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Fishing Limits

Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

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2.41 a.m.

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise the matter of fishing limits and the Law of the Sea Conference, but it seems a strange way to run a country to do so at about three o'clock in the morning; it is government by endurance test. There is only one Scottish MP here, apart from the SNP. I hope that does not show their depth of concern for the fishing industry.

The battle and the conflicts of international law are exemplified in considering international and national claims to the seas and oceans of the world. The Law of the Sea Conference presents an opportunity, and I hope the Government will use that opportunity. I hope that we have got over the stage of fighting over the seating arrangements. It took seven days at the last conference to get over that "who-sits-where" dispute.

My interest is basically Scottish, and concerns Scotland's part in this world of changing and finite resources. I ask the Government to ensure the proper representation of Scotland at Geneva and a large Scottish delegation to make sure that every aspect of the Scottish fishing industry as well as Government and other major economic interests are given a voice. I ask for urgency in relation to items which especially affect Scotland. Several much wider problems have special application in Scotland.

The problem of deciding on patrimonial seas and exclusive economic zones affects the rights of a future Scottish Government on our oil and gas reserves. I ask the Government to make clear their views about the extent and nature of such exclusive economic zones. Will the Government press for 200-mile limits, as Chile and Peru did in 1947 and as many other States are now demanding?

I would like strenuous Government efforts to be made to ensure international agreement on pollution—a problem made more acute by increased sea traffic, by massive increases in tanker capacity and by the oil exploration and exploitation going on off the Scottish coastline. Some kind of agreement is necessary, such as the 1972 Dumping of Wastes Agreement and the 1973 Pollution from Ships' Oil and other Substances Agreement.

Here we have the classic question whether controls should be international or national. The United Kingdom delegation should bear in mind the effects of massive doses of pollutants being introduced into the oceans' ecosystem and press for the highest standards of safeguard.

Pollution is of special danger to Scottish fishermen, whether it be from pipelines which cut across traditional fishing grounds or the debris from oil exploration and exploitation activity, all of which cause danger and financial loss.

I am told that the men of one fishing boat thought that they had made a fortune when they found their nets bulging, but all they dredged up was a cement mixer. A large and respectable oil company took radioactive materials, put them in a box, stuck the box on the superstructure of an oil rig supply vessel and sent the ship out in a January gale in the North Sea. The inevitable happened, and that box lies on the bed of the North Sea. It represents a hazard to the life of fishermen if it is dredged up and opened. Better safety standards must be insisted upon.

There are other dangers from oil spillage, which affects the fish from which these men get their livelihood. What are the Government's views on vessel-based pollution? It is better that these rules should be internationally accepted and agreed. What are the Government's views on the rôle of United Nations agencies, such as IMCO? Do they support Canada's objections to it and prefer to leave these decisions to individual States? Either way, Scotland's fishermen are suffering from very real problems, and I hope to see their views strongly represented at the Law of the Sea Conference. Do the Government advocate extension, with proper controls of right of search or arrest of ships causing pollution by discharging oil or dumping harmful wastes in the sea?

The most important aspect of the conference from the point of view of practical fishermen concerns the delineation of fishing limits. Conservation of Scotland's fishing stocks must be a priority of the United Kingdom delegation, and must be argued strongly at the international conference.

One by one valuable fishing grounds have been destroyed by over-fishing. Those who attended the fishermen's lobby heard those men, in their straightforward fashion, outline the loss of traditional ground after traditional ground. East Anglia is finished. In Buchan there has been no herring since 1966. Shetland was the main summer fishing ground. There is a whole list of fishing grounds which have been ruined by over-exploitation. Our Scottish fishermen have been conservationist-minded and have protected their livelihood. It is, therefore, up to the Government to give them the protection from foreign industrial fishing fleets that they deserve and must get. Added to that are the fears of our fishermen of what will happen after the EEC 10-year transition period runs out. Our fishermen have the genuine fear that foreign fishermen who fish up to the beaches will come in and ruin the fishing grounds.

In our world of finite resources, the pressure of world population growth, rising nutritional standards, industrial requirements and rapidly changing fishing technology have put unheard-of pressures on the natural resources of the seas. Nowadays, fishing is less of an art and more of a science, with factory ships bristling with electronic gadgetry and freezing equipment. Anything with two fins and a tail is fair game. The United Kingdom delegation must protect Scotland's fishing grounds from the vacuum cleaner-like operations of foreign fishing fleets.

Let us learn from Iceland. In 1956, 50 per cent. of Iceland's total catch consisted of herring, yet now the Atlanto- Scandinavian herring has almost disappeared as a result of foreign over-exploitation, and that in spite of the supervision of two international organisations. Icelandic cod are now rarely allowed to live long, and the spawning stock has been brought disastrously low through sheer over-exploitation. Iceland is almost totally dependent on fish and fish products, and it therefore reacted quickly and unilaterally. The United Kingdom is less dependent, and we are perhaps slower to learn this lesson.

I ask the Law of the Sea Conference delegation not to let Scotland's fishermen suffer from the slowness of United Kingdom reaction. Act now; the precedent is there. The United Kingdom should, at the very least, introduce a 50-mile fishing limit and, at best, a 200-mile limit. This would retain the great fishing grounds within the reach of our more conservationist fishermen.

However, in demanding a 200-mile limit, I would strongly object to any "ham and butter" type deals. The fishermen I met last week were cynical about politicians—and who can blame them. They fear that a 200-mile limit would lead to some sort of barter agreement with, for example, Norway whereby Scotland's fishermen would be sold out to suit Hull and Grimsby fishing interests. I seek Government assurances on that matter.

