HL Deb 24 October 1994 vol 558 cc404-6

2.56 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are taking steps to protect basking sharks in the seas around the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, the basking shark is not currently protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Whether it should be added to the list of protected species was considered during the five-yearly reviews of the Act in 1987 and 1992, but on both occasions there was insufficient evidence to support protection, and the final decision was deferred.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. As the last British boat to be engaged in harpooning these sharks was scrapped a year ago under the Government's decommissioning scheme, are the Government disquieted that its former owner has now started up again? Does my noble friend agree that the basking shark is worth conserving as it is gentle, harmless and eats plankton? Although it is also very large, it is as well to remember that if one of these sharks approaches a bathing beach, its bask is worse than its bite?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I agree with much of what my noble friend says about the basking shark. It is the largest fish in our waters; it is also harmless and eats plankton. However, we are aware of the one operation which continues with a new boat on a very small scale and a low level of catch. There is no evidence that the operation is unsustainable in conservation terms.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, if the noble Viscount glances at today's Evening Standard, he will learn from an article that dolphins are perishing in a wall of death composed of gill nets laid by some trawlers in British waters. I refer to the nylon monofilament gill net. Secondly, the Cornish Wildlife Trust has revealed that up to 2,000 dead animals, including dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks, have been washed up in one year on South West beaches. Why do not the Government consider banning nylon monofilament gill nets?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the basking shark is a fish rather than a mammal. As I have already stated, on two previous occasions when protection of the basking shark was considered there was insufficient evidence. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee— the Government's statutory conservation adviser —will again consider all the evidence from a number of strands of research as part of its 1997 review of the Act and will make recommendations to Ministers. There is no evidence that the conservation status of the basking shark in Britain is threatened.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, the Minister states that there is no evidence of diminution in the numbers of basking sharks. However, the one hunting ship that we have took 50 basking sharks last year but has taken only eight this year. That suggests that the numbers are seriously diminishing. In view of the Government's commitment to biodiversity, will serious consideration be given at the next review in 1996 to include this harmless beast under the Wildlife and Countryside Act?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the numbers can probably be explained by the fact that Mr. McCrindle started fishing again only in September 1994 rather than throughout the summer. The basking shark is a migratory species which visits our waters only in summer. As I indicated, we shall consider whatever evidence is available to us on the numbers of fish and make certain that if there is evidence that their conservation status is threatened they can be listed under Schedule 5 to the 1981 Act.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, in considering again the conditions and situation concerning the basking shark, will it be borne in mind that the liver oil and fin are thought to be of value and that that may lead to more harpooning and a threat to the species?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, yes. Obviously, in considering what Her Majesty's Government should do, we have in mind the European Union common fisheries policy. That policy has imposed a fishing quota for all European waters which would allow a take of only some 200 to 350 fish. It is oil from the liver which is the most important factor in cosmetic and other sources, as the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that occasionally there are basking sharks on dry land? The term "shark" possibly has a wider connotation than merely being applicable to the fish species.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I do not know whether any have been noted washed up in the City.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his reply on two occasions that he is not aware of any threat to the species must be wrong? Every single species of fish consumed in this country has come under threat and conservation measures have had to be taken to counter the remorseless efficiency of the new equipment. Certainly, within the next few years, tuna and basking sharks will come under that heading.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I was trying to indicate that we are not complacent about the matter. We have considered it in the quinquennial review and each time we have not been persuaded that the numbers taken in British waters pose any threat to the conservation status of the fish.