HL Deb 05 December 1995 vol 567 cc949-62

7.1 p.m.

The Earl of Kimberley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government when they propose to ban permanently drift netting for salmon, bearing in mind that the United Kingdom and Ireland are the only countries in Europe currently permitting drift netting; and what is the expected effect of the different increases in the cost of rod licences and net licences.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the 'subject has become a hardy perennial. I believe that this is its 10th year of flowering. Hopefully, this year the Minister's answer may be better than usual, as the honourable Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury has been appointed PPS to the ministry and is extremely knowledgeable about salmon, as also is his wife, who casts a beautiful fly and catches fish! It is also interesting to know that, likewise, my noble friend who will answer is also a fisherman. He and I are very nearly equal this year, as I believe that he has caught one and I have caught two; so perhaps I have a slight edge there.

The National Rivers Authority has moved to phase out north-east drift net fishing by introducing a 10-year net limitation order which came into effect in 1992. No doubt my noble friend will say that there has been a 30 per cent. reduction in the number of nets from 140 in 1991 to 99 in 1995.

Unfortunately, that net reduction has not been followed by a reduction in the catch, which continues to increase each year. Herewith are the figures: in 1992, 19,144; in 1993, 41,790; in 1994, 46,554; and in 1995, 49,801. The figure is provisional for 1995 but it is a combined net catch of salmon and grilse from Northumbria and Yorkshire as audited by the National Rivers Authority.

While those figures probably reflect increases in the overall salmon stock returning to east coast rivers, there is concern among salmon and conservation interests that the intention of the net limitation order is not being achieved. The netsmen dropping out of the fishery are the elderly and the incompetent. I do not believe that real reductions in catch will be achieved until the phase-out of the fishery can be accelerated or quotas imposed.

There is also considerable anger in Scotland since 80 per cent. of the fish caught by the north-east drift nets are of Scottish origin, reared and paid for by Scottish district salmon fishery boards and bound for Scottish east coast rivers.

I applaud the recent MAFF initiative in setting up a working party with MAFF officials, Orri Vigfusson, the Atlantic Salmon Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association which is investigating ways in which the phase-out of the fishery can be speeded up, without causing undue hardship to netsmen".

However, that working party is making painfully slow progress and will continue to do so unless there is a real will on behalf of the Government to take action on the drift netting issue. Can my noble friend give noble Lords any such assurance on the matter?

Salmon conservation interests are also waiting for the National Rivers Authority to implement MAFF's recommendation that the start of the drift netting season should be postponed to 1st May in order to conserve spring fish. In fact, the 1991 review of salmon net fisheries made a similar recommendation which was never implemented. United Kingdom interests are contributing £180,000 per annum as their share of the high seas buy-out negotiated by Orri Vigfusson, and already more spring fish are returning to our rivers. However, it would be scandalous if any fish saved by that far-sighted approach were to be caught by the north-east drift nets.

Still on the subject of salmon conservation, can my noble friend give noble Lords the tonnage of fish which a seal eats annually? Also the majority of conservationists do not wish to make the cormorant extinct but would like the RSPB perhaps to be a little more adamant that cormorants need not be protected so completely and utterly.

I now turn to rod and net licences. Her Majesty's Government will probably say that charges are yet to be confirmed by the Minister, who at 25th November was still considering objections. Licence increases are designed to help supplement reductions in grant-in-aid. If imposed, the rod licence increase of £10 will bring in about £270,000. The net licence increase will bring in about £65,000. The rod licence increase is 22 per cent.; net licences will increase on average by about 75 per cent. The Salmon and Trout Association is up in arms about that.

First, the new charges followed a widespread consultation on net licence charges undertaken earlier this year. The Salmon and Trout Association welcomed that review because it said that any charges should be "fair and consistent" with rods. However, in order to achieve consistency, net licence charges would have had to rise between 400 per cent. and 600 per cent.

Secondly, linking an increase of £10 to the rod licence came as a complete surprise to the Salmon and Trout Association and made it very angry. Far from achieving the consistency hoped for, it increases the gap. The rod increase alone will bring in £270,000, which is more than the entire income from net licences of £165,000. As the nets catch 70 per cent. of our salmon stock—that includes the Scottish component of the north-east drift nets which the NRA has conveniently omitted from its calculations—and pay less than 20 per cent. of National Rivers Authority fisheries income, it must be obvious to all that it is grossly unfair.

