I am grateful for the opportunity to secure this debate. I shall concentrate my remarks concerning drift-net salmon fishing on the Northumberland coast, dealing specifically with the village of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, although I am sure that what I have to say applies to fishing communities throughout the north-east of England.
By means of introduction, I shall give a brief history of fishing in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. It would be true to say that fishing has always been a part of village life. The first recorded reference to it was in 1199, when Eustace Baliol confirmed his grandfather's grant in 1138 of a toft in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea to the monks of Newminster abbey, and added to it a grant of a fishing boat. A toft was a homestead, indicating the serfdom of mediaeval fishermen of the area.
The serfdom to the Church continued long after the feudal system had ended elsewhere, and it was not until 1771 that local fishermen refused to pay a tithe for the clergy's support. The rebellion of 1771 led to the partial closure of the fishermen's chapel of St. Bartholomew, when the rector, Henry Latton, retaliated by discontinuing regular services. Several attempts were made to settle the tithes of the fishery, but regular church services were not resumed until 1846.
The coble—the fishing vessel that is used today—also has a long history. In 1626, Sir John Delaval reported that there were 16 fishermen in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea working four cobles. A coble is a distinctive open, flat-bottomed fishing boat, which responds well to oars and sail, and can be hauled on to beaches and launched simply. Two hundred years later, the number of cobles had risen to eight, and increased steadily until 1831, when 27 operated out of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.
Fishing expanded rapidly from the middle of the 19th century until the start of the first world war. That was the era of the herring boom, when "travelling the herring" became a way of life for fishermen, coopers, curers, and female fish-packers and gutters. Newbiggin-by-the-Sea played an important part during that time, when coopering and smoking facilities were installed in the village. In 1869, 142 cobles were recorded in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea when fishing legislation required compulsory registration of fishing vessels.
Fishing was and continues to be a very hard life. During the period that I have described, all the family played an important role. The fisherwomen were work partners of their menfolk; they would not only collect and bait lines, but take part in hauling the family boat across the beach, and in launching and retrieving it from the sea. On the coble's return, mothers, wives and daughters had to be on the beach to haul the boat, load it and take part in the beach auction of the catch. Similarly, as the menfolk manned the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat, the ladies helped launch it by dragging it down to the sea. That practice continued right up until the 1950s, when tractors were introduced.
Today, seven cobles sail out of Newbiggin-by£the£Sea. Eight larger vessels, which require harbour facilities, fish from Blyth. Although fishing continues to be a demanding and dangerous occupation, it is a way of life that is valued greatly by those who take part in it. Its traditions stretch for generations. I would like to see that way of life continue. I hope to demonstrate why the fishing communities that I represent have an excellent case for the reinstatement of the length of their season.
I stress that I am very concerned about conserving fishing stocks. The fishermen assure me that it is in their interests to ensure continued conservation. All they ask is that they are treated fairly—which I do not think happened last year. Prior to the beginning of the fishing season last year, fishermen were advised before taking out their licences that the season might be shortened. They started fishing at the beginning of March, and were instructed to stop almost immediately. They could not begin again until 1 June. They effectively lost 44 days of a fishing season which lasts for only 113 days.
I was approached by the fishermen on the issue and wrote to the Minister requesting, first, that the fishermen be compensated for the shortening of the season—at the very least by returning a part of their licence fee—and, secondly, that the season be extended by approximately 20 days until the end of September. I am most grateful that, at very short notice, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State met a delegation of fishermen from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, and listened to and reported on their concerns. Unfortunately, they received no compensation. I feel that the buck of responsibility for extending the fishing season or, indeed, paying compensation, was passed between the Environment Agency and MAFF.
It would appear that the decision to shorten the 1999 season was made on advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. It advised the Government that stocks of multi-sea winter salmon—salmon that spend more than one winter at sea—in the north Atlantic had fallen to very low levels, and that extreme caution should be exercised in their management.
It is, however, also true that the north-east has not been as badly affected by the decline in spring salmon as other regions. Indeed, 1999 has seen some of the largest catches ever in the Tyne and other salmon rivers of Northumberland. Huge catches of salmon have been recorded recently in the River Tyne. On one beat alone, 80 fish were brought to the net in six days. In another part of the river, one angler accounted for 45 salmon of up to 21 lb over four days. There are many other examples of enormous catches of salmon in Northumberland.
The fishermen whom I met expressed serious concerns about the very powerful angling lobby—some members of whom they think are employed by the Environment Agency in fisheries management. How many individuals employed in fisheries management hold angling licences issued by the agency? If there are people with angling licences who are involved in decision making in fisheries management, how does the agency ensure impartiality?
