Probe launched into suspected illegal scallop dredging

Scallop dredging
Scallop dredger © The Ferret

Marine Scotland, the fisheries protection branch of the Scottish Government, has mounted an investigation into a case of suspected illegal scallop dredging on one of the country’s most protected seabeds.

Marine Scotland said it was looking into claims an industrial vessel was last week scraping the bottom of Loch Broom near the Summer Isles.

Scientists are increasingly concerned about this part of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area or MPA, home to an astonishing post-glacial seafloor, rich with biodiversity.

Fishing boats are not allowed to drag their nets across the seabed in the area – and can face fines if they are caught doing so.

There have, however, been a spate of sightings of suspected dredgings off Scotland’s west coast in recent months, including off Jura, Oban and Wester Ross. Video published by the investigative website Ferret last week showed what it called the “pulverised” seafloor at Jura.

Suspected scallop dredging

Fishing lobbies have argued that the damage is being done by rogue operators and insist that dredgers are highly regulated.

Asked about the Loch Broom incident, a Government spokesman said: “Dredging is subject to strict regulations and any illegal activity is completely unacceptable.

“We can confirm a case of suspected illegal dredging in the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area has been reported to Marine Scotland. We remain actively engaged with local groups and stakeholders on issues around Marine Protected Areas, and we will continue to do so going forward.”

Marine Scotland is understood to keep one of its three Marine Protection Vessels (MPVs) in the area concerned to ensure compliance.

It also patrols using RHIB boats, aircraft and drones and has set aside £1.5 million for introducing new tracking and monitoring equipment across the inshore fleet over the next two years.

The Herald contacted the owner of the ship at the centre of the latest investigation, understood to be the Star of Annan.

John MacAlister, of Oban, said his vessel had been in the area but not dredging. “He might have been steaming through [the area] which he is entitled to do,” he said of his skipper. Mr MacAlister said his vessels were equipped with cameras and location devices and were under instructions not to dredge in MPAs.

Threatened seabed

Speaking generally, a spokesman for the campaign group Open Seas said: “With continued incidents of illegal scallop dredging, parts of the industry are recklessly risking the broader reputation of Scotland’s seafood.

“Unfortunately, the Government is mishandling this badly, saying that vessel tracking will solve this, but even in instances where vessels are tracked with existing technology it makes no difference.

“We need an effective deterrent urgently and emergency legislation to deal with the problem. The Government cannot keep kicking this can down the road.

“The seabed is a public asset and parts of the scallop fleet are continuing to dredge illegally and destructively rake a profit from it.

“Why should we continue licensing scallop dredgers who flout the law and allow them to continue trashing the seabed? We understand that vessels investigated sometimes receive only a warning letter or a small fine – this is proving completely ineffective. A few weeks ago, dredge damage to the seabed was recorded on the north west coast of Jura, inside a conservation area. Businesses found to be dredging illegally should be blacklisted.

“Scotland’s MPAs are in place for good reason. Our seabed has been degraded by decades of dredging. Protected areas won’t work unless they are enforced. There is a huge opportunity to start making our seas healthier and more productive, but the Government needs a step change in seabed management if they’re serious about recovering the health of our seas.

Scottish Fishermen’s Federation Chief Executive Bertie Armstrong said: “We do not condone illegal fishing, scallop-dredging or otherwise. The industry has been working pro-actively with the Scottish Government on the introduction of monitoring technology that will significantly reduce instances of this kind.”

This article was originally published as Probe launched into suspected illegal scallop dredging at The Herald on 23/07/2019.

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