HL Deb 09 April 2003 vol 647 cc270-306

5.47 p.m.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean rose to call attention to the plight of Atlantic salmon; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be given the opportunity to raise the plight of the Atlantic salmon. I feel that doing so on Budget day and on the day on which Baghdad appears to have fallen is rather like trying to fish for salmon on a cold winter's day with a floating line. However, I hope to cast a few flies in the direction of the Minister and gain the Government's support for action in this crucially important area.

I begin by thanking publicly Mr Andrew Wallace, the director of the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards, Mr Paul Knight, who is the director of the Salmon and Trout Association, and Fay Hieatt, from the River Tweed Commissioners. All of them have spent considerable time talking to me about some of the issues with which they are concerned. I also thank officials in the Scottish Executive and the Minister's office, who have been extremely helpful. I have given the Minister an indication of some of the matters that I want to raise.

I also say "Thank you" to the noble Lord, Lord Nickson—of Renagour—who is battling at this very moment to get from Pitlochry, where the annual general meeting of the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards, of which he is president, is taking place. He has been held up because Heathrow controllers are in short supply. I am sure that the whole House will be understanding of the fact that he is not here at the beginning of this debate; his contribution will be very welcome indeed.

I am a recent convert to fishing. When I ceased being a member of the government, I found that fishing took up quite a lot of my time. I do not believe that there is a finer sight in nature than a leaping salmon. It is a fantastic sight—one of the grandest sights that one can see. Yet this extraordinary creature is in mortal peril. According to the World Wildlife Fund—or WWF, as it now calls itself—it has all but disappeared in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and it is on the brink of extinction in Estonia, Portugal, Poland, the United

States and parts of Canada. Indeed, 90 per cent of the world's population of Atlantic salmon are now concentrated in four countries: Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Scotland. Even in Scotland, according to WWF, it is endangered in 37 per cent of the rivers.

I appreciate that most Members of the House who are taking part in this debate are even more expert in these matters than the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, and certainly more expert than me. But it is important to remember that these fish are genetically programmed to return to the river from whence they came—indeed, to the very spot in the river where the egg that produced them hatched—and that, once a wild population has gone from a river, it has probably gone for ever.

I know that the Minister does not have responsibilities in Scotland, but I believe that what has happened on the west coast of Scotland should give us all considerable cause for concern. We have seen the salmon and sea trout populations completely collapse, and I do not believe there is now any doubt that fish farming has been a major contributor to that catastrophe.

I once thought—indeed, it happened during my watch at the Scottish Office—that salmon farming would help to save the wild fish. I believed that it would bring down the price of salmon, that there would be less poaching and that it would be good news for the wild fish. That has sadly proved to be a delusion. Poorly managed farms have had a disastrous impact on the wild population. I am told that last year 400,000 fish escaped from fish farms into the wild, resulting in interbreeding, which damages the gene pool, and competition for food and scarce resources.

The siting of cages at the mouth of rivers means that the smolts—the young fish—going out to sea are ruthlessly attacked by sea lice, which are in far heavier concentrations than would occur in nature because the fish in the cages are in very high concentrations. Indeed, a piece of research in Norway showed that in one river where cages of farmed fish were placed at the mouth, 80 per cent of the smolts were lost through sea lice attacks. The sea lice cluster on the heads of the young fish like death crowns and weaken and, ultimately, kill them.

In fairness, the industry and the Scottish Executive recognise that there is a problem. Indeed, only in the past few weeks we have seen the publication of a report on agriculture. But, like so many others, it is yet another example of a report which is good on words and short on action. It talks about more research rather than what is needed—that is, tough controls to deal with fish farming and effective enforcement of proper codes of conduct.

I know that the industry has come forward with a voluntary code of conduct, and I am the last to argue for regulation. But the trouble with voluntary codes of conduct is that the good guys obey them and the bad guys get on with farming in the bad old ways, which have caused so much damage to the environment. With regard to the escapes, I believe that at the very least farmed fish should be tagged so that we are aware of where they are going and what the consequences are. Many people have called for a public inquiry into the environmental impact of fish farming. I am bound to say that I have some sympathy with that view.

I was fishing on the Tweed at the end of last year—which is why I decided to try to secure this debate in the House—when one of the best gillies on the Tweed, Colin Bell, told me that there were plans to set up a fish farm to rear 3 million to 4 million smolts on the Ettrick, which is within the Tweed's catchment area. I told him that he must be wrong: there was an understanding that there would be no more fish farms on the east or north coasts of Scotland. As with so many things said by gillies, he turned out to be absolutely right. There is, indeed, a proposal from a Norwegian company to turn a trout farm into a smolt farm. It would not be allowed to do that in Norway but in Scotland we do not have the necessary controls to prevent such a thing happening. Escapes into the Tweed would be absolutely disastrous, and the possibility of the spread of disease and parasites is most concerning.

Salmon fishing is not only a pastime for a few rich people who go up to the Tweed: it is very much a way of life for the rural communities. In the Borders, salmon fishing employs 520 people and produces a local income of some £13 million. When the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, reported as part of the task force which I set up when Secretary of State, he estimated that the value to Scotland alone of salmon caught on the rod was some £350 million.

Drift-netting has been a big issue in Scotland. I am delighted to see that my noble friend Lord Monro will speak later in the debate. During his watch, he was instrumental in persuading MAFF to phase out the north-east drift-nets, which are responsible for taking some 33,655 salmon. That was a great cause célèbre in Scotland. I remember that John Gummer and other Ministers considered us to be very tiresome, but it was an important matter. To the credit of the Minister and Mr Elliot Morley, the phasing out of the north-east drift-net fishery has been accelerated. The Minister came forward with £0.75 million to help to buy out the netsmen, but I am told that agreement has now been reached on a figure of £3.34 million to buy out 80 per cent of the netsmen. That is fantastic progress. The sum of £3.34 million leaves something of a gap, but I understand that the Minister—again, to his credit—has increased his offer to £1.25 million and that the private sector is finding £1 million. Therefore, there is a gap of £1 million.

I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, who did so well when he was in the Scottish Office, thinks about this, but the Scottish Executive is refusing to pay a penny on the grounds that this is an English fishery. However, the Scots are the principal beneficiaries of fish travelling up Scottish rivers. Here is a chance to save 25,000 salmon every year which will go to the Tweed, the Dee, the Forth and the Tay, but the Scottish Executive cannot find the money. That is ridiculous. The documentation must be completed in May because the season starts in June, so the Members of the Executive had better wake up when they return from their electioneering.

I note that during the debate in the Scottish Parliament, which was quite good, Rhona Brankin, the then Fisheries Minister, when asked about this matter, said: We take the matter seriously and are in discussions with MAFF about it". She then said: If the number of fish returning to our rivers continues to decline, there is a real danger that there will be too few spawning fish to ensure that the juvenile population is maintained at safe levels. I am afraid the picture is bleak". Quite so. The picture will be bleak if Ministers in a devolved Administration, which is supposed to help Scotland, allow this opportunity to slip away.

If the Atlantic salmon has an epitaph, I believe that it will be "Lost at sea". Again, the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, estimated that the black hole into which the smolts are disappearing at sea is taking something in the region of a million more fish than it took 20 or 30 years ago; in other words, the survival rate of the smolts has fallen from 15 to 25 per cent to 5 to 15 per cent. I believe that the pelagic trawlers—I see that the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, is now in his place—are a major source of that loss of young salmon. Some estimates put the numbers as high as 900,000. These fish are being killed by people fishing for mackerel and herring in the northern North Sea and are then dumped over the side as bycatch discards. It is a huge waste of resources, and I wonder whether the Minister can tell us what action he is taking to change this ludicrous system.

Similarly, I know that the subject of seals is controversial, but why cannot we have a seal commission, in the same way as we have a red deer commission, to deal with the trebling of the population which has occurred among the seals? Again, the task force of the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, estimated that seals catch 470,000 fish, and that is on a fairly conservative basis.

I return to the subject of drift-netting. I praised the Minister for his actions on the north-east drift-net fishery. But I have to say that the answer that he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Mason, in February when asked what representations the Government were making to the Irish in respect of Irish drift-nets—the answer was "none"—was wholly unsatisfactory. That is the Irish drift-net fishery, which the drift-net fishermen themselves wish to give up. People are able to buy out of it although it costs a huge amount of money to administer. It takes at least a quarter of a million fish every year, which affects the rivers in Wales, in the south-west of England, as well as in Spain, France and Germany.

The great hero of that sad tale is a man called Orri Vigfusson, an Icelandic vodka distiller, who has almost single-handedly set up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, which has seen Greenland, the Faroes and Iceland all give up their netting. It is helping with the north-east case, but the Irish refuse even to consider a dialogue. I believe that the Government have a duty to take action. I hope that the Minister will give the House an undertaking that he will take action. Why should it be left to private interests in the south-west of England to argue with the EU Commission that the Irish are in breach of the habitats directive.

Finally, I ask the Minister what has happened to the legislation on the Warren report. That was set up by Jack Cunningham—a keen and enthusiastic fisherman—when he was Secretary of State. It was a splendid report and its recommendations were accepted, but there is no DEFRA Bill in the current Session. We could have had a Bill to deal with this situation. Can we have a Bill in the next Session? I venture to suggest that these matters are far more important than cottaging and other matters that appear to have crept into the legislative programme.

Your Lordships will realise that time is running out for me. But time is also running out for these magnificent creatures, the Atlantic salmon. Britain has a special responsibility. We are blessed with the population of Atlantic salmon. I do not know why anyone wants to be a Minister; it is jolly hard work. The noble Lord will know what hard work it is. But if you are a Minister you can make a difference. I say to the Minister that this is his chance; this is his opportunity to make a difference, to use his considerable energy and power and enthusiasm to act to ensure that this wonderful fish, this king of fish does not go the way of the panda, the Bengal tiger and the snow leopard. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.2 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on being fortunate in securing a two-and-a-half hour debate on this subject. As he will notice from the list of speakers, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience to follow. I feel that I am among a gang of Scots who know all about fly fishing, salmon fishing and the salmon itself, but I do not know much myself. I put down a marker that the signs indicate failing health. The noble Lord suggests it is more than that; that the salmon are in dire straits and in peril.

