HL Deb 28 July 1976 vol 373 cc1401-17

5.29 p.m.

Lord VERNON rose to move, that this House takes note of the Thirty-eighth Report of this session of the European Communities Committee on Marine Fish Farming (R/2988/75, remaining sections). The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I must confess to feeling something of an imposter. In the first place, I took the chair at the meetings of our Sub-Committee which dealt with fish farming only in the temporary absence of our chairman, Lord Raglan, who had a short and very well earned break. Secondly, I feel that to some extent I have stolen the clothes of my noble friend Lady Emmet, because fish farming is so very much her subject. Indeed, I think it was my noble friend Lady Emmet who first stimulated my interest in this subject. I found that the more we went into it and the more that we examined witnesses, the more fascinated I became by it. I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Emmet of Amberley, will not be speaking. I understand she feels that she has spoken rather a lot on this subject but I am sure the whole House would agree that she has not spoken enough.

I must make it clear at the outset that our report does not cover the whole spectrum of fish farming but only marine fish farming as it is affected by the proposed Brussels Directive—a Directive which deals with the inshore fisheries as a whole and which has already been referred to in the previous debate this afternoon. The two subjects, marine fish farming and inshore fishing, are of course closely inter-linked and some people may wonder why we are having separate debates. I think the answer is that we felt the common fisheries policy in the context of the anticipated 200-mile limit is such an important and urgent issue that fish farming might be swamped if it was covered in the same debate. As an industry which has been neglected for far too long fish farming does not deserve to be swamped; on the contrary, it deserves the closest scrutiny and continuing support, as I shall attempt to demonstrate.

It is proposed under the Commission's Directive that grants will be available for the rearing of fish, crustaceans and molluscs, subject to certain provisos. One of the most important of the provisos is that the recipient should qualify for a grant from its own national Government. At present the majority of the fish farming industry—that is the industry outside the purview of the Highlands and Islands Development Board—is not eligible for grants because it is not classified as agricultural. This is an anomaly which we believe should be changed, and we hope will be changed under legislation at present before Parliament.

Another proviso is that the fish must be reared in what is termed in the Preamble to the Directive, "salt or brackish water". The Committee feel strongly that no such condition should be imposed. Salmon and trout can both be reared in salt and fresh water, or in a combination of the two, and it would seem absurd to make such a distinction. Eels are another species of fish which are beginning to be exploited commercially and which move freely between salt and fresh water. They breed in one and they mature in the other. The Committee believe that it would be more satisfactory if all fish farmers, including freshwater fish farmers, were eligible for grant.

The other specific point in our report which I should like to emphasise is the need to establish reserved areas, referred to in paragraph 16. In some ways I think this is one of the most important aspects of our report. I understand the Minister has set his face against reserved areas on the grounds that they would interfere with the traditional right of free fishing in the waters of England and Wales. I hope very much that he can be persuaded to change his mind. I am the last person to wish to interfere with traditional freedoms unless it is necessary, but in this case the Committee believe it to be essential. The number of sites suitable for marine fish farming, especially those with access to the warmer water generated by power stations, is severely limited. We all know that the pressures on the coastal sites from industry, from private development and from those concerned with recreation, are increasing all the time. The Committee believe that unless early action is taken to reserve the sites—and we are talking in terms of relatively small areas of a few hundred hectares—they may be lost for ever and the future of a potentially exciting and valuable industry will be jeopardised.

My Lords, I speak about a "valuable and exciting industry"; perhaps I should be a little more specific. The Com mittee are not starry-eyed. We know that farmed fish can never be produced in sufficient quantities to replace Icelandic cod and other wild species as a major element in the nation's diet. Such replacement will have to come from the blue whiting or other new sources. There are enormous technical problems still to be solved and we have been careful not to make predictions of farm fish production, although we do quote the views of the White Fish Authority on the possible production of sole and turbot. Moreover, Mr. Howard, from Marine Harvest Limited, a subsidiary of the Unilever Company, who gave evidence before us, gave us some interesting figures on possible salmon production. Of course, the charge is often levelled by sceptics that these are all luxury fish and their production will not help to feed the mass of the population, but I would remind the House that 30 years ago chicken was a luxury food. The position is very different today.

