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8 July 2008 : Column 402WH—continued

We must continue to protect fish stocks. I was delighted to serve on the Joint Committee that considered the draft Marine Bill, and I know that the Minister has been at the forefront in promoting marine conservation zones, which will have a huge part to play in improving the prospects for commercial fishermen and recreational
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sea fishermen. We in the fishing world are good at keeping our own house in order, but issues surrounding the overstocking of certain small still waters are causing concern to the fishing fraternity.

Finally, the Minister will be aware that people are concerned about the ongoing cost of fishing licences. We are happy to pay for the maintenance of our waterways—it is essential that we pay for that—but, at the same time, we must ensure that we do not discourage new entrants from joining us on riverbanks and lakesides. With that ramble, I shall sit down and let the hon. Member for Reading, West say a few words.

1.8 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) for his kind comments and congratulate him on securing this debate. I had intended to speak for only a few minutes, but the Minister may not have a 22-minute response prepared, so I crave your indulgence, Mr. Pope, to speak a little longer than I had intended.

I particularly want to discuss the value of salmon and trout fisheries in England and Wales in the context of the environmental and economic threat posed by the Severn barrage, should it ever be constructed. I am aware that the Government do not have a fixed position on it at present and that a feasibility study has been commissioned, but it is right and proper that the voices of anglers and those who speak about the wider environment are heard in the run-up to that debate. There are those who believe that the barrage is a done deal. I am not one of them, and I am looking for critics to be proved wrong.

I want to make it clear that I am not a trout and salmon angler. I have no vested interest in fishing for trout, salmon or sea trout on the Severn, the Wye or the Usk, which are the major rivers in that catchment, but as a coarse angler, I am acutely aware, as is the hon. Member for Broxbourne, that what is good for trout and salmon is good for all other species of fish, including those that we coarse anglers choose to pursue.

I want to look at some of the figures before discussing the Severn, the Wye and the Usk. Perhaps the most famous trout and salmon rivers in the country are the Test and Itchen in Hampshire, which I know and in which I have fished for other species. A survey carried out in partnership with the Salmon and Trout Association, looking at the economic value of those two famous fisheries, showed that, in 2005, anglers spent £3.25 million in total to fish both rivers, of which £3 million was re-invested in river management, thus supporting 120 full and part-time jobs. The survey also showed that fishery owners spent a further £250,000, at least, on private conservation projects, mainly to carry out habitat improvements and restoration. So just two comparatively short rivers were generating in excess of £3 million to the local economy of one county.

Let us look at salmon fishing as a whole. The Environment Agency did some work in 2006 on a research and development project to determine the total economic value of salmon in England and Wales, in respect of which the public were asked to value the prevention of a severe decline in salmon to them. The
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results showed that the value of salmon was some £350 million a year. Bearing in mind that 25 per cent. of the spawning habitat for salmon—that is, 25 per cent. of the spawning habitat in England and Wales—is upstream of the proposed Severn barrage, and given that its construction would effectively destroy migratory fish runs, the simple conclusion is that the construction of the Severn barrage would be cataclysmic for migratory fish in the Severn, Wye and Usk catchment.

Mr. Devine: When the hydroelectric dam projects were built in Scotland in the 1950s and 60s, special channels were sent up the sides of the dams, allowing salmon in particular to go up to their breeding grounds. Are we not talking about a similar process?

Martin Salter: It is possible to create fish passes, but one of the big problems is that there is a world of difference between a comparatively modestly sized dam and a massive barrage that is effectively turning the tidal estuary into a lake. The huge volume of water that is released to generate the force and pressure to power the turbines will suck salmon smolt and all migratory fish through what is effectively a mincing machine.

It is no coincidence that a powerful coalition has come together to challenge the Severn barrage, including the Anglers Conservation Association—the main pollution-fighting body—the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Salmon and Trout Association, the Wildlife Trusts, the United Usk Fisherman’s Association, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, WWF UK, the Wye Salmon Fishery Owners Association and the Wye and Usk Foundation. Those experts in their fields produced, together with the RSPB, a collective response that highlighted the point that I am seeking to make today.

