HC Deb 02 August 1966 vol 733 cc424-34

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

11.27 p.m.

Mr. Robert Mathew (Honiton)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the question of the River Axe fishery trap, which is operated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and which is situated just below the bridge at the village of Colyford, in my constituency.

I wish to draw attention to the mounting evidence of serious damage that the operation of the trap has had on fishing above it. I invite the Minister—I am grateful for his presence tonight—to cooperate by investigating the effects on fishing once again and going to the root of the matter, and I ask him to tell the House openly the real value of this expensive experiment, and, in greater detail than we have heard up to now, what information has been obtained so far.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to call a public inquiry before the licence for the trap is renewed next year. Public money is being spent and the Ministry should not hide behind a smokescreen of vague assertions of scientific value. The House and the taxpayer are entitled to know what has been discovered over the years that the trap has been operating.

Perhaps it would be right for me to declare an interest, albeit not a very big one. I fish the river above the trap from time to time. The trap lies just below my house, but the great floodlights do not keep me awake at night. Perhaps a week at Westminster is enough to make one survive any nuisance that might arise. I am not a member of the Axe Vale Fishing Association, and I never have been.

On 11th May, I tabled two Questions about this trap to ask what information had been obtained, what the annual cost of the trap was, how long the experiment was to continue, and what, if any, compensation was proposed for those who had been adversely affected by it. The Questions were not reached, and the Minister, in a Written Reply dealing in general terms with the information obtained so far, stated that the main purpose of the experiment was to enable the effects of artificial restocking to be scientifically assessed, and that this part of the experiment had only been started this year.

The Minister added that several factors unconnected with the trap could account for the decline in catches above the trap in recent years. He ignored my questions as to the future of the trap and the length of time it might be operated and as to compensation for damage to fishing rights above the trap. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to answer those questions tonight.

As to the deterioration in fishing above the trap since its installation, there is now good evidence that, after being handled at the trap, the fish, especially sea trout, become shy; they take very little interest in baits, lures or flies, and the sea trout particularly rarely show themselves, presumably sulking in the deeper parts of the river where they are invisible.

There is evidence that the trap holds up fish and they run much later than they did before its installation. I know that the Ministry has said that this has always been a late river, but this is something which has, in fact, developed since the installation of the trap. Albeit that it was always known as a late river in the past, this feature has been much exaggerated since the trap has been installed, and the fish run very much later than before. One result of this is that more fish are caught by those who fish below the trap, especially in the lower reaches of the River Coly. Many of the people interested are convinced also that the very bright floodlights to which I referred earlier stop the fish, especially sea trout, from running upstream at night.

In low water, the fish are reluctant to enter the trap. In times of flood, many escape it. Flooding occurs regularly every winter. As I have said, I live very near the trap, and at least twice in the winter I am unable to pass the main road and have to go round. During these periods, the trap is a small island in a huge lake, and it is obvious that at such times many fish must escape the trap. This seriously affects the scientific value of the trap.

There is no question but that for some years after the installation most fishermen, continuing to fish at what one might call normal intensity as they had before, failed to catch fish in the same numbers. Because of this, some of them have since decreased the number of visits they have paid to the river, but others still continue on the river as before but catch a very small number of fish compared with their results before.

As to what happens at the trap itself, there is no objection to the tagging of the downstream migrants, but anyone who has watched the operation—even a non-expert such as myself—must find it difficult to believe that upstream handling, tapping and especially fin clipping and the use of NS222 and electro-narcosis are unconnected with the very marked and severe deterioration in the catches obtained above the trap since its installation. There have been accusations of fish being badly fin-clipped and mishandled. I have watched these operations and I have no direct evidence of this and would be surprised if it were so.

I would pay tribute to the fine spirit of the men working on the trap. They have a dedicated enthusiasm for the job and a great interest in the scientific aspects of the experiment. This is highly commendable, if it is possible to know the results, but I doubt whether many of these men know whether the experiment is justified. The great deterioration in fish dates from the installation of the trap. The Minister told me on 11th May that there were several other factors which could account for the decline in fishing recently. I asked him to tell the House what they are.

Why did the Ministry at one stage appear willing to consider compensating the fisheries owners? The fisheries owners are not interested in compensation, but only in the return of their fishing to its normal, pre-trap condition. How long does the Minister contemplate operating the trap? I invite him to take a practical view, on the spot, of the fisheries owners' problem. I should be happy to offer him hospitality. If he is unable to do that, would he send a senior Ministry official to weigh up the case and the problem of the fisheries owners?

The Ministry have maintained that there is no evidence of the trap damaging fisheries. I assume that this is based on the incomplete official catch records. Everybody knows that countrymen are averse to filling in forms, and the average returns are about 50 per cent. But the fishery owners have their own private records covering a long period. They can testify to their accuracy and are ready to do so on affidavit. There is ample evidence to support an action for damages by the owners. That is not only my opinion, but that of other lawyers.

