HL Deb 01 November 1994 vol 558 cc812-29

6.3 p.m.

The Earl of Kimberley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government:

What they intend to do about unregulated fishing for sand eels by foreign nations; and whether they will reconsider their decision to support the North-East coast drift net fishing.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Question is divided into two parts, but there is a close connection between the two which I shall endeavour to explain. Indiscriminate harvesting and industrial fishing of sand eels has many knock-on effects. The Salmon and Trout Association first heard about it in 1991, when Danish boats began to catch large numbers of sand eels in waters off north-east Scotland. That was mostly in May and June which is when salmon and sea trout smolts migrate to sea. Basically, the catches are concentrated on "Wee Bankie" off the Firth of Forth and Mar Bank off Aberdeen. Salmonoid smolts' main diet is sand eels and, therefore, it might not be unreasonable to suggest a link in the decline of salmon catches and the increased sand eel catch.

The Scottish Office of Agriculture and Fish Department (SOAFD) at Pitlochry was approached in 1991 by the Salmon and Trout Association, but it stubbornly refused to give any credence to the industrial fishing link and salmon catches. As a result, the Salmon and Trout Association commissioned Dr. Geoffrey Tingley of the Marine Resources Assessment Group (MRAG) to do some research. That was on the west coast of Scotland because of the limited budget available. The MRAG report in 1992 showed a definite link between sand eel abundance and salmon catches. Meanwhile the sea bird population collapse off Shetland and pressure from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds forced the suspension of the Shetland sand eel fishery as well as restrictions of the west-coast sand eel fishery. A subsequent consultative exercise by the Scottish Office resulted in continued suspension of the Shetland fishery and a limited quota for the west coast.

Sadly, however, industrial fishing is firmly on the European agenda. A European Union Commission in November 1992 concluded that a multi-species review was required before longer-term resource management could be tackled. Danish and Scandinavian boats continue to destroy the sand eels in the North Sea: 60,000 tonnes in 1992; 105,000 tonnes in 1993; and 130,000 tonnes in 1994. Again, these are mostly taken in May and June and recently a new fishing ground, Smith Bank off the Moray Firth, has been developed.

We must be insane to continue to exploit the sand eel which is right at the base of the food chain, in ever increasing and uncontrolled quantities, in the absence of any information on the stock of some fish or the impact on the salmonoids, sea birds and white fish which rely on the sand eel for their life.

My concern is shared by the Salmon and Trout Association, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation, Atlantic Salmon Trust, the RSPB, the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, as well as officials in SOAFD at Aberdeen. It is suggested there is no scientific evidence to support that sand eels have any effect on the stock of fish and birds that they support. The death of 100,000 sea birds earlier this year is apparently not—and I repeat the word "not"— scientific evidence.

I argue that there is no evidence that it is not having an effect and that therefore we should apply the cautionary principle. I have four questions for my noble friend the Minister. First, will he clarify the future position on indiscriminate fishing; secondly, will he undertake full consultation with interested organisations; thirdly, will he authorise appropriate research into the sand eel fishery off the Scottish east coast; and, finally, will he consult with fellow EC Fisheries Ministers with a view to phasing out, or, at the very least, imposing quotas on this disastrously dangerous fishery? I gave my noble friend notice of one further question. I asked him whether he could find out how many tonnes of fish there were—and, if so, what they were—on the 10,000-tonne Russian factory ship which has just gone aground off the Shetlands.

I now turn to the north-east driftnet fishery. We have had two debates during the past two years on the problem, plus many questions. Her Majesty's Government have already accepted the principle that this driftnet fishery, which exploits mixed stocks, should be phased out. In his reply to my speech in the debate of December 9th 1993, my noble friend informed us that the Ministers concerned—that is, those in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland—took the view that, in order to avoid hardship, it should be done gradually by reducing the number of driftnet licences as licence holders left the fishery.

My noble friend the Minister also expressed the view that Her Majesty's Government would find it acceptable that the run down of that fishery might be further accelerated by financial arrangements from sources outside the budget of Her Majesty's Government to induce licence holders to give up their licences. The example he gave on that occasion was that of a private buy-out. In view of the fact that the recent European Union legislation banning the drift netting of tuna and salmon makes provision for compensation for driftnetsmen deprived of their livelihood, do Her Majesty's Government welcome the opportunity to remove hardship to the licence holders by making use of European compensation funds so that this netting operation, which damages English and Scottish salmon fisheries, might be much more rapidly run down? I would remind your Lordships that at least one of the Scottish fisheries affected, the River Dee, has recorded very serious losses of multi-seawinter salmon which government scientists at Freshwater Fisheries Laboratories in Pitlochry have now recognised with grave concern.

I expect my noble friend's answer to this question might be that Her Majesty's Government conducted a thorough review of the north-east coast fishery, published in 1991, which showed no threat to stocks. Nevertheless in the interests of good fishery management, a decision was taken to phase out the fishery without causing undue hardship to the licence holders. More than 23 per cent. of licence holders have now given up, a considerably faster rate of attrition than had been hoped.

