HL Deb 05 November 1992 vol 539 cc1572-96

5.15 p.m.

Debate resumed

The Earl of Kimberley

My Lords, I join with my noble friend Lord Kimball and the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for initiating the debate this evening.

It brings shame on our country, on our Government, that in 1992, 30 years after drift netting in its present lethal form commenced and despite unanimous agreement of salmon-producing nations that this indiscriminate and extremely damaging form of exploitation should be abolished, it still continues in the coastal waters of England and Wales. We vigorously condemn drift netting elsewhere, yet we practise it at home.

How can we justify a fishery—the north-east net fishery —which takes upwards of 100,000 salmon and sea trout annually, from a world catch that has plummeted by 60 per cent. in the past 20 years; a catch that has seen an even more alarming 80 per cent. decline in the premier Scottish fishery over the same period?

Such activity stands commonsense management on its head. It is a disgrace that drift netting continues. It must stop—not at some tentative distant future date, but right now.

So who is responsible for the welfare of the salmon. Which government department? It may come as a surprise to some that it is not the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food my right honourable friend John Gummer, nor indeed his fisheries Minister, my noble friend Lord Howe, who is with us this evening. Nor does primary responsibility lie with their department. No; despite the eloquence of the Minister and the active public involvement of his department in the north-east nets issue, responsibility lies elsewhere. It is the National Rivers Authority and its chairman, my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, who bear primary responsibility.

What baffles many of us is the role which the NRA has played, and continues to play, in relation to the north-east (England) salmon fishery issue.

What is even more baffling is that, although I realise that my noble friend Lord Howe is answering for Her Majesty's Government, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, the Minister for the Environment, is not in the hot seat. The NRA comes under the umbrella of the Department of the Environment. Is it possible that we have uncovered the fundamental and critical weakness of the NRA? Heralded as the Government's crusading agency committed to winning the wars for conservation and the environment, how, one might ask, can it do battle when it has not even junior ministerial status in the Cabinet? Worse still, how is the NRA's credibility and influence to be enhanced when it is seen that where representation is forthcoming, it is from a Ministry (MAFF) which does not even bear formal responsibility for these functions and indeed, when it comes to matters of conservation and the environment, hardly enjoys a favourable reputation?

The NRA, it should perhaps be remembered, is an agency operating under the umbrella of the Department of the Environment. The NRA is responsible for environmental, conservation, recreation and leisure matters in relation to salmon and freshwater fisheries. MAFF, on the other hand, is concerned with food production. Yet somehow, in relation to this north-east issue, the NRA has emerged singing a duet with MAFF. The tune they are singing is a food-producing tune. Why is that? How has it happened? Is my noble friend Lord Crickhowell responsible? Are we to believe that it is the decision of my noble friend's boss, the Environment Secretary, my right honourable friend Michael Howard?

Is it coincidence that the former MAFF inspector of salmon fisheries, Dr. Kevin O'Grady, is now the NRA's and, if current rumours are to be believed, soon to become ex-, chief recreation, environment and fisheries officer? Is it simply for convenience that the NRA enlists the wholesale participation of the MAFF scientific establishment in carrying out vital assessments in relation to this north-east, and other, salmon issues—assessments tailored to criteria and terms of reference which MAFF itself has produced? Are we really to believe that this close association with MAFF is due mainly to the advocacy of the unceremoniously sacked former NRA chief executive, the widely respected environmentalist and one-time executive secretary of the Natural Environmental Research Council, Dr. John Bowman?

Certainly, NRA scientists have the facts at their fingertips. The Salmonid and Freshwater Fisheries Statistics for England and Wales1990, published earlier this year, confirm massively what has been demonstrated time and again from investigations, inquiries and reports on the English and Welsh salmon net fisheries over the past 30 years; that is. that these fisheries should be eliminated. They take up to 99 per cent. of the catch in some regions. Illegal fishing is rife, and effective control of legal fishing effort in most areas is virtually non-existent. All this is to provide a seasonal income supplement which is negligible or nil for net licensees, most of whom are not even professional fishermen but part-time hobbyists. This surely is a sad perversion of the original intent of what are, in effect, antiquated century-old laws kitted out in 1975 dress.

The late Lord Bledisloe, in the historic and revelatory Report of the Committee on Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries 1963 which bears his name, showed that the English and Welsh salmon net fisheries made no economic or conservation sense 29 years ago. Those conclusions were endorsed 11 years later by the 1974 report Taking Stock published by the NRA's predecessor, the Water Authorities Association, and by the Welsh Water Authority Report on the Status of Welsh Salmon and Sea Trout Fisheries 1985 to name but two well-known subsequent official studies.

Why, then, does not the NRA, which now has the responsibility for ensuring the maintenance and improvement of the salmon fishery, take the obvious legislative initiatives required? To remove the nets requires but a stoke or two of the legislative pen. Repeal of Section 26, concerning net limitation orders, of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 is the key. To ensure they stay removed requires only a one-line provision banning the taking of migratory fish, salmon or sea trout, by any defined netting instrument. And should it be thought necessary to pay compensation, the provisions of Schedule 3, Part I(4) of the 1975 Act, can show the way.

As for the MAFF recommendations which emerged from the 1991 report of the North-East (Nets) Review, these, very simply, should be rejected. The same applies to the North-East (Yorkshire and Northumbria) Net Limitation Order currently proposed.

If an interim measure is needed to allow more time for thought and consultations with netsmen and other concerned interested parties, the Secretary of State for the Environment, or appropriate Minister, could institute an order declaring a one-year suspension of the north-east salmon net fishery, the order to be

facilitated by provisions of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967. I refer to Hansard of 13th February, 1986, col. 385. A one-year ban could be ordered by the Minister on the grounds of an urgent need to assess conservation, management, protection and enforcement provisions, as these relate to the north-east salmon net fishery, and their conformity with parallel policies and the practices in the salmon fisheries of fellow NASCO nations, the assessment to be guided by and undertaken in terms of the publicly agreed commitment of the United Kingdom Government and fellow NASCO countries to the principle that, the wild salmon resource should be treated not as a food resource, but as a leisure resource". That is a quote taken from my right honourable friend Mr. John Gummer at page 71 of Biarritz Breakthrough: Trout & Salmon of December 1986.

It is the NRA, not MAFF, which now rules the Welsh and the English, which includes the North East, salmon fisheries. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell, whether he likes it or not, is the boss, not Mr. Gummer. It is my noble friend's duty to require those steps to be taken which will assist in halting the current alarming decline in the salmon resource and to ensure that it is managed and conserved on the basis of low-level exploitation in line with the need to provide maximum conservation and community benefits.

