HC Deb 14 December 1956 vol 562 cc877-92

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Younger (Grimsby)

I beg to move, That this House, taking note of the series of bad herring fishings in recent years, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to investigate, with all possible speed, the causes of these failures, including the trawling of immature fish in the North Sea and near waters, and to give every assistance to maintain and expand the industry. I had hoped that my good fortune in the Ballot might enable me to initiate a debate adequate to the needs of the fishing industry today, but time forbids that. As I see around me hon. Members representing herring ports, who are anxious to speak, I realise that any gratitude they might feel towards me for moving this Motion will be redoubled if I am so brief in my remarks that they will have a chance of making their contributions to the debate.

For many years my constituency. Grimsby, has not been a landing port, but as processers we are interested in the supply of herring particularly as exporters. Indeed, the value of this industry in the export trade is one of the biggest reasons why the Government cannot, in the national interest, acquiesce in any continued decline of the industry. I need not argue about it, because for a year or two this industry has been declining. There have been three successive failures, amounting almost to catastrophe in the great industry in East Anglia. There have been dwindling fleets for herring fishing and inadequate supplies for the export market and for certain types for the home market, which requires regular supplies, particularly for processing plants.

All I can do today is to ask some questions of the Government. First, how far are the troubles of the herring industry due to the vagaries of nature? All of us concerned with the fishing industry know that it more than others is subject to wind and weather and uncertainties of many kinds, but I think that we have also learned that a great deal can be done—and more will be done in future by the advances of science—to overcome some of the difficulties which, in the past, have been considered to be acts of God. Much more can be learned about the habits of fish, including herring. I think much more can be done if we can get agreement about the preservation of stocks.

For all this, knowledge is essential. I understand that we simply have not got that knowledge and we are unlikely to find remedies until we do get it. If one asks the reasons for the dearth of mature fish, especially in East Anglia, one will be told by many people that it has been due to overfishing of immature fish, particularly by the Danes and Germans in the Dogger Bank area. There is undoubtedly material to support that view, yet the best scientists insist that it is still unproven and some of them even dispute it. There are alternative possibilities, such as changes in the temperature of the North Sea, or large-scale migration of herring.

I do not know the answer, and I do not think that the scientists know, but if those were to prove to be the true reasons the outlook would be bleak. I doubt whether even science can do very much about changing the temperature of the North Sea. My first point is that we should give all possible aid to the scientists in their essential task. Therefore, I hope the Government will be able to tell us about the financial aid which is being given to scientific research.

To get the knowledge that I have referred to will need time. What can we do in the meantime? Can we secure international co-operation to put a check on overfishing, which at the least may be one of the main causes, even if, at the end, it does not turn out to be the sole cause of the trouble? At least, some measure of conservation would surely be advisable and that need not await the final results of scientific inquiry.

My third question relates to the dwindling of the fleets. I do not think that this is due entirely to the fact that inadequate supplies of herring are there to be caught; indeed, some of the reduced catches of herring are due to the dwindling fleets. The 1955 Herring Industry Report recorded that in the previous year there had been an overall loss of 40 boats, and a year later an overall loss of 27. What it has been since then I do not know, but I believe that it has continued.

One of the reasons is that many of the dual-purpose boats are not going in for herring fishing, but are switching to white fish and, in particular, seining. I am told that this provides not merely a more agreeable and convenient way of life, but is also more remunerative. That is the point upon which I want to ask the Government a further question. It may be that something can be done by an alteration of the minimum price relationship between the price of herring for human consumption and the price for other purposes. But the principal difficulty in the industry is the difference in the subsidy rates between the white fish industry and the herring industry.

The House will not expect me, representing Grimsby, to complain about the subsidy for white fish. I do not think that that part of the indutsry could go on modernising if the subsidy were to be reduced. Nevertheless, I would ask whether it is inevitable that herring should be so much less favoured. Would it cost the Government so much more if they were to do something for the herring industry in this sphere? Every fisherman who leaves the herring fishing industry and takes to seining automatically moves into the higher subsidy field and swells the Government bill. Might it not be an economy—or, at any rate, no addition to the Government bill—if the fishermen were assisted to stay in the herring fishing industry instead of moving into the white fish industry and earning a higher rate of subsidy there?