Thirdly, the NRA also announced the intention to move to a £75 rod licence and to achieve parity of net licence income "in an appropriate timescale". The Salmon and Trout Association has said that it would accept the proposals if a firm five-year timescale were introduced.

Fourthly, MAFF has privately admitted that there is no way in which net licences can be increased to achieve parity without driving netsmen out of business, which it says is illegal. Effectively, that means that MAFF is prepared to subsidise the activities of commercial netsmen. The Salmon and Trout Association believes that that is illegal and may take MAFF to judicial review. But before taking further action the Salmon and Trout Association will await the Minister's decision as to whether he confirms the National Rivers Authority's proposals.

Lastly, I have three more questions. Will my noble friend give any assurances about the Government's intention to achieve parity between rod and net licence income? Secondly, can he comment on the seeming determination of his officials effectively to subsidise the operation of commercial netting interests to the detriment of the rod fishery and all the perceived benefits angling brings to the rural economy?

My third question is this. Does my noble friend believe that a further punitive increase in rod and net licence charges, which between them will realise only £330,000, can in any way substitute for Her Majesty's Government's £8 million cuts in grant-in-aid from 1993 to 1997 which will paralyse the essential fisheries work of the NRA and, as from 1st April, the Environment Agency?

7.11 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I am only too pleased to support the noble Earl on this issue, as I have done on previous occasions. He and I have probably participated in every one of these debates on the abolition of North Sea drift netting.

I believe that it is really time this indiscriminate netting of salmon in the North Sea was stopped. I just cannot understand why the Government and the National Rivers Authority do not recognise that indiscriminate, interceptory drift netting is bad management practice and should be deplored by the National Rivers Authority.

The long nylon monofilament gill nets are taking salmon in the North Sea as they make their way to their home rivers—indiscriminately. That means south of the River Esk (Yorkshire's salmon river) the drift netters could well be taking most of the spawning salmon heading for the Esk—quite indiscriminately—denuding it of its stock. That is obvious bad management practice. The National Rivers Authority has a statutory duty to, "maintain, improve and develop" fisheries. Through the allowing of this drift netting, the Yorkshire Esk is being denied the right to improve and develop its fishery, and therefore the National Rivers Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are in breach of their statutory duties. That is my first charge.

Secondly, the nylon monofilament gill nets should be banned. These nets are almost invisible and quite deadly in operation, trapping the salmon by their gills. Because of their strength they take seals and porpoises, too. If a net breaks, it hangs in the sea. It becomes a ghost net, continuing to kill fish and diving birds—especially gannets—for years thereafter, unlike the old hemp nets which gradually rot. Surely the Government cannot condone such a practice. So, my Lords, I ask: why not ban these gill nets?

Thirdly, why do the Government continue to be internationally embarrassed in the councils of NASCO—the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation? NASCO, the North Atlantic Salmon Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association—all international and national salmon conservation bodies—have campaigned for years to conserve salmon stocks and persuade governments to cut back on salmon netting—with some success overseas, but not with the British Government. When called upon to ban drift netting within the councils of the international NASCO—embarrassingly so—what is the Government's reply? Perhaps it is, "We are phasing out, under recent net limitation orders"; or, "Set up a working party". I believe that to be government procrastination, there is no need to delay. How long, I ask, will it take to end this indiscriminate, bad management practice? Ten, 20 years? I know that the concern is of course the jobs of the netters. These are part-time fishermen; they can work only when the salmon are running—a few months. They could be quickly phased out with compensation. Our trawler fleet has already been subject to some decommissioning, and indeed, one or two of our major labour-intensive industries have been run down. Phasing out part-time salmon netters pales into insignificance compared with these rundowns.

The Government, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the National Rivers Authority should turn their minds to this problem. Let us rid ourselves of these hated gill nets; let us have better conservation of the salmon and increased protection of the seals, porpoises and diving birds in the North Sea. It would remove the hindrance to the spawning salmon. Salmon rivers would be better stocked, and above all, the international embarrassment removed in future NASCO meetings.