The catch figures in the Report of the Review of North-East Salmon Net Fisheries 1992 make clear not only the unacceptable level of interceptory catches which are around 100,000 salmon and sea trout netted annually while rods take about 4,000, but the enormous conservation, leisure and recreation potential which would be realised if these fish were allowed to enter their home rivers. A recent survey, "Salmon and Sea-Trout Angling and the North-East (England) Tourism Economy: Revenue Input and Employment Support", shows that on the basis of the North East England nets being removed, each rod-caught fish can bring up to £2,900 in community benefit. By comparison net-caught salmon and sea trout were selling in Newcastle this August at wholesale prices of £1.45 and 75p per pound, respectively.

The survey further shows that immediate removal of the north-east nets would within 10 years lead to a minimum rod-catch of 21,000 from North East English rivers. This in turn would serve to generate revenue input of between £60.9 million and £102.9 million, and employment support for up to 16,100 real jobs; part-time, seasonal and full-time. The north-east net fishery is said currently to support the equivalent of only 44 full-time jobs.

The commercial netting of wild salmon is an antiquated, wasteful and immensely damaging method of exploiting a sharply declining natural resource of high economic and community value. And nowhere is the threat posed by intensive domestic netting more apparent than in the coastal waters of Yorkshire and Northumbria. Indeed, the 1989

Yorkshire regional net catch of 22,740 sea-trout (rods took 97) was the second highest overall total and per-licence catch (379.1) on record.

It is shameful and embarrassing that our fellow salmon-producing nations are witness to our blatant hypocrisy. It would be tragic if our failure to do what we demand of others should bring the collapse of NASCO which is now a real threat and with it the terminal descent of magnificent Salmo salar to little more than a museum curiosity. The recommendations of the North-East Netting Review and the currently proposed North-East Net limitation order will only take us further backwards. We must move forward.

Nor can we expect support from my right honourable friend Mr. Gummer and his department. Their remit is food production, antiquated though this provision is when applied to wild salmon. They will continue to argue that everything is all right; that conservation, not management, is the determining consideration; and that there is nothing to prove conclusively that conservation, defined in terms of spawning stocks, is inadequate, right up to the point of total failure of the commercial fishery. Then, of course, any action will be too late. That has been the tragic scenario in nearly all the once-prolific European fisheries from which the salmon has now disappeared or retains but a token presence.

Conservation and management of a leisure resource recreation are the job of the Secretary of State for the Environment, my right honourable friend Michael Howard; and also of the new Secretary of State for National Heritage and fun, my right honourable friend Peter Brooke. But most of all they are the responsibility of my noble friend Lord Crickhowell. Briefly and simply, we must eliminate the high-exploitation, low economic (community) return activity of north-east net fishing and strengthen the low-exploitation, high economic (community) return activity of rod fishing. And the sooner the better.

If I may be forgiven for saying so, now is the time for my noble friend Lord Crickhowell to come out from behind the skirts of MAFF and the ministerial presence of my noble friend the Minister, Lord Howe. He has the powers; he is the boss on salmon matters. It is time for him to take action. The simple blueprint is set out above. If he does not act, he will know that, with MAFF's record of over 30 years of stalling and evasion, nobody else will.

My noble friend Lord Crickhowell, as any who encountered him in his earlier incarnation as Secretary of State for Wales will know, is a person of great energy and diligence. He has fought many battles, often at heavy odds, and won. I am certain that when he does recognise the urgent need to take up cudgels on these vital matters, we can have every confidence that he, common sense, but, most of all, the salmon, will triumph.

5.29 p.m.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, perhaps I should first declare a very minor interest in that I have a stake in two small beats on that great river, the Tay. Secondly, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and, indeed, to others in the House for the fact that I was late. It was not entirely my own fault because there was what is known as a "major traffic incident" around Whitehall and I could not get in. However, here I am.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, what I remember so well is the great work that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, has done on this matter. I only say to him that if he does not get satisfaction, "keep it up". We shall all be behind him because what is at stake is the well-being or the future of the salmon and sea trout.

I recall seeing a delegation from the north-east salmon netters seven years ago with the noble Lord —and very impressive people they were. They brought a lawyer with them who pleaded their cause very ably, but beyond that I do not think that one was too greatly impressed because there are two facts which we must remember. One is the very important fact that such fishing is not the sole way of life for those 300 or 400 fishermen. We are risking the future of the salmon for those 300 or 400 part-time fishermen. Indeed, they are part-time fishermen who have had the most incredible bonanza during the past 20 years. Once the monofilament net was allowed, their catch went up 50 times. Is it really right that that should be perpetuated throughout their lives? I feel that something is wrong here.

The second fact that I should like to stress, which has been stressed by other noble Lords, is that we are talking about those fishermen getting, say, £20 for a fish which they catch whereas if it is the salmon of a riparian owner, the sum is about £2,000. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, said that the figure was £2,900 in the north-east. That clearly shows the immense difference in employment that the one gives to the other. Is it really right that we should have £20 employment versus £2,900?

We should remember that riparian owners are doing their best to increase the number of salmon in their rivers. What are they doing? They are buying nets either in the estuary or elsewhere and, perhaps even more importantly, they have instituted large hatcheries—and to what end? So that the north-east nets should benefit—because that is what it amounts to. There could come a time when the riparian owners in some places will throw in their hats. I gather that this year some northern rivers have done quite well in Scotland but, equally, others have done badly, and that is particularly true for the sea trout. The nets do not discriminate. They are disastrous for some, but reasonable for others, but that is not the way in which one should worry about salmon stocks.

So what is to be done? What do the Government or, should I say, the National Rivers Authority, propose? They propose a net limitation order, but what does that achieve? It achieves an end in say 30 years or, at best, that there will be perhaps half that number in 10 years. But what guarantee is there that at the end of that 10 years—or during that 10 years and afterwards—the other nets will not catch very many more for the very reason that one half has gone? The whole thing is ill thought out.

The Government may say, "What do you propose?". I know that the noble Lord, Lord Moran, suggested that netting should stop at the end of five years and that there should be no more licences after five years. That seems to me to be generous. It is certainly very reasonable. Let us remember that although we are talking about part-time fishermen, we are talking about part-time fishermen who are catching around 50,000 to 100,000 fish, despite the requests of the rest of the world's salmon countries.

However, there is an alternative. I do not stress this too far, but I have heard it suggested that we should have "carcass tagging". Many of your Lordships will know what that means. One needs to find out how many fish each of the existing licensees has caught in the past five years. One should then issue one-fifth of that number of tags. When a salmon is caught, a tag must be used immediately on the fish. That ensures some form of control. I know that people will say, "Well, it isn't very efficient", or, "It is administratively difficult and anyhow it isn't watertight". I accept all that, but what are we worrying about? We are trying to save the salmon. If the five-year period is not acceptable, let us try carcass tagging for a short period and, at the end of that, if it does not work and if people get around it, at least we know where we are and can take the final step, which is to do what the noble Lord, Lord Moran, suggested and abolish that licensing provision at the end of five years.

