A high-profile television campaign by the celebrity chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has sparked widespread public concern about the scallop fishing industry. He has been warmly endorsed by environmental groups, but deeply upset the industry.
Now tensions are rising over the Scottish Government’s plan to re-examine the sustainability of scallop dredging. The promised review, which will cover all aspects of the industry and is due to start in April, could lead to new controls on dredgers.
Scallops are Scotland’s second most valuable shellfish fishery, with 16,000 tonnes a year taken from the sea mostly for export. But dredging for them has attracted growing criticism because of the damage it can inflict on fish nurseries, coral reefs and marine wildlife.
This was dramatised by ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’ on Channel 4 by a tractor pulling dredging gear over a carefully crafted sand sculpture of the seabed on a beach, much to the horror on onlookers. The Scottish government’s review was welcomed by the Fish Fight campaign yesterday, with a spokesman calling for a network of new marine protected areas.
The umbrella group for Scotland’s green groups, Scottish Environment Link, has been campaigning for a review of scallop dredging. Calum Duncan, from the Marine Conservation Society, argued that it could lead to “ecological wipe-out” of the more sensitive areas of the seabed.
“Biologically diverse reefs and other complex habitats can be irreversibly damaged by dredging,” he said. “Use of this heavy gear has to be managed sustainably for the benefit of our seas and the coastal communities that rely on them. We cannot take a business-as-usual approach.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which is concerned about fish-eating seabirds, also welcomed the review. “But it can't be at the expense of real action to address the damaging elements of our scallop industry,” said the society’s senior marine policy officer, Kara Brydson.
“This review must result in a profitable and sustainable market for quality scallops which Scotland can be proud of. RSPB supports fishing businesses that are truly environmentally sustainable.”
The Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, a coalition of community and maritime interest groups, warned that the truth about the impact of scallop dredges couldn’t be hidden any longer. “The science clearly shows that they are the most significant cause of ecosystem degradation in our coastal seas,” said the trust’s director, Charles Millar.
“Their heavy iron teeth rip through habitats and flatten the seabed - devastating the fish nurseries that we need to restore the stocks and support long term jobs in a healthy mixed fishery.”
The fishing industry’s reaction to the review, however, was muted. “It’s neither welcomed nor rejected,” Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation told the Sunday Herald. “It’s just part of life, and we’ll take part in it.”
He insisted that the government’s move was not a response to Hugh’s Fish Fight, which he attacked for over-simplifying and over-dramatising the problem. The programme was deliberately trying to manipulate public opinion and was “beyond credibility”, he said.
“Scalloping only utilises a very small part of the seabed with vessels consistently fishing the same areas decade after decade. To imply that the scallop sector causes wide scale damage is both disingenuous and disproportionate.”
John Hermse, from the Scallop Association based in Elgin, accused opponents of employing “emotive dogma” to make “ludicrous claims” about the industry. “Scallop beds are more affected by the tides and the motion of the sea than the boats fishing them,” he said.
“Scallops are the ultimate fast food. They are easy to cook, delicious and nutritious and it is high time it was acknowledged and appreciated that they have the sustainability credentials to match.”
The industry body, Seafish, pointed out that scallop fishing supported 1,150 Scottish jobs. “It is important that we do not lose sight of the importance of the industry to Scotland’s economically fragile coastal communities,” said its chief executive, Dr Paul Williams.
According to the Scottish government, the terms of the review of scallop dredging were currently being worked out. “Scotland is at the forefront of developing sustainable fishing practices and following a consultation on scallop fishing last year we have announced a wide-ranging review of the scallop fishery in Scotland,” said a government spokeswoman.
Divided views on scallop dredging
To its critics, it’s like cutting down a rainforest to catch a parrot, but to its backers, it’s no worse than ploughing a farmer’s field. Dredging the seabed around Scotland for scallops sharply divides opinion.
It’s certainly a big and bruising business. Started in the 1930s, scallop dredging earned Scottish fishermen nearly £150 million between 2007 and 2011, and took over 78,000 tonnes from the seabed.
Each boat drags up to 14 toothed metal rakes, each three-quarters of a metre wide, across the seabed to scoop the scallops out of the sand. An overwhelming 98% of scallops are caught by dredgers, with the remainder being individually plucked by divers.
Scotland lands about half of all the scallops in the UK. More than 80% are exported to European countries, mainly to France, Spain and Italy, where they are greatly prized as a source of food.
Scallops are large fan-shaped shellfish found all around Scotland’s shores out to depths of 180 metres or more. They can live for 20 years and grow up to 17 centimetres wide.
They are unusual amongst shellfish because they can swim short distances by squirting out jets of water. They keep watch using 100 simple eyes and reproduce as hermaphrodites using both male and female sexual organs.