HL Deb 18 January 1989 vol 503 cc233-6

2.54 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the prospects for revival of haddock and other fish stocks in the seas of North West Europe.

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

My Lords, it is impossible to predict with any certainty future levels of fish stocks since these depend on many factors, such as the recruitment of young fish from year to year. I believe, however, that the decisions taken at the December Council of Fisheries Ministers on reduced total allowable catches for North Sea cod and haddock in line with scientific advice—together with the increased mesh sizes which came into force on January 1st this year—show that we are taking seriously the need for action to protect these important stocks.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. While advice and warnings on over-fishing from the scientists concerned must clearly be heeded, could it not he made possible for action to he taken earlier and therefore less harshly? This would he in order to avoid the recent large and sudden reductions on the quotas.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I should first point out that the recent large reduction in quota applied particularly to haddock in the North Sea and not other species. As noble Lords will know, there are many other species which arc fished for. I say to my noble friend that definitive scientific advice for 1989 was not available until November 1988. The reason is that the fishery is directed at very young fish and assessments of stock levels can therefore only be made late in the day.

My understanding is that we could not forecast well in advance that the abundance of the stock would drop so dramatically. I might add that 1987, the worst year for North Sea haddock, was the worst recruitment year for 20 years

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, is the noble Lord in agreement with the proposition that conservation is also concerned with observing the existing rules under the common fisheries policy? Is he satisfied that the Community's fisheries inspectorate at its present level, and given the increase in the size of the Community, is adequate to ensure the continuing observance of the rules associated with the common fisheries policy? This is particularly having regard to the suggestion that certain member states—not, I hasten to add, Great Britain—are prone to observe the rules perhaps more in the breach than in the observance.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, the question of fishery protection is very important. As concerns my own responsibility for the Scottish waters, I am absolutely convinced that the measure of protection afforded is the correct one. However, I have to say to the noble Lord that it is not an easy task to quantify and the matter is always kept under review.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, can the noble Lord explain what he meant in his original reply by "the recruitment of young fish"? Perhaps I misheard.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, it is a term used in connection with fish stocks by the scientists when they assess what the recruitment is in numbers of new fish born into the fisheries in any one year.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, is not the recruitment of young fishers of almost equal importance?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very serious point in relation to the fishing industry. It is particularly important to many towns up and down the coast of the United Kingdom. I have to say, however, that the significance attached to conservation and conservation measures is all important. If the industry, or if governments, do not pay any attention to conservation, there will be no fish left to catch, as happened with herring in the 1970s.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the fishermen's representatives are fully in favour of conservation? With reference to his reply concerning the availability of other stocks, is he aware that it is very difficult and expensive to change equipment and methods at very short notice and switch from fishing for fish which are caught near the bottom to fishing for those that are caught near the surface—from demersal to pelagic—in different geographical areas? What is now being suggested by the quotas is a move from haddock to mackerel.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords. I think I should clarify my remarks in relation to the pelagic as opposed to the white fish species. The pelagic species are also under great pressure. Existing pelagic capacity is more than able to take the pelagic quotas which in the case of mackerel have gone down this year. I should remind my noble friend that the total white fish opportunities—that is cod, whiting, saithe and haddock—in 1989 for the North Sea and the West of Scotland will be about 90 per cent. of the estimated catches of 1988. So the need for diversion of effort should be limited. I do not deny that the problem regarding North Sea haddock stocks is very serious, but it should be borne in mind that the other species form a very large part of the income of fishermen.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, to what extent is the shortage of stocks due to fishing with too small mesh nets?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the difficulty we have with mesh size is a very great one and a very complex one. From 1st January, as I have already said, we increased the minimum mesh size to 90 millimetres from a lower size. The difficulty we have, particularly in regard to the Scottish fleet, is that it is a mixed fishery. That means that it is very difficult to move up without some considerable loss of one of the species, particularly whiting, in the fishermen's catches. If the catches consisted all of cod there would be no problem and we could move up quite dramatically. However, we are discussing this matter at the present time with other member states. The matter is for the United Kingdom of very great importance.

Lord Stodart of Leaston

My Lords, does my noble friend find it difficult to agree with the proposition that he and his right honourable friend did a most remarkable job in raising, in time of scarcity, the British quota from 78 per cent. to 87 per cent.?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's observation. I believe it was the most difficult negotiation we have undertaken since the common fisheries policy was instituted in 1983 for the United Kingdom. I am grateful that my noble friend has observed that the increase from 78 per cent. to 87 per cent. of the North Sea haddock quota meant that we were able to invoke the Hague preference and obtain a larger share than we would otherwise have achieved.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, since the quotas were announced, has there been a rise in the price of haddock and other fish?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I am very happy to tell the noble Lord that the answer is yes. I believe that to be the case. I hope that fish prices will attain a good level so that the fishermen who are facing reductions in quotas will be able to obtain better prices for their fish, provided of course that those fish are not too small to be of any value. Fishermen will have to remember that the stocks are there, but they have to be preserved. I hope that fish prices will continue to stay at a good level.