Rogue scallop dredgers have been sabotaging the gear of crab and lobster fishermen operating off Scotland’s east coast threatening people’s livelihoods and causing environmental damage, it has been claimed.

A minority of skippers vying to dredge for scallops off Peterhead and Fraserburgh have threatened creel fishermen and towed away their gear, resulting in miles of rope and tonnes of plastic left dumped in the ocean.

At least 100 tonnes of crabs and lobsters are lost every year from gear vandalism off the east coast, according to creel fishermen who have accused Marine Scotland of complicity by failing to act.

These acts of sabotage lead to so-called ghost fishing, the term used for fishing gear when it has been lost, dumped or abandoned. Creels, for example, may continue to trap fish after being cut away, potentially affecting depleted commercial fish stocks.

One commercial fishermen told The Ferret that over the last 15 years around 2,100 creels he owned were cut by vessels because they wanted to access scallops otherwise protected by his fleets of creels. Some incidents of gear vandalism have been reported to Police Scotland.

The Scottish Government set up a special task force six years ago to try and address gear conflict but creel fisherman say they are regularly targeted by aggressive skippers who continue to act with impunity.

The Ferret has seen a copy of a letter sent recently to Scottish Government fisheries minister, Fergus Ewing MSP, by a creel fisherman called Ian Mathieson who says he has suffered intimidation for 15 years.

Scottish ministers and Marine Scotland have been failing to address these consequences of unchecked gear vandalism for many years. Ian Mathieson, Creel fisherman

“I am a lobster fisherman and recently had 600 creels cut and dumped on the seabed by scallop dredgers,” wrote Mathieson.

“Over the last 15 years, I have had 2,100 creels cut and dumped by visiting mobile sector vessels. Taking a straw poll from other static gear fishermen on the east coast, we estimate the mobile sector are responsible for cutting and dumping an average of 900 creels each year.”

He added: “This year it will be 1,500 in our area alone. I hate to think what the figures are for the whole of Scotland. Scottish ministers and Marine Scotland have been failing to address these consequences of unchecked gear vandalism for many years.”

Mathieson told The Ferret that scallop dredgers can be extremely intimidating. “The guys are terrified at the moment and I can understand how some won’t speak up,” he said.

“When they towed away 600 creels and 15 miles of rope of mine it was basically sending a signal out, ‘you boys better shut up or this is what’s going to happen to you’.”

Chris Anderson, a crab and lobster fishermen with Buchan Inshore Fishermen’s Association, said recent problems had been raised with both Marine Scotland and Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association but no action to stop rogue skippers had been taken.

“Since the end of May here’s been one particular scallop vessel which has caused a lot of problems, off Peterhead,” Anderson added.

“He’s towed around 113 of my creels, that’s despite giving him all my gear positions. My positions were also reported to the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association, of which we are a member. I told the skipper where my gear was and he deliberately towed through it.

Anderson claimed his livelihood had been damaged. “Two Peterhead boats and one Fraserburgh boat have all lost gear. I’ve been threatened by a visiting vessel who said ‘I deserved to have my gear towed away, and I would have my gear towed away’,” he said.

“It’s a few rogue boats spoiling it for the scallop fleet. They have no respect for the creel men.”

Alistair Sinclair, national coordinator of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, alleged gear vandalism by scallop boats happened “day in, day out” on the west coast too. “Fergus Ewing and Marine Scotland are in total denial about this,” he said.

“Fergus Ewing commented the other day that there was no gear conflict around the coastline of Scotland. That is so far from the truth, so far from the truth.”

Sinclair accused Marine Scotland of failing to have any type of regulation to mitigate the problem and assist creel fishermen who are losing gear. “The creel men have got to the stage now where they don’t see any point in reporting it because nothing ever gets done,” he added.

“I’ve been on the end of it (threats) and I know creel men who’ve been on the end of it.”

Intensive scallop dredging inshore is destroying seabed habitat and depriving other fishermen from a more sustainable catch. Nick Underdown, OpenSeas

Nick Underdown, of campaigning group OpenSeas argued that the recommendations of the gear conflict task force have not been fully implemented and current regulation is chaotic. “It’s failing to deter criminality, for example when fishing gear is being deliberately targeted,” he said.

“This problem would go away overnight if there was a publicly visible system showing who fishes where. Some sectors of the fleet are crying out for urgent regulation.”

The gear conflict task force urged the Scottish Government “not to consider gear conflict in isolation”, Underdown pointed out. “Yet we are seeing a growing pressure on our inshore waters – fish stocks are down, morale is down and fishermen are fishing harder for less,” he added.

“Intensive scallop dredging inshore is destroying seabed habitat and depriving other fishermen from a more sustainable catch. Inshore fisheries need urgent spatial management and mandatory vessel tracking.

“This would accelerate fish stock recovery as well as contribute to climate change targets. Other fishery authorities have made vessel tracking a condition of a fishing license – why aren’t we doing this here? The Scottish Government cannot afford to tread water on this issue for any longer.”

The Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association (SWFPA) said it had been engaged in long running discussions with inshore static gear operators. “We have tried in earnest to reach agreement in the shared use of what has become a very restricted space,” said chief executive, Mike Park.

“Where this has been achieved in some areas it has become clear that some vessels engaged in the inshore static gear fishery are resistant to what we would view as a fair approach. The clear fact that no one has primacy over the sea, and that fairness and equivalence should prevail at all times, would seem to be missing with a number of operators.”

Park added: “It would seem that some view fairness and equivalence as a one sided entity. SWFPA will continue to strive ahead with regard to reaching compromise and continue to emphasise that damage to gear adds tension to any debate and should be avoided.

“We agree that it is time for the Scottish Government to step up to the plate with regard to providing a consequence to breaching negotiated agreements.”

Video reveals damage by illegal scallop dredging off Jura

The Scottish Government said it takes the management of fisheries “very seriously” but was unable to comment on any cases currently under investigation.

“The vast majority of fishers work well together. However, we work in partnership with the fishing industry to develop policies to resolve difficulties locally where possible, including support for local voluntary codes of conduct,” said a government spokesperson.

“Our network of regional inshore fisheries groups are responsible for implementing local fisheries management plans, and we would recommend any ideas to improve management are discussed with other fishers and channelled through these groups.”

The Scottish Government claimed that management of inshore fisheries was improving. “An investment programme to modernise our inshore fleet with appropriate vessel tracking and monitoring systems is well underway,” added the spokesperson.

“This will not only enhance data collection and improve evidence gathering of fleet compliance, but will also enable fishers to openly demonstrate responsible fishing. Any reports of suspected illegal activity should be reported to Marine Scotland Compliance.

“We cannot comment on any cases currently under investigation.”

Letter from Ian Mathieson to fisheries minister, Fergus Ewing

This article was published in tandem with The Sunday National on 22 December 2019.

Photo thanks to iStock/Andrew1Norton

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