7.16 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I too wish strongly to support what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, and the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley. It makes me rather sad that we have been deliberating over this question for so long, as the noble Earl pointed out. On looking back at previous copies of Hansard, I find that just under 10 years ago I proposed an amendment at the Committee stage of the Salmon Bill on 30th January 1986 which suggested a five-year phasing out of the north-east drift-net fishery. With my noble friend Lord Perth, I proposed another amendment at Report stage. If that had been accepted, the fishery would have been closed about five years ago. That would have been a good thing, but unfortunately the Government decided on the long phasing out by the retiring of fishermen. As the noble Earl said, although it has resulted in a substantial decrease in the number of licences from 130 to 99, it has not resulted in any decrease in the number of salmon caught by that fishery—rather the reverse, because the salmon come up a narrow corridor and it only takes a small number of efficient fishermen to catch a great many of them.

What has worried me all along is the effect on our international position which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mason. When we were discussing the Salmon Bill, 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.".—[Official Report, 14/1/86; col. 1025.] That is still true. The fishermen in Greenland now say:"Well, you're doing it, we don't see why we should be bought out". The Irish, whose drift-netting I shall talk about in a moment, likewise see no reason why they should take firm action when we are doing so little. I think, therefore, that it is important that the Government should address the problem.

There is one aspect which worries me very much. I remember going with some of my colleagues to see the then Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Waldegrave, to discuss the problem, after which he helpfully set up the working party to which the noble Earl referred. In referring to the report on run timing of salmon by the Salmon Advisory Committee, he said in a news release on 28th June this year: My Rt Hon friends and I are drawing these recommendations for management action to the attention of the National Rivers Authority and the District Salmon Fisheries Boards in Scotland and, asking them, in particular, to consider urgently"— I emphasise the word "urgently"— whether, and if so what, action is needed to conserve the runs of spring fish in the fisheries for which they are responsible … In this context I am asking the National Rivers Authority to reconsider the recommendation, in the Report on Salmon Net Fisheries presented to Parliament in 1991, that the opening date for the drift net fisheries of Northumbria and Yorkshire should be postponed until 1 May so as to reduce the level of exploitation of spring running salmon. The NRA decided not to implement this recommendation, on the grounds that any action on spring fish needed to be part of a wider programme embracing rod and net fisheries in both England and Scotland. In the light of the Salmon Advisory Committee's report, and in the expectation that appropriate action will be taken in other fisheries, there is now an opportunity for a postponement of the opening of the drift netting season until 1 May to form part of such a wider programme". That is a very clear steer to the NRA by the Minister then responsible. That was at the end of June. However, so far as I know, nothing has happened. Will the Minister say why that is and what is happening? Does he expect the NRA to pay attention to the statement by Mr. Waldegrave and to change the opening date? That would save many of the multi-sea winter fish returning to this country, which we all want very much to see.

I now turn to the question of the Irish drift-net fisheries. I gave the Minister notice that I should raise this particular point. I should explain that I have an interest in Wales because my family has a salmon beat on the Wye. The Welsh Region of the NRA has done research for 10 years on the tagging of smolts and on what happens to them when they go down to sea. The scientists in the Welsh region are extremely good. They are particularly knowledgeable about salmon and sea trout. In June, they wrote to the then Secretary of State for Wales stating the three key findings of their 10-year research. The first was that, The drift-net fishery off Ireland's west coast takes many more grilse (one sea winter fish) and more salmon (multi-sea winter fish) than Greenland, Faroes and the other distant water fisheries all put together". Secondly, The number of fish taken in the Irish drift-net fishery probably exceeds both the licensed rod and the licensed net catches in Welsh rivers and is over two thirds of the total Welsh Region salmon catch". Thirdly, Differing survival rates for hatchery-reared salmon smolts and wild smolts means that the true catch for the Irish drift-net fishery may be considerably larger than the figure indicated by this 10 year study". The letter explained: The NRA is pursuing a policy of phasing out, via reducing net limitation orders … net fisheries which exploit predominantly mixed stocks"— that of course applies in Wales and even more to the north-east drift-net fisheries, though it is not concerned with those— since such indiscriminate exploitation makes the management of individual salmon river fisheries impossible. The NRA's draft strategy for the management of salmon in England and Wales commits us to phasing out mixed stock fisheries". That is very welcome.