First, I turn to the Scottish salmon fish farms. I assume that the Minister will understand the situation as his briefing note will have mentioned that the viral disease of infectious salmon anaemia has been cleared and that compensation has been paid to owners. I would like to know what the cost was financially, how many farms were closed and what was the loss to the fish stocks. The only reason I mention that is that I remember well the effects of the whirling disease and the stocks that were lost then.

The overall picture of the Scottish fish farms is not a pleasing one. Research shows that farmed fish adversely affect wild salmon. There is interbreeding by escapees and there are diseased fish and parasites. Excrement can be found around and beneath the cages and genetically farmed fish are taking their toll on the wild salmon. Therefore, that is a continuing threat.

How has the production of farmed salmon cut back the stocks of wild salmon? Is it likely, as some already suggest, in order to stop the spread of fish disease affecting the wild salmon in the coastal waters, that fish farms may have to move inland into contained, disease-free ponds? Maybe the experiments in farmed cod will lead the way in doing that.

Another allied plight which is a threat to the wild salmon is escapees from the net pens. Research has shown that as much as 40 per cent of the Atlantic salmon caught by fishermen in areas of the North Atlantic Ocean are of farmed origin. I find that incredible. And that is not necessarily all from the Scottish farms.

On a further question of saving the wild salmon, I draw attention, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, did, to the activities of Orri Vigfusson, who acts under the North Atlantic Salmon Fund. The fund is helping to buy out the netsmen and drift netters; it is negotiating and providing funds as well as there being funds from government sources. Therefore, I ask to what extent NASCO (the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation) and the Government are assisting him in his endeavours to make representations to the Irish Republic regarding their drift netting operations. I am led to believe that their netters took 237,000 salmon in one season, with well over 100,000 taken illegally, and with seals taking them in the nets. That is nearly a quarter of all the salmon caught in Europe. If that situation were bought out, there could be a genuine recovery of the wild Atlantic salmon.

I turn my attention to the North Sea drift netting fishery. Salmon trawlers, trawling the North Sea, using very lengthy nylon filament gill nets—they are white and practically invisible—indiscriminately take thousands of salmon that are returning to their spawning grounds in the Yorkshire Esk and the Scottish salmon rivers. But, worryingly, they take marine mammals as well, such as porpoises and dolphins, and diving birds. When the gill nets break they become ghost net killers of all those species. Silently, unseen, they plunder the seas of marine and bird life and, unlike hemp nets, they continue to do so for years.

Is the Minister aware that among the fishing nations of the Atlantic and in NASCO and its council we are constantly being embarrassed—only Ireland and probably Greenland still use gill nets. So diplomatically we are constantly in the dock. I ask why we allow that practice to continue, especially when one bears in mind those who want a ban: NASCO, the Salmon & Trout Association, all the conservation organisations and the fishing and tourism organisations in Scotland.

As the Minister knows, I am aware of some progress in this matter. A slow, phased payout has begun, but I guess that there are still between 60 and 70 operators in the North Sea. To what extent has the Minister worked with the group associated with the noble Lord, Lord Moran, on this and noted Orri Vigfusson's views and his activities? Is it time that we brought the gill net practice to an end, spent a few more pounds, bought out the gill netters and ended the shame on our country in the council of NASCO?

6.7 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on drawing attention to the modern peril of the wild salmon as he described it. I have an interest in two River Dees. The Welsh Dee runs quite close to my home in Wales and I hope to be standing up to my neck in the Scottish Dee for the whole of next week, as I have for the past 25 years, carrying out my usual conservation fishing.

It is interesting to compare the experiences of the two rivers. From the late 1960s, the Welsh River Dee went into gradual decline. Over the past 10 years, the River Wye in Wales collapsed, while the River Usk is doing quite well. No specific reason has ever been detected for the difference between the various Welsh rivers. There are no fish farms, for example, that affect those rivers. Having sat for many rainy days in the hut, various ideas have been put forward: the change of sheep dip, the agricultural run-off that kills off insect life and affects the young salmon and the young parr—all sorts of theories have been put forward. It is difficult to ascribe any particular reason for what has happened.

However, the Welsh River Dee has recovered significantly. Indeed, 2002 was a good year. The salmon counted at Chester weir was 7,319, which may be a small figure for Scotland, but it is good for Wales and it is the second highest figure in 12 years. This spring was a very good run as well. As for sea trout, in 2001 they reached a record level of 18,500 fish.

We have our own problems. Industrial pollution killed off a vast quantity of fish—over 100,000—in July 2000. Again last year there was industrial pollution in the Welsh Dee below the Maerdy Hatchery, although its impact was small. We still have estuary netting, which kills about 1,000 fish a year, although there is a marked decline in the licences that are now applied for. In the Welsh Dee, the rod catch last year was 470. That is about the 10-year average, although in the previous year it was over 600. Of those, 202 were returned to the river, which was 43 per cent of the catch.

The Scottish Dee is undoubtedly the premier spring salmon fishing river, bar none. It is known world-wide. In the early 1990s, the River Dee fishery board in Scotland identified a rapid and significant decline in multi-winter salmon stocks and took energetic measures to halt it. It instituted a policy in 1995 of catch and release, which was highly unpopular. It banned spinning. However, since the introduction of that policy, no fewer than 16,000 salmon have been released to go on to breed. The present voluntary policy is for a 100 per cent catch and release. In fact, about 90 per cent of fish caught are returned. Last year that amounted to about 9,000 fish. The code confines spinning to the spring and forbids the sale of rod-caught salmon.

As for netting, some three years ago the Dee board bought out the district's coastal fishing nets. Various hatcheries have been instituted in the spawning tributaries at Dinnet and elsewhere which augment the river's ability to produce smolt, with fry and parr planted out in the major middle and upper tributaries of the river. In addition, there is an intensive and urgent programme to improve in-stream and riparian habitats.

The results are encouraging. If the work is put in, there can be results. Although the river is not what it was—and next week I am unlikely to catch anything whereas 25 years ago I would have expected five or 10 salmon between the three rods in the particular beat that I fish—things have improved over the past three years. I am told—I have to believe it next week—that things are looking good for the beginning of this year. So, with the necessary endeavour, salmon fishing can improve.

I call your Lordships' attention to the importance of Europe. The Welsh European Funding Office announced in February that a total of £2.4 million had been awarded to the key Fishing Wales project by the European Union's Objective 1 European Rural Development Fund. That grant is of course matched by funds from partner organisations including the National Assembly government. It is designed to improve 178 kilometres of river, primarily the spawning tributaries. It will tackle erosion of river banks and vegetation loss caused by cattle grazing; the effects of conifer forests on water and habitat quality; and the construction of new fish passes which will open up 80 kilometres of suitable habitats for spawning fish. An element of that money is marked out for angling clubs and fishery owners to work in order to attract more angling visitors to Wales, which will of course generate much-needed revenue in local communities. The aim is to attract 1,000 new anglers to Wales in the coming years.

Scotland does not have that advantage. The Scottish Executive has proposed to the European Union that the River Dee should be one of the candidates for designation as a special area of conservation. However, only the main stem of the Dee is so far covered by the proposed designation and it is to be hoped that there will be a further submission for the spawning tributaries where much of the conservation work takes place.

The Dee is recognised as having particular importance for three species—the Atlantic salmon, freshwater pearl mussel and the otter—which depend upon the maintenance of high water and habitat quality and sympathetic management. The Commission will make a decision in the autumn or early next year. It should make some European money available in Scotland for salmon conservation. That is not as satisfactory as the position in Wales where matters are more advanced.

Mortal peril indeed, but conservation requires hard thinking, detailed planning and constant work by dedicated people that is backed by sufficient funding. It is not just for the benefit of those of us who fish, but for the preservation of the treasures we are privileged to enjoy both in Wales and in Scotland.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Golding

My Lords, I, too, wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on obtaining this very important debate. I declare my interest as chairman of Second Chance, which is a fishing charity for children, as an executive member of Get Hooked on Fishing, as a member of the Salmon & Trout Association and as a committee member of the Atlantic Salmon Trust. In doing so, I pay tribute to the officers and members, past and present, who have done so much to promote the conservation and protection of wild salmon stocks.

There were two significant acts of an incoming Labour Government with regard to the future of salmon. The first was the bringing together of the responsibility for the environment, agriculture and fisheries into one department—DEFRA—so that we now have only one set of Ministers to deal with. That is a great advantage.

The second act was that of that avid fisherman, Dr Jack Cunningham, who immediately announced a review of fisheries legislation and set up the Warren committee under the chairmanship of Professor Lynda Warren. It produced the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review, which made 196 recommendations. I also need to declare an interest in that the report was dedicated to my late husband, John, who sat on the committee and who died before the report was published.

I, therefore, have more reason than most to suggest to the Minister that the many hours of work put in by those on that committee should not be left on the shelf at DEFRA to gather dust, but that Parliament should find the time for a fisheries Bill to implement all its recommendations.

I also wish to stress the importance of the need for a substantial United Kingdom contribution, both financial and in kind, towards NASCO—the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation—which is the international co-operative salmon research project investigating the reason for the increase in salmon mortality at sea.

I am convinced that collaborative action involving both governments and the private sector is essential if salmon stocks are to thrive. The United Kingdom should be seen to be giving a strong lead in identifying potential research projects and in seeking the finance to attack this major problem.

There is already strong evidence of the threat posed by near-surface pelagic trawlings in the Norwegian Sea. It has been estimated that 1 million smolt a year, as well as returning adults, are taken in buoyed-up trawls. The necessity to devise and enforce measures, such as the lowering of the head rope by as little as 10 metres on these trawlers, needs urgent government negotiation.

Another issue for enforcement is the regulation of aqua culture. Although this is mainly a Scottish matter, the United Kingdom has an international responsibility following an agreement in NASCO under the Oslo resolution. The two most important aspects of this resolution are: first, integrated sea lice control by a combination of co-ordinated fallowing and treatment, which is aimed at reducing the number of egg-rearing lice to zero; and, secondly, the prevention of escapes in order to avoid inter-breeding.

