HL Deb 13 June 1990 vol 520 cc298-300

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Strange asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many fishing vessels are eligible to apply for a licence to catch sandeels in the Shetland fishery, and how many have applied.

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

My Lords, the records of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland show that some 15 vessels are currently eligible for a licence to fish for sandeels in the Shetland inshore waters. To date, the department has received 10 applications and has issued eight licences. In recognition of the decline of sandeels in this area the Shetland Inshore Waters Sandeel Fishery is to close on 15th June; that is on Friday.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his extremely informative and helpful reply. Will he also tell us whether the licences issued for sandeel fishing carry any restriction on size of catch or numbers of fishing days?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the latest information we have is that the amount of sandeels caught, which is the best test of the size of the fishery, is 2,159 tonnes up to midnight last night. That compares with a figure for last year of 3,500 tonnes for the whole fishery in inshore Shetland waters. The figure for 1984 is 32,000 tonnes.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, the Minister will know better than I just how big a problem this is. We do not even know what is happening as regards seal predation of sandeels. The effects of that are unknown, as are the effects of sea warming which are still being investigated. It is difficult even to estimate the sandeel population. That is why I was rather surprised to discover that there was no guarantee that the boats that are licensed to fish for sandeels—they are having their licences ended soon—would not be able to increase their fishing intensity in the early part of the season. No restriction was put on the fishing effort or the total catch. Given all the problems, will the Minister take into account some of the points that I and the noble Baroness have made and use them as a guide to licensing in the future?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised various points. I am well aware of the various views on how to control this fishery. We feel that by making a cut-off date of 15th June as opposed to 30th July last year we are cutting the fishery back. The catch of sandeels fluctuates greatly from year to year. One can experience several good or bad years in a row. The concept of a sustainable yield that can be maintained over a long period does not apply in this case. That is why we have controlled access to the fishery rather than set a quota. I shall try to set the mind of the noble Lord at rest on the matter of research. Only yesterday my department announced that it would charter a Shetland fishing vessel for research. The objective of that research is to explain the recent shortage of food—not all sea birds are affected—particularly for kittiwakes and the Arctic terns which are affected as they feed on the small O-group sandeels in surface waters.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, the Question refers specifically to the Shetland fishery, but do similar problems apply in the estuaries of other rivers in Scotland and what restrictions are imposed in other areas beyond Shetland?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the other area that is of concern is the Minch. The noble Lord will know that area well. We have placed a restriction on the number of vessels in that area. They are restricted to the track record that has been achieved over the past four years by the vessels fishing in that fishery. I understand that only 10 licences have been issued this year for that fishery. We are keeping that area under review. If we feel that catches are becoming excessive, we shall close the fishery.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that in the past three years there has been an almost complete failure of breeding by certain species of birds in the area. That appears to be associated with the catastrophic decline in the number of sandeels. While the research which the noble Lord has just mentioned is taking place—I warmly welcome that research—would it not be wise to suspend commercial fishing from next year until the cause of the catastrophic decline is known?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, we are dealing here not only with the shortage of the sandeels, which is affecting certain species of birds but not all in the Shetland inshore waters, but also with the livelihood of the fishermen of the area. One has to consider that latter point also. We therefore have not considered it appropriate to ban fishing and jeopardise that livelihood. The latest scientific advice on the state of the Shetland stocks and the need for further measures is being considered. The noble Lord should take into account the amount of sandeels that are eaten not just by the sea birds but also by fish and seals. Far and away the lowest number is taken by the fishery. I understand what the noble Lord is saying and I know of the extreme concern that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has as regards this area. That is why we are spending considerable amounts of money on research. On one research programme we are spending £365,000 to try to get to the bottom of the problem.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, as this problem was first identified in 1986, is it not rather disappointing that the Minister is still talking in terms of the future as regards chartering the research vessel? I understood him to say that the department would charter a vessel for research. However, just over a year ago we were discussing the need for such a vessel. I wonder why that exercise is taking so long. Will the Minister reassure the House that the research will be undertaken without too much further delay?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, the noble Baroness must recognise that my department is undertaking ongoing research involving a considerable amount of money. That work is undertaken by the marine laboratory which monitors catch compositions and does the basic scientific work. The research to which I referred is additional work which specifically addresses the problems associated with the bird populations at the southern end of Shetland and round Fair Isle. The noble Baroness should not be under any illusions—work has been going on.

Regarding the fishery itself, I shall be very happy to send the noble Baroness figures for the fishery which show the decline in the amount of this type of fish which has been taken, for the reasons stated.