Marine Scotland has been accused of allowing “an environmental disaster” by mismanaging fishing and refusing to exclude trawlers from inshore areas where fishermen catch prawns.
A report, due to be released on 11 January by the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) – and seen by The Ferret – says that Marine Scotland‘s oversight of the inshore prawn sector has also destroyed thousands of Scottish jobs.
The SCFF also claims the public body tasked with overseeing Scotland’s fisheries is “partisan in support of nephrops [aka prawn and langoustine] trawler interests” and has misled the general public over prawn fishing.
The SCFF report – Marine Scotland’s Mismanagement of Scotland’s Inshore Nephrops Fishery – calls for a ban on trawlers from areas that could be profitably exploited by creelers.
“In other words, the exclusion of all nephrops trawlers from all creel areas,” the SCFF says. It is calling for a three mile limit to be reintroduced to prevent trawling in inshore waters off the west coast of Scotland.
The restriction existed for about a century and was only lifted to allow inshore trawling – now, mainly for prawns – in 1984.
The SCFF has claimed the reinstatement of the limit would lead to 450 additional creel boats and more than 700 new jobs.
But other fishing organisations dispute these claims. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said there is “no evidence” that a three mile limit banning trawlers would improve sustainability or raise earnings in the creel fleet.
It was backed by the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association which said a 2017 report into the prawn sector concluded that all sectors of the fishing industry played a part “in sustaining the coastal communities through production of Scottish nephrops”.
The Scottish Government, on behalf of Marine Scotland, said it was committed to supporting the Scottish sector and had established a new working group in November.
The SCFF’s report says live prawns or langoustines, known in the industry as nephrops, are a “high quality Scottish ambassadorial product” which is “by far” the most important for the inshore sector.
Both trawlers and creel boats target prawns. Creel fishing involves laying dozens of pots on the seabed and collecting the catch later. Creel fishermen export virtually all of their catch still alive, mostly to Europe.
Trawlers drag a weighted net to disturb seabed sediment and herd langoustine into the net, as well as other non-target species.
The report says trawlers land whole, dead nephrops which sell for around £5,000 per tonne.
‘High value product’
The SCFF claims creeling is “artisanal, producing a high value product” and the quayside liveweight price of around £13,000 per tonne reflects this.
It says trawling is an industrialised activity delivering a “product of much lesser value”. The greater part of the trawl is so damaged only their tails are kept, the report says. The remaining body parts, accounting for two thirds by weight, are dumped at sea.
“Tails sell for around £5,250 per tonne, so the price per tonne of tails actually killed – the liveweight price – is £1,750,” the report adds.
“Trawlers catch nearly 90 per cent of Scottish nephrops. Marine Scotland seems surprisingly unconcerned about a substantial proportion of a valuable Scottish natural resource being sold for £1,750 per liveweight tonne (as nephrops tails) or £5,000 (as whole nephrops), instead of £13,000 (as live langoustines).”
The report continues: “With prevailing prices and costs, each tonne caught by trawlers rather than creelers is resulting in fewer Scottish vessels, fewer Scottish crew jobs, less industry profits, less vibrant coastal communities and reduced supply of a Scottish ambassadorial export product.”
The longstanding tensions at sea between trawlers and creelers are also highlighted in the report. Some creel fishermen have claimed equipment has been damaged as a result of gear conflict – an issue previously reported by The Ferret.
SCFF says that Marine Scotland largely adopts a “hands-off” approach leaving fishermen to compete for seabed access.
Marine Scotland rejection
According to the SCFF, this means trawlers have a “trump card” in what it describes as a “capricious access system” because they can tow away creels.
Creel vessels have no countervailing threat, the report says, claiming that trawlers can operate a form of “de facto area management serving their best interests”.
Last year the SCFF mounted a legal challenge to Marine Scotland over its rejection of a proposal for a creel only pilot fishery in the inner sound of Skye.
A judge has now ruled that ministers acted unlawfully in blocking the no-trawl scheme in a landmark legal judgement which could have wider implications.
SCFF’s new report cites this judicial review and says: “Marine Scotland is not just refusing to consider excluding all trawlers from all creel areas, it is refusing to consider excluding any trawler from any creel area. In fact, Marine Scotland is not even willing to consider a creel only pilot study.”
