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March 10, 2020

Biodiversity crisis

This summer, check how many insects are splattered against your windscreen. A clean windscreen is a bad sign for the health of our biodiversity but its loss can easily go unnoticed. The same ‘out of sight, out of mind’ principle applies to our marine biodiversity. Unless you dive off the coast of Scotland you won’t know what’s been happening to marine biodiversity on your seabed. Coastal communities are deeply concerned about the lack of protections that have been put in place, and over the past few years have developed an increasingly effective national voice.  This article explains why we should all be concerned.

Vicky Allan, The Herald

WHEN Dave Stinson began clam diving off the coast of Norway in 2002 he was struck by the quantity of life he was seeing. Sea cucumbers, flatfish, corals, sea urchins. It reminded him of what he found off the coast of Scotland when he began diving 45 years ago. Here was a vibrant seabed, teeming with life. Unlike our own, which, he says, now often “looks like the bottom of a quarry”. What, he wondered, were they doing differently in Norway?

Stinson had often tried to explain to others the loss of life he had witnessed from our seabeds in recent decades. When he did, he would sometimes wish he had a “before” photograph of a pristine never-dredged bed. What he found and photographed in Norway – though different in texture from the Scottish seabed of his memories – seemed almost like that. “I say to a lot of people, I’d like to show you a ‘before’ and ‘after’, but on the west coast of Scotland there’s no area that shows ‘before’,” he says. “Every inch in the sort of grounds where the scallops are has been towed over 100 times by dredgers and bottom trawlers.”

At first, Stinson was unaware of Norwegian restrictions around dredging and trawling and wasn’t sure why their seabed should be so different to ours. “It was only when I saw a set of scallop dredging gear and somebody said it had never been used because it had been prohibited that I started asking more,” he says.

The Norwegian government has prohibited scallop dredging and bottom trawling within 12 nautical miles of the shore, with some exceptions. Such restrictions weren’t put in place for conservation reasons – but to manage what are called “gear conflicts”, between those towing mobile gear and others with static nets.

Norway also has a 2009 Marine Resources Act, at the heart of which, according to Per Sandberg of the Norwegian fisheries agency Fiskeridirektoratet, is “an ecosystems approach” to fisheries, as well as a “precautionary” one.

“In general, we are concerned that the fishery should not harm the environment,” he explains. “In the 1960s and 1970s, there wasn’t too much concern that we were fishing too much – the idea was that the ocean was plentiful. But then, suddenly, we got the collapse of herring. It took us 20 years to regain stock. One lesson learned: you need to manage the resources.”

Stinson rails against the use of “mobile gear”, a term for dredging and trawling equipment towed behind a boat, which in Scotland can be used right up to the shoreline. “The most damaging,” he says, “is the scallop dredge with its teeth and heavy metal bar that digs into the seabed.”

Since that 2002 visit to Norway, Stinson has been back many times, in a bid not just to fish but to find out what we can learn about how we should be managing our fisheries. Armed with a GoPro camera, he has taken hours of underwater footage and interviewed fishermen, restaurant owners, fish processors and bureaucrats.

Among them is Jim Lorentsen, who has owned a fishing boat for 17 years and talks of how good the fishing is right now. “We get good prices and a lot of fish,” he says. “It wasn’t always like this. In the early 1990s and 1980s it was really bad. They hadn’t regulation of the fishing so they used to fish and fish until it stopped. It’s unbelievable how much more fish we see now.”

Or there is Alf Roald Sætre, who runs Cornelius, a destination fish restaurant outside Bergen. “The main thing here is that we have nobody destroying the seabed,” he says. “They are not allowed to dredge … The whole approach is ecosystem-based. The last two years in Norway, in the north, we have been beating records. We are fishing extraordinary amounts of cod for fish and chips to England.”

Stinson says: “My campaign is to get somebody to acknowledge that the Norwegians have done what we need to do and it’s been to the benefit of the coastal communities. One fisherman said ‘This is great for us. There are 120 people on the island of Nesøy and 20 are employed on fishing boats.’”

He believes that part of the Norway fish stocks improvement is down to their seabed protection. “Research supports the idea that the seabeds are crucial habitats in some of the life stages of our larger commercial fish,” he points out. “But in Scotland we’re destroying spawning grounds. That’s probably one of the reasons why the herring are not returning. People will say there’s nothing wrong with scallop dredging, it just needs proper management – no it doesn’t, it just needs totally eradicated.”

