HL Deb 05 November 1992 vol 539 cc1552-61

3.58 p.m.

Lord Moran rose to ask Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect the phasing-out of the north-east driftnet fishing for salmon and sea trout to be completed.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful to those of your Lordships who have agreed to take part in this debate. The future of the north-east driftnet salmon and sea trout fishery came up during consideration by the House of the Salmon Bill at the beginning of 1986, now nearly seven years ago. The Government at that time wished to do nothing, the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, saying on their behalf on 7th November 1985, after an earlier review: We have concluded that there is no case for terminating the fishery".—[Official Report, 7/11/85; col. 130.] But a number of us argued on Second Reading and at subsequent stages that the fishery should be phased out. I said on 14th January 1986: Our position, as I see it, is hopelessly compromised so long as we allow drift netting off north-east England to continue …If our voice is to carry weight internationally, we have to put our own house in order. It seems to me essential therefore that the north-east England driftnet fishery should be phased out and the relatively small number of fishermen there compensated by the Government".—[Official Report, 14/1/86; col. 1025.] That is as valid today as it was then.

Those of us who are in touch with salmon conservationists overseas and attend international conferences on salmon, as I did in New Brunswick in June, know how difficult it is to explain overseas this country's continued failure to bring to an end drift netting for salmon and sea trout.

I moved an amendment at the Committee stage of the Salmon Bill on 30th January 1986 proposing a five-year phase-out and, with the noble Earl, Lord Perth, another at Report stage on 13th February 1986, which was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Home, and a number of others. The noble Lord, Lord Home, is sadly not well enough to take part in this afternoon's debate. However, he has asked me to say that he adheres to the view he expressed during consideration of the Salmon Bill in 1986 that this fishery should be phased out and he would like to see it done within five years. I think all of us would wish to send the noble Lord our good wishes.

In response to my amendment, the Government agreed to put their review on the face of the Salmon Bill. This they did in Section 39 and a year ago they produced their report, Salmon Net Fisheries, a comprehensive and detailed document containing a great deal of valuable information.

At the same time, Ministers announced that although the review had, not produced evidence of an immediate threat to stock and thus any justification for depriving existing licensees of their licences at a stroke", nevertheless they proposed in order to, aid and improve the management of individual east coast salmon and sea trout stocks to phase out the driftnet fishery, but gradually, so as not to cause unnecessary hardship". Many of us welcomed this decision by Mr. Gummer and Mr. Lang, as did salmon conservation organisations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Given Ministers' conclusions that there was no immediate threat to stocks, it suggested—by implication if not explicitly—that the Government accepted the view widely held by nearly all fisheries scientists ever since the Hunter Report of 1965 that interceptory fishing of mixed stocks is bad management practice. The Ministers' announcement contained a curious sentence on this: Rod fisheries generally catch fish from single stocks, while net fisheries, to a varying extent, take fish from more than one stock. This is not necessarily a problem if one can quantify and manage the level of exploitation of each individual stock". That may be so, but of course in the north-east driftnet fishery one simply cannot, quantify and manage the level of …each individual stock". So there is indeed a problem. In six years the Government had moved from an assertion that there was no case for terminating the fishery to a decision to phase it out. This was progress. But then came complications. I had hoped that the Government would themselves act to phase out the fishery. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, told this House on 13th February 1986 that, the Government would have power to ban driftnets, using powers in the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967". But, instead, they put the matter to the National Rivers Authority, inviting it to consider how the regulation of the net fisheries could be changed with a view to, among other things, reducing the numbers of offshore driftnet licences as those currently holding such licences leave the fishery [and] making available increased opportunities for inshore fishing by T or J nets giving priority to those surrendering their driftnet licences". At that stage, I had expected that the Government would give your Lordships an opportunity to debate the report and their new line on the fishery, but I was told by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on 25th November that they had no plans to arrange a debate. I found that surprising, but concluded that if we were to discuss it, as I was sure we must, we would have to organise a debate ourselves. It seemed to me that the best time to do so would be after the NRA had responded to the Government's invitation. Hence my Unstarred Question this afternoon.

I personally regret that the Government elected to leave it to the NRA to plan the implementation of the specific decisions they had made. I have the highest regard for the NRA and am chairman of the Fisheries Advisory Committee of its Welsh region, which, being on the other side of the country, is not involved in this question.

