Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

9.51 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, for giving us the opportunity to debate his splendid report on Scottish salmon fishery issues. I believe that praise is due to him and his team of collaborators, assessors and secretariat for a detailed, informative study of a management strategy for Scottish fisheries. I believe that it will remain for some years to come a Bible of knowledge on the Scottish salmon industry and related issues. The House is hoping for a positive response from my noble friend the Minister to many of its recommendations, all of which have been endorsed by the Salmon and Trout Association, leading soon, we hope, to a consolidation measure of fisheries legislation.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, I have for some years taken an interest in the conservation of wild salmon. Time after time I have raised the issue of the North Sea drift-net fishery, which is dealt with on pages 25 and 26 of the report. The report indicates that,

This North Sea drift netting is also having a deleterious effect on the only salmon river in Yorkshire--the River Esk--and undoubtedly is taking a severe toll of the Scottish salmon returning to their spawning rivers.

30 Jul 1997 : Column 282

I believe that this netting of salmon in the North Sea is indiscriminatory and that it should cease. Her Majesty's Government and the Environment Agency have a statutory duty to "maintain, improve and develop" fisheries. Through allowing this practice to continue, the salmon rivers are being denied the right to improve and develop their fisheries. I maintain that the Environment Agency is in breach of its statutory duty, because this is obviously a bad management practice.

On salmon conservation, why should the Government continue to be internationally embarrassed in the council of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation? The North Atlantic Salmon Trust, the Salmon and Trout Association and international and national salmon conservation bodies have campaigned for years to conserve salmon stocks and persuade governments to cut back on salmon netting--with some success overseas but not with the British Government. Therefore, I totally agree with Recommendation 33 that Her Majesty's Government should urgently process the closure of this drift-net fishery; indeed, the report strongly recommends that an early date for its closure should now be fixed.

One has only to realise what a transformation this act would bring about--50,000 extra salmon. Beneficiaries would include rod anglers, the whole trade of Scottish industry salmon activity, and the rural economy, allied with a major benefit to salmon conservation. And there would be new jobs. We should bear in mind that the rod angler would be taking few compared with the drift netters. In my case it would be few indeed.

John Winter, secretary of the Bishop Auckland Angling Club, has produced a report on how best to end North Sea drift netting. I have provided the Minister with a copy. Without going into detail, the Kielder Hatchery in the Northumbrian region costs £123,000 to run. It was built to provide 160,000 salmon parr per year to supply the River Tyne due to losses in its construction. Between 2,000 and possibly 8,000 could be expected to return, but of course the drift netters would reduce that drastically. If there was no net fishery, it is estimated that 8,500 adult salmon would return to the Tyne. The cost of paying the North East netsmen not to fish--that is, pay them their profits--is £110,000, against £123,000 to maintain the hatchery. I think that is an idea worth considering.

Finally I draw the Minister's attention to two well known and increasing menaces--the predators, the seal and the cormorant. I hope that when he replies the Minister may be able to indicate some methods, lethal or non-lethal, that could be introduced to curb the rising populations of these salmon killers.

9.56 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I also add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, and to his task force on the production of what is undoubtedly an excellent report. My knowledge of salmon fishing in Scotland is confined to the Scottish Dee, but this is a searching analysis of the problems which have afflicted that river above all in north-east Scotland, perhaps in Scotland generally, over a long period of time.

30 Jul 1997 : Column 283

I feel sure that your Lordships will agree that the report was in good hands, having heard the competent and searching analysis of the Government's proposals which the noble Lord gave in the previous debate. The report identifies the crisis in salmon fishing. Those of us who engage in the sport have had a great deal of time on our hands to discuss precisely what has been going wrong. I think we all started with a belief that if only the estuarial nets could be bought up that would solve the problem. That happened on the Dee and the problem continued. Then there was dredging at sea. All sorts of approaches were made to Faroe fishermen and others. It was hoped that that would solve the problem, but it has not. There has been a dramatic decline and there must be another answer.

Some take the view that it is the increase in dredging or ditching on the uplands that surround the watercourses that is to blame, and that forestry has contributed to a run-off. However, one matter which has not been fully represented in the report and which is perhaps holding centre stage at the moment is pollution caused by the use of new sheep dips. I wonder whether the noble Lord has thought of that and whether it has been addressed. Earlier this week I was pleased to hear on "Farming Today" that neutralisers have now been found at a cost of about one-fifth of the sheep dips that are being used. If that is perhaps one reason why the salmon population of the Dee has diminished, perhaps regulations can be considered that where new sheep dips are used that replace the organophosphates, it will be a requirement that neutralisers should be used before the sheep dip is disposed of.