I wish to read into the record that construction of a costly 10-mile barrage across the River Severn would create similar problems, by blocking the path of thousands of fish returning to the Severn and its tributaries, the River Wye and the River Usk. A barrage to generate tidal energy would also destroy wild bird habitats formed naturally by the Severn’s huge tidal range and protected by European law. The Government would have to recreate those sites elsewhere and ensure that they were of similar value to wildlife and that they were on a similarly large scale. Helping fish to adapt to the plugging of the Severn by creating a new pathway from the sea further up river will be even harder, particularly since the Government have nominated the Severn estuary for EU protection because of its importance to fish stocks. So the Government are nominating that vital economic, environmental and wildlife corridor, yet at the same time they are considering putting a barrage across it that could have devastating consequences for the whole fishery.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) on securing this debate. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) is making an argument about the Severn barrage, and the Government have, as he rightly says, not made their decision yet, although they have paid for the feasibility study. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied with the way that the Government have approached angling? We have seen a reversal on the bass minimum
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landing size and a massive increase in the price of disabled angling licences. Does he think that the Government have really done what he set down in his manifesto for angling?

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the hon. Gentleman to reply to that intervention, could I gently steer him back to the word “economy” in the title of the debate and suggest that, rather than talking specifically about fishing and the Severn barrage, he also mentions its contribution to the economy?

Martin Salter: Thank you, Mr. Pope; I take your gentle chiding.

I am more than satisfied with the progress that angling has made under Labour. As the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) was late, he will not have realised just how misplaced his comments were, given the consensual contribution by the hon. Member for Broxbourne. The Conservative party had a pathetic record when in government and completely ignored angling.

The economic value of the Wye, Usk and Severn fishery is calculated at the moment at between £8 million and £12 million per annum. The Tweed—a Scottish salmon river—is calculated to produce some £20 million for its local economy. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of the Wye and Usk Foundation, the economic value of the salmon fishery on the Wye and the Usk has begun to rise. We have started to see a return of the fish runs that made those rivers so rightly famous and created such value for that fishery.

The peak was in the 1970s, since when we have seen a reduction of some 70 per cent. in visitor numbers, but because of the work of Stephen Marsh-Smith and others in the Wye and Usk Foundation and because of the Government’s actions, pressed for by hon. Members, we have seen the buying off of the Irish drift nets, the removal of barriers to spawning, progressive liming at the headwaters to mitigate the effects of acid rain and 150 miles of habitat restoration work being done on the Wye and Usk.

The Wye and Usk Foundation raised £5 million in funding for that groundbreaking work, a lot of it from the European Union, but also from the Environment Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and from individual stakeholders. As a result, we have a tourist resource, an economic resource and an environmental resource that is improving. The creation of the Severn barrage is a major threat to that.

I give notice that I, along with many other hon. Members, will be highlighting the potential disaster that the Severn barrage could be to wetlands and to the economy of that important fishery. I thank hon. Members for their patience and for giving me an opportunity to rehearse an argument that will be heard many more times during the process.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) on securing his first Westminster Hall Adjournment debate, and what an excellent subject to choose! He spoke eloquently and all hon. Members present were struck by his passion for his hobby, which is shared, as I know only too well—sometimes to my
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cost—by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). Both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have garages full—

Martin Salter: No!

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend no longer has a garage full of fishing gear, which will be a relief to Mrs. Salter, I am sure, who will take advantage of the additional space that has been created in the Salter household.

Again, I offer my warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Broxbourne. This debate gives me, as the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, an opportunity to acknowledge the value of recreational fishing to the economy, and also to outline some of my Department’s work in recognition of that value, and of course the pleasure that I know from first hand it brings to the 3 million people in England and Wales to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. I recognise the importance of anglers as stakeholders in the management of fish stocks. I am also clear that we must take proper account of the needs of recreational anglers as we develop and implement our fisheries policies.

It is important to focus on a range of areas in angling. The hon. Gentleman concentrated on coarse and game angling, and I shall concentrate my comments on that. If time allows, I may talk about sea angling.

Coarse and game angling are among the most popular sports in England and Wales, and they are big business. Freshwater angling makes an important contribution to the economy. Accurate figures are hard to find, but the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently commissioned a detailed study, “The economic impact of freshwater angling in England and Wales”. The key findings of that study, which was published at the end of last year, were that expenditure by about 1 million licensed anglers on freshwater fishing trips totals £1.18 billion per annum. As the hon. Gentleman said, that involves some 37,000 jobs and household income of around £980 million. Those are large figures. Research shows that average annual expenditure by coarse anglers on permits, tackle, travel and other costs is £859 per angler. We are therefore talking about a successful multi-billion pound industry, which is particularly important to rural communities.

One of DEFRA’s public service agreements is to ensure that people have access to the natural environment, and what better pastime is there than enjoying angling in the wonderful English countryside? Whatever the true figure, angling provides not only an important contribution to the economy, but access to the countryside and the aquatic environment, as well as contributing to a healthy lifestyle.

The popularity of freshwater angling is increasing, which is good news. The number of rod licences taken out in England and Wales has increased by about 10 per cent. over the past decade, and currently stands at 1.2 million, with the majority of licences—typically between 750,000 and 850,000—being taken out by coarse anglers.