Only by concentrating on the more expensive fish is the producer able to recoup his costs in the early stages of a project. If successful he can then turn his attention either to producing that same expensive fish more cheaply, and so making it available to a mass market, or to farming a cheaper species of fish. Even if it transpires in the end that luxury fish only can be produced, there will still be a significant gain to our balance of payments, as will be seen from the figures in paragraph 22 of the report. These figures take no account of salmon production. If, in addition to the fresh market, salmon can be farmed to supply the market for tinned salmon at competitive prices the reduction in our imports, mainly of Canadian tinned salmon, would be significant.

Successive Governments have invested considerable sums of money—in the region of a million pounds a year—in fish farming research. All credit to them for doing so, but a critical stage has now been reached. We are beginning to move from the phase of pure research into that of commercial production. Farmed salmon are already on the market and farmed sole and farmed turbot should not be far behind. The risks taken by the companies who have invested money in these projects are substantial. It is now more than ever necessary that Government assistance and backing should be given. It would be a tragedy if it was not forthcoming. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Thirty-eighth Report of this session of the European Communities Committee on Marine Fish Farming (R/2988/75, remaining sections).—(Lord Vernon.)

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, having spoken in the debate which has just taken place, I do not intend to detain your Lordships for long now in this debate, while I recognise the importance of the subject. We are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Vernon for having introduced this subject and the report so concisely and clearly. He tells us he has stepped into someone else's shoes, and we congratulate him doubly for having performed this service so well for us. I should also like from this Bench to thank the Sub-Committee of the Select Committee for having investigated this somewhat erudite subject so closely. They have given us a distillation of the results of their examination, and their recommendations.

This is a new industry, and I believe it is one whose growth should be encouraged in this country. At the same time, we must recognise that the marine side of fish farming cannot develop overnight into a major source of food for us. There are technical problems, as my noble friend Lord Vernon has just pointed out. This is brought home in the report itself. But what this type of fish farming can do is to make an important additional contribution to our sources of food, and an additional contribution to the fish hunted and caught by traditional methods, but in order to do this efficiently, clearly suitable conditions are required.

My noble friend mentioned the warm sea water at power stations. I believe this is the first kind of area which should be examined. When the expected new nuclear generators are coming into our system, and when sites are being sought, as well as looking for all the conditions necessary from the point of view of safety and other matters connected with nuclear generators at the early stages we should also see whether the warm water produced as a result of the necessary cooling processes might be used for marine fish farming. My own limited knowledge of the nuclear generating subject is that these new power stations will have to be sited on the coasts and usually in areas which are not populated. These are also suitable areas for fish farming, so one hopes it will be possible to bring the two together. That does not exclude the other types of power stations and the opportunities there may be there for using the warm water from the cooling processes.

The breeding and husbanding of fish will be necessary in order to provide the supplies we need in this country, in addition to the hunting processes. I do not think my noble friend need worry about the fact that the types of fish being produced now by marine fish farms are somewhat expensive. I think that is bound to be so at the beginning. At the moment I think salmon and rainbow trout are being produced by commercial fish farms and, as the report indicates, sole and turbot should be sold commercially fairly soon.

In 1969—about seven years ago—I spent a day looking at a marine fish farm, which at that time was fairly new, on the West coast of Scotland. This farm went in mainly for salmon in cages in a sea loch, and has been very successful. But the salmon were concentrated and having to be fed, so it was an operation. Something else done, which was then a minor breakthrough, was that they had just succeeded in introducing rainbow trout to salt water, thereby making the rainbow trout do what salmon do, which is to go down to the sea; because once the rainbow trout took to salt water they immediately grew to about 10 lbs. or more. Naturally, this was a small breakthrough. I do not know whether it is still a commercial secret of the company concerned, but that is the kind of thing that can be done in fish farming. I was a little too late in giving them some advice, however, because only the week before I arrived, although their ponds containing these large, appetising rainbow trout were guarded by wire netting, none the less in the dead of night the whole lot were taken by raiders who came in with wire cutters. I do not think the people there had realised that the temptation was too great for some of the poachers we know of in Scotland, who came and took the lot in the middle of the night. So I advised them then to improve their wiring, and if necessary to introduce radar and other devices. Since then they have not had the same trouble.