However, the NRA has limited powers and acts under severe constraints. One of these is that under a net limitation order, if some netsmen do not renew their licences, the NRA has no choice but to issue new licences up to the level set by the NLO if there are enough applicants who meet the criteria. So it happened that soon after the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, told the House on 26th November 1991 (col. 1275) that: it is our firm intention that the salmon driftnet fishery should come to an end as those currently holding such licences leave the fishery", the NRA issued 14 new licences to fishermen who did not currently hold them and who will be able to renew them year after year, for the rest of their lives. I had earlier inquired about this worrying possibility at Question Time on 26th November 1991 and was told by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, that: It is for the National Rivers Authority to make its own plans". But what was done was flatly contrary to Ministers' professed intentions. Far from beginning the phase-out of the fishery, new fishermen joined it. No wonder that no publicity was given to this action which was not generally known for some time. The Government must have known that the NRA would have been compelled to do this, so I think it would have been much better if they themselves had acted to control the fishery.

The NRA's position is set out in its published response to the Government's report together with the chairman's accompanying letter to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The response said that there, would appear to be no legal constraint upon the NRA in phasing out the driftnet fishery". The NRA itself reviewed the future management of the fishery and in this, unlike the Government, it sensibly included the sea trout fishery off the East Anglia coast where 60 driftnets and 50 fixed nets are operated under licence. I welcome the NRA's proposal now to introduce for the first time net limitation orders for the Anglian region as recommended by its Anglian Region Fisheries Advisory Committee.

The response sets out the NRA's own general proposals. There are some questionable features in these: a proposal that licences can be transferred to some partners, which would, of course, prolong the life of the fishery; and the absence of any prescribed retiring age for netsmen. But I am glad that in its response the NRA reacted with some evident scepticism to the Ministers' proposal to increase the number of coastal T and J nets in parallel with the gradual reduction of driftnets. The NRA is clearly concerned about the impact of this on local fish stocks.

My own concern, expressed to Mr. Gummer a year ago, is about sea trout. Paragraph 7.5.7 on page 80 of the Government's report says that in the Northumbrian northern area, T nets take 6.1 to 16.8 times as many sea trout as do the driftnets, while in Yorkshire beach nets take up to three times as many sea trout as the driftnets. Sea trout stocks generally are giving serious cause for concern, and in response to this the NRA has published four substantial papers on sea trout and is initiating a sea trout research programme. Against this background it would, it seems to me, be perverse to authorise more T and J nets which catch such a large number of sea trout.

However, the point in the NRA's proposals that has attracted most attention is its careful estimate that a phase-out as current netsmen leave the fishery, although it might halve the number of driftnets in 10 years, would not lead to a complete phase-out of the driftnet fishery for 30 years". It is this estimate—meaning that the driftnet fishery will continue in being for another generation, to a time when most of us will be in our graves—that has caused such dismay not only among salmon conservation and angling bodies in this country but among salmon conservationists in other parts of the world, a number of whom have written to Mr. Gummer to express their consternation.

Few of us had argued for an immediate closure of the fishery. My own proposal has all along been for a five-year phase-out. The case for this is clear. The Atlantic salmon is under serious threat. Salmon catches have declined drastically over the past 20 years. The world catch in home waters went down from 10,439 metric tons in 1967 to 3,491 metric tons in 1991.

Salmon farming, as Mr. Gummer was one of the first to point out, provides all the fish we need for the market. Interceptory fishing for mixed stocks is wrong. This incidentally applies as much to T and J nets as to driftnets. Every salmon-producing country except Greenland —a special case where a buy-out is being negotiated—the Republic of Ireland and ourselves, Canada, the United States, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, France and Spain, has banned drift netting for salmon. In Scotland it was banned without compensation 30 years ago and Ministers have just reviewed that ban and made it permanent. The United States at NASCO this year called for the ending within the next few years of all ocean commercial interceptory fisheries for wild Atlantic salmon, which is reasonable given the decline in numbers and the availability of farmed fish for the market.

Preliminary smolt tagging results suggest that the legal and illegal drift netting by the Irish is doing serious damage to the runs of salmon to many of our rivers. That matter was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, at Question Time on 26th November last year. We cannot bring pressure to bear on the Irish to stop this until we ourselves put our house in order. Against that background it is surely unacceptable that we should allow drift netting for salmon to go on beyond the lifetime of most of us. I think we must call on the Government to use their own powers to terminate all drift netting for salmon in five years.