However, my answer to this would be that the report was largely based on scientific work carried out in 1987, more than seven years ago. The situation with salmon stocks has changed significantly and the report is seriously out of date. Will my noble friend not accept this fact and take the advice proffered by the National Rivers Authority to the recent House of Lords Select Committee that it would like to see the phase-out of all interceptory salmon fisheries within the European Union speeded up?

It is true that numbers of licence holders have given up, but the catch by netsmen doubled in 1993, and despite further reduction in the number of net licence holders in 1994, the catch remained stable at around 40,000 salmon. This emphasises the point that the current 30 year phase-out is simply not achieving any reduction in interceptory netting of salmon.

It is pertinent to note here that the NRA discussion paper of October this year confirms that 80 per cent. of the salmon and 50 per cent. of the sea trout taken in this fishery,

"were destined for Scottish rivers",

and then, almost beyond belief, deducts 80 per cent. of the drift net catch from all the calculations on the basis that these fish are Scottish and consequently do not cost the NRA anything, or very little.

I am sure the Atlantic Salmon Trust will have something to say about this. It simply does not seem to be understood that the salmon is an international fish and that these are United Kingdom stocks which are being plundered. Will Her Majesty's Government respond to this new situation instead of trotting out the tired arguments of the past five years? And further, will Her Majesty's Government adopt the European Union Bill which calls for the phasing-out of drift netting throughout the European Union within five years, with compensation for netsmen? If not, why not?

6.13 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I am still surprised that the Government continue to allow the operations of the north-east drift net fishery. I rise therefore to support the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, when he asks whether they will reconsider their decision to support the north-east coast drift net fishing. I am obliged to the noble Earl for once more giving us the opportunity to raise this question on the Floor of the House.

The operations of the north-east drift net fishery are certainly indiscriminate. It really is an indiscriminate fishing method. It is a bad management practice and it must be most embarrassing both to the Government and to the National Rivers Authority because of the embarrassments they receive at the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation meetings. It must be a constant irritant to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and to the National Rivers Authority that all the salmon conservation organisations constantly apply pressure for a halt to this practice and also press for a ban on the use of nylon monofilament gill nets. This method is indiscriminate. These nets not only take salmon and sea trout and all types of fish but also seals and porpoises. When a net breaks it lingers in the sea still trapping everything in the sea as well as birds such as gannets and other diving birds. They become "ghost nets", catching for years. The old hemp nets used to dissolve but these nets last forever.

This practice also constitutes bad management of a resource. The National Rivers Authority must be acutely aware of that. Thousands of salmon are taken south of the River Esk—the only salmon river in Yorkshire—and it is likely that of those taken, a majority could have been heading for the River Esk, therefore denying that river the return of many of its spawning stock. Indeed the Esk is undoubtedly suffering because of the north-east drift-netters. The National Rivers Authority must be aware that it cannot carry out its statutory duty to "maintain, improve and develop" fisheries, including particularly the River Esk, while this continues.

What of the embarrassments to Her Majesty's Government? Britain (and probably still Ireland) is the one country among all the Atlantic salmon countries which still allows this indiscriminate fishing practice of drift netting with nylon monofilament gill nets. Internationally Britain is looked upon as a disgrace in its attitude to salmon conservation. We are isolated and impotent at North Atlantic Salmon Conservation meetings. The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation, alongside the Atlantic Salmon Trust, the Salmon & Trout Association and the Anglers Co-operative Association, have constantly condemned the Government's stance on this issue. The answer of course from Her Majesty's Government has been that they have agreed to phase it out. On the basis of their policy that will take 30 years. But the truth of the matter of course is that this is a political matter.

The Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said on 11th October 1994: One of the unfortunate consequences of a ban would be the gratuitous damage to employment in areas where employment opportunities are often poor".—[Official Report, 11/10/94; col. 817.] What a cheek it is for a Government who have created areas of vast industrial devastation and have declared scores of thousands of men redundant and unemployed to say that. By God, that is bare faced cheek! The employment problem is minuscule compared with the steel plant and colliery closures in the industrial heartland of our country. This matter involves perhaps a few over a hundred part-time fishermen. Why not, therefore, buy out these drift-netters, the licence holders, part-time fishermen, who are only at work when the salmon are running?

Major drift netting operations off the Faroes and Greenland have already been bought out. Britain is stubbornly standing alone and at what cost? Has consideration been given to paying the drift-netters a redundancy payment? It seems so little to pay to save such a lot of international embarrassment. Do not the Government accept that the overall regional economic benefit to North-East England and East Scotland from increasing the runs of salmon into rivers outweighs the commercial value of the north-east drift nets? Bearing in mind that the National Rivers Authority in its evidence to your Lordships' Select Committee supported the view that it should now be phased out more rapidly, and that the European Commission and the Parliament have recommended the ending of salmon drift netting, why is it that the Government do not heed these national, European and indeed international representations and decide speedily to phase out this north-east drift net fishery?

