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10.50 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Nickson both for his report and for the debate. I have a small interest to declare in that I enjoy salmon fishing, if "enjoy" is the right word, and thanks, if that is the right word, to the general election on 1st May I intend to do a great deal of on-the-bank investigation over the next two months without Red Boxes or anything else like that.

I was also the co-author of the 1986 Act in that I took it through the other place. Therefore, I was happy to see an endorsement of some of the decisions that were made in that Act. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Tryon, that I went one step further than Willie Ross and banned the carriage of nylon monofilament nets in Scottish waters. No statues have yet been erected to me.

If freed of collective Cabinet responsibility (which I was discussing earlier today) I confess that when we took the 1986 Act through the other place--and it was taken through this House by my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin--I hoped earnestly for a Back-Bench rebellion on the subject of the north-east driftnet fishery but for some reason it never came. I have been beaten on other matters when I had not wanted that to happen. It was something of an irony that when I should have been quite happy to be defeated it never occurred.

It has always seemed illogical to me that we have allowed the north-east driftnet fishery to continue and especially, if I may introduce a small element of politics, in that it seemed that all we were doing was defending the seat of a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. Perhaps I should say that I was delighted to be at one with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, on that issue, as normally we are at variance.

Are stocks declining? Yes, of course they are. I have the figures from the Awe where there is a good counter and the level flow, thanks to the hydro board, is fairly constant year on year. It does not matter whether it rains; salmon can still run the river. For many years the five-year total was 15,000, 16,000, 17,000, 18,000 and it is now running at 10,000, 11,000 or 12,000. That is a significant decline.

I do not know what is the reason for that. I do not think there is one reason, and in that respect I very much agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. There is a variety of reasons. I am puzzled as to whether the problem is as regards the river or the sea. Perhaps the Minister will help me about that. Most rivers--the Awe being one--count the salmon returning but do not count the smolts returning. I do not know whether they do in the North Esk and, if they do, perhaps the Minister's officials can help in that regard.

I believe that the problem occurs at sea. I now want to introduce sea trout into this discussion. It is interesting that the factors which caused the decline of the salmon and sea trout on the west coast cannot be the same as the factors on the east coast. That is why I believe it is a rather more complicated issue than people make out.

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Predators are a problem. The grey seal population will double in the next 12 years. I accept that culling is difficult. "Condoming" may be the only answer. I believe that there is an argument for stopping sand-eel fishing. That is not just because of salmon and sea trout but because the sand eel forms the base of the food chain for many other fish species. Therefore, I should like to go further in that regard.

I wish to spend my remaining two minutes speaking about fish farming. When I was the Member of Parliament for Argyll and Argyll and Bute I very much favoured fish farming. I do not regret that. It brings, and brought, jobs to west coast areas where they were in very short supply and it reduced the price of salmon. That made poaching less attractive and commercial netting less attractive. That is something which the noble Viscount did not mention.

But there are minuses. One minus is the problem of escapees, and I do not mean just escapees from the salmon cages, the small salmon, but escapees from smolt cages moored in lochs like Loch Etive on the Awe system. I worry about the damage that may be caused by those escapees to the genetic make-up of the local populations from one river to another.

I am also concerned about disease and about sea lice. We ought to be thinking about the work done in Ireland by Professor Whelan. The Awe Fisheries Trust has a scientist, Dr. Colin Ball, who is netting samples of sea trout and smolts in Loch Etive. He certainly reports heavy sea lice infection. I am now persuaded, although I was not to begin with, that that is a major problem in the decline of the sea trout and salmon fishing on the west coast. That applies particularly to sea trout because they do not actually migrate far; indeed, they stay in the coastal waters affected by salmon cages and by the sea lice. We will have to look seriously at the prospect of pushing salmon cages out of coastal waters adjacent to river estuaries and into perhaps deeper and more open water, with better current and better movement. I should add that we can all offer the Minister tight lines when it comes to fishing in this particular pond.

