HL Deb 19 April 1975 vol 360 cc1169-79

10.17 p.m.

Lord CAMPBELL of CROY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to promote international agreements on the conservation of fish stocks, and thereby to assist the fishing industry. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am glad to have the opportunity of putting some points to the Government at a critical time for the fishing industry. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for the trouble which I know he has taken to try to give the House as up to date a picture as he can. I am also glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, whom I believe is going to speak because, as the House knows, over many years he has pressed the interests of fishermen, particularly Scottish fishermen, and will be as concerned as I am with the present difficulties that face our herring fishermen.

The fishing industry has operated in the past in separate sections with different interests. But now those sections are finding much more in common. Our fishermen carry out superbly a vital job for the country, often in difficult and, at times, dangerous conditions. They provide valuable protein for the nation's diet; and the more fish our men can get and land here the better for our balance of payments. Our industry needs special attention and support in this year when a great many changes are taking place in the fishing industries of the world. I have chosen this moment to ask the Government for a Statement for three reasons. First, Parliament is about to go into a Recess during which the referendum on the EEC is to take place. It should be clearly understood by all concerned that most of the grave problems which various sections of the fishing industry have been experiencing are not connected with the EEC, contrary to the mischievous allegations of the SNP and some other anti-Marketeers. Secondly, the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission meets this very week when important decisions on quotas are to be taken. Thirdly, the Law of the Sea Conference at Geneva ended only a few days ago with a 200 mile economic zone generally favoured but not yet agreed.

Following the period 1970 to 1973, which for the inshore fleet was one of happily increasing prosperity, the prospects for fishermen have been dangerously darkened by certain events. The world price of oil, which they need for fuel, has soared. Landings of very cheap fish were made by non-E.E.C. countries, especially Norway and Iceland, and this seriously upset home prices. This was alleged to be "dumping" and it was caused by the collapse of the United States market. Most worrying of all, the stocks of herring have been disappearing because of over-fishing—again, mainly by non-E.E.C. countries such as Poland and the Soviet Union. The annual pattern of fishing has greatly altered and the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, will recall from his experience how the Scottish herring men used to start off East Anglia about October or November and then fish the East Coast Northwards. According to the time of year, they could tell more or less where the shoals would be. I am told that that pattern has disappeared. The herring shoals in that part of our seas have disappeared.

Let us consider further how the past few years have affected different sections of the industry. The distant and middle-water trawlers, which mainly fish for white fish, principally off the shores of other countries such as Iceland, the Faroes and Northern Norway, are gradually being phased out. They are fishing by agreement in the waters round Iceland and the Faroes. Northern Norway has trawl-free zones which have to be kept clear. The important point is that we have been able to make the change gradually so as to give the industry time to adjust. The industry was not forced immediately out of those traditional fishing grounds and the long-distance trawler owners have, as a result, adapted to this. They are now going in for new methods and even new vessels in order to fish in home waters rather than on the more distant grounds.

I would remind your Lordships that, as regards those trawlers for the distant and medium waters, the structure of the industry is different from the inshore trawler fleet. The boats are larger and the voyages longer, and the inshore fleet operates in quite a different way where often the crews own shares in the boats and their pay depends mostly on results. They do not have a weekly wage or a monthly salary. The inshore boats are usually away from port for not more than five days and they produce the fresh, high-quality fish. More than half of that inshore fleet is Scottish. Here I make special reference to the herring fishermen, who are part of the inshore fleet. At various times of the year many of them fish for white fish as well. The herring needs different methods and different gear from white fish, but these fishermen have been going through a period of crisis in recent months because of the disappearance of the shoals. This must be due to over-fishing. To meet this problem there have been quotas arranged between the countries concerned by international commissions.