I ask the delegation to protect Scotland's inshore fishing industry against foreign industrial and indiscriminate fishing. I want to know whether our delegation will make demands in respect of the areas where fishing should take place, the fishing techniques to be used, and the number of fish to be caught. Will the United Kingdom, as an example to others, offer some sort of quota system?

In regard to the proposed changes, I should like to see our delegation proposing research programmes to establish that adequate supplies of deep water species exist to compensate for any reduced access to cod stocks. There are many other issues that could be touched on—for example, international research facilities and access to international waters, rights of freedom of navigation, and so on. However, I wish to put in a plea for Scotland's interests and to ask for a 200-mile fishing limit to be pressed for.

I realise that the final solution may not be tidy or uniform and that specific cases and anomalies will and must appear. However, I hope that the conference will produce more than just a debate between Hugo Grotius and John Selden and that Scotland's interests will be strongly upheld.

2.53 a.m.

I am sure that the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will welcome this opportunity to have a debate on the Law of the Sea Conference. It is one of the most important international conferences in which any country with interests in the sea has been engaged. The right hon. Gentleman must be impatient with those of his colleagues who arrange the business, in that they have not before found it possible to afford an opportunity of discussing Government fishery policies with those of hon. Members who have an interest in this subject. Although I deeply regret the fact that the Minister of State is detained in the House at this extraordinary hour of the morning, I hope that he will bear with us in discussing this important subject.

I am greatly impressed at the serried ranks of Scottish Labour and Conservative Members who are thronging the benches for this debate—and that also applies to the Liberal Party. At least I am grateful for the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I feel sure that he will hear something of value. I am also happy to see on the Opposition Front Bench the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger).

The Minister of State will be aware that last week deputations came from Scotland, from the herring fishing industry, to speak to hon. Members. I take the opportunity to thank the Minister of State for his great courtesy in seeing a deputation at short notice. I assure him that it was greatly appreciated by all the members of the delegation who came down. Although, perhaps, the Minister did not respond with urgent enthusiasm to the view put forward at the meeting, we feel that it augurs well that he was prepared to listen to their views. I extend my personal thanks to him for having seen that delegation.

The Minister knows that the herring fishermen who came to London are not politically sophisticated. They do not beat about the bush, they come directly to the point. They are people who have built up their livelihood by hard work and dedication. This was the first time for many years that they had come to London to speak to elected representatives and the Government in such strength and that should be taken very seriously.

Not only was there the cost of bringing such a large delegation to London; there was the loss of fishing time, and to any fisherman the loss of even one day's fishing can never be recovered and he carries it on his back as a burden for the rest of his life. These are men of great integrity and strength of character. When they say that the herring industry of Scotland stands on the brink of disaster, they are not exaggerating.

When I asked questions on this subject last December the Under-Secretary of State suggested that the outlook in the garden was rosy for the industry in Scotland. He made a stricture on my dissent, suggesting that I should be telling the herring fishermen that things were going well and what a great job the Government were doing for them. I hope that he has looked more deeply into the issue since then, and since he, too, was present to meet the delegation—I am grateful to him as well—he may have realised, from the intensity of feeling, the views put forward, and the facts presented, that the situation is indeed not anything like rosy for the herring industry.

Scottish herring fishermen have practised conservation for many years. Unfortunately, that policy has not been followed by other fishing nations. Our fishermen will be penalised for their conservation and others will take advantage of what they have practised. The scarcity of herring stocks in the North Sea owes a great deal to the fishing industry activities of countries like Denmark and Norway.

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) was exaggerating when he spoke of the way in which the Danes and the Norwegians have been scooping out the fish. They have gone at the North Sea as though with a vacuum cleaner, sucking out the fish, taking both immature and mature fish, destroying future stocks. Whatever criticisms may be levied at our herring fishermen, it is not that, because they have practised conservation.

There has been created, therefore, a condition of scarcity in the North Sea. Under the North-East Atlantic Fishing Conference, the figure of 488,000 tons of herring has been fixed for the 12 countries concerned. I ask the Government why they have agreed to a quota which gives us a derisory 4 per cent. of the catch, whereas Norway has 21 per cent.—yet Norway has been one of the countries destroying stooks—and Denmark, including the Faroes, has 43 per cent. Our 4 per cent. equals 18,000 tons. It is derisory.

I stress the importance of reviewing the amount of this quota in the North Sea, because it has been totally inadequate for the catching capacity of our vessels and for the needs of our housewives, for whom herring is an important food of high protein. Eighty per cent. of the Danish and Norwegian catches of herring go not to the housewives of Denmark and Norway but for non-human consumption in fishmeal. Eighty per cent. of the catch of our herring fishermen is for human consumption and is sold in shops.

I am told that only last year our North Sea quota was taken up in just over four months. Consequently, we have been banned by law from herring fishing from about the middle of November 1974 until the beginning of February 1975. Thereafter, until the end of June 1975 our vessels may fish for the balance of the quota—900 tons. A handful of our vessels could take this quantity in about two weeks.

The effect of the ban is to force our vessels to fish for herring off the west coast of Scotland, and at a time when foreign vessels are fishing there in great numbers. Off the west coast of Scotland are some of the best herring grounds left to any country. It is very galling for our fishermen to have to be tied up at the pier when Norwegians, Faeroese and Icelanders are coming up just outside the 12-mile limit and catching fish.