10.56 p.m.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, in his opening remarks the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, drew attention to the fact that we may have moved away from a five-day test to a limited overs match. I have to say that my only ambition when I was much younger was to be a first-class cricketer, but the trouble was that I was an opening batsman and my style made Mr. Geoffrey Boycott look something of a cavalier.

Earlier in the day we had a rather long hors-d'oeuvre, but we have now moved on to a slightly more interesting part of the meal. If I ever thought that there were any doubts about the interest that Members of this House attach to salmon, they were very soon dispelled when I saw the speakers' list. Indeed, the quality, not just the number, of those who participated tonight has proved that to be absolutely correct. When I assumed my present responsibilities, I was told that there were two subjects in which your Lordships were really interested; namely, forestry and salmon. I have not had a forestry debate as yet, so I wait for that to see what I will be like.

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I should like warmly to congratulate all noble Lords who contributed to this debate. For my part, it has been one of the most educational discussions that I have heard in your Lordships' House. I should like specifically to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, and the members of his task force who provided us with the report and the basis for this evening's debate.

Perhaps I may point out that the report has provoked a great deal of public response. The consultative exercise has so far produced 373 responses from organisations to individual anglers and everything in between. If we put that on one side and weigh it against the fact that another recent consultation exercise on coastal planning guidelines attracted 46 responses, we can see how the balance is struck between those two interesting subjects. We are now in the third print run of the noble Lord's report. The demand may have something to do with the fact that it is free; indeed, unlike the Welsh White Paper, it is not even half price. It is free. However, I do not think that that reflects on the quality of the document.

Anyone wishing to learn about the biology of salmon and sea trout--about their habitats and the management arrangements which apply, or indeed, about the difficulties faced by this most valuable species--could hardly do better than to read the report. I must admit that I learned things from the report of which I had no knowledge before I started reading it.

The noble Lord spoke to me some weeks ago about his intention to initiate this debate. I think both of us recognised there was something of a dilemma; namely, did he press for an early debate which might come before consideration of the report had been completed, which would constrain what I could say, or did he wait until the consultation process had been completed and then in terms of the Government's response the die would have been cast? I think it is right that we have had an early debate. That means that I am very much in the listening mode and that is a good thing. We are still considering the responses we have received. We have to evaluate them.

I thought for most of the debate we were in total inclusive mode. Those are words I would have dreaded to introduce into your Lordships' House until the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, had made his contribution. This matter in some areas goes beyond differences of nuance; there are differences of interpretation and differences in weighing the evidence that is available to us. Those matters require proper consideration and proper reflection.

I mentioned earlier that we have received 373 responses to the report. All have in common a genuine interest in the welfare of the salmon and sea trout. It is important that we include the sea trout in our discussions. However, as one might have anticipated, perceptions of how to achieve that goal differ somewhat and the comments reflect that. An assessment and analysis of responses is under way and I hope that the Government will be able to indicate their conclusions by the autumn. That is the time frame that we are working towards. I am genuinely not in a position at this time to

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say precisely what the conclusions will be. However, a number of themes have emerged in today's debate and I wish to use the short time available to me to offer some initial comments. I realise that I shall probably not be able to respond to a number of specific points that have been raised during the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Nickson, highlighted recommendation 19 of the report dealing with the need for consolidation of existing legislation. That matter was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Mason of Barnsley and Lord Burton, and the noble Earl, Lord Haig, who all supported the need for consolidation. The myriad Acts of Parliament which touch on salmon were emphasised. These can be a major headache for those involved, including owners, fishery boards, bailiffs and the police. I say as clearly as I can that in principle the Government have no problems with consolidation. Inevitably there is the issue of how it might fit in with changes in legislation which may be deemed necessary later. There is also the major enemy of finding place for it in the parliamentary timetable. I assure noble Lords that work on consolidation, involving the former inspector of salmon and freshwater fisheries to the department--himself a member of the task force--is under way and will continue.

As regards new legislation, we must wait and see. I am not at the stage where I can make any definitive comments. But I am tempted to follow what was almost an invitation from the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, and say that it may properly be a matter to be considered by a Scottish parliament where the pressure on the parliamentary timetable may not be as severe.