6.19 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has brought a most interesting Question to your Lordships' House tonight. It is interesting because not only does it ask about salmon; your Lordships might think when you see me appearing on these Benches that salmon is all I ever talk about, but it is a big subject and requires a great deal of input. But on this occasion, the Question which the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has brought before your Lordships is about the very ecology of our coastline and the threat to the food chain which supports all the major fish species round our coasts. That is not only the salmon; it is also other forms of fish such as white fish—cod, for instance.

Why do we not see the great catches of cod that we used to see when I was a boy and when the noble Earl was a boy? The answer is that, apart from fishing them out, we have starved them out by destroying their food supplies. We have destroyed their food supplies in a number of ways. But the most sure way of doing so is by attacking the very fishes which are at the base of the food chain, which are the sand eel, the pout and the capelin. Those fishes which never appear on our tables and which we never fished for in the old days as a food for man, but which have now become a source of supply for food for farmed trout in Denmark, for farmed salmon in various parts of the European Union, for pet food, for cosmetics—for lipstick and things like that —and for oil for firing power stations. There are power stations in Denmark which are being run on squashed sand eels.

Do we think it right that this important ingredient, which used to be available as the basis for the whole food chain of the North Sea and all round our coasts, should be used not to provide food for the fishes which we have traditionally fished over the years but as a form of industrial raw material, which is what it is now becoming? It is insulting to the beleaguered fishing industry. Coastal netsmen in Scotland are beleaguered people. I would happily support them as genuine fishermen who have employed their methods over the years and have done no harm to the fishes which they catch for our table. To produce and subsidise with government money—money which has come out of our pockets —a large factory to destroy the ecology of the North Sea and the ecology of our coastline is insulting to those fishermen.

The noble Earl has given us lots of figures which show the very large quantities of fish which are being taken, and sand eels in particular. Last year, off the coast of Fife alone, some 90,000 tonnes of these little fish were landed. They are tiny fish. A whole lot together would not amount to more than the fingers of my hand, the little ones smaller than my little finger and big ones like my middle finger, and not much bigger. If one can imagine the number of these little fish, which are not very long, which make up a pound, a tonne, or 90,000 tonnes. How many thousands and thousands of fish have been destroyed as a result of this fishery?

The fish are very easy to catch because their defence mechanism—to give an example with which your Lordships are probably familiar—is similar to that of the starling. The starling flies around in a large flock so as to be able to confuse its predators when they attack because of the mass of birds there are to choose from. These fish swim about in shoals to protect themselves in the same way. Methods are now being used which exploit their very defence mechanism to catch them more efficiently. They are literally being hoovered out of the sea in some instances. It is rather like taking a machine gun to the plains of the Serengeti and attacking the wildebeest and zebras with the machine gun and saying that that is sport. The method of fishing which is being employed is not a reasonable one. It is destructive.

The figures which have already been given to us show how from 1982 Shetland, which used to yield 50,000 tonnes of sand eels, declined by 1988 to a mere 5,000 tonnes. That is the kind of destruction that can be imposed upon a stock of fish in six years.

In my view the greatest danger to the salmon is the destruction of their food supplies. They survive, if at all, because of their opportunistic methods of feeding. They do not eat only one species of fish. But the trouble is that in this case the people who are catching so-called commercial fish do not catch only one type of fish, either. They go for anything that they can catch to put through their factories. That is a very grave danger, not only to the salmon but also to the seabirds—the puffins and guillemots. There is evidence that such damage is taking place. The Scottish Office itself admits that deaths of seabirds such as guillemots were as high as 50,000 early this year. If the Scottish Office admits to having discovered 50,000 dead birds lying around, how many more have sunk to the bottom and been eaten by lobsters, and so forth?

We also know that in Shetland, where the fish on which they feed have been destroyed, puffins, guillemots and other birds which rely on sand eels have begun to fail to breed and to produce young at all. From 1984 to 1987 puffins and terns failed to produce any young in the Shetlands. Therefore, it is a serious matter for the whole ecology. It is destroying our bird life; it is denying us the quality of fish which we used to have around our coasts; it is threatening the stocks of migratory fish such as salmon and sea trout. It is most harmful.

It is thoroughly reprehensible that our money should be being used to encourage this fishery by foreign fishermen and for Danish fishermen to come in to use our money, our land and our traditional fisheries to destroy the basis of our fish stocks along our coasts. That is most reprehensible. I hope that the Government will see what damage is being done not only to the fish stocks themselves but to the confidence of all those connected with fisheries in this country.

As to the drift net fishery off the north east coast of England, I would have preferred it if the noble Earl had worded his Question slightly differently and not asked the Government to reconsider their decision but rather to reinforce their decision to phase out the fishery as soon as possible. I should like to see it reinforced, not reconsidered. That might be done by using the means which I have already suggested in your Lordships' House by persuading some of those who want to continue fishing—perhaps the younger fishermen—to fish inshore by one of the methods which is acceptable. As the noble Lord, Lord Mason, has already drawn to our attention, the nets which they use are in themselves a menace and a danger not only to fish but to other forms of life in the sea.

