HL Deb 27 October 1998 vol 593 cc1890-906

7 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take to prevent the spread of infectious salmon anaemia and gyrodactylus salaris into and within the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for the advice he has given. I shall try to keep within the 15 minutes. As I planned to keep within 12 minutes, that might not be too difficult.

The Question relates to two problems regarding salmon. One is infectious salmon anaemia which is a viral disease; and the other is gyrodactylus salaris which is a parasite. Both are present in Norway: one has spread to Scotland; and the other must not. Neither should have done so, but one has.

I start with the infectious salmon anaemia. I am a long time supporter of fish farming. It has brought jobs to many sensitive and remote areas of the West Highlands and Islands. I understand from the latest figures given only yesterday in another place that there are 1,100 direct full-time and 200 part-time jobs on the coastal sites, and some 6,500 jobs downstream or upstream of farm sites involved in, I imagine, smokeries, fish processing, construction of cages, and so on. The coming of fish farming has led to a drastic reduction in the price of salmon. That has had a beneficial effect on wild salmon by reducing the temptation to poachers and by making netting uneconomic and easier to buy out.

However, nothing is all good and unfortunately over the years the downside of fish farming has become more and more evident. As the industry has grown in the lochs of the West Highlands, so the population of salmon and especially sea trout has declined in the adjacent rivers, in certain cases almost to the point of extinction. Tonight is not the occasion to speak of the dramatic impact made by the population explosions in the sea cages of sea lice which then spread to the wild population with devastating results, especially for sea trout.

We are tonight talking about infectious salmon anaemia. I have before me an excellent leaflet published by the Scottish Office outlining the problem. Infectious salmon anaemia is a disease which causes anaemia, visceral haemorrhaging and high mortality in salmon in cages. Until earlier this year it had been confined to Norway and Canada. Suddenly it has appeared in Scotland. On 1st September in answer to questions from me, the Minister told me that ISA had been confirmed in eight sites in Scotland. Can he update that answer? I think that there are some more. I believe that one more site in Shetland has now been identified. Can he tell us how many sites have now been affected by infectious salmon anaemia?

Can the Minister confirm that almost all the sites are owned by a Norwegian company, Norsk Hydro? As I now have a few more minutes, perhaps I can share some slight amusement—it would be amusing if the subject were not so serious—by reading a press release from Norsk Hydro about the problems faced by GSP, its Scottish subsidiary, which states: The financial performance of GSP is the result of the poor competitive position of the Scottish salmon farming industry, made worse in its case by the consequences of the discovery of infectious salmon anaemia … in Scotland, including a number of GSP farms". I like the way it states that it has been discovered in Scotland as though the company somehow has nothing to do with it. The fact is that it has by and large been in Norsk Hydro farms. I think that I am right in saying—the Minister can confirm it—that the first outbreaks were identified in Norsk Hydro farms. I ask the Minister, as I ask the House: is it a coincidence that a disease which has been in Norway for 10 years now appears in Norwegian-owned cages in Scotland? Is it Norwegian husbandry which is wrong, or has the disease been brought from Norway? That is a matter we should address.

In answer to another of my questions, the Minister said that the Government have not yet established how the disease spread to Scotland. Frankly, it seems to me, that there is a prima facie case that it has spread from Norway. I understand that well-boats move between Scotland and Norway. Why do they move between Scotland and Norway? There is a total ban on the movement of live salmonoids into this country. Well-boats cannot legally bring in any live salmonoids, either smolts, parr or small salmon ready for ongrowing. They cannot bring them into this country. It is illegal. So why do the well-boats commute between Norway and Scotland? I cannot believe that it is a pleasure trip.

Even if the boats have not been slipping live fish into the country—I have no evidence of that; and one assumes that they have not because it would be illegal—have they been disinfecting their boats correctly when they move from Norway to Scotland? If not, the virus could be brought in the water held in the well-boats, or perhaps at the bottom of the well-boats. If there is a little moisture left, the virus can live.

Given the seriousness of the disease, there should be a ban on well-boat movements between Norway and this country. That seems a sensible precautionary step to take. I know that the Government have taken steps to stop the movement of live fish from any site where the disease is found or suspected; and that all salmon in an infected site are slaughtered. Is the Minister satisfied with the disposal of the blood and carcasses from a large tonnage of slaughtered fish? Is he sure that the movement of the blood and carcasses thereafter is sufficiently safe so that there is no contamination of other waters, either coastal waters where there are salmon farms, or rivers? Can the Minister assure me that he has no intention of changing his slaughter policy which seems to me to be the only sure way to prevent the spread of this disease to other fish farms and to the wild stock which is absolutely free of ISA?