I have already said—I should like to say again—that the present proposal is wholly unsatisfactory. We are risking the future of the salmon for the sake of 300 or 400 part-time fishermen. What sort of an argument have we got when, facing all the other countries which worry about their salmon, such as Norway, Iceland and the east coast of America where the same Atlantic salmon are to be found, we say, "Oh no, we are not going to do anything about this. Just leave us alone with these people who are endangering the whole future of the salmon". It is not good enough.

5.37 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I too should like to express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for introducing this debate. The noble Lord has a reputation for introducing debates at timely moments, and this is certainly one of them. What has been interesting about the debate so far is that a unanimous view has been expressed. I do not think that I would be wrong in pre-empting the three noble Lords who will speak after me when I say that I suspect that they will probably share the same view as that which has been expressed so far by your Lordships.

There is no question that, as all noble Lords who have spoken so far have said, we are facing a serious situation over our salmon stocks. But the Government are constantly —and rightly—making the sustainability of natural resources a key part of environmental policy. I know how very strongly my right honourable friend the Minister feels about this point. Indeed, environmental assessments have now crept into virtually every piece of legislation and into almost every departmental brief that one encounters. It seems quite wrong, therefore, that that keenness towards sustainability should not be employed so far as the wild salmon is concerned. It is a prime example, surely, of a species that deserves that degree of attention.

Various figures have been quoted by noble Lords as to the benefits of salmon caught on rod as opposed to salmon caught in the net. Those figures appear to vary by 300 or 400 per cent. But one thing is quite certain: the benefits that accrue from rod fishing to the riparian owners and therefore to the local employment of people in remote rural areas are fundamental. I believe I am right in saying that many of these figures were compiled by Portsmouth Polytechnic. It was responsible for many of the figures quoted by noble Lords this evening. The polytechnic maintains that 90 per cent. of the £340 million is generated by recreational fishing as opposed to only 10 per cent. from the nets, even though the nets account for between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the total wild salmon catch. Those figures speak for themselves.

A further and vital component of the figures is that this revenue is being starved from those who own and manage the rivers. If the salmon continue to decline, the income necessary for the maintenance, protection and management of these stocks, which can only effectively be carried out, as has always been the case, by the riparian owners, will decline also. I accept the important role played by the NRA in the whole river system of England and Wales, but at the end of the day it is those who look after the rivers who must be relied on to conserve and look after our salmon stocks.

There are many fair and reasonable methods open to the Government as to how best they can wind down the drift netting operations. I am sure that my noble friend the Duke of Roxburghe will illustrate some of those points in his speech. I know that points have been raised by the Action Group Against Interceptor Netting for Salmon and Sea Trout. But it seems to me that the Government must move away from the figure of 30 years—the time limit put on the winding down of these nets. Certain noble Lords who know far more about the subject than I do have mentioned five years as being an absolute minimum. There can be no doubt that action must be taken and taken quickly.

If the system of not reissuing licences to net is to be continued, will it be associated with some form of quota system? When the netters have the ability, through modern equipment, to extend their range and extend the amount of fish that they can catch, even with a diminishing number of people exercising the netting rights they can still continue to catch as many fish as they were before these licences were being restricted. I should be grateful if my noble friend could answer that specific point.

However, the key question as I see it was put by my noble friend Lord Kimberley. Is the commercial exploitation of the wild salmon as a food resource any longer appropriate or acceptable? The answer must surely be no, due to the development of the fish farms whose annual production far exceeds the global catch of wild salmon. The difficulty is that, historically, the legislation relating to the exploitation of migratory fish revolves around salmon as a food resource. It must surely now be regarded as a natural resource.

I should like to quote from one John Castle, who is a dentist from the north west of Lancashire and a man deeply committed to the salmon and its future. He wrote me a letter the other day, an extract from which illustrates the point I am trying to make. He wrote: If one reads the old annual reports of the various Boards of Conservators it is very apparent that the Conservators felt that their primary responsibility, once it was felt that the stocks were secure, was to ensure the viability of their commercial net fisheries. The legislation which made provision for this policy to be carried out is still very much in place today and MAFF who has overall control of fisheries still act in relation to salmon fisheries adhering to this legislation and still with the attitude that wild salmon are a food resource to be harvested. If this one fact can be grasped, it becomes more easy to understand the reasons why the Ministry quite naturally view the considerations and arguments of the commercial salmon fishermen with greater importance and favour than those of the rod fisheries which the legislation views as incidental beneficiaries. Nevertheless very slowly changes in attitudes are beginning to occur". I hope that changes in attitudes really are occurring.

I finish by asking my noble friend to explain to what extent he is constrained on this matter by legislation. If he is, do the Government propose to make changes? But if he is not, can he assure the House that attitudes of change within his Ministry will accelerate sufficiently to ensure the safeguard of this highly important resource by phasing out the netting and that it will cease to regard the rod fisheries—this is an important point—as incidental beneficiaries but rather as the true conservators of the wild salmon and a major job resource in rural areas?

5.47 p.m.

Lord Tryon

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for giving us the chance to debate this subject, although I am sad that we have to talk about it yet again. Like many other noble Lords who have spoken today, I have almost lost count of the number of times I have had something to say on this subject. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, started the history back in 1964 when the Labour Government—and in particular the Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross—moved with commendable speed against the new-fangled drift nets that were threatening salmon stocks off the coast of Scotland. I have always maintained—I think I have said it here before—that a statue to Willie Ross ought to be erected at the mouth of every major salmon river in Scotland. Without that action I doubt whether there would be many salmon left in Scotland.

Why did we allow them to go on in England? We have heard from other noble Lords that they were not a great threat in those days. The English may have been slower to move. Perhaps fewer salmon were congregating off the Northumberland coast. At any rate at that time they were tending to fish using old-fashioned methods. No one did anything about it. It did not matter as the numbers were very small. However, since then we have done nothing but argue about this matter.

The sad thing is that this problem goes back almost to the beginning of time. I am told, although I have not read it myself because it is in Norman French, that even the authors of Magna Carta saw fit to put in a clause or a sentence about the interception of migratory fish by other people. It was no doubt even more blatant in those days because people were blocking off whole rivers. The problem has been around for a very long time and we have all been pitifully slow at solving it.

In fact, the proverbial man from Mars would be amazed if he were here tonight, and had been watching for some time, to see that, "here we go again" on the matter. Luckily, my long list of arguments for phasing out this fishery as soon as possible has considerably shrunk; that is, if I am to avoid repeating too many of the previous arguments that have been made by other noble Lords in a series of extremely well-informed speeches. The subject has been covered so far as concerns the operation of the north-east nets, to the extent that many of my foxes have already been shot—or, perhaps more appropriately many of my fish have already been intercepted.

