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House of Lords

Wednesday, 28th January 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

Spring Fish Stocks: Conservation Policy

Earl Haig asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In view of concern about stocks of spring fish and the action being taken by the Dee, Tay, Tweed and other river boards to reduce the exploitation of spring fish, whether they will take immediate action to delay the start of the drift net season in England and Wales and to speed up the phasing out of these fisheries.

Lord Carter: My Lords, the Environment Agency, which is responsible for managing salmon fisheries in England and Wales, has been examining the possibility of delaying the start of the north-east coast salmon drift net fishery until 1st May. It has concluded that it would be difficult to justify such a delay under existing salmon fisheries legislation as there is no firm evidence of a decline in spring salmon in rivers in north-east England. The Government accept this view, but they will continue to explore possible ways of improving the conservation of spring salmon.

Earl Haig: My Lords, first, I declare an interest as a riparian owner on the River Tweed. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for his reply. Is there truth in the allegation, notice of which I sent to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, that fish are being caught in drift nets and sold unrecorded to trawlers outside the three-mile limit? If that is so, does it not heighten the need for a total ban?

Lord Carter: My Lords, the Environment Agency collects and monitors the catch information to ensure that netsmen's returns are as accurate as reasonably possible. Neither the agency nor the Sea Fisheries Inspectorate has heard any reports of salmon caught by drift net fishermen being sold to foreign vessels rather than being landed in UK ports. However, if the noble Earl has any evidence to the contrary, we shall be pleased to receive it.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, can the Minister enlighten me as regards our position on non-sea drift netting? First, can we alone ban the North Sea drift netting practice? If not, why not? Alternatively, are we becoming bogged down in discussions with other European net fisheries and consequently having to await a European Union directive?

Secondly, what consideration has been given by the Government to negotiating with the north-east drift netters a buy-out of the practice?

Lord Carter: My Lords, EU legislation effectively prohibits fishing for salmon and sea trout outside

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12 miles from base line. Regulation of coastal and fresh water salmon fisheries within 12 miles of base line is subject to UK legislation. In effect, fishing for salmon and sea trout in England and Wales is allowed only within a six-mile limit.

On buy-out, the Government would welcome any agreement between private individuals or groups and the netsmen which would accelerate the phase-out of the drift net fishery. It would have to be a voluntary agreement and privately funded. The cost of such a buy-out would be a matter for negotiation between the various interests concerned. No public funds are available for such a buy-out or to compensate netsmen for surrendering their licences.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House why he confines the issue to England and Wales? Does the noble Lord not know that salmon swim up past the Border to the Scottish rivers, which are affected by drift netting? Aside from the shifting of the start date, phasing out has been promised for many years, although not by this Government.

Lord Carter: My Lords, the Environment Agency does not have the legal power to make a by-law solely to protect stocks outside its jurisdiction. In the absence of a threat to English stocks, it cannot make a by-law to protect stocks in Scotland. As regards the impact of the north-east coast fishery on spring salmon, the fishery takes on average some 425 salmon before 1st May.

Lord Moran: My Lords, in view of the overwhelming evidence of the decline of multi-sea winter early running fish, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, is there not a strong case for looking at the problem not merely in relation to the North-East drift nets but at drift netting round all our shores? Is other legislation available which the Ministry could use in order to bring in a ban on fishing in the early months--that is, before the end of May?

Lord Carter: My Lords, there are no immediate plans to allow a delay of the start of the season. However, the Government will continue to keep the situation under review. Most of the public fisheries in England and Wales are already subject to net limitation orders which restrict the number of licences issued. In addition, the Environment Agency has by-law making powers which may be used to control exploitation, including the delay of the start of the season. The Government endorse the advice of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, which is now the policy of the Environment Agency. It is to phase out those coastal fisheries as opposed to estuarine drift net fisheries which exploit stocks from more than one river. However, there is no new evidence to support the acceleration of that process.

The existing salmon fisheries legislation cannot be used in the way that the noble Lord suggests. The agency has to take account of the interests of all those involved. It is not satisfied that it will be able to protect the position legally at a public inquiry.

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Lord Nickson: My Lords, is the Minister aware that only last week, on 20th January, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food published a consultation paper seeking to exploit our presidency of the EU for the removal of drift netting for a variety of fish, but specifically excluded the Atlantic salmon? Does the Minister not consider that approach both anomalous--in view of the Government's announced intention to phase out the north-east drift net fishery--and the loss of a huge opportunity to bring pressure to bear on the Irish drift net fishery, which takes an enormous amount of British salmon?

Lord Carter: My Lords, if I may deal with the Irish question first--

A noble Lord: That is a problem!

Lord Carter: My Lords, this is a little easier than some Irish questions. Both we and the Irish Government recognise that the Irish drift net fishery takes salmon returning to rivers in England and Wales. We welcome the package of measures announced last year to improve the management and regulation of that fishery. We shall continue to participate in monitoring the exploitation of English and Welsh stocks. The measures that were taken included delaying the start of the netting season; restricting the netting to the six-mile limit; extending the weekly closed period to three days; and the banning of fishing at night.

As I said earlier, regarding the other part of the noble Lord's question, it is a matter of impact. The north-east coast fishery takes very few spring salmon--on average, some 425--before 1st May. There is not the evidence at the moment to introduce the changes that the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Glenamara: My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that the fishing communities along the north-east coast of England depend very heavily on drift net fishing? These are real fishermen who work for a living. They are not the posh, weekend fishermen who fish in Scottish rivers.

Lord Carter: My Lords, in 1996, the latest year for which information is available, there were 165 drift net fishermen operating in the whole of England and Wales, of whom 81 were in the North East.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in Scotland, the use of drift netting and the carriage of nylon monofilament netting were banned by law more than a decade ago? I myself introduced the ban on carriage when I was Minister. It has always seemed amazing to me--and perhaps the noble Lord will help me as to why--that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, under both the previous government and this one, stands out determined to protect the drift net fishing in the North East. It forms only a small portion of the annual fishing of those fishermen who do it. The majority of the salmon caught are bound for Scottish rivers, where their value is hugely greater in terms of the employment created in relation to rivers and the tourist industry in Scotland.

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Lord Carter: My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, the Environment Agency does not have the legal power to make a by-law solely to protect stocks outside its jurisdiction. In the absence of a threat to English stocks, it cannot make a by-law to protect stocks in Scotland.

Srebrenica: Mass Graves Investigation

2.46 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their policy concerning the full investigation of the alleged mass graves at Srebrenica, where the majority of the Moslem population disappeared between 10th and 19th July 1995, after the capture of the town by Serb forces; and what means they propose for implementing their policy.

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