While raising a mainly Scottish issue, I, too, would like to know why the Scottish Parliament cannot see the sense of contributing to the buy-out of North East drift nets or, at the very least, underwriting some of the money that is desperately being raised to guarantee the second half of the buy-out. Can my noble friend shed some light on the thinking of the Scottish Parliament?

I also add my voice to the threat from the parasite giro dactylus salaris—I wish that that was Welsh; I could manage that better—which has already devastated several Norwegian rivers. Although the import of wild salmoids is prohibited, we must urgently warn anyone who has fished abroad of the need to disinfect tackle and clothing before he returns. The parasite has already spread from Scandinavia through Europe to Spain. It can also be carried by some coarse fish; and there is an equal need for the import of coarse fish to be better controlled. Posters and information at all points of entry into this country would be a considerable help in warning everyone of that danger. Perhaps the Minister could ask that those points display such posters.

Before I sit down, I pay tribute to the work being done by the rivers trusts to clean up and improve river flow and the environment of rivers such as the Tamar, the Wye and the Usk. That makes a valuable contribution to the life of our rivers. We who care about salmon owe them a great debt of gratitude.

6.21 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Forsyth on obtaining this debate. It is a privilege to follow such distinguished fishermen as the noble Lords, Lord Mason and Lord Thomas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Golding. I seem to have been involved in salmon and salmon legislation for much of my parliamentary life—some of which has been extremely frustrating.

If we take as read—because time is short—the economic importance of salmon to the ecology, tourism, hotels, ghillies, river-watchers and other direct employment, we can move on to what can be done about it. It is important to recognise just how many jobs can be involved in helping to promote a river. In the current edition of The Field, I read that in the Kola peninsular in Russia, 75 people are employed in the fishing side of that development.

Do the Government agree that that is important to the countryside? Why does it take so long for the Government to act? Can they not bring together some of their agencies? The Countryside Agency has just produced a report on the countryside that does not mention fishing or salmon. What about the Environment Agency, which is responsible for matters such as pollution? It does not seem to be taking much action. What about English Nature? They all seem to live in ivory towers; it is the Minister's job to bring them together.

When I was a fisheries Minister—I advise no one else to take on that job if they can possibly avoid it—I was driven to despair by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as it then was, and its reluctance to resolve the North East drift net fishery. I am glad that we have made substantial progress, even if it has not been eliminated, as it was in Scotland more than 40 years ago. I believe—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, will put us right—that we are now down to 69 licences, which can be reduced to 17 if the £1 million can be found before the licences become current again on 1st June.

Can the Government help further? I know that they have been helpful in providing money, but buying out the licences is a key issue and we need £1 million—bearing in mind that a huge amount of voluntary money has already been put in. I really cannot go on. I am driven mad in this House that whenever I mention Scotland, the Minister says that that has nothing to do with us. We are a United Kingdom. Ministers must take joint responsibility for things that matter to both countries. Salmon is a key issue. What is happening in England is ruining fishing in Scotland.

Ministers must cease dodging the issue of where responsibility lies for the environment. I express enormous gratitude to Orri Vigfusson of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, who has done so much, my noble friend Lord Moran, who has given a tremendous lead in dealing with salmon legislation, and all the trusts and organisations supporting salmon, such as the Salmon and Trout Association, the Tweed Commissioners, who are doing a wonderful job, and the district salmon boards.

Ten years ago, Orri Vigfusson negotiated the deal with the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland to remove the nets, but that 10 years is about to run out. Are the Government helping him to renegotiate those important agreements on salmon netting in the North Atlantic? DEFRA Ministers frequently talk about biodiversity, sustainability and other such jargon, yet the North East drift nets set a dreadful example to Ireland. The interceptory and drift nets are a real danger, as all noble Lords who have spoken have pointed out.

The European Commission asked the Irish to cut their catch by 40 per cent. The Irish said, "Yes, of course we will", but did not; they cut it by only 7 per cent, which had little impact on the situation. It is most important that our Government—the United Kingdom Government—get on to the Irish to say, "Look here, we have really had enough of this drift netting. It sets a dreadful example for conservation. What are you going to do about it?" Is the Irish catch in breach of the water framework and habitat directives? I understand that the Wessex and Wales boards are to take Ireland to court over that. Are the Government helping them to prepare their case and giving them money to help them in the courts?

We really must have some action. We cannot all sit on our fences and watch them crumbling underneath us; we must do something. That is why we are getting so depressed that we are on a plateau with so little happening.

I turn to other things that could help salmon fishing. Scottish National Heritage and English Nature are notoriously reluctant to deal with predators. They throw up their hands in horror at the idea of licences to deal with herons, cormorants or mergansers. How many licences have been issued during the past season to deal with cormorants, mergansers and herons? All right, one can flap one's arms at herons on a pond, but one cannot deal with them up and down 50 miles of river.

My noble friend rightly asked: what about seals? We must do something about seals. I know that it is a difficult question for Ministers but, after all, they have got hold of the poor old hedgehog and do not mind having them cleared out of North and South Uist—to the horror of many. Sometimes, it is right to put nature in the right direction. Seals have become an immense problem for salmon fishing.

Are the Government, through the Environment Agency, addressing the important issue of pollution—the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, mentioned disinfecting tackle and so on when one moves from one river to another. We must stop disease passing from one river to another.

Lastly, I mention fish farms, which have already been mentioned. I know that they want to set a high standard and produce the finest quality salmon in Scotland. Good luck to them, including my noble friend Lord Lindsay and his team in Perth. But they must bear in mind the problems caused by the escape of salmon from the nets and the pollution that occurs underneath the nets, which are important.

Those are some points for the Minister to think about. I hope that he will not escape by saying that he has not got his kilt on tonight, because it is important that UK legislation on salmon farming is UK-wide, not just for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland separately. I am glad that we are having this debate, and I hope that we will have some action after it.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Salmon and Trout Association. Like others, I am a rod-and-line angler, which I regard as probably the least effective form of hunting and catching salmon, at least in my personal experience, and therefore paradoxically the most effective conservation instrument short of total prohibition on all forms of catching salmon.

We recognise the problem. I pay tribute to a seminal study of that problem, which was internationally recognised as such, in the two reports of the committee chaired by Lord Hunter, dated 1963 and 1965 respectively, on the Scottish salmon and trout fisheries. I have had the privilege of fishing in Lord Hunter's company over many years. Very recently, just before this debate and in preparation for it, I went down to have a conversation with him. He is a still hale and hearty 90 year-old. He remains in constant touch with what is going on in the fisheries world, including contact with Orri Vigfusson. He pays great tribute to what Orri has achieved for salmon fishing throughout the world.

The earlier report was concerned with the problem arising from the then recent development of drift-net fishing for salmon in waters off Scotland and the Tweed. In September 1962, the Scottish Office, in advance of a review by the Hunter committee and pending its advice, introduced an interim prohibition against the use of the method and the landing of salmon so taken. It was subsequently confirmed following the issue of the first interim report in 1963. One of the conclusions was as follows: Drift-net fishing has introduced a serious risk of overfishing and has the added disadvantage that a permanent drift-net fishery would frustrate or prevent the scientific management of individual salmon rivers and their most economic exploitation". Those are wise words.

I add in parentheses that one might say that the Scots do not need to pay some tribute such as a Danegeld for the removal of the English drift-net fisheries; they have already taken their own steps by using orders under the sea fishing legislation to prevent fishing of that character off Scotland. That was done 40 years ago. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that it could be said that the Scottish Executive, acting in the interests of the United Kingdom, might make a contribution.

The need for a holistic approach to the problem is underlined in the first chapter of the first interim report. It states: The problem of the Scottish salmon fisheries cannot be understood without knowledge of the life history of the Atlantic salmon". Later, it adds: As salmon spend part of their life in fresh water and part in the sea, no one interested in one part can afford to disregard the other". At the end of the day, in the second report, the committee said: The homing of salmon and sea trout is an established fact and is the key to the proper management of salmon and sea trout fisheries". We have advanced in scientific knowledge since then. Enough is now known, I suggest, to recognise that all interests, national and international, should come together to produce a permanent solution that encompasses protection throughout the life cycle of the species. But the United Kingdom—I stress, the United Kingdom—must put its house in order first while seeking to be part of the co-operative international effort to secure prohibition of commercial exploitation that involves interception of mixed stock at sea, particularly through by-catch, as has already been said. It should also work towards the removal of the remaining fixed engines for fair compensation and the discontinuance of drift-net fishing of salmon, again for fair compensation, in favour of an in-river management system.

The United Kingdom approach should proceed on a clear and consistent principled philosophy underlining its policy to the problem of trying to at least arrest the decline of the species. A change of approach to the problem requires the adoption of that in legislation, administration and management throughout the United Kingdom, recognising the general economic benefits of a well-managed system for salmon fishing for the United Kingdom and elsewhere generally. The development of that natural resource should aim at improving fisheries and providing a system of management that will replace unknowns with measured quantities, whereby salmon fisheries are moved away from hunting in the direction of farming. The methods of controlling the fisheries to be adopted should be capable of more than merely maintaining the spawning stock. They should secure not merely sufficiency but abundance. After all, nature provides a safety net by gross over-insurance. That should be recognised and sought.

Much has been said about what has already been done. A joint effort by the United Kingdom and others is needed to secure the return of this fine species to all the rivers from which it has been lost and to ensure that, in rivers where it remains, the species is improved to the point where it can be good both for commercial purposes and for the angler.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on securing this debate. He has almost succeeded in taking us back to pre-devolution days in that the subject is of obvious and particular interest to Scots and to Scotland. But the subject can be tackled only on a UK basis if it is to be tackled effectively, which is why, quite rightly, we are debating it in this House. Without disrespect to the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, many noble Lords, when they approach the topic, have fond memories of the contribution made from the Opposition Front Bench on this issue by the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.

When I had some responsibility for this policy area, I believed that the general debate was not helped by the vehemence of those who sought to identify a single villain. That temptation has been avoided this evening. It has been generally recognised that the issue is much more complex and complicated than trying to pin the blame on one particular activity or group of individuals. The culprits are well known. The main sinners have been rehearsed this evening—the predators, piscivorous birds and seals. Many of us have reached the stage of believing that the case for more active management of the seal population needs to be at least reviewed in the near future.

