Redacted documents disclosed through a Freedom of Information request reveal just 14 REM installations on Scottish dredge fleet since 2018 despite £2m of public money and a secretive Government-run scallop industry group
The Scottish Government has been promising to fit Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM)* systems to the Scottish scallop dredge fleet since 2014. This has been made more imperative by ongoing reports of illegal dredging inside marine protected areas (there were six such reports between March and November 2020 during the peak of the pandemic).
In 2015 Scottish Ministers committed to establishing vessel tracking on Scottish Fishing boats “by 2020”, to improve enforcement of MPAs & better understand the fishing “footprint”
Here’s what they’ve said about that over the past 5 years… pic.twitter.com/vPS8rgbldj
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) June 26, 2020
In 2018 the then Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing committed £1.5m of public money to buy scallop dredge companies the tracking devices – this shifted to £2m when they finally agreed the contract. In 2019 the former fisheries Minister Mr Ewing set up something called the Scottish Scallop Sector Working Group – the SSSWG. However, no information about this group was made public. In 2019 a Parliamentary question at Holyrood made its existence public, but no other information was shared.
Earlier this year, we contacted the Scottish Government to request information about the membership of the Scottish Scallop Sector Working Group. The membership of other similar groups are published, eg the Arable Climate Change Group and the Scottish Nephrops Working Group. This was not the case for the ‘SSSWG’. We asked specifically for the Scottish Government to disclose the membership but they declined to disclose this information telling us only that it “consists of fishing association representatives as well as frontline fishers mainly from the scallop dredge sector”. We repeated the request, specifying our interest in disclosing who specifically was participating in the group as well as requesting the minutes of its meetings. The Scottish Government again declined to provide names and the minutes of the meetings, citing ‘data protection’ principles (due to the membership of group not having consented to making its participants public). We contended that this was not transparent and that the documents could be disclosed, if necessary without names, stating organisational affiliations. The Scottish Government then published a redacted version of the minutes of the meetings, which we share here.
The minutes reveal some of the important issues that have been discussed within the scallop dredge sector. Here are some key points:
- The group has met five times. Its first meeting was on 20th September 2019, 11th December 2019, 25th November 2020, 13th (or 15th) April 2021, 12th May 2021. Until these documents were disclosed under FOI, the meetings of this group have effectively been held in secret, although the minutes of one of the meetings has – apparently inadvertently – been put into the public domain here. In the first meeting one ‘anonymous’ member of the group stated a wish for the meeting to publish its outputs, including minutes. “It was agreed that ‘an extract of minutes should be published to demonstrate openness”. This never happened.
- Two years later, and seemingly only as a consequence of a Freedom of Information request, the minutes have been published, but all names have been redacted, including those of industry representatives and Scottish Government staff. It is not possible to understand certain aspects of the minutes without knowing on whose behalf particular statements are being made.
- As it stands, it appears, from the full minute in the public domain, that an industry representative whose business has recently been convicted of illegal scallop dredging has participated in the SSSWG, a body which is tasked with advising the government on the implementation of modernising vessel tracking. We think it is important to know whether this industry representative continued to advise the Scottish Government on these matters subsequent to his business’ conviction. We have commented publicly on this issue, because we think it is a matter of public interest:
An industry leader that has been advising the Scottish Government about tackling illegal scallop dredging owns a company that has been convicted of illegal fishing.