However, there are a few points that I should like to emphasise that have not yet been mentioned. I have great respect for the north-east fishermen. The arguments about salmon fishing have for many years been dogged by a sort of "them and us" attitude between the rod fishermen and the netsmen. I have never shared that view. I have respect for the hard and no doubt sometimes hazardous way of life in which they engage in order to catch their fish. But 182 net licences translate, I am told, into 42 man years. That is the employment of 42 people. In any other context, that would be a minute firm and not something that your Lordships' House would normally be discussing for very long. The figure is based on the number of days that they normally fish, multiplied by the number of people involved in the fishery and divided by the normal working year of a modest 250 days. I do not think that those figures have been given previously.

It is hard to obtain the figures as regards the profits of that fishery. However, a figure was produced locally in Northumberland in 1988. The total profit for the whole fishery was £324,624. That is so exact that it is hard to believe. But, using that figure, it translates into £1,800 per licence or £8,000 per man year. That is really not a great amount of money by the standards of the other side of the equation. We have had all sorts of figures from noble Lords tonight as regards the other side of the equation. It is extremely hard to reach the answer. However, various studies have produced all kinds of figures, varying from anything from an extra thousand to several thousand more people being employed in the glens of Scotland if there were more fish in the rivers for recreational angling.

There is no questioning the fact that the number of overseas tourists visiting Scotland to fish for salmon has been declining. More seriously, many English fishermen who used to go there regularly on an annual basis, spending a great deal of money in the local economy in the process, are beginning to stop doing so. 1 do not like to quote personal examples, but this year is the first year that I have not rented a beat in Scotland with friends. I went to Russia instead. I must say that I caught more fish in one week in Russia than I have in the past 10 years when renting a beat at a very similar cost in Scotland. I would much rather go to Inverness or Aberdeen and be at home in the Highlands of Scotland than go to Murmansk. It is a most difficult journey and a somewhat uncomfortable place in which to stay. There may be more to fishing than catching fish; but catching no fish is not good enough.

More and more people will go abroad unless the standard of fishing in Scotland improves. In my lifetime it was wonderful but it has steadily declined. Whatever the government scientists have said to the Ministry of Agriculture, or whatever ministry may be looking after the matter, there is absolutely no question about what I have said. The figures produced by the Scottish statistical bulletin in July this year are frankly terrifying. However, as they have already been mentioned by other speakers, I shall not repeat them.

Much has been made of the value of rod-caught fish. We have heard figures from several noble Lords regarding anything between a £500 and a £2,800 contribution to the local economy. I have no idea what the answer is. However, it is so far in excess of a dead fish on the slab and caught by the net that there can be no comparison. The latter cannot be worth more than about £20.

I should just like to mention a point that has already been raised but one which has not been dealt with in great detail. I refer to the international perspective of the problem which has gone beyond the rather parochial one of north-east drift nets. I have been involved for a year or two now with an organisation called the North Atlantic Salmon Fund. It is based in Iceland and has been involved in negotiating the buy-out of the deep-sea salmon fishery off the Faroe islands. It is currently involved in the same process in Greenland. I heard only yesterday that very good progress is being made. It is a private initiative funded by fishermen, and indeed governments, to some extent. It has government support from every North-Atlantic salmon-producing country, but sadly there has not been much help so far from the UK. However, that is another problem beyond that about which we are talking tonight.

During my work with that organisation I have met representatives of all the other salmon-producing countries in the North Atlantic. Frankly, they are horrified by the UK situation and what is happening here. If that fund is successful in phasing-out the Greenland drift-netting fishery—I should point out that the fisheries in Greenland and in the Faroes are much bigger than the north-east drift-net fishery about which we are talking tonight that will leave only us and Ireland. By "us" I mean England and not Scotland because, as we know, they have, very sensibly, banned it. It is not a tolerable situation. The Irish are under diplomatic pressure to phase-out their drift-net fisheries which are even larger than the north-east ones. But while we continue to drift net for salmon, there is very little hope of putting pressure on them. However, once they are the last ones, and they are catching several thousands of tonnes of salmon a year, then greater pressure can be put upon them. We can then return to the situation that has been recommended ever since the Hunter Report of 1965, and which has been commonsense to anyone who knows anything about salmon since time immemorial, of salmon being harvested either by nets or rods in the rivers in which they belong.

I have seldom heard a more unanimous cross-party and no-party view on any subject. We have yet to hear an official Opposition view, although we heard a very good speech from the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, who is very experienced on such matters. Frankly, the case is overwhelming. I hope that the Minister will not try to defend the indefensible. But, if he does, so be it; it will he interesting to hear what he has to say. Like the noble Lord, Lord Moran, I agree that we arc too late to ban this fishery immediately as was done in Scotland. If we were to put a time limit of five years on the phasing out, we could work towards a fair ending of the fishing within five years and give some hope of a greater return of salmon to Scotland, with a properly regulated harvesting of them in the future.

6 p.m.

Earl Haig

My Lords, the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, is about the future of migratory salmon which are so valuable as a prize for sportsmen, and one of the most beautiful components of our natural environment. He has done a magnificent job on the international front to prevent the decline of salmon stocks, hut the initiative that he has taken in those matters is being seriously undermined by our slowness to ban drift netting. England and Wales are dragging their feet in the wake of virtually all North Atlantic countries. In so doing, we are helping to maintain a form of netting which is contrary to good management practice.

Good management lies at the heart of conservation. River managers should he given every encouragement. I, like other noble Lords, must declare an interest as a riparian owner on the Tweed, as a Tweed commissioner and as a beneficiary from past generations. Thanks to continuing management over the years, the River Tweed has been gradually improved for fishing. Not only have the salmon been able to thrive, but the river banks have been strengthened and croys have been built to improve river flows.

People come from all over the world to fish. I have visitors this autumn from South Africa, Germany and Japan. The shoals of fish, as they appear off our coast after their long migration, are not welcomed home with encouragement to spawn and multiply. Instead, they have to face a new and lethal form of netting near their home base—near where they were born under the protection of river management. If we were beekeepers, we should feel equally aggrieved if our neighbours started capturing our bees on the way back to the hive. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tryon, about the history of the problem. The trouble arose in the early 1960s with the introduction of the nylon net. There is no historical justification for the driftnet industry.

Particular damage is being done to spring and summer runs returning to east coast rivers. Damage is being done to the tourist industry, hotels and shops due to the scarcity of salmon in the rivers in spring and summer. Our tourist economy would have a greater income if visitors came for the spring fishing as they do for the autumn. Damage is being done to the local economy, where some 500 jobs are dependent upon the existence of salmon in the river; £5 million annually is injected into our economy.

According to an independent survey, the national figure is at least 10 times that number. The Tweed Commission's funds are also at risk. They are funds which are needed to protect the fish from poaching, to pay for improvements to spawning areas and for the cost of research into salmon and brown trout.