The research he refers to includes a study by Dr Sophie Elliott linking cod, haddock and whiting survival to seabed biodiversity. It’s particularly relevant given last week’s news that, following warnings about precarious cod stock levels, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has removed its blue tick on North Sea cod.

Stinson is just one of an older generation of divers who are witnesses to what decades of scallop dredging and bottom trawling have done to the Scottish seabed. His early years of diving were done in the wake of the lifting in 1984 of the three-mile limit which prohibited dredgers and trawlers from round our coastlines.

But divers are not alone in having such concern. Nick Underdown, of the campaign group Open Seas, believes the government must urgently adopt a precautionary, seaward limit approach that protects the entire coastal zone, similar to the Norwegian one. He observes: “Scallop dredging and bottom trawling are regarded as the most damaging fisheries in Europe and yet they continue to have a widespread footprint in Scotland’s inshore waters, suppressing the recovery of our collapsed inshore fish stocks.

“The Scottish Government’s review of these fisheries must account for the damage done to our coastal seabed over the past 30 years, not just protect a few small areas. By restricting trawlers and dredgers in inshore waters, these businesses would be able to continue in deeper waters, while creating a massive opportunity for low-impact fishing and increase the number of better-paid jobs in the inshore.”

Alistair Sinclair, national co-ordinator for the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, has long campaigned for a return of the three-mile limit. He points to a Scottish Government graph of the drop-off in fish stocks in the Clyde in the period following it. “The fish stock levels were reasonably healthy in the Clyde and in a short space of time – 20 years – they were at ground zero.”

Sinclair dramatically compares what has been done to our seabed to the “recent burning of the Amazon forest”. “The decimation that actually has gone on and the degradation on the seabed is unbelievable, unforgivable.”

But, as Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fisheries Federation says, this is a significant industry, approaching £40 million in value, with many jobs attached. She points out that only 5% of these are hand-dived and that the vast majority “is met through scallops landed from areas that have been fished for many years and that remain productive, so it’s clear that that there is room for both types of fishing”.

Macdonald adds: “The industry is working through the Scallop Industry Consultative Group on management proposals that cover a number of measures, including licensing. We fully recognise the importance of protecting sensitive marine species, habitats and features, and work closely with government and other stakeholders on issues including evidence-based Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and the development of appropriate management measures within MPAs.”

Stinson, however, wants to see an end to scallop dredging – although not immediately. Having worked on a couple of scallop dredgers, he is sympathetic to the fishermen who fear such an abrupt assault on their livelihoods. “I don’t think they need to be put out of business overnight. I think it needs to be managed over 10 years, to shut it down. I would say we need to declare a moratorium on the further issuing of any scallop licensing – so no further boats.”

What he discovered in Norway, he believes, indicates that such measures would, far from being bad for our industry, return it to its vibrancy. “Mobile-gear defenders always say we couldn’t compensate for the jobs which would be lost if dredging was banned, but they have themselves destroyed the jobs of others by their destructive practice. As scallop dredging declines you would see a rise in other populations and other types of fishing would become economically possible.”

Why our North Sea cod is off the menu

  1. The North Sea cod fishery was given its blue sustainability label too early. When, in 2017, the MSC awarded it sustainability status there were actually fewer fish than the InternationalCouncil for the Exploration of the Sea had calculated. Stocks had not fully recovered. As Robin Cook of the University of Strathclyde put it in an article in The Conversation this week, “Now ICES has revised its earlier estimates, showing that the cod recovery plan should never have been abandoned.”
  2. We need to pay more attention to cod habitats.

The seabed really does matter for a species which inhabits inshore areas during their life, commercial inshore species like cod. Dr Sophie Elliott, lead author on a University of Glasgow study which linked cod survival to seabed biodiversity, observes, “The problem about the way we undertake quotas and stocks assessments is that we just look at the fish abundance but we don’t take into consideration their habitat, where they live. Habitat is one of the largest factors that effects species survival, so by not taking it into account you’re just looking at half the picture and you can have super crashes in populations.”

Essential habitats such as where the fish spawn and also their nursery grounds should be focus areas for protection and stock regeneration. “You need to be able to understand what these are, where they are, to be able to provide a greater protection.”

  1. Climate-change is having an impact. Fish species are migrating north.