HL Deb 17 June 1999 vol 602 cc407-9

Viscount Trenchard asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the Environment Agency's national by-laws require the release of all salmon caught by rod and line until 16th June whereas net fisheries are only so restricted until 1st June in any year.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, these by-laws are designed to reduce salmon mortality in both rod and net fisheries and are justified by the decline in numbers of early running salmon. The difference in dates referred to by the noble Viscount is intended to ensure that fish which are denied to the nets at the end of May are not caught and killed by anglers when they move into rivers early in June, bearing in mind that salmon tend to be particularly vulnerable to anglers just after they have entered the river.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and must declare an interest as a director of Endsleigh Fishing Club Ltd, one of the principal riparian owners of the River Tamar. I would agree that fish which have just entered a river are particularly vulnerable to being caught by rod fishermen, but does the Minister agree that fish which are about to enter a river are even more vulnerable to being caught by net fishermen?

Does he also agree that, by introducing measures which may well be justified in principle but are discriminatory and unequal in application, he runs the risk of alienating the support of the rod fishermen whose commitment and financial support, which maintain and improve the quality of the salmon's environment, are crucial to the future of the species?

Lord Donoughue

No, my Lords, I do not accept that the new by-laws are discriminatory, certainly not against rod fishermen. After all, the restraints on the net fishermen are seemingly greater in that they prevent net fishing between the start of the season, usually March, to 1st June. The purpose of the by-laws is quite clear. We have been advised by the International Council on the Exploration of the Sea that our salmon stocks, and those in southern Europe, are now so low that they do not support replication of the species. Therefore, we have to take urgent action. We believe that this action will increase the number of spring salmon spawning in the spring by between one-third and one-half. That is our purpose.

As the noble Viscount will know, the by-laws allow rod fishermen to catch salmon during the period from the opening of the season to 16th June, but they are expected to release them.

Lord Moran

My Lords, first, I declare an interest as the owner of a beat on the upper Wye. Is the Minister aware that allowing the nets to fish from 1st June, which I believe was a last-minute concession, will, according to authoritative estimates of the Environment Agency, result in the killing of 3,000 fish in the first two weeks of June, a loss which in present circumstances we ought not to contemplate?

Is the Minister also aware that when as chairman of the Salmon and Trout Association I saw his colleague the Minister for Fisheries, Mr Elliot Morley, I told him that we supported the broad thrust of these measures, draconian though they are, but that we thought it very important that there should be absolute even-handedness with regard to the nets and the rods, and that consequently the nets should not be allowed to fish while the rods are subject to compulsory catch and release? Will the noble Lord consider with his colleagues whether next year and in following years the nets should not be allowed to fish until 16th June when rods are allowed to take salmon?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, a number of concessions were made following widespread consultation—and that was one of them. It resulted in an increase in the number of salmon which would be caught. However, it is small compared with the expected benefit of the new rules. The noble Lord mentioned a figure of 3,000, but we are talking of a stock of about 500,000. We shall of course continue to look at the situation. The new by-laws are for 10 years, but we shall review them after five years. Our view is that we have been even handed in the way I explained to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, first, is the Minister aware of the advice given to the Scottish Office by Professor Shearer that fish caught and released are more susceptible to terminal disease and therefore pass that disease to other fish? Secondly, does he agree that most advice now indicates that it is degradation of rivers and habitat which has caused the decline in salmon stocks and that that has been caused largely by intensive farming and forestry, and that the same riparian owners who now complain were the beneficiaries of those activities?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, as regards riparian owners, I refer to the Question. The noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, is related to the Tamar scheme, which I have visited. I should like to commend that magnificent scheme of co-operation between the various authorities and recommend that it be applied to other rivers. As regards disease in released fish, we are aware that there are disadvantages in allowing fish to be caught and then released. However, we still believe that the by-laws we have introduced will have the major benefit of resulting in a significant increase in the number of spring salmon spawning of between one-third and one-half. As regards salmon stocks, it is estimated that in the 1970s some 1.5 million salmon returned from the seas to our rivers. That figure is now only half a million. As regards the salmon catch, 20 years ago it was 25,000 a year; it is now below 5,000. Therefore, we believe that there is an urgent need for action—and we believe that we have taken it.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, of the total number of salmon caught, can the Minister tell the House what proportion is caught by nets and what proportion is caught by rods in the rivers?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord those numbers, but I shall certainly write to him with them—in so far as we can estimate them.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, bearing in mind the dwindling of the stocks of salmon, is not the Minister concerned that the Government have cut by £1.5 million the funding going to the Environment Agency, which would have been used on work to enhance the stocks?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, it is true that under the financial settlement there were cuts in the fishing area and cuts allocated to the Environment Agency. However, I should point out that those cuts will take place in two to three years' time. We have given the agency an extra £0.5 million to deal with fish matters.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have a beat on the Tay. I support what is proposed in general. However, I believe that it is unreasonable that the nets should have an advantage of 3,000 fish over and above what can be caught generally. I hope very much that in the next by-laws consideration will be given to ensuring that the rods and nets are equal from the beginning.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his support. I assure him that we shall undertake a review in five years' time.

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