HL Deb 05 July 1965 vol 267 cc1125-38

5.22 p.m.

LORD BALFOUR OF INCHRYE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that exports of Atlantic Salmon from Greenland have risen from 2 metric tons in 1957 to 1,400 metric tons in 1964 due to growth of intense netting using improved methods, and that this increase constitutes a grave danger to salmon stocks in the rivers of Europe; and whether they will initiate discussions with the Danish Government with a view to agreeing on a close season and quantity limitation in the interests of conserving the salmon species. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I feel there can be no question at all as to the value of the Atlantic Salmon, breeding in the rivers of the Eastern American Seaboard and the rivers of Europe, as a source of food, as an industry of very considerable importance giving much employment, as an inducement to tourism, as a source of revenue in rating by local authorities and as a source of angling sport for many thousands of every section of the community.

It was, I think, your Lordships' House that a few years ago originated Parliamentary attention and persuasion on the Government of that time to take action on drift-net fishing, which at that time was menacing the breeding of salmon in our rivers. But to-day we are facing a danger far greater than that of the drift-net, for the present danger affects not only our own rivers but the whole species of the Atlantic Salmon. The tragedy to me is that the secrets of the salmon in salt water have very largely been revealed. It used to be considered a mystery. I have but to refer to the 1963 Interim Report of the Hunter Committee, which says on page 8: There are enormous gaps in the knowledge of the sea life. We do not know, for example, the routes followed on migration; the feeding grounds; whether the salmon travel in shoals or individually; the depth at which they swim; and what determines the length of the marine phase of their life. Alas! since that time things have altered, because we now know they spawn in the rivers and go round the Greenland Coast and find feeding grounds which provide their growth.

Your Lordships may have heard, as I have, from two sources, the story of one of the American Atlantic submarines taking the Northern Passage. Through the periscope they saw on an iceberg—and your Lordships know that about one-third of an iceberg shows and two-thirds are below—what they thought were tens of thousands of nodules. Going close they found, through the periscope, that in fact these were salmon vertical, tail down, nose up, sucking plankton from the bottom of icebergs; and those salmon had passed round the Greenland coast.

With this new knowledge and with its exploitation by modern equipment and ever improving methods, the raids on salmon stocks are increasing, in terms, I regret to say, of largely immature fish, because Mr. Allan, the head of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, estimates that last year over 600,000 salmon, believed to be immature fish, probably around 5 lb. each in weight, were caught in this perfectly legal but nevertheless devasting Greenland system of netting off shore, and indeed developing netting from boats. If this goes on, in about five years it may well almost extinguish the salmon as a species, and with it those industries I enunciated to your Lordships a moment ago. The depredations between Greenland and Baffin Land are now going to be carried out, indeed I believe are being carried out, by at least three different European countries which have been preparing to drift-net, and therefore we must add this new European drift-netting to the menace of offshore stake netting off Greenland. The poor salmon is having a pretty rough ride and unless we can do something to alter this situation we might say goodbye to it.

I have no wish to confuse or weary your Lordships with figures. I think the main figure is the one given in my Question, which gives the picture of the expansion of this Greenland fishing and the export growth of the salmon from Greenland, which of course does not make any allowance for salmon which are home-consumed in Greenland. It is nothing less than an astronomic upsurge: in terms of metric tons—in 1957, two; in 1961, 115; in 1964, 1,400. These fisheries are operated by the Greenlanders with the help of the Danes, and as there is virtually only one salmon river in Greenland it is very clear that the taking of these largely immature fish of around five pounds must be at the expense of European rivers where they spawn, and the Atlantic Eastern seaboard rivers where they spawn. I give your Lordships one more figure only. In 1964, as I say, the Greenland catch was 1,400 metric tons. In 1963 the total world catch by twelve countries, on both sides of the Atlantic, was just over 10 metric tons. Therefore, the Greenland menace is shown by now, and if action is not taken the future disaster can be foreseen. The catch in fact has increased seven hundred times in seven years. That is the case.

