40+ Groups demand Marine Scotland Inquiry

Loch Carron Flameshell
Loch Carron Flame Shell © Graham Saunders, SNH Flicker

More than 40 charities, fishing bodies and community groups are calling for an inquiry into watchdog Marine Scotland over fears it is unable to protect Scotland’s waters from criminal activity, The National can reveal.

National Trust for Scotland and the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation are amongst signatories to a joint letter asking Holyrood to “take urgent measures” to protect coastal waters from illegal activity. This includes the unlawful dredging of protected areas by scallop boats.

Seabeds in Gairloch and the Firth of Lorn are said to have been targeted in the past three months, with the Scottish Government made aware of 11 incidents through the course of 2018. Sensitive zones were said to have been “pulverised” in one incident, with rare reefs and fish spawning grounds at risk from massive damage. A flame-shell reef at Loch Carron, thought to be the largest in the world, was hit in 2017, with experts suggesting it could take decades to recover.

And in November the Scottish White Fish Producers Association called on ministers to introduce electronic monitoring of all scallop boats in a bid to stop illegal dredging.

Now, in letters to the First Minister, senior ministers and the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, the 42-signatories claim “vigilant” local groups and individuals are performing the monitoring role supposed to be carried out by Marine Scotland.

And they say a probe must now be ordered to determine whether the Scottish Government agency has the capacity to safeguard protected sites and tackle criminality.

Ongoing Activity

The call, led by CAOLAS (the Community Association of Lochs and Sounds) states: “Marine Scotland, the government body tasked with policing our seas, has been unable to stop this ongoing illegal activity.

“Were it not for the vigilant efforts of fishermen, committed individuals and communities and conservation groups, illegal fishing inside protected areas would go largely unnoticed and unchecked.

“It is clear that even with this support that Marine Scotland have been unable to stop persistent offenders, with warning letters and unsubstantial spot fines.”

It goes on to call for the Scottish Government to “take urgent measures to protect our wider coastal waters to allow marine habitats, fish stocks, fisheries and the livelihoods of our coastal communities to recover” from damage already sustained.

The letter also calls for the statutory roll-out of vessel monitoring systems and an emphasis on “non-destructive, sustainable” fishing practices.

The bodies also ask the Scottish Government to consider re-establishing the “three-mile limit” to limit the impact of commercial activity on sealife, with a focus on the west coast.

The law, which barred trawling and dredging close to the shore, was scrapped under Thatcher in 1984 and is said to have led to the destruction of “critically important” habitats, including fish nurseries, and “fundamentally changed the ecological health of our seabed”.

Meanwhile, current guards like Marine Protection Areas, introduced to aid species like the critically endangered common skate, provide protection “on paper only”.

Lack of Resources

Alasdair Firth, chair of CAOLAS, told The National he expects other organisations to join the push. He said: “The time feels right that it is possible for something to happen. People have become more aware.

“Marine Scotland just does not have the backing or resources.”

Nick Underdown of the Open Seas sustainability campaign, said: “This has been brewing for decades, because so many people have witnessed declines in the fishing, the empty harbours. And now divers are testifying to the gradual degradation of our seabed. People across Scotland, community groups, fishermen are crying out for change for good reason. If we manage the resource better, then our seas can recover, but a few poorly enforced Marine Protected Areas will not be enough. The case for wider fisheries reform is now urgent.”

The Scottish Government did not respond to a request for comment.

This article was originally posted as Probe fisheries watchdog Marine Scotland, 40 groups demand at The National on 05/01/2019.

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