The Minister will rightly say that there is an international agreement on the amount of the quota. Our fishing industry is not convinced that there is any way in which we can be sure that the other countries are playing the game in relation to the quota. No Minister has persuaded the Scottish fishing industry that there are adequate ways of checking that the other countries which are signatories to the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Conference are able to have their catches identified in relation to the quantity which they take and the area from which they are taking it.

This is the crux of the question on quotas. It is possible to check the catch taken by any boat operating out of our ports. The Minister will agree that the figures are recorded meticulously. What assurance have we that the catches of the Icelanders or the Faeroese or the Norwegians or the Danes or anyone else involved in the trade are recorded in the same meticulous fashion, and that we know exactly where the catches were taken? No international quota system can work unless there is a method of ensuring that the places from which the catch was taken and the quantity of the catch can be correctly recorded and identified.

I hope that the Minister of State was impressed by the views of the deputation on this point. There is no confidence in the Scottish fishing industry that these other countries are playing the game according to the rules by which our own fishermen are being rigorously policed.

The fishing industry in Scotland has been urged to be patient and to await the outcome of the Conference on the Law of the Sea which resumes in Geneva in March, when there is the possibility of an agreement being reached. I sincerely hope that we shall reach agreement internationally on the question of the economic zone of a 200-mile fishing limit.

The conference may take that decision in March or later this year, but the problem is that there are so many countries represented at the conference. Incidentally, it is ludicrous, when countries of minor importance are represented at the conference, that Scotland is not represented as an independent country. However, the Minister of State will understand our feelings on that matter. Each of the countries will have to ratify the conclusions of the conference. The national Parliaments will have to deal with the matter. In view of the amount of legislation which we face in this Parliament, including the legislation announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, even if the United Kingdom Government agree to what is proposed, what date can the Minister offer for a debate and ratification of the decision in the House?

The Minister of State has a certain optimism in this respect, and I am always encouraged by optimism. But I hope that it is optimism based on a realistic assessment that each country will show the same sense of urgency and dedication as the Minister of State shows in ensuring that any agreement made at the conference is ratified by its own national Parliament and put into effect. Plainly we are trying to seek international agreement on this matter. How long is the Minister prepared to wait to see how the other countries respond to any decision which may be taken in Vienna this year—six months, two years, 10 years? The fishing industry expects a clear statement from the Minister on the time that he will be prepared to wait for all the other countries to ratify. Can he give it an assurance on the period that the United Kingdom will take to ratify—a matter much more under the Minister of State's control than that of the other countries?

The fishermen believe that this matter cannot be left in abeyance. They think that it is a matter of great urgency. They believe that unless something is done to safeguard the herring stocks this summer there may be no future for the herring fishing industry. Successive Governments—I pay tribute to them for this—have invested a great deal of money in assisting people to buy boats, but they may have to repossess boats because the catch is insufficient for the fishermen to pay the cost of fishing.

The situation may have serious consequences for the shore-based industries which are dependent on the fish catch. In Fraserburgh, in my constituency, MacFisheries Limited has paid off 80 part-time women workers because of the depressed state of the frozen food industry. D. A. MacRae has paid off 65 women workers because of the fall in the demand for smoked products. The shore-based industries dependent on the herring catch and on the fishermen are going through a very serious time. If herring are not landed, thousands of people dependent on the fishing industry will suffer deep distress.

One of our leading journals, the Press and Journal of Aberdeen—which is Scotland's national newspaper—stated that
"Some indication of the present fortunes of the fishing fleet is given by the number of skippers willing to invest in a new boat. Boatyard owner Mr. James Noble said they had done well in 1974 as far as orders were concerned but the outlook for 1975 was uncertain".
The correspondent on shipping, Mr. Jim Kinnaird, commented that fishermen, like farmers, are aye complaining The question is whether they have something to complain about. Looking at the economics of shipping and the oil crisis, one sees that the fourfold increase in the price of oil has put a tremendous strain on the profitability of the fishing fleet.

The same correspondent wrote:
"In contrast to 18 months before, when almost anything that floated went fishing because there was big money to be made, the numbers of second-hand boats on the market began to swell appreciably—a sure barometer of the economic climate.
The pinch was felt from Shetland to the Solway—and it's still hurting.
In addition, by the end of the year, about 10 ships were laid up at Aberdeen indefinitely because of mounting losses.
The weight of white fish landed was down by about 140,000 cwt."
Those are serious matters for the fishing industry. Our constituents expect us to be deeply concerned about these issues and to take action over them. That is why the cry is going up from the fishing industry that if we cannot obtain an international agreement, the time may come when it will have to consider taking unilateral action, however repugnant that may be to all who respect international law. The Minister of State has made it clear how abhorrent such a declaration would be to him. It is equally abhorrent to me. However, at the end of the day only one law matters, and that is the law of survival. The fishing industry looks to that law today.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus referred to the rôle that Iceland has played in the question of fishing limits over the past few years. It has been said by many fishermen that Iceland obtained the 12-mile limit for them because she was prepared to strike out against any force in the world. The fishermen now say that Iceland will give them a 50-mile limit because, fighting in defence of her national interests and for her very survival, she has in effect achieved a 50-mile limit.