It seems that if, in the national interest, it is worth catching herring—and I believe it is—it may be worth paying Government money to ensure the fullest employment there, rather than paying even larger subsidies for fishermen to go into the other branch of the industry.

To sum up my three points: I should like to know, first, what can be done to enable science to make us masters of this problem; secondly, what can be done in the way of international co-operation, both in research and, pending the results of research, preservation and conservation; and, thirdly, what can be done by financial and other policies to maintain the catching power without which the present fleets cannot even exploit adequately the favourable opportunities that nature may give them.

3.23 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Duthie (Banff)

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) for moving this Motion. I deplore the fact that so very little time is allowed us to deal with this very important question. It is of the greatest importance to a large section of the people that I have the honour to represent. Had there been time. I intended to deal in detail with this industry, and I went over the points that I wished to discuss with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) who, unfortunately, is not here, but who is in agreement with the remarks that I shall make.

I should also mention that those hon. Members on this side of the House who are members of the Fisheries Committee had the great good fortune, yesterday, to discuss the position with the Chairman and the General Manager of the Herring Industry Board—Sir Frederick Bell and Mr. Goodwin respectively. I can assure the House that these gentlemen and their associates are fully aware of the great difficulties with which the industry is faced and, indeed, the imminent danger with which it is confronted. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the industry has just experienced what have probably been the three worst years in its history. There is no doubt that the two last years, at any rate, have been the worst.

Many reasons have been advanced for the scarcity of herrings, which is recognised everywhere. That underlines the necessity for the industry to get the fullest dependable information concerning what is going on. It is a significant fact that the old cycle of the seasons has been broken—Northern Ireland, Barra, Stornoway, Shetland, the North-East Coast. Scarborough, East Anglia, the Dutch coast, Ymuden, and then the Channel; right through the year. This has been broken.

Something has been happening about which we know little. We can only ponder certain things, such as what is going on in the Dogger Bank with the Danes, or in the upper reaches of Moray Firth, at Avoch, where immature herring are being caught, and what is happening about the trawling of herring which have to go down to spawn.

All these things are responsible in part for our troubles, but I believe to only a very small degree. I have discussed the matter with experienced and successful skippers, who do not agree that manmade causes are of any material importance. They believe that the causes are natural. The temperature of the Northern waters is changing. Something is happening to the ocean currents which carry plankton, which is the food of the herring. Wherever we find plankton we find herring.

We must find out what is the cause. It may be that we shall have to find new fishing grounds. In any event, it is a job which the Government must tackle in a big way; we cannot play with it any longer. It will pay the Government to devote a considerable sum of money and a great many of the best scientific brains which we can find to trying to solve the problem, because the herring industry is very important from the point of view of exports, from the point of view of producing food at home and, above all, from the point of view of the production of edible oil.

There are two considerations which I want to bring before the Minister, and one concerns the cost of gear, which is prohibitive and killing to the industry. This high cost of upkeep has a great deal to do with the standard of remuneration which the fishermen receive. We must do something with the floating trawl. In Canada, it has been found to be successful. In the Fishing News this month I read that off Hook Head, in Ireland, two vessels working this trawl caught 300 cran of herring. The shot was too big for them to handle and they had to go ashore for assistance; and by the time they had returned most of the catch had gone.

The possibilities of the Larsen trawl has been demonstrated. Let us have further experiments with it and let the Government devote money to showing whether this trawl is practically successful, because if it becomes a success to the vessels operating it the herring fishermen will be placed on the same standard of remuneration as the seine net fishermen.

I must emphasise the necessity for a subsidy. That should be applied along with a flat rate for herring. Let the herring be divided into good quality and second quality, and for the good quality herring let us have one flat rate plus a voyage subsidy. Let the Herring Industry Board act as intermediary and dispose of the herring to the curer, the canner, the fresher, and for oil and meal. Let us strike a balance and pay a bonus to the vessels on a cranage basis; but, above all, let us have a flat rate and a voyage subsidy.