I hope that the Government will take note of the Question which the noble Earl asked, will give us a helpful answer and will understand that in their hands lies the protection of the basis of all our fisheries, whether they be migratory fish or white fish. I hope that the Government will seriously reconsider—if they can reconsider anything—giving a subsidy for the building of the processing factory in Scotland. I hope that they will also reconsider their position with regard to the possible cessation of the fishery for what is known as commercial fish, particularly sand eels, capelin and pout.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Amherst of Hackney

My Lords, while I cannot support fish factories, I am afraid that I cannot agree with the view expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, that Her Majesty's Government should speed up, by one means or another, the gradual phasing out of the north-east salmon drift net fishery. The socio-economic hardship to the fishing communities along the Northumbrian and Yorkshire coasts, who have fished in this manner for more than 300 years, resulting from an early closure of this fishery would be severe.

The consequences of such a course of action becomes even more unpalatable if one considers that those employed in this fishery would be made scapegoats for the reluctance of the riparian interests to face up to what is surely the principal cause of the reduction in their catches.

The noble Earl said in his speech only last December in your Lordships' House that the average annual catch by the north-east coast drift-netters over the past 20 years totalled some 58,000 salmon and grilse and 50,000 large sea trout. To this, the noble Earl said that some 30 per cent. must be added for unrecorded catches and a further 35 per cent. for damaged fish that subsequently die from their injuries. The real grand average annual total catch of those drift-netters was calculated to be a little under 200,000 fish.

In the same debate, the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, referred to the grey seal around the Scottish coast being restricted in 1964 to a population of 24,000, whereas according to the Sea Mammal Research Unit in Cambridge the count has now risen to 86,000. That is an increase in the seal population of 62,000 over a period of 30 years. According to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, an adult seal consumes about 15½ pounds of fish a day, or two-and-a-half tonnes per year. This equates, if described in units of 10 lbs, to 35 million more fish being eaten by seals off our coasts per year than was the case in 1964. In other words, an additional 156,000 tonnes of fish are now being consumed by these predators.

Of course, these additional seals are not going to have dined entirely on salmon and sea trout. However, I would again refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, when he referred to the Marine Research Unit in Aberdeen, who shot and collected a selection of seals at sea in 1973. The unit found that 80 per cent. of their stomach content was made up of salmon. This means that probably an additional 28 million salmon or sea trout which would have been reaching our rivers up until 1964 are now being taken out of our waters by the seal. Even if the figures are inaccurate, even highly inaccurate, they are so far removed from the 200,000 annual fish catch of the north-east salmon drift-netters as surely to make their activities look an irrelevance.

Does the Minister agree that the time has come for the riparians to work together with the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations and their Scottish counterparts and Her Majesty's Government to educate the public into accepting that the seal does have to be culled in a humane and controlled manner?

6.35 p.m.

The Duke of Roxburghe

My Lords, first, I must apologise to your Lordships for the fact that I failed to put my name down to speak on the Question today as I did not think that I would be able to be present. I should also like to apologise to my noble friend the Minister and your Lordships because I shall have to leave early since I have an unavoidable commitment. I must also declare an interest, in that I am a Tweed proprietor and a Tweed Commissioner, the river most clearly affected by the north-east drift net fishery.

I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimberley for raising this matter yet again and we will all wait with interest to hear the Minister's response. This is the third occasion in as many years that the subject has been raised in your Lordships' House. I wish to add my firm support to my noble friend Lord Kimberley, and the noble Lord, Lord Mason, in their comments about the futility of the continuing north-east drift net fishery. All salmon organisations condemn the Government and I can only trust that the Government will have a change of heart.

Much has happened in the last two years: the announcement of the intention to phase out the drift nets over 30 years; the closing down of the Faroese and Greenland drift net fishery; and now the recent vote in the European Parliament in favour of the European Commission's proposal to ban drift netting for tuna and salmon.

There has been much movement internationally, but how much has there been in this country and by this Government? I would be most interested to hear my noble friend's response to the European Union's provision for compensation for driftsmen. If I may, I will quote from the Minister's comments last year in this House, when he stated: It is of course open to those who see a benefit from a faster phase-out to negotiate a private buy-out with the netsmen themselves, as has been done elsewhere … there is nothing to stop a driftnetsman from accepting payment in return for not renewing his licence. But I would say … that these are matters for private agreement and private capital and not for British taxpayers".— [Official Report, 9/12/93; col. 1106.] If the Minister feels that it is not a matter for the British taxpayer, does he agree that it is a sensible use of European funds and merits encouragement by the Government?

Much was made in recent debates, and rightly so, of the value of the rod-caught salmon to local communities in the rural areas of Scotland and north-east England. Will the Minister agree, therefore, that this European initiative offers the perfect opportunity, as my noble friend Lord Kimberley said, to bring this about while safeguarding the interests of the north-east drift netsmen? The Government have for many years been isolated internationally in their support for drift netting of salmon and I hope that the time may now have come for this to change.

