Salmon Conservation (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at 10:32 am on 23rd November 2000.

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Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 10:32 am, 23rd November 2000

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-1361, in the name of Ross Finnie, on the general principles of the Salmon Conservation (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 10:36 am, 23rd November 2000

The business before us is to debate the Salmon Conservation (Scotland) Bill, but before I outline the main provisions in the bill, I would like to deal with a procedural matter in relation to Crown consent. For the purposes of rule 9.11 of the standing orders, I wish to advise the Parliament that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Salmon Conservation (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of the Parliament for the purposes of the bill.

Scotland is fortunate in being among the top four producers of wild Atlantic salmon in the world. We have nearly 400 rivers that support populations of that magnificent fish and we have fisheries that are truly world famous. Rivers such as the Tweed, Tay, Dee and Spey are synonymous with salmon and salmon fishing. However, the importance of that resource to Scotland does not stop at those rivers. Throughout rural Scotland, many businesses—large and small—benefit directly or indirectly from the income generated by salmon fishing.

The bill must be considered in context. As members know, there has been a consultation exercise on the protection and promotion of Scotland's freshwater fish and fisheries and we are examining closely the implications of that. However, there is one issue relating to the management of our salmon fisheries that everyone acknowledges needs urgent attention. It is for that reason that we must act now.

The plain fact is that salmon stocks have declined to an all-time low—that is what all the evidence tells us. Much of the evidence comes from catch figures. Those are not precise indicators of stock status but, when factors such as changes in fishing effort are taken on board, catch figures can accurately reflect the underlying picture. The bottom line is that fewer fish are surviving the marine phase of their life. Results of investigations by our fisheries scientists indicate that if the number of fish returning to the rivers continues to decline, there is a real danger that there will be too few spawning fish to ensure that juvenile production is maintained at safe levels. I am afraid that the picture is bleak.

Given that all the evidence indicates that the greatest threat to salmon is in the sea, why bring in a bill that addresses only those things that happen in our backyard? We know that a range of factors affects the survival of salmon. Respondents to the consultation exercise that preceded the bill highlighted that point in their written responses and in oral evidence to the Rural Affairs Committee. Issues that were raised included high seas fisheries, predation, the impact of fish farming, drift netting and changes in the marine environment. I will deal with each of those issues in turn.

Fisheries for salmon on the high seas have been subject to regulation for many years now, via the annual meetings of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation, and in recent years catches have been so low as to be almost negligible.

The Scottish Executive has sponsored a great deal of research into the significance of predation by birds and seals on salmon populations. Where cases can be made for serious damage to fisheries, licences are issued to fishery managers to control predators. I expect to receive shortly the latest scientific advice on seal population sizes from the special committee on seals.

Since 1994, the Scottish Executive has invested more than £2 million in research into the biology and impact of sea lice on salmon and sea trout, and into the impact of fish farming on the marine environment. Work continues to examine the possible genetic implications that escaped farmed fish might pose for wild populations. Working groups at national and international level have been established to develop guidelines on containment that can be applied throughout the north Atlantic.

Drift nets were banned in Scotland in 1962, and that ban remains in force. The drift net fishery that has most impact on Scottish salmon takes place off the north-east coast of England. Discussions about that fishery have taken place for many years, and they continue. The fishery is being phased out. The number of licensed fishermen, at 71, is now 50 per cent of what it was when the phase-out started in 1993.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Can the minister indicate when the north-east of England drift net fishery might come to a conclusion? Given that that is the ultimate aim, what is the time scale?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Discussions are taking place at the moment. I have already said that the size of the fishery is 50 per cent of what it was when the phase-out started in 1993. We take the matter seriously, and we are in discussions with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about it. The independent salmon and freshwater fisheries review group recommended an accelerated phase-out. A key element of the recommendation was that the Government should provide substantial pump-priming funds to launch the arrangements for the phase-out, but we are not in a position to decide on any particular recommendation until all the recommendations involving additional public expenditure have been clarified. As I said, the matter is important and we are discussing it with MAFF.

I talked a bit about global concerns. Now I must talk about issues and factors over which we can exercise some control, and actions that we can take to ensure that our fisheries will be sustainable in the future.

We are strong supporters of the precautionary approach to fisheries management, which tells us that we must not allow the lack of adequate information to be an excuse for doing nothing, or for postponing action that is likely to help. I can see no benefit in waiting until we are able to describe precisely why the last salmon died.

The bill provides greater scope for the effective management of salmon fisheries by inserting five new sections into the part of the Salmon Act 1986 that deals with the regulation of salmon fisheries. The bill recognises the importance of local management bodies, and does nothing to alter their composition. It provides powers to Scottish ministers to introduce conservation measures for the purposes of better fisheries management, either in response to an application from local fishery managers or on ministers' own initiative. The aim is to reduce the number of salmon killed, but only where and when that is necessary.

In Scotland, we are strongly tied to the ideal of river-by-river management. We expect the district salmon fishery boards, which know the local situations best, to initiate new management programmes where appropriate. However, we are certain that ministers should have the power to act where and when the situation is so grave that the future of salmon may be in danger. Whether regulations are made as a result of application to ministers or by ministers themselves, full consultation with all interested parties will be essential.

The bill also requires ministers to consider the views of people or groups that have an interest in fishing or in the environment. It would be arrogant, and possibly dangerous, to dismiss out of hand any observations made by such groups. Nevertheless, the weight given to representations will obviously depend on the quality and relevance of the submissions. The consultation process also requires that boards, interested groups, the Subordinate Legislation Committee and, of course, Parliament all have the opportunity to comment before regulations are made.

Whether regulations controlling exploitation are made in response to an application or on the ministers' initiative, the intention is to make them time-limited. There is no doubt that the bill provides for the time limitation of regulations. In practice, it would be five years—the time from egg to adult salmon—before we saw the effect of any conservation measure. It is important that the effects of the regulations are monitored throughout the process. Good management requires that the measures be in place only as long as they are needed.

Questions have been asked about the bill's compliance with the European convention on human rights. The bill is compliant. It merely introduces a power to make regulations in the interests of conservation of salmon. It is in the exercise of that power that the convention will require to be observed. The bill contains no provision for compensation, because there is no intention to exercise the power so as to deprive anyone of property.

Concern has been expressed about the implications of the bill for the Border rivers. The powers in the bill cover the whole landmass of Scotland, but to ensure that the whole catchment is covered in any management plans, any new salmon conservation measures needed will be taken through an order in council made under section 111 of the Scotland Act 1998. However, that does not mean that Scottish ministers would never feel it necessary to introduce measures to cover all Scotland, so provision has been made for that.

Regulations are of no value if they cannot be enforced, so the bill gives appropriate powers to water bailiffs, police officers and the courts.

The salmon fishing industry is of great importance to Scotland, and it is right that we should examine it to ensure that it continues to contribute to our economy and heritage. The bill will secure the long-term future of wild salmon fisheries. Fishery managers have asked us for more powers to enable them to balance conservation and exploitation. The bill delivers what they and the wild salmon need.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Salmon Conservation (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 10:47 am, 23rd November 2000

I congratulate the minister on her first speech to Parliament in her new role as Deputy Minister for Rural Development. I am sure that she will find the freshwater fisheries portfolio almost as challenging as the sea fisheries portfolio.

After one and a half years of our new Parliament, I welcome the fact that we have finally got round to debating freshwater fisheries, and particularly the fate of the Atlantic salmon. The Atlantic salmon is part of Scotland. When people around the world think of the Atlantic salmon, they think of Scotland. Our rivers and lochs have for centuries provided some of the finest salmon, sea trout and brown trout fishing in Europe, if not the world.

The importance of salmon to Scotland has long been recognised. A few weeks ago, I went to Pictavia, the visitor attraction in Angus. I discovered that the Picts had carved salmon on 18 of their most important stones. The salmon also features on Glasgow's ancient coat of arms.

The protection of salmon was probably the subject of legislation before the 11th century, and was first recorded by the Scottish Parliament in 1318. Here we are in 2000, at it again in the reconvened Scottish Parliament. Once again, we are considering legislation to protect salmon, to ensure that it continues to have an association with Scotland.

Our motivation for being here today is to recognise not only the historic role of salmon, but its economic and environmental role in modern Scotland. Angling tourism is a multi-million pound business. Given that in recent years our rural communities have not had their problems to seek, the last thing they need is for the salmon to disappear from the rivers and to lose all the benefits that angling brings. It would be a financial and a national loss if the salmon were to decline in the rivers to which they have returned since time immemorial.

The Scottish National Party supports the general principles of the bill because of the urgent need to adopt new conservation measures. We welcome the constructive stage 1 report from the Rural Affairs Committee and congratulate the committee and the clerks on that useful report—I do not say that just because I am a member of the Rural Affairs Committee.