The next question I come to is: What can be done? I know that the Government are aware of the problem. But awareness, by itself, is not enough. The Secretary of State for Scotland, answering a Question in another place recently, said that he was aware of the recent development of a salmon fishery off the coast of Greenland, but the evidence so far available does not enable us to assess the possible effects on the British salmon fishing industry. Investigations have accordingly been arranged to start this autumn, in co-operation with Danish and Greenland scientists, to secure further information to enable such an assessment to be made. It is necessary to have this fuller information before we can decide what further action, if any, is appropriate."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, vol. 713, (No. 130), col. 296, Friday, June 4, 1965]

Quite frankly, I find that statement most depressing, because from the figures I have given your Lordships it is clear that here and now there is an urgent problem; and though scientific investigation is no doubt valuable and of interest, and profitable in the solution of the difficulty, the difficulty itself is obvious to every one of your Lordships here to-day. I know that the Government are sending experts of the Freshwater Fisheries Department to Greenland. But it seems to me that the danger lies in delay, and I would ask the Minister, first: how soon will the scientists give of their results; and, second, what of the further damage to stocks during the investigation?

This problem cannot be solved except internationally. Could not Her Majesty's Government propose to all the countries, now, a standstill on further netting expansion, both off-shore and drift netting, while the scientific investigation goes on? The figures seem to me to justify such action by Her Majesty's Government. Then let a special international conference consider what safe amounts can be taken yearly from the salmon stocks of all the countries, including Greenland. There might be total limits for each country. There might be limitations on the size of the mesh which is used in nets. There should be, as I believe there is here, a prohibition on the method of drift netting. I ask for action as well as investigation.

When the last Government were faced with the problem they took positive action, by Orders in Council, to stop drift netting until the Hunter Committee had reported. I have quoted to your Lordships the preliminary Report of that Committee, and it has certainly given support to the action of the last Government. But the point I want to make to the Minister is that the last Government gave a good example in stopping the rot, as it were, while the problem was being investigated. I hope that the present Government are going to be as energetic and as successful as the last Administration in that particular direction. There is no reason to suppose that the Danes, who are reasonable people, will not co-operate in limitations. We trade with the Danes a great deal. We take much agricultural produce from them. We can remind them that here we have a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and that we cannot isolate the fish danger from the other agricultural considerations which allow us to take Danish imports. To use the words of Mr. Churchill (as he then was), when he was Prime Minister and used to send out Minutes which some of us remember, I appeal for "action this day"—before lasting harm is done to a great and important industry.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend has raised this question. Of course it is not so simple as the question of drift netting off our own shores. I hope that it may soon be possible to initiate negotiations with the Danes and the other countries concerned. As my noble friend has said, we were always taught that the question of where salmon went in the winter time, like that of where flies go, was an insoluble mystery. I wish that it had remained so. But now it has been found that the salmon go off to the waters of Greenland in shoals and formations which are quite vulnerable and easily detected. I believe that the fish which are caught are in poor condition. It is a pity that they should be killed in that condition, but they are edible enough to give the fishermen a profit.

My information is that fish caught in Greenland waters have been identified as coming from Scotland, England, Ireland, Sweden, Canada and the United States. So this really is an international question, and one that ought to be discussed in the interests of all countries which have Atlantic salmon and whose economy depends partly on the Atlantic salmon. It is not only a question of what happens in Greenland territorial waters because, as my noble friend has said, it is now believed that in the high seas large shoals of these salmon have been detected and may be caught in large numbers this year by the vessels of several countries.

I know how difficult it is to start international negotiations. Of course it may be that we need more evidence: and it is always a good thing to have more evidence. But I think that we have enough evidence to put forward the proposals for international discussion because, desirable though it is to know even more about the matter than we do, by the time we have found out, not only may stocks be depleted but fishermen from all countries may have staked out a claim and established an interest in these waters; and it is much more difficult to get a Convention stopping people when they have been doing something for four or five years, than it is when they have not yet started. I therefore hope that early action may be taken to produce discussions, not simply in our interests but in the general interests of all countries who have Atlantic salmon in their waters.

5.38 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, for raising this question, which is one of extreme importance to the commercial salmon fishing industry of this country and to those who are engaged in it. He has told your Lordships of the extraordinary growth of the Greenland drift-net fishing, and it must be obvious that, if this drift-netting continues on its present scale, it will cause irreparable damage to the rivers of this country, which are largely the nurseries of the Atlantic salmon.