On 30th July the Minister told me that there were some 106 farms sharing the same sea area—sea loch, or whatever—as those infected. Has that changed? I suspect it has because if new outbreaks have been reported then new farms in the adjacent area will be affected. I understand also from the Minister's answers to me that official approval is needed if any live fish are to be moved from any of the sites to other sites. I should have thought it would be more sensible to ban the movement of live fish from a site which may be in close proximity to an infected site. There is no problem about marketing the fish because, as no doubt the Minister will say, the problem does not affect humans. So fish in an adjacent cage where the outbreak has not been confirmed, or where there is no sign of the outbreak, can be marketed. But just in case in three, four or five months' time it transpires that the disease is in that cage too, I should have thought that there should be no movement of live fish to other sites that are currently unaffected.

My final point on cage sites concerns the fallow period before restocking. The Minister told me that no final decision had been taken, but that a six-month period was being considered. Has any hard and fast decision been taken? Is six months enough? Should we not make the fallow period unlimited until we know more about this disease?

I turn now to wild salmon which, as your Lordships will know, is of slight interest to me. I am grateful to the Minister for the full Answer he gave me on 3rd September to the Question of whether ISA could spread to wild salmon. As I have time, I will read his reply. He stated: Wild salmon populations are potentially susceptible to infectious salmon anaemia in the same way as farmed salmon; the disease may therefore be transmitted in either direction. There are no known case's of infectious salmon anaemia in wild salmon". I wish to underline that because there is some suggestion from people who wish to disguise the source of the disease that it may have come from the wild salmon stocks in Scotland. The Minister was clear in stating that there are no known cases of infectious salmon anaemia in wild salmon. He continued: However, the effects of diseases on wild populations are difficult to determine because unhealthy fish are normally rapidly removed by predation. There is no experimental evidence that sea trout can carry the ISA virus without being affected by the disease and that sea trout carriers can infect salmon".—[Official Report, 3/9/98; col. WA55.] Therefore, there is a question about the transfer of this disease from farmed salmon to wild salmon.

I understand the problem because it is easy to see the disease quickly in a fish cage. It is not easy to see it in the wild. The Minister said in his Answer that predators take any sickly fish. We are not seeing large quantities of fish in one place—at least, I have not—and we do not see them in the same way in cages. But I wonder what monitoring there is of wild stocks, especially in rivers adjacent to infected sites. For example, two of the infected sites are in Loch Creran, an area I know well. The River Creran enters at the top. It contained wild salmon and I wonder whether they are being monitored to see whether there is any effect. There are other places where the disease has been identified in fish cages and there are adjacent rivers with salmon stocks, probably much reduced, as has the run of salmon in the River Creran. Nonetheless, they ought to be monitored.

I am sure that every time the Minister hears about the disease he is told that the industry demands compensation. I could not help notice that Norsk Hydro was in the same kind of boat, looking for something like £10 million in compensation. The Minister will be refreshed to hear a different view. If the industry has brought the problem on itself I see no reason why taxpayers' money should be used. If there is evidence that the disease was introduced by Norsk Hydro I do not believe it merits any compensation.

However, the people I feel sorry for are shellfish farmers because they have been caught up in the problem quite accidentally. A friend of mine who farms in Loch Creran has been caught because he is not allowed to move his stock from one area to another. That is an essential part of the project, because it is very much a hatchery/nursery operation and small scallops, oysters or mussels are moved to other sites where they are grown on. He has not been allowed to do that because of fears that inside the shellfish there will be some water containing the virus. That is understandable and I commend the Scottish Office for being careful. However, I believe that shellfish growers who are caught in this dilemma deserve a great deal of sympathy. It is the second time they have been caught on the downside of salmon farming. Many were caught by the use of anti-fouling on fish cages, which had a dramatic effect on nearby shellfish farms. I hope that the Government are considering help for any shellfish farmer who has been affected by the problem.

I turn to gyrodactylus salaris. It is a parasite which affects salmon parr and other fish in fresh water. It was introduced into Norway from the Baltic where Baltic salmon are tolerant of the parasite. Atlantic salmon are not and between 30 and 40 Norwegian rivers have completely lost their salmon stocks. The Scottish Office has produced an excellent leaflet, as has MAFF. A poster has been promised for ports of entry. I wonder whether it is available and is being shown at the ports of entry.

I understand that in Iceland any visiting angler must show evidence that his gear has been disinfected. Although I have not been able to confirm it, I understand that he has to show a vet's certificate. Should we not do the same? Should we not ban the movement into this country of the angling gear of anglers who have been abroad. Furthermore, I believe that we should be in touch with our friends in the Republic of Ireland to ensure that we have a co-ordinated response to the danger in these islands. If the disease reached the Republic of Ireland it would reach here, too, as it would the other way round.