The Minister of State has announced that he has come to an accord with Norway in relation to Norway's proposals for trawler-free zones. I hope the Minister is aware that it may be possible for him to start discussions with the other countries involved in the North Sea area where herring is found and to try to reach a similar accord in the interests of our fishing industry. I hope that the Minister will be able to initiate such discussions and reach an agreement on a local, regionalised basis, in advance of the decisions that will be arrived at by the Law of the Sea Conference or by anyone else. I hope that the Minister will not say that he is precluded from taking action because of the Law of the Sea Conference. The Norwegian Government have, by agreement between the United Kingdom, France, West Germany and Norway, been approached, without the Law of the Sea Conference having made a final decision on the matter.

I put to the Minister the view that for the herring industry there is an urgent need for him to enter into negotiations immediately with the other countries involved to try to reach an agreement which will guarantee British herring fishermen a 50-mile limit for herring. I do not say that he should act unilaterally, and certainly not before he has exhausted every other possible avenue to reaching agreement, but I urge upon him the necessity to get into discussions immediately to try to reach this kind of agreement and not to wait for any decisions on the Law of the Sea Conference.

The Norwegian Government have taken action to protect their national interests, and I am sure that that Government are as anxious as the Minister for an international agreement to be reached on the Law of the Sea Conference. But Norway has taken the view, in my opinion rightly, that her national interests are involved. As a result, Norway has gone ahead and entered into discussions, and she has reached what all reports suggest to be an amicable agreement with the other countries involved.

I suggest that this is a perfectly feasible course of action for the Minister to follow—to reach an amicable agreement with the other countries involved. If such an agreement cannot be reached, I hope that he will tell us about it, when I am sure we shall support him if he decides that it is necessary to take action without agreement. But we urge him to try to initiate discussions and to reach an agreement which is satisfactory to our fishing industry, as the Norwegians think that the agreement which they have reached with him and the other countries is necessary for the Norwegian fishing industry.

My second point concerns the urgent need to improve fishery protection. The Minister will be aware, from the views expressed by the deputation which saw him, of the cynicism about the level of fishery protection provided by the United Kingdom Government at present. It would be interesting to hear what proposals he has, in collaboration with such other members of the Government as may be involved, to re-assure fishermen that we have a fishery protection service. There is a strong view among fishermen that we do not have any fishery protection at all and that by the time a fishery protection vessel comes out the fellows have done their dirty work and are away. I hope that we shall have an assurance that action is being taken in this direction.

My final point is one which I stressed to the hon. Gentleman the other day. The inshore fishermen of Scotland feel, rightly or wrongly, that successive British Governments have paid far too much attention to the British Trawler Federation and to the deep sea interests. When the fishing industry is discussed in this House or elsewhere, too often what is thought of is Hull or Grimsby, and not Fraserburgh, Peterhead, Buckie and other great centres of the inshore industry in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will be as ready to listen to the interests of the inshore industry of Scotland as he has to these other interests which we feel have had his ear for far too long.

I can do no better than end by quoting the comments in the Scottish DailyExpress about the deputation which came down about the 50-mile limit:
"How can the British Government hesitate? The livelihood of 8,000 families depends on their protection, as well as a significant part of the housewife's budget. Other nations waste no time in defending their fisherfolk. Why should not Britain do likewise?".

3.19 a.m.

My hon. Friends the Members for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) and Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) have covered a wide area of proposals for and aspects of the fishing industry which I do not need to repeat. For that reason, I shall confine my remarks mainly to the question of fishing limits.

Last week in the House there was a very unusual lobby of Scottish inshore fishermen. One of them mentioned how long it had been since they had last been forced to seek help from the London Government. They came to demonstrate how vital it was to extend to 50 miles the fishing limits for herring.

The past year has been disastrous for them. There was a sharp fall in the prices for fish and prawns and a shattering increase in the cost of fuel and gear. Boats are up for sale in many ports, and few new ones are being ordered. The Government should accept their responsibility towards these men—whose contribution in peace and war is beyond praise—and tide them over their difficulties. If, as seems likely, those difficulties turn out to be temporary, the fishermen will be the first to free themselves of Government help.

I was a member of Stornoway Town Council when we were pressing for an extension of the limit to 12 miles and the Government were dragging their feet and saying that we could not take unilateral action. In the end, we were one of the last countries concerned to take that decision. I differ in one thing from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East. I do not think that unilateral action would infringe the law. These are international agreements. They are not broken lightly, but Iceland had to do this twice to ensure that her own people had a living.

The national executive of the Norwegian fishermen's union has adopted a resolution calling for a 200-mile econo- mic zone by 1st January 1976. Who can doubt that that will be accepted by Norway on behalf of her fishermen? Iceland extended hers to 50 miles, and I supported that move because it was for their economic survival. I ask for this treatment to be accorded to the fishermen of Scotland.

The Scottish fisherman's conservation record is excellent. It is therefore all the more galling and frustrating that countries which have ignored conservation on their own grounds should now be destroying the herring stocks in our waters. They have ruined their own fisheries and are now well on the way to destroying ours. Their industrial fishing methods for herring are deplorable, indeed, sinful. To convert herring on such a large scale to oil and meal is madness in these days of food shortage.

To conserve stocks and ensure a valuable food supply, to maintain our fishermen in this great Scottish industry, we demand on their behalf the extension of the limits for herring to 50 miles, and we demand it now.

3.19 a.m.

I am sure that the House will be glad to hear that the excellent speeches which have been made so far have made it possible for me to dispose of six pages of my notes.

Time and again, the fishermen who lobbied us this week, when faced with tremendous problems, have said that they are asking not for money but for something that would not cost the Government a penny piece. In view of all their other difficulties—the escalating cost of gear, nets and fuel oil; difficulties in the marketing of their products, and the poor prices they have been getting this year—that was a noble gesture on the part of those herring fishermen.

