HC Deb 07 February 1973 vol 850 cc591-605

10.11 p.m.

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

I beg to move, That the Salmon and Migratory Trout (North-East Atlantic) Order 1972, a copy of whch was laid before this House on 23rd January, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

I think that it will be for the convenience of the House if we take the three orders dealing with salmon and trout together.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I agree, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Stodart

I am grateful to the Opposition for agreeing that we should discuss these orders together. All three are designed to ensure that measures are taken to safeguard stocks of these fish.

Perhaps I might begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) on his promotion to the Opposition Front Bench and say that I know he will speak from it with all the authority that he has shown from the back benches.

At present the regulation of fishing for salmon and migratory trout is achieved through one order which is due to expire on 14th February. The proposals in the draft orders now before the House will continue what are, broadly, the same arrangements. However, we propose that some relatively minor administrative changes should be made. It is simpler to deal with these in three orders rather than combine the revised arrangements in a single one which might be more difficult to understand.

The North-East Atlantic Order provides for continuing the existing ban on fishing for salmon and migratory trout by British fishermen in the area of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Convention. This area includes the North Sea and the waters round the British Isles.

As the House will know, we in this country have pressed for some time that members of the Commission should agree measures to safeguard stocks in international waters, and proposals have been agreed at recent meetings. The effect of the order now before the House is to enable us to continue to fulfil our international obligations which we have been anxious to achieve. We propose that the order should run for 10 years, although changes could be made in the meantime if that proved necessary.

The first of the "prohibition" orders relates to the waters off England and Wales. It proposes no change in Government policy. However, we are suggesting in this order that there should be a change in the administrative arrangements for licensing fishing. At present river authorities are responsible for this in the 0–3 mile belt of our fisheries limits. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food issues a very much smaller number of licences to fishermen for the 3–12 mile belt.

We consider that these arrangements can now be simplified without affecting the actual fishing. Under the arrangements arising from this order, river authorities would become solely responsible for issuing licences to catch salmon and migratory trout. Their jurisdiction would extend over our exclusive fisheries limits. 0–6 miles, which coincides with the limits of their powers for fisheries purposes. This proposed administrative change will give the responsibility for licensing to the local bodies who are best equipped to deal with detailed matters like these. The proposals have been agreed with the river authorities, and they are most unlikely to have an effect upon catches or on how much fishing there actually is.

The No. 2 Prohibition Order covers the controls over fishing for salmon and sea trout in Scottish waters and off the mouth of the Tweed. It has a very full battery of precedents to guard it. Since 1962 there has been a ban on fishing by drift-net within the fishery limits off Scotland, and since 1971 on other specified methods also. The Salmon and Migratory Trout (Prohibition of Drift-Net Fishing) Order 1962, the operation of which was extended four times by the Labour Party, and the Prohibition Order of 1971, made by the present Government, all had the same objective—to maintain a ban on drift-net fishing for salmon in Scottish waters and off the mouth of the Tweed until the situation could be finally resolved in the light of decisions on the Hunter Report on Salmon and Trout Fisheries in Scotland as a whole.

In November 1971 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced in the White Paper on the subject that it was the Government's intention to make the ban on drift-net fishing for salmon off the coast of Scotland and the Tweed permanent. I do not propose to repeat the considerations which led the Government to this decision. They are fully set out in the White Paper, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are acquainted with them.

Along with the other orders this one has been made for a 10-year period. This leaves no room for doubt as to our intention to ban drift-netting permanently. It is not permissible in terms of the enabling legislation to do this by order, but the order will be overtaken by permanent legislation as soon as the parliamentary timetable allows for its introduction.

I hope that this explanation will have made our intentions clear. I commend the orders to the House.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

There can be no argument about the need to conserve our salmon and migratory trout stocks. Although the fishermen complain from time to time about the methods we employ to do this—and I have had a number of complaints from my local fishermen about the fact that they cannot drift-net for salmon, as no doubt have hon. Members on the Government side of the House—the fishermen themselves are as conscious as, if not more conscious than, anyone else of the need for these conservation measures.

I should like, however, to refer to three aspects in relation to these orders—first, the general question of maintaining our salmon stocks. At the tenth meeting of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, which took place in May of last year, several of the delegations outlined the various forms of research which they were carrying out into the migratory patterns of salmon. These tagging experiments showed a very poor rate of return, and there is argument whether this is because of pollution in the rivers or because of heavy fishing in the high seas. But whatever the reason, this poor rate of return represents a heavy loss for those countries which have invested in the artificial rearing and farming of salmon.

