The number of fines issued to rogue fishermen has decreased over the past three years while skippers caught fishing in protected waters have not been reported to the procurator fiscal, we can reveal.

Concerns have been raised recently that fishermen are increasingly involved in illegal scallop dredging and prawn trawling to supply a black market in seafood, at the expense of Scotland’s marine environment.

Illegal scallop dredging involves “bulldozing” areas of Scotland’s coastal seabed which wrecks marine protected areas (MPAs). Bottom-trawling for prawns can also damage the marine environment and affect fish stocks.

Environmentalists claim that the Scottish Government is not treating damage to MPAs by boats as “serious crimes”. They have accused the official body tasked with protecting seas, Marine Scotland, of failing to take tough enforcement action against skippers breaking the law.

Now, replies by Marine Scotland to freedom of information requests by The Ferret, have revealed that the number of fines in the form of fixed penalty notices (FPNs) issued for fishery offences has decreased each year since 2016.

There were 42 FPNs issued in 2016, 39 in 2017, and 36 in 2018. So far this year, 23 FPNs have been handed out. We asked for the names of boats and skippers involved but Marine Scotland refused to release the information, citing data protection laws.

Fixed penalties offer a person the opportunity to avoid a potential criminal conviction. Sea fishery offences include issues related to catches, gear, access and logbooks, among others.

Fishermen can also be fined for illegal fishing in protected waters and Marine Scotland has revealed that at least one repeat offender could have been prosecuted.

The Ferret reported in July there have been 112 reports of incursions into Scotland’s MPAs over the past four years, although a report of a boat entering protected waters does not necessarily mean that illegal activity has occurred.

We reported then that since 2015 only two warning letters and three fixed penalty notices have been issued to fishermen for illegal fishing in MPAs. One fisherman was fined £4000.

Illegal fishing claims after 112 boats seen in Scotland’s protected waters

The Ferret has since obtained redacted copies of letters sent by Marine Scotland to fishermen. They revealed that all the incidents took place in the South Arran MPA.

One letter reveals that a repeat offender was not reported to the Procurator Fiscal, despite the fact that Marine Scotland believed there was “sufficient evidence” to secure a criminal conviction.

The skipper had been warned twice previously over infringements and offered fixed penalty notices before.

The letter by Marine Scotland said: “Although there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction on this occasion the submission of a report to the Procurator Fiscal is not considered to be necessary in the public interest.”

The fisherman was also told that a record of his latest breach would be kept on file and could be included in any later report submitted to the procurator fiscal, should the skipper commit a further offence within a two year period.

Degrading the seabed has knock-on economic consequences for the many fishermen who are trying to fish legally and responsibly. Nick Underdown, Open Seas

Nick Underdown of campaign group, Open Seas, believes that Marine Scotland should take tougher enforcement action against boats breaking the law in MPAs.

He said: “A small anonymous fine does not reflect the serious loss to the public caused by illegal fishing in protected areas. There is a significant environmental cost of damaging a slow-growing marine habitats.

“Degrading the seabed has knock-on economic consequences for the many fishermen who are trying to fish legally and responsibly. Unfortunately our enforcement agencies and justice system have not yet caught up with the pressing sustainability challenges that we are facing as a nation.

Underdown added: “Protecting our seabed, and important fish spawning and nursery areas, will help regenerate inshore fisheries. Many of our fish and shellfish stocks are over fished and poorly managed.

“Marine Scotland are failing to look after this public asset and allowing the asset stripping of our seas. Until we see actual active management, supported by proper resources and enforcement of illegal activity, our seas will continue to be damaged by short-term minority interests.”

Paul Chandler, executive director of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST), commented on the law being broken in South Arran MPA.

He said: “Although unnecessarily heavily redacted, these documents prove that reports from COAST and the people of Arran about the illegal fishing activity in the MPA and no take zone have been justified. The investigators value community monitoring and the input of the public but need to act much more firmly in the public interest to protect the interests of honest fishers.”

Chandler added: “It is time to openly prosecute irresponsible skippers rather than take the light touch that is shown in these documents. We know that persistent offenders take no notice at all of fixed penalty notices let alone warning letters. A root and branch transformation of resourcing, legal powers and culture is needed within Marine Scotland Compliance to ensure our marine protected areas are enforced and managed effectively.”

The Scottish Government said it takes protection of the marine environment seriously adding that any illegal activity is “completely unacceptable”.

“Marine Scotland Compliance assesses all reports of suspected breaches of MPA regulations and, where possible, tasks its aircraft or vessels to gather evidence and detain suspect boats. Where this is not possible, each piece of intelligence is graded and helps to set priority tasks for future patrols,” a Scottish Government spokesperson added.

“We are committed to enabling more electronic monitoring of vessels and the Scottish Government has set aside £1.5 million for new tracking equipment across the inshore fleet over the next two years which will improve evidence gathering.”

As an organisation we are heartened by the reduction in numbers of incidents although like Open Seas we see one act of illegal fishing in an MPA as one too many. Mike Park, Scottish White Fish Producers Association

Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, accused Open Seas of “deliberately ignoring” the “good work carried out by the vast majority of fishermen”.

He said: “We have been active in the positioning and identifying management measures within our network of MPAs and continue to engage with a range of stakeholders to ensure that we continue to protect valuable ecosystems.

“It is the fishermen themselves that guide our approach to such matters, the same fishermen that seem to attract ill placed, negative comments from new entrant organisations such as Open Seas. As an organisation we are heartened by the reduction in numbers of incidents although like Open Seas we see one act of illegal fishing in an MPA as one too many.”

In June The Ferret reported that Scots boat called Georgia Dawn was fined £1000 after being caught scallop dredging illegally near Guernsey. When stopped, the boat had gathered some two tonnes of scallops valued around £3,500.

The total number of advisory letters issued by Marine Scotland since 2016 is 4,359 and eight written warnings have been given. Lerwick Fishery Office has issued 1,233 advisory letters since 2016, the highest in Scotland. Peterhead is second having sent 732.

The documents released by Marine Scotland

This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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