The attitudes of conservation have changed in these years. In the past it was more or less confined to coastal zones and the fishing limits—first three miles, and then they moved out to 12 miles. This has had to be supplemented by other arrangements, such as quotas and bans on fishing in certain areas at certain times of the year for specified kinds of fish. This is something which is in Britain's interests. Unless there are full conservation measures, we can unfortunately see stocks of fish disappearing. We also want to make sure that these conservation methods are properly observed. One reason for this is the advent of industrial fishing. Some countries, such as Japan and the Soviet Union, have methods by which almost everything living in some grounds is scooped up and turned into fishmeal by factory ships. This is sometimes referred to as the "hoovering" method of fishing. That clearly must be carefully controlled, otherwise it can destroy valuable stocks of fish.

Against this background virtually all the countries in the world have been moving towards a new system of a 200-mile economic zone. This became clear two years ago, but progress towards agreement has been slow in relation to the urgent need to conserve herring stocks. Some immediate temporary agreement may be needed for them with the countries concerned. The North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission at their meeting this week should try, I believe—and the Government, I hope, will help them—to limit severely the total herring catch, while securing a reasonable quota for British fishermen in the seas around our shores. More probably needs to be done in the immediate future than the quotas. Have the Government considered a short-term agreement for banning for a period all herring fishing from further areas?

As regards fish other than herring, our distant water fleets are being forced out of their traditional grounds off the shores of other countries such as Iceland and Northern Norway. This predictable trend will be hastened by the 200-mile zone when it is agreed. But the trawler owners have been preparing for the prospect of having to direct most of their fishing to nearer waters where they are joining our inshore fleet. This is why British fishermen are more than ever concerned about future arrangements affecting home waters. The present satisfactory arrangements for United Kingdom fishing limits are due to continue under our agreement with the EEC until the end of 1982. These are the arrangements for continuing the 12-mile limit which affect our inshore fishermen. When a 200-mile zone is agreed on a world or regional basis, however, the EEC common fisheries policy will no longer be properly relevant to this new situation. The 10-year agreement with Britain will need to be replaced, as was recognised when that agreement was made.

I should like to ask the Government when they now foresee the new concept of an economic zone being put into practice. The Government should be preparing for discussions with other coastal States near us, including the EEC, on the way in which the new system can be applied in order both to conserve stocks and to provide full opportunities for British fishermen. In the past, the interest of the inshore fleet has been concerned with the 12-mile limit and its preservation. That is still so. But our distant water fishermen who have been fishing off other countries' shores have been concerned that fishing limits should not be too far pushed out by them. That is gradually happening in any event, and now both the inshore and the distant water fishermen have a more common interest in making sure that there is a sensible régime in the waters around our own shores to secure conservation of fish stocks upon which Britain depends more than any other European country.

With the drastic changes that have been taking place there have been serious effects on an industry which serves our country outstandingly and whose products will be needed more than ever in future. But it is thoroughly irresponsible to mislead fishing communities by pretending that all the recent difficulties are due to the EEC. Most of them, as I have said, are due to world factors and to activities of non-EEC countries. It may seem to those who are taking part in the present campaign before the referendum to be attractive to frighten fishing communities about these problems being connected with the EEC, which is wrong. This may well be attractive to them in order to try to win support against continued membership of the EEC. But it is irresponsible, and it is vitally important now that during the next two weeks the truth should get through and that fishermen should not be misled but guided correctly in these matters. I hope that the points which I have raised will enable the Government tonight to give some further information and views at this critical stage after the Geneva Conference which has just ended, and with the Atlantic Fisheries Commission meeting this week.

10.30 p.m.


My Lords, at this late hour I do not propose to detain the House for more than a few minutes. However, as one who, without cessation, has fought for the fishing industry for the last 50 years, I felt that I had to rise to my feet to support the Unstarred Question which has been put by my noble friend.

The fishing industry is now going through a great crisis. We had one crisis two or three years ago when the Common Market proposed that all Common Market fishing boats should be allowed to fish with beam trawls up to our beaches. Without attempting to boast in any way, I led the campaign against that proposal, and we had complete and total victory. The 12-mile limit remains and will never be abandoned. During the last two or three years, the inshore fishermen have done quite well, but now they are facing great difficulties. The position of the herring fishermen has become absolutely desperate, and it is the reason why I am on my feet at 10.30 this evening.

