That is the blunt message this weekend from celebrity chefs and food experts, who are demanding a tough government crackdown on electro-fishing for razor clams. “This idiocy must stop,” they declare in a joint letter to the Sunday Herald (see below).
Shocking the seabed forces razor clams out of their burrows so that thousands can be harvested relatively easily. But it also kills marine wildlife, breaking the spines of fish, causing internal bleeding and respiratory failure.
The fishing industry, however, wants the practice to be legalised, though only after further research and under proper regulation. For their part, Scottish ministers promise they will tighten the licencing rules for razor fishing.
Razor clams (Ensis) are regarded as a gourmet delicacy, and have a soft, sweet flesh much favoured by chefs. There is a lucrative market for them across Europe and in the Far East.
Known as spoots because of the water they eject when burrowing into the sand, they can grow to between 10 and 20 centimetres long. They can be harvested using dredged suction pumps, or traditionally by hand (photo left thanks to Galloway Wild Foods).
But now fishing boats are increasingly turning to electro-fishing. This involves trailing arrays of electrodes powered by on-board generators over the seabed, followed by divers who gather the emerging spoots.
Catches have rocketed from 46 tonnes valued at £74,218 in 1995 to 903 tonnes worth over £2.5 million in 2012. Government scientists attribute the huge increases in recent years to electro-fishing, suggesting that as many as half are now being illegally harvested.
Since 2010, a dozen boats have been caught and fined up to £2,000 for electro-fishing around Scotland. But critics argue that the fines are “puny” and have not deterred the fishermen or dented their profits.
“I was absolutely shocked when I looked into the methods that were being used to harvest razor clams,” said Andrew Fairlie, who runs a famed restaurant at the luxury Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire. It’s the only restaurant in Scotland with two prized Michelin stars.
He added: “Unless our suppliers can guarantee that any spoots we receive are caught in a sustainable manner we will remove them from our menu - and I would urge any other chef to follow suit.”
Tom Kitchin, the award-winning chef at The Kitchin restaurant in Leith, Edinburgh, and a guest judge on BBC’s MasterChef, agreed. “As chefs we should be responsible,” he argued.
“We have to do this sustainably, and if we have to pay a premium, then we have to pay a premium,” he said. Illegally electrocuted spoots were “against our philosophy” and had never knowingly been served in his restaurant
Fairlie and Kitchin have both signed the letter to the Sunday Herald describing electro-fishing as “one of the most damaging ways of catching food mankind has devised”. Other signatories are Charlie Cornelius, who runs the Iglu organic restaurant in Edinburgh, Charlotte Maberly, a food lecturer at Queen Margaret University, and the food writers Joanna Blythman, Richard Bath, and Alex Renton.
Renton, who co-ordinated the joint letter, pointed out that unregulated electro-fishing also put divers’ lives in danger. “I'm worried at any fishing that risks human lives and the health of Scottish seas,” he said. “This is a moral issue for the big business of seafood export.”
But the industry body, Seafish, pointed out that another form of electrical fishing for flatfish by trawlers in the southern North Sea had been legalised. Its research suggested that electricity was “less environmentally intrusive” than other fishing methods.
“We would therefore welcome further research to allow for an accurate and objective portrayal of the activity based on scientific findings with robust health and safety standards,” said Seafish’s sustainability adviser, Bill Lart.
“Electrical fishing for razor clams is an illegal fishing method under European Union rules and Seafish does not condone its use until proper legislation and fishery management measures are in place.”
According to the Scottish fisheries minister, Richard Lochhead, officials would continue to tackle illegal activity and the harm it caused. “The Scottish government does not support the practice of electro-fishing or any relaxation of the rules governing it,” he said.
“Marine Scotland intends to introduce new razor fishing licence conditions by April 2014, which will deliver a comprehensive and stringent suite of conditions to minimise the risk of electro-fishing.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds backed the chefs’ letter, pointing out that seabirds depended on fish to live. “Electro-fishing is a crime, and not a victimless one,” said the society’s Kara Brydson. “It steals livelihoods from the many fishermen who fish safely and legally, and damages wildlife that belongs to all of us.”
Joint letter to the Sunday Herald
Say no to electro-fishing
Scottish shellfish are some of the best in the world. Many Scottish fishermen are dedicated to preserving this great resource while harvesting it sustainably. But, sadly, there are some who are not.
We’re concerned about razor clams. In recent years “spoots” have become one of Scotland’s most lucrative marine crops, as cooking them has grown fashionable across Europe. Landings have tripled in the last decade and the price rose 23% last year.
They grow slowly and they are hard to catch – part of the reason they are so special. Sadly some fishermen and divers have found an easy, though illegal, way to do the job, by “electro-fishing” the beaches and shallow waters where the spoots live. This works but unless the job is done very carefully, at low voltages, it can kill nearly everything else in the vicinity too. This may include young fish, larvae, shrimps, small crabs and sand eels, as well as other molluscs that we harvest.
Uncontrolled electro-fishing is one of the most damaging ways of catching food mankind has devised. In Scotland it has already caused injuries to divers and others involved in the fishery.
This idiocy must stop. Sadly, the regulations are unclear and current penalties for fishing by electricity, poison and explosives are puny. The fixed fines are often less than the value of a day’s catch. Just two or three boats a year are caught doing it, because, by its own admission, Marine Scotland lacks the resources to police the issue.
Three things need to happen to preserve Scotland’s spoots and other life in shallow waters.
1. Marine Scotland and the Government must toughen and enforce the laws, while supporting fishermen in sustainable, economically viable activities.
2. Scottish fishermen must look to the future, not just today’s profits
3. Chefs and fish-eaters must make real enquiries and genuine commitments to the provenance and sustainability of the shellfish they love. Otherwise we face a future where there may not be any.
A 3-minute film of spoots being harvested by hand on the island of Eigg can be seen here.
This story was followed up by The Times.