HL Deb 26 June 1991 vol 530 cc574-6

3.2 p.m.

Lord Stodart of Leaston asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have concluded the review of the English north-east coast fishery, following the undertaking given in January 1986.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, Section 39 of the Salmon Act 1986 requires my right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to present a review to Parliament on the salmon net fisheries off the north-east coast of England and the east coast of Scotland. Scientists in the fisheries departments of the Ministry and the Scottish Office have completed a substantial background paper and my colleagues are now considering it and the way forward. A report will be presented to Parliament as soon as possible.

Lord Stodart of Leaston

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that five and a half years have elapsed since considerable anxiety was expressed in this House on conservation grounds about the fact that the catch of salmon in the north-east coast fisheries had risen from 2,000 a year in the 1950s to 48,000 a year in the 1970s and to 77,000 in 1984 and that that anxiety triggered the three-year review? Can my noble friend say what the figures are for the catch since 1984 and whether a fall in the catch justifies what I might describe as his remarkably relaxed reply?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, it was not my intention to give a relaxed reply. I hope that I did not do so. Detailed catch statistics are published regularly and copies are placed in the Library of the House. Provisional data only are available for 1990 because all catch returns have not yet been received. The total net catch for salmon in the review area in 1990 was 51,881. However, I must stress that those figures are provisional.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that north-east coast drift netting takes salmon destined to spawn in the Yorkshire Esk and Scottish rivers and is therefore regarded as bad management practice? Secondly, is he not aware that the narrow nylon monofilament gill nets used in the North Sea, especially when they are broken, hang as ghost nets and are responsible for fish, diving sea birds and dolphins suffering cruel deaths. Is the practice not embarrassing to her Majesty's Government when they wish to protest against the Faroese netting the Atlantic salmon destined for our shores? Finally, is he aware that the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation and the Salmon and Trout Association oppose the practice? Why do Her Majesty's Government not just stop it?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I recognise the point which the noble Lord, Lord Mason, makes. I am fully aware that it is a highly sensitive issue. However, the review will not address economic issues. Salmon are undoubtedly a valuable component of mixed fisheries in the area alongside species such as white fish, lobsters and crabs, depending on the time of year. The Government have commissioned a separate economic evaluation from Portsmouth Polytechnic of the country's salmon fisheries. I understand that that study will shortly be completed.

Lord Moran

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is serious concern about the decline in world stocks of Atlantic salmon and that world catches in home waters, excluding Greenland and the Faroes, have declined from 10,439 tonnes in 1967 to a mere 4,000 tonnes in 1990, which is a decline of more than 60 per cent. in 23 years? Is he also aware that in 1989 and 1990 this single fishery was taking half the salmon caught everywhere in England and Wales and two-thirds of the sea trout? Does the noble Earl not think, therefore, that those factors taken together reinforce the calls for the phasing out of this interceptory and damaging fishery made by the noble Earl, Lord Home, and many others during the debates on the Salmon Bill in 1986? One last point—

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

That is five questions, my Lords!

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, although provisional rod data only are available for 1990, we are aware of reports that in some cases rod catches were lower than in previous years. Drift net salmon catches in some English regions were higher in 1990 than in 1989. The distribution and variation of catches is being analysed by scientists in the fisheries departments and by the National Rivers Authority. It is too early to draw firm conclusions. Year-on-year fluctuations in catches of migratory fish are normal and can be the result of a number of factors, including low water levels due to drought and higher than normal levels of natural mortality. It is not yet known whether there are any other abnormal factors in relation to the 1990 catches.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, will my noble friend ask his right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture to bear in mind that drift netting at sea has been banned in waters off Scotland but not yet in waters off England and Ireland and that that should be a salient point when he eventually produces a report?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, suffice it to say that I have taken on board the concern felt by the whole House on this subject. I shall certainly pass on your Lordships' anxieties to my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in another place.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, is it not true that Lowestoft scientists reported in 1982 that 94 per cent. of the fish caught by the north-east drift net fisheries were returning to Scottish waters? Does the Minister agree that those catches must have had a significant and damaging effect on the stocks and catches in the rivers in north-east Scotland? Is it not also true that the necessary scientific evidence on which decisions could be based has been available to Ministers for quite a long time?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I understand that the 1982 report by departmental scientists concluded that, although 94 per cent. of the fish caught in the English drift nets were returning to Scottish rivers, the overall effect on catches in Scottish rivers in the review area was only about 6 per cent. A more recent assessment has been obtained for the purposes of the review and will be presented in the report.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister made the last point. He will perhaps have read our debate in Committee on the Bill in 1986. It was a long debate and, although no one tried to suggest that drift netting off the north-east coast of England was not an important issue, the salmon shortage could not be wholly blamed on it. I am glad that the Minister confirmed that point. Can he say anything about the new licensing proposals for the salmon fisheries? The hardship to a number of families who have fished for generations in that area must be considered as well as the issue of the salmon.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I take the point about licences. However, I cannot go further down that road today. No specific time limit was set for the completion of the review. The Salmon Act requires that the report should be laid before each House of Parliament as soon as practicable after November 1989. It has been necessary for scientists from the fisheries departments to collect and analyse a wide range of scientific information on which to base the review. The Government are now in the process of assessing that information. We appreciate the widespread interest in these complex issues; we are moving as quickly as we can.

Lord Tryon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as a result of the recent splendid international initiative of an Icelander, Orri Vigfusson, the end of Faroese fishing for salmon seems to be imminent and Greenland may follow shortly? That will leave only England and Ireland among the North Atlantic countries still drift netting. Does that not make life difficult for the Government in all international negotiations on fishing?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, at this stage I cannot comment on what the review will say. However, drift netting off the north-east coast of England is very tightly regulated and closely monitored.