6.39 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, it is strange for me as very much a city person to be involved in this debate with many people who, I know, are experts. Noble Lords may remember that we have had this debate a number of times before. I took part in them and I felt that we did not need to go over the problems because everyone seemed to accept that the idea of phasing out the north-east fisheries would be the answer.

In view of this forthcoming debate, I began to look back at some of the earlier debates. I received briefings from various groups of people, and I am not so sure as I once was that phasing out the north-east fishery drift nets is the simple and easy answer that it appears to be.

The Question consists of two parts. I feel that on the first part there would be fairly general agreement that unregulated fishing for sand eels, particularly by foreign nationals, is undesirable. A number of noble Lords have mentioned the factory that it is proposed to build, probably at Grangemouth, to produce something like 100,000 tonnes per year of cattle feed. I understand that a company called Biomar Dansk is likely to build it. It will be built by means of a grant from the Scottish Office and a grant from an organisation in Scotland that used to be called "Locate". I understand that permission for the development has already been given.

As I said earlier, I am wary of accepting too readily the arguments of highly committed people on most topics. But when it appears that such a company has the freedom to take an unlimited tonnage of sand eels in a catch—100,000 tonnes has been mentioned—we have to look very carefully at the issues. I am on the same side of the argument as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in many ways, but frequently they tend to go over the top in their defence of bird life. I get very worried about it. I am also worried about the composition of the National Rivers Authority. I understand that it is very largely composed of riparian owners who obviously have a vested interest in what I believe may be the over-easy solution of closing down the drift nets in the north-east.

There is always a balance to be struck in these matters. I shall be pleased if the Minister could tell the House whether the report of the factory to be built for producing animal feed is true. What is the reasoning behind the decision? It seems that considerable costs will be involved.

The job creation prospects for Grangemouth may very well have exerted quite an influence on the proposal that the factory should be located there. I am sure that such a consideration weighs heavily with the Scottish Office. However, it must be balanced by the possible damage to other fishing stocks in the Firth of Forth. I understand that the fishermen are extremely concerned about the industrial fishing, which seems to be uncontrolled.

The second part of the Question raised by the noble Earl has been raised many times in this House. I have taken part in a number of debates on this issue and thought that we had reached some kind of conclusion. I understand that north-east coast drift net fishing is seasonal and controlled by the Salmon Act 1986. It should also be noted that that type of fishing has a history of around 300 years. It is almost always a family business, passed on from one generation to the next.

The more that I read and hear about the subject, the more confused I become. Looking at the Scottish position, drift net fishing was stopped in 1962. That should be a period long enough to allow for an assessment of the effect of the ban on river salmon. According to the Official Report of 26th November 1991, in a reply to a Question about Scottish rivers from the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, the Minister of State said that the net loss to Scottish fisheries was 6 per cent. As was said at the time by my noble friend Lord Gallacher when he replied to a similar debate on 5th November 1992: That seems rather low in the light of what has been said … this evening"—[Official Report, 5/11/92; col. 1588.] about the benefits of stopping drift net fishing.

Another point raised with me by fishermen was the issue of the illegal fishing which results when legal fishing is prohibited. Illegal fishing entails very heavy policing costs. I understand that the north-east fishermen are on the spot. They know the wiles and habits of the poachers. They can quickly bring to the notice: of the authorities any illegal fishing. I understand that the licence fee of the north-east fishermen meets about half the cost of policing that is required in the North Sea.

I am told that by contrast in Scotland there is a great deal of illegal fishing, perhaps by the very same people who earlier were stopped from fishing. In Scottish coastal waters it is quite a serious problem. Can the Minister confirm or otherwise; that the illegal fishing has been controlled? The ordinary fishery cruisers are not able to carry out such patrols and I ask the Minister whether he can confirm that naval minesweepers and helicopters have been used in trying to catch illegal fishing. That is the story that I have been told by fishermen. The fishing should be controlled. It has been suggested that traditional coastal communities were able to reduce the amount of work required by the fisheries cruisers when they were there because they were on the spot and knew the ways in which the poachers were likely to behave.

I await the reply from the Minister. I am genuinely concerned about this matter. I was very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Amherst, for putting another point of view. The MAFF has never been happy about the total abolition of trawling for salmon by traditional small trawlers—they are not big; 30ft long—with fairly limited length nets.

With all the experience that we now have of stopping the Scottish drift net fishing, I should be interested if the Minister could tell us what will happen to the north east? Will there be a total phasing out of this kind of fishing? Have the Government any idea of buying out the fisheries that are already there or can they suggest some other solution?

6.47 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, this has been a most interesting debate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimberley and other noble Lords who have spoken. The issues that have been raised are important. Noble Lords' views on them clearly are deeply held.

