Scotland’s largest fishing organisation refuses to clarify role of illegal dredger

Scotland’s largest fishing organisation has refused to confirm if it has removed a fisherman from one of its committees after he was fined in court for illegal dredging. 

John MacAlister, director of John MacAlister (Oban) Limited, was ordered to pay penalties and costs amounting to £187,170 after illegal dredging took place off the coast of Yorkshire.

MacAlister has been chair of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association’s (SWFPA) scallop committee and has spoken out publicly to condemn illegal fishing.

Following his court appearance, Open Seas, which campaigns to protect the marine environment, questioned whether he should continue as chair of ’s scallop committee.

But the SWFPA has refused to confirm whether any action has been taken against MacAlister, arguing that the matter is one for the association alone. The SWFPA also said the Scottish scallop industry is “fully committed” to responsible fishing.

MacAlister was still listed as chair of the scallop committee on SWFPA’s website on 13 May 2021, but his name was removed that day after The Ferret emailed questions. After his name was deleted The Ferret asked the SWFPA again to clarify the situation but it refused to do so.

MacAlister appeared at Scarborough Magistrates’ Court on 6 April for sentencing after admitting to several offences at a previous hearing. The court heard there had been multiple breaches of local scallop dredging regulations and national fisheries legislation off the coast of Yorkshire.

SWFPA has stated that illegal scallop dredging is ‘entirely associated with a few rogue vessels’ but it now transpires that the chair of SWFPA’s scallop committee has profited from the ownership of one of these rogue vessels

Nick Underdown, Open Seas.

As company owner of the Star of Annan OB 50 MacAlister was fined £180,000 and ordered to pay costs. The prosecution was brought by the North East Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority. It said the prosecution should send a “very clear message that the courts take marine conservation and the sustainable harvesting of shellfish very seriously”.

The SWFPA is the largest fishing association in Europe, representing around 200 vessels and 1,400 fishermen. It consists of six committees, each supporting a different area of Scotland’s seafood production industry. MacAlister played a prominent role as chair of the scallop committee. 

In the past he publicly condemned illegal fishing. In 2019, for example, he backed the use of cameras and tracking devices to prevent illegal fishing when the Scottish Government said it would provide £1.5m to help fund the devices.

MacAlister reportedly said: “We installed the cameras on board our vessels just over four years ago, we introduced them to meet certain regulations introduced by the Scottish Government.

“We now want to see, and fully agree with the government, that [the cameras] should be introduced to all fishing vessels. There’s no point in having marine protected areas if there is a free-for-all for everybody.”

Nick Underdown, of Open Seas, said Scotland’s seafood industry “deserves responsible leadership” and claimed that SWFPA’s statements have “greenwashed Scotland’s scallop dredge industry”. 

He added: “SWFPA has stated that illegal scallop dredging is ‘entirely associated with a few rogue vessels’ but it now transpires that the chair of SWFPA’s scallop committee has profited from the ownership of one of these rogue vessels.”

Pointing out that illegal scallop dredging causes damage to the marine environment, Underdown added it also impacts the “future livelihoods of other responsible fishermen, by depriving them of legal catches and damaging fish nursery and spawning grounds”.

He continued: “That this fishing crime has been perpetrated by a leading skipper within SWFPA is both unacceptable, disappointing, and damages the reputation of Scotland’s seafood industry.”

The matter of Mr MacAlister’s position within the SWFPA is one for the association and the association alone

Mike Park, chief executive of Scottish White Fish Producers Association

In reply, SWFPA chief executive Mike Park described Open Seas’ claims as “manifestly over-exaggerated” and he “re-iterated the association’s wholehearted commitment to sustainability across the scallop industry”.

Park said: “As ever, Open Seas presents a caricature of the industry’s approach to the scallop fishery, based on fines imposed on one fisherman for offences that took place more than two years ago. 

“The Scottish scallop industry is fully committed to sustainability and responsible fishing practices that bear no relation to the manifestly over-exaggerated portrayal that Open Seas has resorted to once again. The matter of Mr MacAlister’s position within the SWFPA is one for the association and the association alone.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government routinely engages across the breadth of our stakeholder network, including the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, to ensure industry voices are reflected in our policy making. It is for the SWFPA to determine their membership.”

MacAlister did not respond to our requests for a comment.

Photo thanks to iStock and kipgodi

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