We ask the Minister to try to persuade his colleagues to take this action, which could have such a marked effect on the Scottish herring fishing industry. In doing this we are asking him and his colleagues to break with a very long tradition of United Kingdom Government approach towards the inshore fishing industry. I do not want to get involved in a history lesson, but there are a few salient points which I must mention.

I would briefly take the story back to the beginning of this century—to the time when, in a very indifferent, not to say hostile way, the London Government scrapped the old Scottish concept of territorial limits. They scrapped them basically and mainly because they wanted to curry favour with other fishing nations in the north of Europe. That was the first time. But there were to be three other times, some of which have already been mentioned.

The next striking thing was the move of the Icelandic Government, in the 1950s, to increase their fishing limits to 12 miles. We all know that in 1964 the British Government followed suit. But they did so as a last resort.

The next interesting point was the Common Market negotiations. The Government of the day had to pretend that they had won a signal victory in the negotiations concerning the fisheries. But it was a pretence, because in a few short years, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) very forcibly and correctly said, if the result of those negotiations is not radically altered we shall see the boats of Common Market countries fishing right up to our shores.

The fourth example of this weak attitude on the part of British Governments concerns the latest extension of Iceland's fishing limits. If she can do it, we can do it. The population of Iceland is about half that of Edinburgh. If she can increase her limits to 50 miles, what is to stop the British Government doing the same for our people?

The inescapable conclusion is that our fishermen are just that wee bit too far away from London to matter very much. But we did not see a similar reluctance on the part of the United Kingdom Government to make sure that all the oil, for hundreds of miles out under the North Sea, was made part of the things which mattered, because it mattered much more down here in the South, with the rise in fuel prices, and so on. The attitude seems to be that these are a few fishing communities scattered around the west, north and north-east of Scotland, so what do they matter? We believe that they matter much more, in a sense, because they are communities with a traditional way of life. They are not something which should be preserved, museum-like, in a West Highland setting, but communities producing one of the most valuable commodities we have in this country and utilising one of the most important natural resources we possess. We do possess this resource, although the Government seem remarkably reluctant to lay claim to it.

Regardless of past mistakes on the part of the United Kingdom Government, I make this genuine plea: could we not see a change in this matter and get some common sense going before it is too late?

3.29 a.m.

I find it utterly reprehensible that I have to rise to speak at this hour in the morning to plead the case for the Scottish fishing industry, and to find that we are crowded in between the problems of rent officers and of water and sewage in Wales. We have to push in, in some way, to get through to the Government the problems facing our Scottish industry today.

It is all very well to have symposia in the Church Hall and other such places, but it is here, on the Floor of the House, that matters of this magnitude must be discussed. For some time my hon. Friends and I have continually pressed the Government to discuss this subject, but they would not. It must be raised by us on the Consolidated Fund Bill at 3.30 a.m.

For at least seven generations fishermen of my constituency and other constituencies round the North of Scotland have been following the fishing shoals. They used to have regular patterns, year by year, which took them on many grounds round the shores of Britain, but now they find that the Lowestoft grounds are totally fished out and boats no longer go there. The Whitby grounds suffered a similar fate. The Scarborough grounds were fished out in the 1950s, the Buchan grounds in the 1960s, and now, in the 1970s, there are only two grounds left—those at Shetland and the West Coast. Shetland was virtually cleaned out last year.

As each ground has been fished out the boats have had to go further and further from their home shores. This becomes progressively more difficult for small boats, as they find themselves fishing alongside vast foreign vessels. Our boats fish four or five days a week, but the big foreign catchers fish every day, transferring their catches to factory and freezer ships. Their catches cannot be measured. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) said, the catches by our boats can be measured accurately and note can be taken from whence the fish came. That is not the case with boats of Norwegian, Faroese, Icelandic or Russian origin.

I am sure the House can imagine just how annoyed my fishermen get when they are told that their quota for the year has been reached and that they must stop fishing herring until next July. There is now the concession that they can fish from March to July provided they catch only the 1,000 tons that remain of the 18,000 ton quota. That was the situation on 11th November, and it is the situation today. Our boats have had no opportunity to catch herring. Our factories, therefore, have had no opportunity to manufacture herring. The East Coast herring quota has totally disappeared. If our boats are big enough to go after the fish they must go to the West Coast, but what do they see there? There are the big boats, fleet after fleet of them, trawling as much as 20 and 30 abreast, scraping up the stocks from our waters.

On the West Coast, because of the geological lie of the islands—and thank God for that—the Minches are sacrosanct to our own boats. But what do we find? We find whole fleets of boats fishing outside the Minches catching the herring before they ever get into the shallow water.

I turn now to the Shetland situation. Over the last year white fish have been scarce, and they have fetched a very poor price. Many of the boats have turned to catching herring. The factories of Shetland have been existing on the catches of herring that have been landed there. But the quota was finished in November. There have been no boats fishing herring out of Shetland since then. The boats have gone to the West Coast. That is all very well from a boat's point of view. There is herring to be had on the West Coast, but what of the factories of Shetland? How are they expected to get the supplies of herring from the West Coast to Shetland? There are no lines of communication, so the factories of Shetland are denuded of stocks, and have been ever since November. They had a little in cold store, but now they have nothing left, and staff are being paid off every day.