Time is not on our side; the sands are running out. The Shetland fishing, which used to be a magnificent venture in the early months, has "gone west" through lack of boats. We are faced with an industry which is literally sinking under the fishermen. Now is the time to act quickly and to promote steps which are worth while.

3.29 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) on being successful in the Ballot and on raising this very important topic, but I want to deplore that once again when we are discussing this great industry we are so pressed for time. We are constantly asking the Government for time for such a debate and today, when a number of hon. Members are present who are vitally interested from a constituency point of view, we have not time to develop our case.

I am very pleased to be able to follow the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie). One of these days I shall find something on which to disagree with him, I hope, but it certainly will not be on fishing.

I speak as a representative of one of the major herring ports which, with Great Yarmouth, is the focal point of the great East Anglian herring industry. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this industry to the economy of our towns. It is an industry on which the economic stability of the town depends, with all the ancillary industries which flow from it, and as has been stated, it is of the greatest importance that we should find the cause of this decline.

I can assure the House that there is considerable pessimism about the future of this industry. The other day in Lowestoft harbour I heard it described as a dying industry, and my friend to whom I was talking prophesied that the time would come when there would not be any herring caught at all. That, of course, is a prophecy of despair. I have been on the periphery of this great industry for more than thirty years, and the longer I am concerned with it the more do I realise the anxieties of those who are engaged in it and the complexities, difficulties and hazards involved.

It is frightening to look back into the past to the time when I went to Great Yarmouth. On a Sunday, one could walk across the River Yare from drifter to drifter lying six or seven abreast. It is important that people should know the facts of the decline of this great industry. In my own port of Lowestoft there were 170 boats in 1949. In 1956, up till the middle of the season, there were only 68. In the middle of the season, the Scottish boats decided to go home in spite of a reasonable October fishing. The number of trans landed dropped from 131,000 to 42,000. So one could go on, right through the averages.

The reason why I am telling the House this is that people ought to realise—I am sure the Government do realise—what a vital part this industry plays in the country's economy and that its decline will have great economic consequences. Let us not forget also the strategic value of the fishing fleets in times of national emergency.

What are the causes of this decline? My right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby has mentioned most of them. All I can do is re-emphasise what has been said. There is a great deal of concern about the question of overfishing. I am a conservationist, if there is such a word. I have constantly urged in this House the prime necessity of guarding our stocks and not depleting them. To deplete them is suicide.

In spite of what the scientists say, practical skippers with whom I have the honour to associate are fully convinced that trawling for immature fish is doing great harm. In 1948, 1,500 tons were taken from the North Sea. In 1954, 1,000 tons of immature fish, representing thousands of millions of potential breeders, ware taken from the sea for commercial use, for pet food, meal and oil. Of course, I appreciate that there is a need for those products and that they play an important part in our economy.

My right hon. Friend referred to the smaller catching power, which is borne out by the smaller number of vessels going to sea, resulting from the cost of replacing engines and of gear, which I should imagine has risen more than that of any other commodity in the country. I have figures relating to these increased costs, but I will not quote them now because I am anxious that other Members should have an opportunity to speak in this debate.

Reference has been made to the change-over from fishing for herring to white fish. That is very closely identified with the distribution of subsidies. There is no doubt that we shall lose the crews from the drifters unless something is done to improve not only the remuneration but also the amenities of the social side of their lives.

I was one of those who supported the setting up of the White Fish Authority and the subsidies schemes. I, like my right hon. Friend, would be the last to suggest that any dimunition of the subsidy is called for at this moment. We do not wish to bring the white fish people down in order to raise up the herring people. That is, I think, the crux of the matter.

We really must consider the whole financial structure, the relative rewards and costs, the relative importance of the various elements in the industry. I want to stress again the very great importance of the export trade. One of my right hon. Friends visited me in Lowestoft last week, and he was thrilled to see truck load after truck load going to Czechoslovakia. It amazed him. But that is only a fraction of what could be done if only we could get the catches. There is the great Russian market and markets in Eastern Europe which could be open to us.

