HL Deb 20 January 1988 vol 492 cc284-321

7.56 p.m.

Lord Moran rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made in implementing the provisions of the Salmon Act 1986, whether they are satisfied that the various threats to salmon stocks in the United Kingdom are being contained and whether they consider that the United Kingdom is playing its proper part in international efforts to conserve Atlantic salmon.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am sorry that Lord Trenchard, who took a notable part in our debates on the Salmon Bill, is no longer with us. We greatly miss him. But I am grateful to the noble Lady and the noble Lords who are taking part in this debate, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden, is to reply. Since his arrival at the Scottish Office it is clear that we have a Minister who is prepared to do something for salmon conservation. Many of us welcomed his decision to extend by 18 hours the weekly close time for salmon nets in Scotland. That was a necessary decision, for the net owners were taking too much of the runs, especially the summer grilse.

A recent Canadian study concluded that recreational fisheries are the key to the economic future of their Atlantic salmon resource. It showed that anglers account for 93 per cent. of economic activity but take only 29 per cent. of the catch, and that estimated angler expenditures create 2094 person/years of employment compared with 163 by the commercial fisheries. The latest Scottish figures—those for 1986—show that the rods took only 21 per cent. of the total catch compared with 28 per cent. in 1985. Now that salmon farming has increased so dramatically— it already produces six times the world catch of wild salmon and 89 per cent. of the salmon we eat in this country—the taking of nearly 80 per cent. of our wild fish by nets no longer makes sense. The recreational fisheries are more important both in terms of economics and jobs.

As I told a salmon symposium in the United States last October, we in this country catch between a fifth and a quarter of all the Atlantic salmon taken each year in home waters. We have our problems but we also have our successes—the recovery of fisheries in rivers that have been cleaned up; the admirable work of the Anglers' Co-operative Association; greater public awareness of the need to conserve wild salmon; the buy-up of Scottish netting stations by the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust; and the Government's rather more enlightened attitude. The declaration by Mr. Gummer in June 1986 that he did "not see salmon as a food resource in the wild," marked a welcome sea change in the attitude of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. And we have the Salmon Act 1986.

That Act, on which we spent some 29 hours in 1986, received the Royal Assent on 6th November that year, 14 months and two weeks ago. I hope that the Minister will tell us in detail what progress has been made since then throughout Great Britain. I have given him notice of the specific questions I am asking.

First then, illegal fishing, recognised at the outset by the Government as a major problem. It is still a scourge—at sea, along the coasts, in the estuaries and in the rivers. If anything, it is getting worse. Some of it is beyond our control—for example, the illegal fishing off the Irish coast reported in the Dublin press, which is taking enormous numbers of salmon seeking to return to Scotland and Wales. But there is, unhappily, a vast amount in our own waters: 1,569 illegal nets were taken out of the Tweed last year. In Wales, the problem is particularly serious on the Wye, the lower Dee and the sea approaches to the Usk. It is notorious and blatant on the Forth—vividly described by Mr. James Mackie in the January number of Trout and Salmon. It is often highly organised and accompanied by violence. Three Welsh Water bailiffs were shot at last year. One gang on the Conway was arrested with over a quarter of a ton of salmon, 13 per cent. of the annual declared rod catch for that river.

The water authorities and a number of us suggested a tagging scheme which I have seen working successfully in Canada. I still think it should be tried here, but the Government thought otherwise and would not even agree to a pilot scheme in Wales. They put their faith in dealer licensing, in the new possession and handling clauses and in increased penalties.

Dealer licensing has been repeatedly recommended for over 50 years. It was in the Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Bill 1938, aborted by the war; was proposed by the Maconochie Committee in 1950, by the Scottish Departmental Committee in 1965 and in England by the Bledisloe Committee in 1961–27 years ago. It has been a long, long road to the statute book but it finally got there in 1986.

When the Act was passed, I assumed that there would be early discussions with all those concerned and that schemes would be introduced around the middle of last year. For more than 12 months nothing seemed to be happening and I wondered why it was all taking so long. But at long last we had two consultation papers issued yesterday, which was timely but welcome. I only saw them at half-past three today, but on a first quick reading they look good to me. Those who have had copies are given two months to comment. Can the Minister tell us when the schemes will actually come into force? And is he confident that they will be really effective?

How are the possession and handling clauses working out? How many convictions have there been? The only one I know of is that which resulted in the owner of the Broughton Crags Hotel at Cockermouth being fined £1,000 and his chef £200. How many prosecutions are pending; and how far have the increased penalties been applied?

The Government's "Don't drink and drive" campaign over the Christmas holiday was, I think effective because people were frightened of having their driving licences withdrawn for 12 months. Can the Government arrange that hotels which are convicted of knowingly receiving illegally caught salmon lose their liquor licences? The fear of doing so might be a powerful deterrent.

Can the Government also encourage the courts to deal more firmly with the poaching gangs, taking account of today's values for wild salmon? The noble Lord, Lord Mason, whom we are glad to have with us tonight, spoke in another place in March 1986 of "disgraceful leniency by magistrates". The courts must recognise that they are often dealing with organised, well-equipped criminals, not just the old romanticised country poacher. The then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, spoke to magistrates last year about unrealistic penalties and small fines being no real penalty. He said: The taking of salmon and trout by illegal methods is another lucrative and profit-related crime. It should be punished accordingly". Some magistrates need reminding of that.

Perhaps I may quote a case history given to me by Welsh Water involving four persons, whom I will call A, B, C and D: 12th July 1986—A, B and C caught by bailiffs and police near the river with nets and dinghy; 2nd September 1986—A and D caught by bailiffs with salmon, nets and dinghy; 12th February 1987—case of A and D heard at Leominster Magistrate's Court; both fined £325 to be paid at the rate of £3 and £4 a week; 16th April 1987—B and C caught by bailiffs with nets and dinghy; 1st May 1987—first case of A, B and C heard at Leominster Magistrates' Court; all three bound over for two years in the sum of £1,000; appeal lodged; 3rd June 1987—B and C caught by police with nets and dinghy; case pending; 15th August 1987—B and A caught by police with salmon, net and dinghy; case pending; 17th August 1987—appeal from A, B and C at Hereford Crown Court; Sums against A and C reduced to £750 and £350 respectively.

This shows that for the regular poacher court appearances and modest fines are no deterrent. The bailiffs and the police put in long hours of hard work in apprehending illegal fishermen. The courts ought surely to impose penalties that deter, and confiscate boats, nets, vans, gaffs and other equipment. At present, all too often it has to be returned to the malefactors.

Does the Minister think that the police, who are generally very helpful, could do more to help tackle illegal fishing in country areas, especially by gangs who may resort to violence and intimidation? And would the Government be prepared to consider the prohibition of the sale of rod-caught salmon, as in Canada and the United States?

Clause 37 of the Act was designed to prevent illegal fishing for salmon and sea trout in estuaries under the guise of fishing for sea fish. Has it stopped it? If not, what is happening and why is it taking so long? Can the Minister assure us that there will be no deals between sea fishery committees and water authorities to return fixed nets to places where they may intercept salmon and sea trout?

What progress has there been on Section 8 of the Act providing for baits and lures regulations, particularly on the Tweed, and on Section 3(2), especially on smolt screens for fish farms and the definition of netting methods? Once again, why is it all taking so long?

During our debates on the Bill, many noble Lords called for the phasing out of drift netting off the North-East coast. The Government responded by announcing a review to cover all East coast netting from Spurn Head to Rattray Head. May I ask the Minister for an assurance that this review is being vigorously pursued, and express the hope that it will produce substantial changes, for we really ought to come into line with the majority of other NASCO countries—and indeed Scotland—that have banned or are banning drift netting for salmon, and greatly restrict and eventually phase out the frequently excessive coastal and estuarial netting, which may be less difficult now as much of it appears to have become uneconomic. May I ask, too, how effective the limited restrictions on the North-East drift net fishery introduced last year have been? How many salmon did this fishery take last year and how many were caught there in fixed nets?

I had assumed in my innocence that, as drift netting was curtailed more salmon and sea trout would be allowed to escape to run up the rivers. Not so, for the Northumbrian Water Authority, supported it seems by the MAFF, are apparently licensing an increased number of fixed T-nets and giving netsmen the choice of using a drift net or a T-net. Some boast on television that they use a drift net by day and a T-net by night. Not only that, but the authority wants to allow five T-nets inside a conservation box at the mouth of the river Wear and are rumoured to plan to do so next at the mouths of the Tyne and Tees.

T-nets along the coast are interceptory nets catching mixed stocks of salmon and as such are, I think, condemned by all reputable scientific opinion from North America to the Soviet Union. To establish new interceptory fixed nets off northeastern England will surely invite general condemnation in NASCO. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunter, told the recent inquiry: To resort in the latter part of the 1980s to commercial exploitation of wild salmon and sea trout by using fixed engines in coastal waters is completely unsound and could not be justified by any proper principle of conservation and management. T-nets in the mouths of rivers are not subject to the same objection of principle, but as we have managed at enormous expense to clean up the Wear, Tees and Tyne and to get some salmon running up them again, it seems folly to endanger this fragile recovery of the fisheries by allowing fixed nets in the mouths of these rivers. May I ask how all this accords with the Government's migratory fish conservation policy, and on what grounds the Government made the order allowing these T-nets to be used instead of drift nets?

I welcomed the setting up of the advisory committee under Professor Dunnet. But why was it thought necessary to go to such extraordinary lengths to shroud its proceedings in secrecy? That was a pity, as it undermined public confidence in the committee, and surely unnecessary, as there is nothing inherently secret in salmon conservation. No doubt it makes sense to keep meetings confidential so that everyone can speak freely, but could not a press release be made after each meeting? And could not the chairman sometimes tell the media how things are going? I should like to ask the Minister now how the committee is getting on after a year's deliberations. Has it reported on any of the matters referred to it? If so, what has it recommended? If not, when may we expect some results?

My Question also asked about the containment of the many threats to salmon. Barrages are in fashion and around 30 are being talked about. What is the Government's general attitude to the building of barrages blocking the mouths of rivers containing runs of migratory fish, and, in particular, what do they think about the threat posed by the projected Severn barrage to the important salmon runs in the Severn, Wye and Usk? Do they accept that no expense should be spared in research and in the design and operation of any barrage to minimise losses of migratory fish, and will they make financial provision to make good any losses so that the fisheries do not suffer damage?