One of the contributors to the report was the Dee Salmon Fishing Improvement Association. I acknowledge the considerable attempts that that association has made with its catch and release scheme and with its attempts to improve the stock of salmon in the Dee. The catch and release scheme has worked reasonably well. It is a pity that not all riparian owners on the Dee are participating in it. It is a shame that one or two owners and some involved in timeshare schemes are not going along with the work that is being done to try to conserve the salmon in that river.

I draw another matter to the noble Lord's attention. I have looked at the contributors to the task force. I am not sure whether I can identify among those contributors anything from the ghillies. They have formed an association on the Dee because they are naturally concerned about their livelihoods. They are competent, experienced and knowledgeable men. They probably know more about the practical problems and more about the ecology of the area than anyone else. I know that they wish to contribute to anything which would help not only to preserve the salmon stocks but also, ultimately, to preserve their jobs.

Salmon fishing in north-east Scotland is vital to the local economy. Many jobs depend upon it, not just those of the ghillies. The riparian owners and those who deal in tackle in various shops and others depend upon the catches continuing. This report identifies important areas for action. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, who is to reply to this debate, and who knows the area

30 Jul 1997 : Column 284

even more intimately than I do, will take the comments that I have made on board and that this excellent report is put into effect.

10.1 p.m.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden: My Lords, we are indeed grateful to my noble friend Lord Nickson for his report and for the work of his committee. It is a comprehensive report and as someone who has to plead guilty to being one of the six Ministers whom he visited to talk about salmon in his time I know just how difficult his job has been and how difficult the job of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, will be in this area. I trust, however, that the Government who inherited the report will endorse it and will not allow it to gather dust on the shelf or indeed wait until the Scottish parliament may inherit it.

At the outset I shall not say much about the area fisheries board management although I know that many of those involved in the management of fisheries up and down Scotland will have given their views, and very strong views. Having listened to some of them, I suggest that the Government make haste slowly and, where existing boards are able to demonstrate that inherent deficiencies, as described in the report, do not apply to them, they might be left alone.

I wish to spend a little time on chapters 1 to 6 which are the guts of the report. The latest figures produced by the North Atlantic Salmon Fund show that in just over 20 years we have seen wild Atlantic salmon catches crash from over 4 million fish caught per annum to 800,000 in 1996, an all-time low. It is against that background that the recommendations of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, must be viewed, in particular when that tireless ambassador for the future of the Atlantic salmon, Orri Vigfusson says that in 1995 Canada, Norway, Ireland and UK net catches represented between 50 per cent. and 80 per cent. of their fisheries and most are interceptory. That is why I agree entirely with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Mason, that Recommendation 33 is one of the most important in the report. It calls for an early closure of driftnet fishing off north-east England, starting with the total closure of such fishing before 1st June. Remembering, as I do, the desire and insistence of the European Commission to clean up the North Sea, surely the Minister might find some friends at court in Brussels to hasten this environmentally friendly act. Drift netting at sea is considered environmentally unfriendly and what is done in the North Sea could shame Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to do something about their drift netting at sea.

This leads me again, following the noble Lord, Lord Mason, to the problem of seals in our estuaries and our rivers. If I had a criticism of this report and I were writing a school report, I should say, "A bit weak on seals". The report points out in paragraph 1.25 that the grey seal population increase has been of the order of 30 to 50 per cent. since 1990 and that seals are definitely predators of salmon. Recommendation 50 states that further assessment is necessary. Recommendation 51 is slightly better: it urges consideration of non-lethal methods of control.

30 Jul 1997 : Column 285

Considering the promising Canadian results of administering contraception to seals, I recommend urgent action in that area before it is too late.

I wish to make one or two other brief observations. I cannot understand why weirs (or, as we call them in our part of the world, caulds) are still in existence in rivers where their use has passed into history. The old mills in the Borders used to require caulds and mill lades to provide water power. They have long since ceased to serve any useful purpose. While paragraph 5.14 deals with that matter, I believe that the guidance should indicate a presumption against the need to continue with such obstacles and refuse requests for enhancing such outdated obstructions to the free passage of fish.

I conclude by asking the Minister a favour, with which I am sure he will be delighted to try to deal. The request, which comes not only from myself, but from many others including Greenpeace, is this: please stop the industrial fishing for sandeels around the Isle of May at the entrance to the Firth of Forth. The forum is in Brussels where Britain has access as of right to the Council of Ministers. The discussion is with Denmark. In the interests of our environment, our Scottish sandeels should not be turned into Danish fishmeal.

10.6 p.m.

The Duke of Roxburghe: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Nickson for bringing this Question before the House, and for the excellent report of the Scottish Salmon Strategy Task Force, chaired by him and produced early this year. I firmly support all the comments that my noble friend has made tonight.

I must equally declare an interest as a River Tweed proprietor, a Tweed commissioner and a trustee of the Tweed Foundation, and, I suspect, the only person who actually managed to catch a fish today before travelling down to this House--which, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, will be glad to hear, I released.

