The recent incident of illegal dredging in a Scottish MPA has exposed a serious problem for producers and consumers of Scottish seafood, highlighting that we don’t know, with any geographical accuracy, where much our seafood comes from. Our follow up investigations suggest that legally and illegally caught fish and shellfish is being sold alongside one another, with buyers unable to distinguish legal catches from illicit ones. With increasing consumer demand for sustainable food with assured provenance and traceability, this article explores how improved vessel monitoring can solve the pressing problem of “grey fish” – fish of no proven origin – in our supply chains.
On Friday 25th January, two scallop fishermen – Davy Stinson and Steve Barlow – hand-diving for King scallops off Scotland’s west coast, encountered evidence of damage to the seabed consistent with scallop dredging. The divers saw the tracks of scallop dredges on the seabed and a trail of broken scallop shells. The shells were cracked open, containing the scallop flesh, or ‘meat’, still inside, indicating that the damage had been inflicted recently (seabed scavengers, like crabs and lobsters had not yet moved in to eat the dying shellfish). Dredge damage is unfortunately not an unusual sight, but this damage was witnessed inside a Marine Protected Area – and also a Special Area of Conservation, designated under EU law – where scallop dredging has been banned since 2007.
The divers immediately reported the damage to Marine Scotland Compliance, phoning the suspicious activity hotline, but were not advised whether this would trigger any further investigation. The two divers had no camera equipment to document the damage and, concerned that their statements were not robust evidence, they resolved to re-dive the site with cameras when the next period of weather would allow. One week later (Friday 1st February), the divers retraced their fishing trip. We joined them that day. It was a bright and relatively calm morning and the steep rocks of Insh island sloped into the waters, marking the surrounding reef. Steve dived the site where he had previously witnessed the broken shells. Visibility below the water was not ideal; the water was stoorie, thick with suspended sediment, but as he swam over close to the seabed, his torch again illuminated smashed shells littering the seafloor.
Steve returned to the surface and brought further evidence of the dredging onto deck – scallop shells with hinges intact. A scallop’s ligament – which connects both shells of the scallop like a rubbery hinge – decays and snaps within weeks of dying, but this hinge was still unbroken and a ragged hole had been smashed through one of the shells. With a combined diving experience of over 50 years, Davy and Steve knew the site well, were able to describe the underwater features of the area and know the tell-tale signs of dredging. They were clear – this was concrete evidence of scallop dredging. We agree.
Davy Stinson dived another location directly afterwards and found similar evidence of broken shells (unfortunately the camera was off for most of this dive so most of what he witnessed was not captured in footage).
BBC Reporting Scotland news report on divers’ efforts to document evidence of illegal scallop dredging in Firth of Lorn in February 2018. pic.twitter.com/zOqCKHCDhJ
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) April 16, 2018
There was a clear response from concerned fishermen who openly rebuked the illegal fishing. Fishing representatives sought to distance their members from the activity and no-one denied that illegal dredging was taking place. Indeed it transpired that some sectors of the industry had known of this issue for over nine months, and illegal fishing in MPAs was noted in minutes of the West coast Regional Inshore Fisheries Group.
Why is this a problem?
Illegal dredging is bad for the environment, not least in areas of highly productive and diverse habitats like the Firth of Lorn, which is still recovering from historical damage caused by dredging. People are increasingly aware of the problem: dredge gear digs up to 10cm into the seabed and a single tow can rip up fragile habitat that may never fully recover. Estimates vary for different species depending on the seabed type and local tidal and wave conditions, but it can take decades for sensitive areas to replenish.
The other very real victim here is the reputation of our seafood. As the Minister for Rural Economy Fergus Ewing has said of Scotland’s Food and Drink strategy: “our brand is based on provenance, our reputation for high quality, our clean natural environment.” Unfortunately, this incident highlights a much broader issue about the condition of our clean and natural environment, which is putting that ‘brand’ at risk.
Selling catches from illegal fishing in MPAs is ‘fish fraud’ plain and simple. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has recently published an ‘Overview of Food Fraud in Fisheries Sector’ and highlights common types of fraud including actions intended to “hide an illegally harvested…species from a protected area“. The current regulation of dredging unfortunately makes illegality in the Scottish dredge sector difficult to stamp out. This means illegally caught products can find a route to market. Shellfish caught illegally by rogue skippers (eg from inside Marine Protected Areas) is entering the supply chain in such a way that buyers of the products cannot definitively distinguish those caught legally from those caught illegally. Therefore, at the wholesale level, illegally caught seafood – also known as black fish – is mixing with the legal seafood. The result is to corrupt the entire system: the resultant “grey fish” – seafood with no guarantee of sustainable or legal provenance – is in no-one’s interest.