The rationale for the development of the Government’s policy on angling and the management of salmon and freshwater fisheries remains the salmon and freshwater fisheries review group report, which was published in
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March 2000, and to which the Government responded in February 2001. The overall aim of the Government’s salmon and freshwater fisheries policy is to promote conservation, restoration, and rational management of salmonids, eels and freshwater fish stocks.

Under the Environment Act 1995, our delivery partner, the Environment Agency, has a statutory duty to maintain, improve and develop fisheries for salmon, trout, other freshwater fish and eels. Conserving freshwater fish is required by the UK's international commitments. Research has shown that the presence of fish is valued not only by anglers, but by other interests in fisheries, and the general public. Encouraging the development of fisheries is consistent with the Government’s policies to benefit the general public by encouraging rural development and farm diversification and helping to create a fair and healthy society.

Bill Wiggin: Will the Minister give way?

Jonathan Shaw: I will not give way, because I have a lot to say.

DEFRA, with the Environment Agency, contributes to the UK’s obligations to the European habitats directive that covers several freshwater species and habitats. Continued and effective management of fisheries is therefore essential to defining and achieving good ecological status, as required by the water framework directive. That is important because not only do fish contribute across the full ecological range from being a food source for other top predators, but their presence or absence is an important indicator of water quality. The loss of the fish population would have a serious impact on the freshwater ecosystem and those reliant on it. Without a healthy and abundant fish population, anglers would cease to fish and those industries dependent on angling would collapse, so it is vital that we maintain water quality and ensure that fish stocks remain abundant.

We were generally pleased with the results of the 2004 Environment Agency report, “Our nations’ fisheries”. It noted that salmon and eel stocks are depleted, but that coarse fish numbers are increasing and have improved markedly on those observed a decade ago when many rivers were grossly polluted and their fish communities were restricted to just a few fish of a limited number of species. With the money raised in net and rod licence duties, the Environment Agency does an excellent job, not just in maintaining, conserving and enhancing stocks, but in enforcing and promoting angling.

I am aware that the Environment Agency has developed the Lee fisheries action plan in the constituency of the hon. Member for Broxbourne. It was published in 2005 and produced in consultation with key stakeholders. The plan identifies six key environmental themes relating to challenges facing fisheries in the Lee catchment area, and is just one of the many examples of the Environment Agency's good works.

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The hon. Gentleman referred to the need to ensure that people have regard to the tradition of angling catch and release in this country. I am sure that he will welcome measures in the draft Marine Bill to give the Environment Agency the power to create byelaws to stop people taking fish for the pot rather than maintaining the tradition of catch and release that now encompasses all areas of angling.

The hon. Gentleman referred to cormorants, and he will be aware that we changed our policy in September 2004 to allow licences to be granted to fisheries managers to reduce the number of cormorants at a site, as well as to continue the strategy of shooting a small number to reinforce non-lethal scaring when appropriate. That has had a positive impact, and cormorant numbers in England have declined by 18.1 per cent. since the licensing was introduced. The problem is to achieve a balance, and we must ensure that cormorants are not jeopardised.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Marine Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West referred to the Severn barrage. We all understand the competing demands of climate change. The hon. Gentleman referred to particular species and the changing nature of our rivers, and we are sure that that is a consequence of climate change. We know that the Severn barrage could provide us with 5 per cent. of our electricity through renewable energy, but the decisions are difficult. The Severn and its tributaries, including the Wye and the Usk, are valuable spawning grounds, and contain environmentally and economically important populations of migratory fish, including salmon, shad and eels. The Severn tidal power feasibility study has identified that as a key issue when considering the impact on fish and fisheries. I assure the Chamber that that will be an important part of the consideration of the Severn barrage.

The study will take about two years, and it will cost around £9 million. It will be split into two stages with a decision at each stage. The first stage is likely to run until late 2008 and will focus on the high-level issues and reach an initial view on whether fundamental issues exist that would preclude a tidal scheme in the Severn estuary. Hon. Members’ points were well made, and it is important that they are considered in the general debate.

I have set out some of the national policies and measures to recognise the value of recreational fishing, and I look forward to the collaborative approach of a modernised management framework through the Marine Bill, which will cover inshore, freshwater and migratory fish, to deliver further benefits for anglers, stocks, key stakeholders and everyone involved in this wonderful sport that 3 million people in our country enjoy.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman. He presented his comments in a considered way, but demonstrated his expert knowledge, from which I have learned a lot. I am always learning from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West. Some of his advice is appreciated, and his gentle style is always appreciated.

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