HC Deb 17 January 1974 vol 867 cc1051-60

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

In the summer of 1970 the White Fish Authority carried out an experiment into the potential fishing of Norway pout. It gave rise at the time to protests from fishermen in the port of Wick in Caithness and from a number of fishermen throughout the northern ports in Scotland, who feared——

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Maclennan

—that the effect of widespread industrial fishing for Norway pout would seriously interfere with the catches for human consumption. The results of that experiment demonstrated that in the total catches landed only 44 per cent. of the catch consisted of pout, the rest consisting of fish for human consumption, including largely haddock and whiting, both mature and immature. In other words, the experiment demonstrated that the fears the fishermen expressed at the time were largely justified in respect to fishing industrially for Norway pout.

After that the Scottish Trawlers Federation prepared a memorandum which I believe was submitted to the Minister. It put in the strongest terms the view that the development of industrial fishing presented serious problems, both immediate and long-term, for the conventional human consumption industry, that it should be discouraged and that, so far as possible, within our own coastal waters should be stopped altogether. The federation took the view that absolute priority should be given to meeting the demand for human consumption protein food.

In preparing the memorandum, the federation approached a number of other interested bodies in Scotland and abroad and obtained their support for its views. Among the bodies which expressed support for the view that industrial fishing should cease were the Scottish Inshore White Fish Producers' Association, the Clyde Fishermen's Association, the Mallaig and North-West Fishermen's Association, the Shetland Fishermen's Association, the Fisheries Organisations Society, the Netherlands National Fisheries Organisation, the Belgian Trawler Federation and the Union of French Shipowners. There has been widespread support for the views put forward by the Scottish Trawlers Federation well over a year ago.

I am glad to have the opportunity to initiate this debate to enable the Minister to explain the Government's attitude to the points of view so strongly expressed by the fishing industry in Scotland. He will remember that I started to raise the question with him again last autumn, in both letters and a series of parliamentary Questions designed to elicit information about industrial fishing landings in Scotland and about the possibility of control and inspection.

Tonight I want to take the examination a stage further. First, I wish to put at rest one or two myths which seem to have grown up in other industries about the importance of industrial fishing to this country. Some of these myths are most widely believed, perhaps, in certain sections of the agriculture industry, where it may be thought that fish meal constitutes a major part of animal feeding-stuffs. This has to be seen in perspective. The latest figures that I have been able to obtain show that for the year 1971–72 the consumption of fish meal on farms in this country totalled 424,000 tons, of which only 86,000 tons was home produced. Domestic production met only 20 per cent. of the home market. But this was largely not the product of industrial fishing but was produced from fish offal and sometimes from catches which were unfit for human consumption.

The whole problem became more acute in the summer of 1973, when the prices for fish meal soared in the United Kingdom. That was partly due to the failure of Peruvian anchovy supplies in 1972 and 1973, combined with a shortage of soya beans, at the same time, imported from the United States. A peak of £325 per ton was reached for fish meal last August. Although that figure fell to £230 per ton in October, it was still £100 per ton higher than it was in the previous October. That was largely due to the fall in the price of soya beans after the rather more successful harvest in the United States and the anticipated resumption, on a restricted basis, of anchovy fishing off Peru this month.

However, the point that should be noted is that in both pig and poultry rations fish meal and soya bean meal can be substituted for each other to a considerable extent, according to the price and availability. Thus, a decline in the average proportion of fish meal in a compound feedstuff mix from 3 per cent. to 2 per cent., such as occurred between the first and second halves of 1972 for some kinds of feed, represents a one-third cut in the consumption of fish meal for that particular purpose. Hence compounders could significantly reduce our use of fish meal whilst still producing nutritionally adequate feed-stuffs. That is the background that we have to bear in mind in considering whether industrial fishing should be encouraged in this country to promote a greater availability of suitable feedstuffs.

The greatest anxiety does not stem so much from the activities of our own fishermen who might be tempted to pursue industrial fishing, because the profitability of industrial fishing in this country is unlikely to be very attractive to fishermen as long as the price of fish for human consumption remains as high as it is now and so long as adequate stocks for human consumption remain available. The small saving in costs which they may expect to result from the need for less careful handling and storage in industrial fishing does not normally offset the higher prices received for fish for human consumption.

But the position of foreign fishermen, who have exhausted or seriously diminished their stocks for human consumption of, for example, herring off West Norway and off Iceland, and, in particular, the activities of the Danish fishermen, is quite different. The risk here is that the foreign industrial fishermen may interfere with the feeding cycle of the stocks of fish suitable for human consumption, cause a deterioration of those stocks and, in turn, drive our fishermen to rely on industrial fishing of these damaged stocks to obtain a living.