It has not been mentioned that, on the other hand, we have the case of the impact of commercial sand eel fisheries on stocks. I have some doubt about its effect. If it had an effect, it would occur much more on the east coast of Scotland than the west coast. The view is held very strongly in some branches of the Scottish judiciary that that is the only possible explanation.

There has been a general decline in drift netting, as has been pointed out. One of my great regrets was that we were not able to build faster on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Monro, and finally to resolve the issue of the North East drift-net fishery. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, and my noble friend made the point that an opportunity existed to resolve the issue once and for all. It would be a tragedy if that opportunity were allowed to slip. I recognise the inhibitions that the Minister has, but I hope that he will be able to convey to colleagues in the Scottish Executive the strength of feeling in the House on the issue.

One of the newer points that have emerged with increasing power is the impact of the by-catch. It deserves immediate action. The scale of the effect of the by-catch on stocks is now accepted. It can have a devastating effect on the population.

I must return—in the sense that it was years ago—to fish farming and, in particular, the effect of sea-lice infestation. It is undoubtedly the case that some fish farms are located in areas in which, with hindsight and the benefit of the knowledge that we now have, we would not have wished to see them located. I also recognise the work done by the industry, particularly under the encouragement of the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, to clean up its act. There has been progress. There is an external concern that the dumping of fish—particularly the dumping of Norwegian-farmed fish—will have an impact on our industry. The cost-drivers faced by the industry will be so severe that it may not be able to carry forward the improvements that have been started. It is a great shame that our European colleagues have not been able to stand up to that problem with any degree of robustness.

The presence of fish farming—I accept that that is a significant issue—does not help us to understand the difficulties faced by the east coast rivers from time to time. I say that because it is a complex interplay of factors that will enable us to understand the plight of the Atlantic salmon. We should, as I said, resist the temptation to pin responsibility on one villain.

If we are looking for a universal explanation—not a sole explanation—of the situation, we should consider the effects of global warming, the change in sea temperatures and the consequential effect on the food chain. I believe that, in the longer term, such things will have, perhaps, the most devastating effect. Alas and clack, not even the Minister can deal with that satisfactorily.

I have no interest to declare. I am not a fisherman. However, I consider that this is one of the most interesting and, perhaps, troublesome issues to get one's head around. It is important, and I trust that the Government will advance on a broad front, rather than focusing on a particular issue.

6.43 p.m.

The Earl of Shrewsbury

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean on securing the debate. I declare an interest as an enthusiastic fly fisher, mainly in pursuit—largely unsuccessfully—of salmon and sea trout, and as a keen tier of flies. Only my bank manager knows how much I have spent on my passion in the past few years, but my wife, unfortunately, knows well how few fish have succumbed to my piscatorial skills. She constantly reminds me exactly how much each fish has cost. I am also a member of the Salmon and Trout Association and of the Game Conservancy Trust.

Many noble Lords will have greater knowledge of the subject than I, but I welcome the opportunity to give a few of my views on the subject of salmon, in general, and fishing, in particular. The debate provides a wonderful opportunity to speak about a sport followed by many. I am sad that my late noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish is no longer with us, for he would have provided us tonight with the benefit of his wide and expert views and his experience of the subject. He was an expert fly fisherman who delivered a range of casts that were poetry in motion. I know that he caught many fish and released most of them.

I have been fishing for 30 years. In that short time, I have witnessed a substantial decline in the salmon and sea trout species in the rivers that I fish in. So many experts have so many theories about the causes of the demise in fish populations, but I suspect that there are three root causes, with many lesser factors contributing. First, there is overfishing on the high seas and in coastal waters for sand eels. My experience is mainly of the east coast of Scotland, but I understand that that is not so much of a problem on the west coast. Secondly, there is poor management and control of the watersheds supplying rivers. Thirdly, there is the pollution of watercourses. Seals are a huge problem on the east coast.

Much is being done to rectify the mistakes of the past, but I have a horrid feeling that too little is being done too late. It is a constant struggle to raise funds to finance improvements to catchment and rivers, and I applaud those who strive so hard to achieve long-term solutions for our salmon and sea trout fisheries. In particular, I applaud the work done by Orri Vigfusson.

My experience is mainly of the River Deveron in north-east Scotland. Once the top-rated sea trout river in Scotland, it was described in a poem by Martin Wood as, the river of rivers, the weaver of dreams". It was where, on 21st October, 1924, Mrs Morison caught on a fly and landed her giant fish of 61 pounds, with a length of 52 inches and a girth of 32 inches—it makes one's mouth water—in a pool known as the Lower Wood of Shaws. I have fished that pool, and I never came away with anything. That intrepid fisher would be shocked beyond belief today to learn that the Deveron had suffered a massive decline in its fish population, notwithstanding the fact that the nets in the estuary were bought out some years ago. Last year and again this year, my riparian landlord, a former chairman of the Deveron River District Salmon Fishery Board, gave his tenants instructions that all sea trout were to be returned, unless damaged, and asked them to make every effort not to fish for that species because they existed in that river in such tiny numbers.

Wherever I fish these days, catch-and-release is practised—rightly so—with an occasional silver cock fish being taken. But, sadly, there are still those greedy fishers who kill every fish of all colours, and they must be stopped. I am certain that catch-and-release is a major part of the way forward.

I am a fly fisher primarily, and I loathe spinning. Although it is obvious that I am biased, I firmly believe that spinning for salmon and sea trout should be disallowed on all rivers, unless waters are at exceptionally high levels. But tell that to the hordes of fishermen on the River Moy in Ireland and one would likely face a lynch mob.

Many boards are taking positive action to enhance and improve their rivers and catchment areas. The River Deveron board, chaired by Robert Shields, has set up a charitable trust, and its work includes, among several projects, the improvement of the redds; stabilisation of banks; improvements to weirs, passes and fish ladders and to silt water running off from close-lying fields. It also has plans to establish a hatchery, but all that costs large sums of money. Such projects should be grant-assisted by government—by the Scottish Executive, in Scotland—especially as they ultimately benefit from the improvements to the local economy of such usually less favoured areas. The improvements that are achieved do not just benefit the local economy; they benefit the wider regional environment. North of the Border, it is vital that the Scottish Executive support the fishing sport industry. They have much to gain in tourism alone. Measures such as the Land Reform Bill did not help.

I am passionate about salmon fishing and about the rivers and the environment where I pursue my sport. I am passionate about the wildlife that those areas support. It is their habitat. We must not allow further decline, and we must support improvement, so that our children can enjoy that legacy.

6.49 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, we must be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, for giving us the first opportunity for some time to discuss salmon problems.

I should declare my interests. I am chairman of the Moran committee, which met this morning. It represents the principal fishery and angling organisations in England and Wales and puts points on which we all agree to the Government and the Environment Agency. I am an executive vice-president of the Salmon and Trout Association and president of the Welsh Salmon and Trout Anglers' Association. I have a small fishery in Wales, on the upper Wye, and, like the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, I am a fly fisherman and a fly tier. I should add that I have been pursuing the conservation of salmon in this House, and outside, for close on 20 years. It was, I think, some 16 years ago that my noble and learned friend Lord Cameron dealt deftly and courteously with our amendments to the Salmon Bill.

I want to make, in a very summary way, five points. First, I turn to legislation. Dr Jack Cunningham set up the Review of Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries under the chairmanship of Professor Lynda Warren. Its valuable report was published three years ago, and the response of the Government came two years ago. Good progress has been made on the many recommendations which did not require legislation. But now we need urgently a Bill dealing with those matters that do need primary legislation.

The Moran committee was dismayed to learn that there might not be room for such a Bill in the next Session, when four years will have elapsed since the report came out. The Bill is unlikely to be controversial and its introduction, by the Government that set up the review in 1988, would be widely welcomed.

On 11th March, I wrote to Elliot Morley supporting Professor Warren in calling for an early Bill. Mr Morley replied on 26th March saying that the Government remained fully committed to this sector and that DEFRA would continue to press for a suitable slot. I hope that one will be found soon and I should be glad to hear from the Minister about this.

One important point which needs to be included in this legislation is Recommendation 110 of the Warren report which stated: No compensation should be paid to owners or occupiers of fisheries, or other interested parties, for the effects of measures adopted for conservation purposes", and that consequently, Section 212 of the Water Resources Act 1991 should be repealed". The case is set out in the report on page 105, paragraph 10.9. Until that section of the Water Resources Act is repealed, the Environment Agency hesitates to bring in some much needed conservation measures because of its likely liability to compensation claims.

Secondly, I turn to Irish drift-nets, but the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and a number of other noble Lords, have put the case fully. Can the Minister confirm that this fishery is seriously hampering the regeneration of so many of our salmon runs and tell us what the Government have said to the Irish authorities about it? Now that good progress is being made, with the help of the Government, to reduce substantially the catch of our own drift-nets off north east England, we are in a stronger position to press them to reduce their interceptory fishery. This we should do.

My third point is about the Environment Agency and fisheries. The agency has an excellent fisheries department and a good number of admirable fisheries' scientists. Their work on salmon is valuable, although they tend to concentrate a little too much on purely restrictive measures and not enough on habitat restoration.

The agency does, however, seem dedicated to promoting boating and canoeing and to getting more people onto the rivers with scant regard to its duty to maintain, improve and develop fisheries. The navigation and fisheries departments seem to have little to do with each other. There is a real need for the agency not to overlook its fisheries responsibilities, as the Warren committee said, and to ensure that an integrated approach to these matters is followed. I have tried hard to impress this on the agency but it seems curiously reluctant to deal with this in an even-handed way.

My fourth point is about transgenic salmon. I corresponded with the noble Lord, Lord Whiny, about this last year and he sent me some useful and comprehensive letters, for which I was, and am, grateful.

The potential risk is enormous. By injecting into salmon eggs a copy gene from the ocean pout, which is a growth promoter, salmon can be made to continue to grow in the winter as well as in the summer, 400 to 600 per cent faster than normal fish so that marketable salmon can be produced in 12 to 18 months. NASCO produced guidelines for action in 1997, stating that the parties—including the United States—should, take all possible actions to ensure that the use of transgenic salmon, in any part of the NASCO convention area, is confined to secure, self-contained, land-based facilities". It is therefore strange and worrying that the United States authorities are giving careful thought to an application from an American company—A/F Protein—which is not confined to such facilities. If these monster salmon are raised in sea cages some will inevitably escape. Once in the environment they cannot be recalled. The action is irreversible. We simply do not know what the consequences would be. They might well be disastrous.