My noble friend's Question covers the two distinct issues of the industrial sand eel fishery and the north east of England salmon drift net fishery. It is certainly true that vessels prosecuting the sand eel fishery take large catches each year, as my noble friend indicated. I am assured that the fishing activity off the Fife and Lothian coasts has fallen from its peak last year and that the more traditional grounds in the eastern North Sea are again being fished more actively.

Despite that undoubtedly high level of fishing activity, the latest advice from fishery scientists is that sand eel stocks are increasing and now stand at high levels. However, I do not wish anyone in your Lordships' House or outside it to believe that the Government are complacent about the levels or the practice of industrial fishing. Complacency would be foolhardy, given the importance of sand eels and other industrial species in the food chain.

Contrary to the assertion in my noble friend's Question, industrial fishing by foreign vessels is not unregulated. Controls on fishing activity, including industrial fishing, are set within the common fisheries policy. In the North Sea, for example, there is a limit of 10 per cent. by-catch of the main human consumption species; there is a ban on industrial fishing vessels processing their catch on board so that the true catch composition cannot be masked; there are restrictions on net mesh size which may be used, and some areas off the north-east coast of the United Kingdom and the western coast of Denmark are closed to fishing at certain times.

We enforce these fisheries regulations thoroughly. British Sea Fisheries Officers regularly board industrial fishing vessels in the UK sector of the North Sea to ensure that they are keeping to CFP regulations. The clear evidence is that they are. Last year, for example, the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency alone made over 500 boardings of such vessels, of which 430 boardings were of Danish vessels. All those vessels were found to be operating well within current by-catch limits.

At the same time, the UK has been encouraging the development of more effective monitoring and control measures for industrial fisheries within the CFP. We believe that the growth of industrial fishing should be limited until a better scientific understanding of its effect on other fisheries and on the wider marine eco-system is achieved. To that end, the UK took the lead in the December 1993 Fisheries Council in securing agreement that the Commission should establish a working group of marine ecologists and fisheries biologists to study the implications for the marine eco-system of fishing in general and industrial fishing in particular. We understand that the Commission now has that report. We look forward to receiving it and taking the argument forward in Brussels once more.

Our cautious approach to the sand eel fishery in the North Sea is reflected in the management arrangements we have applied in our own waters. As noble Lords will know, there are two small sand eel stocks within Scottish inshore waters. One is at Shetland and the other around the Western Isles. The Shetland fishery has been closed since 1991 and I am pleased to report to the House that the stock has now recovered quite strongly after a period of poor recruitment. At the same time access to the other fishery at the Western Isles has been strictly curtailed so that only vessels which have traditionally taken part in the fishery have access to it. I am advised that in 1993 fishing mortality here represents about 1 per cent. of the stock. That stands comparison with a natural mortality of this stock of about 20 per cent. each year. It is important to remember that fishing is not the sole cause of mortality in the sea. Natural mortality is frequently greater; and natural mortality levels in the sea tend to be very high indeed.

I repeat that we are not complacent. Despite the increases in stock size which fisheries scientists have detected and despite the fact that no causal link has yet been identified between industrial fish populations and fluctuations in numbers of other species, we continue to keep a careful eye on the situation. If adverse links were proven or subject to strong suspicion we would most certainly take speedy action. I would remind your Lordships that it was during our presidency of the Community in 1992 that the duty to have regard to the wider effects of the marine eco-system was written into the basic common fishery policy regulations. We expect that precept to be followed.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, told us of his concern that encouragement may be offered to fishing vessels to take increased quantities of industrial species as a result of the new factory at Grangemouth. The new factory will not be a primary processor of industrial fish. Instead it will import semi-processed fish meal and fish oil from Denmark. It will then further process that material into fish feed intended for the salmon fish farming industry.

The opening of the plant will simply mean that secondary processing of fish meal for eventual use in the UK market and elsewhere will take place in Scotland rather than overseas. That move benefits the UK economy through the creation of new jobs, as the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said, and through the value added element of the processing process coming to Scotland.

I emphasise that there will be no direct landings of fish at the Grangemouth plant. There will thus be no encouragement to the UK fleet to participate in industrial fishing as a result of the establishment of that plant. The outlet for industrial fish catches will remain the fish meal factory at Shetland or competitor plants in Denmark. It is not attractive for British vessels to steam those great distances to discharge their catches. We believe therefore that there is little chance of increased participation by our fleet in the North Sea industrial fishery. I would emphasise also that the factory will bring employment to the east coast of Scotland, and that is surely to be welcomed.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley raised the question of the seabird deaths which occurred earlier this year on a large scale and questioned the role that industrial fishing played in that incident. It is believed that large numbers of seabirds die at sea each year during the harsh winter months but that under normal conditions their bodies are not washed up onto our beaches. There is a natural cycle of seabird mortality which is aggravated by severe weather. Weather conditions in the early months of this year were unusually severe on the east coast, with predominantly strong easterly winds. Those severe and persistent winds resulted in increased turbidity which could have made it much more difficult than usual for diving seabirds to locate their prey. Such weather conditions are also known to affect the behaviour of fish. Sprat shoals, for example, on which seabirds are heavily dependent in winter become dispersed in stormy weather. Sand eel emergence in winter is also highly variable for they are burrowing creatures and their reaction to the weather may well have been to go deeper. In those circumstances the sad probability is that the birds just could not locate their food before hypothermia or starvation set in.