I wholeheartedly commend the task force on producing an excellent and comprehensive report. It covers all the issues relevant to salmon management in Scotland. The task force has appreciated the important significance of wild salmon to the economy of Scotland and has made many sensible and wide-ranging proposals.

There are very good reasons why the Government should act quickly. As was mentioned, the total of salmon and grilse caught in Scotland has declined since 1952 from over 400,000 per year to less than 200,000. More importantly, the spring fish average has declined from 100,000 to 10,000. The fishery is of enormous economic importance. The report identified that in 1988 the gross expenditure by salmon anglers in Scotland was £34 million a year, and that, including indirect spending, it was £50 million. The present estimate is £70 million. A recent survey by Deloitte Touche for the Tweed Foundation produced a figure of £13.5 million within the Tweed area alone.

This is important for two reasons. The benefit applies in rural areas where jobs and economic activity are at a large premium. The benefit comes at a time of the year

30 Jul 1997 : Column 286

when little other tourism is taking place and plays a major part in maintaining the viability of hotels, shops and other businesses. As a hotel owner in the Borders region, I firmly support that.

There are three key strategies proposed by the task force which provide a coherent and effective approach to the conservation and sustainable exploitation of Scotland's wild salmon into the next century. These are: first, a more representative and better-informed administration through the 20 new fishery areas; secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said rather more cogently than I can, a reduction in the interceptory exploitation of salmon both off the north-east coast of England and in Northern Ireland. Your Lordships will be little surprised that I should return to that matter. It cannot be right, and it is recognised internationally as such, that the north-east drift net fisheries should intercept salmon, 80 per cent. of which are of Scottish origin.

I should be most interested to hear the Minister's views on those proposals, particularly perhaps with regard to any extension of the close season to protect the vital spring stocks. The previous government, dare I say it, paid mere lip service to the reduction in interceptory exploitation of salmon and I hope that the Minister can give this House some comfort.

Thirdly, there must be increased habitat protection and improvement in the Scottish freshwater habitat. That area is vitally important to improve the upstream habitat of the young salmonids and brown trout, with double or even triple benefit to the environment and knock-on benefits for wildlife and marginal bankside vegetation. Much of that work has already been carried out by the Tweed Foundation and similar bodies on other Scottish rivers and is supported by SNH, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and many other conservation agencies.

The report offers an opportunity to bring a more professional and scientific approach to managing that important national asset. It will require major changes in the industry itself and also co-operation with the many organisations concerned with protecting and improving the environment: SNH, SEPA, the forestry authority and local authorities.

Too little has been done to date. The Hunter Report was published in the 1960s but very few of its recommendations were carried out because of a change of government. Many points from the Hunter Report have been reiterated in the report under discussion. I trust that we shall not have to wait another 30 years to see them implemented. It would be a great pity and a waste of resources if the Government did not support all the work that has been carried out to date by all the agencies involved with wild salmon. I very much hope that the Government will act now to progress the recommendations contained in the report and I whole heartedly support it.

10.12 p.m.

Lord Moran: My Lords, it is somewhat deplorable that, when at last we are able to debate a report published in mid-February, we are restricted to five

30 Jul 1997 : Column 287

minutes each. We do so against a background of ever-declining numbers of Atlantic salmon. Between 1969 and 1975 the recorded world catch was never less than 10,000 tonnes. In 1996 it was less than 3,000 tonnes. Sadly, the previous government would not respond properly to the seriousness of the situation. I hope that the new Government will do so.

I had the pleasure of working with the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, when he was chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Trust and I was vice-chairman. I expected that any report that he produced would be very good and, indeed, this is a model report. I am not competent to comment on the proposals about the administration of fisheries in Scotland, but the other recommendations seem to me eminently sensible. I particularly welcome what is proposed about the restriction of fisheries to locations close to rivers of origin; about the north-east drift net fisheries; on the need for a new dialogue with the Irish; on forestry operations; on seals; on sea lice and fish farms and especially that medicines should be environmentally acceptable; on fish farming and wild salmon; on sandeels; and on the need for research into the survival of salmon at sea, on which perhaps European Union funding might be sought.

I hope to hear the Minister say that the Government will implement the Nickson recommendations fully and speedily, thus initiating firm action which, if the Government's plans work out, can be taken forward after the year 2000 should a Scottish parliament then become responsible for fisheries and the environment in Scotland and we here are restricted to discussing salmon fisheries in England. However, then, as now, it will be important that policies are co-ordinated with the Environment Agency for England and Wales and those responsible for fisheries in Northern and Southern Ireland. I still believe that we ought to have a national salmon management policy embracing the whole United Kingdom.

