The battle over Scotland's inshore fishing industry

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 10 July 2017 in Inside Politics

Recent damage to Loch Carron has re-ignited debate over the future management of Scotland's inshore fishing industry 

Diver filming the outer Loch Carron flame shell bed – image credit: SNH

On 21 April, Chris Rickard and a group of other divers borrowed a boat, motored out into Loch Carron, a sea loch on the west coast of Ross and Cromarty, and slipped into the water.

A veteran of nearly 500 dives around Scotland, Rickard knows Loch Carron pretty well, though he had never dived in this particular spot before. This dive was different.

The group had heard reports that a fishing boat had been spotted dredging in the location – a process which involves dragging a steel bar fitted with a set of spring loaded, downward pointing teeth along the seabed – and with the loch home to a rare flame shell reef, the divers were worried about what damage the dredger might have done.

Flame shells are bivalves that make nests on the seabed. The reef which forms around the nests provides a nursery ground for young scallops, crustaceans and fish, and with most flame shell beds having disappeared from the west coast, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) considers large beds to be rare.


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The group dropped into the water and descended to about 20 metres down – around the depth that dredging would take place. The visibility wasn’t great – a boat had been trawling nearby and had kicked up silt from the sea floor – but their fears were soon realised. “We could see there had been flame shell reefs there because there was lots of dead and dying flame shells lying around, which is quite unusual because you don’t often see them, they usually hide away in this mattress of stuff they build for themselves. Thousands of them were lying out dead and dying, along with living ones that had been uprooted from their nests and were sort of sitting on the bottom.

“It was immediately apparent when we dropped down that we were landing on an area that had been dredged – they look like plough marks. You’ve got the furrows where the teeth of the dredge go along the bed. The metal spikes are quite vicious looking things that sink into the seabed, to help dig up any scallops that are partially buried.

“All the dead and dying animals, not just flame shells but other scallops and starfish and sea urchins, were lying around dead. It was not a very nice thing to look at, to be honest. We’d seen what a flame shell reef should look like and this one had been decimated for the sake of a few scallops. The silly thing is these are areas which scallops are known to use as nursery grounds.

“We knew what we were expecting to see… but when you go down and see so many of these animals lying dead and crushed, just for targeted fishing of one species, destroying all these other species, it’s just not right.”

SNH immediately investigated and concluded the damage was consistent with dredging.

The Scottish Government responded quickly, declaring emergency protection measures for Loch Carron to try to protect the remaining reef. The Marine Conservation Society welcomed the measures, but given it identified part of Loch Carron as in need of a protection back in 2013, a recommendation not followed, and given most evidence suggests the reef’s recovery could take a hundred years – if at all – some questioned whether the move was too little, too late.

It reignited a heated debate over dredging and future management of inshore waters, with officials from the Scottish Government recently admitting that the same practices which damaged Loch Carron could be happening “regularly” in other fragile environments across Scotland. For Open Seas, a group campaigning for sustainable seafood, it amounts to a “free for all”.

Campaigns manager Nick Underdown told Holyrood: “This seabed habitat is the lynchpin for our fisheries and the wider health of our seas, so tearing it up, quite literally, pulls the rug from beneath the fish, shellfish and wider ecosystem which depends on it. Our inshore seabed should be a haven for our fish to grow and thrive, instead we have been systematically dredging it away for decades. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s that intensive dredging grew to its current extent. Dwindling fish stocks in the inshore area and an accumulation of the quota amongst fewer, bigger commercial interests have forced fishermen inshore to dredge the bottom of the sea for this non-quota species.

“The scientific evidence that dredging has damaged our seabed and is having an impact on the recovery of inshore fish stocks is overwhelming. Some areas may be more naturally resilient to dredging, but… it does not necessarily follow that we should dredge those areas, if we could be fishing more profitably by other methods.”

Environmental groups and sustainability campaigners argue for far greater restrictions on fishing activities in Scotland’s inshore waters, while some industry groups, namely the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF), point to the economic benefits which support jobs in Scotland’s most remote communities.