The Scottish National Party expresses severe disappointment, however, at the complete disinterest shown by Westminster and, so far, by the Scottish Executive in Scotland's rich freshwater fisheries and in the fate of the Atlantic salmon in particular.

The bill is a flimsy, reactionary response that will merely scratch the surface of the problem. It is reactionary because it reacts to the catch figures, which, as outlined by the minister, are the lowest since records began in 1952 and which have been in constant decline since 1973.

The bill is also a reaction to international pressure. David Dunkley, who gave evidence to the Rural Affairs Committee, said:

"The scientific advice that we have received from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has related to reducing the exploitation of multi-sea winter fish. In the past, the view has been that, compared even with our colleagues south of the border, we have been rather short on regulations addressing that issue."—[Official Report, Rural Affairs Committee, 19 September 2000; c 1142.]

That quotation speaks for itself.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

As Richard Lochhead is aware, I am also a member of the Rural Affairs Committee. Why did he not raise those objections in the Rural Affairs Committee?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Mike Rumbles should read the Official Report of the Rural Affairs Committee's meetings. He would see that I am reiterating some of the concerns that I expressed in the committee. The SNP does not oppose the principles of the bill, which is what we are debating today.

To be frank, the bill is also a reaction to the Government's embarrassment at the fact that, for three years, the Nickson report has been sitting on the shelf at St Andrews House, gathering dust. The Nickson report was produced in 1997, yet the bill to implement its proposals will not be on the statute book until 2001.

The bill scratches at the surface, because, while it will give powers to fishery boards and ministers to conserve salmon and sea trout stocks in our rivers, for example to encourage spawning, it does not address many of the wider issues. I appreciate that some of those issues were addressed by the minister in her opening speech. The bill must be the beginning, not the end, of the Government's response to the decline of the salmon. It will have a limited impact only on salmon stocks, and unless the bill is accompanied by action, it will not be effective.

A number of other issues must be addressed, which the minister touched on and which the Rural Affairs Committee's stage 1 report covered. For example, we need more research into what is happening to the salmon's food supply at sea, the impact of industrial fishing, the role of climate change and the predation at sea of young salmon. We also need research into the impact of fish farming, about which many people have expressed concern. Thankfully, the Scottish Parliament's Rural Affairs Committee and the Transport and the Environment Committee, using their initiative, are setting up an inquiry into some of those issues. The minister must give us an assurance today that the freshwater fisheries laboratory will burn the midnight oil until we have answers to some of those problems.

Drift netting was banned in Scotland in 1962, yet it continues in England. London has international commitments, just like the rest of us, and it has a moral responsibility to address that issue. I ask the minister to take the matter seriously and to go down to speak to the minister in London to try to get some results. All we get from the Executive is vague statements about what has happened so far, but we do not know whether Scottish Executive ministers have met the ministers in London to discuss that matter. The minister must give us a commitment to do more.

What can be done in the international community? Given that we have our own Government in Scotland, the home of the Atlantic salmon, now is the time to lead. We must not become passengers in the conservation of salmon.

The Rural Affairs Committee's report refers to the need to gather information, and we welcome the fact that the bill will give powers to do so. However, in order for the Government to have a proper policy, we need not only catch figures and scientific figures for the rivers, but basic information, such as the economic value of the fishery to Scotland. The most recent study on that was conducted in 1991 and was based on 1988 figures. We also need basic information on who owns fishing rights in Scotland.

Earlier this year, I asked a number of written questions. I asked the Executive to tell me

"how many (a) public and (b) private owners of fishing rights derive income from angling."

The response from the Executive was:

"This information is not held centrally."

I also asked

"how many (a) public and (b) private owners of fishing rights there are and where this information is publicly available".

Again, the response was:

"This information is not publicly available."—[Official Report, Written Answers, 2 August 2000; Vol 7, p 503-4.]

That that information is not publicly available and that it is not possible to find out who owns fishing rights in Scotland is despicable.

Last month, I asked the Executive whether it would

"list the membership of each District Salmon Fishery Board."

The response from the Government was:

"This information is not yet held centrally."—[Official Report, Written Answers, 18 October 2000, Vol 8, p 295.]

Surely those answers speak for themselves—the Government is completely disinterested in Scotland's salmon fisheries.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Richard Lochhead is taking an unbelievable line of attack. If information is not available publicly, what are we supposed to do? What powers do we have to force a private person to come to the Government to tell us who owns what, where they own it and what they do with it? If the information is not held publicly, can Mr Lochhead tell us what draconian measures in the police state that he is suggesting will force that information into the public domain?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

That is an interesting response from the minister, but I think that perhaps he should speak to his civil servants, because the last sentence of one of the responses that I received from the former Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs, Mr John Home Robertson, said that the department intends to compile a database of that information now. Clearly, the Executive feels that that information can be gathered and made available. I am trying to highlight the fact that the Executive has not done that until now.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Order. Members will refrain from shouting at one another across the chamber. Please proceed, Mr Lochhead.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I apologise, Presiding Officer, but it is not often that members catch ministers out and it can be enjoyable.

I should mention the need for the decentralisation of fisheries policy in the freshwater sector and the role of district salmon fishery boards. The SNP welcomes the fact that the Executive adheres to the principle of devolved management. Ministers need powers to act in the national interest, but the SNP fully supports the principle of decentralised fisheries management, as does the Rural Affairs Committee, which acknowledges that support in its report.

Parliament must not shy away from developing or reviewing the role of the district salmon fishery boards. We know that they come in all shapes and sizes and that there are tensions within the boards—between upper and lower proprietors, for instance. We must seek best practice and widen representation on the fishery boards. Some have taken positive steps by inviting local authority representatives and angling interests on to their membership, which is welcome. When making policy decisions, ministers must use the experience and knowledge that currently exist on fishery boards.

It is one thing to have active and interested proprietors playing a constructive role, but I have heard of London-based property developers buying up fishing rights to help them sell riverside developments. Should not we now be considering incorporating fishing rights into the right-to-buy legislation as part of the Government's plans for land reform? Surely it would be better to have community trusts or non-profit-making organisations, such as angling associations, running our fisheries, rather than London-based property speculators who are out to make a quick profit.

Salmon legislation in Scotland is massively complex. It is mind-boggling, and the Rural Affairs Committee report highlights that aspect of the problem. Things could get even worse and it could become even more complicated to run our freshwater fisheries. The 1997 Nickson report mooted the idea of area fishery boards. The Angling for Change consortium submitted to the freshwater fisheries review the idea of area fisheries councils. The EU water framework directive wants river basin management plans for Scotland. Everyone accepts that we must move towards a more holistic approach to the management of whole river systems, given that we have multi-species rivers and given the link between fish stocks, habitat and the general environment. However, the minister must address the many layers of management that are in the pipeline. We must simplify salmon legislation and freshwater fisheries management.

The SNP supports the bill. Although the bill amounts to little more than a panic measure, it does, for the first time, sow the seeds of a national policy on salmon and sea trout. It also acknowledges for the first time that the Atlantic salmon is a national asset and part of Scotland's national heritage. It is the duty of Scotland's Government to protect the national interest and to conserve our freshwater fisheries to secure benefit for our rural economy and environment.

The Scottish Executive must deliver more than just panic measures, however. It must deliver a package of proposals that take into account the whole life cycle of the salmon. In short, we require some political determination and vision to ensure the long-term survival of the Atlantic salmon, which will bring economic and environmental benefits to Scotland.

While asking Parliament to note our concerns, the SNP is happy to support the general principles of the bill.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 10:59 am, 23rd November 2000

I begin by making a declaration of interests. I am a minority shareholder in salmon fishings on a river in Argyll. I am a member of the Awe district salmon fishery board, a member of the council of the Atlantic Salmon Trust and chairman of the Loch Awe Improvement Association.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Will you wind up now please? [Laughter.]

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

The bill's title is something of a misnomer. It is called the Salmon Conservation (Scotland) Bill, but it is more about management than conservation. Much more will need to be done in the context of the review "Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries" to remedy the problems that face wild salmon and sea trout—I am informed that the word "salmon" in the bill includes sea trout.

Although we welcome the bill's general intention to give flexible and responsive powers to salmon and sea trout fishery management, some elements of the bill might detract from that aim. The Salmon Act 1986 that the bill seeks to amend deals with the management of salmon fisheries. Obviously, effective fishery management improves conservation of stocks, but the word "conservation" on its own could easily distort the application of the measures for which the bill is intended to make provision. I ask the minister to provide clarification on that issue to the Rural Affairs Committee and Parliament. It is vital that we consider the conservation of Scottish fisheries in conjunction with the conservation of stocks.

