be given to every proposal to conserve the fishing in the North Sea.

We, in this country, have built up over a long time a highly organised and important fishing industry. We are encouraging our people to increase largely their consumption of fish. As far as possible, we should do all we can to provide this need from our own resources. Already, the importation of foreign caught fish has reached a high figure. In 1938 Iceland sent us 178,000 cwts. of fish. Last year, the figure had risen to 1,461,000 cwts., an increase of Boo per cent. Another danger that requires watching is the landing of foreign caught smalls, or under-sized fish. I believe that inspection of these landings should be effectively carried out in order that the existing regulations, which our own men obey, should not be flouted.

I do not wish to weary the House with more figures, but I want to stress that all the evidence indicates that we must be watchful in this matter. The position at the moment is such that while it is not probably as alarming as is pictured in some quarters, it is sufficiently serious to call for the utmost precaution on the part of the Government and the industry if we are to maintain our supplies in home waters. It would be helpful to know how many nations represented at last year's conference have ratified the Convention and whether the others have been stimulated to do so. Finally, may I say that I have not initiated this discussion in any critical spirit towards the Government or the fishing industry, for both of whom I have a very high regard. But I think it necessary that this very important matter should be brought to the attention of this House and discussed.

10.26 p.m.

Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

In the few moments in which I intend to speak I cannot hope to present facts and figures similar to those given by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans), but as a member for a fishing constituency I must give my general support to his statement, and make a plea to the Minister to see if now or as soon as possible something cannot be done to avert the dangers with which the fishing industry is threatened and through which it had to go in a similar period after the last war. Those who take the slightest interest in the fishing industry know that after the last war the breeding grounds produced a great deal of fish in the fishing areas in the North Sea, of which the people living round that sea took full advantage. In due course Nature took its revenge, and the catchable fish in that sea began to drop in great proportion until we had the period before the war when they were extremely scarce.

The same story is being repeated today. We have plenty of fish at the moment. The experts in this country who know the central basic facts about the fish population of the sea round our shores have been consulted on this problem, and they have come to the conclusion that we cannot fish indefinitely at the present rate without doing the maximum injury to the fishing population. A few weeks ago a Polish ship berthed in my constituency with the biggest catch of white fish ever known in the history of the port. I have no doubt that the Minister of Food was pleased with that catch and many in Yarmouth took full advantage of it, but if that sort of thing is not avoided, especially by foreign ships, we will get a great shortage of catches in the near future and the yield will steadily diminish.

Therefore, I join with my hon. Friend in asking the Minister if there is any tangible result from the conference which took place last year. At that conference all the nations round the North Sea agreed to look at this problem from a scientific point of view, and decided to hold their hand for a short period in order that the fish in the North Sea, which are already diminishing, should have a chance to breed. If they have not signed the Convention, I should like to plead with the Minister that he should go in his capacity as Minister of Agriculture to these foreigners, who probably are fishing with the nets which the Board of Trade furnished them in the last 18 months and which our own fishermen cannot get, and use that position of leadership which this country has maintained throughout history in this part of the world to persuade these people to ratify this Convention. I am sure he can do it. In the last few weeks we have seen in this House something of the leadership of the right hon. Gentleman in agriculture; I hope he will be able in the near future to do the same for the fishing industry, which will bring such benefit to all the countries along the shores of the North Sea.

10.30 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. Thomas Williams)

I think that the facts concerning over-fishing are not disputed in any country. Were they in dispute, I think our experience between 1914–1918 and the years following, and what we have witnessed after five years of freedom, perhaps, in the North Sea and the near waters surrounding this coast would satisfy the most critical that over-fishing could become dangerous from the point of view of the fishermen and those who really like fish. There has been an improvement owing to the short rest given to the North Sea during the war. I have figures to indicate the actual weight caught, for each day that a trawler was away from port in 1938, in 1946, and in the first four months of this year, and the figures are really startling. There has been a steady decline over the last twelve months. The real problem is to find the level at which fishing can be maintained, providing a reasonable remuneration for the fisherman, while maintaining the maximum supply of fish for the consumers.