I return to the question of well-boats because they may have a role, too. I am concerned at the possibility of the disease being brought in from Norway by well-boats. I know that it is illegal to bring in live fish, but I can see a temptation to bring in to this country smolts or parr, which would be freshwater, in the well. If that were to happen and the fish were to be put into freshwater sites here, the parasite could easily be introduced. Indeed, during the Shetland business the Minister in a press release stated: Evidence is to hand which suggests a possible link involving well-boats between the confirmed Shetland site and one of those already identified as affected on the west coast". That is concerned with ISA, but my worry also encompasses gyrodactylus salaris. If the disease were introduced into this country it would be a disaster not just for salmon anglers and salmon fishing, but for salmon farmers, too. It would affect the hatchery stage in fresh water. Salmon angling employs just as many people as salmon farming. I am sure that the three speakers who are to join me in the debate will agree. Perhaps it has a greater downstream effect on many rural economies with shops, hotels, petrol stations and so forth drawing trade from visiting anglers. So whether it be the ISA here already or the danger of gyrodactylus salaris spreading here, we must control and regulate salmon farming in order to protect our stocks.

My noble friend Lord Nickson, who would dearly have loved to be here but cannot, in his Salmon Strategy Task Force Report called for a single regulatory body for all aspects of the installation, development and operation of salmon farms and for the strengthening of bodies such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Frankly, although people worry about planning controls and the siting of cages, my worry is the simple one of the need to control disease and parasites both within and outwith the cages as it may transfer to wild salmon and sea trout.

In fairness, I should conclude by saying that the Scottish Office has moved quickly on the two problems of ISA and gyrodactylus salaris. I hope that this short debate will persuade it to move further and constantly to have before it the precautionary principle that if we do not know let us be sure. Let us "mak siccar", to use an old Scottish expression. I can assure your Lordships that it will have the support of all of us who are interested in salmon stocks and salmon angling and I believe also the support of all those involved in fish farming.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. My main concern is the infectious salmon anaemia in the Scottish fish farms. I shall not wander into the many problems raised by the noble Lord, especially from his local knowledge gained during his pursuits in the Scottish salmon rivers.

This is the first time we have debated ISA and it is to be hoped that we shall have a full explanation from my noble friend the Minister. First, how has the disease come about? What are its origins? When was it first detected? It may well have been established that it came from Norway and possibly Canada. Unbelievably, after it had affected and closed fish farms in those countries, it came across to Scotland. Will the Minister say when it was detected in Scotland. Was it not possible to do more to control the spread of the disease?

It would appear that now 10 salmon farms have been closed; another 11 are on the endangered list; more than 3,000 tonnes of fish have been destroyed; and 179 fish farms have been placed under control. It is having a devastating effect on the output of farmed salmon and the income of the salmon farmers. I took note of what the noble Lord said about the fact that they may be mainly from the Norwegian fish farms but there could be others. Is there to be a compensation scheme either from Her Majesty's Government or from the European Union? Will there be any financial assistance at all? There has not only been loss of stock but also one must take into account cleaning, the disinfection of the site and the six months during which it must lie fallow before further use.

But now and most important, what is the Government's stated position on the safe consumption of that diseased salmon? I know that some supermarkets are refusing to stock it. But the public are entitled to know that there is no public health risk. Let us not go through a salmon fish BSE crisis. The Government must clear the air as a matter of urgency.

To what extent and for how long have we been importing salmon from Canada and Norway? Those of us who take an interest in these matters—we have debated them in the past—believe that Norway in particular has been guilty of dumping salmon and even undermining the fish farms in Scotland. But do we believe that any of those salmon imports from Norway were diseased and sold in our supermarkets?

I came across the phrase, "It is not believed to affect human health." That is not good enough. We must be certain, especially when it is noted that some of the diseased farms are Norwegian owned. There is the suspicion also that live fish from those farms have been introduced to a Shetland farm, spreading the disease much wider in Scotland. Indeed, it would appear that reports indicate that more than 200 sites are now being placed in quarantine. Is that infectious disease out of control? Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether any proceedings are being taken in relation to what may be regarded as the illegal movements of diseased fish. Has the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—I emphasise "and Food"—become involved in frank discussions with the Scottish Office on the matter of diseased food? What advice is being given to supermarkets?

The Salmon and Trout Association, of which I am a council member, has been concerned by the growth of salmon farming and the lack of proper planning controls. For some years now it has called for independent regulation of the industry. Indeed, we debated that in the House on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, on the Scottish salmon strategy task force over a year ago. Have the Government given any thought to that?

Finally, we are now fully aware that ISA is highly infectious; that there is no known cure; and that it is spreading so rapidly it could very seriously affect the whole of the industry. Thousands of jobs are threatened; many redundancies are being declared; and with escapes of diseased salmon, the wild salmon, with cross-infection, are in jeopardy. If Norway's fish rabies—gyrodactylus salaris—comes to Scotland, then the industry and all our salmon, farmed or wild, are likely to be severely diminished.

