HL Deb 13 March 1851 vol 114 cc1302-4

said, he would take that opportunity of repeating a question which he had put to the Lord President of the Council towards the close of last Session, and to which he had not as yet received a satisfactory answer. He was anxious to know whether any communication had taken place, or was likely to take place, between the French and English Governments for the regulation of the trade of oyster fishing. Their Lordships were aware that by treaty the subjects of this country and of France respectively were restricted from fishing within a certain number of miles from the shores of the opposite party. It appeared that oyster beds had been recently discovered in that portion of the sea between Dieppe and Brighton, which was beyond the boundaries within which the fishing operations of both nations were, by international treaty, agreed to be carried on. The consequence of this discovery was, that the British markets were now supplied with oysters during those four months—May, June, July, August—in which oysters were heretofore supposed to have been out of season. English fishermen from the coast of Essex, and from various parts of the southern coasts, were in the habit of having recourse to those beds; but the French Government, viewing such proceedings with jealousy and disapproval, had sent gunboats and vessels of war to deter the fishermen from fishing in the proscribed locality. The English fishermen, however, were resolved not to suffer any such interposition; and the result was, that the English boats were fired at, and that some unpleasant collisions had taken place. When he mentioned the matter last Session, it was in the month of August, and the regular oyster season being then about to set in, there was no necessity to take any step in the matter; but matters stood in a different position at the present period of the year. The month of May was approaching, but there would be ample time between this and the 1st of May to make such arrangements as would preclude the possibility of any such dangers or inconveniences arising as to those to which he alluded. The matter was certainly one of importance, and it was essential that it should be at once arranged in a satisfactory manner. If some judicious regulation were not come to, angry feelings would be aroused, and life would probably be lost in the collisions which would be sure to take place between the French authorities on the one side, and the British fishermen on the other. During the four months to which he had alluded there had been employed at the new oyster bed, 145 vessels from Essex, 9 from Suffolk, 30 from Kent, 17 from Sussex, 7 from Hampshire, 2 from London, 10 from Jersey, and 6 from Norfolk—making, in all, 226. If the operations of the English fisherman were carried on in such an extensive manner in the infancy of the discovery, it was not difficult to predict that the trade would attain a still greater importance in the course of the present year, unless some measures were taken to negotiate between the two countries. He believed that the beds were public property, though very possibly the French might believe they had the best right to them, seeing that they were not distant more than 14 miles from Dieppe. The French did not choose to have recourse to the beds themselves, but they asserted that the British could not consistently with the treaty resort to them, and that was the reason why they impeded their operations. No matter on what side the legal right might really rest, it was certainly desirable that the matter should be satisfactorily arranged so as to prevent the possibility of collision.


It cannot be doubted, my Lords, that the matter to which the noble Earl has called your attention is one of not inconsiderable importance. The French and British fisheries in general, and the fisheries to which allusion has been made in particular, are unquestionably deserving of protection, and it is desirable that no misapprehension should exist upon the subject between the two countries. When the noble Lord called attention to this subject, towards the close of last Session, my noble Friend at the head of the Foreign Department took especial case to institute inquiries in the proper quarters; and the Consuls at the French ports reported that there was no disposition whatever on the part of the French authorities to deal improperly by the British fishermen. No doubt some cases had arisen where fishermen were accused of violating the law; but those cases had been dealt with in a perfectly regular manner, and had been disposed of according to law. Your Lordships will perceive that it is not possible that disputes should not occasionally arise between the French and English fishers, owing to the nature of the open sea, in which both parties enjoy the right of fishing. [Lord WICKLOW: No, no!] Allow me to assure the noble Lord that he is in error in supposing that both parties are prohibited from fishing in the locality he refers to. Neither party is prohibited either by law or by treaty. The English fishermen are prevented from fishing within three miles of the French shore, and the French are prohibited from fishing within three miles of the English; but that space of the ocean which lies between those respective boundaries is open to both nations. The oyster beds in question are in the open sea, and if the French Government have taken measures to exclude the British fishermen from them, they have acted in a manner at variance with the law; but no doubt redress would be immediately granted in the event of a proper remonstrance being made. I think it right, however, to say that no complaint whatever upon this subject has been made, or at least has reached the Foreign Office since last year. If, however, anything has taken place which furnishes fair ground for complaint, measures will be taken before the month of May to prevent the recurrence of such an event. It is certainly most desirable that the sea should be open to all the fishers of both nations, and that no misapprehension should exist upon the subject.

House adjourned till To-morrow.