One of the major problems in fish farming is that where you have a concentration of fish, you run the risk of disease. In my area of Scotland there are a number of fresh water fish farms and I know only too well from their experience that their great worry is disease. Once disease arrives, the whole stock could be wiped out. This is illustrated by the fact that it is now difficult to find insurance companies which will give cover to freshwater fish farms at reasonable premiums. This is a very high risk operation, and the greatest care is needed in order to ward off infection. Do not let any of us think that this is an industry which can be easily embarked upon.

I agree with what my noble friend said, and with what the report outlines, that it is not appropriate to consider marine fish farming in isolation from fresh water fish farming. Both form a single industry. They have similar operations and are confronted with similar problems. So I come to the question of rating. At the moment, both marine and fresh water fish farms are assessable to local authority rates. Rates are levied, and these are different from those applicable to agriculture. One of the ways in which we in Britain could encourage fish farming would be if we were to put it on the same basis as agriculture, ordinary farming, where rating is concerned. We cannot afford to ignore the contribution which the expanding fish farming industry can make to the economy of our country, and our sources of food. I hope the Government will encourage fish farming in this country. I think that the report of the Select Committee is helpful in this direction.


My Lords, in the absence of other speakers, may I say I am not really primed on this—it is many years since the subject was debated in the House and, when it was, I took part in the debate. I came to listen today, hoping we should hear something about the question of rating of the buildings concerned in fish farming in comparison with the rating of ordinary agriculture. When the noble Lord replies, I wonder if he would be able—


My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, will give way, that was the point I myself raised at the end of my speech.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, for giving us the opportunity to debate this extremely interesting subject, one which I agree with him has great potential, certainly for trout, but also for other species when we get through the experimental stage. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord and the Select Committee on the very clear and extremely interesting report, together with the supporting evidence, which I think makes fascinating reading.

Therefore, we have had another debate on this subject following on the one we had recently during the Committee stage of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Perhaps I can say at the outset, in answer to the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Ferrier, that the question of rating is one of the subjects which the Department will be discussing with the industry. But, of course, the first step, as your Lordships will remember, is that this House passed an Amendment to equate aquaculture and agriculture. The next step is that this will be considered by another place. Depending upon the decision of Parliament we shall then know where we can go, and as soon as that has been arrived at we can enter into full discussions with the industry.

My Lords, it is worth while recalling the reason why this draft Regulation has been put forward. Essentially it is to promote the rational development of inshore fishing with the basic objective of securing better balance between catching capacity, exploitable fish stocks, and demand". With this aim in mind, the draft proposes that grants should be made available from the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund towards the cost of projects for the reorganisation of inshore fishing fleets, the modernisation of shore installations and the development and rearing of fish and shellfish and crustaceans. The only point which I should like to underline here is that, of course, as both noble Lords have said, the Regulation is related only to marine fish farming. I agree that it might have been better if it had considered freshwater farming as well as sea water, but this is the report that we are considering today. On the other hand, I am sure that the European Committee will bear very much in mind what has been said, and no doubt our colleagues in the Community will as well. For that reason, the subject which is of concern to the House today must necessarily be more limited in its scope than when we last discussed this during the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether the authorities that are looking into this matter at the moment are aware that in Europe fish farming inland is considered agriculture; therefore, they would probably make a distinction between brackish and marine, because the other is already covered? With us it is not.


My Lords, I know that is so; but the report merely refers to marine fish farming and the fish described in it are all fin fish which are reared in the sea.