When war broke out, fishing in the North Sea was virtually stopped and certainly little or no fishing went on. Stocks increased substantially in places. We know by catches of Danish fish that the size of plaice actually doubled during the course of the war. The same applies to hake caught on the southwest coast of Ireland but there are now signs of diminishing returns again to fishermen. The Government's interest was engaged in 1945, and was largely based on the 1914–1918 and subsequent years' experience. They decided to call an international conference to discuss the question of the depletion of fishing stocks in the North Sea and in all the waters adjacent to the British coast. In March, 1946, that conference met in London. It discussed over-fishing and the British proposals were rather dramatic. Our delegate suggested that there ought to be a reduction of 70 per cent. of the 1938 fishing fleet tonnage.

This proposal, however, was not acceptable to various countries because some of them had increased their fishing fleets since the war. They felt that they really had to catch more fish. The conference, however, agreed upon increasing the minimum size of fish that ought to be caught and also again increasing the size of the mesh. That agreement has been ratified by Denmark, Poland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, but we are still awaiting ratification by Belgium, Eire, France, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. But the conference also recommended that a standing committee be arranged to study and make proposals as to the most suitable ways of preventing over-fishing in the North Sea and the adjacent waters. When the advisory committee met in January and April of this year, they discussed first, a further increase in the minimum size of fish to be caught, and a further increase in the size of the mesh, and, secondly, a reduction in the fishing power of fleets, and, thirdly, either a reduction in catch; or the control of building fishing fleets, or control of fishing activity, or the adoption of a close season, or the closing of certain areas. At the final meeting of the advisory committee, Denmark was prepared to recommend to their country an increase in the size of the mesh and the minimum size of fish to be caught and to control the building of fishing vessels. Sweden was prepared to increase the size of the mesh and the minimum size of fish to be caught; the Netherlands were prepared to adopt quantitative regulations, while Norway were prepared to refrain from fishing with Danish seine and trawls in the North Sea from 15th December to 15th March annually.

Belgium and France already control fishing vessels by licence. The United Kingdom made a further proposal, namely, to limit fishing power to 85 per cent. of the prewar power. All these measures, together with the suggestion of the United Kingdom, are approximately equal contributions to this problem. They do not go quite so far as we ourselves would like to go, but I think they can be regarded as an important step in the right direction. They will certainly tend to preserve a satisfactory level of fish stocks and to stabilise fishing for a very prolonged period. It is true, of course, that we cannot guarantee that the various countries will adopt all the various measures suggested, but we feel that most of the countries concerned will, if they can, act together and adopt the wise, economic and good-neighbour policy.

There was a further recommendation that a standing advisory committee, consisting of one representative along with one scientist from each of the nations, should be constituted as an international commission to review annually the fishing activities in the North Sea and report to their Governments. This commission would have all the data at its disposal and it could, therefore, arrive at accurate conclusions regarding the effect of fishing on fish stocks. So far as His Majesty's Government are concerned, it is hoped that all the measures referred to earlier will be approved by the various Governments. We shall certainly keep in close touch with this very vital problem and exercise all the influence we can in the proper direction to preserve fish stocks, and to provide continuity and a reasonable livelihood for the fishermen of this country. It is a truism to say that if we take from the sea more than one year's growth of fish, from that moment we must start to suffer through diminishing returns. Therefore, to have plenty today and, perhaps, tomorrow, but a shortage for many years to come, would be an act of folly. I hope, therefore, that the advisory committee which has been recommended will be set up, and that the responsible Governments will play their various parts and will show a willingness to march forward so that we can have that perpetual supply of fish, and at the same time provide a reasonable existence for those who go out to sea to catch the fish.

Mr. Marples (Wallasey)

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, may I say that there seems to be complete unanimity on the opposite side of the House on the control of fishing in the North Sea; but is it not a fact that there have been recent reports in the Press that fish have been thrown overboard and dumped in ports in this country, with consequent waste. If that is so, it seems to me to be difficult to reconcile the two facts. May I ask the Minister to reconcile these two facts?

Mr. Williams

I think that the hon. Member is referring to an incident which happened today at one of the North Sea ports, where it is alleged that a certain amount of fish was thrown back into the sea. Unfortunately, the facts are not yet available to me; therefore, I am unable to say what steps have been taken or are likely to be taken.

Mr. Marples

I am referring not only to today's reports, but to previous reports two and a half to three weeks ago.

Mr. Williams

. Is the hon. Member referring to white fish or herring?

Mr. Marples

I think it was a report about white fish.

Hon. Members


Mr. Williams

I am afraid the hon. Member must be referring to a situation which developed in the herring industry in the ports of Scotland two or three weeks ago. That is obviously a question for the Herring Board, and not for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to Eleven o' Clock.