For some 200 years, rod fishing for migratory salmon and sea trout has been a focal point and a pillar of many of Scotland's rural areas. Netting goes back even further. Rod fishing not only gives great amenity value to enormous numbers of people, but brings considerable income into areas of Scotland where such income is increasingly important in these troubled times. It is estimated that the economic contribution of salmon fishing to Scotland could be as high as £470 million. A recent survey that was carried out for the Western Isles Fisheries Trust concluded that, in that small area alone, during the fishing season the income that was generated from fishing was some £5.6 million, and that 260 full-time-equivalent jobs were dependent on the industry. Figures for the Dee and Tweed river systems show that they bring in many millions of pounds.

Different problems exist in different localities.

That is why it is extremely important that local management should be pursued. Blanket approaches are useless in Scotland, where different rivers have different runs of salmon at different times of the year. In Scotland we have a distinct advantage because of our system of district salmon fishery boards.

I have not mentioned the role of Scotland's netsmen, who are now few in number. However, I believe that this traditional industry is still an important part of the picture in Scotland, and that netsmen can play an important role in the conservation of both stocks and fisheries. Later, my colleague Alex Fergusson will elaborate on that point.

I have said that local management is the key to good conservation. In most cases management is carried out by proprietors, whose elected representatives sit on local district fishery boards. The excellent report of the Scottish salmon strategy task force, under the guidance of Lord Nickson, recommended that ministers should have

"emergency powers to limit fishing when salmon populations or fisheries are severely threatened".

I take it that the minister would use those powers only in extremis or in real emergencies. In such situations, the minister must have the power to make immediate decisions and must not be obliged to go through normal consultation procedures. However, the Conservatives think that, in normal situations, management should be left to local bodies, which will have a finger on the pulse of what is happening. I ask the minister why there is no provision for an emergency procedure in the bill—it is most important that one is included.

Equally, we believe that, if a body applies for a measure of conservation, regulations that are made under the powers of the bill should be time- limited, so that they can be modified or relaxed if circumstances no longer required them to be kept in force. We suggest a period of three years. Fish stocks can change very quickly, as is evident from the considerable improvement this year in salmon stocks in many rivers after several years of decline. A fishery survives by harvesting a surplus. As long as there are plenty of fish to cover the spawning redds, rod and net fisheries can and should take a crop.

Section 10A(4) of the bill requires ministers to

"have regard to any representations made to them by any person having an interest in fishing for or taking salmon, or in the environment."

That wording might exclude some people who are economically affected by fisheries, such as hoteliers and, in particular, ghillies, who are at the sharp end of fishing management and who should be consulted much more than they are. Therefore, the reference to

"interest in fishing for or taking salmon" should be widened.

When ministers are minded to act on their own account under section 10A(3)(b), it is essential that they consult either the relevant district salmon fishery board or other appropriate persons before taking any action. I want the minister to give a reassurance that she will consider those points.

In section 10A(6)(a), the powers that are available to district salmon fishery boards are surprisingly wide. All that the district salmon fishery boards have asked for and need are statistics that relate to fishing for and taking salmon. The wideness of that section would give district fishery boards the power to obtain irrelevant information at the expense of privacy.

We must never forget that income from the fisheries finances their management and, therefore, conservation. Without the fisheries there would be no river boards, no fishery trusts and very little conservation. That income also finances the bailiffs who do the policing. It is important that provision is made in the bill to attract the basic bailiffing power of section 27 of the Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Act 1868, which gives a bailiff power to enter and remain on land, in relation to any suspected offences under the new regulations.

The fisheries also help to finance the seven west coast trusts that have been set up recently. I commend highly the work of those bodies and other individuals who are too numerous to name. However, the trusts' remit has been mainly related to the inland habitat of salmon and sea trout, mainly because the funds do not permit marine research. A river system or catchment area will export to the sea only the number of salmon or sea trout smolts that the area can support. The main factors that affect numbers are availability of natural feed and predation by marauding birds and larger fish.

There is general agreement among fisheries bodies that the main problems exist at sea, so we ask the Executive to undertake further research into all other causes of salmon mortality. We ask the Executive to put pressure on its Westminster colleagues to bring about the speedy phasing out of the English east coast drift net fishery—its indiscriminate capture of fish that are heading for east coast Scottish rivers is making management policy on those rivers difficult. We ask the Executive to examine the problem of monofilament drift netting, especially in the area between Barra head and Malin head in Ireland.

We ask the Executive to establish a seal commission to take into account the effect of the seal population on all fisheries. It is perceived that aquaculture might be a problem. I applaud the work of the tripartite working group. The wishes of salmon farmers to live in sustainable co-existence with wild fisheries must be aided by the Executive.

The salmon farming industry is important. It is worth about £500 million and employs 6,500 people. We want it to prosper. We need both industries—salmon farming exports high-quality farmed fish and the wild fish industry is the great importer of angling tourists, who are notably high spenders. The industry has made Scotland famous; it is surrounded by tales, myths and legends. We ask the Executive to help to sustain and improve it.

I am sorry to notice that my friend John Farquhar Munro is absent today. I know that he would have made a valuable contribution to the debate and I know that he prefers his salmon poached.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 11:09 am, 23rd November 2000

John Munro is ill. That is why he is not in the chamber.

First, I will comment on Richard Lochhead's amazing ability to grandstand and create negativity when we should all welcome positively the initiative.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Richard Lochhead has had his say. His convenient memory loss is amazing. It is remarkable how he makes for good newspaper headlines, but those headlines would bear no relation to reality. Far from criticising the Scottish Executive—especially John Home Robertson—he should have commended it for producing "Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries". It is absolutely scandalous to imply that John Home Robertson has not done anything in this regard—I am astounded that Richard Lochhead had the barefaced cheek to say what he did this morning.

As the minister pointed out, there is no doubt that there has been a drastic decline in salmon and sea trout stocks. The number of salmon that are being caught in our rivers is the lowest on record. The bill will do much to ensure that the measures that are urgently needed to conserve our salmon stocks in the freshwater phase of their lives will be taken speedily.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

Does Mr Rumbles agree that, although our salmon stocks have been in decline for some years, this year's figures show that numbers are well up on previous years?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The indications are that that is true, but the reliable figures that we have received indicate that stocks are still very low.

Many of our district salmon fishery boards have led the way in implementing conservation measures voluntarily—the board for the Dee, in my constituency, is one that is leading the field. It is, however, recognised that the current statutory measures are quite limited, comprising only the abilities to set weekly and annual close times and to apply bait and lure restrictions.

Many reasons can be identified for the rapid depletion of our salmon stocks: sea mortality; salmon farming—which the Rural Affairs Committee will investigate; and, as was previously noted, the Northumbrian drift net fisheries. Although those cannot be incorporated within the scope of the bill, we must take action where we can and use the increased range of tools that are available to us to preserve the salmon stocks in our rivers. The Rural Affairs Committee therefore feels that the bill should not prevent the Executive from continuing to undertake more research into all other causes of salmon mortality. We also recommend that the Scottish Executive should make use of all available options for predator control, as scientific evidence shows that predators are responsible for the decline in salmon stocks.

Nevertheless, concerns have been raised regarding the wording of the bill by many of the organisations that have been involved in the consultation process. Jamie McGrigor hit the nail on the head when he talked about the use of the term "conservation". As it is used throughout the bill, that term is felt by many to exclude fishery management. The Rural Affairs Committee was heartened to hear from the minister that it is not the Executive's intention to divorce management from conservation. It is essential—I know that the minister accepts the committee's recommendations—that an amendment to address that point be lodged by the Executive at stage 2. The Executive might want to go even further and consider changing the title of the bill, which tends to give the wrong impression to proprietors.

The second area of concern that has been identified is the broadness of the powers that the bill, as it is currently drafted, confers on Scottish ministers. The bill allows ministers to make regulations either on application from any person who is authorised to do so or otherwise. That means that ministers can make regulations without any application being made to them. As the Subordinate Legislation Committee noted, there seems to be a tendency in the Executive to draft regulations that give ministers over-wide powers that lack detail. That is a real concern.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Does Mike Rumbles agree that the powers under section 10A(3) of the bill would give Scottish ministers almost unfettered power, especially to implement the recommendation of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation that a seal commission should be established? If so, would the Liberal Democrats agree with that use of the power?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I am not so sure that I would use the word "unfettered"—any such proposed legislation would have to be brought before Parliament for members to agree or disagree to it. Ministers have indicated that they are considering the matter.

The Rural Affairs Committee concluded that the bill should contain an emergency power, to which reference has been made. The use of that emergency power must be safeguarded by time-limiting regulations and by ensuring that the regulatory proposals that ministers want to implement are subject to consultation. There is clearly a need to spell out in the bill the requirement to time-limit any regulations that ministers want to implement. I know that ministers would not be terribly keen to do that, but the Rural Affairs Committee feels that that is important.