To Bertie Armstrong, SFF Chief Executive, the reaction to the Loch Carron incident is typical of how mobile fishermen have been misrepresented.

“First of all, it [Loch Carron] is not an area where scallop dredging is the best, so it was a bit of a surprise that anybody was fishing there. Secondly, the boat did not belong to any association or grouping. We don’t know what he was trying to achieve or what knowledge he had, because he was not a member of the SFF. You should never deliberately run over something, whether it is protected or not, unless you have a very good reason. So what he did was not a normal action.

“Roseanna Cunningham’s reaction to that seemed to demonstrate that she didn’t really understand that there already is a process for setting up Marine Protected Areas in both quantity and size, and management measure, by the statements used – ‘this is terrible, I am going to ban this, I am going to look for more areas’. No, no, we have already looked for more areas, and already decided, under your government, which ones ought to be protected. We are not saying that you shouldn’t progress when you discover things, but we are saying that you should not react to the sort of plausible sounding hysteria that came from that [incident].

“From the language used, you would think there had been mass murder. It was disproportionate, and instead of taking a reasonable approach, Roseanna Cunningham made a knee-jerk reaction, which is unhelpful because the Scottish Government National Marine Plan aims for not only a healthy sea but a productive sea, and there are many jobs supported in local communities by sustainable fishing which stays away from MPAs and keeps itself within the law.”

However, evidence on how large-scale fishing has changed the inshore marine environment is limited. Dr David Bailey, senior lecturer in Marine Ecology at the University of Glasgow, told Holyrood: “We don’t really have fantastic information about what the seabed was like before industrial fishing, so that makes it very difficult to say anything really conclusive about what particular types of fishing have done to it.

“The Loch Carron situation is different, of course, because we’ve got a very clear ‘before and after’ type situation, where you’ve got bits of the reef that have been dredged, and bits that haven’t, and that’s provided a really strong example of what sort of effect industrial fishing can do.

“What you need is consistent collection of information about the seabed over time and that doesn’t happen routinely.

“In terms of the damage to the sea floor, then dredging is definitely considered to be the worst. If they go across anything soft and alive then they tend to smash that up. For sheer destruction of the seabed, then dredging is the fastest way in a single kind of path to do damage to the seabed that will last many years.”

Dr Bryce Beukers-Stewart, environment lecturer at the University of York, echoes Bailey’s sentiments.

“We don’t have good records, going back even more than a decade or so. Scallop dredging, for example, has been around since the 1930s and it really expanded in the 1960s, and all of that happened before we had decent scientific records.

“We know from experiments, looking at the impact of dredging, that unsurprisingly, they reduce biodiversity, they particularly harm anything that’s fragile or sensitive, so what they tend to do is homogenise the seabed. They remove any three-dimensional structure, or at least damage it. If an area is repeatedly dredged it tends to be quite barren. But they don’t destroy everything in their path – they are actually quite inefficient. They only catch around 20 or 30 per cent of the scallops they are meant to catch, but that in itself is a bit of a problem, because it means you will go back to the same area and fish it three or four times until the catch rate drops off.”

Meanwhile, the concerns of sustainability campaigners extend beyond dredging, and into the approach to inshore fishing more generally.

Underdown said: “We are allowing unsustainable fisheries to dominate. Prawn trawling to supply the scampi market involves huge amounts of bycatch (more than 80 per cent of the fish caught is thrown back in some places) and this is hindering the recovery of fish stocks. Coupled with the impact of scallop dredging on our seabed and nursery areas, inshore trawling and dredging has handicapped our coastal communities.”

These concerns have led to calls for the limit on trawling and dredging within three nautical miles of shore to be reinstated.

While the SFF fiercely opposes “knee-jerk reactions” to the damage, a new report from the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF), which represents members of the static sector – over 80 per cent of the inshore fleet – questions how inshore fishing is managed. It argues that creel fishing – leaving pots on the seabed and collecting the catch later – is a far less damaging approach than trawling.