Bearing in mind the decision not to extend the salmon season into September, does the Minister intend introducing mandatory catch and release at the back end of the angling season in order to protect multi-sea winter stocks? I suppose that it is a measure of the netsmen's suspicion of the agency that they asked me specifically to pose those questions.
Personally, I have nothing against anglers. Indeed, I fished for many years. I am, however, concerned about the future livelihood of people whom I represent. The potential for fishing salmon has declined dramatically over recent years. Even during the present season, fishing is limited to Monday to Friday—Monday, 6 am to 8 pm, Tuesday to Thursday, 4 am to 8 pm and Friday, 4 am to 6 pm. Night and weekend fishing have gradually been eroded.
The water off Northumberland is also a major factor. For days on end during the season, boats cannot get out to fish. As a result of pressure to maximise their catch over such a short season, fishermen take more risks with the weather.
If my hon. Friend the Minister is convinced that spring fish are threatened, why will he not allow an extension of the season into September to compensate the fishermen? That would give them only 20 days in return for the 44 that they lose at the start of the season. I genuinely urge him to consider that. I also ask him to consider local circumstances. There is genuine evidence for not restricting the season.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the issue also affects the ports from Amble to Holy Island in my constituency. Does he recognise that licensing a fishery is one method of policing? If the Environment Agency in the region is to have its grant cut by about a third, as seems to be the case, it is inconceivable that it will be able effectively to police what goes on in either rivers or the sea unless there is a sensible season. Fishermen out at sea are very quick to point out when somebody is trying to muscle in on a fishery for which they are not licensed.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman in that timely intervention.
In conclusion, I have tried to show the House that this type of fishing is much more than a job; it is a way of life. The Newbiggin fishermen can trace their lineage back for generations. The sight of fishing cobles pulled up on the beach has been seen for centuries.
I ask the Minister to strike a fair balance between the drift-net fishermen and the rod fishermen. Yet again, I ask him to consider compensation for the shortening of last year's season, and to enter into discussions with the fishing organisations now, to ensure that there is no repeat of last year's timing.
Finally, I remind the House that yet another way of life in our region is threatened; for with the recent announcement of the closure of Ellington colliery, we could see the end of 600 years of rich mining heritage. I genuinely urge the Minister to ensure that coble fishing does not follow it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution.
I represent a number of salmon netsmen in my constituency, including those operating mainly out of Cullercoats. They are among the 180 or so fishermen and 75 boats from the north-east that were affected by the Environment Agency's decision to shorten the salmon season by, effectively, eight weeks.
The fishermen that I speak to do recognise the need for effective conservation measures, although at times the salmon net fishermen appear to believe that they are something of an endangered species themselves. Nevertheless, there was some scepticism over the effects of shortening the season in such an arbitrary way, as there is a view that spring fish, if not caught by nets during the early part of the season, would be caught by rods later. In fact, the impact of the shortened season on the incomes of the salmon net fishermen was much clearer and more demonstrable, and that appears to have had the effect of pushing them towards, and increasing pressure on, other inshore fisheries.
Netsmen in the north-east consider themselves to have been badly hit by the shortening of the season, and some whom I have spoken to are so worried about the future that they are looking to buy into white fish quotas, which could be a very costly business. There was a glimmer of hope that the lost days at the start of the season might be reinstated at the end. That would have offered some protection for spring fish and moved towards compensating the netsmen for their lost catches at the start of the season; but as we know, that was not to be.
In a letter to me, the Parliamentary Secretary said that any extension would require an Environment Agency byelaw, and that that would take some time to achieve. It is obviously too late to do anything for this season, but I hope that I may take some encouragement from my hon. Friend's reply that he was unable to extend this year's season, because I hope that that means that there will be an early assessment of what will happen next year and in future years, so that anything that can be done will be done to protect the livelihood of the remaining netsmen. If that includes starting the season late, I hope that an extension will be granted. 1 also hope that that might be considered on a river by river basis.
I believe that the visit by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was well received by the fishermen. I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who has responsibility for fisheries, is highly regarded by fishermen in the north-east and I know that he has done all that he can to ensure that the netsmen are treated fairly, but the netsmen really need to know where they stand. If their income is to be further eroded, or if salmon net fishing is to be ended, the netsmen deserve to be compensated.