I am old enough to remember the days when the shoals were off the Buchan coast in the summer and off Yarmouth and Lowestoft in the autumn. There were the two great fishings—the summer and the autumn fishings—and so many herrings were landed that the difficulty was to stop them being dumped back into the sea. My job then was to find markets for the herrings that were caught in such plentiful supplies. I went to Russia, Poland and Germany for that purpose—not altogether without success. Now the shoals have disappeared from the Buchan coast. They are no longer to be found in May, June and July. They have disappeared also from Yarmouth and Lowestoft, so there is no great autumn fishing. So far as we can make out, they have gone to an area some hundreds of miles North of the Minch, from which some of them escape the industrial fishing marauders, to the Minch itself where they are caught by our own fishermen. However, the Minch fishing has dropped dramatically during the last few months. Therefore, there is a danger that the herring may become perhaps a more valuable but a scarce fish. This will be a disaster not only for this country but for the whole world.

As my noble friend who has just spoken rightly pointed out, the solution to this problem does not lie with the EEC who are not competitors with us for the herring fishing industry. It lies in an international agreement which must include Poland, Russia and Norway to keep this last part of the North Sea, where the herring shoals are known to collect, from industrial fishing for certain periods of the year—and possibly quotas. I do not know whether time limits or quotas are the right answer, or whether a mixture of the two is right. However, I suspect that a mixture of the two is the right answer. Otherwise, I know of cases where the herring fishing fleet boats are being tied up at this moment and the men who have manned them for all these years with such success are going into the oil business. The inshore fishing industry round the coasts of Northern Scotland is dying on its feet. I think that the Government should take this up most urgently at international level, and I hope that the noble Lord will be able to give me some reassurance on that point.

10.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has raised the important question of the problems facing our fishing industry, and has asked what action the Government are taking. I have noted very carefully what he has said, and also the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, to which I shall refer in a moment. In my reply, I should like to deal first with the matter of fisheries conservation; after that I will say something about the industry's position within the Community; and, finally, I will touch upon the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea.

First, I must associate myself with the tribute that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, has paid to our fishermen. My father had the honour of being the Member for one of the constituencies of Hull for many years between the Wars and I was very conscious from an early age, when I was quite a young boy, of the very important work that our fishermen have done and continue to do. As has been said, the main problem facing our fishing industry today is that of over-fishine. I am well aware of other anxieties faced by our fisheries—such as the international trend towards wider fishing limits, and the immense increases in operating costs. But for the industry to survive at all there must first be adequate fish stocks, and there I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, has said. Unfortunately, there is a strong risk that without adequate international agreement on conservation, many stocks will be so depleted that economic fishing will become impossible.

The United Kingdom is an active member of both the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and the North-West Atlantic Fisheries Commission. These important regional fisheries conservation bodies, whose members include all nations with a substantial interest in the fish stocks on either side of the North Atlantic, have developed over the past years a series of conservation regulations governing, for example, the mesh of nets, the minimum sizes of fish which may be taken, and closed seasons and closed areas. The United Kingdom, I am glad to say, and as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, will have realised when he was in Office, has played a major role in all discussions on the state of the many fish stocks in the Convention areas, and more recently the United Kingdom delegation has pressed successfully, I am glad to say, for new total catch limits and national quota arrangements for the main fish stocks of commercial importance in the North-East Atlantic. As a result mainly of the initiative of the United Kingdom, we now have quota limitations on herring in the North Sea and to the West of Scotland; on sole and plaice around the coast of England and Wales; and on cod, haddock and whiting in the North Sea. These new quota arrangements represent a major step forward in ensuring that these heavily taxed stocks are managed for the long-term benefit of all fishermen. But it would be pointless to deny that much remains to be done. The Government attach the greatest importance and urgency to fisheries conservation, and we shall continue to press for improvements in these international quota arrangements and shall be putting forward proposals at the Thirteenth Annual Meeting of the N.E.A.F.C. which begins in London on Wednesday. High on the agenda will of course be the serious question of unrestricted industrial fishing, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell.