This is a major question for my noble friend and for the Scottish Office in liaison with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We shall want to know more about protection and prevention. I should like to know what the Government are going to do about it.

7.25 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow such well-known fishermen as my noble friend Lord Mackay and the noble Lord, Lord Mason. I have been fascinated to listen to their account of the current situation.

I speak as a former fisheries Minister in Scotland. I visited our fish farms on many occasions. I also took the Norwegian Minister around our fish farms in Scotland to show him how important the industry is to Scotland in terms of employment, as noble Lords have said, and to bring home to him the great difficulties that Norway was causing Scotland by over-production and by the requirement to bring in a minimum import price in order that there was some degree of fairness between Norway and Scotland. The strong pound, which is the Government's responsibility, has certainly not helped the position as regards the minimum import price but that is a matter other than the one which we are discussing this evening.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mason, that other issues like planning and the position of the Crown Commissioners relative to planning have caused many Scottish Office Ministers a great deal of concern over the years since the war.

I ask the Minister how urgently and seriously he takes this situation to be. I was speaking only yesterday to the chairman of the Scottish Salmon Smokers Association which looks after the smoking of Scottish salmon. He said that he wrote to the Secretary of State on 1st October impressing upon him that the situation is getting out of hand. And yet, as of last night, he had not received an answer. It does not seem to me that that shows any great degree of urgency on the part of the Scottish Office.

It is serious for fish farms. If it is not eradicated, it will be very serious for fresh salmon and smoked salmon, not because of the health risks, with which I shall deal in a moment, because there is absolutely no risk to health for humans, but because of what will inevitably be a lack of supply.

Those farms which have ISA have been culled. That applies to all sizes of fish—the whole lot—and the whole cycle of reproduction of the salmon goes back to the start. That means that, inevitably, it will be some years before those farms which have been closed are able to produce fish again in reasonable quantities.

There are two aspects of this situation which I wish to highlight. As the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, 10 farms have ISA and have been completely culled; 11 are being monitored and may be culled in the future if it turns out that they have ISA. That leaves 339 unaffected farms. Therefore, as at this moment, because the farms which have ISA have been culled and the rest are being monitored, we can say that there is no known ISA in Scotland. But from what has happened and in the light of the developing situation, it looks as though that will not hold for very much longer.

Because of the fact that at the moment there are 339 unaffected farms, we must not over-react in terms of publicity which has such a damaging effect on the consumption of salmon, both fresh and smoked, in the United Kingdom.

As my noble friend Lord Mackay said, ISA is common in Norway. I was extremely concerned about what he was telling us as to the possibility that the infection has come to Scotland from Norway. Salmon in the sea, sea trout and herring certainly carry ISA in UK waters. Therefore, I ask the Minister what the Scottish scientists are doing. At Pitlochry and Aberdeen, we have extremely skilled scientists in the laboratories. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what recommendations they are making in order to halt the spread of ISA and indeed, it is hoped, to prevent it happening in the future other than by the drastic impact of culling.

We all know what that can mean in terms of any form of livestock. One remembers the problems of foot and mouth and, of course, brucellosis in cattle. But then there was compensation. However, I share the view of my noble friend Lord Mackay that if this disease has been self-imported from Norway we must be extremely careful about offering compensation to fish farmers to cull, clean and disinfect cages.

The Minister and his colleagues are keen to regenerate industry in Scotland. It is therefore important that we get this right in relation to fish farms which provide a high percentage of employment in areas where it is difficult to find alternative jobs. It is becoming even more serious in relation to what is happening on the hill farms today. As I mentioned in the Question I raised in the Chamber this afternoon, hill farming is facing a serious crisis at the present time.

It is unlikely that those who lose their jobs or are made redundant on fish farms in the western half of Scotland will obtain jobs in farming at the present time. They will be a serious drain on the local economy if they are out of work. The Minister will appreciate the importance of getting this right and preventing the drain on employment from fish farms should this disease spread rapidly and the 300 plus fish farms which are unaffected at the moment come within the ambit of suspicion.

It is important also that this House sends a message to the public—the noble Lord, Lord Mason, was not too certain about this, but from my inquiries over the past day or two I am confident—that this disease cannot affect human beings. The virus can only survive at temperatures far below that of the human body. It is really therefore no threat to the public and we should be confident to continue to purchase and eat both smoked and fresh salmon whether it comes from fish farms or from the wild.

I have watched my near neighbours in Annan in the development of Pinneys. They are the largest smokers of salmon in Scotland. They have a big industry and only a few months ago opened a new facility in Annan where they employ several hundred people. They in turn will become concerned about their future when they see in the press scandalous headlines indicating that ISA is on a par with BSE and that their jobs will be at risk because of the possibility in the future of a ban on selling smoked salmon to the public. That is not true. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the only problem will arise from the supply of salmon rather than whether or not it is fit to eat.