The Salmon and Trout Association, of which I have the honour to be chairman, welcomes the broad thrust of the report, especially the proposals on coastal netting and that an independent regulatory authority should be established to control the siting of fish farms to prevent their damaging wild salmon and sea trout.

The association wrote to the Minister on 21st July about 15 new applications for fish farms, some in sensitive areas close to rivers and estuaries. I hope that the Minister, to whom I gave notice, can reassure me that the association's concerns will be addressed. The association believes that the report does not emphasise strongly enough the need for recreational fisheries to have an abundance of fish, not merely enough fish to reproduce and maintain their existence.

When we debated the salmon strategy for England and Wales on 1st May last year, I expressed some doubts about the wisdom of basing management decisions too closely on the spawning escapement, saying that we should be careful not to be too hasty in taking management decisions on fairly speculative information. That is still my view and it appears to be the view of the task force.

30 Jul 1997 : Column 288

All in all, this is an important report. It seems to me highly desirable that it should not be pigeonholed but should be the basis of a determined policy to restore salmon stocks in Scotland and the fishery which is of such value to Scotland's economy.

10.16 p.m.

Earl Haig: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Nickson deserves congratulations on his report. I should first like to declare an interest as a riparian owner and as a member of the Council of Tweed Commission. The report comes some 30 years after the publication of the Hunter Report. That was a comprehensive report made in the 1960s when few of its proposals were implemented because there was a change of government. Today we are experiencing a change in government. But these are not political questions and there should be no repetition of what happened to the Hunter Report.

The aim of the report is to promote the passage of salmon and to improve their habitat. The aim is to try to satisfy anglers but only so long as there is abundance. My impression is that, broadly speaking, the task force is reasonably happy about in-river management. It does not recommend great reforms. The present system whereby the fishery owners are the main controllers is to continue. In certain areas where the rivers and their finances are small it is suggested that they amalgamate in order to obtain better scientific advice.

Most rivers would accept that proposal provided they are not forced to do so against their wishes. Certainly it will be of interest in cases where financial aid is needed to improve habitat. Larger units are not necessarily good. To lump a small river in with other rivers for the sake of economics and because of a need to produce a tidy strategy loses the point of managing a river coherently and takes away from fishery owners the opportunity to do things their way.

The variation between rivers is great. The task force reports, taking rivers as a whole, that the number of spring salmon caught by the rods is overwhelming compared with the nets. That is not so on Tweed, where the overwhelming exploitation by the nets raises a crucial question. I would highlight the recommendation to consolidate legislation. There is a need for a comprehensive system and for tighter legislation over predators in particular. The seals are affecting many rivers. The overall seal catch is greater than the total caught by nets and rods.

The goosander problem is killing off huge populations of smolts. A licence to kill 75 goosanders in the Tweed basin is far too small a cull. On my beat alone there is a resident population through the winter of about 40 goosanders. I suggest also that the powers of SEPA be extended to include responsibility for good husbandry on the fish farms so that the sterility growth on the sea bed is interrupted. The food chain for young wild salmon would be preserved and there would be less risk of disease. The report recommends an independent regulatory authority, and the nomination of SEPA for that role might be acceptable to the Government.

30 Jul 1997 : Column 289

The report recommends a code of practice on river engineering works, whereby area fishery boards are consulted. Consultation in these matters is not enough where obstructions can so easily be built in modern reinforced concrete which are expensive and difficult to alter other than cosmetically. Caulds are an example where river boards should be given powers of control. At present, owners are able to recreate them simply in order to improve their own fishery and often at the expense of others. The effect of a cauld cannot be known until it is built. A cauld affects the passage of fish in varying ways, depending on its construction, on temperature and on river flows. Most caulds are now irrelevant. The proposal is to give the Secretary of State powers over fish passes. Would it not be simpler to give river boards the powers to prohibit caulds?

Drift nets have already been covered but we believe that the United Kingdom should provide an international lead. Ministers and MPs in this country have been far too parochial in their approach to drift netting. The tendency to monitor industries like drift nets and the hoovering of sand eels for fertilisers rather than to close the industries is to adopt the easy way out.

Speaking as a Tweed commissioner, I am happy that our existing set-up is recommended to stay. The Tweed Council is administratively competent. We have been leaders in matters concerning the habits of salmon and their habitats, for which we recently received an award from Atlantic Salmon Federation. The cost of all this research is heavy. Let us hope that all the effort and expense will not be wasted. Should the spring run not improve, the economy of the Borders will suffer. That is one of the reasons why my noble friend's report is so important.

10.21 p.m.

Lord Burton: My Lords, I must declare an interest as a member of the Ness District Salmon Fishery Board. There is no time in this debate, unfortunately, for the thanks which I would very much have wished to give to those who have produced the report.

Our salmon stocks are dwindling. Action is urgently required. This valuable asset must be preserved. Human predation is taking a heavy toll. Every effort must be made to conserve stocks of salmon.