How is this happening?
In short, regulation of inshore fisheries is not sufficiently robust. Around Insh island – where this illegal dredging took place – is within the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura nature conservation MPA designated to conserve common skate in 2014 and the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation (another type of MPA), designated for its diverse rocky reefs. These are some of the most powerful pieces of environmental law present in Scotland’s seas. The area was designated in this way for good reason, and management of fishing activity within the MPA took two long years of debate – the scallop dredge fleet arguing against restrictions based on projected lost profit, whilst other fishing interests and communities argued for more restrictions on bottom-towed gear based on the need to protect the ecosystem.
The MPA rules eventually came into force in 2016; those in the SAC have been in place since 2007. The reduced catch and income predicted by dredgers operating in the area was not seen in the following year. However, despite not being evidenced with video footage above and below the water, there have been reasonably frequent reports of illegal fishing in the closed areas throughout this time.
Illegally caught seafood is currently almost impossible to identify, because most inshore boats are not required to provide detailed information about where they fish. This means that when seafood is landed to a quayside, there is no real way to determine whether it came from a place it should not have, e.g. dredged from the waters around Insh. Currently fishermen must report their landings by submitting either a Landings declaration or a Fish 1 form. However, this obliges skippers to log their catch to an ‘ICES sub-rectangle’ and plot the coordinates of where fishing activity commences – not anything specific about where fishing actually takes place. ICES sub-rectangles cover more than 300km2 of sea. The system also relies entirely on self-reporting – vessels operating illegally are unlikely to voluntarily declare their illegal catch.
This presents a real provenance issue. Consumers want to know where their seafood comes from, but at best they can only know to the nearest 300km² – an area bigger than some local authorities, bordering on meaningless in the context of MPAs and zonally closed areas. One area can span from open waters with no fishing restrictions to very ecologically fragile reefs closed to damaging fishing.
Our understanding is that the Scottish Government finds it difficult to prove damaging activity in our inshore fisheries. Marine Scotland Compliance – the agency tasked with enforcing fishing rules – currently needs to send out patrol vessels or spotter planes to gather the sort of evidence needed to secure a conviction for illegal fishing. More often potentially illegal activity is happening completely under the radar because so many vessels do not carry electronic monitoring devices. Scotland’s inshore coastline is sparsely populated in places (the Garvellachs and Insh island where this latest incident occured are a good example of this), so there are few people around to witness and report boats operating in a closed area.
What is the law?
To partially resolve this issue, there is a legal requirement that boats larger than 12m fit vessel monitoring systems (VMS). VMS ‘pings’ a vessel’s location data direct to enforcement officers. Unfortunately, however, because this happens only once every two hours fishing activity is difficult to identify. Furthermore, because VMS pings just every two hours, authorities acknowledge some vessels are entering closed areas ‘between pings’ to drop their gear and fish illegally for a short period of time.
Many boats also operate Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) – a form of much more frequent location data, where vessels transmit their locations to mainland receivers. This provides real time, and accurate positional data on a vessel’s movement. Again this is not actually mandatory for all vessels: only those larger than 15m in length are legally required to keep their AIS switched on at all times. Although most fishing vessels of all sizes do use AIS, it is legal for boats under 15m to switch off their AIS and ‘go dark’. AIS is also not itself a full proof system; AIS relies on line-of-sight reception and is affected by weather conditions, so it is difficult to prove when a vessel is and is not actively transmitting its location.
Therefore with our patchy system of detection and enforcement, boats can fish illegally and undetected in restricted areas or within voluntary closures and then land their black fish to market without anyone knowing. This starts to explain how and why illegal fish is ‘greying’ the supply chain.
How big a problem is this?
When the issue of illegal fishing inside MPAs was previously raised in Scottish Parliament prior to Steve and Davy’s finding, the Director of Marine Scotland had said “the situation is slightly overstated”. Given the damage uncovered in the Firth of Lorn was likely happening during that time, we unfortunately have to conclude the issue is bigger than was estimated.
The extreme damage that can be caused by a single scallop dredger means that it does not take many rogue vessels to cause unsustainable environmental damage. The divers in the Firth of Lorn have reported a significantly simplified and damaged seabed, in areas where they were once beginning to see signs of recovery. Up to date figures are not available, but in 2012 26% of Scottish scallop dredge vessels were under 12m and therefore do not have to carry VMS – given the existing limitations of VMS described above, we would also argue the whole fleet is vulnerable to the problem.