During the debates on the Salmon Bill in 1986, a number of your Lordships were ready to propose the banning of the north-east fisheries in the Bill. However, on the assurance of my noble friend Lord Belstead that those fisheries would be monitored carefully over five years and that an opportunity would be offered to reconsider banning if catch figures proved to be significant, we agreed not to press the matter. The ground for delay was the high employment in the north-east at that time. Without being unmindful of the unemployment in the north-east, it is fair to say that few driftnetsmen can be said to be mainly dependent upon drift netting for employment, whereas up river there are many full-time jobs upon which families depend.

Since those matters were debated. the number of salmon entering the river in the spring and summer has been on the decline. That is in the context of a situation where our own river nets have had to be reduced greatly.

It is a depressing experience to live by a fine river, where in years past the streams and pools were heavily populated with leaping salmon, now to have those pools empty and deserted. That desertion cannot be attributed solely to the interceptory nets, but the driftnet fishery contributes significantly to it. It is believed to intercept 100,000 salmon each year, 80 per cent. of which are returning to Scotland. That number is the equivalent of over 60 per cent. of catches by all methods in England and Wales. As several noble Lords have said, the fish are caught by 180 nets, some of them half a mile long, operating along a short length of coast.

In accordance with government undertakings given at the time of the Salmon Bill, the position of the north-east fisheries was reviewed at the end of five years. As the catch figures were found to be significant, it was decided to phase out the driftnets. My noble friend Lady Trumpington said in the House a year ago that the Government, have asked the National Rivers Authority to come forward with proposals to achieve this as soon as possible".—[0fficial Report, 26/11/91; col. 1275.] However, the introduction of the 1992 net limitation order by the N RA came as a great shock to the Tweed commissioners who realised that the pace of the phase-out operation was much too slow. Despite various deputations to the Minister, it appears that the Government are unwilling to speed up matters. At present, the Government's reluctance to grasp the nettle is evident. Some urgent action is needed.

As one of those who took part in the Committee stage of the Salmon Bill and was involved with the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Lansdowne designed to ban drift netting, I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister whether he will now consider the incorporation of that amendment into the Act. My noble friend's amendment provided: In Section 1(1) (a) add the sub-paragraph '(vi) a drift net'. and, In Section 1(3) insert at the end 'drift-net' means any length of net allowed to float or drift being either attached or released from a fishing boat and not being a length of net attached or held on the shore'. I ask my noble friend to consider that request. I hope that it will help speed things up.

Lord Tryon

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, as he mentioned me perhaps I may say that I do not believe that I said anything with which he would disagree. There was a moment when I was trying to guess why nothing had been done about the north-east at the same time as something was done about the Scottish nets. I was in no way complaining or saying that that was right. I was merely saying that they were probably old-fashioned and no problem then.

6.9 p.m.

The Duke of Roxburghe

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the serious problem of the north-east driftnet fisheries. As the ninth speaker, I apologise if I repeat any points that have already been made. I must first declare an interest in that my family and I own two beats on the River Tweed, the river which is most seriously affected by the north-east fisheries. I am a Tweed commissioner and a member of its management committee. I shall therefore endeavour to restrict my comments to the effects of the driftnet fishery on the Tweed and other east coast Scottish rivers.

As many other noble Lords have said, interceptory fishing for salmon and sea trout, especially when carried out with monofilament drift nets, is universally agreed to be an unsound and bad management practice.

The new net limitation order, with the proposal to phase out fishery over a 30-year period, is paying mere lip service to this principle and it totally fails to address the problem. The NRA predicts that the number of nets will halve in 10 years, but there is no certainty as to this. As other noble Lords have said, there is no guarantee that the catch will reduce. The remaining netsmen, if they have any sense or any commercial and economic acumen, will simply carry on fishing and catch more salmon. Surely this cannot be the Government's intention.

The implications for the Tweed and other Scottish rivers are considerable. In 1992, the Tweed commissioners were forced to reduce the levy on their commercial nets by 77 per cent., thanks to the extremely poor catches made by those nets in previous years. The resulting loss of income to the commissioners was £35,000, out of a budget of £300,000. That severely restricted the commissioners' ability to carry out good river management and to support the many new initiatives planned, including the vitally important habitat improvement plan.

Much has been made of the importance of jobs in the north-east fishery—not least this evening. But serious thought should be given to the effect of the damage that the fishery does to the economies of the Borders and Scotland as a whole. The Tweed still has plenty of fish in its late autumn run, but as the noble Earl, Lord Haig, mentioned, the spring and summer runs are very poor, decreasing to the point where beats are not let at any price, with the resultant loss of business in the local economy. Hotel beds are not filled, shops lose turnover and there is a consequent loss of employment throughout the region. It would appear that the north-east jobs are sacrosanct, but the Borders and Scottish jobs are not.

Furthermore, it might interest your Lordships to know the full effect of the north-east fishery on the Tweed's commercial nets. The north-east driftnet fishery season finishes on 31st August each year and the Tweed nets go on until 14th September. The Tweed nets see an immediate improvement in their catches in the first two weeks of September. The netsmen state that their profitability for the season depends entirely on their success or failure in those two weeks.

In the past five years to 1992, the increase in catches for the two main netting stations on the Tweed during the first two weeks in September compared with the last two weeks of August each year has been: 50 per cent., 42 per cent., 125 per cent., 109 per cent. and 55 per cent. That is an average increase over five years of 66 per cent. which surely gives a clear indication of the extremely damaging effect that the north-east fishery has on the commercial nets on the Tweed.

If further proof is needed, in the past three years the catch in the last two weeks of August for the same netting stations has declined by 54 per cent. It is a recognised management practice that migratory fish should be harvested at the source from which they originate. This is not being allowed to happen on the Tweed.

There is another point which I feel has not been adequately considered about the north-east fishery. If it continues in any form in the future, it will allow illegal drift netting to take place. The policing of those illegal nets is almost impossible with the legal nets in place. There are many illegal nets floating in the sea which no one claims, and I am sure that the NRA would bear this out. It is only when the season finishes that the practice of illegal drift netting within the Northumberland area can be stopped.

I believe that the Government have based their decision up to now on the north-east driftnet fishery on an erroneous premise—namely, the threat to fish stocks. It is an unsound management policy to say that a practice will not be curtailed until there is positive evidence that stocks are being damaged. It is equivalent to saying that we will not protect a species until there is evidence of its extinction. Further, with the amount of evidence emerging through genetic testing about the complexity of the salmon's genetic make-up, which in many areas now suggests specific sub-races of salmon, it is surely complacent and arrogant to believe that an efficient driftnet fishery of this magnitude is not damaging component parts of the salmon stocks.