The report recognises that the main instruments of protection have been the individual fishery boards which cover most of the main rivers of Scotland, but which are working with varying degrees of efficiency. The boards are affected by the geological layout which affects the cost of management, and indeed the expense of which is often responsible for a number of the smaller rivers having no board at all.

The proposal that there should be "area" boards is important as the areas covered must be big enough to support sound management structures, and all rivers should be covered. However, the task force seems to have based its calculations on the number of fish caught, which gives an estimate of income but does not seem to allow for the geographical layout and therefore of the costs of management required. I would suggest that the

30 Jul 1997 : Column 290

Secretary of State sets up an advisory committee independent of pressures from any particular board to examine the number and layout of the new area boards.

It is only right that those who own the fishing rights should pay most of the cost of protecting them. But with more and more pressures being put upon the fish and their habitats, more and more protection is required, with the inevitable increases in costs. There are, however, many beneficiaries from salmon fishing apart from the owners--hotels, tackle shops, garages, travel agents and many others--so there is every justification for some public funds being made available to protect this wonderful valuable asset.

This raises the question of what, if any, outside public body should be represented on the area boards. Area boards must be efficient tools of management of the fisheries, and they must not be loaded with a lot of "dead wood" or, perhaps worse, vociferous voices from persons lacking the necessary knowledge required for what is a specialised subject. SEPA or SNH should always be available for advice if required.

Having sat for a number of years on a large purification board--now swept into SEPA--I remember that fishery matters were not a subject of great concern to the members, and so a sub-committee of three of us was set up to work with the officials, and reports were submitted to the full board. That cut down the amount of time considerably. On the old Inverness District Council I was often a lone voice on fishing matters as there was scant knowledge of and little interest in the management of salmon fishing.

It is vital that the area boards do not have a membership bigger than is absolutely necessary and that they consist of people with as much knowledge as possible of the rivers which they are administering and have a desire to conserve the salmon stocks in those rivers. Those with such qualifications are quite likely to be the owners or the fishermen.

However, it is equally important that the board members are not allowed to interfere with the rivers by changing the pools or altering the freshets from hydro locks just to suit their own fishings. It is important that as many fish as possible, within the parameters of what stock a river will carry, are allowed to get to their spawning beds. One only has to look at the way the numbers of spring-running fish have declined.

I would like to support my noble friend Lord Nickson on the original legislation. It is well past time for a consolidation Bill. I hope that the Minister will take note of this. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency needs powers to regulate the abstraction of water. The British Waterways Board has had a disastrous effect on some rivers, but comes under the ministry for the environment in England, so our fisheries suffer badly. Can the Scottish canals come under the control of the Secretary of State for Scotland, perhaps under his fisheries committee in Edinburgh, which oversees hydro-electric schemes? Perhaps the Scottish parliament may change that.

Finally, we need a highly efficient, well-trained staff of bailiffs who will be capable of dealing with the very sophisticated modern poacher. They will need to be well

30 Jul 1997 : Column 291

paid. Recently, one evil gang of poachers rented fishings and whilst legally on the river they built a trap out of sight and inside a tunnel, leading to the fish pass in the hydro dam. The marked decline in spawning fish was noted over a two-year period, but by luck the trap has now been found and that business has been stopped.

10.26 p.m.

Lord Tryon: My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, for this most interesting and informative report. It could have been called, "All You Need to Know About Salmon in Scotland in 1997". The only thing it sensibly omitted was advice on how to catch them.

We have been declaring interests and I shall do the same, too. I am the president of the UK branch of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation, of which until recently the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, was the chairman. I am also the chairman of the Anglers Conservation Association, of which the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, was also recently the chairman. Fishing is a wonderfully non-party political subject and long may it remain so.

The timing of this debate, while not ideal as to the time of day, is excellent as to being early in the life of a new Government with the Labour Party back in power again. From the comfortable neutrality of these Benches I can say that I found the approach of the Conservative Governments of the past few years to this problem to be deeply disappointing. That has been referred to by others. The noble Lord, Lord Nickson, was clearly also frustrated, but he cannot be quite as frank about it as I am.

I participated in a number of debates in this House and we were constantly told that there was nothing to worry about and that the scientists believed and advised us that there was a sustainable population of salmon. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, covered that quite nicely by calling for there to be more of an abundance of salmon rather than a merely sustainable population.

I have caught at least one salmon every year since 1951, except for one year when I was in Australia, where, sadly, they do not have them. I have watched the inexorable decline, and one can see it even beyond the terrifying figures that we have been looking at. Figure 6 in the report shows a drop of about two-thirds in the catch from the late 1970s and early 1980s to today. That is a terrifying figure. One wonders where it will finish.

