The success of Scotland’s seafood sector relies upon a reputation of high-quality, sustainable and traceable fish, and yet the Scottish Government is continuing to sit on its hands in the wake of repeated instances of illegal scallop dredging. We document a recent incident of suspicious fishing activity in the Sound of Mull, and explain how inaction by the Scottish Government is undermining the recovery of our marine environment – and why vessel tracking could help solve the problem.
In recent weeks, community organisations, fishermen and environmental groups have spoken with one voice to highlight the systemic failure by Marine Scotland to effectively manage Scotland’s inshore fisheries and protect and enforce fishing rules in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). A series of incidents of both damaging and illegal scallop dredging prompted 42 organisations – including our own – to sign a joint letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calling for the Scottish Government to enforce fishing laws in MPAs and rethink the lack of management, which currently leaves 95% of Scotland’s inshore waters open to scallop dredging.
Our view is that without improved management, the productive potential of our seabed will continue to be eroded by poorly regulated dredging. This means coastal communities, businesses and our broader inshore fishing sector are being disadvantaged by a degraded marine environment.
This call for help has been rebuffed by Scottish Ministers. Although the joint letter was sent to the First Minister, only a brief statement from a civil servant was given as a response. Yet just one week later we document even more evidence of suspicious activity of a vessel, operating inside the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura marine protected area, right next door to some of the community groups and businesses who sent the letter.
Damage to the seabed in Loch Carron, Firth of Lorn, Gairloch and the Garvellachs: each of these events is the equivalent of ram-raiding in our seas, ransacking shellfish stocks whilst destroying some of our most precious wildlife. It’s sad that not only is such destruction happening in plain sight, but also that Scottish Ministers appear to be ambivalent to the damage caused. How can communities feel safe, and how can sustainable fisheries make any progress when such illegality is going unchecked? We know that the majority of law-abiding fishermen in Scotland are equally frustrated. While the Government fails to act, not only is the seabed is being wrecked, but illegal or unsustainably-caught scallops are being sold on as premium seafood, likely on restaurant plates across Scotland and further afield in the UK and Europe.
Analysis of suspicious dredging activity in Sound of Mull
This latest incident (documented below) is the third we have reported on in the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA in the past 12 months, and there have been more than 22 reports of suspected illegal activity in this MPA alone since 2016. Imagine if a bank was ram-raided several times in a year – would you feel comfortable running a shop next door? The lack of action undermines community confidence in fisheries management and the efforts to conserve what’s left of our coastal marine habitats.
In this article we assess the evidence of this recent episode of a scallop dredging vessel operating suspiciously in the Sound of Mull.
In late January a scallop dredger, publicly transmitting its location via AIS, headed south from Tobermory into the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA. As dusk approached on the Sound of Mull, the vessel arrived at a boundary inside the MPA beyond which scallop dredging is banned. The AIS signal transmitted from the scallop dredger indicated the vessel was moving at an average walking speed (approximately 3 knots per hour) and in a long, circular pattern, looping repeatedly into the closed area. The red lines in the image below show the track of the scallop dredge vessel. The orange shaded area shows the banned area of the MPA.
Scallop dredgers in Scotland usually tow their gear at a speed of less than 4 knots, so these tracks appeared to indicate that the scallop vessel was actively dredging, and up to half a kilometre inside the boundary of the MPA. However, without on-board gear sensors or a photograph showing that its dredge gear was in the water, it is impossible to determine, in legal terms, whether the boat was actively dredging.
We alerted a few locals in the area and the activity was reported to Marine Scotland. Seven days later just off the shore east of Salen on Mull, three divers, who felt similar concern about the situation, arranged to dive areas of seabed beneath where the scallop dredger was operating. They undertook two separate dives, totalling approximately four and half hours of individual diver time, and photographed what they saw.
The area was largely barren. We suspect this was due to previous instances of dredging in recent years, but evidence of ‘fresh’ damage was still clear to see: the seafloor was littered with smashed shells – sea urchins, scallops, even some ocean quahog (known to grow to over 400 years old) – some with dead flesh inside. Limbs of starfish were torn off and whelks were seen scavenging on dead shellfish. Just yards from the towed area were patches of healthier seabed, slender sea pens swaying in the silty mud and even seagrass beds in the shallows, highlighting the stark contrast between dredged and un-dredged ground. Here are the locations of the dives.
And here are some photos taken during both Dive 1 and Dive 2. Judge for yourself.
In the centre of the photo is the torn limb of a goosefoot starfish (Anseropoda placenta), a tough species of starfish. It’s unlikely that anything other than a scallop dredge could inflict such injury to this marine animal.
A piece of cracked shell from sea urchin. The spines of a sea urchin would generally fall off after a week or so, indicating the sea urchin was recently damaged.
The cracked edge of this scallop shell is pure white, without any algal discolouration that would develop over a short period of time.
Again the pure white cracked edge of an ocean quahog, one of the world’s oldest living animals. Arctica islandica can live to over 400 years old.
A whelk scavenging on the flesh of a sea urchin, again a tell-tale sign of recent damage.
The scene was depressing. It was not what you would expect to see if a patch of seabed had been left un-dredged for three years. Research suggests that the majority of damage caused by dredging is to large animals (benthic macrofauna) that remain on the seabed, not just the life which is caught by the dredges. The fresh damage, therefore, coupled with the AIS data appears to provide strong evidence of dredging activity. Indeed we cannot conceive any alternative plausible explanation. This situation is a text-book example of the legal gaps which afflict Scotland’s inshore fisheries. In a scenario where there is clear evidence of suspicious vessel location and speed data and damage to marine life on the seabed beneath, it remains impossible – in legal terms – for Marine Scotland to take any meaningful action. Unless a vessel is witnessed to have its gear in the water, then the corroborative, evidential burden for proving illegal fishing is not met. Vessel monitoring is needed, urgently.