The Government are not being very bright in killing off whole communities round the North East just because some negotiator boobed in past negotiations. I am fully aware that successive British Governments have taken up certain stances, many of which were dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East. They have taken up attitudes about sea limits which perhaps seem right when seen from a desk in Whitehall, but which look plain crazy when seen from a fishing community in the North of Scotland. I appeal to the Minister not to be hamstrung by any historic agreements, but to start with a clean slate when he goes to Geneva in March to renegotiate the deal in the Law of the Sea Conference.

I am equally aware that there is a recurrent cry for conservation, but it is not our fishermen but the foreigners that have been the predators. Our fishermen have always been selective fishers. They take ashore only top-quality fish for human consumption. That mere fact is one of the reasons why we now have such a low quota for herring catching on the East Coast. We get only 18,000 tons of prime quality fish. Our fishermen go only for fish that the market can take for human consumption. We do not fish for fish meal, unlike the Norwegians and the Danes. Norway gets a quota of 100,000 tons and Denmark and the Faroe Islands 210,000 tons—12 times as much as our fishermen.

Why have these countries such large quotas? It is for the simple reason that they have for many years indulged in industrial fishing only, where the fish are used for making oil and fish meal. Our Scottish fishermen are no fools. They are fine men, who make many friends as they fish around our shores. They make friends with the Norwegians and Icelanders. There are even times when they land some shots in countries such as Denmark and Norway, where they can see full well what is going on. They see the fish going up the escalators into the factories, and see that there are often many immature and mature herrings in the catches. They see that those are the countries that are the predators of the stocks in the North Sea.

I know that Government thinking has long favoured the Hull and the Grimsby fleets. We should be the last people to try to deny the people of England their fish and chips of an evening. I know that that industry has had the ear of successive Governments. I have noticed that in the short time that I have been a Member of the House of Commons. But we must face reality. The distant water fleet has been declining over the years and at the same time the Scottish fleet has been increasing. The pattern has changed. That is why I urge the Minister to change his thinking when he next goes to negotiate our case. The attitude of "Let's stand back and let the other man forward", that seems to be so prevalent in the English character, is totally out of date in present-day economic thinking.

That attitude is totally out of place in the fishing grounds. When our men go out on a Monday morning they find that after standing back over the weekend the foreigner has gone ahead and pulled in all the shoals of prime quality herring. All that are left are a few spots of herring that have been so harassed over the weekend that they are nervous and difficult to catch.

We have all been aware of the attitude taken in the recent past vis-à-vis Iceland. Iceland wanted to extend its limits to 12 miles. We have noticed how the British Government have tried to harass little nations like the Faroes, with a population of 250,000 people, because they wanted to protect the only asset they had—fish. We in the Scottish National Party are equally interested in protecting Scotland's assets. It so happens that the remaining stocks of fish are one of those important assets.

We are all aware of the great new discovery of oil. We hope that it will last for ninny years—40, 50 or 60 years. I trust that it will do some good to the economic life of Scotland and, to some degree, some good to the economic life of our neighbour, England. But we are determined that when that asset has all gone our fishing stocks will still remain and that they will be in a better state than they were under successive Governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

For the first time last Monday a deputation of Scottish skippers lobbied the House. People have been calling them fishermen, but they were all skippers. Every one of them represented a crew. They represented crews made up of their friends. They feel responsible for those men, and for their families. The skippers took off fishing time to come here to plead their case. Are the Government in some way proud that those men reached the stage when they felt that they had to come here to beg the Government to do something for their industry? Are they proud to have brought such a community of independent men to that stage?

I give the Government a clear warning. The skippers came in good will last Monday, but I can assure the Government that unless their just demands are met they will not come with good will another time. One of them said clearly "Unless we are given what we are looking for, by God, we shall be back". Those men will settle now for a 50-mile limit for herring fishing. They want that limit now. They say that they must have it by 1st July. July 1976 will be much too late. They know that the last hope for their industry is to have that limit this year. That lies in the bands of our negotiators at the Law of the Sea Conference.

Every fishing community in my constituency has written to me on this matter. I seek to impress on the Minister how deep is the feeling throughout the whole of the fishing community around the North Coast. The skippers were not here asking for money. They only want to play their full part in the economy. As the country is in such a dreadful economic mess, is it not reasonable to expect the Government to help them play their full part?

I come now to what will happen assuming we get this exclusive 50-mile limit for our fishermen. We hope that the Minister will be so successful that he will return with a 200-mile limit. Our fishermen would dearly like that. But they are determined to have the 50-mile limit. They are aware that with the outer 150 miles there will be ample opportunity for negotiation—for swapping so many thousand tons of Norwegian cod for so many thousand tons of Scottish herring. They are aware that the Government will not want to throw overboard other countries which have long, traditional rights and they are prepared to accept this.

The big difference will be that for the first time ever these areas will be under British control and will be available for British policing so that we can see what is happening to our fishing stock. Has not the time come when the Government must face the facts and perhaps withdraw the patrol that wanders off the coast of Africa, round Beira? The Government should bring some of the Navy back home to look after the interests of our own people.

The fishermen of Scotland are just as conservation conscious as the Norwegians, and are prepared to give their stocks the chance to recover. They point out that so long as immature fish are taken away there seem little point in their playing the game. British fishermen are closely controlled by net size and the operations of the fishery protection vessels—when they can leave port. That is why this service must be augmented by the Royal Navy.

I ask the Minister to put an end to the law of the jungle which exists now. Our fishermen are the laughing stock of the North Sea. They fish alongside others and see what they are taking. Yet our men have to pull up their nets and come home because they have their quota. As the House has repeatedly been told recently, our fishermen have the oil industry to contend with. They have to contend with careless dumping of debris, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) pointed out.