Britain has a number of such programmes. I understand that one was established last May at Almondbank, only two miles from where I was brought up, the other at Loch Kinnardochy. What progress has been made in those programmes? Will the Minister comment on the general research work? As the Hunter Report acknowledges, all our conservation measures must be based on the results of adequate research.

The second aspect relates to the first prohibition order. The Minister said that he was not merely continuing the prohibition of salmon fishing between six and 12 miles off the coast of England and Wales. He said that he was also altering the licensing arrangements between nought and six miles. The order makes no reference to this. I assume that this means that the Ministry can do this without writing it into the order.

This is an important matter, because these changes are by no means uncontroversial. The first change is that, instead of the Ministry issuing licences between three and six miles, the power will be transferred to the river authorities, so that river authorities will have responsibility for all licences between nought and six miles. The second change, as foreshadowed in Monday's debate on Second Reading of the Water Bill, is that the functions of river authorities, including these functions, will be transferred to the new water authorities.

Both changes are controversial. There is concern amongst fishermen about them. What consultations took place regarding the change the Minister announced tonight? The Minister said that he had consulted the river authorities. Did he consult the fishing interests? If my information is correct, the Fisheries Organisation Society was not consulted. I hope that the Minister can assure us that full consultation will take place about the second change, namely, the transfer from the river authorities to the proposed new water authorities.

The third aspect is the Scottish position The ban on drift netting for salmon follows the first report of the Hunter Committee in 1963. The policy has been accepted by Governments of both political complexions since then. The second report of the Hunter Committee which was issued in 1965 went much further and stated that commercial fishing for salmon should be permitted only in the river and by methods allowing the catch and the escapment to be measured with reasonable accuracy.

The White Paper "Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries in Scotland", which was published in 1971, explained why the Government believe that the Hunter Committee proposals for new methods of river fishing were impractical, in particular the suggestions for trap fishing. However, the Government should make clear whether they accept the broad statement that fishing should take place only in the river—in other words, that we shall phase out all commercial netting of salmon off the coasts.

The White Paper says that the Government will license the operation of fixed-engine fishing for salmon. I should like to know how urgent the Minister thinks it is that this should be done. After all, we have not had drift netting off our coasts in Scotland for some time, but we do have a considerable amount of netting of salmon off the coast by fixed engines and other methods. Will the Minister say whether he thinks it is urgent that action be taken to control this system, and will he say when the Government intend that this licensing system referred to in the White Paper will be introduced?

I note that the orders refer to a period of 10 years. Could the Minister explain why that period was chosen? It would be useful to know whether this has any bearing on the negotiations which took place with the European Economic Community. Is it just a coincidence that this period is roughly the same as the 10-year period which we have on our limits? It is only an informational point, but it would be useful to know.

I shall be grateful if the Minister will answer some of the points that I have raised. May I say that I am grateful for his kind remarks to me at the beginning of his speech. I conclude by saying that the Opposition support these orders.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wolrige-Gordon (Aberdeenshire, East)

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) on his speech from the Front Bench. I am sure that if he continues to perform in that dulcet fashion, my right hon. and hon. Friends will look forward to hearing from him on the Front Bench on many occasions in the future.

I do not think the occasion should pass without pointing out that but for the fact that, largely as a result of the Government's policy, the inshore fishing industry is enjoying exceedingly successful and prosperous times, the introduction of this order would be much more controversial than it is. It makes almost permanent the Government's resolution to ban drift netting in Scotland. In 1962 that was a major event. It was deeply felt by the inshore industry. It was the first time, so far as I am aware, that men were prohibited from using their skill to catch whatever they could of the wealth on the high seas, and, although the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East is quite right in saying that fishermen are aware of and welcome conservation measures, they are convinced that those measures must be fair, must be seen to be fair and must apply to everybody.

There are two bones of contention which, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State knows, particularly affect the Scottish inshore fleet from the point of view of fairness. I refer first to the English situation. We have been given to understand from time to time that the present system of drift netting under licence in England was in a sense a practice which was under constant review. Fewer and fewer licences were going to be issued. It was a diminishing trade. Tonight, the announcement by my hon. Friend has been not of a diminution in this practice but of a surrender by the Government of the responsibility for the control of that practice.

