HL Deb 13 March 1918 vol 29 cc417-23

LORD DESBOROUGH rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the present shortage of food, the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries would be prepared to consider the advisability of reducing the, close time for coarse freshwater fresh.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I ask this Question with no thought of hostility to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, but in the hope of being able to hurry up the matter, because there is very little time to spare. To-morrow is the last day for catching freshwater fish throughout most of the rivers of England and Wales, and therefore if this Order is not sent out with the utmost possible dispatch, we of the Freshwater Fish Commission will be inundated with letters from various anglers asking whether, as the subject has been mooted, they will be allowed to fish fresh coarse fish in their rivers. There is no more keen upholder of the Mundella Act than the great angling societies of the North and elsewhere, but on this occasion the Federation of Anglers, which has something like 100,000 members and thirty-two large affiliated associations, has, in view of the great shortage of food, been willing to waive their objections to a curtailment of the close season and to agree to at all events one month being docked from the usual close time for freshwater fish. Therefore they have sent in a request that the close season, instead of beginning on March 15, should not begin till April 15. That would include Easter Monday, when enormous numbers of anglers, including munition workers, would be able to get hundreds of thousands of dinners out of the various waters in their neighbourhood. They also make another recommendation—that is, that the close time for pike should be taken away altogether, for the duration of the war.

With regard to eels, they ask that all restrictions for angling for eels should be removed at all times where they exist. There is no doubt that this country has been neglecting eels, which are a most valuable source of food supply. I could say a great deal about eels, but I will not. Eels possess even more calories than the salmon; and it may not be known to your Lordships that, according to German information which is available, about three times the amount in eels were consumed there than of Scottish salmon. Most of the eel traps in the Thames and other rivers have fallen into desuetude. To show your Lordships how easy it is to catch eels, I might tell you that a gentleman who owns a very valuable trout fishery near Stockbridge caught, in addition to 1 ton of trout, 2 tons of eels in one trap, which brought him in £200. I think this shows that, if the prevailing neglect of eel fishing all over the country were remedied, a very valuable food, of enormous use in these times, would be cheaply supplied to the people.

In conclusion I would say that the matter is urgent and important. Tomorrow is the last day on which coarse fish can be caught in the Thames and most other rivers. If I get a favourable reply I shall immediately telegraph it to the fishing papers, which will save a great deal of correspondence, and do away with the uncertainty which is now felt by anglers.


My Lords, I cannot help thinking that there are many of your Lordships who, like myself, will feel gratitude to the noble Lord for having put this Question on the Paper; but I am sure that he recognises, as your Lordships will, that it deals with only one side of a very important question. The noble Lord's proposal merely is that the close time for these coarse fish should be limited; and, as I understand, it is to be limited at the most critical time in the history of the fish, because it is to be limited at the time when they are going to spawn. It would be far more important to limit it at the other end of the period.


The evidence which I have is that most of the fish caught by anglers, such as roach, are in very good condition up to May. Anglers think that if the close time is extended it should be the other way, as the fish are at their best now.


I was not thinking for the moment of the edibility of the fish so much as of the enormous importance of conserving and of developing as far as possible our fish supplies. If it be that you might safely extend the present period for fishing for another month now without materially interfering with the spawning capacity of the fish, well and good. If not, it seems to me—though the noble Lord's knowledge is far greater than mine—to be more desirable to make the alteration at the other end of the period. Although the Question does not cover more than the mere point of time during which fish may be taken, yet it does invite suggestions which I cannot help thinking ought carefully to be borne in mind by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries.

After all, the real thing we want to secure is that there shall be the greatest possible number of fish developed and protected in our inland waters; and up to this moment practically all that has been done has been the imposition of a close time. There has been next to nothing done—except by the great Conservancy Board over which the noble Lord so efficiently presides—to protect the waters from pollution, or to protect the fish when they are in an immature state. It must be common knowledge to all of us that the recent introduction of tar upon the roads has, either as its immediate or indirect consequence, ruined and destroyed mile after mile of fishing water. I know well the accuracy of what I am stating, because I have seen miles of beautiful water absolutely sterilised by the introduction of tar upon the roads. It is no answer, of course, for scientific people to say that fish enjoy the tar. The real test of the matter is to be found in this, that wherever you tar the roads sooner or later the fish are destroyed. It may not be as a direct result of the tar, but it probably is; because you have made an impermeable surface on the roads from which you can wash poison into the rivers. The Board of Agriculture and Fisheries should see to it that there are proper catch-pits supplied to prevent the water being poisoned. It is no use leaving this to private individuals. They have to face a local authority who have behind them the whole of the rates; and, as everybody knows, the private person is in a very difficult position with regard to obtaining costs from a local authority even if he succeeds.