For the sake of Britain's economy, and in the belief that they will one day get fair play from the oil companies, our fishermen are prepared to put up with aggravation and inconvenience, but they are not prepared to remain the laughing stock of the fishing communities round the North Atlantic coast. They demand this 50-mile limit and they mean to get it. They have definite plans of action.

The fishermen round our coasts are deep thinkers and they have time to think. I urge the Government not to push them. They have got ideas. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East and I have been sitting on top of a cauldron these many weeks past. We have been trying to take some of the heat out of the situation. We believe that we are succeeding.

I must impress upon the Government that we in the Scottish National Party are prepared to play our part in getting this right. We have no axe to grind other than to look after the interests of our fishermen—our constituents. That is what we were sent here for, and that is what we intend to do. If the fishermen are pushed, I give the Government fair warning that I shall go along with them. It is their future and mine that is at stake when the Government go to this conference.

I say to the Minister, "Go to the Law of the Sea Conference with a fresh outlook. If you need it, take a new team of negotiators with you. If you need any advice, take it from the Scottish fishing industry, because it knows what goes on and what it wants". Yesterday's men are old, and no use today. I know that attitudes have been adopted and the Minister may feel bound by them.

I urge the Government to throw off this reluctance to look at the problem afresh, because there is not much time in which to save our fishing fleet. The inshore fleet can measure its life in months, not years, unless something is done soon.

Food is the only currency which matters these days, and our Scottish fishermen have invested vast sums of their own and the Government's in boats and gear. They are still prepared to work hard and to develop new techniques, and, more than that, to sacrifice life itself in their calling. In peace and war, Scottish fishermen have never let the nation down. I urge the nation now not to neglect them in their hour of need.

3.51 a.m.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Law of the Sea Conference and the issues which have been raised.

Hon. Gentlemen should not feel too self-righteous that we are meeting at between 3 am and 4 am to discuss the problems of fishing. We well know that the fishermen are out in their boats in bad weather and bad conditions day and night and we should not begrudge spending some of the time when we would normally be asleep in considering some of their problems, so I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) for raising the question.

I am interested in this matter as well as being involved as a member of the Government. We are most anxious to see results in a new convention generally acceptable to all States, which will open the way for the peaceful use of the oceans by all nations in the future. At Caracas there was encouraging progress, both in the technical preparation of texts of draft articles for inclusion in the new convention and in the developing sense of momentum in favour of reaching agreement through compromise on a convention which would be generally acceptable to all groups of States.

We have, since the conference in Caracas and before its beginning again in Geneva in the spring, been extremely active in our discussions with other Governments and the reconsideration of policy issues, to maintain this momentum and to improve the prospects of agreement being reached in the session from 17th March to 10th May.

The hon. Gentleman who introduced the debate raised the question of the representation of Scottish fishery interests on the delegation. That is important. As the hon. Member rightly said, the delegation which will go to Geneva will represent the whole of the United Kingdom, not just England or Wales. We are deeply concerned with the interests of Scotland.

At Caracas we had the former Fisheries Secretary for Scotland as a member of the delegation, and his experience was extremely valuable. We also had a representative of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation as an adviser to the delegation. I assure the hon. Gentleman that although the composition of the delegation for the next stage of the conference has not finally been decided Scottish interests will be fully represented by the membership of the delegation, and there is now, and will continue to be, consultation with the Secretary of State and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is with me on the Front Bench, so that we can ensure that Scottish interests are properly represented.

In preparation for this conference we are carrying out a full review of British policy to determine how best to promote agreement. The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt) said that it was important to look afresh at our policy. That is absolutely right. We should not merely continue to take positions that we have taken in the past. We must be prepared to make changes in our policy, not only in our interests but in international interests, and we expect other countries to do so too. If we get agreement it will be because other countries as well as ours are prepared to change their traditional positions in the interests of general agreement.

That formation of policy entails discussions with other Governments—active work is being done on this—and discussions in this country. Mention was made of a seminar to be held in London at the end of this month to give all interested parties an opportunity to express their views. The hon. Member for Banff should not be too discouraging about that sort of initiative.

In the formation of Government policy it is important that we should be quite open, that before conferences we should consult and after conferences report, and that before the next session we consult. We have gained greatly from the opportunities that representatives of the many interests involved, including Scottish fishery interests, have had to take part in these consultations. Our objective is to ensure wide agreement on a generally acceptable Law of the Sea Convention. In this we are determined to proceed by agreement. We are opposed to unilateral action on these issues.

Reference has been made to the question of a 200-mile exclusive economic zone which would include fishing rights. At Caracas I stated the Government's willingness to discuss that concept. I said that provided freedom of navigation and overflight within the zone was guaranteed we should be prepared to accept this concept as part of a generally acceptable convention, given a satisfactory régime within the zone. We could not accept an economic zone within which the rights of coastal States were so extensive as to make it virtually a territorial sea. Acceptance by the Government of the concept of a 200-mile economic zone is an important step forward. It is a complete change from the policy which has been adopted by previous Governments on this issue. I believe that it is in the interests of the fishing industries of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, and it is in response not only to our assessment of the need but to the stated wish of fishery interests, including those in Scotland.