I should like to be told by my hon. Friend whether it is known what is to be the policy of the river boards who are to be responsible for licensing. Will they be phasing out this obviously dangerous practice of drift netting on the high seas? What is going to happen to drift netting in England? That is a major and justifiable cause of feeling among Scottish fishermen.

The other major question concerns our partners in the Common Market. When the Minister opened the debate he spoke about discussions on conservation measures among European countries. I did not understand from what he said whether there were firm guarantees about the practice of European fishing boats coming up to the six- and 12-mile limits and drift netting for salmon. Will the Minister make the position clear when he replies? A number of fishermen in my constituency feel that they have no chance of fishing for salmon within 67 miles of the British coast yet boats from the Common Market countries can come within 12 miles. Not only is that unfair, but if the conservation policy including the ban on drift netting is to be justified the practice must be stopped. If it is not, all the benefits of conservation of salmon stocks will be lost.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

Before we pass the order the House should be aware that the whole course of legislation on salmon fishing is regarded round Scotland as being heavily biased in favour of the interests of the riparian owners and letters. We all agree that conservation is important for all fishing stocks. But no one can deny that the main threat to salmon and migratory trout now, as always, arises from netting in the rivers. In spite of that many rivers have done extremely well in recent years and those that have not done well have been threatened more by disease than by excessive fishing in the sea. Important as conservation is, it should be seen to be fair. The Government must realise that it has proved very difficult to get the facts and the figures on catches and the amount of money made by large interests in the rivers—facts and figures which would enable us to determine where the main threat to conservation lies.

My second point is that there has been a great deal of talk lately of a change not only in feudal but in udal law. Udal law has important repercussions on riparian fishings. My constituents do not have great interests in drift netting for salmon at present. But they have considerable interests in their udal rights to netting round the coast. That is not in dispute in the order, but I take the opportunity to say that we shall certainly regard any orders introduced to further the interests of the river owners and to abolish the udal rights of crofters and others in my constituency as peculiarly biased.

There are very real problems in the rights of crofters to net migratory trout, and salmon when they occur in the waters around the coast of Orkney and Shetland. In view of the large sums paid to certain people for the loss of value of such rights—and we all remember what Lord Lovat was paid, rightly or wrongly, for the extinguishment of rights on a river that he owned—any attempt by the Government to extinguish crofters' rights without protecting their legitimate means of fishing and without giving them compensation for loss of rights which have been a part of the law of Orkney and Shetland for a long time will be ill thought of.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. John M. Temple (City of Chester)

It is rather presumptuous of me, as President of the National Council of Salmon Netsmen of England and Wales, to speak on the orders, because they mainly concern Scotland. But I should like to give them a warm welcome and to explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) that in England and Wales we have rather different controls over drift netting and all kinds of netting for salmon than are operative in Scotland. Under our arrangements I think that everything is reasonably under control and matters work relatively satisfactorily.

I give a particular welcome to the special order for the North-East Atlantic, because it goes far wider than the confines of England and Wales.

In the future Scotland may adopt the enlightened policies that we have in England and Wales. I hope that that will happen, because we have managed to achieve a reasonable balance between the rodsman's and the netsman's interests. The problem has been different in Scotland. I can recommend our approach. I hope very much that in the orders to come similar arrangements will appertain to Scotland.

10.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) in welcoming him to his position on the Opposition Front Bench. We welcome him because of his knowledge and the interest he has shown in agriculture and the fishing industry. He has considerable knowledge in particular of agriculture and the scientific aspects of the industry. We shall all benefit from his contributions to our debates from the Opposition Front Bench. We are very glad to have him with us tonight.

I thank the House for the general welcome it has given the orders. I am sure that we are doing the right thing if we are properly to conserve and look after a national asset.

We welcome my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Temple) to the debate. This is the first time so far as I remember that he has spoken in a drift-netting debate, but his interest in salmon generally is well known to the House. I am sure that we shall benefit from his experience in this and other debates. I have noted his points.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) raised a very technical matter on udal law, one that I faced when I was in his constituency last summer. I appreciate the concern caused to those involved, and note the right hon. Gentleman's points. We shall have to watch for anything in future legislation that may affect the position.

The right hon. Gentleman also questioned the accuracy of some of the statistics on fisheries catches around the coast of Scotland, particularly salmon catches. From time to time there has been representations to us about the nature of the statistics and how they are collected. They are published in our fishery tables every year very fully, and I believe very accurately. Some people would like to see them broken down into areas. I think that was the right hon. Gentleman's point. We have resisted that because the statistics at their lowest level are collected on a confidential basis from commercial concerns, particularly in the netting industry, and we have had to respect the confidentiality of those from whom we obtain the statistics. They are added together to give us the overall picture on which our policy is based, and I believe that that generally gives an accurate picture.