If we could manage to build and operate a barrage without damaging the runs of migratory fish, that would be a triumph for British engineering and conservation and would help us to export our barrage technology. For other countries are concerned about salmon conservation. The United States Congress, with the support of every New England congressman, recently vetoed a proposal for a hydro-electric dam on the Merrymack because it might have affected a salmon run which is at present only 100 or 200 fish. Those running up the Bristol Channel are perhaps 150 to 200 times that number.

Acidification is a new but worrying threat. I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to reduce SO2 emissions and their substantial contribution to research. What do the Government think can be done to prevent the further loss of spawning streams in the uplands? Should not the planting of conifers on poor soils in the uplands be severely restricted?

There is an increasing conflict of interest between angling and canoeing, despite the judgment in 1972 of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, in Rawson v. Peters that canoeing disturbs the fish and interferes with the right of fishing. Will the Government give the National Rivers Authority powers to control all forms of recreation on the rivers, so as to reconcile conflicting interests in a sensible way? In this context I was glad to see that the Government's latest paper on the NRA issued last month says that its responsibilities will: involve controls over all who use rivers and other natural waters". May I also ask the Government what they think should be done about the danger of genetic damage to wild salmon stocks from farmed salmon escapes? The Minister will be relieved that I am not asking about the decline in river quality, as a number of us raised this issue in last week's debate on environmental pollution.

Finally, there are the international aspects of salmon conservation. Can the Government coordinate policy more closely with bodies like the Atlantic Salmon Trust, which has widespread international contacts? Canada, the United States and France all have a much closer relationship between officials and non-officials interested in salmon. Can we not have that too?

Then there is the marked falling-off of our spring runs of multi-sea-winter salmon in the past 20 years. Do the Government think that this is mainly, or partly, due to the interceptory fisheries operated by Greenland and the Faroes, two countries with tiny populations—some 50,000 each—taking between them over a quarter of a million large salmon every year, some 22 per cent. of the total world catch in home waters. If so, what can be done about it? NASCO has achieved some limitation of these fisheries through quotas, but that does not seem nearly enough. There is little sign that spring runs are recovering. And can the Government encourage everyone to give salmon statistics in numbers and not tonnes?

I think we should tackle all these problems more vigorously, seek to restore the good salmon runs of the recent past and reverse the decline of the past 20 years. We should work towards a real national policy for salmon conservation. The Salmon Act was a small but useful first step in that direction. That is why I am concerned about the slow progress in fully implementing the Act and why I have put down my Question.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Home of the Hirsel

My Lords, I only wish to amplify one of the points so admirably covered by my noble friend Lord Moran. Your Lordships will remember that those who were interested in measures to conserve the stocks of Atlantic salmon had to wait for many years to persuade governments to legislate. The Act, when it came, was modest but useful, provided that its provisions were actively applied. It is to that point that I should like to address my remarks.

Most of us can welcome the Secretary of State's action in extending the close time for netting. However, other action, especially in the context of penalties for illegal fishing, seems to have been desperately slow. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain why the pace of measures has not been quickened. Perhaps my noble friend will assure us that any obstacles to action have now been removed. I shall be especially interested if he can answer the questions asked by my noble friend Lord Moran about the diminution of the spring run although I doubt whether he knows any more than the rest of us do. However, I should like to hear his conclusions on the possibility of diminishing the use of the drift nets.

I hope that my noble friend can reassure all of us that faster progress can be made towards what my noble friend Lord Moran has properly described as a national policy on conservation for the salmon industry.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, on the international aspect of the Question before the House, your Lordships will remember that the North Atlantic Salmon Organisation was established in Edinburgh about three years ago. I thought that NASCO would now have taken sufficient steps to establish a reputation that it is keenly bent on the conservation of salmon stocks and would have been making strong representations to the Government to take more positive action against the many poaching methods that are killing the salmon and causing a noticeable decline in salmon gaining access to their own spawning rivers.

It was upsetting to read that just over a year ago at a major international conference held in France the United Kingdom was chastised over the lack of longterm planning for the preservation of salmon stocks. It was cited at the conference that in America the Atlantic salmon were taken only by rod and line. In Canada, drift netting was banned and inshore netting was banned in some areas. The Soviet Union, also a member of NASCO, does not permit fishing for salmon in the ocean and permits only rod and line taking in the rivers.

The United Kingdom was castigated for taking no major steps forward on salmon conservation. I should like to know what steps NASCO has taken to impress upon Her Majesty's Government the urgency of salmon conservation. Of course the salmon is not a protected species and cannot be, but if greater steps are not taken to lessen or stop the legal and illegal netting of the Atlantic salmon moving up the North-East coast, and the netters operating in the estuaries, salmon stocks will be constantly jeopardised. What is more, the greatest tourist and sports attraction to Scotland will be reduced. Therefore I ask what the Government—as distinct from the private bodies which are becoming involved in salmon conservation and intervening to preserve stocks—are doing about it. The real advances being made are by trusts, charities and private organisations which are making Her Majesty's Government and NASCO look limp and lifeless by comparison.

There is no doubt that the depletion of salmon returning to Scottish rivers is affected by the netting off the North-East, Yorkshire and the Northumbrian coastline. Up to 80,000 salmon per year are taken by nets and if the Government were taking conservation seriously that should cease. Of course I am aware of the livelihood of the legal netters, but I suggest these should be phased out with proper compensation for those who fish and those who are involved with the shore-based operations. That has been successfully achieved in other industries and with a little understanding from the Government it could be accomplished without any hardship.

I am also much against the continuing use of the nylon mono-filament gill net. It is a deadly and cruel piece of equipment. Those nets cause considerable damage to escaping fish which drown as a result of gill injuries, or become diseased and may pollute the rivers. The broken nylon mono-filament gill nets become ghost nets, hanging in the seas and river estuaries, killing fish slowly as they hang by the gills. Those nets do not rot like hemp; they go on killing and injuring fish, seals and seabirds. Gannets and other diving seabirds have no chance of seeing them because they are invisible under water. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the world wildlife organisation are opposed to these nets, as are the Salmon and Trout Association and the Atlantic Salmon Trust. They all agree that they should be banned. So I ask the Government: why not ban the nets? Are these views under serious consideration?

Like the noble Lord, Lord Moran, since the Salmon Act was passed I have waited in vain for the Government to act against the salmon poachers. I argued for the salmon tagging scheme, the anti-poaching system which was introduced some years ago in New Brunswick in Canada, quite successfully. But the Government, afraid of the scheme's complexity, considered the dealer licensing scheme instead. Well, where is it? Why has this one serious proposal in the Salmon Act which was designed to deter the poacher not yet been introduced? You see, my Lords, as a rod and line angler, a fly fisher, I want to go to Scotland to fish for salmon. I am not encouraged to do so when poaching is rife and the Government are lifeless in their attitude to it.

No doubt many fly fishers feel as I do: curbing the activities of the mass poacher and the illegal netter would certainly help the sport, increase the catch and give some encouragement to fishermen to sally forth into the far north. But it is an expensive trip: petrol, fuel or train fares, hotels, tackle, gillies. Then it is always possible that you cannot fish. There may be a deluge of rain, fast, high, dirty water or even a drought or no fish on the move. For many reasons, inclement weather can affect the sport and the catch and we can do nothing about that. It is beyond our control. But if poaching were vigorously tackled, and poachers heavily fined, bailiffs given more police support, at least the rod and line and fly fisher would feel somewhat supported. Therefore, he would not feel as bitter with a nil return from his high investment.

As is so often said, as the salmon catch falls in Scotland, so do the visits of the sportsmen. Much then is threatened: the wages of bailiffs and gillies, the jobs in hotels, tackle shops, boatbuilders and hirers, the smoking business, food processing and fishing holiday tours. It is worth many millions of pounds every year, and in particular this trade and money are usually going into the most impoverished parts of Scotland.

All this is at risk, and if it be so, why the vacillation on the dealer licensing scheme? It is a scheme which requires the buyers of salmon to be licensed and to maintain records of purchasers. The offence would be the handling of salmon in circumstances where it would be reasonable to suspect it had been taken illegally. It would undoubtedly restrict the poaching racket by blocking off their outlets. So why is it that the Government have not yet started serious consultations with the interested parties in this scheme? I should therefore like to know what is the timescale they have in mind before this is introduced.

Another serious concern affecting salmon stocks is the unhindered growth in the grey seal population. It is growing at the rate of about 5 per cent. per year, and it is estimated by the net fishing organisations that these grey seals are eating around 4,000 tonnes of salmon per year. That is far more than the annual catch by the netsmen. Grey seals are now a major threat to salmon stocks. Here is another uncontrolled and growing menace. So culling will have to be considered; the balance has become dangerously one-sided. I recognise of course that around the salmon farms some secret culling may be going on, but the situation now deserves fresh examination by the Government with a view to cutting back the growth of this predator.

On the question of giving the salmon a chance, we recognise that one advance has been made in recent months; that is, extending the weekend close netting times and taking the nets off for longer periods at weekends. This will undoubtedly reap some benefits. The Salmon and Trout Association has welcomed this move and hopes that as the benefits accrue a greater extension of close weekend hours will be agreed.

At this stage I should like personally to praise Mr. James Mackie, who has established the River Forth Fishery Conservation Trust. Along with friends he has raised money, bought boats and taken on the poachers. He has shaken the police, the civil servants and the Forth District Salmon Fishery Board out of their apathetic approach. This is a fine example of what conservation stalwarts can do.

I think one must also praise the splendid efforts of the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust, a highly respected organisation with a great reputation. It has been involved in some secret negotiations over many months to buy out commercial netting interests, thereby fulfilling one of its main aims in its campaign for the conservation of salmon; that is, the preservation and enhancement of the species.

I note that it has spent up to £2 million over the past two years, buying up the netting rights on 15 Scottish salmon rivers. This will obviously benefit the owners of fishing rights and also the fly fishers' chances of catching more. So more anglers will be interested. However, I hope that charges will not rise accordingly: £1,000 per week for salmon fishing is prohibitive for most fly fishers; indeed, for the majority of those who come from south of the Border. It is no use beating the netters and winning on conservation if the few salmon which the fly fishers will take will be available only for the privileged and the rich, for only those who can afford it, especially in the better salmon pools with large profits accruing to the owners. I hope that does not happen because it will certainly stifle the sport and tourism.