Ministers will also see that the committee is keen to ensure that the Executive takes all reasonable steps to consult proprietors and other stakeholders, such as angling interests, when it introduces its regulatory proposals.

In conclusion, I emphasise that the committee is supportive of the need for the bill and welcomes the actions of the minister and the Executive in introducing it. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I urge Parliament to agree to the bill's general principles.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

We now move to the open part of the debate. I call Maureen Macmillan.

I am sorry—I meant to say John Home Robertson. [Laughter.] I apologise to both members.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour 11:15 am, 23rd November 2000

I am not sure whether I should be flattered by that.

Although, during my short time in the rural affairs department, I started a number of things that I would have liked to have seen through to completion, I must confess that the Salmon Conservation (Scotland) Bill is not one of them. The officials who promoted the bill had to use some ingenuity to get certain aspects of it past me when I was minister.

It is a perplexing fact of political life that the priorities of junior ministers tend to get smothered by the bureaucratic morass, while other things emerge unbidden from the same morass and gather considerable momentum. The bill is a rather interesting example of that. I am sorry to introduce some controversy into the debate.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Unless I am mistaken, I am holding the official copy of the bill. I notice that it was introduced by me and supported by Mr John Home Robertson. Will Mr Home Robertson clarify his position? Was he under duress when he signed the bill or did he do so in good faith?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

If Mr Finnie will bide his time, he will understand what I said. As he will recall, there were debates about certain aspects of the bill, which I will develop in my speech.

Contrary to popular belief, I have no financial or personal interest in salmon fishing. However, I understand the importance and value of wild salmon and sea trout in Scottish waters and we should all be very alarmed by the disastrous decline in those magnificent fish.

There is rather patchy scientific knowledge about the cause of that decline. It might be due to a complicated combination of factors: environmental change in the oceans; predators, including seals; pollution; parasites; disease; problems associated with fish farming; and exploitation by fishermen, which—as has been mentioned—obviously includes the drift net fishery off the north-east of England.

It is very difficult to conduct an objective debate on the issue. On the one hand, there is almost a taboo that prevents people from blaming anything on seals—although I am glad that Rhona Brankin, Jamie McGrigor and other members have raised the issue. However, on the other hand—as any reader of Private Eye will know—it is fashionable and politically correct to assume that every imaginable problem is attributable to wicked fish farmers, even if the problem is many hundreds of miles from the nearest fish farm.

Having acknowledged that wild salmon stocks have declined to critical levels on several rivers, and in view of the need for Scotland to play its part in international efforts to protect salmonid stocks, I believe that there is a powerful case for a salmon conservation act that provides for further controls on angling, where such controls are necessary. As a result, although I support the objective of the bill—as I always have—I have serious misgivings about the means of applying the proposed new legislation. The problem is that the management of Scottish freshwater fisheries is based on Victorian legislation that was enacted to protect the interests of the riparian proprietors of our rivers and lochs. District salmon fishery boards are effectively dominated by the proprietors of salmon fishing rights.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

Mr Robson will have to forgive me; I do not have much time. He will probably get in later.

I do not deny that there are many public-spirited people among those proprietors—indeed, I see some of them in the gallery today—and I am happy to pay tribute to the excellent work on conservation issues and other matters of the Association of District Salmon Fishery Boards. However, it is not tolerable in the 21st century for the management of Scotland's freshwater fisheries—backed by wide-ranging statutory powers that are being added to today—to be vested in boards that are dominated by landowners.

That is one of the reasons why last year I introduced the public consultation document "Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries". I am grateful for Mike Rumbles's acknowledgement of the Executive's work in that area. I wanted to provide for better conservation of fish; wider access to angling where appropriate; proper co-ordination of policies for salmon, trout and coarse fish; and—importantly—I hoped to achieve a broadly based and accountable system for managing our rivers and lochs. I was particularly attracted by the work of the Clyde Fisheries Management Trust. I know that there are other good examples.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I agree whole-heartedly with many of John Home Robertson's comments. Does he agree that it would be worth considering bringing pre-emption rights into play—we have a community right to buy for land—for fishing rights? We would then be able to shift some fishing rights into community and angling association ownership.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

That is a far wider issue. I am talking about the existing structures for managing fisheries.

I am worried about creating more statutory powers for unrepresentative and unaccountable boards. I was an extremely unco-operative minister when I saw the first draft of the bill. It has been improved by providing default powers for ministers, who are accountable to Parliament and its committees, and by the establishment of rights for anglers and environmentalists, which are important. However, as they stand, district salmon fishery boards remain fundamentally flawed. It was always my intention to link the bill with an undertaking to reform the constitution of district salmon fishery boards as soon as possible. I hope that Ross Finnie will feel able to make a statement saying that he will make that link.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

No, I am concluding.

We are creating powers, which could, in specific circumstances, enable a solitary riparian owner to initiate statutory orders, that would affect anglers on certain rivers. That would make it possible for somebody to be convicted in court on the evidence of only one bailiff—who was employed by that same riparian proprietor—without corroboration. That is draconian stuff. It might have seemed appropriate in Victorian times, but is not acceptable in modern Scotland. This new Parliament has a duty to conserve—I support the principle of the bill—but it also has a duty to bring the structure of management of our rivers into the 21st century. If I am satisfied that appropriate reforms to the constitution of district salmon fishery boards will be introduced during this parliamentary session, I will be happy to support the bill. Otherwise, I will be rather worried.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

We are a little ahead of schedule, so I will be fairly lax about time, particularly if members take interventions. However, I hope that if I indicate that members should wind up, they will.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 11:22 am, 23rd November 2000

I cannot possibly match Jamie McGrigor's declaration of interests, but I draw members' attention to the fact that I own a short stretch of almost unfishable river in south Ayrshire. Therefore, I will not respond to the remarks that John Home Robertson has just made, but will leave that to others, as I suspect that I would be accused of bias. I will resist the temptation.

I reiterate that Conservative members welcome the broad thrust of the bill. Its introduction provides a measure of recognition of the importance of the salmon to the social, economic and environmental well-being of Scotland. That said, I note from written evidence that some people are concerned that insufficient weight is given in the bill to the socio-economic importance of salmon fishing. In debating the bill, we must recognise that it is far from the uncontroversial bill that was originally trumpeted by the Executive, as I have come to realise in listening to the evidence that was taken by the Rural Affairs Committee and to representations that have been made to me since.

I want to use the short time that is available to focus on the sincerely held concerns of one group on whose interests the bill could have a catastrophic impact, costing yet more jobs in rural Scotland and greatly reducing the amount of wild Scottish salmon in the marketplace. I refer to the netsmen, who have been mentioned, who have reaped their annual harvest for many hundreds of years and who, in come cases, have a special historic place in our society, as well as a special place in their communities. For example, in Annan in Dumfriesshire in Dr Murray's constituency—I am sure that she would speak today if she could—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I see that she is doing better.

In Annan, the rates that are paid by the haaf-netters go into the Annan common good fund, which is used exclusively for the benefit of all the good citizens of the town.

Those fishings were handed down by royal charter to the people of Annan—a fact that, I presume, would render them inappropriate for the SNP—and form an important part of Annan's heritage and its community funding. That community is worried about the consequences of the bill because, if it is not carefully thought through at stage 2, it could signal the end of that historic and worthwhile practice. On the wider implications of the bill, the netsmen feel strongly, as do others, that measures that would be adopted under section 10A, as set out in section 1 of the bill, must be time-limited to keep the situation under review. That is only sensible, because any bill that would give powers to address a rapidly changing situation must recognise that that situation could change back again just as rapidly.

As always, much play has been made of the consultation process that will take place when the powers are exercised. However, the netsmen have concerns that their voice will not be heard in that process. To that end, they suggest that all river boards—or whatever authority is consulted in areas where there are no river boards—should include a fair and balanced representation of upper and lower proprietors. I do not disagree with that. The netsmen point out—as others have done forcefully—that there are vital areas that remain untouched by the bill. The bill contains no measures to conserve habitat, which is normally the first item on any conservation agenda. It contains no measures to address the predators, other than man, that exploit salmon stocks 365 days a year. Incidentally, I agree with John Home Robertson that mentioning the word "seal" is almost as dangerous as mentioning the word "raptor". As the minister acknowledged, the bill contains nothing to promote research into—or to address in any other way—the marine phase of the salmon's life cycle. That is a glaring omission. It could be said with some justification that the bill stops where the problems of the salmon start.

Many people have talked about parts of the bill that need to be given greater definition. Sections 10A(3)(b) and 10A(6)(a) are far too loose to escape criticism and will undoubtedly receive attention at stage 2.