The Independent on 4th September carried a letter from the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations which argued that the Government's review, provided no evidence that this traditional small-scale fishing offered any kind of a threat to salmon stocks". The letter asserted that, the Minister's decision to seek to phase out the drift net fishery lies entirely with the influence of the angling lobby in the higher reaches of society". This, it said, is not a conservation issue. It is about increasing the rentals of the salmon fisheries on the Scottish estates, at the expense of the livelihood of commercial fishermen". But this is no longer a traditional fishery, as it used to be, with hemp nets taking some 2,000 salmon a year and doing no one any harm. It was the introduction of monofilament nets in the 1960s which increased the catches by 20 times and more which created the problem. Nor can this fishing fairly be described as small scale. It now takes half of all the salmon and one-third of all the sea trout caught in the whole of England and Wales.

As regards the Scottish aspect, those of your Lordships from north of the Border can talk with more authority than I. I have myself no interest in any Scottish river. My own concern is for the conservation of wild salmon. I want my grandchildren to be able to see salmon running up our rivers as they have done for millions of years. But we should certainly consider the effect in Scotland and one of my original amendments contained a clause asking the Minister to take steps to ensure that the reduction in the number of salmon caught off north-east England did not result in a corresponding increase in those caught by coastal, estuarial and river nets in Scotland and England. In fact there has been a substantial reduction in netting on the eastern side of Scotland from some 150,000 fish in the 1960s to 30,000 in 1991. That is due to a combination of the growth of salmon farming which has reduced the price of salmon in the marketplace and the efforts of the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust (Scotland) and others in a private buy-out costing some £5 million.

In at least one major salmon river in eastern Scotland an average total annual catch of 25,000 by all methods in the 1960s has reduced to 4,500 today. It must be borne in mind that for reasonable recreational angling many more fish are needed in a river than the few needed to spawn and secure the survival of the species.

The economic arguments are all one way. Against the interests of a limited number of mostly part-time salmon netsmen in the north-east there are thousands of jobs among gillies, in hotels, tackle shops and elsewhere in Scotland that are dependent upon a recreational fishery that is now giving cause for serious concern. Recent studies show that 90 per cent. of the economic value of wild Atlantic salmon in the United Kingdom—some £325 million—is due to recreational fishing while commercial net fishing produces less than 10 per cent. The Community's Commissioner for fisheries, Senor Marin, has acknowledged to the European Parliament that, in his words, Sport fishing can, if appropriately managed within an integrated approach, become an important source of socio-economic prosperity". It is not I think true that all fishing or even most fishing in Scottish rivers is carried out by rich proprietors and their tenants. There are a good number of angling associations and many people without much money love to fish, as anyone can see for themselves by looking at those fishing the Tay at Perth. Nevertheless, I personally believe that it would be wise for those managing major rivers in Eastern Scotland to introduce restrictions on the take of salmon—there are some already but more are needed —as we now propose to introduce on the Wye. After all, in Canada anglers have accepted draconian restrictions for seven years past in the interests of restoring the runs of salmon.

I recognise the difficult problems Ministers face and I believe they are doing their best to find a solution. But the decline in runs of both salmon and sea trout is too great to allow us to dither and procrastinate. What we have to do seems to me obvious enough. The Canadian Minister of fisheries and oceans, Mr. John Crosbie, showed the way in March when he announced a voluntary Government buy-out of commercial salmon fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador with a five-year moratorium on commercial salmon fishing in Newfoundland. I greatly hope that Mr. Gummer, who has taken such a firm and commendable line on whaling, will now act decisively on the no less threatened Atlantic salmon and phase out the north-east fishery within the next five years.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, has done the House a great service by tabling this Question at this time. It is both timely and urgent that we should take some action in this area. I agree with the noble Lord that when drift netting was banned in Scotland in 1962 there was a hemp driftnet fishery off the Northumberland coast which took an acceptable cull of the fish going round our coast. However, as the noble Lord said, 181 licences for drift netting are now issued by the Northumberland River Authority and the Yorkshire River Authority. As far as one can ascertain in the year 1990—the last year for which returns are available—those licensed drift netters caught over 48,000 salmon and sea trout in that area. We all have some doubt about the accuracy of those returns.

