Scallop Divers are our Eyes

Please read an email written by a Highland scallop diver back in 2015 before the creation of Wester Ross Marine Protected Area. This is an eye witness account of the impact of dredgers in inshore waters as seen from a fishermen’s first hand account. The situation has moved on since then as Richard Lochhead, the former Minister responsible for MPAs, banned dredgers from Wester Ross in August 2015 in order to protect the fragile recovery of maerl beds. However this first hand account is a cautionary reminder that MPAs need our continued support as they are the seeds of recovery for other areas still being dredged.  Marine Scotland Compliance have since increased the financial penalty for violation of the MPA by dredgers and asked that communities are vigilant and report sitings of illegal boats in the area, or possible violations, immediately to their telephone number which is manned 24 hours a day.  Please note the fishermen’s words:

I have just returned home from a four day trip, diving for Scallops from Armadale on the Sleat peninsula in Skye. On Wednesday we left Armadale and made for Tarscavaig in Loch Slapin. I hoped to visit an area of good ground which we had left last June. At that time it was looking promising with a large number of 120mm Scallops on the ground, nature returning, even some recovering Maerl on the ground. It had had about 3 maybe 4 years of respite from dredging after a dredge owner had participated in a decommissioning scheme and scrapped his 8 aside Scallop dredger which had prosecuted the local grounds. This man knew the area intimately and covered the ground well, knowing where the clams (scallops) were and how to catch them. We wouldn’t even have bothered with this area had he still been on the go. To our surprise we had seen the ground about this area and the catches improve year on year, once he stopped dredging from Mallaig. It was evident that one well run, efficient, boat taken out of the equation made all the difference.

We have followed our personal policy of leaving all Scallops below 110mm on the ground to grow and re-produce for the last five years or so, as a result we see the catches improve every year. We used to “stash” small Scallops but didn’t see the point any more as there were no dredgers about to hide them from any more………….. We rounded Sleat point (but due to the weather) we made for the east side of the Aird peninsula and shelter. En route I saw a new local Scallop Dredger, based in Mallaig, working the ground which I had intended to work at Tarscavaig.

That day, we dived on some 30m boulder ridges off Glasnakille. We found that the boulder ridges had been dredged heavily in the recent past. With smashed Crab and Sea Urchin still containing their meat and innards. I saw two heavily mangled balls of Crab creels during a dive here. The ridges had been physically altered since my last visit, four years ago. They were lower and the boulders which comprised them had been extensively scattered. The Kelp which had been on top of the ridges was lying, torn and limp on the seabed around the boulders. Scallops were in some cases fatally injured with chunks of shell and skirt torn out and in others completely smashed.  It was heartbreaking. The ridges did not even resemble those in my memory.

Due to this and the improving weather conditions we made for Loch Eishort and the 20-25m boulder slopes and lumps which are in the mouth of Heast. We did 7 more dives in this area and found the same scenario all over. Smashed Urchin, Scallop and Crab, ripped up Kelp, torn and dying Anenome, (sorry, I dont know their name but they are the ones which can grow over a foot tall and inhabit muddy, tidal areas). It was soul destroying.

Today we did 9 dives and on every one we saw the same level of devastation. I did my last dive this afternoon on the gps plotter mark which we had left last June where the ground was recovering and looking in good shape. I found that it had been dredged heavily by the boat which we had seen there on Wednesday. It was no surprise, and some may wonder why I went there after seeing him dredging it, the reason, “you don’t know if you don’t go” so I went for a look. I was moved to the point of tears by what I saw there. I don’t need to describe it to you. I don’t know if I have the words. The place was fresh in my mind from the last time I had dived it and has been ruined beyond recognition with the “ploughed field” scenario heavily evident. Stones and boulders ripped up from under the sand/Maerl and fully exposed creating a Martian like surface. The partially recovered Maerl no longer evident etc etc. I quickly abandoned my intended plan and went up and over the rocky area I had planned to fish.  We are experienced resourceful Fishermen who will always find a spot to make a pound against the odds. The fact that we are still in business proves this but there are many who have been less lucky and are no longer doing business. Why? Why? Why? Do we need to see this cycle over and again. Do the government  have the slightest inclination about what is happening in our seas?

Post recession we have seen a recovery in the marine environment which we fish in. This is due to the decrease in larger vessels towing dredges on the inshore grounds. It had become unprofitable for them to do so so many accepted a payment to remove their vessels from the fleet. Unsurprisingly there has been a subsequent recovery in the stocks. These stocks were previously over exploited and with a recent reduction in fuel costs and improvements in market conditions it has again become viable for smaller scale mobile vessels to dredge for Scallops in these areas. How long before this dredge boat owner decides to replace her with a larger more capable vessel? Where will this leave us? The cycle continues. I am angry at this continuing cycle of degradation. I am not angry at the Fisherman who owns and runs the boats. He has seen an opportunity to run his own business, possibly being home every night, providing much needed employment in the area. As opposed to going into the unsure territory of the Oil industry, working away, 2, 4 or 6 weeks. Choices that face all of us men with families to support. Who can blame him? The point is that that one vessel will now be fatally damaging an unbelievably massive area of productive fishing ground which, given the chance, could support many local families in the same position. Why should his actions, sanctioned by Marine Scotland, deny these other local men the chance to make a living, locally? We have the evidence, look at the Firth of Lorn! We have the ability to change it for the better. Why are we still talking about this? We need change in inshore fisheries and it can’t come soon enough. In my opinion, the buck stops with those who are paid and elected to do the job and make the decisions. It should not fall to the electorate to implement that which is plainly and obviously common sense.

NB I recently spent three weeks in the Firth of Lorn fishing from Cuan. I spoke to local Crab and Lobster fishermen who have seen their catches increase year on year since the ban, they are positive. I arrived there and left feeling that there is hope, feeling positive, buoyed by what I see there. I don’t boast about having a wide view of what is going on in our waters. It is just a fact. One week I am diving in Jura, the next, Sanday, Orkney, the next, Applecross bay, the next East Loch Tarbet, Harris. All I see is decline, apart from in the Firth of Lorn. Surely there is something to be gained from this experience? I send this to you all because I am frustrated with the lack of vision and forward thinking in our local fisheries. It could be so much better.”

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