Great emphasis is given to the use of catch returns for providing the guiding statistics in the bill. I believe that to be far too simplistic, especially when it is coupled with the catch and release policy that could be employed. Incidentally, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is beginning to voice great reservations about that policy. Under catch and release, it is entirely possible that, during the course of a season, the same salmon could be caught and released perhaps three times. That could result in the figures showing that 300 salmon had been caught when only 100 exist.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

Research shows that 95 per cent of salmon survive the experience of catch and release, no matter how many times they are caught. Is Mr Fergusson aware that, on the Tweed, some 18,000 salmon were caught and released in six years? Such a number must make a considerable difference to the stocks on any river. I suggest that we should not underestimate catch and release figures, but that we should promote the system.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I do not argue with Euan Robson's basic position, but I must point out that there is a chance that the 18,000 salmon of which he spoke were actually only 6,000 salmon that had been caught three times each—that was my point. The SSPCA's concern relates to the welfare of the fish, not to the policy itself. The member may scoff, but I am merely reiterating evidence that the Rural Affairs Committee was given the other day. I believe that accurate calculation of parr and smolt numbers would be of far greater benefit in determining numbers.

The bill is a welcome step on the road to salmon conservation, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Our welcome is cautious and I hope that I have justified the fact that we will seek to make significant amendments at stage 2. With that caveat, I look forward to a bill that should, when sensibly amended, play an important role in conserving salmon stocks so that the socio-economic role of Scottish salmon fishing can be realised to its fullest potential.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 11:29 am, 23rd November 2000

I have no interests to declare on this matter, other than the fact that the only time that I have gone fishing, I was with my grandfather at Walkmill Ferry beat on the Tay and caught an 18 lb salmon.

Reading Tom Devine's recent book, I found it interesting to consider the workers' feelings about their contracts in relation to salmon. It is an interesting historical note that they almost went on strike at one point because they were fed salmon too often in the week.

If I had to assess this bill, it would be as, "Worthy, but—". John Home Robertson made many of the points that I wanted to raise, but I think that they bear reiteration. He will know that when he was Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs, I raised with him the question of the district salmon fishery boards and in particular the Forth District Salmon Fishery Board. I had been approached by constituents about problems arising from that board's request to restrict catches to the disadvantage of the net fishermen, whose interests, as Alex Fergusson has said, are just as important as those of line fishers.

Clearly, there has to be a partnership. The landowners and beat owners are an important part of this whole area, which in turn is important to Scotland. However, I entirely agree with John Home Robertson that the time has come to reform the system of management of our fisheries in Scotland. It is based on a Victorian system, which has had its day. A system that puts landowners in charge of conservation is one that may not always act in the interests of the country. It is inappropriate to have a uniform system of management across Scotland that is predicated on an ancient system. I welcome the move to merge some of the 52 district salmon fishery boards, as that may lead to a slightly better system.

I am concerned about the powers of enforcement, entry, search and arrest for the water bailiffs. Certainly, in my area there have been occasions on which the local water bailiff has confiscated the nets of the net fisheries on a purported charge that has then been thrown out by the court. There is a general feeling of antipathy between the upper-reach owners and the netters. The association between the water bailiffs and the district salmon fishery boards is not entirely appropriate, and the bill will make the situation worse.

Many speakers have raised the other issues that I wanted to discuss, but I will draw attention to changes in the river-beds, which are the spawning areas. I understand that there have been significant changes over the years in the spawning beds, whose management is important. Some district salmon fishery boards have done excellent work to try to improve those river-beds. That effort should be promoted nationally.

The forms of enforestation close to the river-bed are also a matter of concern.

Mink, which have been released into the wild by animal protection groups, have not been mentioned. I understand that they are a growing problem, which needs to be addressed.

I welcome the minister's reference to research, particularly on sea lice and the seal population. However, there are areas that need to be examined, such as the industrial fishing of sand-eel and krill. We do not know how important that is, but it needs to be examined further.

We need to take a more robust approach to phasing out the Northumbria and Yorkshire fisheries. The reduction of the number of licensed fishermen by half to 71 is welcome, but we need to phase them out more rapidly.

If we are to restrict the period during which net fishermen can fish, compensation is due to them. It may be necessary to restrict them much further and, if that is the case, there should be temporary compensation to allow a very ancient form of fishing to continue.

Although I welcome the legislation, I think that its limited scope does not address the issues. Indeed, we do not know what effect it will have. We hope that it will have some beneficial effect. I have not discussed overfishing in the Greenland and Faroese fisheries over the years. That is now very small, although the Faroese fishery has reopened. Why are we allowing that to happen? The major issue of climate change is worrying, although it is beyond the scope of the debate.

I support the bill, but I think, as does John Home Robertson, that the time has come to amend substantially the whole management of fisheries in Scotland. I hope that the ministers will consider doing that in the course of this parliamentary session.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 11:35 am, 23rd November 2000

I am overcoming a bout of laryngitis, and hope that I can find my voice today. A politician without a voice is something akin to a fish out of water.

The minister mentioned a number of rivers where salmon fishing is important; it is also important on the Nith, the Annan and the Esk, all of which run through my constituency. Some people may think this legislation a little boring, but I have been stopped on the street by constituents and have been lobbied on the issue.

We should recognise the fact that this bill is only a small piece of legislation, responding to a small area of concern. We have brought up several other important areas of concern, which I also believe have to be addressed, but probably separately from the bill before us.

The bill responds to two main concerns, the first of which is the major decline in stocks of wild salmon and of sea trout. They fell by 39 per cent and 24 per cent respectively between 1998 and 1999. The second concern relates to our international obligations as members the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation. NASCO was instrumental in reducing the west Greenland drift net fishery take of salmon down to 1 per cent of its previous level, but that agreement was predicated on European Union member states, including ourselves, taking action to reduce our wild salmon take at the same time. To preserve that international agreement, we have to be seen to be taking some action.

I recognise the enthusiasm for fishing matters that Richard Lochhead always displays, but in reply to his unprecedented and, I think, unfair attack on my friend and colleague John Home Robertson for all the work he did over the past 18 months, if the SNP feels that salmon conservation is so important, why did it not attempt to lodge a member's bill or a committee bill on the issue?

The Rural Affairs Committee took evidence on a number of points, including who can request that the minister make an order; what sort of information should be required for a request to be made; whether orders should be time-limited; whether wild salmon and sea trout should be differentiated in this bill, as is the case in the parent legislation; whether management should be explicitly mentioned as well as conservation; and the appropriateness of blanket and emergency powers.

It is important not to give an impression that anglers and other river fishermen, such as haaf-netters, whom Alex Fergusson mentioned, are solely or even primarily responsible for the decline in the wild salmonid populations. As the minister said, many fish are lost in their marine phase, due to a variety of factors that seem to relate to location. There is a need for research into such causes, and I was reassured to hear from the minister that extensive and detailed research is being carried out. There are several problems relating to pollution, sea lice, drift net fishing, the destruction of river habitats and predation by seals, cormorants and goosanders, depending on the area of Scotland. Those factors were all brought to our attention in committee.

I believe that global warming may itself be contributing to changes in the fishes' life-cycle. It was clear from what I was told during my visit to the Nith District Salmon Fishery Board, when I saw the hatcheries there, that even a small change in temperature makes a difference to the length of time that it takes the salmon eggs to hatch out. If there are problems with global warming and a rise in water temperature, that may be partly responsible for the reduction in the population.

We have heard from Mike Rumbles that fish farming issues will be considered separately by the Transport and the Environment Committee and the Rural Affairs Committee. The Executive has assured us that sufficient legislation is already available to deal with predators, in the form of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The committee accepted that assurance, although we also believed that action against predators should be taken only if the evidence points to predators being the cause. Concerns about predation should not be an excuse to go round bumping off seals or anybody else whom we happen not to like.

The bill is generally to be welcomed, but it needs to be recognised that it is a small attempt at a solution to a big problem. We hope that it will help reverse some of the rapid decline among the wild fish species in question but, as Richard Lochhead has said, it remains to be seen how big a part of the solution the bill will be. We can say that probably it will not do any harm. The consensus in the evidence to the committee was that the bill is to be welcomed as an improvement on the status quo, but as John Home Robertson and Richard Simpson have already said, there are far bigger issues about the management of freshwater fisheries. I very much hope that those issues will be addressed in future legislation.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 11:40 am, 23rd November 2000

I declare an interest in that I am a River Tweed commissioner.

Many members agree that the bill is a limited measure but that it has the worthy objective of protecting stocks of salmon and sea trout in Scotland. That is to be applauded. Without repeating everything other members have said, the bill is limited. While it deals with the freshwater lifespan of the salmon or sea trout, the main dangers to the species lie in the marine environment. We have heard today about industrial fishing; the prey species of the salmon being fished out, causing salmon mortality; the buy-outs in Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes, with the Faroes coming back in; and the Northumbrian drift net fishery.