This should not be a battle between net and rod, or between the Environment Agency and fishermen. The aim should be to do all that we can to ensure a decent livelihood, and future, for everyone in our coastal communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing the debate and on the way in which he has made his case. I can confirm that, in his correspondence and his meeting with my colleagues at the Ministry, he has truly represented the interests of the fishermen of his constituency. I also appreciate the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell).
Before I respond to the speeches, it might help to put the issue in context if I start by saying that I have been sympathetic to the north-east fishery. As a Government, we have never blamed the drift-net fishery for the decline in salmon stocks. There has been a decline for several reasons. We have resisted what has at times been enormous pressure to close down that fishery; we know its cultural and historic role, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck outlined very well, and its important role in taking pressure off inshore stocks at certain times of the year.
However, I always told the rodsmen and the netsmen that we would proceed on the basis of science, and when we were under pressure to close down nets, I always said that if there was a scientific case to do so, we would consider it. As it happens, a clear scientific case has never been made for the closure of the north-east fishery. However, the case has undoubtedly been made for taking action to protect spring-running fish. Everyone, from all parts of the industry and the fishing sector, accepts that.
I always said that if there was evidence that action must be taken, we would take action; and that even if that involved tough decisions, we would take tough decisions on the basis of conservation. We have taken those decisions, and I believe that our decisions have been fair. I shall explain some of the background.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck asks how many officials in the Environment Agency hold rod licences. The answer is that I do not know; I am sure that some do, because angling is a popular sport. However, I believe that it would be wrong for the fishermen to suggest that there is bias in the Environment Agency simply because some of their staff may have an interest in rod fishing.
I also remind my hon. Friend and the fishermen whom he represents that, some years ago, the north-east salmon netting review was carried out. The Environment Agency was behind that review, and that review produced clear scientific arguments that the drift-nets were not having a detrimental effect on stocks. It would, therefore, be very unfair to suggest that the Environment Agency was biased in that respect. I do not accept that.
I accept some of what the Minister is saying, but he will recognise that the previous Government, despite receiving that evidence, went ahead and placed restrictions on salmon fishing which will eventually drive it out altogether. He must understand that the feeling of persecution on the part of fishermen dates primarily from that time, and that they look to him to do something to offset that and to give them a better future.
I do understand that point and I do understand how the fishermen feel about the matter. The right hon. Gentleman also spoke about cuts in grant in aid to the Environment Agency on the fishery side. It gave us no pleasure at all to take that decision. We did not want to take it; it was forced on us because of the state of the finances in the Department's budget. Several difficult decisions were taken; that was one of them. This afternoon, I shall meet the chairs of the regional fisheries committees to discuss that. The cut will not take place until the last year of the comprehensive spending review period—2001—which gives time to prepare. It also gives time because we shall start the review of the next CSR period. We shall start that review in 2000, before the cut comes in. It is an opportunity to look at the future budget and how we might deal with that issue.
This year, we have made available £500,000 extra in grant in aid to the Environment Agency for fisheries, especially in relation to enforcement of the measures, because we want them to work for the benefit of salmon conservation. That must be the key issue.
My hon. Friend rightly said that this was all about the pressure on the multi-sea winter salmon—the spring-running salmon—and the dramatic decline that has taken place in the north Atlantic in recent years. Last year, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea advised that stocks had fallen to unprecedentedly low levels, and that extreme caution should be exercised in their management. It recommended that the level of exploitation of MSW salmon be significantly reduced in 1999. Advice received this year from ICES has said that the situation has not improved. ICES believes that stocks of MSW salmon are now below safe biological limits. Our own scientific advisers have confirmed that those stocks, particularly of early-running spring salmon, are in decline throughout England and Wales. There are also problems in Scotland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck mentioned compensation. I do not want to duck the issue. Two aspects are relevant. The first is the cost of the licences issued to netsmen by the Environment Agency. They are entitled to make a case for a reduction in the cost of the licences because of the reduction in days, and it is for the Environment Agency, which administers the licences, to decide on that.
Secondly, there is a general issue of compensation. As a general principle, if the Government are introducing conservation measures to protect stocks, we do not believe that there is a justification for compensation. It is in the interests of those who will benefit from such conservation to take the necessary actions, even though I accept that in the short term, there may be a cost to carry. That is true in the case of commercial netsmen, and we understand their position.
We introduced a byelaw to postpone the start of the salmon netting season, to which my hon. Friend referred. That was part of a package of measures for conservation introduced by the Environment Agency and approved by me as a byelaw. The measures are designed to reduce the exploitation of spring salmon in England and Wales by both rods and nets.