Perhaps we can look to the new Government for a rather more helpful approach. Certainly the last Labour Government did some splendid work. I have said it in this House before in one of our earlier debates--the noble Lord, Lord Mason, remembers because he is smiling--and I say it again, that the only recent hero in the sad story of salmon was the last Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, who so rapidly totally banned driftnet fishing off the coast of Scotland. That probably saved the species in the UK. I once jokingly suggested in this House that a statue should be erected to him at the mouth of every major salmon river. No one has taken me up on that, but I believe that someone should because he moved swiftly and decisively.

30 Jul 1997 : Column 292

Turning to the recommendations, I have to say, as did one or two other noble Lords, that I found the general tone of them to be a little too timid, tinged with political expediency in some cases, a point to which I shall come in a moment. Some are really the bare minimum of what is needed. I urge the Government to regard them as a bare minimum and, if possible, to adopt a more robust approach. This is a serious problem.

Most of the recommendations are eminently sensible and those that follow on from the principle enunciated in Recommendation No. 24 (that fish must be caught as close as possible to the river of origin) are absolutely vital. All the other drift netting things follow from that. As we have already heard, that was proposed in 1962--and 35 years later we are still talking about it.

Where I think that the recommendations are weak are in two areas on which other noble Lords have already touched. I refer first to seals, a difficult subject, but I believe that the human race has a duty sensibly to manage other species and to achieve a proper balance of populations. If I have done my arithmetic correctly, it seems that the score is Seals 2, Human Race 1, when it comes to catching wild salmon. That is the wrong balance as far as I am concerned. The idea of contraception for seals is fascinating, but I think that it will require more than that. Most scientists would support a carefully controlled culling. But that is difficult because of the public opinion problem.

The other area where I think that a more robust approach is needed is in relation to piscivorous birds. I played an active part in our consideration of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. We decided then that cormorants were not a big problem because they were basically seabirds. They have subsequently multiplied immensely, have come inland and are a great problem to all freshwater fisheries.

To conclude quickly, progress on the broad strategy of the recommendations is absolutely essential if this wonderful and vitally important creature is to survive for our grandchildren.

10.32 p.m.

Viscount Mills: My Lords, I too would like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Nickson and indeed all of the task force on producing an excellent report. It is a major piece of work and I very much hope that it will receive the positive response it deserves from the Minister.

First, I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of having a national strategy for managing salmon in Scotland. I myself had the privilege of being involved in drawing up a similar strategy for the management of salmon in England and Wales. For far too long I think it is true to say that there has been a rather piecemeal approach to salmon management in these countries. Such an approach fails to recognise the need for a national framework of policies, objectives and procedures in order to safeguard and make best use of what is a very valuable national resource. On more than one occasion when the English and Welsh strategy was being drawn up, I was asked, "Why don't we have one strategy for the United Kingdom?". I do not need to explain to your

30 Jul 1997 : Column 293

Lordships that at present the very different legal, administrative and funding arrangements would make this difficult, if not impossible.

However, I would advocate that we need to operate to the same principles of salmon management and not just in the UK, but throughout the North-East Atlantic. This, I believe, is happening but there are also some important differences; in particular, the very different approach taken in the two strategies to the concept of spawning targets.

The setting of targets, including spawning targets, and the monitoring of stocks and the performance of fisheries against these is the cornerstone of the English and Welsh strategy. We believe that spawning targets should be set for individual salmon rivers to aid their management. On this point, I must differ from the noble Lord, Lord Moran, which I am glad to say is a rarity. It is not, we believe, essential to set spawning targets for every component of the stock; nor to set quotas to control precisely the catch of each of these components. Instead, control can be achieved by constraints on catches set in relation to trends in salmon abundance and their compliance in recent years with spawning targets.

Admittedly, at present the use of spawning targets is a relatively crude tool. Nevertheless, their importance is recognised internationally. ICES has advised the North-East Atlantic Commission of NASCO to develop the use of spawning targets. If Scotland were to reject this approach entirely I fear that it could compromise the most effective management of its own stocks and those of other European nations. As regards the principle of spawning targets, I believe that it is important to achieve a consistent view.

Perhaps the parts of this report on which those of us who come from south of the Border have a legitimate right to comment are those that deal with salmon fisheries that lie between and are exploited by our two countries. As to the Solway fisheries, it is suggested in the report that the time is right to look again at how these fisheries can be managed successfully. To do that it is proposed to set up a commission. However, I am advised by those who have responsibility for the management of those fisheries on the English side that an alternative way forward may be considered that provides a common definition of the Border location, a management group comprising representatives of the bodies involved from both countries and a "Solway offence" that would apply to anyone fishing in the Solway without either permission from a Scottish owner or a licence from the English authority. I do not have time to expand on the proposal. However, it would appear to have the benefit of bringing a new and eminently practical approach to an old problem, involving all those who are responsible for managing the fisheries on the ground, as well as being non-partisan.