What then can he done'? My noble friend Lord Kimberley spoke illuminatingly about the NRA, MAFF and the DoE. If the NRA cannot bring about the changes which are necessary, then surely the Government could bring in the necessary legislation, as my noble friend Lord Haig suggested. Alternatively, or linked with this, the phasing out of the north-east driftnet fishery can be speeded up by including certain specific conditions in the proposed net limitation order.

I shall be most interested to hear the Minister's response to these suggestions: first, that in 1993 a licence be issued only to those people who have held a licence during the preceding two years. Thus, the 14 new holders of licences issued in 1992, against the spirit of the Government's intention, would not qualify. Secondly, that suitable provisions be put into the net limitation order to specify a retirement age. Sixty would appear sensible. Thirdly, as a number of noble Lords said, a large number of netsmen fish only on a few occasions each year. It is therefore difficult for them to claim that the fishery provides a significant proportion of their income. It should, therefore, be a condition of the renewal or transfer of a licence that applicants should have fished on an average of 30 days in each year during the previous five years. Fourthly, as suggested in the Section 39 report, the opening date of the season should be postponed to 1st May to reduce the exploitation of the spring salmon.

Finally, in relation to the Tweed, it has been proposed that 25 T and J licences should be issued in District 1 immediately adjacent to the Tweed, particularly in view of the statistics given by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, about the number of sea trout caught in the T and J nets. These nets would still exploit predominantly those salmon and sea trout stocks returning to Scottish rivers, especially the Tweed. Will the Minister accept that these nets should be reduced to 10 and that the same provisions for phasing out should apply as apply to those proposed for driftnets?

None of these proposals is unreasonable. They are suggested so that the phasing out of the north-east driftnet fishery can be carried out within a more realistic timeframe. That would show that the Government are fully committed to the principle of allowing migratory fish to return to their sources of origin, without heavy exploitation through drift netting, rather than the Government's present position of publicly adopting one policy and then condoning a practice which is diametrically different.

6.19 p.m.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Moran, not merely on raising this Question but on the complete and comprehensive manner in which he did so. It made my task correspondingly easier and, I hope, similarly assisted the Minister in clarifying the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and other speakers in the debate this evening.

My starting point is the session at Question Time in your Lordships' House on 26th November 1991, a year ago, at col. 1275 of Hansard. The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, asked the Minister whether, as a result of the north-east salmon netting review, Her Majesty's Government could indicate a timescale for phasing out the use of driftnets. The Minister of State at MAFF—the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, at that time—said that the north-east coast salmon driftnet fishing should end as soon as those holding licences left the fishery. She said the National Rivers Authority had been asked to come forward with proposals to achieve that aim. When pressed about that reply she agreed that the National Rivers Authority had at that time no option but to advertise a temporary extension of existing net limitation orders in the Northumbrian region to ensure that the fishery remained tightly regulated.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, took part in that Question Time. He welcomed the phasing out of driftnet licences. He said that step had already been advocated by noble Lords five years previously when debating the Salmon Bill of 1986. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, mentioned the effect of driftnet fishing on Scottish rivers. The Minister of State replied that in 1990–91 the net loss to Scottish fisheries was calculated at 6 per cent. That seems rather low in the light of what has been said in the course of our discussion this evening.

At that Question Time I asked the Minister of State about illegal fishing off the Irish coast. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, was kind enough to refer to that matter today when he introduced his Question. I received no reply to my question at the time and to this day I do not know whether illegal fishing takes place off the Irish coast. If that is happening it must be aggravating the situation and it must be compounding the problem of driftnet fishing off the north-east coast. We have been mainly concerned with driftnet fishing off that latter coast this evening.

In his admirable speech today the noble Lord, Lord Moran, advocated a five year phase-out period with compensation for fishermen. He referred to the limited powers that the National Rivers Authority has in this matter, particularly as regards its obligation to issue new licences in certain circumstances. He welcomes, as I do, the National Rivers Authority's decision to limit licences in the Anglian region. He said specifically that sea trout stocks were a cause for concern as the dreaded T and J nets were used to fish those stocks. The National Rivers Authority estimates that it will take 30 years to phase out driftnet fishing. That is, I believe, a source of great concern to us all, as is the use of monofilament nets. The noble Lord referred to the example the Canadian Government had set in this matter when they agreed to a voluntary buy-out of certain fisheries.

Other speakers have made various points and I shall deal with some of them in the hope that it will assist the Minister in his reply. The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, opposed any form of drift netting, as did most speakers. He referred to it as wasteful and murderous. The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, said the National Rivers Authority cannot carry out its statutory duties with regard to the River Esk in Yorkshire. He compared the economics of rod fisheries with those of driftnet fisheries in terms of licence income. The Rod fishermen pay far more for their licences than do the driftnet fishermen. The noble Lord gave details of the quantities of fish taken by rod fishermen and by driftnet fishermen to illustrate the size of the problem. He said that the driftnet fishermen took huge quantities of fish as compared with the relatively modest quantities taken by those who use rod and line.

The noble Earl. Lord Kimberley, said that the Department of the Environment had primary responsibility for the National Rivers Authority. I had the impression that, along with other speakers, the noble Earl was questioning the seriousness with which the Ministry of Agriculture approached this problem in England and Wales. The noble Earl perhaps wished that the National Rivers Authority was responsible for this matter to the Department of the Environment, where its main responsibility under statute lies. The noble Earl gave us concise details of the legal steps which can he taken to ban driftnet fishing.

The noble Earl, Lord Perth, said that driftnet fishing was not the sole livelihood of the driftnet fishermen. He claimed they only fished on a part-time basis. He discussed in some detail the effect of driftnet fishing on riparian owners. That point was taken up by many other speakers in the debate. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, discussed variations in the numbers of fish caught. He said the important issue was that riparian owners generated employment through offering conventional fishing by rod and line. In his opinion, that kind of fishing made a significant contribution to the economics of rural life.

The noble Lord, Lord Tryon, paid tribute to my late colleague Lord Ross of Marnock. My late colleague was the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1962 when driftnet fishing was banned there. The noble Lord, Lord Tryon, expressed the hope that England would follow that example. Those who knew Lord Ross of Marnock knew he favoured prompt action. He had considerable powers as Secretary of State for Scotland. The late Lord's personality and his powers enabled him to take action quickly. That was the hallmark of his distinguished career. The noble Lord, Lord Tryon, also mentioned rod fishing opportunities abroad despite the geographical problems of reaching such far away places as Murmansk.

The noble Earl, Lord Haig, mentioned the River Tweed, as did the noble Duke, the Duke of Roxburghe. The noble Earl, Lord Haig, spoke of assurances that had been given about the ending of north-east drift netting during the passage of the 1986 Act. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, giving those assurances. The noble Duke spoke not only of the River Tweed but also of the problems created on other east coast rivers in Scotland. He said that a 30 year phase-out period was merely case of paying lip service to the problem as significant damage had already been done to the River Tweed and in other areas.