The Government have told us that sterilisation is not 100 per cent effective. It is therefore not the answer. Consequently, I am glad that I was able to persuade the Government to inquire from the United States authorities last year how matters stood. I should like to know from the Minister what the situation is now.

My fifth and final point is about the Severn Barrage. The Government's recent energy White Paper foreshadowed a vast increase in the production of renewable energy. It seems, therefore, possible that the Severn Barrage project might be revived. I pointed out some of the dangers 15 years ago—Hansard, 30th November 1987 at col. 804. The plan for pumping would mean that a yard long fish, swimming frantically against a current sucking them through the turbines, would inevitably be cut to pieces, while smolts passing through turbines would lose many of their scales and would have poor prospects for survival. I fear that the barrage might well spell the end of migratory fish in the Severn, the Wye and the Usk. That would be a tragedy.

I think that all this matters a great deal—economically and environmentally. We have the good fortune to have in Great Britain this great fish which still runs in many of our rivers, although in diminished numbers. We must seek to ensure that in the country in which our children and grandchildren will live, salmon will still run up our rivers.

6.56 p.m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, it is most appropriate that my noble friend Lord Forsyth should have introduced this debate in the 100th year of the Salmon and Trout Association, of which I and many others are members. In its annual report, I particularly liked the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Mason, in which he stated that it was, educating thousands of youngsters in the art and sport of flyfishing". I also liked what the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance said: A beacon of stability and normality in a troubled world". However, the issue that I am most worried about in the annual report of the Salmon and Trout Association is a reference in the director's report that, There are serious concerns over the legal precedents being set for other field sports. Angling does not measure up to the utility argument". I should like to make just three points. First, I turn to the issue of illegal poaching around our coast. Whatever the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cameron, may have said, it still goes on to an enormous amount. I would also like to include sand-eels, seals and sawbill ducks.

As long ago as 1935, the returning salmon and grilse from Iceland were mapped out. The fish would come around our Scottish coasts and make their way down to Northumberland and Yorkshire, where they would fall to the drift nets. The choice of any fish is always the river of its birth, but if that river is too low, they will continue on down the coast in concentric circles until they hit the Tyne and the Tees, turn around and come back again. That knowledge is shared by the nets men, who during the weekly close time from their legal netting do not waste their time.

For 15 years, I was chairman of the Naver and District Fishery Board. We put our bailiffs to sea. For the first year we picked up nine miles of illegal net between Loch Eriboll and the Caithness boundary. Wherever there is a mixture of salt water diluted by fresh water, the salmon come up to the surface. In many cases, they cannot possibly run those rivers. But the effect is that they come up to the surface and with a drift net of only three feet, every lobster pot marker can be used to put down an illegal drift net.

I am sorry to say that very few bailiffs will go to sea today, and that is most important. It is no good sending for the fishery cruiser because everyone knows when it is coming. Periodically, we used to telephone Aberdeen and people came up in a rubber dinghy. They would go around and pick up some of the nets. But the bailiffs are necessary if this is to be controlled.

On the issue of sand-eels, it is incredible that we allow the Danes to take all the sand-eels around our coast in order to fuel their power stations. A smolt going out to sea needs an adequate supply of sand-eels to provide it with sufficient food in order to reach the plankton off Greenland, where it will grow and return as a salmon or a grilse.

My noble friend Lord Monro mentioned seals. The seal population is growing at a rate of 9 per cent per year. They are counted by using a helicopter, so a great many seals dive and are not properly counted. We had been able to prevent new breeding colonies of seals being established on the north coast by using our estuary nets, thus allowing us to kill them. However, I am afraid that the estuary nets are no longer working, so we have no method of destroying the seals, which are now establishing new breeding colonies. I remember being told, "The fish are in the bay, so the season is about to begin". I do not believe that it was because the fish had arrived in the bay; it was the seals following the fish because they knew that the fish were coming.

My noble friend Lord Monro also mentioned the problems posed by sawbill ducks. They are a great menace to parr. You can obtain a licence to kill them but the licence is valid only for the months of April and May. Later in the year, once the birds have hatched, is when the real harm is done. You want to be able to do in the sawbill ducks throughout the year.

Unfortunately, cormorants are totally protected. I should like to see, quite simply, a no-fly zone established for all cormorants. The cormorant is in fact a sea-nesting bird. For that reason, I should like a no-fly zone set up for all cormorants above the high-water mark.

My noble friend has done the House a great service in initiating this debate. I hope that we shall be able to look forward to another 100 years of the Salmon and Trout Association.

7.2 p.m.

Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle

My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for raising this very important matter in the House. At the same time, I think it is appropriate to stress what an enormous economic asset a salmon river in which salmon are still running can be to the neighbourhood, whether that be in Scotland, in England or in Wales. The spin-off from such a river in the form of local employment, hotel occupancy and so forth is a matter of considerable importance to rural economies. I say no more on this matter other than to refer to what was found by Lord Hunter in his 1962 report, which stated to the effect that every rod-caught fish was worth around 10 times as much as a net-caught fish to the general economy.

Lest there be any doubt about it, I should also like to stress that salmon fishing is not a sport only for the toffs, as I think it is sometimes perceived. Many opportunities are available for people of small means to fish for salmon, certainly in Scotland. I happen to be fortunate enough to be a member of two local angling clubs which between them fish on some 10 to 12 miles of the river Erne. Friends whom I meet on that river come from all walks of life. A shop assistant in an ironmonger's is the secretary of one of the clubs, while a retired builder's labourer is another member. The clubs are widely representative.

Perhaps I may mention a matter referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth; namely, the problems associated with fish farms. Last week I had the advantage of attending a meeting with Mr Jeremy Reid, the executive director of the North Atlantic Salmon Trust. I gather that there is hope that, through the use of in-feed medicine coupled with an occasional bath and fallowing, the problem of sea lice infestations in salmon farms can be brought to an end. Of course that is not to say that all the problems of disease and pollution will be solved, but it appears that there is a chance that one adverse aspect of salmon farming can be addressed and the problem terminated.

I was going to make a few remarks about drift-nets, but much has already been said on that subject. I wish only to remind the House that, until the 1960s, drift-netting for salmon was virtually unknown, the reason being that the only nets which could be used for drift-net fishing were made of rope. They were too thick, so the salmon saw them and avoided them. Only with the advent of monofilament netting, which is more or less invisible to salmon and of enormous length, could drift net salmon fishing be undertaken to any great extent.

I commend the action of the Minister, Mr Elliot Morley, in generously making available funds for the buy-out of the north-eastern nets, which it is estimated take some 80 per cent of the salmon going to Scotland. As regards the Irish nets, I too endorse what has been said: could not the Government put pressure on the Irish Government to restrict further the use of those nets? Or, better still, could they not encourage them to become involved in a buy-out? There can be no doubt that these nets, as interceptory nets, are robbing—I use the word advisedly—other rivers. After all, an interceptory net which takes fish indiscriminately can be regarded very much like a farmer who removes the oat crop from his neighbour's field, having done nothing to cultivate or maintain it.

Finally I turn to the question of seals. I have made a few calculations on this. In his report, the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, estimated that in 1995 the grey seal population stood at 105,800. Seals eat between four and 11 kilograms of fish per day. If one applies the lower estimated increase of 6 per cent by 2003—the noble Lord referred to a "substantial" increase—in the seal population, each animal eating some 14 pounds of fish a day, or 2.28 tonnes per year, making a total of 320,000 tonnes of fish a year, then that amounts to a great many fish. Of course the seals do not take only salmon; indeed, salmon may constitute only a small part of their diet, but by any view the seal population makes an enormous inroad into inshore whitefish stocks. That is particularly unfortunate when we consider the problems being encountered on the north-east coast of Scotland. Boats are being decommissioned or laid up for lack of fish, yet the seals multiply and thrive.

Under the terms of the 1970 Act, seals can be culled other than in the close time. A licence can be granted outside the close time, for the prevention of damage to fisheries". If the seal population is to be allowed to continue to increase and eat without inhibition, we may reach a stage where the sea around the north-east coast of Scotland becomes simply a breeding and feeding ground for seals, until such time as they die of starvation or disease. I strongly urge the Government to press for some form of reduction in the seal population and to urge their colleagues in the Scottish Executive to do likewise.

7.10 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Forsyth for introducing the debate. I declare two interests. I am a fly fisherman and, more importantly, I am the chairman of Scottish Quality Salmon, a membership scheme to which two-thirds of the Scottish farmed salmon industry belong. It is not a trade association in the normal sense of the word. It is a quality scheme exclusive to companies which opt to be independently inspected and certified to standards that exceed legal requirements. The standards cover product quality, environmental management, fish husbandry and best practice.

My noble friend Lord Forsyth and others have set out the facts and figures, which speak for themselves. What has not been stressed is that the facts and figures go back many decades from the end of the Second World War. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, the extreme trends currently being experienced were already significant and detectable.

As my noble friend pointed out, the problem occurs throughout the wild salmon range, from the US eastern seaboard up to Canada and around to Iceland, and from the Spanish coast up past the UK, Ireland and Norway and into the Russian rivers. Given the historic length and the geographic breadth of the problem, it is hardly surprising that a wide number of factors have been identified as being of possible significance.

A member of one of the wild fish trusts has worked out that some 27 possible factors could account for the current trend. My noble friend Lord Forsyth referred to four and other noble Lords have mentioned a few more. A considerable number of factors need to be taken into account. I join with the noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Sewel, in recognising that there is a complex, multifactorial problem. Anyone seeking a single villain is doing the wild salmon an injustice because many issues need to be taken into account.

Salmon agriculture, with which I am involved in terms of standards, has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords and has attracted a considerable amount of attention in recent years. I should re-emphasise that the decades prior to the introduction of salmon farming into Scotland saw the initiation of the decline we are currently experiencing. I was interested to see in the press recently that in 1970 the Prince of Wales was writing to the Prime Minister and Ministers to complain about the decline in the numbers of wild salmon and sea trout in the 1950s and the 1960s. So concerns similar to the ones that we have today were raised 30 or 40 years ago.