It is clear that the seal population is contributing to a decline in salmon and sea trout numbers. I commend to the minister the view that has been expressed in a number of quarters that a grey seal commission along the lines of the Red Deer Commission should be established to deal with the growing problem. Seals have risen in number from around 40,000 20 years ago to about 120,000 now, which is having a major impact.

At first sight the bill appears straightforward and uncontroversial, but there are some flaws. It gives ministers extensive powers, and that is to be welcomed in emergency situations. Proposed section 10A(3) effectively permits ministers to impose regulations. There ought to be a duty on ministers to consult relevant parties on the face of the bill. I know that the Deputy Minister for Rural Development has made it clear that she and her department intend to do so. That is fine, but we are making laws for many Executives hence and it is important to include that.

I take issue with some of the statements in the policy memorandum. In paragraph 3 it says that certain types of baits and lures have had limited impact. In fact they have had considerable impact on some rivers.

As I mentioned in an intervention, catch and release has been particularly important. On the Tweed we had a very serious problem with the spring run. Scientific evidence demonstrated that the spring run was concentrated in the Ettrick tributary and a catch and release policy was introduced on the main stem of the river. So far, some 870 spring fish have been returned to the river, contributing an extra 2.75 million eggs into the Ettrick. We hope to see a substantial return soon in the spring run. Paragraph 6 of the policy memorandum understates the value of catch and release.

I have two other important points to make. First, it is vital that there is a river-by-river management policy. Blanket regulations are no use because they ignore the very different habitats and circumstances of every river. It is welcome that the minister said that, but there is some concern that section 10A(3) would allow a blanket approach, which should be only in extreme and emergency conditions. She would expect me to mention the River Tweed. I listened carefully to what she said and I can conceive of no circumstance, ever, where it would be appropriate to apply regulations in the Scottish part of the Tweed, because so much of the river is in England. We may need to return to that section of the bill later.

Secondly, there is one significant omission from the bill—habitat improvement. It would be extremely helpful if some suitable amendments at stage 2 could concentrate our minds on that. Some of the things that I have in mind have been adopted by a number of salmon fishery boards. The fencing of river banks prevents grazing up to and including river banks. That is important because grazing degrades the in-stream and in-river environment. Clearing obstructions that prevent the passage of migratory fish is also important. Examples exist of local authorities building roads across streams in head-waters and blocking the head-water access for a number of fish. We can do a lot to improve habitat and the bill should try to do so. We should also consider drainage plans that would increase the wetland habitat and biodiversity. Such drainage would also prevent spates from coming down rivers. Spates destroy salmon redds. The bill can be strengthened in a number of ways, but it is generally welcome.

I would like to allude to the points that John Home Robertson made. There may be a case for some reform of the district salmon fishery boards; but it is simply not true that all of them are proprietor-dominated. The River Tweed Commissioners was established in 1857. Currently, 38 members are elected—I repeat, elected—by proprietors, and 43 members, including myself, are appointed by the local authority. Of the latter, 23 are from local angling clubs and 20 have other interests. In certain district salmon fishery boards the proprietors do not dominate but are in the minority—that is the case in the River Tweed Commissioners.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I apologise for eating into the member's time. Does he acknowledge that the composition of the River Tweed Commissioners is rather different from that of virtually every other river board in Scotland? Will he confirm that all the main players in the River Tweed Commissioners—the chairman and others—are proprietors rather than local authority nominees?

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

The latter point is not correct: the vice-chairman is a member of a local angling club. I was pleased to be at his dinner the other night in Hawick. Although the management committee may contain a number of proprietors, representatives of angling associations are on the committee too. I accept that the River Tweed Commissioners is somewhat different from other district salmon fishery boards; however, it represents a model that could be used in other places.

We can improve the bill at stage 2, especially to address the omission of measures on habitat improvement, but at this stage I have no hesitation in backing the bill and voting for it today.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour 11:49 am, 23rd November 2000

Many people have spoken about the importance of salmon fisheries and I am glad that that has been acknowledged across the chamber. A lot of income comes from salmon fisheries, much of which is not quantified because the industry is so fragmented.

The parties obviously agree on the general principles of the bill; the only cause for disagreement is in the details. When the Rural Affairs Committee took evidence, much of the discussion concerned possible solutions in secondary legislation that would flow from this bill. Much of it also concerned issues that were wider than the scope of the bill. To an extent, that has happened today as well. However, we have to remember that this is enabling legislation. It has to fit the solutions that we have in mind at the moment and which may appear in the future. We should not lose sight of that.

There has been criticism of the fact that the bill gives ministers powers to make legislation. People have argued that that should be open only to the district salmon fishery boards. That argument ignores the fact that some areas do not have a district salmon fishery board. Some fishery boards give conservation a high priority while others do not. We have heard about the variety of boards that are in place. The ones that are serious about conservation are happy for ministers to have such powers because they do not want to work in a vacuum.

Another issue is that of the blanket powers that are given in the bill, which bring in regulations that cover all rivers. There have been concerns about those powers because conservation and management have been carried out on a river or area basis. That approach has worked well in the past and will do so in the future. Many different issues have caused the decline in salmon and we know that there is not one solution. However, there are some issues that would benefit from blanket regulations. One example would be a provision that all proprietors give uniform information to their boards. The boards would benefit greatly from such information being provided in a standard way. At the moment that information is quite haphazard. That would enable boards to compare like with like and would enhance the ability to use such information as the scientific basis for research, rather than hearsay on which we cannot rely.

Some concern was expressed about the time length of the regulations. Historically, we have seen that conservation regulations have been hard to revoke. I welcome the minister's comments on the time-limiting of the regulations. Time limits should be the rule rather than the exception. That does not prevent similar regulations from being put in place, but these regulations would have to go through the same consultation process as the initial regulations, allowing us to consider whether the regulations had any current value. A time limit would also give some comfort to those people who fear that their rights might be compromised by the regulations. Alex Fergusson spoke about the netsmen, who have a great concern that the balance between their fishery and the angling fishery is not right. We must give them some comfort and ensure that we get that balance right.

John Home Robertson mentioned the role of the water bailiffs, which was an issue that I brought up in committee. He also made some good points about the role of the district salmon fishery boards. However, I understand that work is well under way to examine the salmon legislation with a view to its consolidation. I hope that John Home Robertson's comments are borne in mind when that is carried out. We must ensure that other interests are involved—which does not happen often—and that there is proper representation on salmon fishery boards.

We must work with national and international partners and find a global solution to the problem. Recently, I spoke to the chair of the Icelandic fisheries committee, who appeared surprised at my concern about the decline in salmon fisheries. He firmly believed that it was a cyclical problem and he shrugged his shoulders and looked at me as though I was making a fuss about nothing. Perhaps he is right. However, Iceland does not have fish farms or drift-netters; it has only angling fisheries. Therefore, it does not follow that Iceland experiences the same problems as we do.

Nevertheless, the chair of the fisheries committee may be right because about 60 years ago and 60 years before that there were drastic declines in salmon numbers. If that is the case, we must ensure that the climate is right for salmon to come back and breed in our waters to allow salmon to increase their numbers again. That is the bottom line. The more salmon that return to our rivers, the more they spawn and the more salmon will be available to future generations. The bill is a step towards salmon conservation and is therefore extremely welcome.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

On a point of order. It is my understanding that members who make speeches in a debate should remain for summing-up speeches. Is that correct?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 11:54 am, 23rd November 2000

There is nothing in my entry in the "Register of Members' Interests" to which I should draw Parliament's attention. However, I own about a mile of a small river that runs through my farm, which I use exclusively for the purpose of watering cattle. I assure members that if ever a salmon were to arrive in that river, it would be most decidedly lost.

The Rural Affairs Committee's work on this bill started in September, when we took the opportunity to have the concept behind it explained to us. On that day, it was explained that this was likely to be a largely uncontroversial bill, and that it was important to the future of the salmon fisheries in Scotland. Since then, it has come to pass that there are controversial aspects to this bill, one or two of which have been raised today. At our meeting of 19 September, the Rural Affairs Committee gave a commitment to treat this bill as an emergency and deal with it in the shortest time scale possible.

It is a matter of some concern, in regard to this bill and previous bills that the Rural Affairs Committee has dealt with, that a relatively short time was available for consultation. We hope that by taking advantage of the extensive consultation that was carried out by the Scottish Executive rural affairs department, and by having a secondary written consultation, which allowed consultees to contribute their views on the bill as introduced, we have had a full and detailed consultation. However, the short time scale will inevitably lead to certain individuals' feeling that their opportunity to be consulted was not as it could have been. I hope that they will be satisfied with the way in which the bill is handled by the Rural Affairs Committee and SERAD in future.