Clearly this is a matter within the competence of the Government of the Republic of Ireland. I hope very much that the Government, both bilaterally with the Irish authorities and in the European Union, will do their utmost to persuade the Irish either to cut out or reduce very substantially the drift-netting which is damaging stocks in Wales, western Scotland and elsewhere. It is extremely important that this should be done. I know that many people in Ireland who are very knowledgeable about salmon conservation are working hard to that end. I hope that the Government will use all their influence to achieve some progress. I shall be very grateful if the Minister can tell me what is being done on that score.

Lastly, I turn briefly to the question of licence fees, which was raised by the noble Earl. A problem arises from the reduction in the grant-in-aid given by the Government to the NRA, said to be from £13.4 million in 1991–92 to £8 million in the current year. The reduction has been very damaging. It is very important that we should do all we can to conserve stocks of salmon, which are subject to so many threats all over the world.

We must bear in mind that a great part of the costs incurred by the NRA are incurred as a result of the need for enforcement. Parliament has laid down the law, stating that it is a crime to pursue salmon or sea trout illegally. Very often there are violent gangs engaged in this practice. Action against them by the police and by bailiffs is enforcing the law as passed by Parliament. It is not reasonable that the whole cost should fall on the beneficiaries. The grant-in-aid should certainly be restored to a level of at least £10 million, and preferably more. Certainly it would be absolutely wrong for it to be cut further.

The NRA is faced with the current problem of trying to raise enough to deal with its work on migratory fish. The expenditure on coarse and trout fishing is ring-fenced; that pays for itself. The licences cover the cost; but they do not go anywhere near covering the cost on salmon and sea trout, the management of which is a much more expensive business. The NRA conducted a review in which it stated that it wanted the cost of the licence to be consistent and fair as between the nets and the rods. The problem is that it is in no way consistent and fair at the moment since, as the noble Earl said, the nets take 70 per cent. of the catch. Even if the Scottish element in that is excluded, it is still a great deal more than half. The netsmen, however, pay only 20 per cent. of the cost. They have been, and still are, subsidised. That appears to many anglers as a deliberate policy of keeping commercial netsmen in business at the rod anglers' expense. It is also damaging the future of salmon. That policy must be examined.

In the past we allowed the licence rates for commercial netsmen to fall so low that they are now a ridiculous sum. They contribute only something between £160,000 this year and £300,000 next year. That is a trifling sum, whereas the anglers are being asked to produce £1.3 million. It is very important to get the level right. I realise that it cannot be done in one go, but it ought to be done within a limited time. Five years would seem to be reasonable. I hope that the Government will address this problem.

Lord Burton

My Lords, perhaps I may ask just one question. As my noble friend Lord Kimberley said, a very large number of salmon caught in the north-east coast drift-nets are heading for Scottish rivers. In view of that, could my noble friend ask his Ministry to consult with the Department of Agriculture in Scotland and with the Association of Scottish District Salmon Fishing Boards, which are responsible not only for the rod fishing but also for the net fishing in Scotland, and take heed of what they tell them?

7.30 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for asking this important Question. As he said when he opened the debate, we have been here before. Indeed, debates on drift-netting seem to come round with the regularity of the annual Budget Statement. But perhaps the subject this evening is a little more interesting than last Tuesday's offering.

Clearly, anybody interested in the orderly management of our fish stocks wishes to ensure that the fishing methods are properly controlled and soundly based in terms of conservation. Your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities reported in July 1994 (the 13th Report of that Session) on the regulation of drift-net fishing. The committee was quite scathing about the proposals of the European Commission on that subject at that time. Perhaps I may quote from the opinion of that committee in paragraph 40 of the report: There may or may not be a case for banning the use of drift nets over 2.5 km in length, or for banning their use altogether. There may also be a case for continuing a temporary derogation in their use in certain fisheries. But the [European] Commission's report offers little justification for any of these actions and it gives no explanation for the inconsistencies in the courses of action proposed. The Committee is also disturbed by the lack of objectivity apparent in the Commission's report and indeed by accusations of a lack of intellectual integrity in the document". Obviously, the Select Committee was not particularly enamoured of the Commission's proposals on the matter. Obviously, it is very complicated. Everyone seems to agree that drift nets over 2.5 km in length should be banned. That is in line with the recommendations of the United Nations and the European Union. I understand that the Government's policy is fully in line with that and they are supported by us in the Labour Party.