I am convinced that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby and the hon. Member for Banff have said, we must go in for research as fully as we can. We have pleaded for it for years. There is a tremendous amount of research going on in agriculture, and we have always contended—on both sides of the House—that there is equal need for research in the fishing industry.

We want fleets with maximum catching power. We must have improved transport. Transport facilities which are not up to standard provide one of the major disabilities in all this work. What is needed is rapid transport readily available, at reasonable cost.

The Government must address themselves to these problems. There must be inducements to the men to remain in the herring industry, and there must be more adequate rewards. There must be a more adequate price structure as between different users. I have no time to develop that matter now, though I should hope to give some constructive views upon it. Something really must be done to rehabilitate this most valuable element in the economic life of the country.

Finally, may I join with the hon. Member of Banff in paying a tribute to the Herring Industry Board and its consultative committees, which do very valuable work? With them, I ask that the Government shall use every endeavour to rehabilitate this great industry, which performs such a service, not only in the economic structure of our country, but also to its way of life, quite apart from the vital importance of the industry in times of need.

3.38 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

May I also join in thanking the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) for initiating this debate, and particularly for practising such a self-denying ordinance as he has done? The same remarks apply also to the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie). We have little time left, but there are one or two points which I should like to emphasise.

First, it really is not good enough that the only attention that we devote to this most important matter should be confined to such an occasion as this. I really do ask my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State to get together with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to see whether he cannot press the Government to find some time for a proper debate on the herring industry. As has been said by everyone who has spoken, the industry is in a very serious situation indeed. The Yarmouth herring port is really dying, as one can see, year by year; and unless something is done to try to revive that industry, I am afraid it may go down to a very low level indeed.

My first point is on the question of over-fishing. The hon. Member for Lowestoft talked about the thousands of tons of immature fish that are being taken out of the East Anglian grounds. There are two figures which may perhaps impress this upon us. In 1955, which was a bad East Anglian fishing season, about 100 million mature fish were taken out during that season. During the same season, however, there were over 1,800 million—as against 100 million—immature fish taken out by the Danes alone, apart from what the Germans took out. Therefore, would it be possible to enter into some form of negotiations with the Germans and the Danes and with anyone else interested in this fishing, to see whether it is possible to put a stop to this really fabulous slaughter of fish that have not had time to breed?

My second point concerns the subsidy position, which is linked with the processing of herring. Seventy per cent. of all processed herrings go for export. That at least ought to sound in the ears of the Board of Trade; it ought to welcome the fact that we are exporting some herring. But the trouble is that we cannot catch the herring. One of the reasons is that there are not enough boats fishing, and one reason why there are not enough boats fishing is that the white fish subsidy is in fact giving an unfair advantage to white fishing over herring fishing. I do not want to do anything to detract from the advantages of white fishing, but I do not want the subsidy to be so arranged that it takes people out of herring fishing.

There are two other points which I would put briefly to the Minister. The first concerns drawback. Will he take up with the Board of Trade the question of drawback of duty on imported box materials? This is a matter which has been going on for nearly three years. I first took it up in February, 1954, and I managed to get a meeting with the Board of Trade in February this year. We were almost through by the end of July this year because we had a glimmer of hope that something was going to be done, but I have a letter as recently as 7th December from the Great Yarmouth and Mediterranean Herring Exporting Association to say that it had been in touch with the Board of Trade, which had said that there was a hold-up. It really must not take the Government as long as three years to give some little assistance to an industry which is in such trouble as this.

Finally, can the Minister have a talk with the transport authorities about the transport of herring during the season from Yarmouth to the West Country? There used to be a very good service, but now there is not a service which catches the market in the West of England, and so one more market is lost.