Another argument put forward in support of the contention that there is no evidence that the trap has caused this deterioration is that overseas traps have not caused a decrease in fishing. But the Minister will have noted that this trap counts all fish, including sea trout, and I believe that none of the other traps, in the United States and Scandinavia, includes sea trout.

The Ministry promised to restock this year with salmon smolts bred elsewhere. or with eggs from rivers other than the River Axe. Salmon were removed from the Axe trap to provide ova for the hatchery. In that case, why were not fishery owners informed, in view of the undertaking that had been given?

The fishery owners originally gave their consent to the trap on the Ministry's assurance that fishing upstream would not be affected. I hope that the Minister will remember this in dealing with the problem that has arisen. I also ask who represented the fishery owners at any inquiries held prior to the granting of the renewed licences to operate this trap in the past. My case is that the fishery owners have not been properly heard by the Ministry, nor the evidence properly weighed; the owners have been brushed off by officials ever since evidence began mounting that they were suffering damage.

I therefore ask, first, for an early visit by the Minister, if he can find the time, or by a very senior official. Secondly, I ask for an assurance that a proper public inquiry will be held, so that fishery owners can be heard for the first time before a licence to operate the trap, which the Ministry like to refer to as the "fixed engine", comes up for consideration in 1967.

11.42 p.m.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew) has raised a matter of some importance and great interest to many people. He spoke of the serious damage which the trap is doing to the fishery interests in the River Axe. It occurs to me, as one who fishes another river that also runs into the English Channel, that there are great variations in the success of fishermen who seek to catch salmon and sea trout in these rivers, and I would be slow to judge the effect of a trap in a river in anything less than a number of years.

I would ask my hon. Friend whether it is not a fact that the fishery owners have themselves engaged an expert to report to them on the subject? According to the information I have received, that report has been in their hands for some time. I had hoped that my hon. Friend would say something about it in his speech.

Mr. Mathew

This is an interim report which has been submitted. I am astonished that my hon. Friend knows about it. There is a great deal more work to be done. It is significant that the investigation carried out took place before the disastrous season of 1965. The report is incomplete. There are some very constructive suggestions even in the interim report, which I trust will come forward at the public inquiry which, I hope, the Minister will hold.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I am glad to hear that. I am very interested in it. It goes some distance towards establishing the fact that we should be extremely slow to judge this question by the results of only a few years.

I know that a great deal of interest is taken in the trap, which is unique in Britain and probably in the world, not only by anglers but by scientists, biologists and others. I hope that nothing will be done to stop this experiment until it has continued for at least long enough to enable us to know something about that mysterious animal, the Atlantic salmon.

11.45 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Hoy)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew) for raising this subject tonight and to the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) for taking part in this debate.

It is right that before replying to the points that have been raised I should explain the nature and purpose of the research that is being carried out by the Ministry on the Axe. It is self-evident that measures for the conservation of fish stocks must depend on accurate scientific knowledge of the populations concerned. But what is not always realised is the extent of our ignorance about facts of fundamental importance.

For example, measures have long been taken to limit the catching of salmon to ensure the survival of an adequate breeding stock. But this is still a hit-and-miss business. We do not know how large a breeding stock is required to maintain the population in any given river and without this information it is impossible to say whether, for example, a larger catch than at present could be taken without endangering the stock.

To quote another instance, it has been the practice for many years to introduce artificially reared fish into rivers with the object of increasing the stock, but no one can say with precision what effect these measures have. It is quite possible that there is an optimum level of the stock which, for all we know, the fish naturally hatched in the river may be sufficient to provide; and that if this is exceeded, all that happens is that the extra fish fail to survive so that the future population of the river is not benefited at all. It is to obtain the answers to such questions as these that the trap has been built.

Its function is to count all the salmon and sea trout ascending and descending the river continuously over a period of years. The fish are intercepted, counted, measured, given an identifying mark and then released into the river after an interval which never exceeds an hour, the work going on continuously by night and day. In this way, very full data is obtained about the stocks in the river under all conditions. In the past six years, the data has given us a picture of the stock fluctuations that occur under natural conditions.

Starting this year, artificially reared smolts have been introduced and this will continue for a period of years. It will then be possible, from the data before and after restocking, to make an accurate assessment of the effects of artificial restocking.

The purpose of the trap is, as I have said, to obtain this essential information, which could not be obtained without the trap. For this reason, the trap has received strong support from the various bodies concerned with fisheries at the national level, such as the Natural Environment Research Council, the Association of River Authorities and the Salmon and Trout Association. The Bledisloe Committee has also strongly approved it in its Report, on which the Government's conclusions were announced only yesterday.