With regard to the effect of the different sizes of net, there has been some interesting correspondence on this matter, and a briefing was received only today, from Greenpeace and the Wildlife and Countryside Link. It has probably been received also by other noble Lords. I found the briefing rather confusing. It seemed to argue that the present derogation allowing the use of drift nets up to 2.5 km should be banned because of the damage that is being done by the larger drift nets. I found that argument rather hard to follow. The reply from Mr. Tony Baldry, Minister of State, which was included with the briefing neatly skirted around the problem. In his letter to the Wildlife and Countryside Link, Cetaceans Group, Mr. Baldry said: It is our experience that the permitted use of drift nets up to 2.5 km long does not lead to fraud as your letter suggests. This year, UK tuna skippers agreed that the Sea Fisheries Inspectorate should measure their nets before they were loaded. As part of this exercise net plans were prepared and made available to the RN Fisheries Protection Squadron to help with enforcement at sea. No nets longer than 2.5 km were loaded; and no nets longer than 2.5 km were found in use at sea by UK vessels". That rather neatly skirted around the problem. If what the Minister said is correct, that is all very fine and well. But what does that have to do with the allegations concerning the use of larger drift nets by the Italian and other fleets. We should be interested to know the Government's view of those allegations that other member states are consistently flouting the current regulations or agreements.

It seems to us that the proposed phasing out of the north-east drift net industry is sensible. Can the Government say what is their latest estimate of how long that phasing out will take? To pick up the important point made by my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley, can they say what would be the effect on employment of closing down that part of the industry now, including the upstream employment in processing and so on?

No doubt we can all agree on the right components of a successful policy on this matter. It would obviously include a ban on the long Pacific drift nets and the use of the 2.5 km limit; with perhaps more rapid phasing out than is presently planned. There should be an exploration of the more technical conservation measures so long as the drift nets are used, such as sonar reflectors and windows for existing drift nets. All forms of fishing should be sustainable and not environmentally damaging. That would cover such matters as the use of drift nets in different fisheries, relative size, depth of use and various escape panels.

There still seems to be a crying need for accurate scientific information in order to enable us to make an informed judgment on drift-netting. We should, therefore, continue to be guided by the best scientific advice on this matter. I understand that there is soon to be a scientific advisory report made to the European Commission. It would be interesting if the Minister could comment on whether that is likely to be available.

If drift-netting is clearly shown to be environmentally damaging, we can all support moves to ban it, as indeed we should support all moves to eliminate any fishing practice that is clearly shown to be environmentally damaging. At the moment the jury is out on the matter.

There is important work being done by the British fishing industry on technical conservation measures. The Government should give all possible support to research and development in this area. All technical conservation measures should be included in all the European directives relating to all drift nets of whatever size.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for tabling this Question and look forward to hearing the Minister's reply and whether the Government have anything new to say on this matter.

7.36 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimberley and other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. Like my noble friend Lady Blatch, I find myself somewhat under siege. I am glad to have had some support from the noble Lord, Lord Carter, but I cannot say how much I miss the speech from the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. In previous years he has been a notable supporter of the Government's position. We hope to hear from his successor soon.

It has been said that I am a salmon fisherman, and indeed that is true. Would that it were a declarable interest. But I am afraid that, were we at a stroke to double the number of salmon caught in British rivers, it would merely result in the costs of salmon fishing doubling and my having to move to less expensive rivers again.

Although there have been some interesting developments over the past year since a similar Question was asked, the Government's stance has not changed. The Government's policy on the north-east coast salmon drift-net fishery is based on a review of salmon net fisheries presented to Parliament in October 1991. The review showed that the drift-net fishery posed no immediate threat to stocks and there was thus no immediate justification for depriving licence holders of their licences. Taken as a whole, the UK salmon stocks are in good health. The north-east drift-net fishery accounts for about 15 per cent. of the catch. It is not a significant burden on the stocks as they are now. If action were necessary, it would be necessary to take it across the whole industry, and a substantially greater proportion are caught by fixed nets than are ever caught by the north-east fishery.

