HL Deb 25 June 1969 vol 303 cc146-8

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will take the initiative in calling for an international conference to consider what action can be taken to prevent over-fishing in the North Sea and off the coast of Greenland, which is now gradually killing both the herring and salmon fishing industries.]


My Lords, I apologise for the length of the Answer I must give to this Question. Her Majesty's Government consider that the international bodies already established for the North Atlantic fisheries provide appropriate machinery for the consideration of these questions, and accordingly see no need to call for a special international conference. In May, the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, taking note of the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea that the fishing effort on North Sea herring stocks should be reduced in order to restore the stocks, invited the countries concerned to take part in a Study Group to consider whether a practical scheme can be devised for this purpose. The Group will meet in the Netherlands later this year, and the United Kingdom will participate.

As regards salmon, I am glad to say that in June the International Commission for the North-West Atlantic Fisheries formally recommended that fishing for salmon outside national fishery limits should be prohibited. This recommendation does not become effective until it has been accepted by all member Governments, but Her Majesty's Government earnestly hope that all the Governments concerned will agree that this recommendation should be implemented. A similar recommendation was made by the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission.

In the opinion of Her Majesty's Government the action taken, or being taken, by the established international bodies is not unsatisfactory. Your Lordships will appreciate that it is not always possible to secure international agreement, or quick agreement, on action which any one country may consider desirable, partly because the results of scientific investigation do not always yield interpretation of the complex factors governing fish stocks. These difficulties would not be removed by arranging a new forum for international discussion.


My Lords, arising out of that Answer, may I ask my noble friend whether he does not think it is getting rather late now for Study Groups and recommendations, and that what is required to save the salmon and herring fishing industries is action? In view of the fact that the main part of the catching of immature herrings in the North Sea for industrial purposes, and of the catching of salmon off the coast of Greenland which might otherwise come to spawn in our own rivers, is the responsibility of the Danish Government, will he ask Her Majesty's Government to make direct recommendations, or at least representations to the Danish Government, because they are primarily responsible?


My Lords, of course it is regrettable that these things should take such a very long time, but when one has no right to impose one's will on another Government, obviously one must accept the consequential delay that follows reliance on a course of persuasion. Noble Lords know that this is what has been going on, and it is satisfactory that we should have got these agreements through these two bodies with only two dissentient Governments. Only Denmark and Germany opposed the recommendation. I think it would be a mistake, having gone so far along this particular road, to assume at this stage that the Danish Government are not going to fall in line with the others. I think we might well undermine all we have achieved if we now started on an entirely different course of action.


My Lords, while recognising the extremely satisfactory result of the last conference with regard to salmon, can the noble Lord say whether he is of the opinion that if this agreement is accepted by all the nations, including the Danes, it is likely to be effective? Does not a great deal of the catching of salmon take place off Greenland within territorial waters; and, if that is so, could anything possibly be done about it?


My Lords, it is a little difficult to say, "off the cuff", what the results would be. It may be that a considerable amount of the Greenland catch is within Greenland territorial waters. I think, however, it must be accepted that it is bound to be a considerable improvement on the very unsatisfactory situation which exists at the moment if we can achieve that first step of limiting this fishing in international waters. If the results are still unsatisfactory from an international point of view, then we should tackle the question of seeking to reduce the catching within territorial waters. After all, we have set a good example in this. We have placed restrictions on our nationals.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the size of herrings on the market is decreasing each year, due to overfishing in the North Sea? Cannot some common sense be used in this respect?—because it will not be long before there are hardly any herrings left in the North Sea.


My Lords, it is unfortunate that common sense and what nations want to do are not always the same thing.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that his reply was most encouraging? But would Her Majesty's Government be willing to give a progress report on the reaction of other countries, say, before we rise for the Summer Recess?


My Lords, I think that the best thing would be for the noble Lord, who has followed this matter for a long time, to put down a Question towards the period when we expect to rise, and I shall then hope to answer it.