I turn to another of the topics which generated a fair measure of interest--indeed on some occasions passion--fish farming and the proposal in Recommendation 61 that an independent regulatory body should be established to oversee the industry's development. A few weeks ago I attended the National Sea Trout Conference held in Dumfries. While there I was left in no doubt about the strong reservations held by many of the anglers on the subject of fish farming. But equally there was an acknowledgement that to attribute the reduction in sea trout in particular off the north-west of Scotland simply to farm salmon, and in particular the problem of sea lice, was perhaps over simplistic given other contributing factors such as climatic change, acidification and predation. My background is as a social scientist. I tend to think that searching for a monocausal explanation is a rather futile exercise; that if something complex is taking place a range of factors usually come together and interact. I welcomed the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, which indicated the perhaps unexpected range of factors at which we might start looking.

Clearly we are still some way from getting a conclusive answer on the fish farming problem.

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However, what regrettably is a fact--we ignore it at our peril--is that in many rivers declines in sea trout numbers were in evidence well before the expansion of fish farming. I believe that that is historically the case. Purely by chance recently--I believe at the Scottish Game Fair--on spring salmon catches I picked up this point. Existing records show a significant decline. However, the records for, I believe, the Tweed go back for a much longer period. One clearly sees a cyclical effect when one goes back into the nineteenth century and the early part of this century. If one goes back only to the 1950s one sees something pretty dramatic. If one goes back much further one sees a cycle in operation. I have not examined those figures in detail but they shed an interesting light on the problem.

We have to acknowledge that fish farming is an important industry. It is now worth £250 million to the Scottish economy--more than sheep--and employs about 5,000 people, most, as in angling, living in remote areas where employment opportunities are otherwise exceedingly rare. Of course we have to ensure that the industry develops in a way with which we are comfortable. The role of the likes of SEPA and SNH are clearly important. Whether we need yet another body, another quango, I am not yet convinced in all honesty, but I shall read the comments on that carefully. Meanwhile the Crown Estate Commissioners have indicated their wish to relinquish their planning role in fish farming--a role which, not entirely fairly, has attracted criticism--and I hope to make an announcement on this shortly.

A third aspect of the task force report on which I would wish to offer some preliminary comment is netting of salmon--I think that it was 12 to one. The task force clearly sought to tread a careful path on the subject of fixed netting. On drift netting, however, they strongly urged in Recommendations 33 and 34 that we should seek to accelerate its closure, in particular off the north-east of England but also in Ireland, and this not unsurprisingly has drawn comments this evening from the noble Lords, Lord Nickson, Lord Mason of Barnsley, Lord Sanderson, Lord Moran, the noble Duke, the Duke of Roxburghe, and the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso.

Noble Lords will have noted that on 7th July my noble friend Lord Donoughue announced that MAFF would be commissioning a review not entirely dissimilar to that undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, on English and Welsh salmon and freshwater legislation. One of the topics it is likely to address is drift net fishing. My noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley has given me a copy of the report. If my noble friend Lord Donoughue does not receive it by any other route he will get it from me. We shall make sure that that informs him.

It would not be appropriate for me to anticipate the outcome of that review. Supporters of closure will no doubt take some comfort from the fact that the number of licences issued since 1992 has decreased by

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40 per cent. from 142 to 89, and I can assure them that their comments this evening will be brought to the attention of my MAFF colleagues.

Finally, I should like to say something about Recommendation 1 which advocates replacement of the current district salmon fishery boards with 20 fishery area boards. The arguments made are persuasive and will be considered carefully, but a point that has to be borne in mind is that the current fishery boards, though statutory, came into being at the request of the owners, who saw this as a means to co-operate. Forced marriages, which is how some might see the proposed area boards, could well lack that voluntary goodwill and one has to wonder what the price might be to achieve it.

My 10 minutes are well past. I hope I have been able to cover some of the main points of the report. We are actively considering it and I trust that I shall be able to make some statements on some of the areas in the near future.

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