HC Deb 13 May 1982 vol 23 cc1064-70

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

12.23 am
Mr. Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (Norfolk, North-West)

Even at this late hour I am grateful for the good fortune that enables me, on the Adjournment of the House, to raise the subject of the Wash shell fisheries.

For centuries shellfish have provided major employment around the Wash and have provided an important source of high protein to the local population and, through the market at Billingsgate, to a wider public in Britain. I am grateful to the Scarborough and Bridlington Fish Producers Association and its chief executive, Mike Gowen, and the King's Lynn Fishing Vessel Owners Association and its chairman, David Howard, for the considerable time that they have given to producing and discussing with me the very good report which enables me to raise this important subject with some background knowledge to it.

As with so many things in Britain, the Wash shell fisheries developed naturally as local fishermen worked independently to make a living from the sea. But for many reasons they are now in relative decline and have reached a stage when falling returns produce insufficient capital to replace and renew existing equipment, let alone to modernise and develop the fishery properly.

The main species taken from the Wash are two varieties of shrimp, mussels and cockles. Yet while landings of those species in the eastern sea fisheries district, covering the Wash, amounted to just more than £500,000 in value last year and are falling, imports to the United Kingdom of those species increased from £17.5 million in 1978 to £26 million in 1980 and are estimated to be almost certainly more than £27 million in 1981. While the general market for shellfish appears to be increasing in Britain, our domestic production is falling and imports are rising at an alarming rate.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the landings of cockles, mussels and shrimps during the past five years. In a recent ministerial reply I was informed by her right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that in 1977 cockle landings in that area were about 10,300 tons. From January to November 1981 they had declined to 2,396 tons. Similarly, mussel landings in 1977 were 9,410 tons, yet from January to November 1981 they were 1,357 tons. So we have seen a substantial reduction in the cockles and mussels landed, although the shrimp catch has remained reasonably static, varying between 600 and 1,000 tons duing the past five to six years.

It is worth while considering what has happened to imports in the same period. Imports of shrimps and prawns increased by value from £16.5 million a year in 1978 to £22 million for the 10-month period in 1981. Mussel imports increased from £470,000 in 1978 to £1,141,000 in the 10-month period. Cockle imports declined from £623,000 in 1978 to £295,000 in the 10-month period.

From those figures I deduce that the market for shrimps and prawns is growing while our production, at least in the Wash, remains static. The demand for mussels is growing while the production of mussels in the Wash is falling. The demand for cockles appears to be declining as the catches are declining. That illustrates the need for some action. The Wash shell fishery stands at a crossroads and it will either decline to virtual extinction or it can, with intelligent planning and perhaps some public expenditure, be put on a firm footing which will ensure considerable growth. With proper husbandry, marketing and processing, I have no doubt that the mussel and cockle catches could be increased tenfold in a relatively short period, and the shrimp catch could be doubled.

It is important that the hon. Lady and the Government understand that the Wash is the most prolific area of sea in the United Kingdom and probably in Europe, yet its potential has not begun to be realised. A healthy and expanding industry in the Wash could provide new jobs, help to cut imports, with benefit to the balance of payments, and lead to the development of important export markets.

What is needed first of all is a proper study of the Wash's potential and a development plan should be evolved which will enable us to realise it. I ask the Minister to consider far more seriously than her right hon. Friend seemed willing to do in his answers to my previous questions the establishment of a Wash development committee, with specific terms of reference, to consider if and how those fisheries should be developed.

I have no doubt that the Minister will draw attention to this matter in her reply. Although I recognise that the responsibility lies within the remit of the Sea Fish Industry Authority, I do not believe, in the light of its other responsibilities, that it is capable of devoting the attention to this matter that is urgently required. However, I believe that members of that authority, together with representatives of the ministry and the Eastern Sea Fisheries Committee, should form the core of this committee, which should be chaired by the new director of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, Dr. Eric Edwards, formerly the principal shellfish scientist at the Ministry. Such a committee would have the experience necessary to deal with this important subject and should be encouraged to look at a number of aspects of the problem.

The first is the need for scientific research. I refer to the need to study the habits of particularly the mussel and cockle stocks in the Wash, and to see what needs to be done to improve the conditions in the Wash to enable them to breed more readily.

Secondly, the committee should look into the question of improved stock management and the potential for shellfish farming. In Holland, France and other parts of Europe shell fisheries have developed in recent years into intensive production units. Some thought should be given to whether such production units could be established in the Wash.