Until a more rigorous vessel monitoring system is in place, our Scottish inshore fishing industry is at a strategic disadvantage compared to other producer states that have apparently anticipated the need to evidence sustainable provenance. It’s a key weakness of the seafood sector and needs to be addressed
What’s the solution?
We think it’s pretty simple. Just as taxis, buses and aircraft are tracked whilst they carry us around, so too should fishing boats be tracked when fishing in our common seas, for our publicly owned fish, whilst harvesting seafood for our dinner tables.
Some skippers embrace this idea of a roll-out across the fleet. Others are apparently partially resistant, arguing that it should be applied to ‘known offenders’. This seems illogical. We need to detect illegal fishing to be able identify ‘known offenders’ in the first place. The current system of surveillance manifestly cannot deliver this.
Other countries are already well ahead of the curve. In English waters there are now well-developed plans to roll-out inshore Vessel Monitoring Systems (iVMS) across the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCA). The plans followed an intensive trial developed by the Devon and Severn IFCA.
The waters and Devon and Severn are like many inshore areas, and are home to a range of protected areas, including Lyme Bay SAC, Lundy island and various other MPAs (or MCZs as they are known as in England). Because of the complex nature of managing these waters, the IFCA has required iVMS units be installed on all vessels licensed in its area, this provides near-real time tracking of all inshore boats. These devices ping data at a much higher rate than the traditional VMS systems (every 3 minutes, versus every 2 hours) which has not only enabled skippers to show authorities where they were operating, but also enabled the IFCA to be alerted if any illegally encroach inside MPAs and remotely identify whether boats were actively fishing. Ping rates are a critical factor and some fisheries managers contend even higher ping rates might be required in some circumstances.
The effectiveness of this approach has been proven. Compliance with fisheries closures in Lyme Bay has improved over time and a study found that the reasons for this included “increasing awareness of the boundaries of the [site], improvements in enforcement by the IFCAs…and tracking through electronic VMS and iVMS”. The data gathered from the iVMS has also allowed Devon and Severn IFCA to successfully prosecute cases of illegal fishing. Research has also recorded significant benefits to the environment, with increased species richness and abundance inside the Lyme Bay Reserve since 2008.
This same system is now being rolled out across all boats in the English IFCAs, and will mean fishermen – making use of EMFF funding – are fitting systems that will be free to use for the first two years of operation. Following that, the ongoing costs, expected to be within the region of £200 per year – a fraction (0.2%) of total annual operating costs for the >15m dredge fleet – will be absorbed as another basic running cost, alongside safety and navigational systems.
Some pilots and trials of similar technology are happening at a local-scale in some fisheries in Scotland, but the case for rolling out inshore vessel monitoring has never been stronger. The Scottish Government has already made a commitment to establish “appropriate vessel monitoring” by 2020. However, it is not clear whether this will be implemented on time and what ‘appropriate’ means given the variability of systems available and potential baseline requirements for different segments of the fleet. Until implemented, the environmental cost remains high and continued inaction is almost certainly trapping the industry in outmoded management and disbenefiting future generations of fishermen. Studies show that areas of seabed – if left to recover from bottom-towed fishing activity (such as dredging) – actually support a higher diversity of species. There is a real opportunity through improved vessel monitoring to confidently market the provenance of Scottish seafood and ensure environmental standards are met.
A legal fix
In the meantime, regulations and the market are well behind the curve of both consumer demand and scientific understanding. The current legal requirements for fish traceability are focus on the chain of custody only after the fish or shellfish have been landed to port, not what happens before at sea and so do not provide the necessary guidance for full traceability.
Recently updated advice from the Food Standards Agency (the equivalent of Food Standards Scotland) has sought to clarify what traceability should be required, but still only requires traceability to a FAO unit – most of which are about the size of Scotland. More information about where exactly the fish was caught and additional data, such as levels of associated bycatch, is urgently needed.
So this apparently requires not just a change in industry practice, but arguably a change in the law or at least better implementation of existing regulations. Traceability standards have been led at European level and Article 18 of Europe’s main food law regulation requires “The traceability of food, feed, food-producing animals, and any other substance intended to be, or expected to be, incorporated into a food or feed shall be established at all stages of production, processing and distribution.” This is clearly not happening – as the “food” (in this case, scallops) are not traceable during “production” (ie whilst fishing). It’s time the spirit of this foundational legislation was effectively implemented for our fisheries.
There is a pressing need for the fishing industry, governments and all with an interest in harvesting and providing fish to deal with this blindspot in traceability. The technology is already available to solve our blackfish and fish fraud, but until we use it, our seafood industry will be increasingly hamstrung by this problem of grey fish and more importantly, undermining the long-term health and recovery of our seas.
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