I have already mentioned the question of fishery limits, and I should now like to touch on this issue in a little more detail. It is only natural that in view of the pressure on fish stocks, our fishermen should be more than ever concerned about proper limits around the United Kingdom, and I will therefore explain to the House what the present position is. The United Kingdom, in accordance with present international law, has a limit of 12 miles. This was introduced in 1964, and was subject to certain arrangements negotiated in 1964 allowing some fishermen of other countries to work between 6 and 12 miles. Under the Common Fisheries Policy the vessels of all Community countries are free in principle to fish within the waters under the jurisdiction of any Member State. In practice, however, there are exceptions to this rule, and the Treaty of Accession in essence maintained the position as it was before our entry, that until 1982 the waters out to 6 miles would continue to be reserved to United Kingdom fishermen, and that between 6 and 12 miles there would be certain limitations on other EEC vessels. The arrangements for the 6 to 12 miles area are somewhat complicated: in some areas—off the East of Scotland, for example—no other EEC vessels are permitted. In other areas—such as the South-West—French and Belgian vessels may take certain species. I need not go into every detail. The point is that the existing situation within the Community is by no means unsatisfactory, and shows the flexibility which is possible within the Common Fisheries Policy. The arrangements after 1982 would have to be reviewed before then: there is no reason to assume they would be unfavourable. I hope that as members of the Community we shall be able to make the best negotiations possible with our colleagues.

The concern of our industry over limits arises now because of the likelihood that the UN Law of the Sea Conference will in due course agree that coastal States may, if they choose, declare an economic zone including jurisdiction over fisheries out to 200 miles. That situation has not yet arisen, and indeed the Conference will not end before 1976. It would certainly be a considerable time before a general international Convention could be ratified by a majority of the States concerned. However, if and when a 200-mile limit became general, there would clearly be an entirely new situation internationally. Fishing opportunities in distant waters would be reduced. Noble Lords are aware of the importance in particular of the fishing grounds around Norway and Iceland to our supplies of white fish such as cod and haddock. They would not necessarily be eliminated, because such countries also fish around our coasts, so that we may envisage negotiations in due course leading to mutually acceptable arrangements. But, still, the intensity of fishing around the United Kingdom would probably be increased as the fishing fleets of the Community concentrated more of their efforts nearer home. That would still be true even though some non-member countries might end or reduce their fishing near the United Kingdom.

My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has already emphasised the concern of the United Kingdom as the most important fishing nation in the Community. He has made it clear to his colleagues in the Council of Ministers that such a radical change in circumstances would require a reappraisal of the existing provisions of the Common Fisheries Policy. I am glad to say that they have agreed with him that the Community should now study this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, asked whether it would be possible to get a short-term agreement on herring, but I think he will agree that it is probably best for effective conservation to be considered on a long-term basis. This is one of the matters which will be discussed at the conference.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but in trying to make a short speech I did not explain that point, and it may help the noble Lord now. Because Norway was able to arrange an agreement with us, and others concerned, for a trawl-free zone close to her coasts, that is perhaps a precedent for us being able to make agreements with new countries who are fishing for herring around our coasts, about areas where herring could not be fished for. That is the kind of immediate agreement which the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, and I hoped might be reached without having to wait for the 200 mile zone and without retaliation from other countries against us, inasmuch as nobody has retaliated against Norway.


My Lords, we shall certainly take note of what the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, have said; I will pass it on to my right honourable friend. This has been done before, as the noble Lord said, and there is no reason why it should not be done here. Finally, I am aware of the feeling in the industry—which is understandable in view of the uncertainties and difficulties facing it—that the United Kingdom should act now and extend its fishery limits. My Lords, the Government do not believe that such a course would help our industry—and that is our objective. Many States fishing around the United Kingdom would not accept such an extension in advance of any change in international law. Furthermore, by acting without their consent, we would jeopardise the many hard-won voluntary conservation measures which apply around our coast. Moreover, there would be little point in seeking to impose unilateral controls over fishing of the highly migratory stocks around our coasts if there is unregulated fishing elsewhere. The problem of conservation is international and its solution, we believe, must also be international. I believe that the course we are pursuing is the right one.