However, it is agreed between us that the north-east drift-net fishery exploits several salmon and sea trout stocks and that this makes the task of conservation and management more difficult. It is widely accepted—and by us—that salmon stocks are best managed on a river by river basis. So the fishery is being phased out. Licences are issued, with very limited exceptions, only to those who held licences the previous year. Any licences not taken up are not reissued. That has led to a 30 per cent. reduction in the number of drift-net licences issued since 1992, a rate of decline significantly faster than was predicted by the NRA when this policy was introduced. I can give noble Lords some comfort. It is not just the elderly and infirm who were giving up licences; it appears to be across the whole age range and range of competence.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley said that catches had not decreased. Indeed, that is so. But it has been a good period for salmon catches elsewhere in the industry and, should that position change, drift-net catches may go down. However, the fishery will eventually be extinguished. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked how long that would take. We have not changed our position that it will happen over a 30-year period. It is happening fast at the moment; we cannot predict whether or not that will continue.

The Government keep the position under careful review. As we said at the time, if further action was required in order to conserve stocks, we would not hesitate to take it. I repeat that assurance today. We see no need to go beyond the recommendations of the 1991 report. Indeed, the salmon stocks exploited by the drift-net fishery are probably in better shape than the great majority of fish stocks in the North Sea.

The approach adopted towards the north-east coast fisheries is, where appropriate, being extended to other fisheries such as that for the sea trout off the East Anglian coast. That brings me to the question of the Irish fishery. As the noble Lord, Lord Moran, rightly said, that is a matter for the Irish Government. It is clear that those fisheries do take a substantial number of salmon destined for England and Wales, though we do not at present have any evidence that the current level of exploitation poses a threat to stocks.

The Irish Government have established a task force to consider the practical long-term strategies for salmon management with a view to developing a system for the sustainable management of stocks. We have an input to that process. We are talking to the Irish Government. My right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food drew the attention of the Irish Government to our policy on mixed stock fisheries and the method we are pursuing to phase them out. We are also working to establish a better estimate of the effects of those fisheries on British stocks.

My right honourable friend agreed with the Prime Minister that a scientific working group comprising officials from MAFF, the NRA and the Department of the Marine will be set up to review the available data, agree on a method of analysis and provide the best estimate of the level of exploitation of British stock in the Irish fishery. The first meeting of that group will take place at the end of January, though MAFF scientists have already had a preliminary meeting with the NRA. If it is any comfort on other subjects raised by noble Lords, while the Irish fishery impact on grilse returning to some rivers may be as high as 20 per cent., the impact on multi-winter salmon and on spring-run salmon appears to be much lower.

The Government fully accept that recreational salmon fisheries are an important feature of the local economy in many parts of the country. It does not follow from that that net fisheries should necessarily be brought to an end. In the first place, the effect on rod catchers of ending net fisheries are often overstated. That has some bearing on the relative level of charges for netsmen and rod licences. The two can co-exist without necessarily competing with each other over the whole range of catches. Rod catches in Great Britain have remained remarkably stable, despite changes in netting effort and catches.

It is also important not to ignore the economic and social effects of an early closure on the fishermen involved in this fishery. Our commercial fishing industry is currently under great pressure and Ministers are most reluctant to add to it. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked how many jobs are involved. I do not have an exact estimate. It will probably be a few hundred.

The Government are not in any way opposed to private efforts to compensate netsmen for giving up their licences. In Scotland, where netting rights are private, it has become relatively common for riparian owners to buy out netting rights and the reduction in netting effort that has taken place in Scotland is largely due to market forces. The way is now open for market forces to play a role in the north-east coast drift-net fishery. It is for those who wish to see that fishery ended to negotiate with the netsmen. We are ready to discuss the issues involved. Officials have had several meetings with representatives of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund and the Salmon and Trout Association. We remain ready to continue those discussions.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, suggested that NASCO had called on the UK to ban drift-netting. That is simply not the case. In fact, one of NASCO's primary roles is to set quotas for drift-net fisheries operating in Greenland.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley raised the question of the impact of seals on salmon stocks. We are aware of the increasing anxiety in that area. Over the past decade numbers of grey seals in Great Britain have grown at the rate of 7 per cent. per annum and the population has doubled in the past six to eight years to over 143,000. It was estimated that if each seal ate only one adult salmon per year, that would amount to almost 60 per cent. of the number caught by all salmon fisheries in Great Britain and well over three times the catch of the north-east coast drift nets in 1993.