The SCFF also accuses Marine Scotland of failing to complete promised research and of using “incoherent results to mislead both the public and Scottish Ministers about the merits of the status quo”.
Creels and trawls cannot simultaneously exploit the same seabed area, argues the SCFF. It says that “creel only areas are the only sensible option”.
Alister Sinclair, national coordinator for the SCFF, told The Ferret “change must occur” to secure the future of Scotland’s inshore fishery and marine coastal environment.
He said: “Communities have relied on healthy and vibrant seas to provide security of employment, economic and well being of its populations.
“Regional inshore fishery groups must be given statutory powers to ensure that overfishing ceases. They must also display more balance in their participants and fishery sectors than exists at present.”
Commenting on the Scottish Government’s recently published fisheries management strategy, he said it “looks promising on paper” but presents a “re-hashing of tired and failed policy”.
Sinclair continued: “Without backbone and a willingness to move from the status quo – in other words create the necessary change – they will fail the Scottish people wherever they exist to more abject failure. A once renowned opportunity lost”.
Regarding the marine environment, the SCFF says trawlers dragging heavy gear along the seabed does enormous damage to “important complex habitats”.
The report says: “Depending on the nature of the seabed, dragging trawls, particularly multi-trawls with large clump weights, can smooth the seafloor, and destroy, remove or bury plant epifauna.
“The reduced geodiversity and increased plant organism mortality adversely affects the habitat for juvenile finfish and shellfish. It is beyond doubt that creeling causes much less habitat damage.”
The SCFF’s report comes as Scots fishermen face mounting problems due to Brexit.
Scottish trawlermen have been told to catch fewer fish after new Brexit red tape caused long delays exporting their catch to the European Union.
Fish exporters said their businesses could become unviable after the introduction of health certificates, customs declarations and other paperwork added days to their delivery times.
The SCFF was backed by campaign group Open Seas. Its spokesman Nick Underdown said: “This problem has its roots in a decision back in the 1980s to deregulate our inshore fisheries. People across Scotland are now waking up to this and as Scottish Government now consults on fishing policy, it’s time this historical wrong was righted.
“The government is already having to bail out fisheries due to the pressures of Covid and Brexit, but this money is being given away to prop up a failing system that is not yielding for Scotland.
“We could instead be using the post-Brexit opportunity to incentivise changes that will help fix our broken fisheries system. The first step is to rebuild fish populations by reinstating an inshore limit on bottom-trawling.”
However, Mike Park of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association, said: “We would highlight that, following a series of unfounded claims made by various groups, including the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, Anderson Solutions conducted a comprehensive analysis of Scotland’s £80m nephrops sector – which is the biggest in the world – examining quota, weight and value of landings, and employment.
“The report concluded that the competitiveness of the different fleet segments in Scotland is relatively well-balanced, with all sectors playing a part in sustaining the coastal communities through production of Scottish nephrops.”
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation insisted there was “no evidence” that a three-mile limit around Scotland’s coastline banning fishing vessels with mobile gear would “improve sustainability or raise earnings in the creel fleet”.
SFF policy officer Malcolm Morrison, said that all fishing methods – including mobile and static – will impact on the environment in some way “just as navigation, tourism, offshore energy generation or even just weather do”.
He added: “This is a fact everyone needs to accept as a compromise in the wider concept of securing food.
“If areas or features are found to need extra protection, the SFF welcomes their inclusion in the existing management frameworks, based on objective evidence.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting the industry – not least through the incredible challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
“That is why we acted swiftly with £8.3million of grant funding to support over 900 Scottish shellfish vessels last year, and also established a Scottish nephrops working group in November with a further £1m of funding.
“Our Future Fisheries Management Strategy sets out exciting policy initiatives for the next ten years, including for inshore fisheries, that will help protect the environment, strengthen local communities and support a strong, sustainable, and resilient fishing industry in Scotland.
“This latest SCFF report covers a wide range of points, many of which have been made before, on which Scottish Government economists have provided extensive feedback, in relation to the research and methodology used.”
This story was produced in tandem with the Sunday National.
It was updated at 12.07 on 10 January 2021 to add the following paragraph: “A judge has now ruled that ministers acted unlawfully in blocking the no-trawl scheme in a landmark legal judgement which could have wider implications.”
Cover image thanks to iStock.