I have been informed that in waters around the Shetlands in the course of the last year in particular there have been perhaps between 200 and 300 foreign trawlers at one time, all of which carry fishing nets of less than 50 millimetre mesh and are, therefore, presumably engaged in industrial fishing. I understand that the regulation size of nets for protected species is 70 millimetres in this sector. In Wick and Caithness, where there have been good landings of cod, investigation has shown the fish to be full of sand eels, and the widespread view of the fishermen is that the haddock and cod feed extensively upon that fish which is being industrially fished to such a great extent by foreign fishermen.

The question is whether or not we can adequately control this fishing by means of inspection or domestic regulation. There are acute difficulties in effective inspection and checking. It is hard to tell the difference between a Norway pout and an immature haddock. Foreign vessels tend to fish by themselves and not in fleets, and it is, therefore, difficult to follow up their activities. I believe that when he was in Shetland the Minister saw how the Danes store their industrial species in large tanks with some sort of formaldehyde preservative. The fish become a soupy, unrecognisable liquid which is then pumped out into the processing plant back at the home base. This clearly demonstrates the sheer impracticability of carrying out inspections to see what sorts of fish are being caught by these industrial processes.

May I mention only in passing because of the lack of time that we may have to consider carefully in future the effect on stocks of purse netters, such a large proportion of whose catch tends to be rendered unfit for human consumption and fit only for processing by the techniques of catching and storing. However, that may be a matter for another debate.

I turn now to the stocks of industrial fish which are currently being considered. The first is the blue whiting, which has received a great deal of publicity as being potentially suitable for human consumption. These fish appear to exist in greatest numbers in a region west of Rockall at a depth of between about 160 and 270 fathoms. They can, therefore, be fished only by large seaworthy vessels, for example, from our Greenland and Iceland distant-water fleet. Nonetheless these fish are attracting the attention of Norwegians, who, I understand, intend to take a million tons out of the area in the course of the coming season.

Stocks are variously estimated to be between 100 million tons and 800 million tons and it must be questionable whether the Norwegians are contemplating a desirable activity. If there is a potential here for human consumption it would be most unfortunate for the fish to be taken for industrial purposes. The White Fish Authority is, I know, interested in these possibilities. It seems that before the stocks are exhausted or interfered with seriously for industrial purposes further experimentation should be carried out on the human consumption possibilities of the blue whiting.

Sand eels are greatly concentrated upon by the Danes and by a number of smaller Grimsby vessels. The fishermen say that they do not catch very many. However, sand eels are part of the food chain of the other edible fish. Uncontrolled interference with that food chain could be highly dangerous. The experiment to which I referred at the beginning of my remarks concerning the Norway pout has demonstrated that it is rarely caught except with a mixture of other fish such as herring, haddock and whiting. Depending upon the season, they can be mature enough, but they may be very immature fish.

It seems that those are the principal industrial species which are being considered. The argument of the British Government appears to be that nothing very much can be done about industrial fishing for these species because we cannot make a great deal of progress internationally. Without international cooperation there is no point in putting our fishermen at any disadvantage. It must be acknowledged that at the moment the disadvantage to our fishermen is in seeking to control this activity. To ban it would be a disadvantage which would be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to the stocks of edible fish.

I know that the Herring Industry Board has put forward the view that we should extend our limits to 200 miles to ensure that our restrictions can be enforced not only for our own fishemen but for all others in a much wider coastal area. That is a matter on which the Government will doubtless have to deal fairly soon in the light of the forthcoming Law of the Sea Conference. That is a view which is gaining widespread support in the absence of measures taken internationally, and particularly by the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, to control fishing and conserve stocks.

In the meantime the Government must decide that all British fishing vessels should carry only the regulation large mesh nets. Licences could be issued sparingly and for brief periods for the sand eel fishing off the Humber. Encouragement could be given to distant water vessels to fish for the stocks of blue whiting on the Rockall Banks and on the Rosemary Bank with a view to seeing whether they can be used for the frying trade and other edible purposes. Mini-mesh fishing in inshore and shallow waters should, I believe—and most fishermen would argue most strongly in support of my view—be stopped forthwith.

I wish to leave the Minister time to express the Government's view on the problem and to say something about the progress which is being made in the all too slow discussions which are being held by the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. It is disappointing that there was no mention of this subject during the special meeting of the Fisheries Commission in London in December. I understand that the subject is due for consideration when the commission next meets in May. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the industry and give a progress report.

10.20 p.m.

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

May I first express my thanks to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) for raising this important question of industrial fishing around our shores, particularly in the international waters round our shores. We are caused particular concern and some problems in seeking to control this form of fishing. It is a topic which causes considerable concern to our fisheries department and to our scientists who are watching it closely.

