A new industry report is shedding light on the economic and environmental opportunities and consequences of fishing for prawns in our inshore waters. It’s part of a broader story of regulatory inertia and environmental decline in our inshore fisheries. However, debate is now growing around the case for spatial management as a way to restore more sustainable fishing and rural employment in Scotland.
Prawns are a big deal for Scotland. ‘Nephrops’ are large orange-pink prawns sometimes called Dublin Bay prawns, langoustine and scampi. Back in the 1960s only a few tonnes were landed each year, but it is now our second most valuable stock, worth £79m.
Unfortunately, the emergence of this fishery has come at an environmental cost. People want sustainable seafood and yet intensive bottom-trawling for prawns has come to dominate and damage our sea lochs and firths, ever since a ban on inshore trawling was lifted in 1984 in response to the growing the market for scampi.
The majority of the Scottish Nephrops catch comes from bottom trawling, a method of fishing which can have very high ‘bycatch’ rates (in some instances up to 80% of the catch is discarded). It can also cause damage to the seabed and is considered the second most damaging fishery in Europe. Organisations like MCS and Seafish consider it a high risk fishery.
Scottish prawns are also caught by creeling, where baited pots are deployed onto the seabed. This has a lower impact on the seabed and is a cleaner fishery with little to no bycatch.
There is very little official spatial management of the fishery – skippers are mainly left to manage themselves and this has lead to the two fishing methods overlapping, causing what is known in the industry as ‘gear conflict’, with fishing ‘gear’ being damaged either accidentally or deliberately. Some downplay the problem, but others (mainly creel fishermen) view the situation as unworkable. The majority of reported conflict in 2012 was ‘trawler-on-creel’ conflict, although ‘creel-on-creel’ and ‘creel-on-trawler’ conflict also occurs. A review by the Scottish Government estimated damage to fishing gear totalled £1.2m in a single year. BBC Scotland’s Landward has investigated the issue via the documentary ‘Prawn Wars (viewable here)’ and recently (June 2017) revisited the problem.
Partly because of this situation, and the consequent risk of losing gear, creeling is limited in its extent and trawling is more dominant. Despite representing three-quarters of the Scottish inshore fishing fleet, creelers catch only 12% (by weight) of landed prawns within the inshore zone. Gear conflict remains a long-standing issue, with regional ‘hotspots’ and pressure is building for better and fairer management of the fishery. Whilst the issue remains unresolved, the environment, as usual, is paying the price.
A spatial problem
The map above shows the main ports for prawn landings in Scotland and tells much of the story. There are permanent trawl restrictions in only 3.7% of Scotland’s inshore, whilst other restrictions are only seasonal. At the same time it shows that the majority of smaller and remote ports on the West Coast and Western Isles are dependent on creeling (represented by the red dots) – whilst trawling (represented in yellow) is currently more important to ports in the Firth of Clyde and most of the East Coast.
It is within this wider context that a new industry fishery report was recently published. The report Correcting The Misallocation Of Nephrops Stocks In Scottish Inshore Waters: Untapping A Vast Economic (And Environmental) Potential actively critiques the Scottish Government’s approach to inshore fisheries management and makes a case for increasing the creel sector’s share of inshore waters. The 30 page report published by the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) pulls no punches. Drawing on a number of recent studies (NEF’s Scottish Nephrops Fishery working paper and Assessing the Options for Change) It highlights what it describes as a “chronic market failure” and mismanagement of our prawn stocks on both economic and environmental grounds.
The proposition is simple; with little to no proper management by Government, the Nephrops industry has been forged by market forces favouring a pile them high, sell them cheap model. The vast majority of prawns are being landed by trawlers and sold to be processed for lower-value scampi products. Creelers catch higher-value langoustine, and could be catching more of them for higher returns.
There’s only so many fish in the sea and the Nephrop stocks around the UK can only sustain a certain amount of fishing effort, so the question is, how should they be fished? The SCFF’s creel report compares the two fisheries. We’ve dug into the results to try and highlight some of the most interesting findings.
