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House of Lords

Thursday, 17th June 1999.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Viscount Margesson --Took the Oath.

Salmon: Environment Agency's By-laws

Viscount Trenchard asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why the Environment Agency's national by-laws require the release of all salmon caught by rod and line until 16th June whereas net fisheries are only so restricted until 1st June in any year.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, these by-laws are designed to reduce salmon mortality in both rod and net fisheries and are justified by the decline in numbers of early running salmon. The difference in dates referred to by the noble Viscount is intended to ensure that fish which are denied to the nets at the end of May are not caught and killed by anglers when they move into rivers early in June, bearing in mind that salmon tend to be particularly vulnerable to anglers just after they have entered the river.

Viscount Trenchard: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and must declare an interest as a director of Endsleigh Fishing Club Ltd, one of the principal riparian owners of the River Tamar. I would agree that fish which have just entered a river are particularly vulnerable to being caught by rod fishermen, but does the Minister agree that fish which are about to enter a river are even more vulnerable to being caught by net fishermen?

Does he also agree that, by introducing measures which may well be justified in principle but are discriminatory and unequal in application, he runs the risk of alienating the support of the rod fishermen whose commitment and financial support, which maintain and improve the quality of the salmon's environment, are crucial to the future of the species?

Lord Donoughue: No, my Lords, I do not accept that the new by-laws are discriminatory, certainly not against rod fishermen. After all, the restraints on the net fishermen are seemingly greater in that they prevent net fishing between the start of the season, usually March, to 1st June. The purpose of the by-laws is quite clear. We have been advised by the International Council on the Exploration of the Sea that our salmon stocks, and those in southern Europe, are now so low that they do not support replication of the species. Therefore, we have to take urgent action. We believe that this action

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will increase the number of spring salmon spawning in the spring by between one-third and one-half. That is our purpose.

As the noble Viscount will know, the by-laws allow rod fishermen to catch salmon during the period from the opening of the season to 16th June, but they are expected to release them.

Lord Moran: My Lords, first, I declare an interest as the owner of a beat on the upper Wye. Is the Minister aware that allowing the nets to fish from 1st June, which I believe was a last-minute concession, will, according to authoritative estimates of the Environment Agency, result in the killing of 3,000 fish in the first two weeks of June, a loss which in present circumstances we ought not to contemplate?

Is the Minister also aware that when as chairman of the Salmon and Trout Association I saw his colleague the Minister for Fisheries, Mr Elliot Morley, I told him that we supported the broad thrust of these measures, draconian though they are, but that we thought it very important that there should be absolute even-handedness with regard to the nets and the rods, and that consequently the nets should not be allowed to fish while the rods are subject to compulsory catch and release? Will the noble Lord consider with his colleagues whether next year and in following years the nets should not be allowed to fish until 16th June when rods are allowed to take salmon?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, a number of concessions were made following widespread consultation--and that was one of them. It resulted in an increase in the number of salmon which would be caught. However, it is small compared with the expected benefit of the new rules. The noble Lord mentioned a figure of 3,000, but we are talking of a stock of about 500,000. We shall of course continue to look at the situation. The new by-laws are for 10 years, but we shall review them after five years. Our view is that we have been even handed in the way I explained to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard.

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, first, is the Minister aware of the advice given to the Scottish Office by Professor Shearer that fish caught and released are more susceptible to terminal disease and therefore pass that disease to other fish? Secondly, does he agree that most advice now indicates that it is degradation of rivers and habitat which has caused the decline in salmon stocks and that that has been caused largely by intensive farming and forestry, and that the same riparian owners who now complain were the beneficiaries of those activities?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, as regards riparian owners, I refer to the Question. The noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, is related to the Tamar scheme, which I have visited. I should like to commend that magnificent scheme of co-operation between the various authorities and recommend that it be applied to other rivers. As regards disease in released fish, we are aware that there are disadvantages in allowing fish to be caught and then

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released. However, we still believe that the by-laws we have introduced will have the major benefit of resulting in a significant increase in the number of spring salmon spawning of between one-third and one-half. As regards salmon stocks, it is estimated that in the 1970s some 1.5 million salmon returned from the seas to our rivers. That figure is now only half a million. As regards the salmon catch, 20 years ago it was 25,000 a year; it is now below 5,000. Therefore, we believe that there is an urgent need for action--and we believe that we have taken it.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, of the total number of salmon caught, can the Minister tell the House what proportion is caught by nets and what proportion is caught by rods in the rivers?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord those numbers, but I shall certainly write to him with them--in so far as we can estimate them.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, bearing in mind the dwindling of the stocks of salmon, is not the Minister concerned that the Government have cut by £1.5 million the funding going to the Environment Agency, which would have been used on work to enhance the stocks?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, it is true that under the financial settlement there were cuts in the fishing area and cuts allocated to the Environment Agency. However, I should point out that those cuts will take place in two to three years' time. We have given the agency an extra £0.5 million to deal with fish matters.

The Earl of Perth: My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have a beat on the Tay. I support what is proposed in general. However, I believe that it is unreasonable that the nets should have an advantage of 3,000 fish over and above what can be caught generally. I hope very much that in the next by-laws consideration will be given to ensuring that the rods and nets are equal from the beginning.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his support. I assure him that we shall undertake a review in five years' time.

Lamb Production: Meat Hygiene Service Instruction

3.10 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the Meat Hygiene Service's instruction that the head and ears of slaughtered lambs should be cut off and discarded prior to grading and inspection will discourage efficient lamb production and traceability.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the whole head of a sheep, including the ears, is removed and discarded

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immediately after slaughter to meet longstanding statutory requirements in respect of both fresh meat hygiene and specified risk material controls. However, effective means are available to enable sheep carcasses to be traced through the abattoir, usually on a batch basis, so removal of the head should have no effect on efficient lamb production or traceability.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, I acknowledge the effort the noble Lord has put in to try to bring the agricultural market into the 20th century. However, is he suggesting by his Answer that I should personally follow my lambs from the time they lose their heads, in and out, round about the slaughter line until they get to the grading table? In which case, can he assure me that having outwitted the meat hygiene inspector, I will not be caught by the safety inspector? Will the Minister try to explain to his noble friends that, despite their pathological hatred of the hereditary principle, it is a necessary evil in improving my lamb carcasses?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I appreciate the links made by the noble Lord. I assure him that the last thing I would wish--I have not consulted my noble friends--would be for him to be "topped" in some remote Welsh abattoir. However, I would seriously point out that any noble Lord who comes to this House and puts down an agricultural question on Ascot Gold Cup day is putting his head on the block.

In response to his Question, there are no rules that require individual identification of sheep. We have rules that require temporary identification in movement. The rules require individual identification for export. In the abattoir there is no requirement for identification relating to the head. The carcasses, or the previous animals, can be identified in relation to batches. However, we do not have a requirement for individual identification. I accept that those such as the noble Lord, who are concerned with the breeding of sheep, would find that helpful.

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