My Lords, that is because other fish are already covered by agriculture.


Well, my Lords, if the noble Baroness will bear with me I shall come to these different points later.

I was going to say that it is not clear from the terms of the Regulation whether it would include salmon and sea trout rearing within its ambit. For practical purposes I think we should, at least at this stage, consider that it does. This would have the effect that we are discussing those aspects of fish farming which are at a more advanced stage than those concerned with species such as turbot and sole. Of course, there is a small but important shellfish rearing industry in this country which is largely devoted to oyster production. In fact, our oysters have been famous since Roman times, and they are, I think, the finest in the world, just as our whisky, as I am sure Lord Campbell would agree, is also the finest in the world. The only thing is that you cannot enjoy the two together.

My Lords; the Government endorse the aim of adapting the means of production to the exploitation potential of the reared stocks. To the extent that grant aid is made available from Community funds for this purpose, we should of course welcome the proposal, and we do. However, I think that we must address ourselves to the situation as it exists and is likely to exist for the next few years. The real issue is the extent of the likely potential of the industry—and in relation to marine fish farming it is still only a potential—and the resultant employment possibilities. I think it is worth stressing that the Regulation is primarily designed to deal with structural problems arising from the situation which exists in the Community's inshore fishing industry.

The criteria suggested appear to be strict and there would be quite heavy commitments laid upon both the country concerned and the would-be fish farmer to play a substantial role in the financing of any ventures. I think that this is right. Any branch of fish farming involves considerable investment expenditure at some risk. In the Government's view, it is important to secure that the interested parties have a substantial stake in the success of any enterprise. Clearly once grant aid became available above a certain point the incentive to invest to the greatest advantage would diminish rapidly.

It is at this point that we should pause to consider the likely situation. The draft Regulation postulates a situation under which the inshore fishing industry will contract. There would be resulting unemployment or redeployment of resources. It is implied that marine fish farming would be one of the activities to assist in overcoming this problem. Well, my Lords, it might. But with the best will in the world the Government cannot see this activity playing more than a very minor role in such redeployment. This would certainly be true in this country, whatever might be the effects elsewhere where different circumstances obtain.

Nevertheless, I do underline that the Government for their part will play a constructive role in the discussions on the draft. We shall continue to undertake the background work in the development of marine fish farming. Assistance available from other sources will, of course, be very welcome. But it is essential, I should stress, to be realistic as to the scope of the possibilities likely to arise in the foreseeable future. Clearly, even on a fairly small scale, the problems of providing employment opportunities for those leaving the catching side of the industry in the highly specialised and capital-intensive fish farming sectors are formidable.

The report draws attention to the problems arising on pollution, and this is, of course, an extremely important subject. It is one to which the Government have addressed themselves with vigour over recent years. Large resources have been deployed to combat the problems, and as many of your Lordships will be aware, with no small degree of success. I confirm that the United Kingdom will continue to play a leading part in the arrangements which have to be made with our EEC colleagues and others in the development of further measures. Perhaps it would be appropriate if I reminded the House of the part we already play in the work of the Oslo and Paris Commissions and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which are some of the bodies most intimately concerned with the work of monitoring and control of pollution.

During the debates on fish farming there have been considerable discussions on the legal implications and the administrative structure in this country for dealing with the subject. Once again I wish to stress that responsibilitiy for it falls, rightly in the Government's view, and in my own view, upon the Fisheries Departments in England and Scotland. I think there should be no doubt about this matter. I think that fish farming, as the debate has shown and indeed the Regulation itself illustrates, is closely related to other fishery matters. This activity benefits from the close relationship which its treatment obtains by being considered in relation to these matters. On the narrower issue which is mentioned in the report, we should obviously have to consider the effects of the proposals, if they were adopted, upon United Kingdom law. There is no doubt that supplementary legislation would be required to bring the proposals into effect. This is precisely the sort of issue which we should like to examine in detail with fish farming and other interests in the forthcoming continuation of past discussions.