A tale of two fisheries
The report makes clear that the two fisheries are basically working for two different products. Trawlers tow weighted nets over the seabed and are landing dead, dying or damaged shellfish which are mostly processed for their tails (the rest of the prawn is discarded), with a big proportion to be sold on as scampi.
The other fishery is creel fishing, which deploys baited pots on the seabed. Creelers are catching bigger live prawns and sell them as langoustine. These often end up on restaurant plates in Spain and France and are up to five times more valuable than trawl-caught prawns.
The report also found trawling has a significant impact on the environment. The bycatch rate (both of undersized Nephrops and other species including juvenile cod) can be very high. The report draws on research which shows trawlers discard on average 4.5kg of unwanted prawns and undersized fish for every kg of prawns they land. Despite efforts to innovate and Scottish industry trialling more selective gear, trawl nets still catch large numbers of often undersized fish which, again, are often discarded. This issue has resulted in most Nephrops trawl fisheries being considered to have ‘high’ and ‘very high’ bycatch risks. The creel industry by comparison has very little bycatch and the report found discards rates of only around 0.15kg of prawns for every kg landed. Creelers land only the larger prawns that they can sell as langoustine, returning undersized live prawns back to the sea.
As well as having one of the highest bycatch rates of any fishery, trawling has significant impacts on the seabed habitat and simplifies the ecosystem. The report highlights more research which shows that for every kilogramme of Nephrops landed, a trawler must sweep 33,000m² of seabed – around 4.5 football fields, for just one kg of prawn tails. In comparison, a fishing boat using creels has to impact about 1.8m², basically just the area underneath the pots, and tiny fraction (0.005%) of the trawl footprint.
Trawling also has a much higher carbon footprint than creeling. On average trawlers use 9.0 litres of diesel to catch one kg of scampi. This is slightly over 4 times more than the average amount used by creelers to catch the same amount of Nephrops; every kg of langoustine landed by creelers uses only 2.2 litres.
The two fisheries have a complex history. Before 1984, creel fishermen had easier access within inshore waters, but in 1984 (the same year the miners’ strike commenced) a law prohibiting bottom-trawling within three miles of the shore – the ‘Three-Mile Limit’ – was repealed.
Many have since watched from the sidelines as inshore fish stocks declined and bigger boats consolidated access to offshore stocks. Overall creeling employs the vast majority of active fishermen (approximately 1,400 of the 2,040 Scottish fishers), according to the Government’s provisional 2016 statistics. And yet, while the majority of inshore fishermen are small-scale (most creelers and smaller trawl boats), many consider they have been historically marginalised in decision-making processes, in fact, the Scottish Government also recently acknowledged this failing.
This trawl fishery, although it secures access to 88% of landed Nephrops, is a comparatively small group of more powerful boats, and the report shows that it employs fewer fishermen relative to its catch share. The report’s analysis reveals that the creel sector generates more Full Time Equivalent (FTE) jobs per tonne of Nephrops landed, estimating that “each FTE lost in trawling could be replaced by 2.8 jobs in creeling.” Moreover, it finds that the profits resulting from creeling are significantly larger than from trawling. A tonne of creel caught prawns returns on average £604 profit, whereas the same quantity caught by a small trawler generates only £183 profit, and only £328 for a large trawler. This is in part because the end product is less valuable, but also because the operational cost, including the cost of fuel, is large.
The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation therefore says the resource has been squandered with devastating impacts for communities. Fishermen in the west coast say action is needed to “right an historical wrong.” The report contends that unsustainable trawl fisheries have been allowed to dominate and are not generating best value from the fishery, in economic, social or environmental terms. Crucially the report publicly asserts that creelers have become increasingly hemmed in by the trawl sector: “mobile operators are imposing their own de facto area management with the primary purpose of benefitting themselves at the direct expense of creelers. Creelers have to comply with these creel limits otherwise they face the prospect of their creels being regularly towed away. This is a very costly and inconvenient sanction.”
The triple bottom line
But whilst the report highlights the problems, it also sets out a positive opportunity for change. It assesses the marginal cost between the two fisheries and measures the opportunity if access by creelers was prioritised in some areas. The numbers are significant. The report identifies a range of different scenarios (from localised creel-only zones to larger seaward limits on trawling) and estimates that more than 700 jobs and an additional £45m in revenues would be created by reinstating the ‘three-mile limit’ on the west coast alone. This is surely not just of interest to a Fisheries Minister, but Government colleagues with their eye on the budget sheet.