We in this country have long had regard to the necessity for the conservation of salmon. We have a salmon netting close season. We have a close season for rod fishing. During the netting season we provide that the nets should be taken up for 48 hours in each week so that the spawning fish may have an opportunity of getting from the sea into the rivers. Two years ago this House gave effect to an Order prohibiting drift netting within a six-mile limit of the Scottish coast. If, therefore, we are to ask for some form of Convention for the protection of the Atlantic salmon, both in our own interests and in the interests of all other countries into whose rivers the Atlantic salmon go, surely we are not asking for anything unreasonable.

If we do not get some form of Convention, and if the drift netting of Atlantic salmon off the Greenland coast extends in future in anything like the proportions in which it has extended between 1957 and the present date, it is obvious that the Atlantic salmon is going to become extinct. This will result in the extinction of the very valuable commercial salmon fishing in this country, which provides labour in parts of the country, particularly in the North-East of Scotland, where other forms of employment are not easy to secure. I therefore hope that Her Majesty's Government will find themselves able to do something to ensure that the matter of a Convention is raised with the other European countries which are affected, though none is affected so much as we are, because our rivers are the nurseries for the Atlantic salmon.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, my intervention will be very brief. For a number of years I have taken a certain amount of interest in the fishing industry, and I am more concerned than I have ever been by the ruthless over-fishing that is taking place at present, mainly in the North Sea, but at the present time elsewhere as well. We all owe my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye a great debt for putting down this Question to-day. In the course of my lifetime I have seen the once great herring fishing industry of Scotland brought practically to ruin, and I know the cause. It is the relentless industrial fishing of immature fish which are then converted into meal and oil, mainly by the Danes. I am sure that that is the reason why the stocks of herring in the North Sea have fallen so catastrophically.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye made an absolutely devastating case in regard to the salmon. I am not at all sure that it stops there. I believe that over-fishing—a practice which prevailed very widely between the two wars, but which was very much checked by the Second World War, though it is now in full swing again—is one of the greatest menaces of our time. I asked the previous Government some two-and-a-half years ago what action, if any, they were taking about herring, and I was informed that a special Committee—a body called the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—was investigating the shortage of herring. Since that time I have asked two further Questions, and have been told that no report has been received from that Council, and that no agreement seems to have been reached between any of the fishery experts. Fishery experts are almost as bad as economic experts: they seem to be totally incapable of agreeing about anything.

This is a matter—and this applies also to other matters—which we ought to raise, in the first instance, with the Danes, from whom, as my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye said, we import a great deal of agricultural produce, and from whom we have every reason to demand some concession—and they are not an unreasonable people. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord's final remarks when he said that the time for talk is over and the time for action has come. Otherwise we may soon find ourselves without any herring and without any salmon—in which case I personally should prefer to go as speedily as possible to another world.

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support very strongly everything that has been said in this debate. Only last week we were discussing in this House the Highlands and Islands Development Bill and how best to help those areas. Salmon, of course, are one of the great assets of the Highlands and Islands, and I think that if the present Government wish to help the Highlands and Islands they could not do better than now make a start and make representations to the Danish Government on the matter of this netting off the coast of Greenland.

When the salmon leave our European shores they have enough natural enemies to contend with in the sea, and if they have now to contend with this great concentration of netting off the Greenland coast, I can foresee that in even so short a time as three or four years ahead the salmon may become so depleted that they will die out. Your Lordships know that if any species, fish or mammal, get below certain numbers they can never pull back, and will die out. Therefore, I add my full support to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye on his Question, and I thank the noble Lord for raising the subject to-day.

It is astonishing to think that in the last seven years the catch of these Greenland salmon has gone up by 700 times, which is a fantastic figure. The noble Lord also mentioned that over 600,000 salmon were caught last year by this method. The salmon stocks cannot stand that. Denmark and Greenland themselves hardly produce any of the salmon. So far as I am aware, there are in Denmark only three or four salmon rivers—and not very good ones at that. We have a very strong point here, because our country produces, together with Norway, Sweden and Iceland, the great majority of Atlantic salmon, so I hope that, especially in the interests of the Highlands and Islands, Her Majesty's Government will make representations to the Danish Government.

