Open Seas: Dredging in the dark

Sound of Mull scallop
Sound of Mull scallop, Open Seas

The success of Scotland’s seafood sector relies upon a reputation of high-quality, sustainable and traceable fish, and yet the Scottish Government is continuing to sit on its hands in the wake of repeated instances of illegal scallop dredging.

Open Seas document a recent incident of suspicious fishing activity in the Sound of Mull, and explain how inaction by the Scottish Government is undermining the recovery of our marine environment – and why vessel tracking could help solve the problem.

Ram-raiding MPAs

In recent weeks, community organisations, fishermen and environmental groups have spoken with one voice to highlight the systemic failure by Marine Scotland to effectively manage Scotland’s inshore fisheries and protect and enforce fishing rules in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

A series of incidents of both damaging and illegal scallop dredging prompted 42 organisations – including our own – to sign a joint letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calling for the Scottish Government to enforce fishing laws in MPAs and rethink the lack of management, which currently leaves 95% of Scotland’s inshore waters open to scallop dredging.

Our view is that without improved management, the productive potential of our seabed will continue to be eroded by poorly regulated dredging. This means coastal communities, businesses and our broader inshore fishing sector are being disadvantaged by a degraded marine environment.

This call for help has been rebuffed by Scottish Ministers. Although the joint letter was sent to the First Minister, only a brief statement from a civil servant was given as a response. Yet just one week later we document even more evidence of suspicious activity of a vessel, operating inside the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura marine protected area, right next door to some of the community groups and businesses who sent the letter.

Damage to the seabed in Loch Carron, Firth of Lorn, Gairloch and the Garvellachs: each of these events is the equivalent of ram-raiding in our seas, ransacking shellfish stocks whilst destroying some of our most precious wildlife. It’s sad that not only is such destruction happening in plain sight, but also that Scottish Ministers appear to be ambivalent to the damage caused. How can communities feel safe, and how can sustainable fisheries make any progress when such illegality is going unchecked?

We know that the majority of law-abiding fishermen in Scotland are equally frustrated. While the Government fails to act, not only is the seabed is being wrecked, but illegal or unsustainably-caught scallops are being sold on as premium seafood, likely on restaurant plates across Scotland and further afield in the UK and Europe.

The Sound of Mull

This latest incident (documented below) is the third we have reported on in the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA in the past 12 months, and there have been more than 22 reports of suspected illegal activity in this MPA alone since 2016. Imagine if a bank was ram-raided several times in a year – would you feel comfortable running a shop next door? The lack of action undermines community confidence in fisheries management and the efforts to conserve what’s left of our coastal marine habitats.

In this article we assess the evidence of this recent episode of a scallop dredging vessel operating suspiciously in the Sound of Mull.

What happened?

In late January a scallop dredger, publicly transmitting its location via AIS, headed south from Tobermory into the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA.  As dusk approached on the Sound of Mull, the vessel arrived at a boundary inside the MPA beyond which scallop dredging is banned. The AIS signal transmitted from the scallop dredger indicated the vessel was moving at an average walking speed (approximately 3 knots per hour) and in a long, circular pattern, looping repeatedly into the closed area. The red lines in the image below show the track of the scallop dredge vessel. The orange shaded area shows the banned area of the MPA.

Scallop dredgers in Scotland usually tow their gear at a speed of less than 4 knots, so these tracks appeared to indicate that the scallop vessel was actively dredging, and up to half a kilometre inside the boundary of the MPA. However, without on-board gear sensors or a photograph showing that its dredge gear was in the water, it is impossible to determine, in legal terms, whether the boat was actively dredging.

We alerted a few locals in the area and the activity was reported to Marine Scotland. Seven days later just off the shore east of Salen on Mull, three divers, who felt similar concern about the situation, arranged to dive areas of seabed beneath where the scallop dredger was operating. They undertook two separate dives, totalling approximately four and half hours of individual diver time, and photographed what they saw.

Sound of Mull Ocean Quahog
Sound of Mull ocean quahog, Open Seas


The area was largely barren. We suspect this was due to previous instances of dredging in recent years, but evidence of ‘fresh’ damage was still clear to see:  the seafloor was littered with smashed shells – sea urchins, scallops, even some ocean quahog (known to grow to over 400 years old) – some with dead flesh inside. Limbs of starfish were torn off and whelks were seen scavenging on dead shellfish. Just yards from the towed area were patches of healthier seabed, slender sea pens swaying in the silty mud and even seagrass beds in the shallows, highlighting the stark contrast between dredged and un-dredged ground.

The scene was depressing. It was not what you would expect to see if a patch of seabed had been left un-dredged for three years. Research suggests that the majority of damage caused by dredging is to large animals (benthic macrofauna) that remain on the seabed, not just the life which is caught by the dredges. The fresh damage, therefore, coupled with the AIS data appears to provide strong evidence of dredging activity.

Indeed we cannot conceive any alternative plausible explanation. This situation is a text-book example of the legal gaps which afflict Scotland’s inshore fisheries. In a scenario where there is clear evidence of suspicious vessel location and speed data and damage to marine life on the seabed beneath, it remains impossible – in legal terms – for Marine Scotland to take any meaningful action. Unless a vessel is witnessed to have its gear in the water, then the corroborative, evidential burden for proving illegal fishing is not met. Vessel monitoring is needed, urgently.

Read the full article Dredging in the dark at Open Seas

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