HL Deb 17 September 2003 vol 652 cc904-6

2.58 p.m.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will insist that the European Union introduce an immediate moratorium on industrial fishing for sand eels throughout the North Sea following the recently announced figures which showed a collapse in sand eel catches and the nonappearance of this year's grilse run.

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

My Lords, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is carrying out its assessment of the North Sea sand eels stock. It will be published after review by the Advisory Committee on Fishery Management in October, when we will consider whether further EU management action is needed. It is too early to say how the run of grilse has been affected. However, grilse have been particularly and worryingly absent in rivers in south and west England. It is very unlikely that west coast salmon are affected by the availability of sand eels in the North Sea.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, the Minister is obviously not a fisherman. If it is too early to say whether the grilse will arrive, something very odd is going on. Is it not totally irresponsible of the EU to allow factory fishing of a species that is so low down the food chain. as a result of which we are seeing pressure on the numbers of young salmon, cod and haddock? Surely we should take action on the precautionary principle to end the factory farming that threatens to empty our seas of a vital resource, and on which rural and coastal communities depend.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord has heard me confess that I am not a fisherman. However, the point that I was making was that it is not clear whether the decline in the sand eel population is affecting the return of the grilse. One of the problems is that the population of sand eels goes up and down very dramatically season by season, whereas it appears that something different is happening, not only in the areas where the sand eels have declined, but in other areas such as the west coast, where the fishing of sand eels cannot he the cause.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, are not the Government really dragging their heels on this? Back in 1999, the fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley, visited the Isle of May and was struck by the plight of kittiwakes and puffins. It is not just fish: birds are affected, as the Minister said. The problem goes very low down the food chain. Four years on, the Government seem to have done nothing. Is there no sense of urgency to stop this industrial fishing?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, a number of measures have been taken. The issue of sea birds was dealt with by the Government and some eel fishing has stopped off the north-east coast. In addition, the north-east coast driftnet fishery has been greatly reduced. A scheme introduced after some very difficult negotiations to reduce the number of driftnet fisheries taking the eels and the hycatch, including potentially salmon, is in place from this year. There is a continuing issue in relation to the industrial fishing of sand eels that we raised with the Danish industry in particular. However, the connection between that and the apparent severe decline in returning grilse and the salmon fisheries is not proven and may well he due to other causes.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that sand eels are the staple food of some sea birds, notably puffins, whose numbers may also collapse if the seabed is intensely scraped by fishermen? That would be a pity as puffins provide much amusement from their comic features and behaviour.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are all in favour of puffins and or ensuring that they have an adequate food supply. However, the problem is that the population of sand eels varies very drastically year by year apparently naturally, or in reaction to previous over-fishing, and is not correlated with the apparent level of fishing. Its effect up the food chain is not necessarily related to the level of fishing that has taken place in any given area. It is something, however, that we, the European Union and the international bodies are keeping a very close watch on.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, is it not unacceptable that the Government are only keeping a close watch on the situation? My noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean asked for a moratorium. How long will we have to wait? I sympathise with colleagues who have asked about the effect of the problem on wildlife, but the businesses and futures of many people, especially up in the North, are in jeopardy. When will the Government do something about it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I have been trying to explain, the population of sand eels, of which there are billions, appears to go up and down every year. The issue of the returning salmon appears to be a more generalised problem—a very serious one—that is not solely confined by any means to the areas that are fished for sand eels. As I said, the west coast, Ireland. Iceland and France have all seen a serious decline in returning grilse, which at present does not appear to he a mere delay but an absolute and quite severe decline. That is more likely to be related to climatic conditions than to the fishing of sand eels in one particular location.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister tell us something about negotiations with the Danish Government on the matter? The Danes have enormously competent vessels that have been scraping the bottom of the sea for anything they can find to make fish meal. It is generally accepted that they can do great harm to all the species that live on sand eels.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, persuading the Danish and other industries affected to cut back would require us to be able to establish the detrimental effects on wildlife or commercial fishing. The problem is that the evidence has not yet been established. That is why we need this further assessment which the international bodies are now conducting.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, when the Minister says that the evidence has not yet been established, let us forget about the other species, what about the sand eels? This year there has been a catastrophic reduction in the number of sand eels being caught simply because they have scraped them off the bottom and they are destroying that population. Urgent action is required.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the sand eel fishing season has finished this year and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, is certainly right that the number of sand eels in the North Sea appear to have significantly declined. That is not unique, however, in the population cycle of the sand eel. However, the assessment post this season will make it clear whether more restrictions on the fishing of sand eels will be necessary and will need to be dealt with both bilaterally and with other member state governments at EU level. We need to make a full assessment. That will be available in October and we will take decisions in the light of that.