5.49 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene briefly to support my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye. My noble friend Lord Dundee made a list of other interested countries concerned in this problem. I do not think that he mentioned Iceland. I know that Iceland is very concerned indeed about this matter, and this is a point which I feel is worth noting.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, for raising this matter, a matter which, as this brief debate has shown, is of great interest to a number of your Lordships. The interest in, and concern about, the matter goes much beyond the confines of your Lordships' House. I should like to confirm that the figures which the noble Lord quoted are, in so far as reports which have reached the Government are concerned, factual. The phenomenal increase to which he referred is by no means an exaggeration of the case. He referred only to the known export figures for Greenland and referred only briefly to the quantity kept for consumption in Greenland itself. So that when that quantity—perhaps some hundreds of tons—is added, the figure of increase is something quite fantastic.

The information which the Government have and which, as I said, confirms the noble Lord's figures, came to us from the Danish Government and is therefore a factual statement of the position. I think it is clear that there has been this phenomenal rise in the catch in recent years, and this follows the provision of freezing plants in the bigger Greenland towns, which have enabled the catch surplus to their own domestic requirements to be preserved in suitable form for export. The catch in 1964 was, in fact, appreciably higher than the salmon catch last year, which was some 1,200 metric tons. The figures which I have quoted leave out grilse, because they are not reflected in the Greenland figures.

As the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, said, there is only one salmon river in West Greenland, so it looks as if the salmon caught off the coast must have been bred elsewhere; and we know, of course, that salmon tagged mostly as smolts in the United Kingdom and in other countries on either side of the Atlantic have been caught in this fishery. Up to May this year, 64 in all have been caught, just over half of which were tagged in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the expanded fishery represents virtually a new toll by man on the Atlantic salmon stocks. It is natural, therefore, that those concerned with our own salmon fisheries should be worried about the development of the Greenland fishery and its effect on our own salmon stocks.

My Lords, all this we accept; but these portents tell us very little about the effect which the Greenland fishery may have on other fisheries or on stocks. The information is still very scarce on several aspects and insufficient for a final and reliable judgment. There is still a great deal that is relevant to this issue that we do not know. Clearly, some British salmon spend part of their sea life, when they feed and grow, in waters off Greenland. But we do not know what proportion of them do, nor how many of those that get as far as Greenland would in the ordinary course come back.

The partial information we have is to some extent reassuring. All the salmon caught in Greenland that were tagged in Scottish waters came from half a dozen batches of smolts, totalling 38,000, tagged between 1961 and 1963, including both natural and artificially reared smolts. Up to May this year, 945 had been recaptured, but nearly all on their return to Scottish waters and only 13 off Greenland. I could quote other figures for England and Wales which show almost identical proportions, and from which similar inferences could be drawn. But I should like to emphasise that these figures are reassuring only as far as they go, and they must be used with caution, because, among other things, we do not know whether tagged salmon are as easily recognised as such in the Greenland fishery as they are here. So we cannot draw absolute conclusions from these figures. Moreover, nearly 90 per cent. of the tagged Scottish smolts came from one river.

We have had representations that our tagging programme should be extended to cover a larger section of our smolt run, and suggestions as to how this might be done. We should like to tag more smolts and to give a better coverage, and we will certainly consider the suggestion made; but, as noble Lords will know, there are difficulties. Smolts are sensitive and delicate creatures and tagging requires very skilled operators. Moreover, it can be done only during the two or three weeks when smolts go to sea; and a further difficulty is that not everyone likes his smolt run interfered with by tagging.

I think I have said enough to indicate that to get a more complete picture, from which firm conclusions could be drawn, a great deal of further investigation is required. I know that that will not be very welcome, but it is an international matter and we cannot proceed as if everything were under our own control. Your Lordships will remember the tremendous reactions, the objections, which took place when we acted on matters which were within our own control. In this we are seeking to have action taken against a much poorer country than our own, and it is even more difficult to persuade Greenland fishermen that what is being done is in their interest and not in the interest of people in other countries. I do not believe that if they took that point of view they would be correct, because at the end of the day they will suffer just as much as anyone else does, if they continue to act as they are doing at the present time. But, having said that, it is necessary to take international action.