The report suggests, first, that fish farming can be seen as part of the problem of restructuring of the inshore fisheries industry; and, secondly, that the Ministry was suprised at this proposition because of, "its traditional uncertain treatment of fish farming under different heads". On the latter point, I have already said that the problems which need consideration are best dealt with in the fisheries context, because that is where the administrative and scientific expertise lies. On the other hand, this does not prevent fish farming being treated in its varied forms as a discrete subject. On occasions this is necessary because of the considerable number of issues arising outside what one might term the pure fish farming context.

On the major issue, the prospect of any real impact being made upon unemployment of inshore fishermen by their diversion to fish farming seems likely to be slight on any objective judgment. Secondly, the Government are entitled to ask, as they will, in the forthcoming discussions what spin-off benefits are in mind for the inshore industry. That was a term which was of course used in the report. We note the suggestion in the report that they have in mind 6,000 tons of farmed fish—presumably marine species. In itself this is a tiny figure. But where is this production going to come from? There are no species of marine fin fish produced commercially—and I stress the word "commercially"—at the present time although some companies have development programmes for turbot.

The Government have made an appraisal of the likely production of sole, turbot, halibut and plaice for the next decade. Such an estimate is of course beset with uncertainties. But in estimating the likely production we take reassurance from the fact that the fish farming interests themselves have been consulted. The conclusion from this process was that something less than 3,000 tons of marine fin fish might be produced by the end of the next decade. These figures are of course speculative, but they at least provide us with an idea of the order of magnitude. They are the figures which those engaged in the business believe to be both technically feasible and commercially viable.

All the evidence is that the main constraints to growth were considered to be technical rather than commercial. The figures take no account of the future market for these species. I readily agree with the noble Lord, and of course with the noble Baroness, Lady Emmet of Amberley, that once we can get over the technical difficulties there are enormous market potentialities for this, but we are constrained by the technical difficulties. In addition to what one might call traditional marine species, there is of course the prospect of farmed supplies of Atlantic salmon becoming available, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said. Of course, this is the other type of fish, with the rainbow trout, with which I think we have more or less solved the technical problems. The problems with the trout were solved some years ago; they are in production. The estimate for production at the end of the next decade for the traditional marine species on the same basis as that which I have described above is also perhaps 3,000 tons.

The report indicates that the stage has now been reached when the production of marine fish can be exploited commercially and significantly expanded. As the figures I have quoted show, this is not strictly true. There remain, as I said, major problems of development to be overcome, particularly in relation to turbot and sole. I stress this. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, was very cautious in what he said about turbot and sole, and that is borne out in the report. I think the evidence given was very qualified, but with hope for the future. The Government's view is that turbot is nearer to success than sole. Work is, however, being continued in the Ministry's laboratories and elsewhere on the feeding problems of sole, but I must say that considerable difficulties still remain to be overcome.

I would at this point like to say that the industry's view on the broad question of development is that Government research and development should leave them to identify the problems so that research can be concentrated on specific areas. The conclusion drawn by industry was that future growth would be a slow process with a limited number of farms participating and producing very small quantities over the next few years. I should say that all the scientific evidence at this stage is that halibut culture is a very long way away.

The Committee showed in its report considerable interest in ensuring that sites of possible interest to fish farmers should be pre-empted even for very long periods ahead and with no certainty of their being used. This was mentioned earlier in the debate. I am sure that this is one of those suggestions to which everybody would probably subscribe in the abstract. But when one gets down to the concrete issues, I find it difficult to believe that we should seriously suggest that legislation should be put forward pre-empting sites of possible interest to fish farmers (even if we knew which these were) to the exclusion of many other interests which, in the meantime, might wish to utilise our crowded shoreline. I suggest that this would be planning blight with a vengeance! It should also not be forgotten, if I may remind noble Lords, that in England and Wales there exists the public right of fishing. The Government could certainly not agree to any interference in this without the most serious consequences.

