What happened in Loch Carron exemplifies a fundamental problem with the way we manage our inshore fisheries. How can we move forward?
This month a scallop dredger working along the west coast of Scotland, to the east of Skye and intermittently transmitting from its Automatic Information Service (AIS) transponder, entered Loch Carron. The vessel was observed in the sea loch – by several witnesses – towing around the area known to hold fragile and productive flame shell beds (we have spoken to several of these people directly). The flame shell reefs were well-known to many, and local fishermen attest that they hadn’t been dredged for at least 10 years, perhaps 15 or 20.
A squad of dedicated divers arrived at the site just a few days later and documented significant and extensive damage to the reef. (Flame shells recover at a rate of about 12% a year and videos show broken flame shells scattered across the seafloor). The footage on Facebook was quickly shared 100+ times. News travels fast in Scotland the village.
A lot of people have asked us whether this is legal? Why isn’t there protection to stop dredgers towing over known reefs? Here’s our view.
We’re not interested in exposing the skipper or boat, but what happened in Loch Carron exemplifies a much broader problem about the state and management of our inshore waters and is a story that deserves telling.
What’s the Problem?
Causing damage like this is legal. Under existing fishing regulations, scallop dredgers can operate in Loch Carron for 6 months of the year.
Although scallop dredging is one of the most destructive forms of fishing in Europe, it is banned in just 4.4% of Scottish inshore waters (waters inside of 12 nautical miles). Outside this 4.4% there are some seasonal restrictions (Loch Carron was included in one), but other than that it’s a free-for-all. For decades now, people have questioned this situation, but the regulatory response has been inadequate and piecemeal. New rules designed to regulate scallop dredging are due to come into force in June. Yet these only make incremental steps toward changing the number of dredges a boat can use, and the size of scallops that can be landed. The measures also ignore the Scottish Government’s own expert advice to protect reefs from dredging.
Distribution of permanent and seasonal dredge closures in Scotland’s inshore seas. Data from Scottish Government (Marine Scotland).
The event in Loch Carron has caused nothing short of outrage and bewilderment. Divers are as devastated as the reef itself. Local fishermen are up in arms but few feel able to speak up publicly due to fear of recriminations from other fishermen on the water (gear conflict is acknowledged as a major problem and can stymie open debate about inshore management). Unfortunately this is not – contrary to some comments – an isolated incident. We have received frequent reports of other rich areas of seabed (essential fish habitats) being dredged or intensively trawled.
Like everyone else we think we should be basking in the reflected glory of our fishing heritage, proud of the healthy and tasty seafood sourced from our coastal seas. The trouble is that the current resource mismanagement of our inshore waters does not allow it.
How Did We Get to This Point?
To understand the present, we must understand how we got here. Loch Carron, is one of the most iconic sea lochs on the west coast of Scotland, bordering the remote Applecross peninsula and home to the village of Plockton, a once small settlement town which grew in the 1700s to exploit the booming herring fishery.
The large herring shoals have long since left the sea loch and the inshore boom turned to inshore bust. The herring fishery still continues in Scotland and is worth £21 million, but the quota is given to a few big companies operating mainly further offshore for only a few months a year and nearly half of this is landed to Denmark and Norway. This has forced many fishing communities in Scotland to diversify. Alongside more traditional methods such as creeling and netting, heavier fisheries like scallop dredging and prawn trawling have developed.
The Newhaven dredge has only been deployed since the mid-1970s, and in 1984 our inshore waters were opened up to bottom-trawling. These fishing methods have had the effect of modifying our inshore seabeds. Although now less rich, our sea lochs still do contain pockets of productive reef, attracting a diversity of sealife. Loch Carron is home to some of these, including beds of flame shells. Flame shells are a mollusc, similar to a mussel, but as well as has having flamelike tentacles that billow in the currents, they also actually move around the seabed and build vast connected nests. These nests form complex seabed constructions and become part of our seabed ecosystem, just like the way a birch forest populates hillside gullies. This film – taken before the Loch Carron incident- shows this reef building in action:
Flame shells are now identified as a ‘priority marine feature’ and are therefore supposedly protected by General Policy 9 of the Scottish Government’s National Marine Plan as well as within their Marine Nature Conservation Strategy. Unfortunately, in this case, neither of these pieces of legislation have appeared to matter. Previous calls to protect the area were also not given due attention and the area therefore remained, along with the 90+% of Scottish inshore waters, vulnerable to this dredge impact.
How Can We Stop it Happening Again?
There are strong and urgent calls to investigate and respond to the Loch Carron incident. However, this sea loch is not the only place which could better realise the societal and environmental potential through smarter management.
The head of the lobbying group SFF responded to the news saying “you can’t protect all the flame shell beds, all the time…” Unfortunately this misunderstands both the best science and the major opportunities for sustainability in our seas.
The problem and the opportunity is not new to the Scottish Government. Through recent years they have commissioned several studies looking into ways to improve the sustainability of the inshore. Research has concluded that all reefs should be protected and that fleets accessing our inshore should prove they aren’t damaging vulnerable habitats; that improved spatial management of all inshore fisheries would yield better economic returns; other reports recommend that better spatial management would help tackle ‘gear conflict’ too, something backed up other external research. Unfortunately, a lack of Ministerial courage is arguably holding back the potential for Scotland to realise sustainable inshore fisheries.
Very rough distribution and status of known flame shell reefs in Scotland – areas are drawn very broadly for illustrative purposes.
For the sake of the environment, fisheries, communities and our seafood, it’s time we start thinking about a more sustainable way to use our inshore, out to 6 nautical miles. Irrespective of Brexit, the Scottish Parliament will continue to have devolved control over this area, which covers approximately 50,000km². This should be a zone where we promote and manage only sustainable fisheries – a ‘Sustainable 6.’ Dredging on biogenic reefs, such as flame shells, would be a non-starter. Damaging fisheries would be much more tightly regulated, similar to the way some of our Nordic neighbours go about it.
We aren’t suggesting all change can happen overnight. There are livelihoods at stake. Skippers of dredgers and trawlers we have spoken to tell us they have few alternatives and that they struggle because quota is tightly controlled by others in the fishing industry.
However, change is clearly needed – urgently. The creel and dive fisheries, which constitute the majority (over 80%) of our inshore fishing fleet, already offer an opportunity to make more productive use of areas of our inshore without the underlying seabed destruction. Even parts of the scallop dredge fleet themselves recognise change is necessary – and this conversation should not be shied away from now. We need solid leadership and a clear timetable so that businesses can plan, as part of a fair transition, not foisted on industry in a matter of months when political tides turn.
This is an opportunity for our seafood industry, the Scottish Government and the whole supply chain reliant on the health of our inshore fishery. It is accepted that effective compliance and fair governance for public benefit needs legislative reform. The Scottish Government is now in a position to take forward their manifesto commitment for an Inshore Fisheries Bill.
This is not a conservation versus fishing issue. This is not a fishing versus fishing issue. It is an issue of common sense in our common seas.