I hope the Minister will answer the following questions this evening. When does Her Majesty's Government expect the phasing-out of drift netting to be completed? Are they prepared to expedite that process by compensating existing driftnet fishermen for giving up their licences? Can the National Rivers Authority achieve reductions if in certain circumstances it is currently obliged to license new entrants? Is the National Rivers Authority adequately funded to carry out that job satisfactorily? Will Her Majesty's Government ban nylon filament gill nets? Does the Ministry of Agriculture intend to tackle this problem seriously?

6.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, like other noble Lords I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, for giving us the opportunity to debate this difficult and important issue. I welcome the chance to respond to the concerns of noble Lords and to explain as fully as I possibly can the Government's view.

I should like to begin, as the noble Lord, Lord Moran, did, by reminding your Lordships that during the passage of the Salmon Bill in 1986 the Government undertook to carry out a review of the salmon net fisheries off the North-East of England and eastern Scotland. The terms of the review are set out in Section 39 of the Salmon Act 1986. This required Ministers to prepare a report in the context of the need to ensure that sufficient salmon return to spawn in the rivers of the review area and that fishing for salmon by nets is properly managed. This mandate was approved by both Houses.

The report of the review was presented to Parliament in October of last year by my right honourable friends the Minister responsible for agriculture, fisheries and food and the Secretary of State for Scotland. I remind my noble friend Lord Kimberley that they have responsibility for fisheries. The review, which was appended to the report, describes in great detail the management of the fisheries in the review area, the changes in catches by each method since 1952 and the effect of the various net fisheries on other fisheries and on spawning stocks. Much of the information in it concerns the salmon driftnet fisheries which operate off the Northumbrian and Yorkshire coasts.

Your Lordships may also recall that the review did not produce any evidence that these driftnet fisheries posed an immediate threat to salmon stocks, or for that reason any justification for depriving existing netsmen of their licences at a stroke. It did, however, note that the fisheries are interceptory, exploiting several salmon and sea trout stocks. It also recognised that a substantial proportion of the fish caught are heading for Scottish rivers. The dependence of the fisheries on that multiplicity of stocks from widely dispersed river systems makes the task of conservation and management more difficult.

It followed, therefore, that it would aid and improve the management of individual east coast salmon and sea trout stocks if these driftnet fisheries were to come to an end. It is for that reason that Ministers decided that it would be desirable to phase them out. However, they took the view that, in order to avoid unnecessary hardship, this should be done gradually. Their report included a formula for achieving that objective. It was that the number of licences be reduced as those holding them left the fisheries.

The report also proposed a number of other changes to the management and regulation of the net fisheries. These included a review of licence duties, the harmonisation of regulations in Yorkshire and Northumbria, the postponement of the opening date of the drift net fisheries and the making available of increased opportunities for T and J netting.

Ministers have discretionary powers under the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 to regulate sea fisheries, including fishing for salmon and migratory trout. It would be possible to use those heavy handed powers to license and, subsequently, to phase out the driftnet fishery. However, there would be certain difficulties in that approach. More importantly, there is no need to go down that route. The National Rivers Authority, which was created after the Salmon Act 1986 came into force, has a clear statutory duty to manage salmon fisheries. It also has the statutory powers necessary to implement all the measures proposed by Ministers in their report.

I should make one point. There is no question of the Ministry sheltering behind the NRA. If either Ministers or the NRA receive a body of evidence and consider that action needs to be taken in furtherance of the NRA's responsibilities neither party is likely to stand in the way of the other without very good reason. The authority will act in concert with Ministers, and vice versa.

As I said, the NRA has the necessary powers, and I am sure that noble Lords will agree that there would he little point in creating an authority and giving it specific duties, responsibilities and powers if they are not made use of. That is why Ministers asked the NRA to consider how their proposals could be put into effect.

On the central question of the phase-out the NRA responded by proposing the introduction of a new net limitation order under which the re-allocation of surrendered licences would be prohibited. That approach was wholly consistent with the mechanism set out by Ministers in their report. The NRA also made a strong case—which Ministers accepted—for the authority to be given limited discretion to allow the transfer of licences to long-standing bona fide partners of licence holders in certain exceptional—and I stress the word "exceptional"—circumstances.

The NRA was asked to prepare and, subsequently, to publish an order which would implement its proposals. That has been done. As some noble Lords will know, my right honourable friend the Minister has received a number of objections to the new order. Some of the points made in those objections have been mentioned here today. My right honourable friend will be considering these carefully before taking a final decision on whether to confirm the order.

The Question of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, asked when the Government expect the phase-out to be completed. We have not fixed a precise date for this and, in the light of the report's findings, we see no case for doing so. The NRA has estimated that a phase-out on the basis proposed would take 30 years to complete, with the number of licences falling by half in 10 years. Given the formula established by Ministers in the report, that should have come as no surprise.

The NRA's estimate is based on historic rates of departure of licence holders from the fisheries. I would emphasise, especially to my noble friend Lord Peel, however, that it is only an estimate. Factors such as the recent fall in drift net catches, and the fall in the value of wild salmon as a result of the increased availability of the farmed variety, could lead to a faster rate of decline.

I recognise that all noble Lords participating in the debate have said that these fisheries should be brought to an end much more quickly. I fully recognise the strength of feeling expressed this afternoon. It has been suggested that a quicker phase-out could be achieved without hardship if the netsmen were to be paid compensation. However, in the absence of any evidence that the driftnet fisheries pose a threat to stocks—and in the legal context that is the key point —there can be no justification for the Government taking action beyond that which has already been proposed.

That does not, however, prevent others taking action if they see a benefit from a faster phase-out. The possibility of a private buy-out scheme has been mentioned. Were the new net limitation order to be confirmed it would be feasible to introduce such a scheme. There would, for instance, be nothing to stop a driftnetsman from accepting payment in return for not renewing his licence. But those are matters for private agreement and private capital. There can be no question of government involvement in such arrangements, or of taxpayers' money being used to fund them.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, and other noble Lords drew attention to the fact that licences were issued to 14 new driftnetsmen in 1992. In that context I should emphasise that the total number of driftnet licences issued in 1992 was the same as in 1991: there was no increase. The timing of the presentation of the review after the Summer Recess, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Moran, recognised, meant that the NRA had no option but to promote a temporary, one-year net limitation order for Northumbria before the review appeared. Had it not done so the fishery would have been unregulated for the 1992 season and the authority would have been obliged to issue licences to any applicant, without any limit on numbers. To have introduced an order which prevented new applicants from being issued with unallocated licences would certainly have generated a public inquiry, which would have put at risk measures for controlling the fishery in 1992. However, the number of netsmen involved is small, and their ages are such that their entry into the fishery should not prolong its existence.