I hope therefore that producers of high quality smoked salmon—we have them in numbers in Scotland—are able to continue to produce their high quality goods and find a market for them. I hope that they are not hindered by bad publicity which, quite frankly, is inaccurate and causes unnecessary anxiety. As the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, it involves 5,000 or 6,000 people in the industry throughout Scotland.

It is important that tonight we build up consumer confidence in the consumption of salmon, whether smoked or fresh, and that we work hard to find a cure. I hope that the Minister will be able to point us in the right direction in that regard tonight. There is no cause for alarm and I am highly critical of those in the media who caused a great deal of disquiet by falsely indicating that it is something that can affect humans when it certainly cannot.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish for initiating this short debate. It gives us the opportunity to hear the views of the Scottish Office, and perhaps a chance to indicate that there is no danger to human life. However, there is an extremely serious danger in the spread of this disease to salmon farms in Scotland. The sooner we can find a cure or a prevention, certainly of bringing live salmon from elsewhere in the world, the better.

7.33 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I should like to declare an interest inasmuch as I am the owner of land on which a salmon farm works. It is in fact owned by Norsk Hydro. It is a hatchery and has not yet been affected by the disease.

I should like to point out that salmon farming in this country is now a major industry producing many hundreds of tonnes of salmon a year. It is a large employer in depressed areas—mostly the west of Scotland. It has also changed the eating habits of this country to a large extent in that salmon has now dramatically gone down in price. In fact, at Leadenhall Market today one can buy a marvellous side of smoked salmon for just £10, whereas 20 or 30 years ago it would have been considerably more.

All I ask is that the Government take this threat extremely seriously and, if necessary, impose quarantine. But they should not treat it like the BSE scare which, as my noble friend Lord Monro said, caused such an over-reaction. As has been stated by other noble Lords, this disease constitutes no danger to human health. Nevertheless, it should be taken extremely seriously.

7.36 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, I first declare my interest—though it is well known to your Lordships—as chairman of Thurso Fisheries Limited and therefore beneficial owner of Thurso River. We do not have any fish farms near us and therefore I have no worries on that score other than some of those expressed this evening. I also have no axe to grind in that regard.

I have one other interest to declare in that it is my mother-in-law's 70th birthday tonight and I am supposed to be there. I shall therefore be remarkably brief. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, for the full and excellent way in which he put his Question to the Government. He and I probably share similar sources of information; there is little that I saw in my brief that he did not cover in his and I shall not repeat it.

It is pleasant to be in the Chamber with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asking the Question and the Minister responding on a subject in which there is a common bond of concern and to be largely in agreement. We are normally dealing with the Scotland Bill and are not nearly so consensual.

Before total harmony breaks out between us, perhaps I may pick up on one matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I thought this evening in your Lordships' House I would get away with not talking about netting. However, the noble Lord managed to mention it: he said that salmon farming has been beneficial in helping to reduce the price and consequently reduce poaching and netting action.

There is considerable evidence that with netting stations being removed from the north coast poaching has actually increased. I ask only that those involved in netting be given the same rights and treatment as the rest of us in all the aspects of salmon fishing. Also, in relation to consumption, I believe the actual amount of salmon consumed compared with the old days has greatly increased. That is therefore a dangerous argument to follow.

However, from now on let a reasonable amount of harmony break out between us. I thank the noble Lord for raising this matter and doing it so well. I just want to cherry pick one or two of the points he raised. First, he spoke of compensation. I know that a number of people feel strongly that it would be wrong, if it is proved that the disease is the result of illegal importation of fish, for those who committed that act to be compensated for their folly by the taxpayer.

One should also have regard to the many people who have operated within the industry perfectly legally and legitimately and who now stand to suffer from the illegal activities. In supporting the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, in his call for sympathy for the shellfish growers, I would also say that those salmon growers who have been involved and who have not been part of any illegal or incompetent action should not also be penalised. Perhaps the way to deal with that is to make sure that jobs are kept until such time as we have the facts before us. If and when we have the facts we discover that the problem has been caused by illegal acts or incompetence, then we can go after the perpetrators rather than punishing everybody.

As to the question of regulation, with this grave problem facing us—and it is an extremely grave problem—there is a natural tendency to want the highest possible order of regulation. But I am not wholly convinced. When I was speaking in a debate that the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, introduced, I had question marks over the way he wished to see the industry regulated. I am not wholly convinced that strong, heavy-handed regulation is the right way to go. But it is absolutely necessary that regulation should be effective, however it is put forward. I am sympathetic to introducing more regulation—clearly we have a big problem—but I would need some convincing.