In practice, it is unlikely that predation by seals has a significant effect on stocks. Evidence available from various studies carried out suggests that they are opportunistic feeders whose feeding habits and ranges vary greatly from individual to individual. It is known that some seals may take salmon in estuaries before they enter rivers to spawn and some seals have been known to take salmon from nets. But by far the major part of their diet appears to be made up from marine species such as sand eel, Norway pout, tusk and ling.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, also asked about monofilament nets. He argued that the use of gill nets should be banned. A significant proportion of the white fish catch landed in England and Wales is caught in gill nets. Their use is already regulated by primary and secondary legislation. In those circumstances, further control of the use of gill nets in other fisheries would be difficult to justify and place undue restrictions on the activities of inshore fishermen.

The noble Lord also suggested that drift nets used by the north-east coast drift-net fishery catch seals, other marine mammals and sea birds. There is little evidence that that is a serious problem; nor is there any evidence that lost nets cause a significant problem. Netsmen must attend their nets at all times, and few nets are lost. Those that are are soon knocked to the sea bed in the turbulent waters of the North Sea where they fill with debris and cease fishing. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, while we support action taken on gill nets and drift nets over the 2.5 kilometre limit, smaller nets—including those of 500 metres, which is what are common in the salmon fishery in the north-east coast—seem to us to be quite acceptable.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley and the noble Lord, Lord Moran, asked when the NRA would respond to the Government's request to reconsider the opening date for the north-east coast drift net fishery. The Government asked the NRA at the end of June to look again at the question of postponing it to 1st May as part of a wider review of controls on the exploitation of spring run salmon following the publication of the Salmon Advisory Committee's report on the run timing of salmon.

I should emphasise however that that initiative on spring run salmon is not primarily concerned with the north-east coast drift-net fishery. That fishery takes relatively few spring salmon—around 400 a year on average. The NRA has been considering the need for additional controls in all the salmon fisheries in England and Wales. That is a major exercise. Nevertheless, I understand that it is almost complete and that the NRA expects to be able to respond shortly.

Let me turn to the second element of my noble friend's question concerning the NRA's widely advertised proposals to increase the duties for rod and net licences. It will be for my right honourable friend the Minister to decide, in the light of the objections that have been received, whether they should be approved with or without modifications or rejected. Given the Minister's statutory role, I shall not comment now on the substance of the NRA's proposals. But perhaps I can in some way answer the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Kimberley that the Government are allowing the net fishery to be subsidised.

My noble friend said that MAFF takes the view that it would be illegal for the NRA to increase licence duties to a level which did not result in an increase in net licence income. In fact, the point that has been made is that both the Government and the NRA must work within the constraints of existing legislation. That legislation provides mechanisms to reduce the numbers of net licences and to control net fishing. That is the way in which the net catch is controlled.

Licence duties, however, cannot be used for those purposes and the Government and the NRA would be vulnerable to legal challenge were they to use licence duties to close down or substantially reduce licence numbers in a net fishery. That does not mean that licence duty increases can never lead to a reduction in licence numbers or income, but in our view a policy of deliberately setting duties at levels which it was evident would lead to a significant reduction in income would not be legally sustainable. Such a policy would also conflict with the NRA's financial memorandum which requires it to maximise its return from licence duties and other sources of income.

My noble friend also said that this meant that the Government were prepared to subsidise the activities of commercial netsmen. I would remind the noble Earl that at present more than 80 per cent. of the cost of the NRA's work on salmon and sea trout is paid for by the taxpayer. In practice, as we see it, it is the taxpayer who is providing a subsidy to both rods and nets.

I am sure that there are some points to which I have not responded properly or in full. I shall look at Hansard tomorrow and write as necessary. My noble friend Lord Burton asked about our attitude to the Scots. All I can tell him is that I have talked to them extensively and they have impressed on me the importance with which they view the eventual abolition of the north east drift net fishery. Looking at things from their perspective, I can quite understand why.

We will continue to follow the phase-out of the fishery closely and if further action is required in order to conserve stocks we will not hesitate to take it.

House adjourned at nine minutes before eight o'clock.