‘Fiasco’ over missing Clyde cod study

A study relied upon by Scottish ministers to help protect devastated cod populations in the Clyde has gone missing, prompting accusations of a “fiasco” based on “non-existent reports”.

Internal Scottish Government emails reveal that the study was lost in a “very odd goose chase” and became a “can of worms” in October and November 2021. “We’re still chasing round in circles,” wrote one official.

Campaigners alleged that the public had been given a “misleading” picture of what’s happened to cod in the Clyde. They claimed that the Scottish Government couldn’t be relied up to make “objective decisions”.

The government said the study had been delayed by Brexit and Covid-19, and was now being worked on. The aim was to release it “in due course”.

The rural affairs cabinet secretary, Mairi Gougeon, is due before the Scottish Parliament’s environment committee on 9 March to answer questions on the closure of Clyde cod spawning areas.

The Clyde Fishermen’s Association stressed it had worked with scientists on an “exploratory project” in “good faith”. There had been “much misunderstanding” about the scope and intention of the work, it said.

Cod populations in the Clyde collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, partly due to over-fishing, and haven’t recovered since. Every year since 2002 the Scottish Government has closed cod spawning areas to some fishing for two and a half months in order to allow the fish to breed.

But prawn trawlers have been exempt from the ban, despite evidence that they can accidentally catch young cod. In October 2021 the Scottish Government published a consultation on proposed Clyde cod spawning closures in 2022 and 2023.

Amongst the evidence it cited was a study carried out by the Scottish Oceans Institute at the University of St Andrews and the Clyde Fishermen’s Association (CFA). It said that “a final version” of the study could be requested from the association.

“Early results from the study show the presence of spawning cod in the closed area during the closure period, indicating that the closure is in the right place at the right time,” the government said.

But when campaign groups asked to see the study, they were told it wasn’t available. Now over 230 pages of correspondence released by the Scottish Government under freedom of information law reveals the resulting confusion.

The CFA said it didn’t have a final version of the study and had passed it to the government’s Marine Scotland to be signed off and published. But the process had been hampered by funding problems, Covid-19 and Brexit. 

In one WhatsApp message CFA stressed it “wasn’t in any way passing the buck” to Marine Scotland.

The Scottish Oceans Institute warned that “there may be some misunderstanding here”. It said that the last report was for 2018, none had been done since and there was no “final report”.

Emails from Marine Scotland officials suggested that they were unclear about the status of the study. “What a can of worms!” said one email on 15 October 2021.

“All feels like a very odd goose chase,” said another on 28 October. “We’re still chasing round in circles on the Clyde cod reports,” said another on 1 November.

Since then the Scottish Government has closed an area of the Clyde to all fishing, including prawn trawlers, until the end of April. But after protests from the industry it reduced the size of the closed area by 28 per cent.

Marine Scotland has been making policy on the back of documents that it doesn’t possess.

Alex Watson Crook, Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust

The Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, which campaigns to control damaging fishing practices, warned that livelihoods and the fragile marine environment were at stake. “It turns out, incredibly, that Marine Scotland has been making policy on the back of documents that it doesn’t possess,” said the trust’s Alex Watson Crook.

“That applies not just to this year’s fiasco. Marine Scotland have been referencing industry data they’ve apparently not even seen for years.”

She added: “These non-existent reports were also coming from a highly partisan source. Simply accepting the word of one group of stakeholders without effective diligence suggests Marine Scotland cannot be relied upon to make objective decisions about the long term management of Scotland’s seas. 

“The public, and quite possibly ministers too, have been given a misleading picture of what is going on in the Clyde.”

The campaign group, Open Seas, stressed that the collapse of the Clyde cod fishery was a national concern. “This points to a worrying dysfunctionality in how Marine Scotland operates and the way it is selecting evidence to inform decisions of significant public interest,” said the group’s Nick Underdown.

“The government is not just duty-bound to recover these fish populations. Their own studies show it would make economic and environmental sense to manage our fisheries better.”

The Scottish Government had believed that the study was due to be published “imminently”. But it had been delayed due to “external circumstances” including Brexit and Covid-19.

“We are now working with the CFA and the University of St Andrews to finalise these reports and aim to release them in due course,” the government said. They contained “quite limited information” which “would not have altered the overall policy decision”.

A government spokesperson added: “Following constructive discussion with stakeholders and based on scientific evidence, closures that are more focused and targeted have been introduced in the Firth of Clyde.

“The revised closure areas are a pragmatic and evidence-based solution to ensure that primarily, we are still seeking to protect the spawning cod whilst also mitigating potential socio-economic impacts on our vulnerable coastal communities.”

There has been much misunderstanding from some parties about the scope and intention of this work.

Elaine Whyte, Clyde Fishermen’s Association

The Clyde Fishermen’s Association responded to questions from The Ferret with a 2,000-word statement. “It was always understood that this was a very limited small scale exploratory project,” said the association’s executive secretary, Elaine Whyte.

“I don’t believe any of the partners considered that the limited work would answer all of the questions stakeholders may have on the stocks. It was entered into with good faith and good intentions on all sides.”

Whyte denied that that study came from a “highly partisan” source. “The fishermen do not write the science, they provided the vessels and crew and the CFA helped with project co-ordination,” she added.

“We very much hope in moving forward more neutral science on the area can be conducted. We feel it is essential for making informed management decisions about the marine environment and fisheries. 

“We feel there has been much misunderstanding from some parties about the scope and intention of this work.”

The University of St Andrews confirmed that the Scottish Oceans Institute completed “several” fish surveys on behalf of the CFA between 2016 and 2018. “The reports were submitted in draft form to Marine Scotland for comment and feedback,” said a university spokesperson.

“We understand that external global issues have delayed comment on these reports. We look forward to publishing the reports on our website as soon as this has been achieved.”

Cover image thanks to iStock/wrangel.

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