Please help us call out greenwash… https://t.co/UlAC8lXYpt pic.twitter.com/0gzKlJQAwG
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) August 1, 2021
- Two years since it was set up, the SSSWG has no representation from the scallop dive sector. As many readers will know, there are two main methods for harvesting scallops – dredging and hand-diving. Scotland’s hand-dived scallops are well-regarded within the seafood sector as a lower impact method of harvesting scallops and the dive industry is considerable employer in rural communities, such as Orkney and across the west coast. Discussions by the group – especially about management measures to improve condition of the scallop fishery – should surely involve this part of the fishing industry. The proposed criteria for membership of the SSSWG at the outset (in November 2019) specified “Fishermen active or relatively recently retired from the scallop dredge sector, Representatives from fishing associations with members fishing for scallops by dredge, Chairs or representatives from the network of 5 Regional Inshore Fisheries Groups in Scotland” and the minutes state that the “meeting with the Cab Sec in January has informed the basis of the proposed membership list,” suggesting that the group’s restricted membership had full Ministerial blessing. The absence of dive sector representation was discussed in the first meeting, but despite dive operators being “possible others who should be considered for engagement” in September 2019, no such commercial representation has been secured by the SSSWG in its four subsequent meetings.
- The aims of the group are not being delivered. The aim of the modernisation of the Scottish Inshore Fleet Programme was to “provide appropriate and proportionate vessel monitoring and tracking technology to the whole of Scotland’s inshore commercial fleet by the end of 2020” – this has not happened. Since the group was formed, only 14 additional installations of REM have been progressed. There have been no improvements to tracking of trawl vessels. This is despite the fact that industry was assured during these meetings that “the installation of costs would be borne in their entirety by Marine Scotland, including the first year of maintenance”. The Scottish Government have recently said that they intend to make REM mandatory for scallop dredge vessels by end of 2021.
- The minutes appear to acknowledge that there are issues around compliance and a failure of fisheries management. “Those present described their experience of non-Scottish registered vessels failing to respect Scotland’s fisheries management measures.” An Orkney representative on the group also notes that “current legislation has failed to protect their stocks and fisheries” and noted that there are only three scallop dredge vessels operating from Orkney.
- The minutes also suggest that Marine Scotland does not understand its own functions. The minutes read: “[REDACTED] asked whether REM data would be used to evidence ‘criminal activity’. [REDACTED] responded that ‘criminal activity’ was not the domain of Marine Scotland [emphasis added], however, situations do exist where Police Scotland might request data be provided and we would be legally obligated to assist”. However, ‘criminal activity’ is the domain of Marine Scotland, because the Marine Scotland Directorate includes Marine Scotland Compliance which monitors suspicious activity – and where there is sufficient evidence this department submits reports directly to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. It is unclear whether civil servants from Marine Scotland Compliance have been attending SSSWG meetings.
- The working group actively chooses not to engage with environmental groups via the group. “There was strong agreement around the group that Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) should not be included in the group.”
We encourage anyone with an interest in sustainable scallop fisheries to read the minutes. One glimmer of hope is that the documents reveal that industry insiders think “scallop management in Scotland is in some respects at a cross-roads”. We would agree with this . Reform to the spatial management of scallop dredging is urgent, given the ongoing declines of marine habitats, the urgent need for a ‘blue recovery’ and the continued greenwashing of dredge-caught scallops at the point of sale.
The SSSWG has convened a Management Sub Group that is reviewing existing management measures and discussing potential future management measures to identify “potential” short term and long term “solutions”. It notes that there are “concerns over the sustainability of the fishery” and “concerns over the environmental impact of the fishery”. However, discussion by this sub-group around potential measures did not include discussion around spatial management, except seasonal closures. This is despite:
- multiple recommendations made by independent fisheries advisors to improve spatial management of bottom-towed fisheries.
- the industry previously committing to map and protect seabed areas in 2017, and then failing to do so
- the Scottish Government’s promise to limit the impacts of scallop dredging on seabed habitats throughout the inshore zone
The widespread ecological footprint of scallop dredging on the seabed habitats therefore remains a significant blind-spot for those taking leadership positions within the industry.
We will continue to campaign on this issue and encourage anyone who shares these concerns to support our campaign to #EndSeafoodGreenwash.
*REM is a form of vessel tracking that means Government can assess where a vessel is operating and whether or not it is actively dredging, by using gear sensors and other data. Currently much of the fishing fleet is unmonitored and its environmental impact is therefore not easy to manage.