HC Deb 06 March 1972 vol 832 cc1200-8

11.43 p.m.

Mr. John Brewis (Galloway)

There has been no debate on fishing since the Chancellor of the Duchy completed his negotiations in Brussels. I am therefore grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of fishing limits in the Irish Sea, which is of great importance to my constituents.

I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is to reply to the debate; I am also glad to see that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture at the Scottish Office is also in his place.

There is no doubt that the extension of fishing limits to 12 miles which was carried out when Mr. Christopher Soames was Minister provided a great stimulus to inshore fishing. Before 1964 the number of boats operating in my constituency was negligible. Now there are 15 boats and more than 70 men based on the small ports of Kirkcudbright, Garlieston and Isle of Whithorn. A small processing factory has recently been opened in Kirkcudbright. There are further boats and a bigger factory at Annan in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), who I am glad is present, too.

The industry has also been helped by the discovery of prolific beds of queen scallops in the Irish Sea. In 1969 the value of queens landed at Solway ports was £48,700. Last year the value had increased to £340,780, although, in fact, less weight was landed than in the previous year, but the price had increased in the meantime. Scallop landings now account for more than 20 per cent. of the Scottish shellfish catch, and are more remunerative than the lobster fisheries. Prawn and white fish landings at Solway ports have been fairly static in recent years, but the total value last year of £636,890 makes this a highly important industry for the area.

I now turn to the Brussels Agreement. My right hon. Friend can rightly point out that the Solway Firth is protected and so is a stretch of coastline off Co. Down. The point, though, is that these are not the areas where the fish are caught. A better indication is given on the map showing the historic rights in the Irish Sea.

Here I must point out that the queen scallops are caught between the 12 and 6-mile limits in deeper water. This has been confirmed by a letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture at the Scottish Office, although he also points out that white fish are usually found nearer the shore.

At present only the Southern Irish have the historic right to take nephrops in English and Manx waters, but this right has not been much exercised up to now. French and Belgium trawlers have limited rights to take herring and demersal fish south of St. Bee's Head and south of the Isle of Man, but not nephrops. Belgian fishermen have, in fact, been very active in these waters and, according to my information, not very scrupulous in the past. Last year about 14 Belgian vessels made a notable catch of white fish off Morecambe Bay said to be worth £500,000. No fishing grounds can stand exploitation on that scale.

The magazine Commercial Fishing recently published an interview with a French skipper from Lorient, in which he forecast that modern French vessels with beam gear would soon appear in British waters. Dutch fishermen are already active outside the 12-mile limit. It is quite clear that a free-for-all can be expected once the present restrictions go in 1973. So profitable has this fishing been that the boats are sometimes tied up at Fleetwood and the crews flown home for the weekend.

Much of the present market for prawn and scallop is on the Continent. How can this market be maintained once their own fishermen are at liberty to exploit our fishing grounds? The lack of protection for this area seems the more incredible when one sees how easily protection was obtained for Co. Down, while the Irish Republic has negotiated a 12-mile limit for its entire east coast. There would be some mitigation of the damage if a 12-mile limit were obtained round the Isle of Man. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that active steps are being taken to secure that?

I end by asking my right hon. Friend about conservation measures. The 12-mile limit is still within our national jurisdiction. What evidence does my right hon. Friend need of overfishing before he specifies limited boat lengths, mesh sizes and other conservation measures? These waters could rapidly be over-fished by beam trawls and similar industrial fishing methods. I am told that foreign fishermen can fish with impunity, particularly after dark, and that the Royal Navy's fishery protection boat based on Fleetwood is seldom seen. Many of our boats are antiquated and need replacing. New methods of control are also needed, such as helicopters and night photography.

My right hon. Friend will know that the South-West of Scotland is largely a rural area. There are few alternative jobs for men available in industry. The loss of 70 jobs for men in fishing plus all the ancillary jobs on shore which support them would be a serious matter. The importance of this comparatively new industry was not appreciated by the negotiators in Brussels and I am anxious to know what measures my right hon. Friend proposes to see that it is properly protected.

11.52 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Prior)

My hon. Friend the Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis) has raised, in his usual courteous way, an important subject affecting the interests of his constituents. We are all delighted to hear of the enormous progress that has been made by the inshore fishing industry in his area since the change in limits was made in 1964. The Government have aided this progress by subsidies, grants and loans on boats.

My hon. Friend said that there had not been a debate on fishing since the agreement was reached in Brussels. That is not quite true, because there was the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, which was answered by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I notice that my hon. Friend also found time to mention fishing in a debate on the Scottish economic situation on 7th February. He has not been slow to put forward the interests of his constituents. In addition, he has written a number of letters and asked a number of Questions. He has represented his constituents' views as often as possible and with great effect. The situation in that area mentioned by my hon. Friend is not without its complexities. Although my hon. Friend was concerned in the main with the fishery for queen scallops or "queens" as I refer to them from now on, perhaps I could say one or two words in general before dealing with this particular stock.

Firstly, I take fisheries limits. As my hon. Friend will know, but I think it will bear repeating, fishery limits off the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man extend to 12 miles from the baselines established in 1964, and will continue to do so. Within this 12-mile limit the conservation of fish stocks and the enforcement of conservation measures are matters for which I and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Home Secretary are, and will remain, responsible. Orders made, for example, under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act, 1967, must be made jointly by the three fisheries Ministers, whatever part of British waters they affect.

Following accession to the European Economic Community, it will be necessary that conservation measures should not discriminate between members of the Community, and that is a fair and reasonable requirement. There are no other constraints upon our jurisdiction.