As one noble Lord said, this is rather like foot and mouth. As with foot and mouth, there are ways of dealing with diseases. The key is to ensure that powers exist at the Scottish Office—I presume that this will be a devolved matter in the Scottish parliament—to enable it to take such action as necessary at government level. That does not mean that we have to create a regulatory body to do it. There is a balance to be struck between what we need to achieve the objective and the correct amount of regulation.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, I too heard that there is an attempt to blame this disease on our indigenous Scottish salmon. That is not only a dreadful slur but is quite incorrect. When infectious pancreatic necrosis—that horrible disease—struck it was eventually moved from being a class 1 disease, once it had infected wild salmon, and it became a big problem in rivers for many years. I would be most disappointed if the same were to happen in regard to infectious salmon anaemia.

The control of well boats is crucial. I said at the beginning of my speech that Thurso is probably safe because it is an area with no salmon farms. But, as I said that I wondered what would happen if a well boat put into Scrabster harbour and discharged over the side. There could well be a problem. That is a serious point and one which we should take on board.

A number of noble Lords mentioned the disposal of the carcasses of diseased fish. I have heard reports of them being disposed of at sea. That is clearly wrong. I hope that those reports are incorrect and that the Minister can reassure me about that. It would be worrying if carcasses were being disposed of at sea.

There is also a report—this is second-hand information so I am not sure of its accuracy—of carcasses being transported across Scotland. Clearly dangers exist.

Turning to the dreaded parasite gyrodactylus salaris, there are two dangers. One is the unwitting danger of importation by anglers because the parasite can live on in damp equipment and therefore be imported into the country. There is an excellent leaflet on that and I am concerned with a number of organisations that have been making sure that everybody involved is aware of the danger. On the Thurso, my river superintendent now speaks to every angler to ask whether they have been abroad and, if so, offers to disinfect their kit for them free of charge. I do not know whether other proprietors do things like that, but I suggest that it is worth while.

The second danger is illegal importation—if indeed there has been illegal importation. If that is happening, it is a huge danger. By its very nature it will be going on in a clandestine way and therefore be impossible to regulate and deal with. I hope that the Minister can assure us on that point. It would be an unmitigated disaster in the salmon industry if gyrodactylus salaris came anywhere near us.

Let me now go slightly off the subject and speak to one small point. I welcome the planning guidelines that have been sent out for consultation by the Scottish Office. I think it is a two-month consultation at the moment. As I read it, there is a presumption against farms on the east coast, there are very sensitive areas on the west coast and sensitive areas. We are moving in the right direction to get the proper balance between the important commercial imperative of preserving jobs on the west coast and not spreading the dangers that we now know about across to other areas of Scotland.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, mentioned cross-contamination and the possibility of there being a possible salmon BSE. The noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, assured us that it could not become a human variant BSE, as it were. After the BSE experience I would not like to be the Minister who made that assertion from the Front Bench. One thing that BSE has taught us is that we need to be extremely careful whenever we have imported diseases from one area to another, as we witnessed with Baltic salmon being immune to gyrodactylus salaris and the devastation in Norway. What would happen if that came here? The best scientific advice is that it absolutely cannot come to humans; but never is a long time in cross-contamination.

I await the response of the Minister. I urge above all that we adopt a highly precautionary approach to try to stop this as nearly as possible dead in its tracks.

7.46 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I also thank all Members of your Lordships' House who have participated in this short debate for the positive and constructive way in which they have approached the issue. As the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, indicated, there is a common objective and shared purpose to ensure that we deal with the problem of infectious salmon anaemia and do whatever we can to prevent gyrodactylus salaris from ever reaching our rivers.

Let me talk first about infectious salmon anaemia, which we all recognise is an extremely serious disease of salmon in sea water. It is a disease which is transmitted by contact between fish through blood, urine, faeces and body fluids, though there is some evidence to suggest that it might also be carried by other salmonids, including sea trout. It is caused by a virus. It has characteristic visual symptoms, which include darkening of the liver, severe anaemia and visceral haemorrhaging which assist in its diagnosis.

I recognise and share the dismay which has been expressed about the advent of ISA in Scotland. This is not just a major disappointment; it also raises anxieties that another disease, gyrodactylus salaris, might also appear one day. I hope, however, that what I have to say will provide some reassurance on that issue.

ISA was first identified in Norway in 1984. In 1996 it was found in Canada. Prior to the present outbreak there had been no reports of the disease in European Community waters.

There is a clear legal framework for dealing with any ISA outbreak. Let me briefly describe the measures which the Government are obliged to take. Any suspicion of the disease must immediately be notified to the authorities. Once such a report is received, restrictive measures must be put in hand to reduce the risk of the outbreak spreading—by controls on the movement of fish and equipment onto and off the suspected farm and other farms in the same catchment area. Subsequent confirmation of the disease requires the removal of all fish from the farm and full disinfection. Fish not showing clinical signs of the disease may be marketed. All other fish, eggs and gametes must be destroyed in an approved manner. There must then be a fallowing period before the farm can be restocked. The clearing of an infected farm and the disposal of infected fish is subject to inspection by our fish health inspectorate.

