A row has erupted between marine conservationists and a fishermen’s organisation over Scotland’s first ‘no take zone’ where fishing is banned, with both accusing each other of spreading misinformation.
In an open letter to MSPs, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Arran Coast) claims that Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA) produced a report on the Lamlash Bay no take zone (NTZ) that contained “multiple errors, misleading and biased statements”.
The SFA defended its report, however, and said it provides an “accurate review of the published scientific evidence” about the protected area. It accused Arran Coast of making “inaccurate” claims.
The Lamlash Bay NTZ was the first community-led marine reserve of its kind in Scotland when established in 2008. No fish or shellfish can be taken from its waters or seabed, including the shore area.
Arran Coast was part of a coalition that created the NTZ, which is frequently cited as evidence to justify the creation of highly protected marine areas (HPMAs), or similar zones where fishing would be outlawed.
HPMAs proved controversial, however, and in June the Scottish government scrapped its plan to restrict fishing in 10 per cent of Scotland’s waters following an uproar from some coastal communities.
In July, the SFA claimed there was no clear evidence that establishing a NTZ in Lamlash Bay had helped fish stocks or fishermen.
Its report — entitled Fishy Falsehoods — questioned whether claims about the success of the Lamlash NTZ had been exaggerated.
The SFA claimed that brown crab and juvenile lobster stock levels had fallen in Lamlash Bay, and there had been an increased abundance of scallops outside the area.
The “anti-fishing lobby” had “conveniently failed to mention the whole truth” and had only publicised “cherry-picked information that suits their political agenda”, the SFA claimed.
In response, Arran Coast has written to MSPs arguing that the SFA’s document “runs counter to scientific opinion and is without merit.”
The letter says that the conservation benefits — “increases in biodiversity, key habitats and marine life in general” — provided by the Lamlash Bay NTZ have been largely ignored by the SFA.
Specifically, Arran Coast said the claim by SFA that there was a greater increase of scallops outside the NTZ was “a very misleading” statement. “The increase they appear to be referring to was in the South Arran MPA (marine protected area) which was heavily exploited by scallop dredgers prior to protection in 2016 – resulting in very low scallop densities,” Arran Coast said.
“This meant scallop numbers increased rapidly from a low level when they were protected from high levels of fishing.”
Arran Coast was backed by the Coastal Communities Network, a conservation group. Its spokesperson Alan Munro claimed the SFA’s report “deliberately excludes certain data” and “completely ignores” the surrounding South Arran MPA, which, he said, is a “crucial aspect of Arran’s spatial management and provides a wide-ranging, albeit more complex, picture of ecosystem recovery”.
Munro added: “These nuances are important. It’s also important to note that ecosystem recovery takes time, and during that time there will be natural fluctuations in what species recovers and when, due to the inherent dynamics re-establishing themselves. Again this is totally ignored by the SFA. CCN stands in solidarity with Arran Coast and condemns these attacks from afar to discredit the marine protection that the Arran community campaigned for themselves.”
Daniel Lawson, SFA executive officer, told The Ferret he stood by the Fishy Falsehoods report, and accused Arran Coast of being misleading. He said: “If, as suggested by Arran Coast, there is additional data to consider then we would welcome this being made publicly available.
“As you would expect, the SFA’s report is focused on the claimed fisheries benefits of the Lamlash Bay NTZ. It has been widely claimed that the Lamlash Bay NTZ provides evidence of benefits to fish stocks and fisheries,” Lawson added. “Our report highlights that these claims are not supported or justified by the available scientific evidence. That they are, in fact, inaccurate and misleading.
Lawson said marine management needs to be based on “objective and impartial” scientific evidence, “not on wishful thinking, political preconceptions or cherry-picked data”. He claimed that despite Coast’s protestations about the SFA report, “it has not pointed to a single specific error or inaccuracy”.
He continued: “It is disappointing that Coast is not open to question, scrutiny or challenge on its claims – and fishermen in Shetland re-iterate their call for a truly independent assessment of the Lamlash Bay NTZ before it is used in the formation of any more Scottish Government policy proposals.”
The Clyde Fishermen’s Association (CFA) welcomed scrutiny of the Lamlash project and pointed out that the zone was created by a coalition of groups including itself — not just Arran Coast.
The CFA spokesperson Elaine Whyte said: “Language and how it is communicated sets a tone for working relationships and public perceptions — stating ‘Coast created Scotland’s first No Take Zone’ isn’t a fair reflection or acknowledgement of all of the partners involved, but it has been a common claim.”
She added: “If the NTZ had been successful in a holistic sense for all local stakeholders it would have perhaps been reasonable to expect we would be presenting a united front on press responses regarding the NTZ as a partnership project alongside Arran Coast. This is how the project started, but it is not the position now.
“Although we were co-founders of the NTZ, we have not been co-design partners or involved or approached to be involved in the science developed from/or in collaboration with Coast regarding the NTZ. We have detailed our thoughts on the need for a more general policy and scientific review of the NTZ, and indeed the need for increased neutral science both inside and outside of the NTZ as part of our HPMA response to the Scottish Government.”
Howard Wood, co-founder of Arran Coast, said: “We asked Professor Charles Sheppard, OBE, Professor Emeritus at the School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick, to read and scrutinise the Fishy Facts website, and this was his conclusion — ‘Fishy facts website reminds me of an early crude climate denial website’.
“We continually hope Whyte and her CFA leadership will act responsibly rather than being in denial over the dire state of our inshore waters. We are in both a climate and biodiversity crisis because lobbyists continue to persuade governments that their short-term economic interests come before society as a whole.”
This story was updated at 09.38 on 15 August 2023 to add a comment from Howard Wood.
Main image: ArranCOAST