Mr. Grimond

I am constantly astonished that the Government should accept that. Why should they be confidential? Every other industry in this country makes returns—for example, coal and steel. Why not the salmon fishing industry? The rest of the fishing industry makes returns. Why not make returns public district by district and river by river?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

If the right hon. Gentleman will reflect for a moment he will realise that individual firms are not forced to publish their individual returns. If that applied to the salmon netting industry it would be a completely new move and a complete breach of the confidence in which we get the statistics, which we put together to compare areas and so on. Nothing would be served by publishing the returns of individual firms involved in the netting industry. In any case, it would be a retrograde step so far as confidentiality is concerned. It is a principle that has not been adopted for other industries.

I appreciate the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) in this matter. It has been a continuous and consistent interest over the years that we have had these debates. The fishermen who in an earlier period were interested and effective in this form of fishing when the original ban was introduced are relatively prosperous at present. That has probably dulled some of the representations that my hon. Friend might otherwise have made. I have a constituency similar to that of my hon. Friend and I know that amongst certain fishermen this is still a matter of concern. It is right that we should recognise that is so.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East raised two points in particular, the first being the respective positions in Scotland and the North-East of England. The reason for the difference is that drift netting is not the traditional method of fishing for salmon in Scotland. The drift netting which developed off the Scottish coast in 1961 and 1962 was a new development which threatened to grow rapidly into trouble. The exploitation of stocks was threatened. The traditional method of fishing in Scotland, as the House will know, is by what is called bag nets and fixed nets. That is the method which is used with few exceptions in Scotland. In England drift netting is the traditional method of fishing for salmon in the sea.

In each case there has been no interference with what might be regarded as the normal method of fishing and the extent of exploitation, but this has produced the result, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, of differences in the waters off each country.

The scale of fishing off England and Wales as a whole has always been very much lower than the fishing which developed off the Scottish waters in 1961 and 1962. Whilst it is true for Northumberland especially that there has been some expansion, in the number of licences issued, the catch, up to 1970, also went up. I know that that is a cause of concern to salmon interests in Scotland, and I have received representations from fishermen in my constituency. However, I do not share the view—and I think the whole House will agree that this is a poor view to take—that because fishing is allowed to continue off Scotland there should be no harm in allowing the former method to re-start in Scotland.

Mr. Temple

My hon. Friend is liable to fall into a slight error. In fact, the major catching of salmon by netsmen in England and Wales is by bag nets and fixed nets and only a minor proportion is by anything that might be construed as drift netting.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Perhaps I was not clear in emphasising that I was making the point in relation to the Northumberland coast. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East was referring solely to the Northumberland fishing. That was the context in which I was replying on this aspect. I accept that in other areas the fixed engine is used.

What should not be overlooked is that at the present time the Northumberland River Authority has made byelaws restricting the fishing season in its southern area, where the major increase in fishing has taken place, and is reducing the length of net permitted. In addition, a net limitation order has been made which has restricted considerably the number of licences for fishing in that area. There can be no question of there being unrestricted fishing in the area off the Northumberland coast. Taking that into account, together with the traditional background. I do not think there is any unfair discrimination between the two countries.

My hon. Friend also asked about drift netting in the high seas off the United Kingdom and how foreign fishermen might be affected in relation to our own. Under the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission agreements, to which the main fishing countries in the European Economic Community have subscribed, there is a complete ban on drift netting for salmon within the so-called "box" around the United Kingdom. This box extends to about 150 miles from the Scottish coasts.

Thus, fishermen from these EEC countries are not free to come and drift net just outside our fishing limits, and it is doubtful whether, even if they were allowed to do so, it would be worth their while to undertake that form of fishing. Elsewhere in the Commission area, there are places where EEC fishermen, although not British, can fish for salmon for a short open season each year, a period of about two months. But British fishermen do not take part in such fishing and have made no representations to be allowed to do so.

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

Can my hon. Friend say exactly where that area is, and whether he is satisfied that the south coast of England, along which the salmon no doubt migrate to the Dorset, Frome, Avon and Test, is protected?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The box is all round the United Kingdom. I cannot define exactly the other areas within the jurisdiction of the Commission but if I can get the information I will give it to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby).