What is perfectly true is that a substantial catch in the drift nets coupled with a major decline in salmon stocks give cause for great concern throughout this House and throughout the country. The position is hard to substantiate from sheer observation or by correct scientific observation but what is perfectly clear now is that the number of fish reproducing themselves on the reds throughout Scotland is at a seriously low level. I am the chairman of a river board and on that river a spawning survey is carried out. There are certain well-known reds in which the fish congregate during the first fortnight in November. Of course, the number of fish varies according to the amount of water in the rivers, the temperature and the weather. But year after year at that time one can visit those places and see the fish. At one time there used to be 30 fish waiting off the reds to spawn but today one is lucky to find nine or 10 fish. We are looking at a 60 per cent. reduction in the number of fish reproducing themselves in our rivers. That is a serious state of affairs. Add to that the decline in the food supply for those fish when they have spawned and the young have hatched out—there is a decline in the food supply because of the amount of forestry throughout the watershed—and a decline in the survival rate because of increased predation by mergansers, goosanders and cormorants and it is clear that we are facing a serious situation.

In addition there is still a major problem of illegal drift netting. I have some experience of this because I send a sea patrol out into the Pentland Firth to monitor the problem. Every season we pick up quite long lengths of illegal nets. What worries me arising from my experience of dealing with illegal drift netting is how inefficient and dangerous a method of fishing legal drift netting is. There is no difference between legal and illegal drift netting. It is all carried out in the same way. The drift nets catch the fish because when the fish put their heads through the nets they are caught by the gills. A large number of fish that are not retrieved from the nets drown and fall to the bottom of the sea. Drift netting is a lethal form of fishing which gives a bad return. It is quite unacceptable to continue to allow drift netting in any form whatever as a method of fishing, whether it be by a pulley system from the shore or by anchoring to every lobster pot marker round the coast. It has proved to be a very wasteful and murderous way of catching a limited number of fish which are returning to our coasts.

As your Lordships know, the line of the run of returning salmon around the coasts of Great Britain was clearly identified in the Ministry of Agriculture's fishery report of 1937. That showed clearly the main runs of salmon returning to this country. The salmon come in to the North West and round Orkney. They swim round the coast in concentric circles. Every river is not hospitable. If there is a long drought such as the one we suffered this summer the fish cannot run the river of their first choice. In the first instance they return to the river of their birth. However, if, when they reach the estuary, there is not sufficient fresh water coming down the river to tempt them to go up to reproduce, they go on round the coast. We know from returns of tagged fish that they go right round the coast from the North of Scotland. They may find that the Dee, the Tay or another river is equally inhospitable. They reach the coast of Northumberland and then turn round and come all the way back again. The Northumberland driftnet fishery is catching the fish which have come from the North of Scotland. That is the damage it is causing. It is an indiscriminate interceptory fishery which is quite unacceptable today.

Last year we tagged and put back in the river over 450 salmon caught in our net fishery on the River Naver on the north coast. It was interesting that tags were sent back to us from all round the coast. Tags were returned from every river where there were fishermen or a netting station. We received them from the Tweed. We did not receive a single tag from Northumberland. The fishermen may argue that the Naver fish did not go as far as Northumberland, but I believe that that reflects the unscrupulous attitude of those predatory fishermen, who will not even bother to return tags because that would show the damage they are doing.

It is no good trying to hide behind the argument that this is a matter for the National Rivers Authority. Parliament has to say categorically that drift netting was banned in Scotland by amending the 1975 Act and unless the National Rivers Authority is prepared to take positive action within the life cycle of a salmon, as the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said—which means within five years—then Parliament will pass the necessary Bill to phase out the fishery. Unless something is done, a serious and desperate situation will be made worse.

4.22 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, this issue—the need to ban driftnet fishing off the North-East coast of England—is one that I have raised many times, both in another place and in your Lordships' House. I cannot understand why the Government do not recognise that that indiscriminate, interceptory driftnet fishing is bad management practice and should he deplored by the National Rivers Authority, and that strong advice should be issued to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food severely to cut back the licences and phase out the fishery as fast as possible.

