Protecting Scotland's marine habitats and reviving its inshore fisheries can go hand-in-hand in a 'blue recovery' – Philip Taylor

Last week saw a significant shuffle at Scottish government’s top table, but problems that have dogged our seas for decades still persist today. Can the new leadership drive change?

Allowing populations of North Sea cod to recover could dramatically increase catches while staying within sustainable limits, says Philip Taylor (Picture: Andrew Parsons/PA)

The Scottish government recently published their 10-yearly assessment of the health of our seas. The findings are alarming: many fish populations remain in poor condition, seabeds are routinely being damaged and targets to stop the disastrous degradation of Scotland’s underwater habitats have been failed.

One of the causes, according to marine scientists, is the current approach to fishing. To quote the findings, “pressures associated with bottom-contacting and pelagic fishing continue to be the most geographically widespread, direct pressures across the majority of Scottish marine regions”.

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Amidst this problem, there is a pressing opportunity for change.

Scotland’s second most valuable wild-caught seafood is the humble prawn – Nephrops norvegicus, otherwise known as langoustine or what most call “scampi”.

It’s a crustacean, like a small lobster, that lives in burrows within the carbon-rich muds of our sea lochs and wider seafloor. Recently, this prawn has become emblematic of the woes in Scotland’s seas and seafood sector.

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As a Brexit-related trade crisis unfolded with shellfish exports disrupted and many boats still tied up, the prawn exposed some of the least resilient parts of our fishing industry.

For most of Scotland’s rich fishing history, scampi was a by-product of abundant catches of fish. Fishermen sweeping the seabed for cod, hake and whiting, used to throw the prawns back overboard at sea.

Now, following the collapse of our main inshore fisheries (herring, haddock and cod) and fish quota consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer businesses, skippers resorted to prawn trawling.

The prawn has become a mainstay – a symptom of ‘fishing down the food chain’ and is now hailed as a jewel within Scotland’s seafood crown, worth around £80 million a year, involving 450 vessels.

A large number of small boats catch prawns using low-impact creel pots (landing the prawns live and large to sell as valuable langoustine), but the majority are caught by bottom trawls, which aggressively sweep the seabed to sell their catch as scampi.

That is until last year, when the thriving market in prawns crashed by almost half as a result of the dual shocks of Brexit and Covid. Reliance on European buyers and restaurants has made this shellfish trade particularly vulnerable.

Figures published this month show 2020 catches down by over 30 per cent from the previous year. Industry leaders warn the viability of our seafood industry as currently structured is in peril. The Scottish government has set aside £1 million for an emergency ‘Nephrops working group’ to identify a “vision for the future of the industry”, as well as providing several millions more in Covid emergency support.

So, is it curtains for the humble prawn and boats catching it? As a charity dedicated to promoting more sustainable seafood, we think not.

A long-standing problem has been government’s ‘hands off’ approach to determining who fishes where, leaving fishermen on the water to ‘work it out amongst themselves’, in practice handing decision-making powers to regional inshore fisheries groups.

So far these groups have monumentally failed to deliver an inshore fisheries strategy and are dominated by the voices of those who control many vessels but rarely fish themselves, or who can afford to send their associated lobbyists. This leads to a race to the bottom, literally. Competition is rife and drives over-exploitation, reducing profit margins. The result is a fleet not operating in the best interests of Scotland plc.

The result is a fisheries system dangerously out of environmental balance. Bottom-trawling for scampi is fuel-intensive, causing damage to seabed habitats as well as resuspending significant amounts of marine carbon into the water column (though where it goes from there is yet to be fully understood).

It also involves high levels of bycatch of other juvenile fish: huge amounts of the fish caught as bycatch are thrown back into the sea because they are either too small, or there is no quota to land it.

This damaging dynamic is preventing recovery of the collapsed population of west coast cod. It is also illegal, though the Scottish government has sought to deregulate discarding, claiming that selectivity (ie catching prawns without bycatch of juvenile fish) is “difficult to achieve” for the Nephrops trawlers.

But it does not have to be this way: doing what is good for the health of our seas can yield economic recovery.

Scottish government-commissioned research has shown better spatial management of bottom trawling in our coastal seas would produce rapid benefits, in terms of value and jobs created, simply by changing the balance between bottom-trawling and lower impact creeling.

It would pave the way for recovery of once abundant (now bycaught) fish populations too. It would mean locally-caught fish available again in places like Oban, the seafood capital of Scotland, rather than just a small selection of shellfish.

Until then we remain in overdraft: overfishing keeps fish catches low and suppresses economic activity. Allowing populations to recover could treble catches of North Sea cod, whilst staying within sustainable limits.

The Advisory Group on Economic Recovery’s report calls for an economic recovery that delivers best for communities, jobs and without undermining Scotland’s natural resources. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the government’s management of inshore fisheries performed poorly in all three areas: overall value of fish landings fell £26 million between 2018 and 2019; fishing jobs declined by 316 since 2010. The report recommended government support should be made conditional: no more blank cheques to unsustainable practice, instead, targeted funding to incentivise change.

We have a choice. Rather than propping up unsustainable bottom-trawling in our inshore waters, government can limit the damaging environmental footprint of bottom-trawling and revive Scotland’s inshore fisheries. With the right programme of support measures, government can protect rural communities and steer a just transition.

Philip Taylor is head of policy and operations at sustainable seafood charity Open Seas

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