Then there is the question of the use of heated water from power stations, which has been mentioned here as well as in the report. This has obvious advantages in the promotion of fish growth, but it should not be overlooked that power stations are designed to provide power for the national grid. Fish farming to them is a minor activity in this context, and I am sure your Lordships will agree that in this context this must be so. If there has to be a change in operating procedures for power supply, or for other reasons, this would take place notwithstanding any effects upon fish farming activities. It would be quite possible for all fish farming efforts to be lost overnight because operational procedures required it. In these circumstances, it would be quite wrong to rely upon warm water sites as something upon which fish farmers can necessarily depend as a permanent service. This is something which of course can be examined, but all I suggest at this stage is that we should not think that it is going to be the solution to our difficulties.


My Lords, the Minister is very kind to let me interrupt once more. This question of the use of nuclear warm water has been studied and it has been used most successfully in Germany, regardless of such apprehensions as the noble Lord mentioned just now.


Yes, my Lords, I agree; but all I say at this moment is that it is not a service on which you can rely in any permanent way. For example, the warm water effluent is a by-product which happens to be useful for another purpose. The operating conditions of a station can alter suddenly; for example, where there was a failure or where chemicals such as chloride had to be introduced into the water to inhibit barnacles or some other growth which would affect the efficient working of the station. Such changes can have, and have had, a dramatic effect on farmed fish, bringing any of this work to an end. As I say, I have not by any means a closed mind on this. I just want to stress some of the difficulties when using a by-product from a service which is of such enormous national interest.

There have of course been considerable discussions over the past months about the ways in which existing legislation might require change. We shall be discussing these matters further with the fish farming interests with a view to establishing the best way to proceed. The same point arises in relation to the control of pollution, on which I have commented, and of course over the prevention of disease.

I hope that these remarks will have assisted your Lordships in appreciating the considerations which weigh with the Government, but I should like to stress that we are concerned to ensure that the fish farming industry continues to maintain the excellent progress shown in the past decade. For example 10 years ago there were some 20 fish farms; today there are some 400, which I think is an excellent example of growth. Through our joint efforts I am sure that we shall be able to secure that these activities will play their part in providing supplies of farmed fish for British and foreign consumers. The Government wish the industry well and will continue to devote their efforts to assisting it in the most practical way to the national advantage.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to delay the House because I know that a lot of further business remains to be transacted. I regret that there were so few speakers, but I understand that a plane left for Scotland at a time which coincided with the debate and that several noble Lords who had put their names down to speak wished to catch it. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for his remarks. As for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, I could probably go on arguing with him until the cows come home, but I will not attempt to do so. The attitude of the Ministry towards fish farming is somewhat ambiguous. They say that they welcome it and they give money towards research, but I think that at the same time many of the noble Lord's remarks were somewhat discouraging to the fish farming industry. At any rate, that was my impression.


No, my Lords, I did not wish in any way to be discouraging. I simply said that except for rainbow trout and salmon, where there has been a breakthrough, all other fish are in the experimental stage. That is why the Government are giving £1 million for development. But any commercial fish farming on a large-scale must come after the experimental and scientific breakthrough.


My Lords, I quite appreciate what the noble Lord said. Equally, some of the figures given to us and the forecasts and hopes of the White Fish Authority, which after all is a Government agency, are slightly different from what was given to us by Lord Strabolgi, but I do not want to pursue that now. I should like to take up just one point with him; that is, the question of reserved areas, on which he poured a certain amount of cold water, if that is the right term to use. What we are asking for is elementary planning. Areas are reserved for all sorts of purposes in this country—for example, where building is not allowed to take place—but the areas in question are tiny and I feel that the Government should take a slightly more encouraging line on this issue.

My Lords, it only remains for me to thank the witnesses who came to give evidence to us in our Committee. They travelled very long distances to do so and often at very great inconvenience to themselves. I wish also to thank our Clerk who, in the midst of his other very heavy duties in a European connection, found time to give the Committee the greatest assistance and assistance to me in particular.

On Question, Motion agreed to.