HL Deb 08 July 1997 vol 581 cc597-9

7.10 p.m.

Lord Sewel

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order before the House today seeks your Lordships' approval for an emergency order made on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland to ban fishing for certain types of shellfish in waters around the Orkney Isles. The order is almost a hardy annual. It comes before your Lordships' House on an almost annual basis. The order was made as a result of a build-up of the naturally occurring paralytic shellfish poisoning toxin—or PSP as it is known.

The decision to make this order was based on test results from the Government's PSP monitoring programme which were over the internationally agreed safety levels of 80 microgrammes of toxin per 100 grammes of flesh. The essential purpose of the order is the protection of public health.

PSP in humans develops approximately 30 minutes after ingestion of toxin. It is characterised by tingling, numbness and dizziness. Paralysis may follow. Gastro‹intestinal symptoms may also occur, with diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting.

The order was made on 20th June as a result of tests showing elevated levels of toxin in a variety of species, including a level of 339 microgrammes per 100 grammes in queen scallops taken from within the prohibited area. That is over four times the agreed safety level. The species affected by the order are mussels, queens and scallops and razor clams.

The routine PSP monitoring system is based upon testing at 43 fixed sites around the Scottish coast, supplemented by additional test locations when rising levels of toxin require more data to establish the extent of an outbreak. The order which we are discussing today is based upon a scatter of high results. In Scapa Flow we were able to use data from shore- based sites and from vessels fishing in open water. Over such a large area we could not be sure if the toxin was spread evenly or, perhaps more likely, occurring at random hot spots which were unpredictable. The scale of the results was too high to ignore. It would have made no real sense to close small areas around the highly affected locations that we had detected because algal blooms are not static. A piecemeal approach would have been inadequate in safeguarding public safety. Accordingly, the area extends over a considerable stretch of water around the Orkney Isles which takes in the whole of Scapa Flow and a substantial stretch of open water to the north and east or Orkney mainland.

Of course the closed areas must be monitored. When areas of open sea are closed to fishing, the Scottish Office must authorise vessels to go out to take samples from the banned areas for testing. Samples from the closed area continue to be monitored so that we know as soon as it is safe to re-open the fisheries, which I trust will not be too far distant.

I must emphasise that our aim in taking this action is to ensure effective protection of the public from PSP toxin. The order will be revoked as soon as the results of continued sampling and medical and scientific advice indicate that it is safe to do so. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved.—(Lord Sewel.)

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I advised the Minister earlier of my question. He said that the order was a hardy perennial. I seem to recall Ministers from previous administrations introducing this measure. Can the Minister say whether the date tends to fluctuate?

The Minister mentioned the date of 20th June in his remarks. Does that date fluctuate one week to another? Is it dependant upon the temperature of the water, or is there some good reason why it is 20th June? Does the Minister expect the period of the order to be roughly the same as last year or previous years?

Can the Minister say whether the area described around the Orkneys has changed this year or whether it is broadly the same as in previous years? If the Minister can let me know in due course—not necessarily tonight—I shall be more than obliged.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I wish to ask a similar question. The Minister said that he hoped the order would not be in existence for too long. Can he say what gives the Government that hope? Why or how will that come about? The answer will be interesting to us all.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his eloquent description of the order and the symptoms of PSP poisoning. Taking into account the topical nature of global warming and rises in sea temperature, how much research is being carried out to tackle the problem?

Is the Minister aware of any shellfish fishermen disregarding the order in the past? Also, if the area bounds onto the coastline, is it dangerous for families—I am sure that some noble Lords visit the Orkneys with their families and take time on the coast—to take mussels off the beach and eat them? The Minister nods. If that is the case—obviously it is—is there any way of warning holidaymakers and fishermen that that danger exists?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, again, perhaps I may try to reply to the specific points made in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, asks about date and timing. I understand the usual closure is from May to September, over the summer period. To respond to part of the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, during the at-risk period monitoring takes place and as soon as we see an indication of a decrease—two clears—then the fisheries can reopen. That is what I meant when I said that I hoped it would not be too long. However, it may be through to September before we are able to reopen the fishery.

It is interesting that nobody knows what is behind the phenomenon. It is an algal bloom but nobody knows what sets it off—whether it is something to do with water temperature and so forth. It goes back to the 18th century, so we cannot blame it on modern pollution. It is an aspect of nature.

The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, asked about research. That is running at a level of £112,000 per year. It is a significant research programme to try to get to the bottom of the problem. That is an indication of the importance that the Government recognise concerning the economic significance of this type of closure. If we could somehow limit it, it would have significant economic implications for those who fish that industry.

The noble Earl also made a good point in relation to warnings, particularly on sea beaches. Notices are placed on sea beaches where appropriate and it would be hazardous for individuals to go round picking up mussels, razor clams and so forth and eating them. The means of informing people is through local authorities, trade associations and the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency. I believe that I have covered all the points raised in the course of the debate. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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