HL Deb 02 May 1995 vol 563 cc1319-21

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What effect the latest international decisions on phasing out the use of drift nets will have upon the continuation by British fishermen of the Atlantic tuna fishery.

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

My Lords, in accordance with EU regulations, which themselves reflect United Nations resolutions on high seas drift nets, British fishermen may use drift nets up to 2.5 kilometres in length. No decisions have been taken which would lead to the phasing out of drift nets in the Atlantic tuna fishery.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Does that mean that the EU Commission's proposal to bring this drift netting to an end is nonetheless still on the table? When the Atlantic tuna season reopens this summer, will arrangements be in place to avoid clashes, recognising the incompatibility of two methods of catching these fish—drift nets, used by British fishermen, and pole and line, used by the Spanish—if used in the same area?

Earl Howe

My Lords, technically the Commission's proposal remains on the table, although a number of aspects of it are now somewhat out of date. The Government are well aware that the conflict in the north-east Atlantic albacore tuna fishery is claimed to be one of gear incompatibility. The Spanish pole and line vessels mainly fish their gear during the daytime whereas drift-net fleets from the UK, Ireland and France generally shoot their gear at dusk and haul it in at first light. As a result of that separation in time, conflict of the kind my noble friend envisages, namely gear spoiling each other, need not occur. That point was examined by the EU Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries in February this year. The committee reported that in principle there should be no reason why the different fleets should not operate in the same fishery.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Government allow drift netting in the North Sea which every year takes thousands of salmon which are searching for their spawning grounds in North Yorkshire and Scottish rivers, a practice which is contrary to salmon conservation? Is he aware that the North Atlantic Salmon Trust, the Salmon and Trout Association and the Anglers' Conservation Association all condemn that practice? Why do the Government allow it?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord's question is somewhat wide of that on the Order Paper. However, I say to him that to end the use of drift nets to catch salmon would impose considerable hardship on fishermen. It is not justified by any threat to stocks. The use of such nets in UK waters is strictly regulated, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware. There is no evidence that they pose a threat to stocks. That view is supported by the Commission's Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, which also noted that effort in salmon drift net fisheries in coastal waters is likely to decrease further and that one effect of a ban on the use of drift nets is likely to be increased pressure on other fish stocks which may already be fully or over exploited.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his perspicacity in foreseeing the question from the noble Lord. However, perhaps we may now return to tuna. Is it not a fact that in this case we are in the wrong and the Spaniards are in the right? Does the Minister agree that the pole and line fishing method is far more likely to catch good fish and to preserve stocks than sweeping fish into a drift net miles long, pushing them all together, squashing them and damaging them so that the fish cannot possibly be put back? Does he agree that the Spanish method is one of conservation?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I cannot agree that the UK is in the wrong in this.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Earl Howe

My Lords, the number of vessels from the UK operating drift nets in the tuna fishery is only some 16 whereas the Spaniards have roughly four times as many. Indeed, Spanish vessels account for a vastly larger percentage of the total catch. If we are considering conservation measures, it is important to look at the matter in the round. There is no doubt that the Spanish effort is very efficient indeed.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that although the damage done by drift netting is quantifiable, long-lining—which can mean hooks tearing the mouths out of tuna which escape and die thereafter—is not a system of catching fish which has no problems?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the use of pole and line is not self-evidently more humane.

Lord Carter

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what independent scientific research has been undertaken to show the effects of drift netting on fish stocks?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the EU Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries met in February to assess the scientific justification for the Commission's proposal of last year. It identified no case for cutting back on the length of drift nets or for banning them. It concluded that the tuna stock is not over-exploited although fishing effort should not increase, and it determined that drift nets account for only 30 per cent. of tuna fishing mortality. The remainder is the result of French pelagic trawling and Spanish pole and line fishing.

The tuna stocks are managed by the international convention for the conservation of Atlantic tuna. I shall make inquiries as to the methods that are used for determining stocks. I am aware that there are considerable gaps in our knowledge on the subject.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I understand that the Commission's proposals are lying on the table—whatever that may mean. Does the noble Earl consider that it might be better for the Commission to make its proposals after it receives the advice of the scientific and technical committee rather than before?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. We shall make sure that the force of the scientific committee's report is not lost either on the Commission or on the Council of Ministers when the matter is next debated.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that with the abandonment of drift netting at sea in the Pacific as a result of Japanese over-exploitation of stocks, the general impression given by the Government is that drift netting at sea should be abandoned in due course in every part of the world?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the United Nation resolution to which I referred in my original Written Answer was a response to the wholly unacceptable practices in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere involving net lengths of great size. However, we see no scientific justification for a ban on drift netting, to which the Question refers, or a ban on salmon drift netting.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, while my noble friend's statement about the separation of the methods used by night and day is welcome, is not special understanding needed, and monitoring required, since most if not all of the Atlantic tuna fishery takes place in the high seas beyond any country's fishery limits or economic zone?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. That is why it is essential that the authorities of each member state co-operate satisfactorily to ensure efficient policing of the fishery on the high seas.

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