The point has been made by many noble Lords that the revenue generated by recreational salmon and sea trout fisheries far exceeds that generated by the drift nets, and that a greater number of people depend upon it for their livelihoods. I would not dispute that for one moment, but it is the marginal change and not the total revenue which is important. Our scientists estimated on the basis of detailed studies that even if all forms of salmon netting off the North East of England—fixed nets inshore and drift nets—were to come to an end, the average increase in rod catches in Scottish east coast rivers would be less than 7 per cent. It is hard to see that that would result in any significant increase in the number of anglers fishing those rivers, or in their expenditure.

Many believe that the revenue considerations should have been taken into account in the review. But I once again remind your Lordships that the review was carried out under the terms laid down in the Salmon Act 1986. That required Ministers to review salmon net fishing under two terms of reference: the need to ensure that sufficient salmon returned to spawn; and that fishery for salmon is properly managed.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, expressed a particular interest in sea trout and the dangers of over-exploitation by inshore fixed nets as off-shore netting declines. I should like to assure him that we and the NRA agree that that will need great care. We do not think it unreasonable, as we proposed last year, to offer opportunities to former driftnetsmen to operate an inshore net. However, the numbers of those nets must continue to be tightly regulated, and a proper balance established between all forms of exploitation of sea trout stocks, including, of course, the local rivers of Northumbria and Yorkshire. The same goes for salmon too, and I hope that noble Lords will accept how seriously we take these matters.

Much has been made of the fact that interceptory netting has been prohibited in many North Atlantic countries. It has been suggested that the Government's failure to take similar action in relation to the north-east coast driftnet fishery is hampering efforts to bring salmon drift netting fishing to an end elsewhere.

I should like to emphasise—I think that it should be emphasised in international forums—that those fisheries are tightly regulated by the NRA. The nets must he attended at all times; they can only be used during certain hours, on certain days and at certain times of the year; and they are subject to strict regulations on size and design. I also reiterate that the review found no evidence that they posed an immediate threat to salmon stocks. In the absence of such evidence, there is no legal justification for bringing them to an early end. However, we accept that the interceptory nature of the fisheries makes the task of managing individual stocks more difficult. That is why, as I said, we have taken the view that they should be phased out.

The noble Earl, Lord Perth, mentioned carcass tagging and my noble friend Lord Peel referred to quotas, which in a way are associated ideas. Proposals have been put forward to my right honourable friend the Minister very recently along these lines, following his meeting with salmon angling interests. There are considerable difficulties with the idea of a quota, enforcement being one, and discarding, the encouragement to trans-ship salmon and, not least, how to establish an entitlement to quota in the first place. Nonetheless, we are looking at those suggestions. We have considered quotas in the past. They have not been used in many decades of inshore conservation and management of salmon. In their place we have chosen restrictions on effort, time, area, place, net types, net lengths and so on.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene. Can my noble friend give us some assurance, bearing in mind that he has just said that these nets are highly regulated by the NRA, that if it is proven that the overall net catches do not decline despite the reduction in the number of licences given, the Government will continue to search out ways and means of finding out how many fish are being caught and will look at the whole idea of quotas? Without them, I cannot see how there will be any real reduction in the overall number of salmon that will be caught.

Earl Howe

I was coming to that very point and will be glad to answer my noble friend in a moment.

The point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Tryon, that many of the drift netsmen are part-timers. From the netsmen working T-nets, J-nets and drift nets in Northumbria and Yorkshire, there is a range of part-time and full-time effort. The salmon and sea trout netting season is relatively short and there are strict controls on effort, times, area, and so on. It is important to grasp that during the season, for full-timers and part-timers, the catch is an important component of the mixed fisheries throughout the year. Thus, salmon fishing adds to their overall viability. We plan to phase out the fishery, but I repeat that we must avoid unnecessary hardship.

My noble friend the Duke of Roxburghe suggested some conditions which might be applied to the 1993 net limitation order: for example, restricting the season, the possibility of disenfranchising the 14 new netsmen, a compulsory retirement age and so on. We should be very happy to consider those points. There are letters currently before my right honourable friend the Minister making much the same points. My right honourable friend will review those submissions before deciding whether to confirm or amend the order.

Perhaps the House will forgive me if I finish by going into a little more detail about the widespread decline in salmon catches and the "crisis" which faces the Scottish angling economy. It is an issue which has been raised by noble Lords this evening. There are still some who would like to claim that drift netting off the north-east coast of England is responsible for all these ills. However, my noble friend Lord Kimball admits that the causal chain is hard to substantiate. I suggest that we ought to keep the picture in proper perspective.

Very recently there have been disappointing levels of catch in commercial and rod fisheries throughout the North Atlantic from Russia to Maine. Our research and that of others into the causes continues. But the evidence so far indicates that much of the reduction of catches in salmon by all methods in 1990 reflected the poor survival at sea of the 1989 year class of smolts coming from a wide range of North Atlantic home rivers. Catch data for 1991 were also below average, again as a consequence of low overall returns from the 1989 smolt year class. All have been affected by this problem.

There has been anxiety about Scottish rod catches in the rivers of the east and north-east coasts of Scotland and the impact of English drift netting upon them. In fact, as the review shows, those rod catches have been remarkably stable since 1952—the period of our review. That coincided with the introduction of monofilament netting in the drift net fishery. Looking at Scottish commercial catches—fixed nets and net and coble fisheries—it is quite true that there has been a sharp fall in catches, again as our review shows. But we need to look at changes in netting effort as well. The review shows that effort in the fixed net fisheries and net and coble fisheries of the Scottish estuaries and rivers has fallen very sharply indeed. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, has already mentioned the substantial buying-out of netting stations by the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust in more recent years. I ask how that squares with the seemingly clear-cut arguments put forward by noble Lords this afternoon.

In responding to your Lordships' worries, I hope I have succeeded in at least one thing; namely, to show that the Government's approach to this issue is not a negative or unsympathetic one. Ministers have made it clear that they remain committed to the strict regulation of the salmon driftnet fisheries while they continue. We shall continue to monitor the state of stocks and the level of catches. In doing so, we shall take account of the decline in licence numbers. If it becomes clear that further action is required in order to conserve stocks, we shall not hesitate to take it and we shall authorise the NRA to exercise their powers to the extent necessary. I hope that that satisfies my noble friend. Let there be no doubt about that.

My right honourable friend Mr. Gummer must now decide whether to confirm the NRA's new north-east coast net limitation order. In doing so he will take account of the representations and formal objections that he has received. He will also take account of all the points made here this afternoon.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps he can help us on one point. He said that scientists estimate that if all the nets were removed from the north-east coast, the result for Scotland would be a 7 per cent. increase in catches. Is that estimate available and how is it reached? If it is or if it is not, can it be made available by being placed in the Library?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I do not see any difficulty about making those conclusions available to the noble Earl. I shall certainly see what can be done.

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