The geography of salmon farming perhaps puts the industry in a better perspective. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, there are serious declines in areas where there are no fish farms and, interestingly, there is some encouraging recovery in areas where there are fish farms. So the complexity of the issue is undoubted.

Whatever the interrelationship between salmon agriculture and wild salmon, Scottish Quality Salmon decided that it would commit to systems that avoided the doubt about salmon agriculture that had been created. That commitment has been absolute and complete. It is also unique. A system has been adopted that is unprecedented elsewhere in Scottish agriculture, European agriculture or global agriculture.

The roots of Scottish Quality Salmon's commitment to the environment are to be found in its mandatory code of practice, which covers some of the issues critical to the survival of the wild Atlantic salmon. In addition to its codes of practice and statutory constraints, it has imposed on itself an absolute prohibition on any kind of genetic modification, either in terms of the fish or the fish feed. The noble Lord, Lord Mason, and other noble Lords expressed their fear in this regard. Scottish Quality Salmon is determined that it will never play a part in the Scottish industry.

The most dramatic development has been the introduction of ISO 14001 accredited environmental management systems. These involve imposing probably the most comprehensive and rigorous environmental responsibilities. They are independently inspected and monitored; they are compliant with international standards and criteria; and the entirety of the regime is properly and independently accredited. They have enabled a considerable amount of progress to be made in addressing the issues raised by noble Lords.

It has also enabled us to achieve for the first time, with some consistency, the prospect of zero ovigerous lice in fish farms. A number of noble Lords have raised concerns about lice. Like the noble Lord, Lord Moran, I can confirm that under the new regime that we have introduced, with access to proper treatment lice will soon be properly and completely under control. We shall apply the same discipline to achieve full containment, with escapes down to zero in the same way that we want to get lice down to zero.

This underpins the success of the tripartite initiative in Scotland, which has involved wild fish interests, the Scottish Executive and Scottish Quality Salmon, in creating area management agreements between wild fish and farm fish interests at a loch level in order that issues of common interest can be jointly managed.

Scottish Quality Salmon's second mandatory commitment is to assist local wild fish interests in their endeavours. I have today contacted one of our members, Marine Harvest Scotland, to inquire what it has done in the past two years to assist wild fish interests. Of the many schemes it mentioned, I shall refer to four. It has donated 40,000 to 50,000 sea trout smolts to the Loch Maree system; it has helped a number of fisheries boards and local angling groups to set up their own hatcheries, providing equipment, training and assistance; it has re-stocked the River Eilt system from Loch Ailort stocks; and it has currently about 250,000 sea trout fry, properly sourced so that they can be donated back into the river systems. Such work is vital. As my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury said, such restocking involves huge costs and there is a great willingness to help.

I echo the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, in flagging up climate change. Anyone who has visited the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen will realise the enormity of the impact of changing sea temperatures in mid-Atlantic. I do not have time to quote the American data on this issue, but there are equally dramatic findings in relation to the Pacific salmon. There has been a two degree centigrade change in temperature in the middle of the Pacific.

I support those who believe that by-catch is one of the vital areas where more necessary endeavour, to use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is needed. Not only have perhaps nearly one in four post-smolts from all western European rivers been taken by the North Norwegian fishery, but recent statistics from Iceland show that some 200 one-and-a-half kilos to two kilos salmon will be taken for every 800 tonnes of herring caught off Iceland. These are very serious statistics.

7.19 p.m.

Lord Nickson

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, on this debate, I should like to apologise to your Lordships for not being here to hear his opening words and to declare the reason for it as well as my interests. I am president of the Association of Scottish District Salmon Fishery Boards. I was conducting its annual general meeting in Pitlochry this morning and my plane, unfortunately, was half-an-hour late. I was also chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Trust and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (UK), and am chairman of the Conon District Fishery Board.

I have been thrilled by this debate. Hardly a word has been spoken with which I would disagree. Many noble Lords who have spoken today spoke also in the last debate, which the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, will remember very well, on 30th July 1997—I had a debate following the task force which the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has set up. Since then, your Lordships have not had another opportunity to debate it, and much has happened in those six years. But, as has often been said, the decline in Atlantic salmon and sea trout has generally continued.

I want to concentrate on one issue, which has already been mentioned—the current buy-out of the north-east drift nets. Along with my noble friend Lord Moran, I must have seen every Minister of Agriculture, from the noble Lord. Lord Walker of Worcester, to the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill. All Ministers at those meetings had three things in common: they were extremely courteous; they were extremely sympathetic to what we said; and they did absolutely nothing about it. Therefore, I congratulate my successors in the Atlantic Salmon Trust and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (UK) who, following the Warren report, have been much more successful in persuading this Government to do something which their predecessors did not and put up some money to help the buy-out of the drift nets.

We listened to three people speaking in Pitlochry this morning. Andrew Whitehead, the director of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (UK), conducted all the negotiations, saw 67 out of the 69 netsmen and resurrected the negotiations after they had collapsed in October. As your Lordships probably know, the start of the negotiations seemed a curious process. The Environment Agency went to the netsmen, who naturally thought there was a vast pool of limitless money. The price for which they originally asked was £11 million, which was clearly hopeless. A formula was then produced which allied the average catch with the age of the netsmen. That was not very clever for a netsman aged 62 with quite a catch because he was not going to get very much money and of course he wanted to go on netting until he was well into his seventies. So that failed; there was a big gap, and the negotiations had to be called off in October. Then word came back that many netsmen individually would like to take part.

The current state of play is that the funds raised, including the £1.25 million put forward by DEFRA, plus what has been substantially promised, mainly from the Tweed and Tay, amounted to £2.2 million in total. The amount required is £3,300,954. There is a gap of £1.1 million. As of today, I think a bank loan will be in place to provide the money, which has to be paid in two tranches on 31st May this year and 31st May next year. But there is still a huge requirement to guarantee that money in six weeks' time. To date, £350,000 has been underwritten. There is an underwriting gap of about £750,000.

I spoke to the district fishery boards today about the boards which are most directly affected in Scotland we must remember that 80 per cent of the fish that are caught come up to Scotland. The rivers that benefit-the Tweed, Forth, Tay, Esks, round to the Dee and any smaller rivers in between—are required to put up the bulk of the money. Tweed and Tay have done so. I think and hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is fishing next week, he will make it very clear up and down the Dee that they need to dip deeply into their pockets. I have said the same to the Esks today.

But then I said to all other rivers, from the Spey round anti-clockwise to the Allan and the Nith, if we let this go, nobody will ever talk to us again. It has to be achieved, because how can Orri Vigfusson conceivably keep negotiating with the Greenlanders and the Faroese when they say, "The Brits are just catching our fish off their own coast anyway"? How can the Government possibly be urged, as they have been today, to talk to the Irish Government—and let us not forget the Northern Irish drift nets—when our nets are still there? We have about six weeks to achieve this.

I told those rivers in Scotland which will not benefit that they must go back to their boards. Last week I persuaded my own hoard, the Conon, to put up £10,000 towards this. We will not benefit. If every river that does not directly benefit put up money on the same scale, the figure would reduce by about £250,000. That would be significantly helpful to the project.

That is how I wanted to use my time. Any influence that your Lordships have to see that we must grasp this opportunity would be helpful. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was saying so eloquently when I came in, it is the single biggest issue that we face at the moment.

7.26 p.m.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, it is an enormous privilege to speak in this debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, very much on initiating this debate. I declare an interest in that I fish on the River Usk. I was a member of Aberystwyth Angling Association for 14 years and my father-in-law was the secretary of Castle Douglas Angling Association for 10 years.

The plight we are talking about is the plight of the king of fish. It is a truly magnificent creature, with a brilliant and amazing life cycle, as many have said. I believe its life is an epic story, and this debate has threaded its way through that epic story. Those of your Lordships who may at a young age have read Salar the Salmon by Williamson, know that the salmon had an epic life in those days, but, my word, when we look at the problems that salmon are confronted with these days there is no comparison whatsoever with that prewar situation.

I grew up between the rivers Usk and Wye and the salmon was the greatest prize of all. Indeed, salmon was not for toffs, it was also for Taffs in my part of the world. The miners of south Wales are fantastic fly fishermen; they participated then and participate now in many aspects of fly fishing.

Many thousands of salmon were caught in the nets in the Wye. Fifteen years ago there were regular catches of over 8,000 salmon on the rods. Now we are down to 400 or 500, a very sad state of affairs. In fact, the River Wye has very few salmon indeed, yet it was undoubtedly the greatest salmon river in England and Wales in its time. The spring run had salmon up to 45 pounds every season when I was a youngster. On the Usk, the spring runs contained salmon of 30 pounds. What has happened is nothing less than a huge tragedy to those fisheries over the years. This is repeated, as noble Lords have said, all over the country. Indeed, I inform my noble friend Lord Thomas that I fish in another Dee—the River Dee in Galloway—which is a very good river.

We have had some tremendous contributions in this debate. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, whom I know very well from my area for the work that he has done. I shall mention some of the points that he made in a minute.

We know that there are more than 3 million fishermen and women in the United Kingdom at least—some say 5 million. It is the greatest leisure sport that there is, and I am pleased to see that youngsters are being encouraged to start fishing at an early age. I started at the age of five, and the sport has never left me and has occupied many happy hours over the years. When young people are introduced to fishing, they take it up with alacrity and enthusiasm. That may be the way ahead for many of our youth, but are they going to have anything to catch? That is the problem.

What has happened over the years, and why? Pollution and acid rain have produced poor quality water in upland streams and has not been good for rearing young fish. Sheep dip has not helped. We have seen many nefarious substances in sheep dips, some that kill humans and some that kill just about everything that lives in the river. Something must be done about that. Smolts are having a hard time at sea, as we have heard. Drift netting in the North Sea is problematical—even more so on the Irish west coast, where 237,000 salmon are caught annually. Clearly, that matter must be addressed urgently, which can be done only by co-operation between governments.

