HL Deb 30 October 1990 vol 522 cc1771-2

2.41 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether investigations have begun into ways of controlling the multiplication of algae in warm spring weather which has made dangerous, at times, the human consumption of crabs and shellfish caught along some stretches of the English and Scottish coastline.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, the Government are carrying out research into the effects of the algae on different species of shellfish and are planning further work to investigate the conditions which trigger its production. The results of that work will strengthen further our arrangements to protect public health from this natural hazard.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her reply, which shows that action is being taken. Is she optimistic that a recurrence can be prevented, so avoiding losses by fishermen resulting from another government ban on the sale of shellfish to the public?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I cannot be optimistic because the causes are the dormant spores of the algae, which are present on the sea bed at all times of the year. In certain areas of the coast water currents carry up the algae into surface waters where, if the temperature and sunlight conditions are conducive, the spores grow and reproduce.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the government research to which she referred comes under the control of her department or whether it is a joint effort between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health? If it is the latter, can we be assured that the confrontation between the microbiological and the medical will not unduly obstruct the production of some fairly urgent findings in this area? Although not a large number of fishermen are involved, does she agree that it is undoubtedly true that many of them are wholly dependent on shellfish and crab for their livelihoods?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the research programme that is being developed in the light of this year's experience is carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland. The European Commission is also considering carrying out various research programmes into this problem. The noble Lord referred to fishermen and loss of income. It was very important that we acted quickly. Had we not done so, and had there been cases of illness, fishermen would have suffered much longer and much more owing to the after-effects of illness among people.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell us, if this is a natural phenomenon, how we can control it? Is she aware that the red tide in the Indian Ocean off Cape Town causes a similar problem?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, toxic algae occur all over the world, including North America, Australia and the Far East as well as other parts of Europe.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in this instance the shellfish were eaten in a month in which there was no "r"?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, there is no "r" in mussels.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can my noble friend say what co-operation is being sought from other European countries in view of the fact that plagues of algae have occurred elsewhere in Europe?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, scientists in a number of countries are working on problems associated with these toxic algae. There have been a number of international scientific symposia. Some of the issues involved were examined at recent discussions within the EC on shellfish hygiene and the EC is considering the need for further research.