Hamish Watt – 1978 Speech on Drift Net Fishing

Below is the text of the speech made by Hamish Watt, the then SNP MP for Banff, in the House of Commons on 19 May 1978.

I note that the Minister who is to reply to the debate comes from the West of Scotland. I come from the North-East of Scotland. The matter that we are debating is entirely Scottish. There must be a message there for someone.

I welcome the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House and to the public at large the continuing and, ​ inded, what is worse, the intensifying of the ban on the drift netting for salmon off the Scottish coast.

This ban was imposed on the fishermen of Scotland, all of whom at that time operated small boats of about 40 feet, in 1962. That measure which went quickly through the House, was described by Sir William Duthie, who was my predecessor but one as the Member of Parliament for Banff, as the worst piece of class legislation that ever went through Parliament. Sir William found it necessary to resign from the Tory Party in protest at the time. Since then, these fishermen have still been denied the opportunity to get a fair share of the catch of salmon which yearly return from their feeding grounds in the North Atlantic and which swim around the coast of Scotland seeking to return to their river of origin.

Let me make it clear at the outset that it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that the salmon cycle continues in perpetuity and that there is no desire on the part of anyone in Scotland to seek to damage the salmon stocks. Scotland’s fishermen have proved beyond doubt that they are the most responsible fishermen in the whole of the North Sea. They adopt conservation measures whenever any stock is in danger. The salmon is in no danger and the huge catches in recent years by the bag net and drag net operators surely prove this to be the case. The fishermen of Scotland are seeking only a reasonable share of the catch of the salmon that swim within three miles of the shore.

At present, because of the ban which was so unfairly imposed by a Tory Government in 1962, only two sets of people can get an opportunity to catch salmon. First are the riparian owners—individuals, trusts, or companies who believe that because they happen to own land on the banks of a river they have also some God-given right to dictate to other people how they should or should not conduct their business. No one is suggesting at this stage that salmon swimming in the rivers within the banks on their land do not belong to them. But in passing I should like to say that I am somewhat amused to find that the law says that these landowners may not take water from the river, but they claim that the ​fish that swim in the river are all theirs. I shall let that fly stick to the wall at the moment.

The second group of people who have the right to catch salmon are those operators who net the salmon at the mouth of the rivers as these salmon pass from salt water into fresh water. At present, these net operators totally close the mouth of the river for six days of the week, and the salmon have only about 24 hours out of the seven days in which they can run the gauntlet of the nets and reach the river.

The Minister knows better than I of the vast profits that have been made in four of the past five years by these salmon fishers. In some cases the lease to such fishing has become virtually a licence to print money. There are very few operators who would not gladly concede one day of the week so that the salmon could have 48 hours, or preferably 54 hours, in which to reach the lower reaches of their parent river. If this were to be the case and the mouth of the river were to be opened that bit longer, there would be salmon for everyone.

Everyone is well aware of the tremendous lobby that riparian owners, anglers and netting operators have, especially in the House, and of the continual shout that goes up whenever salmon angling is poor. But the fact that salmon are not rising to the angler does not mean that the salmon are not in the river. As the salmon do not feed at all while they are in the river, the wonder is that they ever rise to a lure at all. If the water level is not right or the weather is not suitable, the angler goes home in a huff blaming everybody but himself for his lack of luck. If that same fisherman came back to the upper tributaries of the main river in the dead of winter he would see salmon lying dead, dying or diseased and would realise the appalling waste of fish that would otherwise have reached the housewife’s table at a reasonable price.

It is in a genuine desire to see that a fair proportion of the fish reach the market at a reasonable price that the sea fishermen round Scotland’s coast want to have the right to fish for salmon under a strict licensing system such as has worked so successfully off the Northumberland coast all these years.

These fishermen are prepared to abide by whatever rules are drawn up and I commend the Northumberland scheme to the Government. The fishermen who have approached me and my colleagues in the SNP claim that they are even prepared to pay a reasonable levy per pound of salmon landed to pay for the stocking of every tributary with salmon fry—young salmon—as a double insurance in case nature has missed one tributary.

These men are further prepared to abide by rules governing the length of nets allocated per man and will abide by a quota placed on the number of salmon to be caught annually. Here they would take advice from scientists. But they are not prepared to abide by the continuation of a grossly unfair ban where two sections of the community, which are backed by high finance, are allowed exclusive access to this one fish stock, while they are totally denied it.

Even more disgraceful has been the action of certain of the riparian owners who virtually take the law into their own hands and promote one of their number to be a bailiff, who takes advantage of unfair laws to seek to act as some kind of Don Quixote and boards fishing vessels at sea and tries to arrest fishermen he suspects of poaching even when no policemen are present. This is a dangerous concept. The Government ought to look into the present situation and search their own conscience whether they wish to perpetuate this grossly unfair ban, which is in essence one law for the rich and another for the poor Is the Minister so proud of a situation where his Government, so-called Socialist Government, back the action of a self-confessed Fascist who believes that Adolf Hitler was right?

I would appreciate it if the Minister in his reply will tell the people of Scotland just how far he is prepared to go in backing the action of the dangerous gentleman with the double-barrelled name. Will he also tell the House how much public money was spent last year in trying to catch men whom he chooses to call poachers?

Everyone has heard of the unacceptable face of capitalism, but surely that face was at its ugliest in 1962 when this unfair and unrighteous ban was passed by the House. There was no real evidence that drift netting had caused a shortage ​ of salmon at that time. Certainly there was disease around at that time.

How can anyone justify the claim that a drift net is a deadly weapon? These nets hang a maximum of three fathoms deep and fish can surely get round, under or over the nets if they choose. Drift netting can be carried out only in favourable weather. It can never be as deadly efficient as the sweep nets which are used in the rivers so that no salmon can pass them.

If there is a scarcity of salmon, why have the Minister and his colleagues never taken steps to regulate or monitor properly the actions of these net operators? Why is it that the Minister’s counterparts in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in England, who have jurisdiction over the coasts of England, have never sought to impose such a ban in England? The Minister knows and should admit that the method of licensing small boats administered by the Northumberland fisheries committee works well, fairly and equitably. I do not blame Scottish fishermen for seeking parity with their near neighbours. They are also seeking parity with their partners in the EEC.

Surely the Minister sees that there is no legitimate ground for continuing this grossly unfair ban. There have been four Socialist Governments since 1962. Is it not time that we began to see the social face of Socialism? Surely it is time to bring an end of this “one law for the rich and another for the poor” syndrome.

Scottish fishermen are no longer prepared to be treated as second-class citizens. There has been increasing evidence of that in recent months. Some small boat operators have been driven to defy this unfair ban because of the shortage of other species of fish.

The Government must give strong evidence to justify the continuance of the ban and impose it equally throughout Britain. Indeed, they should attempt to impose it throughout the EEC. The fishermen of Scotland regard the ban as a fundamental denial of basic human rights. They request—indeed they demand—its immediate withdrawal.