We have heard in great detail the concern that the bill does not cover a wide enough range of the important aspects of Scottish salmon production relating to declining salmon numbers. We have to accept that this bill is simply the start of a process. In her opening remarks the Deputy Minister for Rural Development acknowledged that. However, the problem of the marine phase of the salmon fishery and what happens to fisheries on the high seas obviously is excluded from the bill, and needs to be addressed in the longer term.

On the issue of predators, which has been raised by a number of people, Fergus Ewing made the relevant point that, under the proposed section 10A(3)(b), there would be the opportunity for Scottish ministers to take up the Scottish Fishermen's Federation's proposal to establish a seal commission. I would be interested to hear the minister's views on Fergus's suggestion. I throw my weight behind the SFF's proposal that a seal commission should be considered to deal with this difficult problem.

We have heard the salmon farming industry being blamed for one or two of the problems facing wild salmon. I share John Home Robertson's view that we must not make the mistake of tarring the salmon farming industry with the same brush that has been widely used by certain people in Scotland. The salmon farming industry is a vital industry, especially in the peripheral areas where it exists. While it is not a major industry in terms of employment across Scotland as a whole, it is crucial in its own backyard. Any minister who failed to take into account its importance as an economic lifeline would be failing in their duty. I commend John Home Robertson for the positive attitude that he has taken on this matter in the past.

I am grateful for the minister's reassurance that the structure of the bill means that it is possible to time-limit regulations. I support Jamie McGrigor's suggestion that the time limit should be set at three years. It is important to remember that going through the consultation process on a three-year basis provides an important opportunity to adjust and modify regulations so that they are current and practical. For the same reason, I find it difficult to accept the concept of blanket regulation across the whole of Scotland. While I would be happy to hear arguments on that from the minister today, and possibly at stage 2, it is of grave concern that regulations that are relevant only to specific areas may be imposed across the whole of Scotland, thereby damaging other areas.

I also take the opportunity to support those who have called today for special consideration for the position of netsmen. We have heard much about the salmon netsmen in the south-west of Scotland. I offer an assurance that I have been approached by similarly vociferous netsmen from the north-east of Scotland. They are worried that the bill may damage their long-standing traditional fishery.

I know from my experience in the coastal areas of Kincardineshire that there is a great tradition among small farmers of finding work with the salmon nets to displace their low-income problems. The farming community is back in a period of low incomes but, unfortunately, the salmon netting industry cannot provide that employment.

As Conservative spokesman, it is my pleasure—I suppose—to welcome the bill. I am glad that we have highlighted in the debate the fact that the bill will be not the end but the start of a process that must continue into the future to protect the salmon in all its range, not only in the rivers.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 12:01 pm, 23rd November 2000

I apologise to the Deputy Minister for Rural Development for not being present to hear most of her speech. As an occasional parliamentary poacher—I suppose that I can class myself as that—I was having a private meeting with the parliamentary chief gamekeeper, the Presiding Officer. I apologise if I duplicate any of the minister's material.

The starting point of my speech are the remarks that the deputy minister made to the Rural Affairs Committee. My involvement with the bill began on the Subordinate Legislation Committee, and I migrated to the Rural Affairs Committee as the bill progressed. The minister said:

"In 1960, 1,443 tonnes of wild salmon was caught in Scotland."—[Official Report, Rural Affairs Committee, 7 November 2000, c 1289.]

By last year, the figure was 198 tonnes. That 85 per cent depletion makes graphic the problem that we face. The trout figures over the same 40 years, measured by catches—which, as Alex Fergusson said, may not be the most reliable method of measuring—fell from 224 to 36 tonnes, a similar depletion of 86 per cent.

Richard Lochhead pointed out that no effective legal measures to deal with the problem have been taken in the past 40 years. During those 40 years, bar the past 18 months, Westminster has been in charge—that is axiomatic—so the collective smirking from the unionist ranks when Mr Lochhead made his point was less than gentlemanly. It is true for all to see that the problem is serious and has been neglected by successive Westminster Governments.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Most of the objections—which were genuine—were to Richard Lochhead's misrepresentations of the Scottish Executive and of Mr John Home Robertson particularly. That is what annoyed what Fergus Ewing called the unionist parties.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Piety is not a useful characteristic in a retraction. Richard Lochhead did not and would not make personal comments about John Home Robertson, who I am pleased to see is back in his seat. To say that Richard Lochhead did so is to make a false accusation. He was commenting on the fact that Westminster Governments have not tackled the problem for a long period. That is why we are here now. I want therefore to turn my remarks to that problem. [Interruption.] I see that members are unhappy to be reminded that for 40 years Westminster has done nothing to tackle the problem—their constant barracking and heckling will not alter that.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I would hardly say constant, Mr Ewing.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Perhaps I will have the pleasure of giving way to Jamie McGrigor later.

The most important criticism of the bill is to be found in the—

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

Reference has been made to the Salmon Act 1986, which, I recall, took up a lot of time in the House of Commons. I was involved in the committee stage of the bill and was not especially happy with it. The subject has therefore been addressed at Westminster in recent years.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Yes, but it has not been addressed in an effective way, as I think John Home Robertson[Interruption.] I used the word "effective"; if members read the Official Report , they will see that.

The serious problem with the bill was remarked on in a letter dated August 2000 from Andrew Wallace, the director of the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards, to the Executive, which the Executive circulated to the Subordinate Legislation Committee and the Rural Affairs Committee. I believe that Mr Wallace represents 53 fishery boards and so I presume that he speaks with authority and knowledge. Mr Wallace said:

"The Association believes that many of the major drivers of salmon stock abundance are in the marine phase of the species' life-cycle and that further Government resources need to be applied to resolving these problems. In some cases, Government action (e.g. sanction/action to reduce the population of predators) would deliver far greater benefit to the conservation of salmon and sea trout than would application by DSFBs of the enhanced powers covered within this consultation paper."

There we have it.

The bill will not solve the problem, although the SNP will support it. In fact, the bill may not ameliorate the situation materially. Unless the Executive is willing to examine the various measures that I will come to in a second, the major criticism of the bill will be that it addresses a problem in a wholly insufficient way. The bill could be compared to dealing with the problem of a dirty latrine by deciding to apply a toothbrush to clean it.

I hope that the Executive will address the problems that were raised in the evidence given to the Rural Affairs Committee. A number of experts appeared before the committee, all of whom agreed that the serious problem of marine mortality was not being addressed.

Other members referred to different problems that, in their opinion, may have caused or contributed to the depletion of salmon stocks over the years. Those problems include sea lice, which, I believe, Elaine Murray mentioned, and various species of birds, including cormorants, which, I think, were mentioned by Rhoda Grant.

However, unless the problem is tackled openly and honestly, we will be derelict in our duty. How should we address the problem? Elaine Murray said that we should not go around indiscriminately pumping away seals—I believe that that was the phrase that she used. No one would advocate such an approach, but it is germane to point out that the current method of controlling seals is not by use of the contraceptive dart, as happens in Canada, but by shooting them. I know that members might be slightly coy about addressing that topic today, but the current method is to issue licences for the shooting of seals. We gleaned that information from the deputy minister when she appeared before the Rural Affairs Committee and said:

"The Conservation of Seals Act 1970 allows for shooting. Licences to shoot fish-eating birds are issued under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I thought I should draw members' attention to that."—[Official Report, Rural Affairs Committee, 7 November 2000; c 1291.]

We also received advice from Jane Wright that—

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I will not take an intervention from Euan Robson yet, as I am developing my argument.

Jane Wright told the committee:

"In the 1950s, a Government committee decided that 34,000 or 35,000 represented a healthy population of seals. The number of seals has now reached between 120,000 and 130,000."—[Official Report, Rural Affairs Committee, 7 November 2000; c 1267.]

Everyone supports the idea of undertaking more research and I hope that the deputy minister will update us on the answer given by her predecessor. I also hope that she will enlighten us on exactly what further research is being undertaken.

The Scottish Fishermen's Federation recommendation that there should be a seal commission merits serious consideration. Someone recently argued that, if there is a Deer Commission for Scotland, there is no reason why there should not also be a seal commission. That would help to tackle the problem in a way that would avoid the emotive and overwrought reactions that I fear some Labour members have had to the issue today. We can either ignore a problem and pretend that it does not exist or we can tackle it. We shall hear from the minister's response which option the Executive intends to pursue.