As to the north-east coast drift net fishery, it is understandable that the task force recommends an early closure. I do not disagree with that recommendation. I have said as much before in this House. However, it is encouraging that the phase-out is currently progressing twice as fast as originally predicted. It is

30 Jul 1997 : Column 294

worth reminding ourselves that it was the previous government's own report entitled Salmon Net Fisheries that stipulated that the phase-out of this fishery should be gradual so as not to cause unnecessary hardship to netsmen. This is a real issue both for the netsmen involved and the Environment Agency, which is responsible for managing the fishery.

In the little time that I have left I should like to support the recommendations with regard to carcass tagging, the prohibition of the sale of rod-caught fish and emergency powers to limit fishing--provisions that are called for both in the task force report and the English and Welsh strategy. I hope that such measures will be brought in speedily with any new legislation. I also endorse the need for an element of public funding via grant-in-aid for Scottish fisheries. As is the case south of the Border, these fisheries are a national asset that should receive an adequate degree of public support.

As outlined in section 4.17, the public purse is already being used to support indirectly Scottish salmon fisheries through the valuable contribution made to research and monitoring work by the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory. Recently I was asked by the Scottish Office to lead a visiting group to assess the research carried out by the laboratory. Although its primary role is to provide advice and information to government, I believe that it also plays an important role in providing scientific advice and support to a wide range of bodies involved in Scottish fisheries management.

The salmon strategy for England and Wales is now being implemented and salmon action plans have already been drawn up for 12 rivers. I sincerely hope that shortly there will be action in relation to this report and that it will be used to meet the terms of reference set for the task force to safeguard the future of these magnificent fish in Scotland well into the next century.

10.39 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Nickson and his colleagues on this excellent report, in particular chapter 5. I am perhaps more familiar with the contents of that chapter than some of the other chapters. My reason for speaking tonight is to suggest two very slight changes of emphasis in the chapter. I believe that these could be important to the recovery of spawning streams running off very acid soils which lie on granite or other nutrient-poor base rock. I am therefore referring to much of the West Highlands which the report highlights as an area of particular decline in salmon and sea trout stocks.

I do not pretend that my tentative conclusions should necessarily apply to richer soils and therefore to richer waters. My ideas are based entirely on personal study over some 40 years and on some scientific experimental work which is taking place on Rannoch Moor; that is to say, in some of the headwaters of the Tay.

There can be little doubt that throughout much of the Highlands an almost catastrophic impoverishment of the soil and thus of the waters which flow off it has taken

30 Jul 1997 : Column 295

place since the Highland clearances, and I fear that it continues today. There are those who seek to blame this largely on acid rain, and no doubt that is one of the culprits. Indeed, analysis of core samples taken from the deepest part of Loch Laidon, on Rannoch Moor, clearly shows the onset of acid rain soon after the industrial revolution began. The cores from that period demonstrate how the richness of plant and aquatic life started to deteriorate around then, as the acid depositions built up.

However, another very important change happened at the same time. When the people left the land (many of them to work in the factories which started to produce the acid rain) their cattle left too. Until then, the Highland economy was largely based on cattle. Deer and sheep were a comparative rarity but have since come to dominate the area--a domination that has now lasted for 100 years or more--with their mono-grazing culture. So my first suggestion is that a return of cattle for the summer grazings round the spawning burns of west Highland rivers, and a heavy reduction in grazing by sheep and deer, could prove very beneficial. Of course, the report is right to point out, in paragraph 5.10, that overgrazing by any animal is detrimental. However, in the areas I am discussing, the culprits are sheep and deer. Cattle are sadly a rarity.

Our experiment on Rannoch Moor consists of putting cattle back for the summer grazings onto the catchment area of a small burn and measuring their effect on the flora, insects and water quality. Changes to the flora and insects are being monitored by scientists formerly attached to Bristol University. Analysis of the water is being carried out in association with University College London and by the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratories at Pitlochry.

The cattle eat the dreaded molinia grass which grows tall and shuts out the light from other plants. Molinia grass is eschewed by sheep and deer which prefer the shorter, more nutritious grasses, and it has therefore become a cancer of the west Highlands. The manure of cattle also supports earthworms, while the droppings of sheep and deer are too meagre to do so in any useful quantities. Sheep and deer are very extractive animals.

Well, after only five years, the cattle's beneficial effect on the flora is striking, with a measurable diversity of new plants now growing where once the molinia held sway. It is too early to say whether similar beneficial effect is yet evident in the quality of the water; there are some signs that that may be so. I am confident that in time it will be evident. After all, it took us 150 years to get into this mess. We must allow at least 20 years for recovery in scientifically measurable terms. So my first slight change of emphasis is to separate cattle from sheep and deer, and to start thinking how to promote the former at the expense of the latter. No easy task, I fear.

