HL Deb 10 October 1989 vol 511 cc135-8

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether their research confirms the view expressed by the Nature Conservancy Council that the escape of salmon from fish farms may genetically affect and weaken wild stocks and lead to a reduction in the numbers of salmon entering rivers in the United Kingdom.

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

My Lords, recent work by my department's fisheries research services shows that there are genetic differences between farmed strains of salmon and the wild populations from which they are drawn. The genetic consequences of introducing cultured fish to a wild stock are unknown but are likely to be complex. So far there is no direct evidence of adverse effects or of actual damage to any wild stocks in Scotland. Further studies by my department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are in progress.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reassuring reply. While the rapid expansion of salmon farming has brought benefits to remoter areas, may I ask whether my noble friend is aware that if this warning is supported by further evidence, the matter could be extremely serious? This applies particularly to Scotland where wild salmon make a notable contribution to local economies, especially local government finances, through the rating system.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I should like to assure my noble friend that that is the view of the Government. A report out today commissioned by the Scottish Tourist Board tells us that the economic importance of angling and netting in Scotland is very great. In the case of angling, including tourism it approximates to an income of £50 million. I agree with the general conclusion of the NCC report that further studies are needed and that great care should be taken to prevent or reduce releases of farmed fish and to make sure that deliberate restocking of rivers is carried out in the right way.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Scotland there are 433 sites of farmed fisheries and hatcheries, producing 18,000 tonnes of salmon per year? That is the size of the problem. The Nature Conservancy Council has stated that deliberate releases of farmed salmon are taking place, including diseased fish. I ask the Minister specifically these questions. First, is this so; and why? Secondly, does the Minister not agree that there is a need for more control over fish farms and their activities? Thirdly, is there not an urgent need for more research into the possible genetic harm to the wild salmon from these releases into the Scottish lochs and rivers?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised a fair number of important points. First, perhaps I may deal with actual escapes. Depending on the circumstances, the salmon farmers may require permission under Section 28 of the Salmon Act 1986 from district salmon fishery boards or from my department to recover escaped fish. To my knowledge, escapes from fish farms are not recorded centrally. In 1988 the Secretary of State issued permits under Section 28 in only two cases. However, there may have been consultation with district boards in other cases.

Regarding the monitoring of what happens in the rivers, studies of selected rivers will continue. I am happy to assure the noble Lord that discussions on ways of improving information concerning salmon stocks are about to take place with the Scottish district salmon fishery boards.

On the question of research, I have to assure the noble Lord, as I did in an Answer to a Written Question from him recently, that a very considerable amount of money is being put by my department into research into this matter. Report No. 42, The Genetic Protein Variation in Farmed Atlantic Salmon in Scotland, published in August, will be placed in the Library.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, is the salmon farming producing a weaker stock?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I believe I heard my noble friend ask whether the farmed fish stock was a weaker stock. It is certainly a different stock, but as he will know, there are many genetic differences between the wild stocks of the various rivers in Scotland.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge the importance of the fish farming industry to the economy of the Highlands of Scotland? Will he have a word with the Nature Conservancy Council to prevent it from making in this area, as in other areas, exaggerated statements before research is completed on this matter?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for drawing to the attention of the House the importance of the fish farming industry in the Highlands of Scotland for which I have responsibility. A great deal of money has been spent by the United Kingdom Government on the industry. I for one wish it every success although, as the noble Lord knows, the industry is going through difficult times at the moment. As regards the remarks of the noble Lord on the Nature Conservancy Council, I am sure that what we need is a balanced approach. That is what the Government are seeking to achieve.

Lord Moran

My Lords, in view of the uncertainties mentioned by the Minister, would it not be prudent to err in the direction of caution? Will the Minister tell the House whether it is possible to ensure that salmon farms in Scotland use sterile fish, triploids or whatever, so that when fish escape there is no possibility of them mating with wild stocks?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I know the noble Lord is a greater expert on salmon than I am. Obviously, what he has said will be passed on to those who are researching in this matter. A great deal of work is going on in this area. I am sure the noble Lord will be pleased to hear that wider powers to collect salmon statistics were taken in the Water Act 1989. That is a subject close to the heart of the noble Lord.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I endorse what the noble Lord has said regarding the significance of present and continuing research in this important area. Does he agree that farmed salmon now constitute a very important item of purchase by consumers in this country? Any interruption of that supply would be to their disadvantage and would possibly be made good by Norway to the further detriment of our balance of payments.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that particularly important point. As he will know, we are at present having some difficulties with Norway as there has been a greater production there than we would like. As a consequence, the price of salmon has dropped through the floor causing considerable economic difficulties for many fish farmers in Scotland. I am aware of that point, and I am also aware that we have to safeguard the interests of the wild stocks in the rivers of Scotland, bearing in mind the report which announced today that £50 million had accrued to the economy of Scotland as a result of that sport.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that not only salmon but also rainbow trout are escaping from fish farms? Moreover, they are also eating many of the food supplies which would be consumed by the native British trout, to the detriment of the latter?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that observation. As I said, we are concerned particularly with discovering the genetic relationships between salmon and trout populations. That is carried on in our research programme.

Lord Borthwick

My Lords, some time ago I heard about the fertilisation of rivers in Iceland. The rivers there are being stocked with salmon. Small fry were put into the river. They went out to sea and, to great joy, came back again at the correct time. I do not know whether they were Scottish salmon or Canadian salmon but I am sure that Scottish salmon will be just as clever and come back to their own home waters. As regards breeding salmon, there may be other things that we can do. We may be able to cross fertilise the stock of various rivers aria improve our salmon stock that way. I do not know whether that has been brought to the notice of the Government.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his observation. We have been discussing the question of gene banks in Scotland. This question has also been addressed by the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation. It may not be possible to establish guidelines for databases or gene banks until more is known about the extent and the significance of genetic variations. I can assure my noble friend that the wild stock know their way to their own rivers in Scotlar d. I hope that enough of them are allowed to get through by various people on the way who may seek to poach them, particularly the Irish.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, may I ask whether the noble Lord will tell us what plans the Scottish Office has for preventing wild salmon from mating with escaped farmed salmon?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I know the noble Lord realises that the Scottish Office has great powers to do various things. However, arranging the mating of wild and farmed salmon is even beyond the powers of the Scottish Office.

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