3.44 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)

I must be very quick and put three or four short points to the Government on this subject. The right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Kenneth Younger) who initiated this debate, said, I think quite rightly, that knowledge is the key to the problem. Whatever we may say about the future of the Herring Industry Board, if the fish are not available, or if they have changed their habits, it may affect the whole problem radically with or without subsidy.

Can the Government give an assurance that they will give the maximum possible support to any scientific research that can be undertaken as a matter of urgency? Can they assure us that the scientists will co-operate with the Herring Industry Board as speedily and as fully as possible? Can they tell us, perhaps not now, but in due course, how far we have co-operated with a body called, I believe, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas? What are they doing in this matter?

How can they fill in the international side of this picture? What records do the Government keep of the habits of herring over the last fifty years? Are they tagged, and from the tags are their habits traced? Are the Government satisfied that the Herring Industry Board itself has kept adequate records over the 'vast fifty years to show the habits of the herring round our coasts?

The manning problem is vitally important, especially as it affects future lifeboat crews. Finally, can the Government say that they will give really adequate research facilities by way of vessels and institutions? That is the key to the problem. It is no good, at this stage.

talking about subsidies until we have got action at two levels: first, from our own Government; and, secondly, international co-operation, so that we can stop over-fishing and also obtain the greatest possible knowledge throughout the world of the habits of this very delectable fish.

3.46 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

From these benches, I support everything which has been said from both sides of the House about this great industry. We do not want to see this industry die. Indeed, we dare not allow it to die in the situation which will face the country in the ever-growing difficulties of feeding our 50 million population. We must not let an industry which is so vital to us collapse for the lack of Government support.

Briefly, I should like to stress the necessity for research, and research at an international level. It is not enough for us to conduct the research in our own country without any relationship to what is going on elsewhere. There must be international co-operation in the task of conserving the fish and all that that entails.

Finally, in support of all that has been said, if we are to have subsidy—I believe that subsidy is vital to the industry, at any rate for the present—I think that the Government must try to raise it to such a level that we shall retain in the industry these men who can do so much for us.

3.47 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. J. Henderson Stewart)

I regret that the time has not allowed a fuller debate, but, speaking on behalf of the Government, I want at once to announce that we gladly accept the Motion.

This is a very important industry and, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) said, we must not let it die. We are all in agreement that it must be maintained. It is carried through by a race of remarkable men, supported by a unique race of women, and the nation will lose them at its peril. It is a trade which economically, politically and socially is of immense value to many ports all round our coasts. Nationally, in times of stress it is of the first importance to our land. Therefore, it is right that we should spend time examining it. I am also glad that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) said, hon. Members on both sides of the House had an opportunity yesterday of meeting the Chairman and General Manager of the Herring Industry Board.

The Motion is in two parts. One deals with the bad fishings in recent years and the need for urgent examination of this problem. The second part refers to the assistance which the Government ought to give. Regarding the poor fishings, as hon. Members know, this is no new story for the herring industry. Ups and downs, fortune and misfortune, have characterised the trade throughout the centuries. Good seasons have alternated with bad seasons, for no known reason, to such an extent that possibly the catching of herring is the most chancey and most variable of all primary extraction trades in the world. Even a moment's reflection on the history of the Board itself points to that. When the Board was formed in the 'thirties the problem was glut, what to do with all the fish that could not be sold. Today, twenty years later, it is a problem of shortage.

It is a very interesting change which has taken place. The shortage is not universal. In Scotland, for example, by and large we have not been so short of fish. There have been areas that have been very short, the Clyde and the Forth, for instance, but, by and large, we in Scotland, perhaps, should not complain too much. One recognises at once, however, that in East Anglia there has been in recent years a very acute and new phenomenon.

For four years in succession the catch in the latter part of the season, that is to say, in November, has disappointed every hope, and has brought loss to the fishermen and to the trade, to the merchants and processors and everyone. It is a phenomenon which has disturbed scientists and fishermen alike. It has been asked, by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) for one, is it that the fish have been fished too intensively in other parts of the North Sea? It is true that at first attention was focussed on the trawling of immature herring, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) referred as the catching of a multitude of millions of immature fish. That fishing has been developing, and scientists and fishermen have regarded it with increasing anxiety.