Finally, the factor which may well bedevil the poachers and the illegal netters is the growth of the salmon fish farms. In 1979, these farms produced 300 tonnes; in 1987, 15,000 tonnes. This year the estimate is 25,000 tonnes. There are over 1,000 full-time and part-time employees, so it is certainly a growth industry. It is likely (and as a rod and line angler I hope it happens) that as these fish farms grow in number and the inland farmed salmon multiply, the price of salmon on the market will fall. Sea netting may not then be worth while. More salmon will then get back up the river, the Atlantic wild salmon will be saved and the fly fisher will also benefit.

So with all these multifarious activities, buying out the netters, the growth of salmon farms and more jobs as a result, the increase in the sport of salmon fishing, such is the lure if it is made possible to catch the salmon, and with the inevitable tourist expansion for Scotland, the fly fisher may well come back into his own. Then, to the embarrassment of the Government, it will have been the zest and endeavour of the private organisations that made all this possible.

8.28 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for asking this Question and for opening the subject so wide. However, I do not intend to follow him in all the ramifications into which he took us. First, I do not intend to cross the Border from Scotland into England but will concentrate largely upon the latest government action, which is the extension of the weekly closed time.

It is contentious as to whether there is any very real threat to salmon stocks. I know it is a shibboleth to say that the Atlantic salmon is a threatened species, and so on; but the scientific evidence is not there to support the assertion. There are large runs of smolts coming down out of all Scotland's rivers. Certainly on many rivers in Scotland where I know careful records have been kept over the years there are more fish being caught by rods now than were caught ever before. There are many rivers where there is a very adequate stock of returning salmon.

What are the threats to the Atlantic salmon in Scotland? There are three: the Northumberland drift nets, river pollution and poaching. I do not think that the legitimate netsmen round the coast of Scotland threaten or have threatened the stocks of salmon returning to Scottish rivers. They have coexisted with the rods for 100 or more years. They have fished at more or less the same intensity and they have shared the ups and the downs of the returning salmon stocks with the rodsmen. I do not think that they have ever threatened the existence of the species.

Though threats do not exist universally or with the same intensity in every river, pollution and poaching are probably found to some extent everywhere. One cannot, for instance, claim that the Northumberland drift net fishery affects the west coast of Scotland. Faced with these visible threats what do the Government go and do? They listen to those who have no particular training in fishery management. They do not, I submit, listen to the advice of their own scientists; but they rehearse an old argument which has been put forward over the past quarter of a century to show the wider importance of angling to the economy and they panic into lengthening the weekly close time.

We are told that there is a shortage of spring salmon; but the Government's own official records will show that the spring runs have remained remarkably steady over the years and that in fact the main predator on the spring runs is the rod fisherman. In 1986, a year which the noble Lord, Lord Moran, quoted, the spring catch by the rods in Scotland was 9,485 fish, the spring catch by the estuary nets was 4,453 fish and the spring catch by the fixed engines was 2,795 fish.

If the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden, wanted to improve the run of spring salmon what he should have done was to stop the anglers fishing, then there would have been more salmon running up the rivers. Of course the noble Lord is perfectly well aware that in many rivers there is no shortage of stock. There is no shortage of fish running into those rivers. If there were a shortage why would so many rivers be selling their ova? Why would the Tay, the Spey, the Conon, the Dee and other such rivers all be going into the market to sell their salmon ova to the fish farmers? If they were desperately short of stock one would think that they would keep those ova and return them to their rivers so as to get some stock coming back.

Has it occurred to the Government that by restricting the netting to the point at which it will put some honest netsmen out of business they are putting more fish in the way of the poachers because the poacher abhors a vacuum especially if it has a salmon in it? The effect of cutting down the legal netsmen will be to leave more fish available to the illegal ones.

I am not pretending for a moment that there are not problems in the conservation and the management of salmon. I am not pretending that there are not certain rivers which are very badly affected by drift nets, particularly the Tweed affected as it is by the Northumberland drift net fishery. That is an obvious example, but there are many rivers where there is no such threat and where the attack on the innocent legal netsman who has been plying his trade for over a century is quite unwarranted and unjustified.

Therefore I wish to ask the noble Lord in reaching his conclusion that there are "general salmon conservation grounds" precisely what scientific advice he received that made that apparent to him, as I noticed that in another place a similar Question was asked. In another place the right honourable friend of the noble Lord ducked the issue by saying that the scientific evidence was not conclusive and was only one of a number of considerations taken into account by Ministers.

However, I do not believe that there is scientific evidence which shows that general conservation grounds demand the blanket use of lengthening of the legal sea net close time all over Scotland. It is doubly unfortunate that this measure should have been taken on general conservation grounds without any intention to monitor its effects. One may ask how I know that there is no intention to monitor the effects. The answer is that I have a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, dated 23rd December saying that this is so. The noble Lord wrote to me saying: My department have no plans to monitor specifically the effect of the new close time although it is expected that the review of east coast salmon netting, provided for in section 39 of the Salmon Act 1986, will take the new arrangements into account. But how on earth will that show what the effect has been on the west coast, within the Moray Firth, on the north rivers and on the Solway? The Solway will provide the most ghastly mix up because one half of it is English and one half is Scottish and the nets will be subjected to the extra close time on the Scottish side while on the English side they will not. That is a recipe for war. There will be open conflict between the two sides of the Solway.

There are also technical difficulties there which will make the monitoring of the enforcement of the close time very difficult because of the very long tide there and the fact that in order to comply with the Act the poor netsmen on the Scottish side of the Solway, not the English side, will have to close down their operations long before those on the other side. They will lose more than 20 per cent. of their fishing time.

Another thing that confuses the whole issue, which is really a scientific mess, is the fact that the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust has bought up some 25 per cent. of the netting power around the coasts. Therefore the netting around the coasts this year will be reduced by 25 per cent. due to the fact that certain nets will no longer be fished. The remainder will be reduced by 20 per cent. and the effect of the 20 per cent. reduction will probably be to put a whole lot of netsmen out of business. That will cause further reductions, yet there is no intention to monitor those effects. It seems to me to be crazy that there is no intention to monitor those effects and no effort has been made to find out what they will be. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, that one of the results of the closing down of all those nets is that the nets that have been closed will no longer pay assessments. The district boards in those areas will no longer get a contribution from legal netsmen on the sea and therefore the money that used to be contributed will have to come out of the angler's pocket, which will make it more expensive for the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, to go fishing in Scotland. He will pay quite a lot extra because it will cost twice as much to operate the bailiff service for him and keep poachers down. If we were doing something about the poachers, I should applaud that. However, we are not. We are doing something about people who have contributed sums of money to the joint policing of rivers over a period of 100 years. We are speaking of people who have never been shown to have harmed the salmon industry as a whole. We are handing the extra fishing on a plate to the illegal fishermen.

It is obviously going to be very difficult for the Minister to go back on the massive decision which he has made, foolish though it is and wise though it would be to go back on it and extend the weekly legal close time. I suggest that he should use the provision in the Salmon Act and allow different things to happen within different district board areas. Perhaps if he monitors those matters, he will find out a thing or two. I do not see why, in a river system where good contributions come in from the netsmen and where the netsmen and the rod fishermen get on well together, fishing time should not be restored to the netsmen.

By all means let us monitor the effect of that and see whether it depresses the number of anglers in those areas and whether the number in other areas increases. I think that there is little evidence that angling success and the numbers of fish running up the river are exactly one and the same thing. In fact there is a good deal of evidence, in two scientific papers that I know of, to show that there is no correlation between the total run on a river and the catch by rod. I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of offering to district boards the option, where there is a consensus, of returning to the old legal close times.

There are many things that need to be done to improve the run of salmon and improve matters for anglers. However, we shall not improve the spring run by curtailing the weekly close time. We shall only do that by increasing the number of salmon reared in the upper waters of the river. Spring fish are not genetically spring fish. They are fish which are reared over a long period in the upper waters of the river. They have been fed slowly when they were young, they have matured slowly and stayed at sea adopting that habit of growth and they have returned as spring salmon. I suspect that the real danger in many rivers where spring runs show a fall comes from agriculture and forestry activities and not from the activities of netsmen or even poachers.

I ask the Minister to reconsider at least partially the terrible attack which he has made on those honest men who have been contributing to the salmon industry—the netsmen of the traditional netting stations round Scotland's coasts. I ask him to look at the considerable problems that will exist in the Solway. I should like to know how he proposes to deal with the split situation in the Solway. I also ask him to look at the possibility of allowing district hoards, where there is a consensus between rod and net interests, to return to the old close time and to allow the net fishermen in the area to continue in business and continue to contribute to the welfare of the river as a whole. After all, that is the goose that lays the golden egg for angler and netsmen alike.

8.45 p.m.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Moran for giving us this opportunity to discuss the working of the one year-old Salmon Act. Before I say anything else, unlike the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, I wish to join with other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden, on the extension of the weekly close time for nets in Scotland to 60 hours. That brave decision is indeed a step in the right direction and gives the hope that possibly, little by little, the close time may be increased further. I understand that in Norway the nets are restricted to three days a week and this year may be prohibited altogether at certain seasons of the year.

The netsmen are of course not at all happy. They cannot accept that theirs is a dying industry, although it is. The writing is on the wall. As the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, has said, fish farming in Scotland now produces about 15 times the catch of wild salmon. It has an annual output of over £40 million a year. It employs well over 1,000 people directly, and the ancillary industries—such as the supplying of feed, ice, cages, nets, boats, drugs and transport—has created a large number of jobs, possibly as many as 2,500. Many of those are in remote districts.

As output has increased, the value of salmon has decreased and will continue to do so. Therefore, the netsmen face ever-diminishing returns. The Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust has bought out the netting interests in north-east Scotland, on the Spey, the Don and the Dee principally, and would willingly do so on other rivers. That gives the netsmen a chance, before the value of fish falls too much further, to divert into other lines of business. Some, seeing the writing on the wall, have already converted to fish farming.

Perhaps I may add in that context that while the employees of the netting firms are poor people trying to earn a living, the owners—in Scotland, at any rate—are in some cases very rich men. One can only hope that those that have not yet done so will take the opportunity offered by the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust to get out while the going is good and that the Government will give them every possible encouragement to do so.