Your Lordships may like to know of two separate scientific examinations of the relationship between seabirds and fish. A study group of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea indicated last year that there was unlikely to be much competition between seabirds and the sand eel fishery. The North Sea Quality Status Report 1993 reported that time-series data for many seabirds go back to the beginning of the century and show large increases in the population of several species. It added that changes have also been observed in the at-sea distribution of seabirds that appear to be related to changes in the abundance and distribution of their prey and that there is no evidence that those changes have been caused by the industrial fisheries.

Sand eel fishing is sometimes blamed for the fact that in some years seabird colonies had failed to breed. Following incidents in the late 1980s the Scottish Office contributed to a study to examine any links between seabird breeding failures and levels of sand eel fishing in the Shetland area. The report concluded that, while sand eel stocks have certainly reduced in the late 1980s, that was due to unknown external factors—possibly hydrographic—and that the controls applied to the fishery in 1991 had prevented fishing activity from exacerbating the situation. As I have already said, that fishery remains closed. Industrial fishing does not seem to have been either the main or the only culprit in those incidents. They appear to have been natural events.

My noble friend began his speech by referring to the alleged link between sand eels and the population of salmon. Perhaps I could refer to the report commissioned by the Salmon and Trout Association in 1992 into the west of Scotland sand eel fishery and its impact on the abundance of salmonoids and other migratory fish. The report found no evidence that salmonoid catches were being affected by any by-catch of smolts in the sand eel fishery, though the research seemed to find a link between post smolt survival and the abundance of first and second year sand eels. However, the data in the report make it impossible to say whether that may be due to a direct causal link or to a common causal factor.

I should perhaps add that that uncertainty is likely to be academic since the effects of the fishery on the abundance of small sand eels are so small as to be virtually undetectable in relation to salmonoid catches. This is because predation is most likely to occur in the period April to June. Careful analysis of sand eel catch data shows that during this period less than 1 per cent. of the total population of first year sand eels is taken in the fishery.

Exploitation of second year sand eels is certainly somewhat higher and in the past some 5 or 10 per cent. have been caught in the fishery. However, even these figures are fairly minor if one is trying to explain a major decrease in smolt survival. Furthermore, the level of fishing activity has been falling in recent years, and scientists estimated that in total only 1 per cent. of the west of Scotland sand eel stocks was caught in 1993.

Research continues into the biology of sand eels. But work so far done suggests that changes in abundance of first year fish are due to difference in the survival of larvae from year to year. That is certainly what has been found in other sand eel stocks, and indeed is found generally in marine fish stocks. The likelihood is that these changes in abundance are caused by environmental factors rather than by the very limited fishery which takes place against the stocks.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, referred to the over-fishing of cod. We must recognise that there is no proven link between current levels of industrial fishing and population numbers of predator species, including, incidentally, seabirds, despite a number of scientific studies. The noble Viscount also mentioned that fish oil is burnt in certain Danish power stations. Our understanding is that the Danish Government have not allowed any new contracts for the use of fish oil as a power station fuel since 1990. Current contracts may, we understand, be honoured until 1996.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley asked how many tonnes of fish were aboard the klondiker that went aground off the Shetland Islands during the past few days. The Lerwick Harbour Trust has reported that the vessel had around 240 tonnes of fish on board at the time of the accident. That is, of course, fish for human consumption.

I shall now turn to the second point in my noble friend's Question. The north east coast salmon drift nets fishery has been the subject of debate in your Lordships' House on two occasions during the past two years, the last occasion being 9th December 1993. Those debates were very full and much of the argument put forward this evening covers familiar ground. Nevertheless, I am grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate as it is only right that these matters are regularly reviewed both by your Lordships' House and by Ministers.

I am sure your Lordships will be well aware from those previous debates that the salmon drift net fishery off the north east coast of England was considered in great detail in a report of a review of salmon net fisheries which the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland jointly presented to Parliament in October 1991. The report noted that the review did not produce evidence that the drift net fishery posed an immediate threat to stocks and thus any justification for depriving licence holders of their licences at a stroke. It did, however, note that the fishery exploits several salmon and sea trout stocks; and that the dependence of the fishery on this multiplicity of stocks made the task of conservation and management more difficult.

The report concluded that it would aid and improve the management of individual stocks if drift netting for salmon and sea trout were to come to an end. It was for this reason that Ministers decided that it should be phased out. But they took the view that in order to avoid hardship this should be done gradually by reducing the number of drift net licences as licence holders left the fishery. My noble friend Lord Kimberley suggested that the Government's report on the salmon net fisheries was based on information dating from 1987. The review on which the report was based includes data from as recent a year as 1990, and we have continued to monitor the situation since then.