It was a great pleasure to hear the speech from the gamekeeper turned poacher, John Home Robertson—the best poachers are those who have formerly been gamekeepers. It was most interesting to hear that, although he was a supporter of the bill, he did not actually support it. It was also interesting to hear from Dr Richard Simpson that the back-bench Labour shoals are not swimming in the right direction. There seems to be an emerging consensus—which, because of the business managers' intervention, may not surface—that the bill is insufficient to address the problem. Unless the Executive is willing to face that fact, ministers will come back at stages 2 and 3 to find more serious, robust, positive and constructive criticism from the SNP and from members of other parties.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 12:12 pm, 23rd November 2000

At no stage of the bill's progress—neither at its introduction nor at its presentation to the Rural Affairs Committee—has the Executive said other than that it deals with a very narrow aspect of freshwater marine life. We said that we believed that, within the powers that we have, it was important to amend the Salmon Act 1986 to achieve our objectives. At no time have we presented the bill as the solution to the conservation of salmon; we recognise that other measures need to be taken.

Although all members share concerns about matters relating to the marine environment, it is ridiculous to suggest that it would be appropriate to amend the Salmon Act 1986 to reflect them all. Some members are suggesting that the bill should even cover marine environment matters over which we have little control, especially in relation to where the species might reside.

Richard Lochhead gave a typically grudging response to the bill. He said at the end of his speech that he was in favour of it. I am glad that he said that, because I had missed that point during most of his remarks. He raised the wider issue; I would like to tell him how the Executive sees the wider issue. Of course we are concerned about predation by seals. We have the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, and independent scientific advice is provided by the special committee on seals to the National Environment Research Council. Those bodies are the statutory advisers under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970; it is on their reports, which are placed in the public domain, that ministers decide whether to approve culls of seals. Perhaps those measures should be improved, but that would require amendment to the 1970 act.

We commissioned from the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology a review of predation by birds by, which was published at the end of 1988-89. The Scottish Executive has invested £0.5 million in research into sea lice and is continuing with that investment. We also commissioned the Fisheries Research Services to carry out research into the impact of fish farming, at a cost of £1.5 million.

Some members raised the issue of specific research programmes on marine mortality. We participate in the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission inspection of pelagic fisheries and in NASCO discussions on future marine research initiatives in the Atlantic. We also participate in the European Union's project for concerted action, SALMODEL. The Executive is as concerned as members are about marine mortality and its effect on salmon fisheries. To suggest that we are not concerned about these issues is very wide of the mark.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I accept that the statutory background is as the minister describes. However, many members in today's debate have recommended that, rather than relying on the existing bodies, which have not provided an adequate response, the Executive should seriously consider establishing a new body—perhaps to be known as the seal commission—that would examine the impact of all predators on salmon stocks.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The Deer Commission is not analogous to what Fergus Ewing is proposing. At least we know where we can find the deer and that we have regulatory control over them. I am interested in the suggestion, but the member needs to indicate specifically what a new commission would do in relation to scientific advice that is not done under the existing mechanisms.

Jamie McGrigor and some other members said that they were concerned about confusion between conservation and management. I am surprised at that. As I said, the bill is concerned narrowly with introducing into the Salmon Act 1986 measures designed specifically to promote conservation. The sections that it contains must, therefore, be seen in their proper context. Members referred to the consolidation of salmon legislation. When that happens, the sections in the bill will sit within an act that deals also with management. Management is not excluded from the legislation simply because the sections with which we are now concerned address only the narrow issue of conservation. Members must consider how those sections will read in the wider context of the Salmon Act 1986 as amended by the bill.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I am concerned that the bill refers throughout to the conservation of salmon, rather than to the conservation of fisheries. My point is that the two things go together.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Leaving aside the obvious point that Mr Lochhead makes, I do not think that Jamie McGrigor was listening properly to what I just said. We are amending the Salmon Act 1986. That makes it tricky to deal with fisheries in a wider sense, although sea trout are included in the bill. I ask Mr McGrigor to read the new provisions in the context of the 1986 act as a whole, as only then will he understand where we are trying to get to.

Members also raised the issue of emergency procedures and time limiting. The Rural Affairs Committee recommended that we introduce emergency procedures, but added that we should do so only after consultation. That implies that we should use the same procedures as we would when bringing forward an ordinary regulation. Because I agree with the latter part of the committee's recommendation, I think that the present powers are adequate.

We do not want to specify a time limit in the bill, because that would make it worse rather than better. Every part of the power that is granted has to be enforced by way of regulation. Such regulations ought to be specific to particular problems that are perceived either by the relevant district board or by ministers. We believe that we should bring to Parliament a specific, well thought out proposal that is based on evidence, and that the regulation should include a time limit appropriate to that measure. That will provide the flexibility appropriate to the regulation that is required to deal with the specific problem, which is better than handcuffing ourselves in the bill to a specific time limit that may not be appropriate. One might want to do some things—for example, the sale of salmon caught by rod—ad infinitum and perhaps on a Scotland-wide basis. It would be better to do that than to have to introduce 52 regulations to cover every board.

Jamie McGrigor, Richard Lochhead and other members raised a concern in relation to the power of ministers, under proposed section 10A(3)(b), to make regulation "otherwise". That must be read in context. The starting point is that those regulations are raised through the district boards. If ministers do not do that, they do otherwise, because district salmon fishery boards do not cover the whole of Scotland. The power is not unfettered. It must be carried out by way of regulation. The regulation must be brought before Parliament and must be subject to an order of annulment. John Home Robertson is wrong, because if a board wants to raise a power that would increase the powers of a bailiff, it is not the case that he asks for the power and gets it automatically. That must also come before either ministers or Parliament. As I said, the power is not unfettered.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

In relation to salmon management, many members—including John Home Robertson—have made the point that district salmon fishery boards are not fit for the 21 st century, as they tend to be dominated by the aristocracy and retired senior military figures who own fishing rights to Scotland's national heritage by virtue of their birth. Should the membership of those boards be widened to make them more representative?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I recall that Mr Lochhead's colleague, Mr Ewing, said that a member of the district salmon fishery board was a most important person who spoke with authority. Mr Lochhead's proposals undermine that authority.

The District Salmon Fishery Boards Order 1999 changed the composition of boards and reduced the numbers to a maximum of three. Although control is left with the proprietors, the issue forms part of the longer-term review under "Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries", which raises questions about the optimum management models. The issue is under review and we concede that it requires further consideration.

I have dealt with the point that Mike Rumbles made about the title of the bill. As I said, the bill is narrow in its powers.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

Mr Finnie refers to the powers that we are creating. None of us can escape the fact that the powers that we are establishing will make it possible for district salmon fishery boards, as currently constituted, to act under those new statutory powers. That is the whole idea. I accept that the bill is the only vehicle that is available to us now and I support it in principle. However, it is important to make it clear that it is our intention to seek to broaden the base of the fishery boards. That is certainly what I would have been saying at this stage. It would be helpful if Mr Finnie could indicate that the Executive intends to produce appropriate amendments to the legislation following the consultation on "Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries".

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I cannot give a positive undertaking that I will be able to legislate in this session. I have said that I recognise that the present composition of the boards—albeit altered substantially in 1999 to permit other interests to be represented—still does not go far enough.

We must be careful about boards. The issue of how a board might not have ownership representation is important and is part of the review. The Executive will listen carefully to the response to the consultation on "Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries".

Alex Fergusson and Euan Robson mentioned habitation. That is an important issue, but we must be careful about whether we should move within the confines of the bill or whether we should deal with the matter through existing regulations. I was grateful to Elaine Murray for making that point.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

On the issue of inland habitat, is the minister aware of Scottish Natural Heritage's reintroduction of European beavers in south Argyll? Surely that militates against the restoration of fisheries habitats, as beavers tend to eat the young trees that, as Mr Robson said, would be fenced off at the edge of water courses.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I am not sure whether Jamie McGrigor is saying that he is against beavers or against beavers in south Argyll. The Executive supported the reintroduction of what is a natural European species. I am not sure that the bill is predicated on the introduction of beavers, which I do not think necessarily affects salmon stocks. Jamie McGrigor raises an interesting point; his fascination for other species never ceases to amaze me.

Let us move on. I say to Richard Simpson that we accept and acknowledge that there are other, wider issues, but they are not what we are seeking to encompass in the bill. I am trying to remember whether I have missed anything, but I am aware that I must come to a conclusion.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I thought that you would say that, Presiding Officer.

Many boards have taken steps to introduce voluntary restrictions and we should applaud them for that. However, voluntary measures rely on everyone playing the game; it takes just one proprietor to ignore a voluntary code to undermine the sacrifices of others. As Rhona Brankin said, fishery managers asked us for a bill to reinforce those actions; that is what we are seeking to deliver.

I repeat that the bill is a first step. The future management of freshwater fisheries is under the spotlight in the context of our wider review, "Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries". We will consider carefully the responses to that consultation, but the matter in hand today is this bill. There is no need for us to consider further what is best for wild salmon and the fisheries on which they depend. The bill is what we require for our freshwater fisheries and I commend it to the Parliament.