Another thing is this. Surely it is time to establish some wider supervision over the whole of our fish culture. Nobody is certain at this moment whether the increase of seagulls has or has not affected fish life. It would be a senseless thing to start a campaign for killing seagulls until full inquiry discloses whether in fact they did or did not interfere with the growth and development of the fish. Many people think that they do so interfere. If they do, steps might be taken—not by shooting the birds, which is a barbarous practice, but by destroying their eggs—so as to prevent damage to the fish.

A further matter which I think is of great importance—and I trust the noble Lord will refer to it in his answer—is with regard to the destruction of spent salmon, the kelt, who are at this moment descending in enormous quantities from the spawning beds to the sea. There are many views entertained about these fish. Some people regard the kelt as an interesting convalescent who must be carefully nursed and protected until he gets back to the sea. Other people regard him as nothing but a pest who eats all the food that should be valuable for the salmon parr, and who, if he cannot find sufficient of that food, eats the salmon parr itself. I think that the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries would do well to provide, at any rate for this season, that kelts may be taken and used for human food. There is no doubt that even if the kelt goes back to the sea he returns only in very small numbers. Last autumn out of thirty fish for which I and my friends were responsible, a microscopical examination showed that only one of the fish had ever been up the river before; so that one in thirty would be all you would have protected in that particular district by preventing the destruction of the kelt. If there is any truth in the statement that the kelt is a cannibal and eats the parr, every kelt saved may mean the destruction of a large number of young salmon when they most need protection. Between now and the middle of May these kelts will be pursuing their wearisome journey from the spawning beds to the sea, and if they are allowed to be made of use for food—as in many cases I know they can be—it would be a great addition to the food supply of the country, and it might even be of great advantage to the river.

Finally I would suggest to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries that they should consider carefully whether it is not possible to impose some strict limitation upon the size of fish taken, because while it is possible to catch and expose for sale immature fish, you are really depleting the rivers without getting any corresponding advantage. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for having added a few observations to those of Lord Desborough, but really the matter dealt with is of such great importance that if the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries can see their way to appoint a small Commission, composed of people like the noble Lord who has asked the Question, the Master of Christ's, Mr. Shipley, who is a scientific expert, and Viscount Grey, the late Foreign Secretary, to examine the whole question of the protection of fisheries from a practical and scientific standpoint, I am satisfied that the food supply will be enormously increased in the near future.


My Lords, as the noble Duke who represents the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries in this House is prevented by indisposition from being present, he has asked me to give the reply which he would I have otherwise afforded to the House. The answer to the Question on the Paper is as follows. The Board of Agriculture and Fisheries have considered the question, and have decided to adopt the proposal of the Fresh Water Fish Committee over which the noble Lord, Lord Desborough, presides, that the close time for coarse freshwater fish be reduced by one month. As the noble Lord told the House, the statutory close season for coarse freshwater fish begins in the ordinary course on the 16th inst., and the Board have asked the Food Controller to issue an order under the Defence of the Realm Regulations to make the powers conferred on the Board of Agriculture by the Sea Fishing (England and Wales) Order, 1917, dated 30 July of that year, applicable to freshwater fish. It is not anticipated that there will be any difficulty about this, though time is short, and it is hoped that the Food Controller will issue his Order in the course of the next day or so, when steps will immediately be taken to postpone the beginning of the close season for another month. As regards the further remarks made by Lord Desborough, and those made by the noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord Buckmaster), I will take care that the Duke of Marlborough is fully informed of them, and I am sure he will give them his careful consideration. The noble and learned Lord alluded to the great damage done to fisheries by tar spraying on the roads. I see in the Report of the Committee presided over by Lord Desborough on February 27, 1918, the following paragraph, which seems to bear on the subject, and perhaps I may be allowed to read it. It states— Considerable ignorance exists as to the amount of coarse fish available in this country. As we pointed out in our interim Report on August 2 last, there are only 340 square miles of inland waters in England and Wales, as against 160,000 square miles in the North sea, and of these 340 square miles a very large proportion are practically fishless owing to pollution, obstructions and other causes. If the whole of the coarse fish contained in our inland waters were captured, the effect on the food supply would be slight. I am afraid I can do nothing more than to undertake to see that the noble Duke in charge of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in this House is fully informed of what has been said here by the two noble Lords.


Should I be justified in making the noble Lord's statement public? They want to know to-morrow.