My second suggestion is to emphasise the benefits of reafforestation with birch, alder and other hardwoods in our part of the world. The report rightly points out the damage that recent dense commercial conifer plantations may have done to fish, but I am not sure that a few yards on either side of the burns left free for

30 Jul 1997 : Column 296

hardwoods will necessarily redress the balance, at least not on the very acid and rain-drenched soils around us. I would submit that the new native pinewood schemes, with their requirement for the planting of willows, birches and particularly alders, with their nitrogen fixing quality, could be very beneficial round the spawning streams. I hope that those schemes will continue to be encouraged.

I do not pretend that the return of cattle and hardwood forests would necessarily solve all our problems, but I hope that these suggestions will be examined against the background of the rest of this wide-ranging and penetrating report.

10.45 p.m.

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, I am sorry to spoil the party, but here comes the netsman in this lions' den of anglers! I must first declare my interests. I am the chairman of the company which owns the Thurso River, which we net and which has had an increase in spring catch over the past few years. I am also a member of the Caithness District Fishery Board and I have recently joined the fishing committee of the British Field Sports Society.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, for introducing the debate tonight and for his chairmanship of the task force. Most particularly, I thank him for his warm welcome and kind words regarding my father, which were greatly appreciated.

A five minute speech does not lend itself to considered argument. Although there is a good deal in the report which I commend and upon which I am sure we can all agree, I am sorry to say that my welcome is qualified. In view of those time constraints, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I go straight for the jugular.

My first point concerns the composition of the task force. Its terms of reference required it to consider, among other things, the challenges and opportunities for sustainable exploitation of the stocks into the next century. It is important to distinguish between the general interest in sustainable exploitation and the particular interest of different exploiters. The most obvious is between anglers and netsmen. In this regard, and in spite of the noble Lord's introduction as to the members of the task force, there is a widespread perception that the angling interest dominates. That is a perception which I have heard with satisfaction from anglers and with dismay from netsmen. Indeed, in the netsmen's response to the report, the Netfishing Association of Scotland states:

    "We express deep concern at the theme of the report which is more sympathetic to angling".

There is not sufficient time properly to develop the arguments in favour of an equitable balance between the legitimate interests of both parties. I would only be repeating what I said at col. 1720 of the Official Report of 1st May 1996. However, I will say that the tenant netsmen of the north east who are, as it were, crofters of the sea, perceive their legitimate rights to be under grave threats from rich southern anglers. Such social divisiveness is neither necessary nor wanted,

30 Jul 1997 : Column 297

particularly when the scientific evidence more and more shows that the netsman is not necessarily the culprit he has been believed to be.

Much of the case put forward by anglers is based on the economic argument, which, in turn, is based on work largely done by Mackay Consultants of Inverness, who I know well. It is important when using such reports to understand the criteria used. The argument is much less clear and not as simple as the report leads one to believe.

My second major concern relates to the analysis and recommendations in respect of fisheries administration. The analysis, if I may say so, is flawed and the recommendations naive. Indeed, I have already put forward my views in correspondence to the Minister's predecessor. Shortly after the report's publication, I attended a meeting of our district fishery board in Caithness. That is largely composed of locals and the landowning interest is much in the minority. This section of the report was unanimously and vociferously condemned. I have been informed that that view is taken by other boards in the North. If adopted, these recommendations would add nothing much to fisheries administration, but they would have damaging consequences. They would increase cost; they would bang together illogical geographical areas; they would dilute the salmon interest with other interests; and, worst of all in my view, they would divorce local people from fisheries administration. I am sure that much can be done to improve fisheries administration, but in my opinion these recommendations are not the answer.

Perhaps I may end on a more positive note. The report, as did the report of the noble Viscount, Lord Mills, makes it quite clear that the battle for enhanced and sustainable salmon stocks will be fought and won in terms of environmental management. Pollution has wiped out many rivers; human predation none. It is in habitat restoration, pollution control and sound environmental management that we shall make a real difference.

Much has been made of the collapse of numbers. I wish to quote from the Net Fishing Association's response to the report to the Scottish Office. It states:

    "Apart from the rod and line catch taken prior to 1st May each year, the decline has been confined to the net fishery. The number of spawners has remained remarkably stable in monitored rivers. It may be only coincidental but the present decrease in catches has occurred over the same period, while the degradation of the habitat was accelerating for a host of reasons".
On that, I find myself very much in agreement with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. That may be a first but I hope that it will happen again.

I am sure that the Minister will tell us that this matter is still under review. There really is much good in this report, and I apologise to the noble Lord that I have picked out the bad parts. But there are flaws in it. Rather than cast aside the report, I suggest that it should be regarded as a very strong and sound building block for the future.

30 Jul 1997 : Column 298

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page