Sandy McCall Smith: Nobody gains if the sea bed is irreparably damaged

We may mutter about the lawlessness of other countries' fishermen, but we are just as bad, writes Sandy McCall Smith

They are a culinary delight but eating scallops can come at an environmental price. Picture: Sean Bell

There are few things tastier on the seafood menu than scallops. Of course they are best hand-dived and unwashed – they absorb a great deal of water if you expose them to water when preparing them. And they are best described as “scallops” (with an a) rather than “scollops”. In Scotland they are definitely “scallops”, while in the south of England, for some peculiar reason, they become “scollops”. There is no doubt that the Scottish pronunciation is correct and that “scallops” is what they really are. (But let’s not start about Milngavie and Gullane …)

Scallops are in the news at present because of the disagreement between French and English fishing boats over seasonal access to protected fishing grounds in the Baie de Seine.

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Meanwhile in Scotland, there will be some who will be grateful for the distraction. We have a scallop fishery, and it is lucrative. There are also elements within it that are flouting the law and doing so, it seems, with impunity. We are ravaging our seabed and nobody seems to care very much about it.

The problem lies in the enforcement of the law. Those who live in the Highlands and islands know that there are some fishermen (a minority) who pay scant attention to the law and who, by and large, get away with it. On a good night, fishing in a protected area, can bring in a whole week’s worth of the catch one would get in a legitimate area.

Marine Protection Areas now cover about 20 per cent of our inshore waters. Not all such areas prohibit dredging, and in only about 5 per cent of those inshore waters is it forbidden.

Loch Sunart, for example, is entirely closed to scallop dredging, but this destructive form of fishing can be carried out in much of the Sound of Mull and the waters further south. Such scraping leaves furrows across the bed, disturbing everything that lives there. It is, in a way, like ploughing the land, the difference being that at sea there is no planting, nor putting back.

The area in which scallop dredging is outlawed could easily be extended, but the authorities seem reluctant to do this. Why? Our fishing industry is very important and is entitled to lobby for its interests, but we must give adequate weight to the requirements of conservation. If the sea bed is damaged beyond repair, nobody gains. And protection is all very well, but only if it is enforced.

Here, of course, is the shameful little secret that nobody is talking about very much. Some Scottish fishing boats are ignoring the regulations because enforcement is patchy. You can do all this at night because there is nobody around to see you. The authorities do not have adequate patrols, nor do they have adequate boats. People are encouraged to report this flouting of the law, but do not do so because they are afraid of reprisals. And when action is taken, the offenders may simply go back to doing the same thing time and time again.

The figures bear this out. Our offending rate in Scotland appears to be much higher, per boat, than elsewhere in Europe. We mutter about the lawlessness of other countries’ fishermen, but we are just as bad, if not worse in this particular respect. One European audit revealed that a substantial number of Scottish fishing vessels have a record of more than five infringements within three years. The Ferret, an investigative journalism co-operative, recently gathered figures on disposal of these cases and found that, of 1,700 offences each year, only 24 resulted in fines of an average of £2,000. In the majority of cases all that happened was the warnings were given. Some of these convictions involved other fishing offences – not just fishing in a protected area – but the overall picture is not good.

And the assault on the sea-bed threatens to get worse. Marine Scotland is currently holding a consultation on the granting of a licence for the industrial wrenching of kelp from out of a whole swathe of sea bed embracing, amongst other areas, the islands of Coll and Tiree. Conservation bodies and community councils seem united in their opposition.

If scallop dredges are ploughs, then this allows the combine harvesters to get going on a vital habitat for sea life of all sorts. The destruction of the marine habitat will be serious. And yet this proposal seems to have got fairly far down the road. Turbines, mushrooming hotels, dredging, slashing: Scotland shudders under the assault.