Where netting rights have been bought out, as they have on the Dee, more salmon were seen last year than for many years. That is what matters to an angler. He will accept going home with fewer fish or even no fish if he knows that he has been fishing over salmon. However, if he does not see a salmon from Monday to Saturday, he is pretty disgruntled and may not come back next year.

For this coming year there has been a great increase in the demand for fishing on the Dee, which had fallen off very greatly in recent years. The tourist board estimates that every angler visitor spends £250 per week in the local community, and that does not take account of the rent that he pays for his fishing. Many anglers are accompanied by their wives and families, who also spend money.

It is also of vital importance for Scottish salmon stocks that the British Government obtain a reduction in the catch quota of the high seas interceptory netting catch, but they are totally unable to do so while allowing interceptory netting to continue round our own shores. The Greenlanders and Faroese quite reasonably say that, unless the Government put the British house in order by reducing or even banning netting outside estuaries, they cannot hope to reduce the quota of high seas interceptory netsmen which has brought Scottish salmon angling so close to disaster.

I should like to ask the Minister three questions. First, will he bear in mind the enormous depredations on salmon by the grey seal, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley? Secondly, bearing in mind the depredations of the poacher, when is it proposed to introduce the dealer licensing scheme? Like the noble Lord, Lord Moran, I have just glanced at the consultation paper published yesterday. It is now quite clear that it will not be introduced in April this year, as we originally hoped.

So far as I can see from a quick glance, which is all that I have had time for, I think that the proposals are broadly on the right lines. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, agrees. I shall leave it to those who are more knowledgeable than I to comment on them, apart from saying that in the present state of the prison service I would hesitate to create more offences carrying a prison sentence. I should prefer to impose stiffer fines and hit malefactors in their pockets, but hard enough really to hurt.

My third question has already been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and relates to the secrecy surrounding the Salmon Advisory Committee's discussions. I heartily endorse what the noble Lord has said on that subject.

Netsmen keep saying that rod and line catches in the spring are many times the net catches, and try to make much of this. That is not difficult for them to do because they start fishing later by law and do not bother to fish their nets at all unless they are going to catch enough fish to make money. There are a number of references in the latest report from the freshwater fisheries laboratory at Pitlochry to the decline in the spring runs.

Finally, there is such a thing as factual evidence as well as scientific evidence.

8.54 p.m.

Earl Haig

My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Moran for enabling us to discuss the results of the Salmon Act. First of all, I should declare an interest. Salmon fishing has helped my family's finances through the centuries. It is as a riparian owner and a Tweed commissioner that I should like to make a few points this evening.

The matters to which I shall refer do not, I think, correspond with many of the points raised by the noble Viscount Lord Thurso, who spoke very largely about the north of Scotland. For us, the results so far have not been great. Our spring and summer runs continue to be abysmal. The autumn runs are good, but during much of the spring and summer months the rod fishing comes virtually to a halt.

The poaching problem continues and, as my noble friend has said, the forfeiture of illegal nets found in the river is very common. We shall be greatly helped by the introduction of the dealer licensing system, which will prevent poachers from finding a market. The smaller the chance of poached salmon finding a market the less work there will be for the water bailiffs, who are fully stretched in the autumn months.

There can be no excuse for the violent behaviour of some poachers towards water bailiffs, although we should perhaps try to understand the reasons. In some cases we are dealing with young unemployed and disadvantaged people who have built up resentment towards the owners of property. In their eyes the Salmon Act was designed to protect the property of the landowners rather than to protect the salmon or the jobs connected with salmon. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, made a plea for salmon fishing to be made available to. people with lower incomes. Speaking personally, I know that my tenants come from all backgrounds. Some are professional men with quite small incomes, and they come from both sides of the border. In fact, some of my tenants are tackle-makers and sellers in Newcastle. Perhaps they are using some of their ill-gotten gains, selling their tackle to noble Lords to take my fish!

The higher purpose of the Act, which is the conservation element, is disregarded by poachers. If they had their way they would plunder the salmon out of existence. Rod fishermen are playing their part in the conservation programme. Riparian owners on the Tweed are bearing the cost of the proposed purchase of nets by the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust on their behalf. They have agreed to ban the use of prawns during the summer months. We believe that conservation is a matter of international concern, but if we expect other people to clean up their rivers then we ourselves should give maximum protection to the salmon in our own waters.

Drift netting is banned in Scotland, but fish entering the Tweed along the Northumbrian coast are at grave risk. They run the gauntlet of licensed drift nets and of countless unlicensed nets which are used by people of all ages for material gain.

The department of my noble friend the Minister has been most active over the introduction of shorter working periods for the nets. In view of government promises to monitor the effects of the north-east drift netting, perhaps I may ask him whether he believes that the return of catches by the drift netting licensees will be sufficiently accurate for an assessment on north-east drift netting to be made. If not, will the Government take soundings from people on the ground who are in touch with what is happening?

Should evidence of the need to phase out netting become available, how long will it take to introduce new legislation? Should this step be taken, conservationists as a whole would feel happier at the removal of a form of netting which inflicts great cruelty on birds and seals as well as fish, as the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said. River fishermen in the east coast rivers would feel happier at the removal of nets which kill fish on the way to spawn and which rightfully belong to the rivers.

The banning of drift netting would be good news to everyone except the drift netters, who understandably have lobbied sympathy and support on the grounds of threatened job losses in an area of heavy unemployment. But how many men are employed in that industry? How far do they depend on those jobs for a livelihood, and how much are they part of the black economy? How far is unemployment being used as an excuse to prevent the abolition of drift netting? If these nets were phased out, as the noble Lord, Lord Mason, has suggested, it would be a major breakthrough in conservation. I believe it would result in a gradual improvement to our spring runs. It would also lead to a new dilemma, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, referred.

It would provide more scope for river poachers, who would find pools full of fish at times of low summer levels. I suspect that some of them would continue to operate—even though opportunities to sell were not so available—simply to spite the landowners. My fear is that the battles will be long-lasting.

There are other threats on which I shall not enlarge, but I should like to mention one, the goosander, which does tremendous damage to our smolt population. All concerned with the protection of the salmon—NASCO and other international organisations, the Government, river authorities, and riparian owners—must work together against these various threats so that salmon, looked upon as the king of fish by conservationists and fishermen alike, are free to run up our rivers.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Burton

My Lords, I should also like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Moran. I have to declare an interest as I am chairman of the Ness District Fishery Board. Though I could take issue on some point or other with a number of your Lordships who have spoken, I shall keep to four main points: first, fish farming; secondly, poaching; thirdly, water extraction and fourthly, seals. The first point is by far and away the most important. Although I do not have second sight, I can readily predict that within a comparatively short time we shall have a major disaster concerning our fish stocks. We are at the edge of a precipice. I hope that the fish farmers and the Highland Development Board in particular will not rush over the edge of this precipice like lemmings.

Fish farming is a new industry. It has been extensively encouraged by the Highland Development Board and so far has undoubtedly been a major success, bringing employment to the remoter areas where little has previously existed. What is as important is the money which it has brought to these areas. However, there is a major fly in the ointment, for though there are many conscientious developers there are undoubtedly cowboys jumping on to the bandwagon. Even with the bigger concerns there is a substantial risk.

As it is a new industry, there are many matters about which there is little experience and we are playing with nature in a major way. We could be doing serious damage to our stocks of wild fish, but what is most serious of all is that it is only a matter of time before we have a major outbreak of disease which will affect the wild stocks every bit as much, perhaps more so, than the fish farms. We all know that UDN broke out in the South of Ireland, almost certainly from a rainbow trout farm. It had a devastating effect on our migratory fish around Britain. More recently there have been the troubles off the Norwegian coast. I am no scientist but I understand that a number of diseases are endemic in our salmon stocks. It is almost certain that it would only require something quite minor to trigger off a catastrophic disease, possibly resulting from stress or irritation caused to the gills through pollution.

I understand that one of the fish farms on the River Nairn was closed down for about three years by the Ministry of Agriculture through an outbreak of some sort of disease, possibly caused by a landslide further upstream or through the work being carried out on the A9 when it was under construction, causing contamination of the water which may have irritated the gills of the fish. However we are not told about these things, so we do not know what to look for and we do not know the cause.

This summer I heard that a village in the Ness Fishery Board area was complaining bitterly about an obnoxious smell. The environmental health officer was called in and he found that a fish farm had been burying fish in a pit dug for it by a JCB. As the last pit was full, the JCB had been called back in to build a new pit and had cut into the old one so that the whole village was being polluted by the smell of rotting fish.

As chairman of the fishery board I felt that investigation was required and was informed by the company concerned that no fish were being buried. That was clearly untrue but immediately aroused one's suspicions. On further inquiries to the company I received an apology and was told that the person to whom I had spoken did not know that fish were being buried. As this is a large company it was, to say the least, alarming that there should be such lack of control or knowledge of what was happening. I understand that a lot of fish were buried on another fish farm on the west coast. I still do not know what caused the death of the fish, or what kind of numbers died, but I think this is an example of how a major company was hiding losses. If they were to do so, what happens with the small farmer who wants to keep inspectors off his back?

This leads to the question that I should like to put to my noble friend. How much inspection is done by the Ministry of Agriculture? How many inspectors are there? Is a proper check kept on the farms as regards health and general management? I appreciate that the department may say "We are too short staffed to do it". Perhaps that is not right, but if we are to have an industry such as this, why should not companies pay a licence to ensure that adequate inspection takes place? It is every bit as much in their interests as in anyone else's. We shall be told that the fish farming industry has a code of practice. But it does not have the force of law behind it. It is frequently broken and it is vital that we have new legislation for the industry.

Agriculture as a whole has many rules and regulations enforced by law. For example, the sudden death of an animal has to be reported in case it has anthrax. If a number of fish die on a fish farm for some inexplicable reason, there should be a law to say that this must be reported at once. More important still, there should be inspections of the farms to ensure that as far as possible no outbreaks of disease occur. We can understand fish farmers resisting interference, let alone expense, but it must be for their benefit in the long run.

