An excellent and immediately readable article in yesterday’s [10th February] edition of The Observer, tours not only a stretch of Argyll’s west coast from offshore to Mull and the Sound of Mull and to Furnace on Loch Fyne.
It is exploring the issues and problems in establishing sustainable fisheries by talking to those who fish commercially for a living.
It starts and returns to scallop dredging, so devastatingly damaging to the marine environment that marine biologist Callum Roberts, whom the article quotes,describes it as the equivalent of ‘cutting down a rainforest to catch a parrot’.
There is every scrap of scientific evidence to back up this perspective but the practice persists.
Later in the article, John Hermse of the Mallaig and North-West Fishermen’s Association, tells the reporter, Alex Renton: ‘Of course dredges do some damage on the seabed. But people digging their gardens do that.’
This, of course, is not remotely comparable. People dig their garden and farmers plough their fields not to take but to add nourishment to the land to make it productive, to plant it, watch ot produce again and often to harvest that renewed produce for food.
Scallop dredging simply destroys – and to a horrifying degree which includes habitats that can be irrecoverable. Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland, where both the damage fro scallop dredging and the eventual regeneration measures have been well documented, is a case in point.
The article them moves to Mull to talk to scallop diver Guy Grieve, described as a ‘Bear Grylls persona’ whose business, the Ethical Shellfish Company, supports three families. Grieve and his colleague Luke, take the reporter with them and the selectivity of their harvesting is recorded. They sift through the scallops they have hand caught and return the small young ones to a secret place on the sea bed, out of reach of the dredgers, where they can grow to maturity and breed.
This is, of course, good practice, but scallop divers are bound to take and keep the scallops most desirable to restaurants which are not the small or the very mature, but the fertile mature which are the best breeding stock.
However, the practice of the Ethical Shellfish Company offer considerable protection to stocks.
John Hermse is quoted again as saying of scallop divers that he knows of scallop divers who regularly cleared out entire stocks. This is also correct, There are scallop divers less ecologically responsibly than Grieve who just take whatever shellfish come to hand and do not carefully select and return,
The article them moves to look at the nephrops fishery, at prawn fishing in the Clyde and in Loch Fyne – by dredger or creel.
Around Furnace, this is known not as prawn fishing but as ‘the prawn wars’. There has long been a running battle, often vicious and deliberately damaging between the trawlers for prawns, crabs and langoustines [aka Dublin Bay prawns] and the creel fishers.
The creel fishers point to the indiscriminate harvesting of the trawlers and their obscene bycatch; and the trawlermen point to their own improvement in practice which sees, they claim, virtually no bycatch, while the creelers, trapping whatever, still have a substantial bycatch themselves.
The dramatic side of this is the ‘war’ element, with the trawlers, sometimes deliberately and vindictively, hauling their nets over the sea bed, pulling up the creels and ignoring the marker buoys that signal their presence.
The reported talked to the now well known creeler, Alistair Sinclair form Furnace on the west shores of Loch Fyne, south of Inveraray. Sinclair is the leading figure with the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust , bringing together the individual creelers in common interest and commissioning an academic study – the reporter was shown a draft of it, describes as ‘pretty convincingly’ making ghe case that ‘…even a partial ban on bottom-trawled fishing inshore would create several hundred jobs along the 100km of the Clyde’s passage to the sea. It might even allow the lost fish stocks to recover. ‘
Sinclair also tells of the degree of aggression in the conflict between the trawlers and creelers, competing to harvest the same area. He talks of the trawlers practice of deliberately sweeping their gear across an area free of creels and then making a second pass to trawl the cleared area for the shellfish. The destroyed creels and their contents are simply chucked overboard; and Sinclair says he personally lost ‘£23,000 worth of gear between January and March last year. Not for the first time.’
The viciousness does not stop on the water, Sinclair – a high profile and persistent opponent who lobbies local and national politicians on the the damaging trawler operations, was libelled in a Facebook attack by a trawler skipper. He was said to be ‘dealing drugs to school children’.
The trawler skipper was prosecuted and fined in January this year, but the stresses of this are not to be discounted, nor is the regular loss of gear to the extent that has become familiar.
It is also the case that while the nephrops fleet has rightly won admiration and praise for its conversion to gear that largely avoids bycatch, not all trawlers in that fleet are converted. And while creelers do produce a bycatch, the scale of their operations is nowhere near what the trawlers can do.
In the end, we have to eat and the best that we can do to protect fishery stocks is not quite good enough. We can only hope that by insisting on best practice we can reach a point of sustainability – but that requires universal cooperation and acceptance of individual responsibility – and we’re not there yet.