Measures to implement the phase-out on the basis envisaged in the report were introduced by the National Rivers Authority at the beginning of 1993. As a result of these new measures the number of licences issued fell by almost 13 per cent. in 1993 compared with 1992. There was a further 8 per cent. reduction this year, giving a total reduction since 1992 of about 20 per cent., which is a slightly lower figure than that quoted by my noble friend. The number of licences now stands at 114, against 142 in 1992.

My noble friend asked whether the Government will reconsider their decision to support the north east coast drift net fishery. I am not sure that the netsmen concerned would share my noble friend's view that the Government's decision to bring this fishery to an end constituted support for it. Indeed, I am sure that they would not. That is not to say that we have ruled out further action to restrict exploitation in this fishery. My noble friend will doubtless know that we have been asked by representatives of salmon angling and conservation interests to introduce further restrictions on the fishery. We are considering their request. We are also considering what, if anything, further needs to be done to protect spring run and multi-sea-winter fish in the light of the Salmon Advisory Committee's recent report on the run timing of salmon. One of the recommendations of the report was that consideration be given to further control of exploitation in both commercial and recreational fisheries.

More generally, we have always made it clear that if further action is required in order to conserve stocks, we shall not hesitate to take it. To this end we will continue to monitor the phase-out, looking at the state of stocks, the levels of catches, licence numbers and fishing efforts, and the connections between them. As I said in an earlier debate, it is open to those who see a benefit from a more rapid phase-out of the fishery to negotiate a private buy-out with the netsmen themselves, as has been done elsewhere. Indeed, I understand that a meeting has recently taken place between representatives of a private interest and the netsmen to explore the scope for a buy-out. It remains to be seen whether anything conies of this.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley asked about the possibility of European Union funding for a buy-out. As far as I am aware, there is no provision for European Union funds to be used for that purpose. I will, however, look at that matter. If that were to be proposed we would of course consider it. However, my noble friend does not need me to tell him that even European Union money is ultimately funded by the British taxpayer.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, suggested that Britain and Ireland are the only countries using drift nets. As I made clear in last year's debate, drift nets are more widely used than the noble Lord suggested. Although temporarily bought out in Greenland, the drift netting method is not actually prohibited there. Drift netting for salmon is practised in France and is widely used in the Baltic.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley also asked about the Government's view on the European Union drift net proposal and he mentioned too the NRA's support for the European Union proposal on drift netting. The Commission's proposal is not restricted to the use of drift nets for catching salmon and sea trout. It is principally directed at the use of this method for high sea migratory species such as tuna. We do not believe that the Commission has made a case for its proposal. The use of drift nets for catching salmon and sea trout in UK waters is strictly regulated and has been so for many years. To phase them out within three years cannot in our view be justified on the basis of a threat to stocks and such action would impose considerable hardship on the netsmen concerned.

In its memorandum to the House of Lords European Communities Committee the NRA said that, purely on the basis of better fisheries management, it would welcome the speeding up of the phase-out of drift nets which exploit mixed stock fisheries within the European Union. However, it also acknowledged that the Government may wish to take account of other issues such as avoiding undue hardship, and indeed that is what we have done.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, referred to the importance of salmon fishing to the Scottish economy. We are well aware of the importance of salmon fishing to the economy north of the Border. However, scientists estimate that if the north-east coast net fisheries had not operated, the average increase in rod and net catches in Scottish east and north-east coast rivers would have been less than 7 per cent. The increase in rod catches would be likely to be less than that. The effect on individual rivers will of course vary. The benefit to those in southern Scotland would be greater but in some rivers further north it would be much less.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason, referred to so-called ghost drift nets; that is to say, drift nets continuing to fish after they have broken free and been lost. I know that this is a problem in some areas of the world, but in the North Sea the strong tides and turbid conditions ensure that such nets are soon knocked to the sea bed, where they fill with debris and cease fishing.

The noble Lord, Lord Amherst, raised the issue of seals. I know that there is anxiety among many fishermen that increasing numbers of seals present a threat to fishing activities. Some have argued for localised culls to reduce the pressure of predation on local fishing. The Government review their policy on seals each year using scientific advice and data from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In the light of the latest review carried out in February, the Government have no plans to authorise a cull.

The Government are continuing to fund an extensive programme of research on seal numbers, diet and interaction with the fisheries. We know that there are many influences on commercially exploited fish stocks. Predation by seals is only one factor and it is difficult to estimate the precise effect of their varied diet on particular species of fish. The Government have a major commitment to continuing research on diet and the behaviour of seals.

Let me finally assure your Lordships that we attach great importance to the maintenance of our salmon stocks. We have a long history of regulating our salmon fisheries, both commercial and recreational. We have adapted the regulation and management of those fisheries over the years to reflect changing circumstances and we shall continue to do so in order to ensure that salmon continue to run in our rivers.