Apart from disease there is the substantial worry about the effects on our wild stock of the genetic changes which are occurring. We do not have time to go into the matter tonight; it is a subject on its own. However, I recommend to the House a little booklet published by the Atlantic Salmon Trust, written by N. P. Wilkins, called Salmon Stocks: A Genetic Perspective. It begins by quoting Andrew Young, a pioneer of modern salmon cultivation, who, in 1854, wrote about each river having its own peculiar race of fish. He knew that the salmon had a kind of apartheid. What will happen now that we are mixing up the races? There are grave fears that we may well have mammoth problems. I am pleased to hear that the NCC is doing something useful and researching this subject, and that a paper will shortly be published.

One of the important steps taken in the Salmon Act was to sharpen up the laws on poaching with particular regard to modern methods. Several noble Lords have already mentioned that, but I feel that I must draw attention to the fact that the intentions of Parliament are being thwarted by some members of the judiciary. Only yesterday the superintendent of our fishery board reported to us his frustration and disgust at the outcome of a case where two tenants of a sweep net station were using hang nets instead of sweep nets. They had pleaded guilty—they did not have much option—and were fined a mere £35 each. They also had their nets confiscated; but that raises another problem. I wonder what has happened to those nets. I raise the matter, as, so often in the past, poachers have bought back their equipment from courts.

I should like to make a final point with which I sincerely hope my noble friend can assist. There is a little river which runs out of Loch Oich to connect with Loch Ness called the River Oich. That river is an important connecting link in the Ness board area. The river flows were set at a time when the hydroelectric dams were being constructed on the Invernesshire Galley. Parallel with the river runs a section of the Caledonian Canal, also connecting the two lochs. In recent years the locks at the lower end of this part of the canal have markedly deteriorated and water pours through the canal. That is in addition to the substantial extra traffic making use of the canal and also letting through extra water.

As a result, in drought conditions the river becomes very dry and salmon become stranded in small pools. That condition was produced entirely by the British Waterways Board because the minimum flows were agreed by the hydro board. That would be bad enough in itself, but our fishery board discovered that the British Waterways Board was selling water from the canal to water a golf course. That was necessary only in drought conditions and could only exacerbate the position of the salmon. We objected and we were supported by the purification board. I have now heard that the Department of the Environment, based in London, has overruled those local bodies and has encroached upon the Minister's preserves. The department has sanctioned that quite unnecessary sale of water. It is an extraordinary state of affairs for a body which is supposed to look after our environment and which controls the NCC.

Part of the Question before us is whether the threats to salmon stocks are being contained. As for many years I have been on the Ness District Fishery Board, I should like to contradict my noble friend Lord Thurso because, even if there is an annual fluctuation of our fish stocks, we are most concerned that there has been a steady decline in our fish. That may not be attributable to the Ness system; it may be untreated pollution from the town or it may be due to hydro schemes. However, we have been suffering a steady decline and whatever we do to try to repair the damage has no effect.

One immediate action which the Government could take and could authorise in order to help is a substantial seal cull. It is estimated that seals are taking four times the catch taken by rod and net put together.

9.12 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for enabling the House to have a timely look at the situation which has arisen since the Salmon Act was passed. I declare an interest in that I own fishings in Northern Scotland as a riparian owner on a minor salmon river, although I have not fished since I was wounded and partially disabled 43 years ago. I should like to ask the Minister two questions about which I was able to give him notice yesterday. Although I am the last but one speaker in the debate, I hope that the notice will have helped him to respond. First, what is the latest position as regards drift netting off the coast of North-East England, which has already been spoken of during the debate? Secondly, what is the Government's view of the purpose and actions of the new Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust, Scotland?

I shall put those questions in their context. I have been involved in some of the events and decisions over the past 30 years. Drift netting for salmon became an urgent issue in the early 1960s, when I was a junior member of the government of the day, and in another place, because this drift netting was suddenly taken up by seine net boats, herring boats and small trawlers in Scotland. The main reason for this was the use of new, very strong, man-made fibres of the nylon type. They were more effective in large mesh in catching salmon than the previous materials. It was also possible for skippers to work out the routes taken by fish on returning to the rivers. Swimming near the surface, as they do at that stage, they were an easy prey to these hanging nets which could be extended for long distances round the mouths of rivers.

It was some of the sea fishing boats from Scotland, especially on the north-east coast, which quickly equipped themselves for this new fishery. At the time the Hunter Committee was in existence considering the whole subject of salmon and trout. Therefore, that committee was asked for an urgent interim report. As a result, a total ban in Scotland on drift netting salmon was imposed. It was carried out by order and reviewed every few years until the 1986 Act.

The paradox which remained was that licensed drift netting off the coast of North-East England continued as it had for, I understand, at least 100 years. One paradoxical effect on the Tweed was that salmon coming in from the north were luckier than those coming in from the south. For the Scottish fishermen, particularly those who had already invested in new nets and gear for drift netting, this was an inexplicable anomaly.

When the 1986 Act was about to be introduced as a Bill, some of us hoped that it would propose a phasing out of that fishery, but it was not to be. Shortly before the Bill appeared at the end of the previous Session of Parliament, I received a long written reply to a Question; that was on 7th November 1985. Besides dealing with other matters such as tagging and dealer licensing, it announced three changes to be made to drift netting off the North-East coast of England. The first was that the licensee would have to be present in the boat unless he was ill. The second was that there was to be a shorter fishing time during the week. The third was to change the balance so that there would be fewer drift nets and more fixed nets.

When the Bill was passing through its stages a deputation of about six licensees from the Northumbrian fishery came to Westminster and I, with a few parliamentary colleagues, met them. The picture they painted was of a traditional occupation extending back into the last century, that it was carefully controlled, only very small boats were involved and the permitted areas were closely restricted and delineated. Indeed, it was a very different picture from the free-for-all which could have developed in Scotland. I liked those Northumbrian fishermen, and I understood the importance of the livelihood which had been part of their community's way of life for so long.

Nonetheless, the catch figures (when one could identify them) seemed to show a huge increase in catches of that fishery. Since that announcement, and further restrictions in November 1985, I should like to ask the Minister what the effect has been there. I must state that personally I still think that the fishery should be gradually phased out.

Turning to the second question, I remind your Lordships that the Hunter Committee's final report was published in 1965. One of its principal recommendations was that there should be a calculated take from each river, so determining the number running up to spawn and available for anglers. Coastal, estuarial and river mouth netting would come to an end. There would be one station on the river where good management would enable the optimum number of fish to be taken each year.

This part of the report, naturally, met opposition from the netting interests and it was estimated that some 3,000 to 4,000 people might lose their jobs in Scotland, though most of them were part-time. It was not surprising that that part of the report has not been pursued. Other parts of the report have been the basis of subsequent legislation, particularly on trout fisheries. I was concerned with the process of consultations on the main report between 1970 and 1974 when I was the Secretary of State.

Two years ago this new conservation trust in Scotland came into being and its aim is to buy out the netting interests. The founders informed me before it was established at the end of 1985 and I advised them that there could be problems and objections arising from loss of jobs, though I believe the situation is different from that of 1965. That trust to which the noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred, has achieved much in two years. It has bought a large number of netting points in the Moray Firth and the north-east of Scotland and it has now bought quite a number on the Tweed. Lord Hunter is the patron of the trust and I should like to record in the words of the trust what it has done: The Trust has taken up the challenge proposed in the Hunter Report. By the end of 1986 it had purchased or arranged to purchase—on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis—and will permanently close 283 interceptory, coastal and estuarial netting points around the North-East of Scotland, thereby freeing annually another 40,000 wild salmon to return to their ancestral rivers to spawn. This represents up to 25 per cent. of the 'indiscriminate' catch in Scottish waters". Those were willing sales but I do not know whether any significant unemployment is being caused. I hope not, but the Minister may be able to tell us about that. In my view, in other respects the trust can only be doing good. Angling is the method of catching which best helps the economy of Scotland and other areas where there are salmon rivers. The tourist industry, especially hotels, benefits; and in some areas the hotels are completely dependent upon the fishing.

In Scotland fishing pays local government rates; it contributes financially to the local services and the scale is related to the numbers of fish caught. If few fish are available in rivers, that discourages the holiday angler as well as reducing the rates of contributions. The more fish in the rivers (as only a proportion can be caught by anglers) the more salmon are likely to be reproduced because they have to run up the rivers to spawn. Despite the success of salmon farming, wild salmon are still a vital part of the economy in parts of our country and I should be grateful to hear the views of the Government on the new initiative of this trust.

9.23 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I am very conscious of the fact that speaking on salmon in your Lordships' House means meeting and listening to very erudite and experienced people. I took part in the debates on the 1986 Act and I have done some re-reading of it. I have not gone through the entire Act or the proceedings in the House, but I have paid a fair amount of attention to it. It is interesting to note the way in which the arguments are arising again in this debate.

I think we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who is one of the experts in scientific matters and on a par, I believe, with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in his study of salmon, the habits of salmon and the whole background of the North Atlantic salmon. When I read the subject he had chosen I felt that perhaps it was a little early to be discussing the effects of the 1986 Act but, having listened today, obviously we could have a debate on salmon fairly regularly and we would be continually turning up new material.

I am sure it will not be too difficult to discern that I am not an expert on the North Atlantic salmon or even on angling, but I have been approached by netsmen on the subject. I am sure the Minister will know many of the arguments that netsmen have put forward. No one else approached me which would make one believe that others, particularly those who have rod fishing beats, are fairly happy with what the Government have done. Therefore I make no apologies for putting quite strongly the arguments put by the Scottish Salmon Net Fishing Association.

A number of questions have been asked of the Minister and I shall put some myself. It would make the debate very long if the Minister were to answer them all, but I hope that he will find a way, if not tonight, to get the information to those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. He will realise from listening to the debate that Ministers' replies are treasured and brought up again to see what progress has been made since the statements were originally made.

The traditional Scottish salmon net fishermen are concerned about the weekly closing time which was put forward as the principal way— particularly at the beginning of the debate—of preserving salmon stocks in Scottish rivers. Other arguments were put forward later. The noble Lord, Lord Burton, used other arguments, rather than netting, for preserving the salmon stock. The netsmen of course, as one would expect, would agree with this, but they believe that the Government's announcement to extend the weekly closing time by 18 hours will in fact reduce the netsmen's earnings by at least 18 per cent. They believe that this is a factual figure arrived at by examining marketing records from the industry going back over many years. I think it is true that there are few businesses which could stand a cut of that magnitude in their turnover, and salmon fishing is no exception.

