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Lord Burton: My Lords, perhaps I may ask just one question. As my noble friend Lord Kimberley said, a very large number of salmon caught in the north-east coast drift-nets are heading for Scottish rivers. In view of that, could my noble friend ask his Ministry to consult with the Department of Agriculture in Scotland and with the Association of Scottish District Salmon Fishing Boards, which are responsible not only for the rod fishing but also for the net fishing in Scotland, and take heed of what they tell them?

7.30 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for asking this important Question. As he said when he opened the debate, we have been here before. Indeed, debates on drift-netting seem to come round with the regularity of the annual Budget Statement. But perhaps the subject this evening is a little more interesting than last Tuesday's offering.

Clearly, anybody interested in the orderly management of our fish stocks wishes to ensure that the fishing methods are properly controlled and soundly based in terms of conservation. Your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities reported in July 1994 (the 13th Report of that Session) on the regulation of drift-net fishing. The committee was quite scathing about the proposals of the European Commission on that subject at that time. Perhaps I may quote from the opinion of that committee in paragraph 40 of the report:

Obviously, the Select Committee was not particularly enamoured of the Commission's proposals on the matter. Obviously, it is very complicated. Everyone seems to agree that drift nets over 2.5 km in length should be banned. That is in line with the recommendations of the United Nations and the European Union. I understand that the Government's policy is fully in line with that and they are supported by us in the Labour Party.

With regard to the effect of the different sizes of net, there has been some interesting correspondence on this matter, and a briefing was received only today, from Greenpeace and the Wildlife and Countryside Link. It has probably been received also by other noble Lords. I found the briefing rather confusing. It seemed to argue that the present derogation allowing the use of drift nets up to 2.5 km should be banned because of the damage that is being done by the larger drift nets. I found that argument rather hard to follow. The reply from Mr. Tony Baldry, Minister of State, which was included

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with the briefing neatly skirted around the problem. In his letter to the Wildlife and Countryside Link, Cetaceans Group, Mr. Baldry said:

    "It is our experience that the permitted use of drift nets up to 2.5 km long does not lead to fraud as your letter suggests. This year, UK tuna skippers agreed that the Sea Fisheries Inspectorate should measure their nets before they were loaded. As part of this exercise net plans were prepared and made available to the RN Fisheries Protection Squadron to help with enforcement at sea. No nets longer than 2.5 km were loaded; and no nets longer than 2.5 km were found in use at sea by UK vessels".
That rather neatly skirted around the problem. If what the Minister said is correct, that is all very fine and well. But what does that have to do with the allegations concerning the use of larger drift nets by the Italian and other fleets. We should be interested to know the Government's view of those allegations that other member states are consistently flouting the current regulations or agreements.

It seems to us that the proposed phasing out of the north-east drift net industry is sensible. Can the Government say what is their latest estimate of how long that phasing out will take? To pick up the important point made by my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley, can they say what would be the effect on employment of closing down that part of the industry now, including the upstream employment in processing and so on?

No doubt we can all agree on the right components of a successful policy on this matter. It would obviously include a ban on the long Pacific drift nets and the use of the 2.5 km limit; with perhaps more rapid phasing out than is presently planned. There should be an exploration of the more technical conservation measures so long as the drift nets are used, such as sonar reflectors and windows for existing drift nets. All forms of fishing should be sustainable and not environmentally damaging. That would cover such matters as the use of drift nets in different fisheries, relative size, depth of use and various escape panels.

There still seems to be a crying need for accurate scientific information in order to enable us to make an informed judgment on drift-netting. We should, therefore, continue to be guided by the best scientific advice on this matter. I understand that there is soon to be a scientific advisory report made to the European Commission. It would be interesting if the Minister could comment on whether that is likely to be available.

If drift-netting is clearly shown to be environmentally damaging, we can all support moves to ban it, as indeed we should support all moves to eliminate any fishing practice that is clearly shown to be environmentally damaging. At the moment the jury is out on the matter.

There is important work being done by the British fishing industry on technical conservation measures. The Government should give all possible support to research and development in this area. All technical conservation measures should be included in all the European directives relating to all drift nets of whatever size.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for tabling this Question and look forward to hearing the Minister's reply and whether the Government have anything new to say on this matter.

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7.36 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimberley and other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. Like my noble friend Lady Blatch, I find myself somewhat under siege. I am glad to have had some support from the noble Lord, Lord Carter, but I cannot say how much I miss the speech from the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. In previous years he has been a notable supporter of the Government's position. We hope to hear from his successor soon.

It has been said that I am a salmon fisherman, and indeed that is true. Would that it were a declarable interest. But I am afraid that, were we at a stroke to double the number of salmon caught in British rivers, it would merely result in the costs of salmon fishing doubling and my having to move to less expensive rivers again.