Those long nylon monofilament gill nets take the salmon in the North Sea as they are making their way to their home rivers. I emphasise that they take them quite indiscriminately. That means that south of the Yorkshire River Esk—our only salmon river—salmon are taken with the driftnetters having no knowledge of their destination. It is likely that a large percentage of the catch could have been heading for the Yorkshire Esk and that, as a consequence, the river is deprived of its homing, spawning fish quite indiscriminately and denuded annually of its stock. That is certainly bad management practice. The National Rivers Authority cannot carry out its statutory duty to "maintain, improve and develop" fisheries so long as that situation continues. It is incumbent upon the NRA to inform the Ministry that it is in breach of its statutory duties and responsibilities by allowing the Esk to be run down as a salmon fishery.

Because the netting is indiscriminate it could be depriving the River Esk of most of its spawning stock, thereby cutting back the stocks for propagation of the species and also limiting the stocks for sporting purposes. Bearing in mind that Scotland banned this form of netting in 1962 and that the nets have been banned throughout most of Northern Europe and the North Atlantic except Ireland, Greenland and England, why do we persist? Why do we allow it to carry on?

Is it not time that the Government seriously studied what I believe to be the unacceptable use of these nylon monofilament gill nets? The nets are invisible and quite deadly in their operation, trapping salmon by their gills. Because of the strength of the nets they take seals and porpoises. If a net breaks it hangs in the sea and becomes a ghost net, continuing to kill fish and diving birds for years thereafter, unlike the old hemp nets which gradually rot. I ask again, why are they not banned?

Why do we continue to be internationally embarrassed in the councils of NASCO—the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation—which in its drive to conserve salmon stocks is managing to persuade governments to cut back on salmon netting? As Michael Smith reported in the Salmon, Trout & Sea Trout magazine: Internationally. Britain is looked upon as a disgrace in its attitude to salmon conservation, and we are quite rightly impotent at NASCO meetings". Even at home anger is rising at the Government's attitude on this question. The Salmon and Trout Association, the North Atlantic Salmon Trust and 15 other organisations have petitioned against the practice, but so far to no avail. I refer once again to Michael Smith's article. Referring to the future of the River Tay he said: I would be happy for the Tay's future if it were not for the blight of the North East England driftnet fishery. The Dee, Don, the Esks, Tay, Forth and Tweed have spent millions of pounds on improvements and spent more than £1 million annually on managing their rivers. Surely the Minister can understand our dismay at the delay, the deceit and the incompetence displayed by his department over this driftnet issue". So anger and frustration are building up.

The Government say that they have agreed to phase out the North-East drift netting under a new net limitation order. Briefly, that means that no new driftnet licences will be issued, but it allows existing netters to carry on for their lifetime. As the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said, that could take up to 30 years. It is ludicrous. It is predicted that the number of nets will be reduced by half in 10 years. Will not the remaining nets catch more per net? It will provide a more lucrative business per person and therefore netters will be more determined to carry on and hang on to their licences.

We are talking about 181 part-time fishermen. They only fish when the salmon are running. It is not a major job issue. What is the comparison of costs and the jobs involved in terms of nets versus rods? In 1990 salmon caught by nets off Yorkshire and Northumberland totalled 51,000; salmon caught by rod totalled 1,500. The income from the net licences was £97,000, but from rod licences it was £110,000. Licensed rod fisheries and rivers, particularly in Scotland, generate hundreds of jobs, often in areas where alternative work is hard to come by, including river maintenance workers, ghillies, bailiffs, proprietors, rural businesses—especially those with a tourist base—hotels and their staff, fishing tackle shops and trade. It is the rod fisheries which generate the jobs and the income of the local communities and finance the maintenance and development of the fisheries. Every drift net cast in the North Sea jeopardises jobs and threatens the conservation of salmon and proper management of the salmon rivers.

It is estimated that each net-caught fish is worth about £20 to the netter, but each salmon caught on a salmon river generates hundreds of jobs and hundreds of pounds within each of the salmon rivers' local communities. That imbalance is obvious to the Government, yet they take no action. Why cannot this drift netting cease within five years, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, on the basis of phasing out by buying out? These are part-time netsmen. This method has been employed in many other industries.

Let the National Rivers Authority and the Ministry employ their minds on this task. The result would be to rid ourselves of the hated gill nets and to have better conservation of the salmon and protection of seals, porpoises and diving birds in the North Sea. It would remove the hindrance to the spawning salmon, the salmon rivers would be better stocked and the international embarrassment removed in future NASCO meetings.