Thirdly, the committee should look at the need for purification and processing equipment. Over the years one of the difficulties encountered by those seeking to market mussels from the Wash has been the difficulty of achieving the right standards of hygiene for them to be marketed and exported.

Fourthly, we need to look at the system of shellfish marketing. If some investment were made in the marketing of shellfish, locally produced shellfish could find a wider market in this country. That could perhaps lead to useful exports to other countries in Europe and the United States of America.

Fifthly, we need to look carefully at the public port facilities which are available in many of the Wash fishing ports. Speaking for my own constituents, I can only report that the fishery fleet in King's Lynn is hopelessly inadequate, both in size and in appointments and in access to road and railway transport to cope with any substantially expanded production in the Wash. Associated with that is the important need for improved boats and, indeed, the capacity to replace boats, and the need for more modern fishing equipment.

Techniques for fishing for shellfish in the Wash have scarcely changed over the past 30 or 40 years. When one compares the equipment used in Britain with that available in Holland and other parts of the Continent, it is clear that our fishermen operate at a considerable economic disadvantage.

Although I appreciate that the Minister has recently surveyed and reported on the mussel stocks in the Wash and is, I think, considering whether some lays might be let through the Eastern Sea Fisheries Board for modest experiments in fish farming, so far as I am aware no serious proposals have been made, or are likely to be made, with regard to the list of important subjects which I consider merit investigation and review.

Furthermore, in view of the extremely successful development of the Dutch shellfish industry, which is now exporting huge tonnages to Britain at significantly lower costs than our own as a result of a programme of Government-aided development, it would also be extremely helpful if the committee could investigate and report on the success of the Dutch industry.

I shall send the Minister a copy of the report produced by the Scarborough and Bridlington Fish Producers Association together with members of the King's Lynn Fishing Boat Owners Association in the hope that she will give it her serious consideration and that she will seek to secure that the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), will agree to receive a delegation from the King's Lynn fishermen when the possibility of making further progress on this important subject can be considered.

12.37 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I am pleased that the House has had the opportunity this evening of considering the shellfisheries of the Wash. Those fisheries are a valuable national resource and we in the Government are well aware of their significance.

Before I deal with the particular problems facing these fisheries that have been raised by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler), I should like to begin by describing the fisheries and the assistance that the Government have been giving them. The principal shellfisheries in the Wash are mussels and cockles. Both will grow well there. In 1977, the peak year to which the hon. Gentleman referred, admittedly an exceptional year, we estimate that about 9,400 tonnes of mussels and 10,300 tonnes of cockles were harvested. Those figures represent large numbers of rather small shellfish.

In addition to mussels and cockles, the Wash has an important shrimp fishery; in 1977 we estimate that 569 tonnes were caught and last year, in the first 11 months, 616 tonnes were caught. The Wash used, many years ago, to support its own oyster fishery as well. I was pleased to learn that recently small scale trials have been started by Boston fishermen in suitable beds. However, I understand that much of the Wash is too exposed for the successful commercial cultivation of oysters. While speaking of the fisheries I should point out to the House that the Wash is also a source of finned fish, such as sprats; and the Wash is also very important to our fisheries in general as a nursery ground for many kinds of whitefish.

This brings me to the first way in which we have been assisting the Wash shellfisheries. The scientists of our directorate of fisheries research regularly visit the Wash in the course of their researches. In his oral reply of 1 April to a question from the hon. Gentleman my right hon. Friend the Minister referred to a survey of mussels that our fisheries scientists have recently carried out. In the past two years they have, for instance, made many other visits as part of their experimental programme concerning the development of mussel cultivation, to survey the shrimps and to investigate the parasites of cockles. In addition, regular visits are made to the Wash by our scientists who monitor finned fish stocks as they study recruitment to the stocks of whitefish in the North Sea. I believe that I have demonstrated that the Wash shellfisheries have an important place in our fisheries research and development programmes. I am sure that the House will agree that these fisheries merit the attention that they have received and will continue to receive over the years.