However, there is a big question mark overhanging this. If that fishery was the true cause of the trouble one would have expected it to have affected the October catch in East Anglia, which is mainly of the 3-year-old and 4-year-old herring, as well as the November catch, which is of somewhat older fish. In fact, with the exception of 1955, the recent October fisheries off East Anglia have not been unusually bad. The continued appearance of 3-year-old fish at this time makes it difficult to accept, without considerable reservations, that the trawling for immature fish has as yet made any 'profound difference to the October herring catch at Yarmouth. The situation with the November catch, which is of the 5-year-old herring, is different.

Fishermen and scientists have observed that this fall in the catch has coincided with increased catches by trawlers coming from many countries and fishing in the breeding ground of the Straits of Dover. It is to that breeding ground, it is thought, that the herring move after they have left East Anglia. This trawl fishing may, according to some theories, be taking large numbers of herring which would otherwise return to East Anglia in the next year. This is a quite distinct fishery from what may be called the industrial fishery undertaken by the Germans and the Danes in the eastern part of the North Sea.

Hon. Members have emphasised the importance of scientific research, nationally and internationally. I want to say a word about that. Clearly, there is a case for scientific investigation, not by our country only but by all the countries concerned. It was for this reason that the Government took the initiative in raising this very matter at the meeting of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas. At its meeting in October this year we sought to obtain a scientific diagnosis of the trouble which is confronting us all.

What happened? After a thorough investigation, the Council decided to express to its constituent Governments its concern and apprehension at the state of stocks of herring in the southern North Sea. In the normal course, the Council will be investigating the scientific and factual aspects of the problem between now and its meeting next year, but since then there have been indications that the trawl fishing in the Dover Straits, in which many countries take part, has not been so successful this year.

We are, therefore, proposing to all the Governments concerned that our administrators and technical experts should get together as soon as possible to look jointly at the experience of this year and to consider whether any new facts have emerged which could throw light on the situation. That is a new initiative and I am sure that the House will agree that it is a proper one to take at this time.

At the same meeting of the Council, in October, it was recommended that all interested countries should co-operate in a large-scale tagging experiment in the southern part of the North Sea. A United Kingdom scientist is a member of a small group which is now drawing up the details of the scheme and Her Majesty's Government will be eager and ready to play their full part as soon as details have been worked out for this new endeavour.

The right hon. Member for Grimsby asked about finance. The only figure that I have been able to get in the time is that the fishery Departments of the country and the Government-aided research associations are spending approximately £850,000 a year on fishery research including research on herring. We shall be contributing financially to the Council's proposed tagging programme. The House may take it that we are fully alive to the urgent necessity of scientific investigation into this matter, both nationally and internationally, and that everything we can do we shall do.

The second part of the Motion refers to the action which the Government themselves might take. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention to the fact that the fall in the catch of herring is not so much because boats are going out of commission as that boats which previously fished for herring are now going for the white fish. Hon. Members have said, in effect, that there must be now a lack of balance between these two great wings of the fishing industry. They have put that down to the fact that the white fish industry receives a subsidy, in character and perhaps as to quantities, greater than that given to the herring industry, and they have pleaded that we should balance matters better.

In other words, there should be a bigger, better subsidy for herring, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banff has said. We had proposals for bringing more money into the industry from the Herring Industry Board quite recently. They are receiving the Government's consideration. I cannot say how we shall react, but we hope before very long to make a statement.

I, and my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, who are jointly responsible for all this, agree entirely with hon. Members that we have here an industry that we must support at all costs. We cannot let it decline further. There is a great deal to be said for rebuilding the industry to a higher level than that at which it stands today, and perhaps to its level of two or three years ago. I am not sure what the level should be, but some recovery is essential and I assure the House that the Government will do their best.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, taking note of the series of bad herring fishings in recent years, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to investigate, with all possible speed, the causes of these failures, including the trawling of immature fish in the North Sea and near waters, and to give every assistance to maintain and expand the industry.