Skippers breaking fishing laws are fined anonymously

Fishing laws

Skippers who break fishing laws are escaping damaging publicity by agreeing to “anonymous” fines, environmental campaigners have warned.

Charity Open Seas has called for those who commit crimes at sea to be named and shamed amid fears current penalties do little to deter wrongdoing.

Its demand comes after the charity tried and failed to discover the identity of those responsible for illegal scallop dredging in the Gairloch earlier this year.

Fishing watchdog Marine Scotland confirmed it had issued two fixed penalty notices (FPNs) of 2,000 for what were first offences. However, it refused to name the vessel or vessels involved, citing data protection laws.

Some fishing insiders now fear unscrupulous skippers and companies are ready to pay the occasional fine – £2,000 is about the worth of a single haul – as one of their costs of doing business. 

However, a previous investigation by the website The Ferret found most infringements found by Marine Scotland were not considered to merit a fine.

Breaking fishing laws

A spokesman for Open Seas, which campaigns for sustainable fishing practices, said: “Some fisheries offences amount to serious environmental crimes. Dredging across the seabed in a closed area is no different from illegal logging or polluting. 

“Unlawful scallop dredging and trawling in protected areas destroys fragile seabed habitats and is hugely unfair to the sustainable, low impact fleet that depend on healthy seas to harvest seafood responsibly.

“Our justice system needs to reflect the rising importance of environmental sustainability and be set up to properly penalise damaging and illegal fishing. Currently, there is no effective financial and reputational disincentive.”

“It is far too easy for a vessel owner to treat the risk of a minor fine as just part of their business model. The fine is often not much more than the value of seafood caught. Who wants to buy seafood from a company that has a record of fishing illegally and destroying the environment?”

Open Seas said it is asking the Scottish Government to provide full transparency on FPNs. 

The main commercial fishing lobby, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, refused to comment on the charity’s calls. Open Seas is openly loathed by some skippers and owners. 

Some fishing industry figures are understood to back a Marine Scotland position that seeks to nudge skippers to compliance rather than adopt a punitive stance.

The Scottish Government defended anonymous fixed penalty notices issued by its watchdog. A spokeswoman said: “Marine Scotland treats the names of people offered fixed penalties as personal data. 

“Fixed Penalty notices are a quick, certain and proportionate response to relevant marine and fisheries offences.”

Last year The Ferret used data passed on by Scottish authorities to the EU to compare repeat offending in different nation states.

Scotland lacks behind the EU

EU auditors said that 169 of Scotland’s 2,000 fishing boats each had more more than five infringements between 2013 and 2015.  That figure – eight per cent of the fleet – compares with just one per cent in France and Italy.

There were some 5,150 infringements, such as busting quotas, over the three years, more than 1700 every 12 months. EU auditors said he number of fines imposed in Scotland was “very small”.

“In practice, most of the action taken following infringements involved advisory letters and verbal and written warnings,” they added, according to The Ferret. “These ‘soft measures’ were applied even in cases of serious infringements (e.g. catching fish after the closure of the respective fishery) and the measures did not seem to prevent recurrence.”

Auditors concluded that Scotland – despite more inspections – had a higher reoffending rate because its sanctions were “less dissuasive”.

Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie represents some of the west coast communities where illegal dredging and other fishing crimes are damaging the marine environment.

He said he wanted to see more open prosecutions of those found breaching the fishing laws.

Mr Finnie told The Herald: “In general the move in our criminal justice system to alternatives to prosecution is to be welcomed and Fixed Penalty Notices are one such option.  

“Scotland must robustly police its fishing waters and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). As recent dredging of MPAs shows, there’s a lawless element out there, who care more about personal gain than sustainable seas.

“In the past, publicity around ‘black fish’ landings and the resulting trials sent a clear message about adherence to the law which anonymised Fixed Penalty Notices cant.

“I believe that, save in exceptional circumstances FPNs shouldn’t be employed, rather publicly visible court proceedings should be instituted.”

Concerns about illegal scallop dredging

As The Herald revealed last month, Marine Scotland is investigating yet another case of suspected illegal dredging for scallops on one of the country’s most protected seabeds.

The watchdog 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 The Ferret showed what it called the “pulverised” seafloor at Jura.

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

This article was originally published as Anger over secret justice for skippers who break fishing laws at The Herald on 12/08/2019.

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