While I thought that I owed the House a full explanation of the purposes and importance of the trap, since the hon. Member for Honiton has raised the matter and wants to know what is going on, this, of course, is not directly a reply to the complaint which the hon. Gentleman has made, which is that whatever may be the justification for the trap, it is, nevertheless, causing considerable damage to the owners of the fishing rights on the Axe above the trap.

I wish to emphasise that we have spared no effort to work in harmony with the fishing interests on the river. The installation is open to their inspection 24 hours a day for 365 days a year. I cannot think of any other which is so clearly available to anybody, including the public. They know that they are always welcome to come and watch our activities. The hon. Member said that he had taken advantage of this, and I am grateful to him for the tribute which he paid to the men who do the work there.

In addition, a monthly information news sheet is distributed to all interested persons. We have repeatedly altered our procedures, sometimes to the detriment of the scientific work, to try to meet the owners' wishes. First, we altered the type of tags used. Then we gave up altogether the tagging of ascending fish. Finally, we changed our method of anaesthetising the fish—which is essential to prevent injury during measurement and sexing.

Nevertheless, the owners still maintain that the trap has adverse effects in two ways. First, they say that it delays the fish ascending the river. However, since we know that in the early months of the year, when the migrating urge is not strong, some fish go up and down through the trap more than once, I do not think that one can say that they find it a serious obstacle.

Secondly, it is claimed that the experience of going through the trap permanently affects the future behaviour of the fish and makes them more difficult to catch. We know of no general scientific evidence to suggest that this is at all likely. The only evidence offered by the owners is that catches since the trap came into operation have been lower than in the period immediately preceding it. It is difficult to make a precise comparison, as it is only since the trap was built that we have had separate statistics of the catches above and below. However, the overall figures are that the average annual catch of salmon in the 10-year period before the building of the trap started was 34, while during the six years during which the trap has been in full operation the average annual catch has been 26. The corresponding figures for sea trout are 142 and 93.

The first point that I should like to make about these figures is that if there had been no trap in operation there is nothing in these changes which would have been in any way remarkable. If hon. Members look at the catches in other Devon rivers, or, indeed, in rivers elsewhere, they will see that nothing is more striking than the large and erratic fluctuations which occur from year to year, and from period to period, for reasons which we cannot explain—fluctuations as great as or greater than those which we are considering.

Mr. Mathew

The comparison of figures is between accurate figures since the trap was installed and inaccurate figures. Everybody knows that the returns are inaccurate and incomplete.

Mr. Hoy

I cannot argue about figures for which I am not responsible. I am dealing with the accuracy of figures which cannot be disputed.

There is no need to invoke the trap to explain them. But if one is looking for possible explanations, there are at least three factors which seem much more likely to account for the change. First, in 1956—before the trap was built—the season was shortened by four weeks at the end, which is the time when most fish are entering the river. This affected only the last two years of the pre-trap period, but it has affected all seasons since the trap came into operation. In 1961, the season was again curtailed by a further two weeks.

Secondly, during the last few years spinning for salmon and sea trout has been given up during part of the season, and this is a very effective means of catching. Thirdly, there has been a reduction in the number of salmon rods licensed, and in waters such as these, which are not heavily fished, one must expect a reduction in the number of rods to result in a reduced catch. It is, of course, impossible to prove positively that the trap has had no effect at all, but I suggest to the House that any drop in catch that has taken place might reasonably be attributed to the factors which I have mentioned rather than to the trap.

I do not, therefore, accept that the complaints are well founded. Nevertheless, although not accepting any liability, we did, in an endeavour to reach an agreed settlement, offer to enter into an agreement which would have been in the nature of an insurance policy. Our plan was to take a period of several years before the trap was set up as the reference period and then compare the average annual catch during that period with the catch in a period after the trap was set up.

We proposed to do this every year, each time taking the immediately preceding five years as the period for comparison. If the five-year average was less than the average during the reference period, we would make the owners a payment based on the shortfall. If, on the other hand, the catch rose above that in the reference period, they would make a corresponding payment to the Government.

The owners rejected this offer as inadequate, but we think that it was fair. I am sorry that our efforts have not enabled us to get agreement. On the evidence we have, I am satisfied that we cannot go further than we already have done. We have co-operated with an eminent independent expert whom the owners engaged to carry out an investigation, but we have not been informed of his conclusions. We did not engage him. But I make this offer to the hon. Member for Honiton. If conclusions have been reached, we will be more than willing to discuss them with the owners. We are ready to consider any evidence that may be put before us, but in the absence of further evidence of a substantial character we should not be justified in closing down an experiment which is of the highest importance to the future of our salmon and trout fisheries.

The hon. Member for Honiton talked about an official visit. He knows that we are somewhat short of time, but I have no objection if a visit can be arranged at a suitable time. In view of the technical nature of the criticisms which have been made, the Ministry has been represented in discussions which have taken place on several occasions with the owners.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes to Twelve o'clock.