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

I thank my hon. Friend for covering the case I put. Are our fishery protection vessels empowered to enforce the policy of the convention?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Yes. We are increasingly co-operating in these international agreements and our Scottish fishery protection cruisers have taken part in supervisory expeditions already. We intend to continue to play our part in the policing of these international agreements.

In that miraculous way in which we sometimes get information in this House, I have here a map which shows the whole of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission area, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West, would like to see me after the debate I will let him see it. The whole area around the United Kingdom—including the south-west coast —and Ireland as well is in the box area to which the Commission applies.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, asked why the order was for 10 years. There is nothing sinister in the choice of 10 years. He need not look for mice under the bed. The period has no connection with the EEC. It is simply regarded as a convenient period for the order to run.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the Government would introduce a Bill to follow the White Paper published a year ago. He knows how busy are the Scottish Grand Committee and the Scottish Standing Committee with legislation. It will not be this year. We hope to introduce a Bill at the first opportunity. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to anticipate the timing of future legislation.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, also asked what consultation there had been with fishermen who operate off the Northumberland coast. We consult the river authorities, on which fishermen are represented. The Northumberland river authority is the only one which is affected by the six to 12-mile limit. Representatives of commercial fishermen who are appointed to the authority by the Minister were in complete agreement with our proposals. To that extent there was consultation with them.

Mr. Strang

The Minister is saying that the fishermen's organisations were not consulted. Is it not normal practice when there is a change in the regulations affecting fishermen to consult not only bodies on which fishermen happen to be represented along with other people but to consult the organisations which represent the fishermen?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the situation. We work through the river authority, which has day-to-day control. On that body the fishermen are represented. There is nothing unusual in the way it was done, and no points of difficulty were raised by those who represented commercial fishing interests. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of dissatisfaction with this procedure, I shall be glad to hear of it. The hon. Gentleman has put forward no such evidence tonight. If he has evidence I am prepared to look at it and consider whether the procedures can be improved. The procedures on this occasion were adequate and no difficulties have arisen.

Mr. Strang

May I suggest that on future occasions the Minister at least consults the Fisheries Organisation Society? He must be aware of the importance of this organisation.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I shall look at this point, but I cannot give any undertaking because I am not aware that there is dissatisfaction. It appears that the hon. Gentleman is not aware of any dissatisfaction and has simply plucked this point out of the air. If there is dissatisfaction my hon. Friend will look into it. The way in which we have proceeded on previous occasions has been acceptable to those concerned.

In England and Wales research on salmon problems is carried out at the Ministry's Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory. Currently expenditure on salmon research, other than into diseases, is running at £90,000. This research programme covers salmon population studies, and methods of automatic electronic counting of salmon stocks under the auspices of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

The laboratory also plays an active part, in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland, and other nations, in the investigation of the effects of international high seas fisheries for salmon in the north and north-west Atlantic, that is the Greenland area.

This latter programme involves our scientists in working in Greenland and on research and commercial vessels in the area. This is in addition to home-based efforts. Research on matter other than diseases is taking place at a Freshwater Fish Laboratory at Pitlochry. A considerable amount of research is being conducted, at an annual cost of £100,000 This covers fundamental research into a number of aspects of the biology of salmon and other matters.

Much of the research is concerned with the relationship between spawning stock and recruitment—the word used for those fish who come up to the adult stock stage. Some long-term census studies are being carried out at three sites on the River Dee in Aberdeenshire. Studies are also in progress dealing with rearing salmon. These have been expanded into a pilot investigation into the rearing of 10,000 salmon smolts a year at Almondbank, near Perth. The objective is to investigate fundamental aspects of the life history of salmon, such as the factors affecting the inheritance of those characteristics which influence the period spent in the sea. These are fairly long-term programmes. We have been looking into the effect of the West Greenland salmon fishery and into various disease questions which have been worrying us in recent years. An extensive research programme is being carried out. It is too early to give any definitive results.

As with all fishing debates, this has been an interesting discussion and I thank all who have taken part in it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Salmon and Migratory Trout (North-East Atlantic) Order 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd January, be approved.

Resolved, That the Salmon and Migratory Trout (Prohibition of Fishing) Order 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd January, be approved.—[Mr. Anthony Stodart.]

Resolved, That the Salmon and Migratory Trout (Prohibition of Fishing) (No. 2) Order 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st December, be approved.—[Mr. Buchanan-Smith.]

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