One important aspect of the Brussels negotiations was concerned with the question not of jurisdiction over the 12-mile limit but of access to it. It is the Government's view that the settlement reached is satisfactory in its overall effects. This was confirmed to my hon. Friend in a letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. The overwhelming part of the total British inshore catch has been afforded complete protection by the provisions we have secured for the United Kingdom. These provisions bar access to all waters within six miles of the baselines and to the extensive and valuable waters behind baselines, and also—though I know this does not help my hon. Friend locally—maintain the status quo in what are nationally the most important areas of the 6–12 mile belt.

My hon. Friend also asked about the Isle of Man in relation to the outcome of the entry negotiations with the E.E.C. I think he appreciates—but it may be worth getting this clearly on record—that there will not in any event be any cur- tailment of the conservation powers which my right hon. Friends and I can exercise under the 1967 Conservation Act. But as to whether any question might arise on rights of access, as distinct from conservation, my hon. Friend is really asking about the extent and details of the application of the protocol which was negotiated as part of the Treaty of Accession. I am referring of course to protocol No. 3, on the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. These are matters which have still to be discussed on behalf of the Islands with the existing Community. Moreover, they concern others of my right hon. Friends more directly than myself. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that what he has said tonight will be borne in mind by them, and by me, but he will understand that I cannot say more at the present time.

I now come to the specific question of stocks of queens. Firstly, let me say that none of us under-estimates the value of this fishery to the constituents of my hon. Friend, and, indeed, to other fishermen and to processors, too. However, the fishery is of very recent origin, having been exploited to any great extent only during the last two years. Naturally, the growth of a new fishery is something I am keen to promote, but it is hardly reasonable to suggest, either here or in Brussels, that communities exist which are traditionally dependent on this resource.

Following on from the fact that this is a very new fishery, I am advised that there is no evidence to suggest that the stock is currently over-fished. I think, indeed, that I can set at rest some of my hon. Friend's fears. It is true, as he said, that there is a good demand on the Continent for prawns and scallops. But this demand does not, I am advised, include queens, which are very much smaller than the scallops fished by, for example, the French. Furthermore, even if a demand for queens should develop on the Continent there are extensive stocks more readily accessible to Continental fleets.

I accept, of course, that if more and more fishermen devote their energies to this profitable fishery in the Irish Sea the time may come when restrictions are necessary. But I must say at once that such restrictions could not discriminate between members of the E.E.C.

If it became evident to me and to my right hon. Friends that there was a danger that this valuable resource would become over-exploited, we would, on the basis of scientific advice and consultation with interested sections of the industry, introduce appropriate orders from the considerable range of possible conservation measures, be they the introduction of minimum sizes, closed seasons, closed areas, and so on. These restrictions, if they proved necessary to conserve stocks, would however bear upon all fishermen engaged in the fishery in the same way as our mesh of nets regulations bear upon all fishermen.

I think the conservation measures that we have already taken, or which can be taken if the need arises, will be sufficient to cope with the situation inside the 12-mile limit. I would mention in particular the ban we have imposed on the use of heavy beam trawls of the sort used by foreign fishermen in this area. My hon. Friend has expressed concern about the damaging effects of this sort of gear, and about the risk of its introduction in the 12-mile limit after our accession to the E.E.C. I give him an absolute assurance that in English and Northern Ireland waters such gear will not be used. In Scottish waters the situation is different and it is unlikely that beam trawls could be used. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be keeping the situation under review.

Mr. Brewis

What about the Isle of Man?

Mr. Prior

If the need arose any conservation measure applicable in United Kingdom waters could be extended to the Isle of Man following the making of an Order in Council in agreement with the Isle of Man Government.

No one should doubt that my right hon. Friends and I will ensure that the fish stocks all round our coasts, and the conduct of fisheries there, will continue to be kept under careful observation. We shall not hesitate to introduce and enforce appropriate measures, both to ensure that stocks are not over-fished and to ensure that fishing of different kinds can be pursued effectively.

My hon. Friend has said, in effect: this is all very well, but can he rely on the conservation measures being enforced? This point has been taken up time and again by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by the industry as a whole. I must confess that we cannot guarantee that a fishery protection vessel will always be available at all times of the year on all the grounds round our coasts where illegal activities may take place. We cannot have a policeman constantly on duty at every street corner.

However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the Fisheries Ministers are well aware that the best of regulations can be rendered ineffective for lack of policing. We have, therefore, made provision for an increase of about 50 per cent. in the present provision of naval vessels for fisheries protection. This extra provision will become available before our accession to the E.E.C. We shall not be able to ensure that any foreigner fishing has a naval vessel constantly within detection range but any foreigner—or for that matter any British vessel—planning to fish illegally will in future be seeing more naval vessels flying the fisheries protection flag, and he will always have that uncomfortable feeling that one of these vessels may be just over the horizon.

My hon. Friend mentioned helicopters. Without further advice, I would not want to be drawn too far into that subect, but I understand that the use of naval helicopters is to be considered. One of the problems is that one may be able to see from the air where someone is fishing illegally but not necessarily have a boat, as it were, on the sea to catch him. This is something that is being given further consideration, however.

My right hon. Friends and I cannot provide the constituents of my hon. Friend with absolute protection against competition from British and foreign vessels inside and outside the limits—I do not think my hon. Friend is asking me to do so—but I hope we have given a reassurance to him and his fishermen not only that we have an adequate range of measures available to protect their fisheries from over-exploitation or the wrongful use of damaging gear but also that we have every intention of using these powers and seeing that the regulations are enforced.

It is with the knowledge that this industry has developed extremely well in the last few years and that exports to America have become very important to my hon. Friend's constituents that we will keep a careful eye on this problem, and should my hon. Friend have any further evidence that he can bring to our attention as time goes on, I undertake that it will be carefully examined.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Twelve o'clock.