Although there have been some interesting developments over the past year since a similar Question was asked, the Government's stance has not changed. The Government's policy on the north-east coast salmon drift-net fishery is based on a review of salmon net fisheries presented to Parliament in October 1991. The review showed that the drift-net fishery posed no immediate threat to stocks and there was thus no immediate justification for depriving licence holders of their licences. Taken as a whole, the UK salmon stocks are in good health. The north-east drift-net fishery accounts for about 15 per cent. of the catch. It is not a significant burden on the stocks as they are now. If action were necessary, it would be necessary to take it across the whole industry, and a substantially greater proportion are caught by fixed nets than are ever caught by the north-east fishery.

However, it is agreed between us that the north-east drift-net fishery exploits several salmon and sea trout stocks and that this makes the task of conservation and management more difficult. It is widely accepted--and by us--that salmon stocks are best managed on a river by river basis. So the fishery is being phased out. Licences are issued, with very limited exceptions, only to those who held licences the previous year. Any licences not taken up are not reissued. That has led to a 30 per cent. reduction in the number of drift-net licences issued since 1992, a rate of decline significantly faster than was predicted by the NRA when this policy was introduced. I can give noble Lords some comfort. It is not just the elderly and infirm who were giving up licences; it appears to be across the whole age range and range of competence.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley said that catches had not decreased. Indeed, that is so. But it has been a good period for salmon catches elsewhere in the industry and, should that position change, drift-net catches may go down. However, the fishery will eventually be extinguished. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked how long that would take. We have not changed our position that it will happen over a 30-year period. It is happening fast at the moment; we cannot predict whether or not that will continue.

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The Government keep the position under careful review. As we said at the time, if further action was required in order to conserve stocks, we would not hesitate to take it. I repeat that assurance today. We see no need to go beyond the recommendations of the 1991 report. Indeed, the salmon stocks exploited by the drift-net fishery are probably in better shape than the great majority of fish stocks in the North Sea.

The approach adopted towards the north-east coast fisheries is, where appropriate, being extended to other fisheries such as that for the sea trout off the East Anglian coast. That brings me to the question of the Irish fishery. As the noble Lord, Lord Moran, rightly said, that is a matter for the Irish Government. It is clear that those fisheries do take a substantial number of salmon destined for England and Wales, though we do not at present have any evidence that the current level of exploitation poses a threat to stocks.

The Irish Government have established a task force to consider the practical long-term strategies for salmon management with a view to developing a system for the sustainable management of stocks. We have an input to that process. We are talking to the Irish Government. My right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food drew the attention of the Irish Government to our policy on mixed stock fisheries and the method we are pursuing to phase them out. We are also working to establish a better estimate of the effects of those fisheries on British stocks.

My right honourable friend agreed with the Prime Minister that a scientific working group comprising officials from MAFF, the NRA and the Department of the Marine will be set up to review the available data, agree on a method of analysis and provide the best estimate of the level of exploitation of British stock in the Irish fishery. The first meeting of that group will take place at the end of January, though MAFF scientists have already had a preliminary meeting with the NRA. If it is any comfort on other subjects raised by noble Lords, while the Irish fishery impact on grilse returning to some rivers may be as high as 20 per cent., the impact on multi-winter salmon and on spring-run salmon appears to be much lower.

The Government fully accept that recreational salmon fisheries are an important feature of the local economy in many parts of the country. It does not follow from that that net fisheries should necessarily be brought to an end. In the first place, the effect on rod catchers of ending net fisheries are often overstated. That has some bearing on the relative level of charges for netsmen and rod licences. The two can co-exist without necessarily competing with each other over the whole range of catches. Rod catches in Great Britain have remained remarkably stable, despite changes in netting effort and catches.

It is also important not to ignore the economic and social effects of an early closure on the fishermen involved in this fishery. Our commercial fishing industry is currently under great pressure and Ministers are most reluctant to add to it. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked how many jobs are involved. I do not have an exact estimate. It will probably be a few hundred.

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The Government are not in any way opposed to private efforts to compensate netsmen for giving up their licences. In Scotland, where netting rights are private, it has become relatively common for riparian owners to buy out netting rights and the reduction in netting effort that has taken place in Scotland is largely due to market forces. The way is now open for market forces to play a role in the north-east coast drift-net fishery. It is for those who wish to see that fishery ended to negotiate with the netsmen. We are ready to discuss the issues involved. Officials have had several meetings with representatives of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund and the Salmon and Trout Association. We remain ready to continue those discussions.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, suggested that NASCO had called on the UK to ban drift-netting. That is simply not the case. In fact, one of NASCO's primary roles is to set quotas for drift-net fisheries operating in Greenland.