The netsmen believe that there is no justifiable reason for this measure other than the political pressure that has been applied to both Houses from angling interests. These are not confined to the one party, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley, who I know is a keen fisherman, and he spoke very much in favour of the weekly closing time.

The facts as I have been given them are that salmon stocks are governed by the capacity of any river to support the young salmon stock for at least the first three years of their life before the smolts go to sea. Over decades the ecology of all our rivers has changed markedly due to a number of factors. Again the noble Lord, Lord Burton, mentioned some of them. Those factors are hill drainage and forestry leading to erosion and flash floods; increased acidification from the rapid run off of acid rain; lower water levels in drought; hydro dams; increased water extraction for domestic, industrial and agricultural use; industrial, agricultural and domestic pollution.

Those factors have all had an adverse effect on the quality of our rivers, and their capacity to produce and nurture young salmon has undoubtedly been greatly reduced. However, the salmon scientists of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food say that virtually all Scottish salmon rivers are producing as many smolts as their ecology can provide for. A 20-year research programme has shown that increased numbers of mature spawning salmon do not reflect directly in an increased smolt production.

Another research project by departmental scientists has shown that the Deveron—and I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, made reference to this in his speech— which has not been netted since 1901 was compared with the Spey which has been intensively netted continuously. There was no detectable difference in the state of the stocks. The departmental salmon scientists have also shown that up to 40 per cent. of our salmon stocks return to our rivers after the close of the netting of salmon in August. Changing the weekly closing time would make no difference to this particular stock.

The only section of salmon stock that is in undoubted decline is the stock of spring salmon. The Government's own catch statistics show in the figures published in December 1986 that commercial netting caught only 5.5 per cent. up until 1st May annually, with the angling sector catching 94.5 per cent. There is a large discrepancy in the figures and perhaps the Minister will have something to say about that. I wonder whether it is realistic to suggest that netting is responsible for any appreciable decline in the stock.

The salmon scientists of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food say that allowing more summer grilse and salmon into our rivers may in fact help to hasten the decline of the stock. If, as the Government stated, this measure was in part a conservation measure, why—and this point was referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso—were millions of eggs from our rivers sold to the fish farming industry and for export? The reason is frequently given as over-stocking in the spawning grounds; but the revenue from these sales goes to support the running costs of the fishery boards and therefore subsidises the riparian sporting owners who support the order. That situation hardly supports any conservation argument.

A great deal was made of the effect of the grey seal. It was even suggested by one noble Lord— despite the fact that there was a good deal of complaint about the law not being enforced properly in terms of poachers and certain illegal netters— that there was nothing wrong with a wee hit of illegal culling of seals if that were possible. I am not suggesting that. I am sure that the Minister caught the point as it was made.

In Scotland, a salmon fishing, whether commercial or sporting, either in the rivers or in the sea, is owned by the same heritable title, just as a house, farm or factory. The order proposed by the Government will undoubtedly erode the value of the netsmen's title; and where the loss in earnings makes a fishery no longer commercially viable, the value of the title will be totally lost with no compensation to the owner.

Most salmon fishing is carried out as family businesses, frequently in the more remote and disadvantaged areas. Like family farmers, all their capital is tied up in their business assets. These assets specific to salmon fishing have no real alternative use or value. In this respect, I am in the hands of the Minister who may know more about the alternative use. I shall be only too pleased to hear that there is a use for the assets if no net fishing is possible. I believe that the order could ruin financially many of the families for generations and could result in the loss of about 1,000 jobs provided annually by salmon fishing in those remote areas.

I hope that the points that I have made will allow the Minister to deal specifically with the area on which he has been hailed as breaking new ground by increasing the closed time for netting. He will be aware that it has caused a great deal of anxiety to a section of the salmon fishing community perhaps less well off than the one we were concentrating on this evening.

9.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sanderson of Bowden)

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the implementation of the Salmon Act, which came into force just over a year ago, and various related matters. The questions that have been asked in this debate are fairly lengthy but I should like to go through as many of them as possible so that we can deal with them this evening, if that meets with your Lordships' wishes. All the matters that have been raised are integrated and are important as far as the salmon species is concerned.

I am particularly grateful for the advance notice given to me by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, of the matters which they would be raising today. The 1986 Act was of course introduced in your Lordships' House and deals with issues which are of great interest to many noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, asked about the introduction of the salmon dealer licensing schemes. As the noble Lord said in his speech, we have just issued our consultation documents to interested organisations in Scotland and England and Wales and await their comments. I do not think that it would be appropriate to go into the details of the proposed schemes this evening but it may be helpful if I make some general remarks. I am grateful for the generally welcoming remarks from noble Lords who have spoken about this particular part of the Salmon Act.

The noble Lord referred to an article in the Daily Telegraph about whether records would be kept of sales as well as purchases. The extent to which records of sales will be required is raised in both consultation papers. No decisions have been taken on this: it is a matter for detailed consideration after the consultation.

It may be felt that it has taken a rather long time to get from the coming into force of the Act to the consultation stage. I can appreciate such views but in fact this is a complicated subject not least because of the different legislative background north and south of the Border and the need to produce proposals which are likely to he effective but not too burdensome on the lawful trade. The Scottish scheme, which will have district and island councils as the licensing authorities, will be, so to speak, tacked on to the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982.

On the other hand the licensing authorities in England and Wales are not subject to the 1982 Act and the scheme will be administered by the water authorities who have responsibility for salmon conservation. It has, therefore, been necessary to ensure, given the different administrative and legislative background, that the proposed schemes are as compatible as possible. The proposed schemes have been discussed in Scotland with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and in England and Wales with the water authorities.

A fair amount of work has already been done and I hope that there will be general agreement in this House that, given the significance of the measure, it is more important to produce good schemes than to unduly rush consideration. I can nevertheless assure noble Lords that we will continue to make as much speed as we can in moving through the consultation stage to production of the schemes themselves. The orders containing the schemes are of course subject to affirmative resolution and this will give the House the opportunity to discuss the matter in detail at a later stage.

I regret that I cannot give an accurate forecast as to when the schemes will be brought into effect. We have asked for comments within two months and have offered meetings. This will take time and I hope the House will understand if I say that I hope implementation will be later this year.

As to whether the schemes will be tough and effective depends to some extent on the result of the consultation. Certainly, we believe that our proposals are both. There will, for example, be provision for disqualification from holding a licence for up to five years at the discretion of the court. It would, however, be unreasonable to make disqualification mandatory, however minor or technical the offence.

The noble Lord asked if an hotelier convicted of receiving illegally-taken salmon could lose his liquor licence or be liable to lose it. I have to say that automatic loss of a liquor licence would be draconian in my view and that, in Scotland, the enabling provisions we have for salmon dealer licensing do not allow for it. However, in considering applications for liquor licences, licensing boards do have regard to the character of the applicant and any offences under the salmon legislation could be taken into account. When in force the dealer licensing schemes will supplement the handling and, as we in Scotland prefer to call it, the unlawful possession offences provided for in Section 22, the Scottish section, and Section 31, the English and Welsh section. of the Salmon Act.

I understand that there have been five convictions in England and Wales, with fines of up to £1,000 plus costs being imposed. The cases have involved a variety of circumstances: persons seen removing fish from vehicles; carrying fish from a foreshore; offering fish for sale at a place of work and a well-publicised case involving a large quantity of salmon in an hotel freezer. A further 13 prosecutions are pending. Unfortunately, I cannot give your Lordships parallel figures for Scotland but there have certainly been cases, one of which involved the handling of 27 salmon in Perth, a fine of £250 and forfeiture of a car and the fish.

My information is that local enforcement authorities are generally pleased with the provision and look forward to making continued use of it. All this indicates a very encouraging start and reinforces our view that the new offence, especially when coupled with dealer licensing, can be expected to make significant inroads into the trade in illegally caught fish.

The Government's recognition of the seriousness of salmon poaching and the tendency for poachers to operate in gangs can be seen by the penalties contained in the Salmon Act. If there is one theme that ran through this debate this evening, it was the seriousness attached in the House to the whole question of poaching. For fishing with an illegal instrument or unlicensed net in England and Wales, poachers can on indictment be imprisoned for up to two years and receive an unlimited fine. Magistrates can impose up to three months' imprisonment and a £2,000 fine. In addition, boats, vehicles and nets are liable to be forfeited. Sentences of similar severity apply to the new offence of handling salmon in suspicious circumstances.

The Government's concern is also reflected in the removal by Section 35 of the Salmon Act of the differential penalties which depended on whether an offender acted on his own or with another person. The courts can now impose the higher penalties without the need to establish that persons acted together.

I have noted what the noble Lord, Lord Burton, said about sentences imposed by the courts. We have of course no powers to influence the sentences imposed by the courts in particular cases. The judiciary's independence must be maintained. It is for the prosecuting authorities to demonstrate to the courts the gravity of any particular case and for the courts to decide whether exemplary punishments should be imposed.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, has, however, drawn attention to the remarks made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, to Buckinghamshire magistrates in April 1987. Those remarks were made in the capacity of president of the Magistrates' Association and not as Lord Chancellor. The remarks were published in the Magistrates' Association's journal and I have no doubt that magistrates will be able to take full account of them. Those who are interested in this point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, ought to read what is said there, for what is said is very true.

In England and Wales, the basic responsibility for enforcing salmon and freshwater fisheries law rests with the water authorities. However, I understand that there is often very close liaison between the police and the water authorities, with joint operations being quite common. I am glad to be able to add that the position in Scotland is generally regarded as good so far as concerns co-operation between the police, district salmon fishery boards and my department. Chief constables have of course other priorities but I have no reason to doubt that they apply whatever resources they can to combating poaching.

The particular case of the River Forth has been mentioned and I have to agree that the position there has been less than satisfactory. It is important to bear in mind, however, that questions of divisions of responsibility arise. My department can and does protect the fisheries in the sea. The district board and the police are responsible for law enforcement in the river and my department has rendered assistance. I am glad to be able to say that the situation seems to have improved in recent months, due in no short measure to the activities of the Forth Fisheries Conservation Trust, to which some of your Lordships referred. My department will continue to do what it can to help. We recognise the difficulties, particularly in that river.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, also asked whether the Government would be prepared to consider prohibiting the sale of rod-caught fish. This is not a subject on which, so far as I am aware, there is any consensus, and it is also one which could be regarded as draconian as well if, for example, the suggestion is that we went beyond the proposal in the salmon dealer licensing schemes that it would be an offence for an unlicensed person to sell a salmon to anyone other than a licensed dealer.

