It has been almost a year since we reported illegal damage caused to the seabed in Gairloch – a small part of our inshore sea that has been given legal protection for over a century.
Unfortunately, the law only provides protection in principle, and there have been a number of reports of illegal damage to protected areas around Scotland in this year (such as north west Jura, Sound of Mull, Summer Isles). The Scottish Government response has sometimes been unclear; often the only information in the public domain is that which has been reported in the press.
Enforcement activity is the job for Scotland’s Fisheries Officers, but here we want to share and explain the evidence we have, set out our view of what we think the problem is, and allow you to consider the issue yourself. We want to highlight the damage being caused and what it means for your seas, Scotland’s seafood and the communities that rely on it.
Members of the public have often contacted Open Seas with reports of illegal fishing. These are often concerned people living in coastal communities. Some are active in marine conservation, but many are unaffiliated to any organisation or local group – and more still are people working in the fishing industry who become aware of illegal activity. We see the frustration experienced by people who witness illegal or damaging fishing, report it and yet see very little action being taken. We have found that our most useful role to help people and groups explain and broadcast the problem locally and nationally as well as help collate and communicate the evidence.
So what happened in Gairloch?
In late October 2018 we were alerted to reports by local witnesses of a scallop dredger operating in the Gairloch protected area, in Wester Ross. This area has legal protection from all mobile impacting fishing gear (ie. trawls and dredges) and has supposedly had this protection since 1884 (if not before). When in 1984 the ‘three mile limit’, a ban on trawling in coastal waters, was removed in most of Scotland’s seas (to widespread condemnation), Gairloch was considered so important that it remained protected, alongside a few other small areas.
Scotland’s seas, areas closed to dredging and the location of Gairloch
The verbal reports of illegal dredging were alarming, but not alone strong evidence of illegality and sadly not unusual. Around a week later more reports came in, apparently of a second vessel and this time the reports came with images.
It is difficult (but not impossible) to determine a vessel’s location in a featureless sea, based on photos alone. However, the boundary of the Gairloch closed area was around three kilometres away from the place where these photos were taken and it is clear that the vessel shown was not that far away. The vessel was also photographed with its dredge gear clearly deployed in the water. At this point the evidence started to become compelling.
The boats pictured were not small-scale dredge vessels and were over 15m length. Worryingly they were not transmitting via AIS (a legal requirement for all vessels over 15m), so there was no way to verify in real-time where these vessels were operating.
However, satellite data taken about an hour before the vessel was spotted in the site also showed a vessel steaming toward the closure, within 100m of the boundary.
A view of the vessel. At this point the boundary of the protected area was 3km from shore.
A report had been made to Marine Scotland Compliance already (the number is 0131 271 9700 and is available 24/7) yet a second dredger had appeared to enter the protected area undeterred.
Knowing that Marine Scotland rarely has capacity to gather evidence from below the water, we set off to investigate. We met with George, a local diver who had heard of the damage and who planned to explore the site.
Satellite image showing boat heading toward the site
Using the images and the satellite data we pinpointed the location we thought the scallop dredge vessel had been operating. George dived in from a boat above this ‘mark’ and what he soon found on the seabed was shocking. The seafloor had been comprehensively dredged, his first words on resurfacing were “total devastation”.
This was not the result of a single “isolated incident” or even a sporadic and short episode of illegal dredging. The seabed in this area was equivalent to a ploughed field, showing a criss-cross pattern, indicating many different dredge tows from different angles.
George had dropped in well inside the protected area boundary and the scene was definitive evidence of illegal dredging and systematic damage.
Footage from Dive 1
After a short break, plenty of coffee and some lunch, a second dive site was selected, closer to shore. The sea here is the same depth, the seabed substrate similar to the first area – all conditions were similar. However, given that it would be in plain sight from the shore, we thought it unlikely that a skipper would risk illegally dredging at this location.
We were right. When George dropped to the seabed, he found a comparatively healthy seabed. The difference between this and the first dive is astonishing. The seabed was alive with clumps of maerl, sea squirts, crabs, baby scallops, small shoals of juvenile fish and the odd flame shell.
These seabeds are the same in all aspects but one. One of them had been dredged, the other had not. (Or at least not recently: on analysis, even this comparatively healthy seabed is not as rich as it could be – divers can recall ‘waves’ of maerl projecting three feet high from the seafloor in Gairloch. So even though the patches of purple show that the seabed has not been fully degraded, it’s likely that it has been dredged at some point in time.)
Footage from Dive 2
And sadly, the more George swam during his second dive, he began to witness signs of more recent damage. Shortly before he had to return to the surface, he encountered dredge marks. It’s important to reiterate that Gairloch is one of the few places which has been protected from scallop dredging. It is currently legal to dredge in 95% of Scotland’s inshore seas. Fishery managers acknowledge this footprint is unsustainable, but in the meantime until action is taken even these small protected areas, are being damaged.
We submitted this video evidence to Marine Scotland, offering to provide witness statements if necessary. Scottish Government have a duty to uphold fisheries rules, and moreover, a duty within the Marine Scotland Act (2010) to protect and enhance the health of the sea. They aim to deliver this duty through Marine Protected Areas (MPA), and ensure compliance with fisheries rules through the work of Marine Scotland Compliance.
As we’ve mentioned, it is not always clear how Marine Scotland Compliance respond to reports such as those made in Gairloch. Although they acknowledged at the time that an investigation was live, no further information was ever published beyond statements issued to the media around the time.
Scallop dredgers operate “out of sight, out of mind and cause decades worth of damage in just a few hours”
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) November 20, 2018
Six months after the incident, it was still a mystery as to whether any enforcement action had been taken. There was no report on the Marine Scotland website and witnesses who had supplied information during the investigation were given no update.
In the end, Open Seas submitted Freedom of Information requests to learn what action was taken. These showed that Marine Scotland had gathered sufficient evidence to charge vessels operating illegally in Gairloch – and yet instead of prosecuting the vessel owners, two Fixed Penalty Notices of £2,000 each had been issued. It is not clear whether this fine was greater than the value of scallops caught illegally, but it clearly fails to reflect the environmental harm caused and establish an effective deterrent. This issue was picked up by the Herald who have identified the weaknesses of the current enforcement system:
— HeraldScotland (@heraldscotland) August 11, 2019
Another big issue here is the big black hole of information about where the ‘blackfish’ scallop landings actually ended up. Someone, somewhere, bought the scallops that were illegally dredged from Gairloch. This is only possible due to gaps in supply chain traceability, which remain a major problem for seafood companies. We have set out this ‘grey fish’ problem in depth here and blogged extensively about the importance of transparency.
Healthier seas are in everyone’s interests. Open Seas remains resolute in its opposition to illegal and damaging fishing. And we think that tackling this problem is a pressing public policy priority. Our seas are a common resource that should be managed in the public interest. We believe better regulation of the footprint of these fisheries is needed, combined with improved vessel tracking, alongside the ability of all those buying and selling Scottish seafood to trace precisely where the seafood came from. ‘Trip-level’ data for the scallop supply chain is urgent and essential for the reputation of the broader fleet.
We are calling for robust vessel tracking on all boats given a license for scallop dredging to ensure this damage does not continue. The Environmental Justice Foundation’s Charter calls for improved traceability and for vessel tracking data to be made public, but despite backing from major seafood buyers, Scotland’s management and traceability systems are not yet delivering. We are also calling for the fundamental reform to the spatial management of Scotland’s scallop dredge sector to protect the marine environment.
If you want to follow our on-going work in this area, please sign up to our newsletter here.