My noble friend Lord Kimberley raised the question of the impact of seals on salmon stocks. We are aware of the increasing anxiety in that area. Over the past decade numbers of grey seals in Great Britain have grown at the rate of 7 per cent. per annum and the population has doubled in the past six to eight years to over 143,000. It was estimated that if each seal ate only one adult salmon per year, that would amount to almost 60 per cent. of the number caught by all salmon fisheries in Great Britain and well over three times the catch of the north-east coast drift nets in 1993.

In practice, it is unlikely that predation by seals has a significant effect on stocks. Evidence available from various studies carried out suggests that they are opportunistic feeders whose feeding habits and ranges vary greatly from individual to individual. It is known that some seals may take salmon in estuaries before they enter rivers to spawn and some seals have been known to take salmon from nets. But by far the major part of their diet appears to be made up from marine species such as sand eel, Norway pout, tusk and ling.

The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, also asked about monofilament nets. He argued that the use of gill nets should be banned. A significant proportion of the white fish catch landed in England and Wales is caught in gill nets. Their use is already regulated by primary and secondary legislation. In those circumstances, further control of the use of gill nets in other fisheries would be difficult to justify and place undue restrictions on the activities of inshore fishermen.

The noble Lord also suggested that drift nets used by the north-east coast drift-net fishery catch seals, other marine mammals and sea birds. There is little evidence that that is a serious problem; nor is there any evidence that lost nets cause a significant problem. Netsmen must attend their nets at all times, and few nets are lost. Those that are are soon knocked to the sea bed in the turbulent waters of the North Sea where they fill with debris and cease fishing. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, while we support action taken on gill nets and drift nets over the 2.5 kilometre limit, smaller nets--including those of 500 metres, which is what are common in the salmon fishery in the north-east coast--seem to us to be quite acceptable.

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My noble friend Lord Kimberley and the noble Lord, Lord Moran, asked when the NRA would respond to the Government's request to reconsider the opening date for the north-east coast drift net fishery. The Government asked the NRA at the end of June to look again at the question of postponing it to 1st May as part of a wider review of controls on the exploitation of spring run salmon following the publication of the Salmon Advisory Committee's report on the run timing of salmon. I should emphasise however that that initiative on spring run salmon is not primarily concerned with the north-east coast drift-net fishery. That fishery takes relatively few spring salmon--around 400 a year on average. The NRA has been considering the need for additional controls in all the salmon fisheries in England and Wales. That is a major exercise. Nevertheless, I understand that it is almost complete and that the NRA expects to be able to respond shortly.

Let me turn to the second element of my noble friend's question concerning the NRA's widely advertised proposals to increase the duties for rod and net licences. It will be for my right honourable friend the Minister to decide, in the light of the objections that have been received, whether they should be approved with or without modifications or rejected. Given the Minister's statutory role, I shall not comment now on the substance of the NRA's proposals. But perhaps I can in some way answer the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Kimberley that the Government are allowing the net fishery to be subsidised.

My noble friend said that MAFF takes the view that it would be illegal for the NRA to increase licence duties to a level which did not result in an increase in net licence income. In fact, the point that has been made is that both the Government and the NRA must work within the constraints of existing legislation. That

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legislation provides mechanisms to reduce the numbers of net licences and to control net fishing. That is the way in which the net catch is controlled.

Licence duties, however, cannot be used for those purposes and the Government and the NRA would be vulnerable to legal challenge were they to use licence duties to close down or substantially reduce licence numbers in a net fishery. That does not mean that licence duty increases can never lead to a reduction in licence numbers or income, but in our view a policy of deliberately setting duties at levels which it was evident would lead to a significant reduction in income would not be legally sustainable. Such a policy would also conflict with the NRA's financial memorandum which requires it to maximise its return from licence duties and other sources of income.

My noble friend also said that this meant that the Government were prepared to subsidise the activities of commercial netsmen. I would remind the noble Earl that at present more than 80 per cent. of the cost of the NRA's work on salmon and sea trout is paid for by the taxpayer. In practice, as we see it, it is the taxpayer who is providing a subsidy to both rods and nets.

I am sure that there are some points to which I have not responded properly or in full. I shall look at Hansard tomorrow and write as necessary. My noble friend Lord Burton asked about our attitude to the Scots. All I can tell him is that I have talked to them extensively and they have impressed on me the importance with which they view the eventual abolition of the north east drift net fishery. Looking at things from their perspective, I can quite understand why.

We will continue to follow the phase-out of the fishery closely and if further action is required in order to conserve stocks we will not hesitate to take it.

        House adjourned at nine minutes before eight o'clock.

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