The hon. Member said that the attitude of the Government appeared to be that not very much could be done. I would refute that at once. Within the powers we have and the opportunities that arise we have shown ourselves thoroughly alive to the problem and prepared to take action where possible.

I have seen, on visits to Shetland and elsewhere, the catches of some of these industrial fishing vessels. I saw the catch of a Dutch vessel, and the results were not exactly pretty. This causes us considerable concern. Anxiety has been expressed on a number of occasions by the Scottish Trawlers Federation and the Herring Industry Board. I assure the lion. Gentleman that these representations have been very much borne in mind by us.

Basically the hon. Gentleman has expressed two main fears. One is the perfectly straightforward fear that the removal of industrial fish from the sea could deprive human consumption species of a major part of their food supply, which in turn could lead to a drop in stocks. This is a danger but we ought not to exaggerate it. We take careful advice on this from our scientists.

The hon. Gentleman quoted the instance of sand eels and the fact that they are part of the diet of other species. Our scientific evidence is that they constitute only about 7 per cent. of the food chain of cod. While this is obviously important, it is something that we do not want to exaggerate. Turning to the hon. Member's point about the Norway pout, we do not have any evidence that the fishing for Norway pout in the Minches is doing any particular damage on its present scale. In certain instances, where industrial species do not constitute a large part of the diet of other edible species, it may be possible, by removing them from the sea, to reduce the competition for other forms of food with the edible species.

The scientists are following this up, and I do not want to elaborate it further now. The examination which the scientists have carried out of the feeding habits of these other species show that industrial fish do not constitute a very high proportion of their diet. This finding is borne out by the fact that over a period of considerable expansion in industrial fishing the growth rate of the commercial species has not suffered although the total size of each year's brood varies considerably for quite different reasons. Industrial species form a resource which can, in certain circumstances, quite properly be utilised if they can be caught without taking edible fish. This is the burden of the hon. Gentleman's argument.

The fear expressed by the hon. Gentleman—and I am sympathetic to it—is that the small-mesh nets used in industrial fishing may have as a by-catch too high a proportion of fish of the protected species, such as cod and haddock. This is a matter of particular concern, especially internationally.

The recommendation of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission permits industrial fishermen to take a by-catch of only 10 per cent. by weight of undersized protected species. Inspections are carried out at our ports by my Department to ensure proper observance of this order by boats landing fish in the United Kingdom. Fishermen who contravene the order are warned that they will be compelled to dump their entire catch or be prosecuted if they do not conform. In our enforcement experience we have found this control by and large to be effective, if only because our own fishermen have a sense of responsibility for edible fish stocks and do not deliberately seek to destroy the young stock.

I have so far mentioned our control over industrial fishing, and this applies particularly within our own waters, over which we have direct control, and to landing in our own ports, where again we have direct control. But the real concern is in the fact that our control is limited to fishermen in our own waters. Where the danger occurs and where industrial fishing is carried out on a significant scale is in international waters over which we have no power to act unilaterally simply because it occurs in international waters. The only direct control we have occurs when a foreign vessel which has fished in international waters seeks to land at one of our home ports. This is where the question arises whether enforcement is equally effective in other countries.

We wonder whether the 10 per cent. maximum figure is sufficient. Perhaps we should consider a lower percentage and also whether the figure should apply to all sizes of the protected species and not just the juveniles. We in the United Kingdom felt that the time had come for a thorough review on an international basis. I am glad to say that as a result the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission has agreed to a review, at its June meeting, of the 10 per cent. rule. This is a step forward.

Other ideas which can be considered include definition of the main nursery areas of edible species, and this should not be impossible, although there are difficulties involved. We might then seek agreement to prohibit the use of small-mesh nets in these areas. We must remember that in international spheres action can only be by agreement. It is no good trying to insist on a regulation which other countries will not accept. A complete ban on industrial fishing would stand little hope of acceptance.

We are also concerned about the industrial fishing of herring. Herring is a species for which it is not practicable to prescribe a minimum mesh size. What concerns us is the deliberate fishing for immature herring by the fleets of some countries in the North Sea. We took up this matter in the appropriate forum, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, at a special meeting in December. Frankly, the progress we made at that meeting was disappointing, but we got agreement to a framework for a catch limitation scheme in March.

I hope that I have demonstrated that we are desperately concerned about this subject and are taking action, but this is a matter which can only be controlled internationally. We are taking considerable initiative. Our scientists are heavily involved in background work on the implications of industrial fishing, nursery stocks and protected species. Most of the species which are fished for industrial purposes are edible and could be caught for human consumption if the market existed and if the technology for using them for human consumption were more widely adopted. This is true of the large resources of blue whiting off our Western coasts which are not mixed with other species and which could be taken and used for fish meal or for human consumption, depending on the prices obtained. If other fish became scarcer—

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

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.