The first outbreak of ISA in Scotland was confirmed at a site in Loch Nevis in May. Since then the disease has been confirmed at a further nine sites, the last on 18th September. Eleven other sites are suspected but this needs to be seen in the context of some 340 salmon farms which comprise the Scottish industry. The common denominator between these sites appears to be site-to-site contact of personnel and equipment, including well-boats, which are used for the movement of fish. Due to the movement restrictions, which are also imposed for 40 kilometres around suspected or confirmed sites, almost 180 other fish farms are under regular surveillance and need the department's approval to move their fish. That is the precautionary framework and the legal framework in which the policy operates.

Approximately 3,000 tonnes of fish have had to be slaughtered on the confirmed 10 sites. About one-third have been destroyed and safely disposed of. The other two-thirds have displayed no clinical signs of the disease and, as permitted by European fish health legislation, they have been marketed. Again, to put this into perspective, the total of 3,000 tonnes is equivalent in weight terms to about 3 per cent. of this year's expected production.

I hope it will be clear from what I have said that the response to the ICA outbreak by the Scottish Office has been immediate and rigorous. I take note of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, when he referred to the actions of the Scottish Office, and thank him for it. As the Minister, I have been greatly impressed by the work and effort put in by the various civil servants. It has been exemplary.

We have reinforced our fish health inspectorate to undertake the extra work required. Our aim—indeed our obligation under Community law—is to eradicate the disease and the measures put in place are designed to that end. The objective is the eradication of the disease. We remain committed to that policy, but we are keeping that objective under review in the light of our growing knowledge and experience of this disease. It is fairly well known that the disease expresses itself at times of stress; in particular, temperature changes. The next few months will be critical in terms of our being able to reach a view on whether the disease has spread on the basis of site-to-site contact or whether there is something more general and, unfortunately perhaps, more endemic in its presence.

Ever since the first outbreak was confirmed in May we have kept in close contact with the European Commission and the Community Fish Health Laboratory in Denmark, which have expressed themselves content with our actions to date. We are liaising with the Norwegian authorities which, as has been pointed out, have longer experience of the disease. We have also worked closely with the industry itself. I have had a whole series of meetings with representatives of the industry—from the major companies to the small producers—and I know that my officials are in virtual day-to-day contact with all aspects of the industry. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, referred to a failure to respond. I shall make sure that that is taken up and will get back to the noble Lord as quickly as possible. But I emphasise that not only the Scottish Office but the industry as a whole see this as a major challenge. We need to have a robust and effective response to that challenge. I am quite sure that the industry recognises the serious threat posed by ISA and I am satisfied that it is co-operating with the various restrictions and controls that are in place.

I am conscious that three main questions arise in relation to this outbreak. How did the disease arrive? What are the risks of it spreading? And what are the implications for human health? Some of those questions have almost been answered by those who have participated in the debate. However, as the Minister, I think I had better answer them as well.

On the first point—how did the disease arrive—we are required under Community legislation to seek to establish the cause. Considerable effort is being put into this but I have to say that, as yet, it has not been possible to reach any firm conclusions. I say purely as a theoretical point that it is possible that the virus arrived through wild fish. That is a theoretical possibility—I make no more of it than that—and I do have to say that no imports of live salmon or eggs from Norway are permitted. We have no evidence that any illegal import of salmon has occurred. Our work is still continuing. We wish very much to be able to tie down the cause of the disease's arrival in this country.

Concern has been expressed about possible transmission to and by wild stocks. ISA is a disease specific to salmon and it follows that it could exist in wild stocks. I mentioned earlier that certain wild fish, such as sea trout, could be carriers of the virus. As part of the mandatory investigation into the cause of the outbreak, samples of salmon, sea trout and whitefish have been tested from the areas around infected farms, with, I am happy to say, negative results. We will be continuing our surveillance of wild fish both in the waters around suspect and confirmed farms and beyond.

For reasons which I well understand, noble Lords have raised the question of the possibility of risk to human health arising from this viral disease of salmon. I hope I may add to the reassurance already given. This very question was considered on 18th September by the Government's Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food. The committee noted that there was little evidence of cold water pathogens, particularly viruses, causing disease in humans. Further, it noted that host range was narrow. Only Atlantic salmon are known to be susceptible to ISA, although the virus can survive and replicate in some species of trout. In addition—this is a fundamentally important point—the virus is unable to replicate at temperatures above 25 degrees centigrade. The committee concluded that there was currently no evidence of a risk to human health. Inquiries have also been made through our embassies in Ottawa and Oslo—because Norway and Canada both have experience of the disease—and I am happy to report that neither country has any evidence of the ISA virus causing illness in humans. There would appear to be a general consensus on this point both in terms of experience and of science.