The report says: “Currently, in Scotland we have an economically absurd outcome whereby each tonne of nephrops [prawns] caught by trawls in areas fishable by creels is contributing to an unnecessary degradation of the Scottish marine environment and a significant reduction in Scottish output, income, employment and profits, particularly in remote rural areas. This is a manifestation of market failure.”

The SCFF wants the Scottish Government to ban trawlers from inshore waters, with their prawn allocation transferred to creel fishermen. It argues that handing over greater access to creel fishermen would bring 450 additional creel boats and more than 700 new jobs.

With creeled prawns worth more than trawled ones, creelers argue that giving the static industry access to waters within three miles of shore would add £45m annual revenue and over £2.5m annual profits for west-coast communities.

Alistair Sinclair, SCFF National Coordinator, told Holyrood: “Every time you drag a net or dredge along the seabed you’re causing damage. You hear the mobile saying, ‘we till the ground with our gear’ – yes they harvest, but they never sow. That’s it in a nutshell. There’s lot of ground, in particular in the Clyde, that’s devoid of scallop population because it’s just been hammered. That’s not good. Every part of life that there is in the marine environment exists because of other parts or other forms of life that exist in the environment.”

He adds: “Had the lifting of the three-mile limit been declared a trial, in the 33 years that it has been lifted, it could only be considered as a dire failure. We have no fish stocks on the west coast of note. I’m actually sitting in my sitting room and I’m looking out onto Loch Fyne – it’s only 50 yards away and it’s just a big puddle. It might have prawns but that’s about the size of it. It’s a sad testament to where we are.”

“The three-mile limit should be reinstated. There’s a generation of mobile fishermen who are very resistant to that notion. If we can work towards reinstating… large areas where the creel sector can operate without the fear of losing their gear, where we can better demonstrate the good story that we are economically, environmentally and socially, there will be a flick of the switch. I have no doubts.

“We still have opportunities in the Far East, Middle East and the Americas. It’s just an untapped market place and we’re destroying langoustine for the sake of creating scampi. It’s kind of like turning Aberdeen Angus into dog food … you can’t keep taking juvenile prawn off the ground and expect there to be substantial stocks that will support the industry as it is just now. We want to change things for the better so that Scotland PLC does better, the rural communities do better, that society as a whole does better and that the profit margins do better.”

Unsurprisingly, Armstrong disagrees, with the SFF soon to commission its own study. He says: “This talk of a three-mile limit isn’t a three-mile limit for fishing at all, it’s one sector asking that all other sectors be banned for a three-mile limit. It’s much more severe than the three-mile limit which was abandoned, for good reason, in the early 80s. It would see the end of two perfectly productive, economically viable and entirely sustainable industries – mobile prawn trawling and mobile fishing for scallops.

“The economics behind the case for a three-mile limit are simply bizarre. A nice creeled prawn, delivered to the market fresh, is worth more than a trawled prawn – on this we agree. But what you cannot do is catch, on the west coast, 17,000 tonnes of prawns with creels and get the same price, because there aren’t enough creels in the world and some prawns are not suitable for the live market. There is room for both industries, they serve different markets, and we pray for the day they live in harmony.

“The bit that is plainly wrong is to say, ‘creeled prawns are worth more than trawled prawns, therefore all prawns should be creeled’. It’s like arguing that because diamonds are worth more than coal, the only mining which should take place should be for diamonds.

“We a very dismissive of the report, and the pseudo-science inside it, and certainly the pseudo economics, which are almost schoolboy. The current approach is entirely sustainable. The groups you will hear in this debate work on a simple philosophy, which is a plausible sounding statement – like ‘scallop dredging drags metal teeth through the seabed and destroys everything in its path’. But you could say the same thing about ploughing a field.

“It’s that sort of absolute shite, frankly, that regrettably gets published, because it sounds half plausible. The sea is an easy target because no one really understands, except us, the practitioners, about what the science actually is and what the economics of the industry actually is. None of these people are stakeholders, they are opinion-holders.” 

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