The Government are aware of the concern of Scottish herring fishermen over the state of the fisheries off Scottish coasts and their desire for urgent Government action. Each hon. Gentleman who spoke referred to the men who came to London last week. I was proud to have the opportunity of meeting them—it was no concession on my part. When men's future livelihood is at stake, not only hon. Members but Ministers should make themselves available to hear the views of those who are primarily involved. It is sometimes all too easy for Ministers, Opposition spokesmen and others to take a message second-hand. That is not the same as hearing it from those who are involved.

I was deeply impressed by the quality of the men who came to see me in that delegation. I did not see them as apostles of Scottish nationalism. Their cause is not one that should be seen in any party political sense at all. They were men speaking from a great depth of feeling and concern, and their presence made me more aware of their problems and more anxious to help. Serious consideration will be given to the points which they made and, indeed to the points made in this debate.

Reference has been made to the agreement with NEAFC—the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission—over quotas. In an attempt to help these fishermen, Britain has taken a lead in NEAFC in pressing for quick agreements on herring both in the North Sea and off the west coast of Scotland. These have now been agreed within the NEAFC and are currently in force. Under these agreements, quotas for the United Kingdom are roughly in line with the general level of catches in recent years.

Hon. Gentlemen have said that the quotas are not adequate. We must see whether we can obtain a larger share in future, but we have not seen any fall in the level of allocations made for the British fishing industry in terms of herring or other fish. The Government will keep a close watch on the situation.

The hon. Member for South Angus said that we should take action to establish a 50-mile limit, and it was suggested that it must be done now. If it were done now, it would be going beyond the bounds of international law. Hon. Gentlemen were prepared to argue that this should be done. It is clear that there was disagreement among them on the question whether action should be taken now regardless of international agreement or whether that action should be based only on an international agreement.

I feel that the Minister of State has detected some nuances which do not exist between my hon. Friends and myself. What I was asking him to do was to seek agreement now with the countries involved in the area so that we may achieve a 50-mile limit on the lines of what has been negotiated with the Norwegian Government in respect of the interests off the Norwegian coasts. My view is—I know that my hon. Friends agree with me—that if the Minister returns from the conference and tells the House "Although I have worked extremely hard, we were unable to reach agreement because other countries were not prepared to agree", we should take action unilaterally to protect our coast. I hope that that clarifies the question of any so-called differences of opinion or shades of meaning in what was said from our side.

Even if the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) denies that there was disagreement, the very word "disagreement" was used by his hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) who clearly felt that action was needed. The hon. Member for Banff said that we should not be hamstrung by agreements. Therefore, we must look at the danger of taking unilateral action as opposed to a negotiated agreement. We have accepted in principle the concept of a 200-mile economic zone, not a 50-mile zone. I hope that there will be rapid progress at the conference, that we shall be able to follow up decisions taken at the conference and that we shall act in the interests of British industry.

Hon. Members must face the implications of taking unilateral action. Any party prepared to ignore international law must accept some of the consequences which may flow from that. The chance of getting agreement in Geneva would be virtually negligible if those countries which have stood for international law were to turn their backs on it and take action which others would follow.

The recent negotiations with Norway were mentioned by hon. Members. At one time there was a suggestion that the Norwegian Government might take unilateral action to establish trawler-free zones off the north Norwegian coast. Had Norway done so, it might have caused damage to international relations, affecting not only Britain but other countries. The Norwegian Government understood that and sought agreement. The proposals they had put forward were changed and modified in order to meet the needs of other countries with which they were in negotiation. That was vision.

If we went ahead with a policy of unilateral action we should head towards anarchy on the high seas. The hon. Member for Banff referred to the law of the jungle, and we would certainly have it by unilateral action. There would be no law of the sea—there would be anarchy if we did not move by means of international agreement.

It is all too easy to try to play off one section of the fishing industry against another. It is wrong to argue that we take too much note of the interests of trawlermen from Hull and Grimsby because they happen to be English and therefore have more rights than Scottish fishermen. We have responsibility for all sections of the fishing industry, no matter what fish they catch, no matter what waters they go to, near or far, and no matter where they come from in the United Kingdom. In this context, the interests of the Scottish fishermen will be carefully looked at. There will be continuing assistance by the Government to the industry, and its urgent problems are being closely considered.

Conservation is a very important aspect of the law of the sea discussions. We have seen the development of factory ships which can do serious damage to breeding grounds and stocks and we want to ensure effective international control. We recognise the dangers of over-fishing and the importance of agreements reached through NEAFC.

Reference was made to pollution, which is also of great importance. In Caracas, we consistently took the view that pollution from vessels on the high seas should continue to be a matter for the jurisdiction of the flag State of the vessel. We proposed strengthening the obligations on the flag State to exercise its jurisdiction effectively.

However, we wish to retain as much flexibility as possible and are examining what rôle might be given to the port State—the country where the vessel is at the time—or the coastal State in the enforcement of internationally-agreed regulations. We also see an important rôle for IMCO in the application of agreements on marine pollution.

In general, as well as in particular, I assure hon. Members that the interests of Scotland—not only of its herring fishermen but in terms of its mineral interests, marine pollution and conservation—will be very carefully considered and dealt with and effectively represented.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way yet again. I had hoped that he might comment on the suggestion I made that he should seek urgently a limited regional agreement with the other States involved. I have in mind a limited 50-mile limit for herring on the lines of the agreement which it has been possible to conclude with Norway.

I shall not be drawn by the hon. Gentleman. I know that he would like to hear comments. I assure him that a number of points which were made by the fishermen themselves when they spoke to my hon. Friend and myself last week are being seriously considered.