Drift netting is extraordinary. We have heard of drift nets that go on for many miles behind the trawlers. People have told me that some nets stretch for as far as 40 miles; I do not know whether that is an exaggeration. The gap between south-west Scotland and Northern Ireland is regularly fished with nets that go right across that gap at the top of the Irish Sea. Exploitation of the Greenland fishery and salmon feeding grounds is another vexed question that has been only partly resolved.

The advances in technology of trawlers, in terms of sonar sighting of fish and more effective methods of fishing, have also taken their toll. The issue of fish farming and the consumption of sand eels associated with that—they often provide the fish feed for the farm salmon—has also been problematical, as has the use of chemicals and the escape of farm salmon.

All that has had a huge impact on tourism. In my part of the world, ghillies have lost their jobs and there are hardly any left, especially on the River Wye.

Headwaters need to be cleaned up and opened up to improve matters, and there is a problem with predators, especially mink and goosanders. Indeed, one brood of goosanders in five weeks can consume as many as 25,000 fry. That is an extraordinary statistic. Some of those predators must be eliminated, and I am pleased that the Government have said that they will make efforts to eliminate mink, which destroy many things in the countryside, including fish.

Some points were made to me by the Carmarthenshire Angling Association about the River Towy, which runs through Carmarthen. The rod catch in 1975 was 1,300 salmon, whereas in 1998 it was 360. Likewise, the nets caught 670 salmon in 1975, while last season they took 20.

The impact of the Irish drift nets on English and Welsh salmon stocks has been enormous. Indeed, Ireland itself licenses 435 miles of drift nets on the west coast alone. We all know how many salmon have been caught that way. In England and Wales, seven out of 16 designated rivers are failing to reach minimum conservation targets in special areas of conservation. That part of the European habitat directive is not being met because of that situation. The Irish receive 700,000 euros for their fisheries guarantee fund.

What can be done? I suggest the following agenda. Drift netting should be banned and nets should be bought out in the interests of preventing the extinction of salmon. The problems in the North Sea have been addressed fully in the debate, and I fully back what has been said. I certainly back what the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said about the introduction of UK legislation, especially as a result of the Warren committee's recommendations. It is overdue and urgent, and I hope that the Minister will find the time to get that into the legislative programme as soon as possible.

We should prevent fishing for sand eels and secure international agreements, especially with the Irish, and get the British Government to put the case and meet the Irish. That would be in the interests of the Irish, too. Much tighter regulation on salmon farming must surely occur. It might improve the situation if we put a moratorium on the sale of wild fish—there should be no market for the sale of wild fish, as in New Zealand.

The problem of global warming is also threatening. The Atlantic Salmon Trust and Federation held a symposium in August 2002, entitled "Salmon at the Edge".

Noble Lords


Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, I realise that I have only 10 minutes. I am just finishing.

In fact, "Salmon at Sea" was the title. The symposium focused on the decline of survival of smolts, crossbreeding with farm salmon, and the 900,000 smolts that are caught by mackerel fishers. All governments should co-operate on the Atlantic coast. There should be a closure of the mixed stock netting that goes on and we must establish a right to protect Atlantic salmon. As Wilfred Carter said at that meeting: What hope for the world if we cannot conserve the salmon in its environment?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, before the noble Duke speaks, I should explain that an error was made on the speakers' list. Both the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, should have been allocated 10 minutes each.

7.38 p.m.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Forsyth for introducing this telling and essential debate. It is with some trepidation that I attempt to wind up from these Benches, in the face of so much expertise from around the House.

If nothing else today, we are correcting an omission. The noble Lord, Lord Nickson, has already pointed out that the Floor of this House has not seen a debate on major salmon and fresh water issues since he presented his report of the Scottish salmon fisheries taskforce, on 30th July 1997. In the meantime, the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review Group's Warren report was brought out in March 2000. The Government's response came out in February 2001. Neither has been the subject of anything more than a few preliminary questions by persistent fishermen such as the noble Lord, Lord Moran.

When we get back to the old question of man's impact on nature, it is always interesting to see, as my noble friend Lord Lindsay said, how the same old arguments repeat themselves—and, if I am not much mistaken, by many of the same characters who appeared in the debate in 1997.

I must declare an interest as owner of part of a salmon fishery in Scotland. However, unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cameron, my knowledge does not go back to the Hunter reports.

The publication in 1997 of the Nickson report and the debate that followed it provide a useful benchmark. Given the nature of salmon, the report had to take into account the whole fishery of the British Isles. It is interesting to assess what progress has been made since the report's conclusions were drawn.

On the questions surrounding land management, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, mentioned that there are now polices that discourage riparian grazing and allow the establishment of buffer zones along rivers. Much work has also taken place in forestry management to avoid the release of silt from new drainage and to remove conifers from around river margins, where they can contribute to acidification.

On pollution, we now have much stronger regulation of both point source pollution and diffuse source pollution, such as is being introduced under the nitrate vulnerable zone legislation. This factor may contribute to an improvement in the rivers of Wales mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas.

On water extraction from rivers and other sources, we are to see, for the first time, comprehensive centralised control on extraction following the passage of the Water Bill which is presently before this House. Also to come is the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive, which, despite the fact that water is still a government-controlled industry in Scotland, has already been introduced in Scotland by primary legislation.

Perhaps I may express one worry in that regard. At the moment, there appears to be a further threat to capital investment in many west coast Scottish rivers—mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Nickson. But in this case it is due to the uncertainty introduced through the Scottish land Bill and the crofting community's right to buy. I know that this is not an issue for the Minister in this House, but it underlines the fact that, if we value salmon fishing, adequate long-term finance is required. As the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, emphasised, we ignore that point at our peril.

One of the recommendations of the Warren review was that there should be an accelerated procedure in emergencies for making by-laws. In their response, the Government promised to give that further consideration. Will the Minister tell the House what progress has been made?

On the question of primary legislation, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, perhaps I may remind the Minister that the Nickson report recommended in 1997 that a Bill to consolidate salmon fisheries legislation should be presented to Parliament as soon as possible. The matter was raised again in the Warren review. Even in a Written Answer in another place on 16th December 2002, the Minister stated the Government's intention to introduce new proposals for salmon and freshwater fisheries to implement the agreed changes. Will the Minister give the House an insight into when we are likely to see a White Paper or some indication of what the Government propose?

I must pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Monro for his work over the years on drift netting and on so many other aspects of fishing. As many speakers have said, drift netting remains a major bone of contention. It has been the subject of a campaign for 40 years.

The UK has four areas in which drift netting has taken place. It is now banned in Scotland—and has been since 1962 and the ban has been extended to trawls and gill nets. Northern Ireland is now subject to a buy-out programme which, according to a report in the Belfast Telegraph last November, had achieved a 60 per cent buy-out for a cost of £2 million in compensation, with the hope that it will finally reach 80 per cent.

My noble friend Lord Forsyth and the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, gave an up-to-date picture of the situation in the North East of England. In their response to the Warren review, the Government said that they would introduce a power to, restrict the numbers of net licences for economic and social reasons", but, it should not be used to deprive netsmen solely and mainly dependent on fishing for their livelihood". In conjunction with what the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, has told us, implementation has been held up for want of other funding, with considerable blame being directed, even in this House, at the Scottish Executive. I ask the Minister: how many licences have been surrendered in that fishery since the report in 2000, and is the ultimate target of the Environment Agency in this area total closure or a reduction to 17, as was mentioned by one of my noble friends earlier; and is that considered adequate?

The biggest issue, as so many speakers have said, remains the west coast Irish drift net fishermen. The efforts of the Irish Government to reduce catches have so far resulted in a reduction of only 8 per cent. This and other frustrations are probably behind the effort that is being made to apply the EU habitats directive, where Atlantic salmon is listed in Annex 2, relating to the conservation of species, to this fishery.

When the directive was considered at the time of the Nickson report, it was thought to apply only while salmon were in fresh water. Do the Government have any evidence that this can now be used in the marine situation? As my noble friend Lord Monro so ably put it, can they see their way to taking this issue forward?

The majority of speakers have highlighted another area where considerable damage is being done by Russian pelagic fishing-boats and the by-catch which has to be thrown away. It may help the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, if I tell her that the Scottish Executive has taken this matter up with the Russian Federation. Do the Government have any plans to assist in solving this problem? It is an area where the UK Government could exert some influence.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply to what has been at times a sharp and incisive debate.

7.46 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, if the noble Duke felt trepidation in replying to the debate, I must say that I do.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, for raising this subject for debate. Both the preparation and the debate itself have certainly informed me. Frankly, until that point my knowledge of salmon fishing was virtually nil. I have never fished, and am never likely to—I have neither the patience nor the masochism! However, I recognise that it does, in practice, give a large number of people an enormous amount of enjoyment, as it does to many noble Lords who are present. It is also the case that I have no direct responsibility for fisheries. Tributes have rightly been paid to Elliot Morley, who has done much in this field over recent years, as did many of his predecessors.

I have an additional problem, in that I shall not be tempted by the noble Lord, Lord Monro—or even by my noble friend Lord Sewel—to override the devolved powers of the Scottish Executive and shall have to disappoint him if he expects me to do so.

On the other hand, in my ramblings in England, Scotland and Ireland, I have seen the salmon run, and leap, in both natural and artificial surroundings. It is a magnificent creature. It would undoubtedly be a tragedy for us all if this fish disappeared. The figures for the long-run decline indicate that we are faced with a serious problem. I can assure noble Lords that Her Majesty's Government are determined to do something about that where they can.

This is a complex issue. As my noble friend Lord Sewel said—as did the noble Lord, Lord Livsey—there are at least 27 causes for the decline in the numbers of salmon. Some of the culprits have been identified in the debate. I did not list all 27, but I noted: fish farms; nets; sand eels; seals; the Irish; and cormorants. There are quite a lot of factors involved.

Some other factors, which are not clear culprits—such as climate change and the total management of estuaries—are at least as important as these identifiable causes. That is one of the reasons why it is not all doom and gloom. Salmon fisheries in some of our rivers have improved significantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, indicated. While his noble friend Lord Livsey bemoans the situation on the Wye, there are other Welsh rivers which have improved. Indeed, it has recently been announced that on the Tweed—mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in his opening remarks rod catches for 2002 were the highest for a decade. Stocks are also increasing on many other rivers. I understand that 20 per cent of last year's rod catch in England and Wales came from rivers that did not support salmon fisheries 40 years ago. So there is hope when we manage our resources effectively. Salmon have even passed by this Chamber, which would certainly not have been possible 40 years ago.