Why does this matter?
Scallop dredging is big business. From the long shadow of declining white fish, it is now the third most valuable seafood sector by landed value in Scotland. But scallop dredging is known to be the most damaging form of fishing practised in our seas. It can turn the seabed to rubble, uprooting and flattening marine habitats, and undermining the functioning of the marine ecosystem. Having developed relatively quickly in the 1960s and been largely unregulated through most of the past 50 years, the method of dredging has caused widespread destruction in our inshore waters. The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 set out to curtail damaging activities and restore the seas by establishing, amongst other things, a network of Marine Protected Areas.
However, the Scottish Government have yet to designate all these MPAs, and have established the necessary fisheries management in less than half of those designated (meaning trawling and dredging can continue un-managed in many MPAs). Coupled with some seasonal fisheries closures, these MPAs are currently the only spatial mechanism in place to recover the health of our seas. They protect small pockets of healthy seabed, or places where some of our most special marine life lives. When it comes to scallop dredging, they result in only 5% of our inshore seas being closed off permanently to dredgers.
Distribution of permanent and seasonal dredge closures in Scotland’s inshore seas. Data from Scottish Government (Marine Scotland).
Despite this, scallop dredging appears to be repeatedly taken place inside these few places. The opportunity for our seas to recover is therefore at stake.
A symptom of a bigger problem
These illegal incidents are the warning signs of an industry that has not been historically well-managed. Catch per unit effort is down in many areas, which basically means scallop vessels are dredging harder for less. That skippers are openly transgressing MPAs is a worrying symptom of either greed or desperation. Either way, it is not a good sign.
And yet Marine Scotland have been unable to prevent this illegality and many within communities are feeling let down, unable to rely upon the measures designed to recover our sea lochs and coastal waters. People witness scallop dredgers towing along their coastlines, sometimes within just a few dozen yards of the shore, and feel powerless to stop what has become routine damage to the seabed. A damaging activity has become normalised in just a few generations.
Frustration has grown and it prompted a meeting about the problem in Oban, drawing people from all over Scotland to discuss the problem. This led community groups, fishing representatives and environmental groups to write to the First Minister urging Ministers to improve the regulation of damaging fisheries to help recover the health of our seas. This letter was sent by Alasdair Firth, chair of Community Association of Lochs and Sounds (CAOLAS).
The fact that this latest incident has taken place within the lochs and sounds where CAOLAS are active, exemplifies the problem, and is a depressing indictment of the Scottish Government’s reticence to act. It shows that they do not appear to understand or acknowledge the scale of the issue.
Refusing to act?
In the past, the problem of illegal scallop dredging has been characterised as one of a few rogue boats. Indeed Marine Scotland once said the situation was “slightly overstated” and the Environment Minister appears to recently reaffirm this view in a Chamber response to the Scottish Parliament:
“Our records show that over the period of the last year  there have been 11 reports of activity by scallop dredging vessels in Marine Protected Areas or other areas where fishing is restricted. It is not possible to say in how many of these reports an offence has been committed, nor how many reports relate to the same instance.”
This latest report and evidence of suspicious activity in the Sound of Mull is not an isolated incident. It follows the catalogue of known illegal dredging events in the past 24 months. A cris-cross of dredge marks were observed in Gairloch, a protected herring spawning ground; damaged shells with fresh meat and disturbed seabed were observed deep inside the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation. Scallop dredging has been banned for almost three years in some MPAs, and yet issues of suspicious and illegal scallop dredging persist. Many vessels continue to “go dark” – switching off their AIS soon after leaving port hiding where they dredge. Many vessels are also choosing to operate during the hours of darkness – and shoreline witnesses have testified to having seen suspicious activity at night-time inside MPAs. Because much of the fleet has no adequate vessel tracking in place, the Scottish Government is currently powerless to keep a watch over this problem. Our briefing on vessel monitoring details the problem.
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
Until resolved, one result is that unsubstantiated claims of sustainability risk being slapped on seafood products and shellfish, which have been illegally dredged or trawled from MPAs and are entering the supply chain. We have written extensively about the traceability problem in Scotland’s inshore fisheries here (Grey Fish – Scotland’s Seafood Traceability Problem), The seafood sector needs to start asking where its scallops are coming from, and making sure it can be 100% confident in the answer.
What can be done?
Open Seas contends that the immediate implementation of vessel monitoring should be prioritised for the scallop dredge fleet. Many inshore fishing associations have been urging for vessel monitoring for years and in the wake of illegal dredging on a spawning ground in Gairloch, the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association indicated that they would seek to lobby the Scottish Government to make this happen stating that “[t]here can be no credible or rational excuse to delay its introduction.” Yet in the following two months vessels within the scallop fleet have continued to operate with apparent impunity.
So we are yet again are calling for proper vessel tracking to be put on all scallop dredge vessels working in Scotland’s seas: not in 2020, not later this year, but urgently. This vessel tracking must be tamper-proof, high-resolution and be coupled with gear sensors, such that when a vessel is actively dredging this can be definitively matched to its location such that there would be adequate evidence of any illegal activity.
We are also joining broader calls for the Scottish Parliament to properly investigate this issue, and the Scottish Government’s ability to effectively resolve it.