Scottish fishermen alleged to be illegally scallop dredging in marine SAC

The Sunday Herald reports, 6th September 2015: Fishermen are facing prosecution for allegedly breaching a ban on scallop dredging designed to protect a wealth of seabed wildlife off the west coast
of Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s marine watchdog has seized dredging gear and submitted a report to the Procurator Fiscal accusing fishermen of illegally scraping the sea-floor for the lucrative shellfish in the Firth of Lorn, a large nature conservation area south of the island of Mull (see map and details).

The move comes in the wake of new evidence that an eight-year ban on scallop-dredging in the firth has been ignored by fishermen. At the same time, fierce arguments between the industry and conservationists over a planned new system of marine protected areas are coming to a head.

Over 200 square kilometres of the Firth of Lorn, which contains the famed Corryvreckan whirlpool, are designated as a Special Area of Conversation (SACSAC Special Areas of Conservation). This gives legal protection to rocky reefs and the endangered and unusual marine wildlife they support, such as sponges, seafans, featherstars and coral.

Scientists say that scallop dredging, which pulls toothed rakes across the sea-floor, can inflict serious damage to wildlife. In 2007 the Scottish Government banned all scallop dredging in the Firth of Lorn SAC.

But scallop dredging in Scotland is a £30 million industry that can earn individual boats hundreds of thousands of pounds in a few months. And now government inspectors say they have caught one boat breaking the rules. The Firth of Lorn has been monitored by satellite, aerial surveillance and at sea by the government’s Marine Scotland Compliance agency. “Over the last twelve months four intelligence reports of activity in the closed area have been received, all of which have been followed-up and investigated,” a Scottish Government spokesman told the Sunday Herald.

The government declined to name the vessel, but confirmed that it was accused of illegal scallop dredging. The fiscal is now investigating and will decide whether or not to launch a prosecution.

Conservationists welcomed the move, but pointed to evidence that the scallop dredging ban in the Firth of Lorn has been breached for years. A map of vessel movements in the firth logged by satellite and recently published by the Scottish Government showed “high” and “very high” densities of scallop dredging between 2007 and 2013.

The Scottish Fisherman’s Federation, however, disputed that there was a high level of scallop dredging in the Firth of Lorn. The monitoring system only showed that boats were present, not that they were fishing, and so was “inaccurate and open to misinterpretation”, said the federation’s chief executive, Bertie Armstrong.

But David Ainsley, a marine biologist who runs a wildlife watching business in the Firth of Lorn from Clachan Seil near Oban, argued that dredgers shown circling islands in the area could not be explained as just passing through. “It is of great concern that the current policing system is not effective at preventing illegal fishing in protected areas,” he said.

Conflicts over the Firth of Lorn have surfaced as the Scottish environment minister, Richard Lochhead, prepares to introduce a new system of marine protected areas (MPAs) around the coast. Angrily opposed by the fishing industry, these are seen by conservationists as a small but significant step forward in preserving wildlife.

Last week the Scottish Parliament’s environment committee wrote to Lochhead asking him to postpone issuing six statutory instruments bringing MPAs into force. They were due to be laid before parliament on 17th September, but MSPs under pressure from the fishing industry want them delayed until after they have heard new evidence on 23rd September.

Source: The Sunday Herald, 6th September 2015. For the full text, see

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