I again express the Government's recognition of the service performed by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, in raising, during the passage of the Bill, the problem of illegal netting of salmon in the guise of fishing for sea fish. I understand that some water authorities and sea fisheries committees have been discussing measures to prevent this practice, but no firm by-law proposals have been submitted as yet.

The noble Lord expressed concern about the relationship between by-laws for the protection of salmon and those authorising the use of fixed engines. As the noble Lord will know, the very strong formulation of Section 6 of the 1975 Act (as amended by the 1986 Act) was designed to avoid doubts about the interpretation of that section following the judgment in the case of Champion v. Maughan and Groves.

It was, however, not intended to prohibit the use of all fixed gear in sea fishing. Such gear has been used, quite legitimately, in many areas to catch sea fish and eels. The intention was to provide for these activities through by-laws authorising fixed engines at such places and times where they do not threaten runs of migratory salmonids. The by-laws will be subject to water authority consent so there is provision to safeguard the interests of migratory salmonids. Since the passage of the Salmon Act, water authorities and sea fisheries committes have been considering what by-laws will be necessary. Many are in an advanced stage of drafting and several have already been made.

There is no question of fixed engine by-laws and by-laws controlling sea fishing for the protection of salmon being used as bargaining counters in any derogatory sense. Water authorities and sea fisheries committees are, I am assured, working together to improve fisheries management in their areas.

I am grateful for the kind words of support from some quarters of the House for the decision to extend the weekly close time for salmon net fishing. I am also aware of what the noble Lord, Lord Mason, has said about tourism and the effects of the rod fishing industry on tourism. It was not an easy decision to take, and I am therefore not surprised by the adverse comments made by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael.

To those who are disappointed by the decision I have to make the point, however, that there are many more who are happy with it, including those who wish that I had gone much further. There is no suggestion that all the fish which the netsmen would take but for the increase will be taken by anglers. Those that are not will be available to increase the spawning escapement and salmon stocks. I accept that not all rivers need that increase, and the noble Viscount has made that clear.

He will, however, remember a meeting that he attended on 21st August last year—after meetings of netsmen and rodsmen which I had attended earlier in the day—when the proposal to increase the weekly close time was discussed. Far from everyone present agreed with him that no action was needed in the interests of salmon conservation. At 60 hours the weekly close time will be the same as applies to similar netting operations in the areas of the Northumbrian and Yorkshire water authorities, which are on the same coast as the major salmon net fisheries in Scotland.

The noble Lord expressed concern that the effects of the increase in the weekly close time will not be monitored specifically. The review of the east coast net fisheries, for which Section 39 of the Salmon Act 1986 provides, will take account of the increase in the weekly close time. It is, however, a short time between May 1988, when I intend that the increase will be brought into effect, and the preparation of the report on the review—as soon as practicable after November 1989—and it would perhaps be unreasonable to expect anything very definite to emerge specifically on that count. Monitoring such as the noble Lord appears to have in mind would in fact be likely to be very difficult given other considerations, such as the fact that salmon catches vary from year to year due to climatic and other factors. While there would not be any separate specific monitoring of the close time change, my department will of course take this into account in its job of keeping the state of Scottish salmon fisheries under general review.

Other matters which were raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, when he was speaking on the close time were first in connection with the Solway. The noble Viscount referred to the anomaly which exists on the Solway because of the different close time north and south of the Border. I am advised that the North-West Water Authority are mindful of the desirability of maintaining the same close time on both sides of the Solway and are currently considering their response to the recent charge on the Scottish side.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, also questioned the scientific evidence. As regards that evidence, the answer given in another place and quoted by the noble Viscount was, I think, a fair one. The scientific evidence is not conclusive and a number of other considerations had to be taken into account.

Finally, another matter raised by the noble Viscount when talking about the close time was that he asked whether the local board could do their own thing—that is, restore the old close time in districts where further restrictions may not be necessary. I have to say that the Salmon Act does not allow for that and I looked at that very closely.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, that is not what I asked. I asked whether the noble Lord himself would use what is allowed to him in the Salmon Act, to make his order different for those boards which wanted it done that way. I would appreciate it if the noble Lord would answer my question in the way in which I put it.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I shall certainly look very carefully at what the noble Viscount said. But my understanding of the Salmon Act 1986 is that there is no power in that Act for me to act differently with one river from another. However, I shall look very closely at what the noble Viscount said, and if my interpretation is different from his then of course I shall write to him. What is available is that the annual close time can be varied on a district by district basis, as he will no doubt be well aware.

With regard to the north-east of England drift net fishery, all the measures to restrict the fishery still further were in place for the start of the 1987 season. The measures to encourage a shift from drift netting towards fixed netting will all he in place for the start of the 1988 season. I am sure the noble Viscount will accept that it is impossible to assess the effects of all these measures so quickly. The Salmon Act requires Ministers to review all salmon netting in north-east England and the east coast of Scotland in November 1989 and to place their report before both Houses of Parliament. That is a much more appropriate timescale. We have made it clear that we shall approach the review with an open mind and there is, I suggest, little if anything to be gained by speculating tonight on the outcome.

I would say however to the noble Earl, Lord Haig, that the catch returns of licensed netsmen will be one of the parameters studied in the review. These returns are required by the water authority by-laws and must be to the water authority's specification as to the details.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred to the purchase of Scottish netting rights by the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust (Scotland) Limited as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Mason. I think the noble Lord, Lord Mason, did the Government a disservice. I thought this Government were particularly interested in private enterprise and the private enterprise shown by this trust is quite remarkable.

This is, as he rightly said, a significant development and one that we are watching with interest. It is of course a complex matter and it has to be recognised that the removal of netting stations will not in itself necessarily improve the management of river systems. It should of course make more fish available to be caught by rod and line and by other nets. It should also lead to an increase in the spawning escapement particularly in those districts where only rod and line fishing would remain. I must point out, however, that the purchase of private rights in Scotland by a private organisation—albeit one dedicated to salmon conservation—is a different matter from the extinction of the public right to fish in coastal waters in England and Wales. Netting rights purchased by the trust are not of course automatically extinguished, although it allows their use to be suspended. Still on the subject of the northeast of England, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, asked me about the proposals regarding the use of T-nets off the Northumbrian coast. I should like to try to explain some of the background to this.

In November 1985, my right honourable friend the Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced measures for the future management of the English north-east Fishery. These measures were designed to do two things. The first objective was to reduce the fishing effort in the fishery as a whole by banning drift netting for eight hours each night, by standardising the weekend close time for all nets at 60 hours—thereby cutting out Saturday working—and by preventing "endorsees" using nets independently of the licence holder.

The second objective was to seek to change the balance of fishing effort from drift nets to fixed nets. Underlying this was the concern expressed by your Lordships again this evening about the interceptory nature of the drift nets. T-nets do not intercept salmon in the same way as drift nets. They tend to take more local stocks and a higher proportion of sea trout than do drift nets.

Among the measures to change this balance of fishing effort was my right honourable friend's acceptance of the Northumbrian Water Authority's request for an order to permit the use of fixed nets in its southern area. Fixed nets were already allowed in the Northumbrian Water Authority's northern area and in the Yorkshire Water Authority's area and this measure would—on a strictly controlled basis—bring the southern Northumbrian area into line. The order to allow T-nets in the southern Northumbrian area was made last year and takes practical effect in March with the start of the 1988 season. The Northumbrian Water Authority has made two by-laws which will restrict the use of T-nets near the mouths of the rivers Wear and Tees. Without these by-laws the use of licensed T-nets would be totally unrestricted in the southern Northumbrian area.

The by-law regarding the River Wear would allow up to five T-nets inside the so-called Wear box, an area in which drift netting is prohibited. That proposal aroused considerable opposition and my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food decided that a public inquiry should be held into the by-law. The inspector's report is awaited and I understand my right honourable friend will take his decision on whether to confirm the by-law in the light of that report.

It has been suggested that the introduction of T-nets in the southern Northumbrian area will result in an increase in fishing effort. This is not so. First of all, that area has seen its weekend close time increased by 18 hours for all nets and drift netting has been prohibited for eight hours each night. Secondly, no additional licences are being issued. Netsmen will be able to take out a licence which authorises the use of either T-nets or drift nets but they will not be able to use both types of net simultaneously. They will alternatively be able to take out a licence for T-nets only at a lower cost. The use of T-nets in the southern Northumbrian area will therefore lead to a direct reduction of the amount of drift netting in the area.

The noble Lord asked about the numbers of salmon and grilse caught in the Northumbrian nets in 1987. I think this was also asked by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. The returns are still being analysed by the water authority and the final data will not be available for some time. However, on the basis of the returns analysed so far, it looks as though the number of salmon and grilse caught by the Northumbrian nets in 1987 will be fewer than the 54,000 caught in 1986. The rod catch returns for the Northumbrian area are also being analysed but early indications are that these show a significant increase.

As for the Tees, the proposed by-law will, if confirmed, introduce restrictions on both drift netting and T-netting around the mouth of the River Tees. No restrictions are currently in place on either fishing method near the mouth of the river. This bylaw has also attracted opposition from anglers who feel that it does not go far enough. The Northumbrian Water Authority is, I believe, in touch with the objectors and they have yet to apply for confirmation of the by-law.

The Salmon Act provides for the making of subordinate legislation for Scotland. I have already referred to the weekly close time and the salmon dealer licensing schemes. Other matters can be regulated under Section 3 of the Act; for example the construction and alteration of dams, the meshes, materials and dimensions of nets and the construction, alteration and use of screens for the control of the passage of salmon. I have to say that although no regulations on these subjects have yet to be made under the Act, regulations relating to many of those matters made under earlier legislation remain in force.