From a sustainability and consumer point of view, this is remarkable, because this scenario, which delivers biggest social and economic benefit, is also the one that is best for the environment. Creeling is a comparatively low impact and clean fishery. Promoting creeling in the place of trawling – where this is possible – would dramatically reduce the pressure on the seabed and give our inshore marine ecosystem a chance to rebound. Remarkably it would do this whilst generating more profits for local businesses and creating more jobs in fragile rural communities. This is truly the ‘triple bottom line’ in action.
“The report calls for the removal of resource and sea space from Peter, to be awarded to Paul. The logic used is the fact that a live creeled prawn is worth more than a trawled one. That is correct, but the argument in the report is equivalent to the observation that diamonds are worth more than iron ore, therefore all miners should seek diamonds.”
To use the analogy of an extractive industry such as mining is revealing in itself, and seems like unhelpfully defensive chop logic. Few miners are going to dig for iron ore in areas where diamonds could be more profitably mined. The point surely is that in some areas there is a choice and, where there is a choice, why not choose the more productive, lower impact, better employer? The answer seems to be because change is complex and potentially difficult. But change won’t and couldn’t happen overnight and we don’t think it should, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth planning for.
SFF continue to put forward the argument that bottom-trawling is already the sustainable option. Whilst it may be in some places, as we’ve documented in our evidence base, Nephrops trawling is a high bycatch fishery with a high impact on the seabed and is not sustainable in most of our inshore. There is no reason not to acknowledge this in any debate.
The SCFF report raises as many questions as it addresses. How would new vessels be licensed? Would inshore trawlers be compensated if access was reallocated? These are crucially important considerations. While there is clearly well-founded tension between the two fisheries, legitimate businesses have built up in recent years on the market for scampi. No one wants redundancy but surely we can be smarter? Given the better environmental credentials, better profit, jobs and higher quality seafood, there is an opportunity to start transitioning our inshore fisheries away from damaging fisheries more towards lower impact fishing. Can trawling be directed to areas where the fishery is less prone to bycatch and where the seabed is less sensitive?
We have said before that changes to inshore fishing practices cannot and should not be made overnight. Any reallocation or spatial management would require planning and support for boats to diversify or secure access to fishing grounds less sensitive to trawling pressure. A ‘fair transition’ is a vital chapter in this wider tale of two fisheries, where the domination of bigger boats have marginalised smaller creel boats (and indeed smaller trawlers) within the inshore. But with trawling only permanently restricted from 3.6% of our inshore seas, and other countries phasing out bottom-trawling altogether, it is time our fleet thinks more radically about how we want to fish our inshore for generations to come. This should be a long-term move toward sustainability in everyone’s interest.
This report comes at a time when inshore fisheries are already under the spotlight. The damage done by a scallop dredger towing through a flame shell reef in Loch Carron exemplified a major flaw in inshore fisheries management, namely that sensitive inshore seabed remains at continued risk from the impacts of bottom-towed fishing.
There are signs now that the ‘inshore issue’ is getting attention. The Scottish Government, has recently committed to progressing an Inshore Fisheries Bill in the second half of the Parliamentary session.
The Scottish Government has already announced “inshore pilots” to trial different fisheries management. It’s currently unclear how these will pan out, but they could provide a proof of concept for future reforms to inshore fisheries management, and be part of a broader strategy to help to promote and connect suppliers of local seafood. There is widely perceived to be an unfulfilled domestic market for our own seafood, something likely to be more important in a Brexiting Britain.
The agenda and vision of the new UK Fisheries Bill will no doubt be of relevance too – given rumoured discussion within England and Wales of a ‘golden mile’ where the inshore is fully protected from damaging fishing methods.
Scotland’s langoustine is rightly the envy of our continental neighbours, but for too long our inshore fishery has remained conflicted due to the widespread impact of inshore trawling in our sea lochs and firths. People want to shout about our seafood for all the right reasons. The Scottish Government has a chance to make that happen.