HL Deb 24 March 1976 vol 369 cc633-7

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 agree that, unless the catches not only of cod but of herring, mackerel, and luxury fish such as salmon and lobster are drastically restricted over the next two or three years by international agreement, the whole North Sea fisheries industry will die.


My Lords, the Government are fully aware of the need to conserve fish stocks and the United Kingdom has consistently pressed for measures within the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. Quota controls for cod, haddock, whiting, soles, plaice and herring are already in operation, together with other restrictions on gear and landing sizes. Lobsters are protected by minimum landing size regulations, and there is a total ban on fishing for salmon in the NEAFC Convention area outside national fishery limits.


My Lords, arising out of that Answer, may I ask whether the noble Lord is aware that this continuous bullying of Iceland by Her Majesty's Government is doing this country no good in the world and that it is also putting NATO, upon which we are absolutely dependent for our defence, in the gravest jeopardy? In view of the fact that, as the noble Lord himself said, conservation of fish stocks is the only answer to the North Sea's fisheries problem, does he not think that it would be better to come to an agree ment with Iceland as quickly as possible?


My Lords, I do not accept the noble Lord's supplementary questions. It is not bullying to protect British trawlers which are legitimately fishing in international waters. The naval protection afforded is purely defensive, but it is essential while Icelandic gunboats continue to harass our trawlers.


My Lords, arising out of this Question and the obvious troubles of frigates in the fishing world, would the noble Lord suggest to the Government that it is time we had a Minister who is really responsible for the whole of the fishing problem?


My Lords, I will certainly take note of what has been said and pass it on to those who are responsible for these matters.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that the attitude we have taken in relation to the 200-mile limit claimed by Iceland is absolutely correct and that it is essential that our trawler-men should be assured of their safety when fishing in distant waters whose limits have not yet been established internationally at 200 miles? Further, can the Minister stop the Russians and others in the North Sea from using small meshes to catch the young fish?


My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right, as he usually is. The Government support the concept of 200-mile limits by international agreement at UNLOSC. As the House is aware, the Conference is now meeting in New York. To act unilaterally now could prejudice our position at the Conference, and other countries would not agree to be bound by a unilateral move on our part. With regard to the Soviet Union, we shall take note of what my noble friend has said, although the Soviet Union are members of NEAFC.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that what applies to the North Sea fisheries applies also to the fisheries on the West Coast of Scotland? For the last two years we have caught hardly any mackerel there. Is the noble Lord further aware that the reason is largely that three years ago Her Majesty's Government had an arrangement with Norway and that three Norwegian factory ships were being supplied with herring fry from many local boats? Is the noble Lord also aware that, having cleaned out the herring fry, there is no natural food for the mackerel and other fish to feed upon, and therefore this has ruined the fishing?


My Lords, there are restrictions on industrial fishing for mackerel in the North Sea and these are already in force. Measures covering the Western stock—the other major source of mackerel—will be considered. We shall certainly note what the noble Viscount has said when the International Scientific Working Group that is studying the situation produces its report later this month.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the restrictions with which he seems to be so pleased are utterly useless so far as herring stocks in the North Sea are concerned: that fish of all sizes are taken by factory ships and that the inshore fishermen on the East Anglian coast are suffering very considerably as a result?


My Lords, in answer to the noble Earl, I can assure him that the Government are not complacent about this matter. I agree that the herring situation is serious. That is why the United Kingdom has been instrumental in calling a special meeting of NEAFC which will take place in London next month when this and other measures will be discussed.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the basis of this trouble is that the sophisticated equipment to be found on the largest trawlers and factory ships today is so accurate that a very small number of them can decimate the fish stocks in a large area in a few years? As the noble Lord has said, successive Governments have been fully aware of the urgency of this problem for 15 or 20 years, but they have continually been overtaken by events, and it looks as if they are still being overtaken by events.


My Lords, there are of course regulations as well as quotas on mesh sizes, minimum landing sizes for fish, and so on; but these are all matters which continue to exercise the Commission when they meet. The NEAFC Joint Enforcement Scheme which was set up in 1970 enables inspectors from one Member-State to board and inspect vessels of other Member-States to ensure that catches and gear comply with the recommendations of the Commission.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the only way to overcome this problem is by international agreement, and that means that those who are parties to the agreements, whether in the past or in the future, should adhere to them?


My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Earl. The NEAFC quota schemes are still relatively new, but I believe they will prove to be an effective method of conserving stocks. As the noble Earl has said, it is only through co-operation and agreement that effective conservation measures can be achieved.


My Lords, in view of the fact that supplies of fish from the sea are likely to be reduced in the coming years—for all the reasons that have been mentioned—can my noble friend give an assurance that the Government will pay far more attention than has been the case in the past to the question of establishing a really large sized fish-farming industry?


My Lords, this is certainly something that has been considered and a Working Party is sitting at the present time.


My Lords, I should like to ask one last question. Is the noble Lord aware that in the years when I was Member of Parliament for East Aberdeenshire we exported every year over 1 million barrels of herring to the Continent of Europe and to Russia; that now the great summer fishing off Scotland and the great autumn fishing off Yarmouth and Lowestoft is extinct and we are exporting no herring? Is he aware that herring, which once one could buy at six for sixpence—that is in old money—is now a luxury fish? That is a scandal. Will the Government give an assurance that they will at least take international action to put a stop to this overfishing and that they do not contemplate a continuation of the cod war with Iceland for an indefinite period?


My Lords, there is already a ban on industrial fishing for herring, together with quota restrictions. Her Majesty's Government will press for whatever further measures are necessary.

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