This is not something which is within the control of this country. It is not something which is even within the control of ourselves and the Danes. If it were only reasonable people that one had to deal with all the time, action would be quick. If action is taken just between the Danes and ourselves, we have no guarantee that someone else will not just move in; and it has been suggested that others are already moving into this field. So we must have the evidence for proper international action.

So far as the Danes are concerned, we have confirmation of the fact that they are behaving reasonably and are prepared to be helpful. When, a year ago, it was becoming obvious that this Greenland fishery was developing so very rapidly, scientists of our own Department, in co operation with Danish scientists, planned a joint tagging programme in Greenland waters, designed to show where the salmon in those waters go to if they are not caught there. This joint operation will be carried out in the late summer and autumn, and I should like to record that for this project we are receiving every help from the Danish authorities. They are contributing very substantially to the cost of the equipment required and providing many of the facilities needed. In the same way, they have been very co-operative in supplying the information about the Greenland fishery which I have mentioned earlier.

For the same reason—the need for fuller information—at the recent meeting in Canada of the International Commission for the North West Atlantic Fisheries (in whose area the Greenland fishery occurs), the United Kingdom joined with others in urging that all the countries concerned should step up their investigations on salmon fisheries. After full discussion, the Commission drew up a schedule of the further information required to enable a proper assessment to be made of the effect of the Greenland fishery on the stocks of the Atlantic salmon, and commended it to all the countries concerned. Although, of course, it is appreciated that the Greenland salmon fishery means a great deal to the economy of that country, the Danish authorities were nevertheless asked through their representatives at the Commission to consider whether means could be found of curbing further expansion of the fishery while the further investigations are proceeding.

That course urged on the Danish authorities was very recent indeed, and there has not yet been time to find out the extent to which it will be possible for them to co-operate in this way. However, it is clear that this matter is of international concern and that if remedial measures prove to be needed they can be taken only by international action. Several noble Lords have suggested to-day that we should seek urgent agreement to international control. The Commission I have mentioned for the North West Atlantic has the duty of recommending to member Governments conservation measures that may be needed, and there is a similar Commission for the North East Atlantic. The United Kingdom is a member of both. I should like to say, with regard to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Forster of Harraby, that the steps which we ourselves take in this country for conserving stocks give us good grounds on which to ask other people to do it. We are not saying to other people, "Do what we tell you"; we are saying to them, "Do what we do ourselves". It gives us at least a strong moral footing on which to go to the others in this matter.

Regulatory measures for white fish are already in force on both sides of the Atlantic, but it is the practice of both Commissions to base their recommendations on scientific evidence about the state of the stocks and their need for protection, and it will, I think, be readily appreciated that in the absence of such evidence international agreement is not easy to secure. That is why the Government feel that it is necessary to press on urgently with further investigations of the kind I have mentioned. The North-East Atlantic Commission relies for scientific advice on another body whose name I hesitate to mention—the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—who are concerned, among other things, with the salmon stocks native to the European countries; and I can assure your Lordships that when this body meets in October the United Kingdom representatives wilt press the need for further, urgent investigation.

In the meantime, we shall keep in touch with developments. I do not think we can at present do more on the international side than we are doing, and I hope your Lordships will agree that we have taken and are taking all steps open to us to prepare for dealing with this possible threat to our salmon stocks. International action, as I have said, is necessary: international action, unfortunately, is not always as quick as is desirable; and, with the particular urgency which the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, indicated as being present in this case, where the almost total extinction of salmon stocks could take place within four or five years, we obviously cannot, without some immediate action being taken, go through the ordinary routine of letting this thing go on for years. For that reason, I hope that we shall have the complete cooperation of the Danish Government in the very necessary steps which have been urged upon them, not only by ourselves but by the others who took part in the discussions in Canada, so that we can make sure that at least things do not get any worse while the necessary information is being taken; and I would assure your Lordships that these measures will be followed up most wholeheartedly by the Government.

If further inducement were necessary, I think it is the threat or the promise (I do not know quite which it was) which the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, made. I was not quite sure whether the complete elimination of salmon as well as herring was intended to presage his departure from this world, or only an emigration to Greenland. In either event, I think both the Greenlanders and St. Peter should be protected from this contingency, because the noble Lord is very much an acquired taste.