A number of other points relating to ISA were made during the debate and I will return to those a little later, point by point. However, before doing so I should like to say something about gyrodactylus salaris. This is a freshwater parasite of salmon, which appears to have originated in the Baltic. Baltic salmon seem to have developed an immunity to it but Atlantic salmon are vulnerable. From the Baltic it spread to Norway, where it spread rapidly and, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, indicated, it devastated salmon stocks in many of the Norwegian rivers.

In response to the threat posed by gyrodactylus salaris, it was made a notifiable disease in the United Kingdom in 1988, and in 1996 the United Kingdom was able to persuade the European Commission to impose temporary safeguard measures prohibiting the import of all live salmonoids into Great Britain and Ireland. Earlier this year the United Kingdom put forward an alternative proposal for strengthening the national measures that member states can take under EU rules to prevent the introduction of diseases from which they are free in their territory. I am pleased to say that this proposal was adopted by the council this summer. It will enable us to adopt permanent measures replacing the existing temporary safeguards to guard against the introduction of gyrodactylus salaris into this country.

There is a remote risk that gyrodactylus salaris might be introduced into this country by another route, for example, on anglers' clothing or equipment. This is a point which has been referred to by earlier speakers. The parasite can survive for up to eight days in damp conditions. To guard against this possibility, both the Scottish Office and MAFF have issued advice to angling and other organisations about this risk, emphasising the need to disinfect or thoroughly dry all equipment after returning from an angling trip abroad.

I should like now to refer to some of the specific points which were made earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, referred to the possibility of tightening up controls generally—a point which was also made by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. I welcome any ideas for tightening up controls. We have set up a working group with the Scottish Office and salmon farmers to consider all such ideas, and I will certainly want to consider any specific proposals put forward this evening.

Controls of the movements of well-boats are being actively reviewed by the working group. We recognise that this is an area where we very much want to focus our concerns. Another point was made as to how far we were satisfied about the disposal of blood and carcasses and whether this was being done safely. The situation is that all disposals of infected material are monitored by the Fish Health Inspectorate, local authorities and others. At the moment we are satisfied that the industry is co-operating fully. Indeed, both the disposal and the general husbandry policies in the industry are being addressed by the industry. They recognise that in some cases improvements have to be made.

I very much accept the point about shellfish farmers. I cannot promise compensation at all: it has not been the case in the past to compensate shellfish farmers when they have been subject to movement restrictions. However, I have been able to lift all movement restrictions in relation to shell-fish farmers at the moment. I hope they will now be able to resume their activity relatively untroubled.

We have also, in response to the threat, increased the number of our field inspectors. A total of 14 extra staff have been taken on to ensure that we are able to maintain the necessary inspectorate effort. I am not saying that the inspectors are there all the time, but there is a very good and thorough coverage by inspectors. That is absolutely right and proper, and I very much want to pay tribute to the hardworking staff who are working long hours to maintain proper supervision.

Throughout the debate there has been the odd reference to Norway as the possible origin of the present infection. I just want to inject a word of caution in relation to the source of this outbreak. I have to take a balanced view of this matter and my scientific advisers do not rule out the possibility that this virus has reached Scotland through wild stocks. I say that only because that is what the scientists tell me. It is indeed the case that the disease was first identified at a Norsk-Hydro farm and is generally confined to Norsk-Hydro farms. Beyond that, however, we can link all infected sites to the movement of fish and personnel or equipment from that site—movement, I should say, that took place before our movement controls took effect. So I think the way in which it has spread so far we have been able to identify. It is by site-to-site contact, and we have then imposed the restriction orders which should contain the problem, I hope. As I mentioned earlier, we are moving to a period in the year when we will soon know whether the virus and the disease have been contained or whether we are facing a much more difficult problem.

Very briefly, regarding gyrodactylus salaris, there is a specific point about posters. It has been mentioned that leaflets are already available. I can confirm that we are in the process of arranging for such posters to be placed in ports of entry, and the posters have actually been printed. I think, speaking to fishermen, that there is a very high level of recognition among that community of the danger posed by gyrodactylus salaris and I feel that people are behaving responsibly. I applaud that.

I hope I have answered all the points raised in the debate. I shall want to read what has been said by noble Lords, and if I have missed anything I will endeavour to reply in writing. I stress that the Government will continue to take the current outbreak of ISA extremely seriously. The policy that we are committed to is one of eradication. We want to overcome this disease, and that drives everything we have done. Similarly, we remain resolved to keep gyrodactylus salaris out of this country.

House adjourned at nine minutes past eight o'clock.