Video footage of damage to the seabed by illegal scallop dredging off Jura has been obtained by The Ferret, prompting calls for better enforcement action against rogue fisherman.
In June scallop divers working on the north-west coast of Jura witnessed damage to the seabed when they saw tramline tracks where the metal teeth of dredges had scoured the seabed.
A week later – on 28 and 29 June 2019 – scallop divers found more damage and observed dredging vessels operating close to the boundary of a marine protected area (MPA).
The video was taken at Glengarrisdale Bay which is inside the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation, one of the first of a network of marine protected areas to be established in Scotland.
The area has been closed to scallop dredging since 2007. Open Seas said this latest evidence of illegal scallop dredging underlined “chronic gaps in enforcement”.
There have been several incidents this year. The Ferret revealed that suspicious scallop dredging activity had taken place in the Sound of Mull in January.
It was the third incident in the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA over the past 12 months. Since 2016 there have been 22 reports of suspected illegal activity in this area alone.
Illegal dredging in protected areas has previously been blamed for damaging seabed habitats in the Firth of Lorn and Loch Carron.
In the Firth of Lorn in Argyll, divers filmed broken shells, dislodged boulders and fresh scallop meat in February 2018.
Last year damage to a rare reef in Loch Carron in the west Highlands was discovered, leading to an emergency closure of the waters.
“The Scottish Government will be powerless until it implements vessel tracking,” said Nick Underdown from Open Seas.
“Day after day damaging scallop dredging is bulldozing huge areas of our coastal seabed and even wrecking some of our marine protected areas.”
He added: “Last year the Scottish Parliament voted resoundingly in favour of vessel tracking across the fleet. The continued delay means the minister, Fergus Ewing, is now failing to deliver for Scotland’s rural economy.”
The Scottish Government said it was aware of the latest incident. “Dredging is subject to strict regulations and any illegal activity is completely unacceptable,” said a spokesperson.
“We can confirm a case of suspected illegal dredging off the north west coast of Jura in a designated MPA was reported to Marine Scotland in late June 2019. We remain actively engaged with local groups and stakeholders on issues around marine protected areas, and we will continue to do so going forward.”
Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, said he was also aware of the latest claim of illegal fishing and supported calls for urgent action against rogue skippers.
“We would very much welcome a management and policy structure capable of balancing the often-competing pressures of both local and transient interests and those of our mobile and static gear sectors. It is clear that new legislation will be necessary in a number of areas for real progress to be made,” he said.
“It is similarly clear that high frequency monitoring of inshore activity will also be a prerequisite for successful control, management and data collection. Trust and transparency will be key attributes of how we manage the inshore.”
Open Seas also claimed that larger boats may be switching off tracking systems to dredge illegally, while small boats without mandatory tracking could also be breaking the law.
There are approximately 94 scallop dredging vessels registered in Scotland, said Open Seas, with just 14 boats fitted with electronic monitoring technology, enabling fill traceability.
“Tracking on the remainder is still inadequate,” the campaign group’s Nick Underdown claimed. “The existing VMS (Vessel monitoring system) tracking system transmits locational data to Scottish Government only once every two hours. A futher quarter of the fleet (under 12m in length) have no vessel tracking at all.”
Tracking systems on boats 12 metres long transmit their locations once every two hours, but Open Seas has learned that these devices routinely record boats’ positions once every 10 minutes and can store up to three months of data.
This is “highly significant”, said Underdown, because it means the government’s Marine Scotland could access data to ascertain exactly where a boat has been every 10 minutes instead of only being able to pinpoint its location every two hours.
The Ferret asked the Scottish Government if Marine Scotland was aware that tracking devices recorded every 10 minutes and, if so, had they ever requested data from a boat on this basis regarding claims of illegal fishing.
The Scottish Government replied on behalf of Marine Scotland. “The regulatory requirement across the European Union for VMS position reporting is a single ping every two hours,” said a spokesperson.
“Marine Scotland, through the UK Fisheries Monitoring Centre (UKFMC), has access to all necessary recorded VMS data for the purposes of compliance monitoring and enforcement as required under the Common Fisheries Policy.”
The spokesperson added: “Marine Scotland can access all data recorded and reported. VMS tacking does not in itself prove fishing operation or other activity.”
To try and prevent illegal fishing in MPAs Marine Scotland uses regular boat patrols as well as three Marine Protection Vessels to ensure compliance. It also has inflatable boat patrols, two surveillance aircraft and drones.