In Section 21 there are powers to define methods of net fishing. Here again, no regulations have been made. I have to say, however, that the methods which may be defined; that is, net and coble, bag net, fly net and other stake nets are generally well understood in Scottish salmon circles. Noble Lords may however be interested to know that my department will be consulting shortly about dams and screens and the question of defining the lawful netting methods. On more local matters I have decided, on request, that a designation order will be made amalgamating the salmon fishery districts of the rivers Bervie and the North and South Esk. I have also decided, at the request of the Tweed commissioners, that a baits and lures order will be made under Sections 8 and 10 of the Salmon Act. That order will make it unlawful to fish on the River Tweed by rod and line with shrimp or prawn between 1st June and 14th September in any year.

I hope that those comments will confirm that we do not see the Act as a dead letter but rather as a means of bringing about improvement in salmon administration in Scotland and in England and Wales, and that we are making positive efforts towards implementing it in a number of cases. However, action requires initiative at a local level and we are beginning to see that.

Turning now to the Salmon Advisory Committee, the committee under the chairmanship of Professor Dunnet has now met four times. We have asked the committee to first of all examine and report on the availability of information on the status of salmon stocks and the influences on the level of those stocks, including the effects of predators and of fishing at low water levels. That is a large subject and no easy task, particularly as there are differing views on the status of stocks and the underlying influences. It is therefore with considerable interest that my colleagues and I await the committee's first report. I can confirm that the committee intend to report as and when it completes particular stages of its work rather than on, say, an annual basis.

My colleagues and I will have to decide the extent to which the committee's reports should be published in the light of the circumstances of each case. I cannot give a categoric assurance about publishing reports. It is not possible to forecast sensibly the sensitivity of issues which the committee might be asked to report on in future. Moreover, reports may contain information given to the committee on the understanding that it would remain confidential. Nevertheless, I can assure the House that we do not intend to withhold information unnecessarily.

The committee decided unanimously to treat its discussions and papers as confidential. That allows members to speak their own minds freely and frankly without fear of being quoted outside. It will mean that they will be able to express their own views, based on their own knowledge, free from external pressures. That is a matter for the committee and not for ministers, but their decision strikes me as very sensible. I understand that the chairman wrote to all the nominating bodies to explain the point and none of them raised any objections. Nevertheless I shall draw the chairman's attention to the comments of your Lordships on that matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, suggested that the committee might issue a press release after each meeting and the chairman might speak to the media. I shall also draw that matter to the attention of the chairman. However, such issues can be difficult to relate to the press immediately after a discussion. I also have doubts about press releases in every case. Further discussions of those matters will take place with the committee.

With regard to acidification, I think that it is important to bear in mind that that is due not only to atmospheric input, to which noble Lords have referred, but also to local geology and land use. Controlling the planting of conifers in areas where soils are thin and poorly buffered is also of importance. I know that the Forestry Commission will be issuing guidelines for forest management and water and has been consulting those concerned with fisheries, and others, in preparing those guidelines.

It has been asked if the falling-off of runs and spring fish is mainly or partly due to the Greenland and Faroes Fisheries. Those fisheries are selective for multi-sea winter fish and undoubtedly some potential spring fish will be taken. It should, however, be noted that the decline in spring runs pre-dated those fisheries and showed no recovery when catches were reduced sharply under quotas. The primary cause for the current shortage of springers may well be environmental. However, exploitation by home-water fishing may be delaying recovery. District boards could consider, as was raised in meetings in Edinburgh, whether an extension of the annual close time in their particular district might be a useful measure.

The possibility of genetic changes arising from escapes of farmed salmon is, I believe, well recognised although there is little or no hard evidence of any damage being caused in this country. Research programmes are currently under way in departmental fisheries research laboratories. I am aware of a report called Genetic Impact of Farmed Atlantic Salmon on Wild Populations commissioned by the Nature Conservancy Council. The NCC has circulated the report to my department and a number of other organisations for comment.

The noble Lord, Lord Burton, raised the question of outbreaks of disease in fish farms. This is an important issue and one which the Government, and also the fish farming industry, take very seriously. This is quite understandable when one considers that the turnover from farm salmon in Shetland alone this year is £12 million. Farming only started in 1983 so noble Lords will see the speed of the increase in the business. However, there are dangers, to which the noble Lord, Lord Burton, referred.

Disease at fish farms does occur but is not a frequent event. Fish farmers have a statutory requirement to notify my department if disease is present or suspected, and under the legislation my department has powers to apply restrictions on the movement of fish in and out of a site until we are satisfied that the outbreak has been dealt with. We adopt a safety-first policy and enjoy very good cooperation from the fish farming industry. I hope that the noble Lord can be assured that, although we are certainly not complacent, there is an effective mechanism for dealing with disease at fish farms. However, I noted what the noble Lord said, and I shall certainly look at it in conjunction with my colleagues.

On the subject of other river users it is perhaps inevitable that from time to time there will be conflicts of interest between canoeists and anglers—and indeed between other recreational activities—over access to and use of our waterways. Where such conflicts arise it is the Government's view that they are best tackled by local negotiations. In England and Wales the water authorities are currently well placed to handle these matters and I can confirm that the new National Rivers Authority, which will inherit the relevant responsibilities, will have an important role to play here. The NRA will have statutory duties relating to recreation and fisheries and a regional management structure which will place it in a strong position to play an active role in ensuring as far as possible the practical coexistence of the different groups of water users.

So far as concerns the subject of tidal barrages, it is the Government's policy to encourage the development of renewable energy sources where these are economically attractive and environmentally acceptable. The generation of electricity at tidal barrages is one possibility, but the environmental implications must clearly be fully explored before any decisions are taken. Currently the possibility of a barrage on the Severn is being studied under a programme funded by the Department of Energy, the CEGB and the Severn Tidal Power Group.

I recognise the noble Lord's concern about the possible effects of such a barrage on salmon. This concern is shared by the water authorities and the barrage's promoters, and I understand that the implications for fisheries are being carefully considered. Adverse effects could include interruption to upstream and downstream migration of fish—caused both by the physical presence of the barrage and the operation of its turbines—and the effects of any changes in the water environment. Clearly this all needs to be looked at very carefully indeed before any decisions are taken.

Noble Lords were right to point to a marginal decline in river quality in England and Wales from 1980 to 1985 and that, on evidence so far available, there appears to have been a further net decline in 1986. This must be kept in perspective. The fact remains that the UK is well up the league table in terms of river quality in Europe.

In relation to agricultural pollution, much has recently been done. The code of good agricultural practice has been published, extensive advice is made available on pollution avoidance, and grants are made available for waste management facilities. Nevertheless, the Government are very much aware of concern on this question and are considering very carefully what further measures may be necessary in the light of last year's report by the House of Commons' Environment Committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Burton. mentioned the abstraction of water from Loch Oich. I understand that this relates to a recent application by the British Waterways Board for permission to sell some water from the Caledonian Canal to the Fort Augustus Golf Club. I appreciate the noble Lord's concern that flow in the River Oich be maintained, but I gather that in this case, because of differences in the design of the locks at each end of this part of the canal, no additional water will in fact have to be diverted into the canal from Loch Oich. The water being sold to the golf club is surplus to the operation of the lower lock. However, I should like to look at the papers on this case before agreeing entirely with what I am reading to your Lordships. The situation is quite complex and is one in which I should like to study the background papers before giving assurances on what I read here.

With regard to co-ordination of UK policy on salmon matters, the Government are always concerned to consult salmon organisations about their policies, both national and international, towards the conservation and management of salmon stocks. We are grateful for the advice and acknowledge the usefulness of representations made to us by bodies such as the Atlantic Salmon Trust.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, commented on coordination of policies with other salmon producing members of the Community and the Community's representation of UK interests. I can assure the noble Lord that there is close co-ordination amongst the salmon producing states and between the commission and the member states, both in preparation for the NASCO meetings and during them, and of course as required at other times also.

It is, however, the officials of the Commission who negotiate on behalf of the Community and speak at the formal meetings of the NASCO Council and Commissions. Membership of the delegation consists of Commission staff and representatives of member state governments. We are glad that the Atlantic Salmon Trust and other UK non-Governmental organisations attend NASCO as observers and we are grateful for their contribution to our deliberations at home, but I am afraid it is not possible to include their representatives in the Community's delegation.

Mention was made, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, of seals. It has been argued that the increase in the seal population is having a damaging effect on salmon fisheries. There remains no evidence to argue against the fact that seals are predators which consume large quantities of fish, including many of the commercially valuable kinds. Losses due to reduction of fish stocks caused by ordinary feeding predation by seals cannot easily be quantified and much research still requires to be done to produce evidence which might prove beyond doubt the lasting effect of seals on fish stocks generally.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland decided in May 1985 that there will be no culling of seals until further notice because the evidence available to him did not justify culling to reduce or contain grey seal numbers. He indicated at that time that a further research programme of investigation into seal diet and distribution would be put in hand with a view to obtaining a better estimate of quantified damage to fish stocks. This research programme is now being undertaken, and until the results are to hand and assessed it is unlikely, as things stand, that there will be any change in policy.

However, we recognise that seals pose localised problems for salmon fishery as well as fish farming interests. For this reason, my department will continue to consider applications for licences for the control of seals to prevent damage to fisheries. Outside the annual close season there is no statutory protection for seals. There are also exemptions from the statutory liability to prosecution outside the licensing arrangements if seals are killed to prevent damage to fishing nets or tackle.

There was a strong attack by the noble Lord, Lord Mason, on monofilament gill nets. The carriage of these nets has been banned in Scotland for almost two years, and in Wales its use for salmon fishing is also banned. As regards England, where it is still legal to use these nets, my right honourable friend responsible for English fisheries is not convinced that there is a case for prohibiting their use; but the effect of these nets is kept under review.

Finally, the salmon catch data for England and Wales, which I think was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, is published on a river by river basis and is expressed in terms of both numbers and weights. In Scotland we publish both numbers and weights by region and district. Both departments aim to publish the data in the year following that to which it relates and as early as possible in that year. However, to some extent we are in the hands of those who supply us with data. The Scottish Statistical Bulletin for 1986 is in the Library. Statistics for England and Wales will be published next month.

I am extremely conscious of the time taken to reply to this Question. However, I feel it is important to cover as many of the points raised in the debate as fully as possible. It is a subject which is very emotive and is one that we have to treat with great seriousness. I crave the indulgence of your Lordships for having spoken for so long.

House adjourned at fifteen minutes past ten o'clock.