I would like now to turn to financial assistance which was one of the matters on the hon. Gentleman's list. There are not, of course, special schemes which apply only to the Wash, but the fishermen who fish there are eligible for the national schemes that we have made. I remind the House that under the fishing vessel temporary support scheme 1980 we disbursed over £14 million to the British fishing industry and that almost £25 million was disbursed under the 1981 scheme. The fishermen of the Wash were, subject to their complying with the conditions, eligible for assistance under both those schemes and I understand that some 64 owners of vessels based in Boston and King's Lynn alone received aid under the 1981 scheme. I am aware that the Government have received requests for further financial aid from organisations representing a wide range of interests and opinions in the fishing industry. We wish to assess all the issues before coming to a decision and we are currently doing so. Meanwhile, we are monitoring the industry's position very carefully.

Financial assistance towards the construction costs of new fishing vessels and the improvement of existing vessels continues to be available to fishermen through the Sea Fish Industry Authority. Owners of fishing vessels in the Wash may apply for that aid if they meet the conditions, the principal one being that the vessel is used for full-time fishing, as may vessel owners throughout the country.

I return to the subject of the cockle and mussel fisheries. The problems facing them are quite different; indeed, in some respects they are quite opposite. Our fisheries scientists report that there are abundant stocks of cockles in the Wash. The cause of the decline in landings since the peak in 1977 is not that the fish are not there to be caught; they are. The problem is one of marketing. There is a surplus of cockles in international trade which has depressed the market price. This is as a result of the Dutch being unable to maintain their exports to Spain as a result of which supply has now outstripped demand. It is reported that the Dutch have two years' supplies of cockles in cold store.

The House will wish to know that, although Dutch imports obviously influence the United Kingdom's product's price, we have no evidence of anything that could be called unfair trading by the Dutch. Local authorities in the United Kingdom have discretion and, if they were to allow processing on board in the Wash, such processing equipment as would be required might be eligible for grant aid from the Sea Fish Industry Authority. Fishermen have suggested that Dutch processing on board ship might create a health hazard. This is a matter on which my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health is in touch with the Dutch health authorities.

The mussel fishery presents quite a different picture. Although there is a good supply of mussels in the Wash, there are few of marketable size. Poor recruitment over the last two years has added to that problem. Yet there are many small mussels in the Wash.

Perhaps I should explain that apparent paradox. Young mussels settling on sand banks which are covered only briefly at high tide grow much more slowly than others which are covered for longer periods. That is because they can feed only when covered by water.

In the Wash, therefore, there are quantities of small, slow growing mussels. Our fisheries scientists have examined the feasibility of transplanting these small mussels to more suitable locations where they will be able to grow much more rapidly. Not only have they reported favourably on that but they consider such action necessary to safeguard the fishery.

They have discussed the needs of the fishery with local fishermen. Boston fishermen have in the past relaid mussels on a small scale. But now, I am pleased to say, representatives of the King's Lynn fishermen have agreed to undertake extensive relaying of mussels. They have approached the Eastern Sea Fisheries Committee for three leases, each for an area of about 20 acres within the area of the Wash known as Thief Sand for mussel relaying. We have given our approval of these proposals, subject to the details of the leases proving satisfactory.

I point out that the project will involve considerable outlay for the fishermen. For example, mussels could be relaid at a density of 30 tonnes per acre and they will have to be collected from the higher sand banks in the Wash. However, it could be expected that after two seasons' growth the mussels will have reached marketable size and something like 60 tonnes per acre could be collected, although some would have grown to marketable size after only one summer.

I am sure that the House will welcome the initiative and enterprise of the King' Lynn fishermen who are to undertake the extensive mussel cultivation. It is particularly pleasing to be able to report on what we hope will be a successful and practical application of the research work that our fisheries scientists have undertaken.

The hon. Gentleman said that there should be a study. He will know from the answer given by my right hon. Friend to him on Thursday 1 April that our fisheries scientists have only recently surveyed and reported on the mussel stocks in the Wash. A further general inquiry by the Government would not be justified. However, the Sea Fish Industry Authority has powers to advise the industry. It is for the authority to decide whether to take on a particular consultancy project. It should be approached directly if the industry has a specific proposal.

Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler

Will the Minister confirm that it would not be the responsibility of the authority to be concerned with the infrastructure improvements that might be necessary if the industry were to develop? I refer particularly to the need for improved port facilities.

Mrs. Fenner

I said that the Government were monitoring carefully the industry's position, which is what we should do.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned scientific research and development. We have a large and wide ranging programme of fisheries research and development. The balance of projects within the programme is one matter that the Fisheries Research and Development Board is studying.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned bringing some of his fishermen to see my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am sure that he knows that my right hon. Friend is always most helpful in those matters and that he should approach him directly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to One o'clock.