We have tried to be fair. Although we allow the salmon netsmen to start on 1 June, the catch-and-release obligation does not end until 16 June. The purpose is not just to take the salmon off the netsmen to allow the rodsmen to catch them, but to give time for the salmon to get up the rivers to the spawning beds. It is a conservation measure, and is not intended to disadvantage one side or the other.
The consultation started in autumn 1998 and the measures were advertised in early November that year. All interested parties had an opportunity to put forward their views and to object to the proposals if they so wished. There were, indeed, a large number of objections. We held meetings, allowed people to state their case and listened carefully to their objections before we confirmed the byelaws. Some changes to the draft byelaws were made, in response to legitimate comments from various groups during the consultation.
Under the byelaws, the netting season is delayed until 1 June, catch-and-release is mandatory for salmon caught by anglers before 16 June, and the use of baits for salmon is prohibited until the same date. The byelaws came into effect on 15 April 1999. As a result, no wild salmon can be caught and killed legally in England and Wales before 1 June.
As my hon. Friend said, although the netsmen started the season before the byelaws were introduced, it was well known that consultation was taking place and that byelaws were planned. I accept that, ideally, it would have been better to introduce the new measures before the opening of the drift-netting season, but unfortunately that was not possible because of the processes involved.
My hon. Friend argues for an extension of the season for 20 days. He is right to say that a further byelaw would be required to amend the existing one. The process is lengthy, necessitating further consultation.
I stress that any amendment must be based on the principle of salmon conservation. I shall not take steps that compromise existing measures. I give my hon. Friends an undertaking that I will raise the matter with the Environment Agency, and ask its advice about the implications of an extension towards the end of the season. I shall also consult the angling and fishing industries about that. I want that advice before I consider amending the measures that we have already taken.
I shall write to my hon. Friends with the views of the Environment Agency, and state whether I believe that there is a case to undertake the consultation that would follow if we decided to proceed. I emphasise that I will not do that if it compromises the existing measures. I understand that they are difficult for all sides, but they are in the interests of the fishery and for the benefit of the stock.
We have tried to be fair. For example, we have not restricted sea trout fishing, particularly in nets, from which the salmon can be released unharmed and the sea trout, which are not under threat, can be taken.
The north-east coast drift-net fishery is a mixed stock fishery. which exploits salmon from more than one river. Mixed stock fisheries present particular management problems, and as we have heard, they are being phased out. In addition, the advice of ICES is that particular caution is to be exercised in the management of fisheries that exploit multi-sea winter salmon. That is a further reason for not exempting that fishery from the measures that we have taken to conserve salmon.
It is true that in respect of salmon stocks, the north-east has not been as badly affected as some other parts of the country, but we must be cautious. Some of the salmon stocks in the River Tyne are improving from very low levels, owing primarily to industrial pollution. In 1976, the salmon rod catch in the River Tyne was in double figures only, whereas in 1997, it totalled almost 1,500.
I am sure that anglers and netsmen alike are delighted that salmon stocks on rivers in the north-east have increased so significantly in recent years, but I must caution them that recovery could conceal other adverse trends, because it is coming from such a low base. There is no evidence to support the thesis that the north-east has not been affected by the general decline in multi-sea winter salmon that is taking place throughout the north Atlantic. We support a river by river conservation management programme. That has been undertaken on many rivers and is proceeding well.
The shortening of the season does not seem to have had an adverse effect on catches in the north-east coast drift-net fishery. Even though the salmon netting season has been delayed until 1 June, provisional figures based on the netsmen's own returns suggest that catches of salmon and sea trout in that fishery increased substantially in 1999. Nearly 24,000 salmon and 15,000 sea trout were caught this year, compared to catches of 17,000 salmon and 11,000 sea trout in 1998. This year, even after the opening of the nets has been put back to 1 June, there has been an increase in catches of more than 30 per cent.
On Monday, I was speaking to a north-east salmon drift-net fisherman at sea about his season, which he confirmed had been a good one. Nevertheless, I confirm that I have a good deal of sympathy for the case made by my hon. Friend. I reiterate that I am willing to discuss with the Environment Agency an extension of 20 days, but I do not want to build up my hon. Friend's hopes, because my discussion with the Environment Agency will be based on the principle of salmon conservation management. I shall not undertake the consultation necessary for a new byelaw if it is not in the interests of the stock. That must be the bottom line.
My hon. Friend has presented a well-argued case on behalf of his fishermen. I shall reflect on it and take professional advice, and I shall be happy to write to him with my conclusions.