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A diver surveys the seabed in Loch Carron. Picture: Howard Wood

Insight: Scottish fishing industry fears radical measures to protect marine life

The fleet currently lacks regulation, with no quotas or limits on catch and no statutory tracking of smaller boats. But these statistics suggest stocks are struggling and could be approaching a cliff edge.

Loch Carron closes to scallop dredgers today, and the fishing industry fears more radical measures to protect marine life in the offing, writes Ilona Amos

Loch Carron is a breathtakingly beautiful spot in the northwest Highlands, surrounded by imposing mountains and nature at its most sublime. Less obvious is the beauty that lies beneath the waves. The area is home to rare marine life with international importance.

The seabed hosts the world’s largest known flame shell bed, with an estimated 250 million of the brightly coloured molluscs. The reef provides important habitat and nursery grounds for many other species.

Today is a special day for that sea loch and perhaps also for Scotland. An incident took place here two years ago that has proved a turning point in the way the country’s inshore waters are to be managed.

A fishing crew wreaked havoc on the reef while dredging for scallops, leaving barren scars across the seabed and a trail of smashed up marine life in their wake.

The destruction caused outrage among locals and conservationists – not least because the dredger was operating legally since the area had no protected status, despite its rare features.

Clearing the nets aboard a scallop dredger. Picture: Getty
Clearing the nets aboard a scallop dredger. Picture: Getty

Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham responded swiftly, slapping an emergency protection order on the loch. The Scottish Government also committed to conducting a full review of the impacts of dredging and bottom-trawling throughout Scotland’s inshore waters.

The inshore extends from the coast out to 12 nautical miles, with most fishing taking place within six nautical miles.

As well as supplying food, the inshore fleet plays an important role in providing employment and income for coastal communities.

It is diverse, including trawlers, creelers, netters, dredgers and divers. Most deploy static gear such as creels and pots to catch prawns, crab and lobster, but mobile methods such as dredging and trawling are also used to target scallops and prawns.

However, the sector faces a range of challenges related to fisheries governance and competing interests such as marine renewable energy projects, fish farms and leisure activities.

After prawns, scallops are the biggest shellfish catch for the Scottish fishing industry, bringing in around £40 million a year.

Annual landings had been steadily rising, peaking at more than 30,000 tonnes in 2012. But they were down to just over 16,000 tonnes in 2018 – despite more boats targeting the species. The industry remains lucrative due to rising prices, but margins are much tighter.

The fleet currently lacks regulation, with no quotas or limits on catch and no statutory tracking of smaller boats. But these statistics suggest stocks are struggling and could be approaching a cliff edge.

Today the closure of Loch Carron has become permanent and the area has been designated a marine protected area (MPA) for nature conservation.

But environmentalists are concerned that many more rare and vulnerable habitats remain at risk around the coast. They say change is urgently needed to safeguard the health of Scottish seas and ensure the fishing industry is sustainable going forward.

MPAs cover around 20 per cent of the inshore, but dredging is only prohibited from parts of these sites, being permitted across 95 per cent of the entire inshore area, though it’s thought the activity takes place in just 50 per cent of it.

Read full article in The Scotsman . . .