Nevertheless, this is an extremely serious problem and a number of measures are needed to deal with it. In 1998, ICES advised that the Atlantic salmon were in decline throughout their range and that extreme caution should be exercised in their management. Consequently, in England and Wales, the Environment Agency has advertised a package of measures to help conserve salmon stocks, particularly spring run fish. These so-called "national salmon by-laws" were confirmed by Ministers and came into effect in April 1999. The measures include delaying the start of the salmon netting season, restricting the use of certain baits and methods and the mandatory release of all salmon caught by rod and line before 15th June—which happens to be my birthday—each year.

Further local restrictions have been introduced where necessary and the Environment Agency is to carry out a review of the effectiveness of these national measures. So a lot has been done internally in terms of river management. Additionally, as the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, and the noble Duke said, various other measures to restrict the pollution of our rivers will help.

More widely, there are considerable problems with drift nets to which various noble Lords referred, particularly in relation to the drift net fisheries on the north-east coast and especially as they affect fish returning to Scottish waters. The UK Government have long acknowledged those problems. I shall return to the point.

However, the Government's overall approach to salmon fisheries has been very much informed by the Warren report, to which my noble friend Lady Golding and others referred. It recommended that the Government should provide pump-priming funding to launch compensation arrangements to accelerate the voluntary phase-out of fisheries such as those in the North East. The recommendation was accepted and the Government are providing substantial funds for the objective. The noble Lord, Lord Nickson, updated us on the rather difficult negotiations. I tell the noble Duke that the fishery is subject to measures that are designed eventually to reduce the number of netsmen to zero. Since the phase-out began in 1992 it has been reduced from 142 to 69.

The discussions on the voluntary buy-out are, as I said, continuing. The issue of further funding is doubtless due to be considered by others in the context of the latest information which we received today. I shall not comment further on the responsibilities or otherwise of the Scottish Executive in these matters, but no doubt they will take note of your Lordships' debate and of developments.

The Irish are the other group affected by the target. Of course many other salmon net fisheries operate in UK waters, including those of the Russians, but it is widely accepted that the Irish drift net fishery takes salmon from English and Welsh as well as Irish rivers. The issue is therefore of concern to the Irish and the British Governments. The British Government have been in discussions with the Irish, and it is true that the Irish experts largely agree with us. However, the politics of fisheries in Ireland has hitherto prevented the Irish Government from taking effective measures. Nevertheless, we continue to approach them in that respect. As for the other governments, including the Russian Government, I shall have to write to the noble Duke. I am not aware of the precise situation in relation to Russia.

As I said, the framework of our policy on the management of salmon and fresh water fisheries was set by the Warren report—which made almost 200 recommendations, all but five of which the Government fully or largely accepted. Many of the recommendations have been taken forward by the Environment Agency and the relevant government departments. Although it recommends action for application in England and Wales, the recommendations also apply elsewhere. Among the many issues which the review report highlighted was the need to continue and improve communication and collaboration between governments and the industry on fisheries management.

The majority of the recommendations can be and are being carried through without primary legislation. I appreciate that a number of noble Lords have expressed disappointment that we have not yet had a salmon and fresh waters fisheries Bill to introduce some of these measures. Discussions on the programme to be announced in the Queen's Speech are never revealed in advance, but I can assure your Lordships that DEFRA remains committed to such legislation.

As for the Scottish position, a similar review carried out by the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, has meant that most of the recommendations have been implemented. Implementation of some of the measures in Scotland has not required primary legislation, but others will not be implemented without it.

It is clear that many of the more complex problems cannot be resolved locally, nationally or by national legislation but demand a collective awareness and agreement at a wider, international level. That is where NASCO—the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation—has a vital role to play. Although its only regulatory role is to establish quotas for salmon fisheries off Greenland and the Faroe Islands, it is also a very important source of co-ordination for international research and provides a very useful forum for discussion of matters such as the effects of fish farming and the potential impact of genetically modified organisms.

The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised particular concerns about the proposed salmon farm on the River Ettrick. Although I recognise the significance of that case, I would, even in an English planning decision, be prevented by my lawyers from commenting. I am also subject to a constitutional bar on commenting on matters in the planning system in Scotland. However, I think that the tone of this debate recognises that the Ettrick situation could have implications for salmon fisheries which need to be taken into account.

Generally, it is clear that fish farming—or aquaculture—has many advantages, not least the relatively cheap supply of fish to consumers in the United Kingdom and abroad. We are also aware of some of the downsides of aquaculture. It is important to recognise that the decline of the North Atlantic salmon began long before the start of significant levels of fish farming in this country. Fish farming therefore cannot be recognised as the main or initial cause of the salmon decline. Indeed, fish farming albeit not sea fish farming—has been a well-established feature of the British landscape for many years. However, the Government recognise the concerns. There is a significant problem with escapes—400,000 is the usually accepted figure—on which, to minimise them, sea fish farmers need proper advice. The prevalence of sea lice and other fish parasites and diseases also cause significant problems particularly for young salmon.

It is necessary to maintain a balance between the advantages of aquaculture and fish farming and the need, as the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, said, to improve it. I understand that the Scottish Executive has safeguards in place to protect the marine environment and that they are constantly revising them.

There are other threats to salmon. My noble friend Lady Golding mentioned the parasite, whose Latin name I shall not attempt to pronounce. I shall simply refer to it as GS. That parasite originated in the Baltic and spread to Norway, where it wiped out salmon stocks in more than 20 rivers. It has also been found on the Continent. It is already a notifiable disease here but would be a serious problem were it to break out here. We need to ensure that precautions are taken. There is a need for the public, and especially those involved in recreational fishing both here and abroad, to recognise the problem.

Although GS cannot survive in seawater, it can survive for several days in damp freshwater conditions. Therefore, it could be brought here in plastic bags, fishing equipment and so on. It is important that those who engage in recreational fishing are aware of that. In April last year DEFRA and SEERAD published a code of practice to raise awareness of that problem and to avoid the introduction of GS to Great Britain. The code gives detailed information about the activities that could potentially result in the introduction of that parasite. We expect soon to issue a new leaflet in the series, Keep Fish Diseases Out which gives more guidance on preventive measures. We intend to give the leaflet wide publicity. Another threat mentioned by my noble friend Lord Mason and, in some detail, by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, was that of genetically modified salmon. There is considerable concern about that matter. Research activity has been carried out in the United States. No genetically modified salmon is farmed in the UK and any application to do so would have to go through a very extensive and rigorous review process. There is no sign of that even beginning to happen. I have corresponded with the noble Lord, Lord Moran, on the situation in the United States in that regard. The latest situation is that the applications to farm such salmon in the United States have not been processed. Therefore, the potential problem is no greater than it was a few months ago.

As regards marine fish farming in Scotland, I understand that legislation in Scotland now allows Scottish Ministers to make orders enabling planning authorities to discharge planning functions in relation to marine fish farming developments up to the three mile limit. That is an important extension of their powers.

The Government are providing some £9.8 million grant-in-aid in England and Wales to help the Environment Agency's fisheries function achieve its key aims and objectives.

As my noble friend Lady Golding said, the creation of DEFRA brought within the ambit of one government department responsibility for most of the key functions affecting freshwater fisheries, including water quality, agriculture and other matters which affect the management of fisheries and of rivers. That is an important development. We are still in the process of bringing that together.

I probably have time to discuss one or two other threats to salmon mentioned by a number of noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, and others mentioned birds that predate on fish, in particular cormorants. The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, also mentioned that matter. We are aware that cormorants have extended their range and now overwinter and feed at many inland water sites. But although the population has increased, the indications are that it is now stabilising. But it can nevertheless have a very serious localised effect. It may be helpful to explain the legal position on licensing of ways to deal with such predators.

Fishery managers may apply for licences under the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to shoot piscivorous birds on a local basis and for a limited period of time. I stress that where licences are issued, this is done primarily to aid scaring rather than culling and to provide point defence for fish at particular locations and during vulnerable times in their life history. These licences are not permanent but are available in certain circumstances.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, that angling is a sport that is clearly enjoyed not only by a large number of your Lordships but also by many millions of citizens. I regret in a sense that the matter has been raised again but I understand why it has been. I reiterate Her Majesty's Government's support for angling and for the wider issues of freshwater fishery management. I make it absolutely clear that we have no intention whatever of introducing legislation to restrict or ban angling. I hope that your Lordships, particularly those who have spoken in the debate, enjoy many years of fishing, in particular fishing for salmon. I once again thank the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for initiating the debate and thank other noble Lords who participated in it. I thank them for the information they provided.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, I confess that when I tabled the Motion and was successful in the ballot I panicked because I wondered whether anyone would speak on the subject. I could not have dreamt that there would be such an array of talent, knowledge and expertise. Indeed, I am embarrassed that so many of the contributions, to which I cannot refer individually, came from noble Lords who have made it their life's work to try to do something about the decline of salmon stocks.

I sympathise with the Minister's plight in responding to the debate but I hope that he will take away three points from it. First, there is consensus across this House in all parties and on the Cross Benches on the need for action. Secondly, there is frustration at the inability to move forward on legislation in England and Wales following the work that was carried out. The noble Baroness, Lady Golding, made a tremendous plea for action in that respect, to which I am sure the Minister will feel able to respond.

Thirdly, I refer to the urgency of action on drift netting. I appreciate the Minister's difficulty in respect of devolution. But devolution was never intended to prevent our acting on an issue which affects the whole of the United Kingdom. That message has come out loud and clear. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will discuss that matter with his colleagues, reflect on his new-found knowledge and recognise that that is an urgent and important matter.

The Minister said that he did not have the patience to be a fisherman. However, he is a Minister.

If he listens to the speeches he will realise that the patience of fishermen has run out. He as a Minister can do his country, and indeed the international community, a singular service if he focuses on the arguments put forward tonight. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.