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Controversy over scallop dredgers

dolph1A PETITION aiming to stop scallop dredging grounds from being extended in Cardigan Bay has received over 15,000 signatures, following criticism of a Welsh Government consultation. However, fishermen who have seen a lucrative ground closed for what will be at least seven years have claimed that extensive scientific studies carried out on the grounds since 2010 indicate that there is room for a sustainable fishery. The SAC (Special Area of Conservation) in Cardigan Bay is a traditional scallop fishery, which was closed in 2009 following concerns about the environmental impact of an influx of boats.

A small area of Cardigan Bay – The ‘Kaiser Box’ is opened for fishing during the scallop season (Nov – Apr). This has been overfished, to the extent where some local boats are fishing alternative locations or for different catches. It is also claimed, both anecdotally and by scientists involved with the ‘test fishing’ that scallop stocks outside of the Kaiser Box are thriving to the extent where they are potentially unable to reach full growth and are leading to a reduction in biodiversity. The Welsh Government proposes to introduce a ‘managed fishery’ where areas of Cardigan Bay between three and 12 miles out to sea would be fished, with limits imposed on the number of times per season that each patch is dredged, restrictions on equipment used, and flexible restrictions based on the results of regular monitoring. A consultation was launched in November, but relaunched following criticism of the clarity of an online version, and a technical error.

This area of Cardigan Bay was said by the Welsh Government to be mostly shallow water where the sand sea-bed was susceptible to ‘wave shaping’. Test fishing carried out by scientists from Bangor University among others showed that, in the words of the Welsh Government report: ‘This experiment concluded that, as scallop intensity increased, the negative effects on the animal community also increased such that the abundance (i.e. number) and biomass (i.e. weight) of organisms per unit area of the seabed declined. ‘However, these effects were relatively minor and short – lived and were reversed in the period between May and September in the same year (note this would also coincide with the closed season for some scallop fisheries).

‘Depending on the sediment type, the abundance and biomass of benthic species (particularly the prey for fish) had increased in areas with the highest scallop dredging intensity. This may have occurred due to the removal of scallops which constitute the dominant fauna (in biomass) within the areas studied – i.e. through the removal of the main competitor for food. ‘Thus the effects of scallop dredging on prey species for fish do not appear to be a cause for concern. For most areas of the seabed, the physical effects of scallop dredging were no longer present 12 months later. There were two exceptions to this – one more cobbly area of seabed close to the 3 nautical mile zone that had been fished with an intensity of between 3 and 4 times fished, and one area in the 6-12 nautical mile zone that had been fished slightly more than 6 times (these figures are derived from averaging the fishing intensity across the experimental fishing area).

Now that the location of these areas has been identified, the Welsh Government will be in a position to protect them by way of spatial restrictions’. However, environmental writer George Monbiot rubbished these claims. In an ‘emotive’ article, entitled The Dolphin Killers of Cardigan Bay, which appeared in the Guardian last month as an opinion piece, Mr Monbiot made the claim that because the sea beds in Cardigan Bay had been dredged and trawled for years, they were likely to take ‘decades if not centuries’ to recover their former biodiversity, and as such, the Bangor University Study was flawed. One scientist was quoted as suggesting that if you failed to mow your lawn for five years, you would not end up with a first-growth oak forest.

While this is true, it does seem to be a somewhat trite statement in this context. Mr Monbiot made some very valid points. The effects of beam trawling and dredging on certain sea beds, especially coral and reefs, is devastating, and these are widely regarded as two of the more destructive forms of fishing in terms of environmental impact. However, claims about the damage to cuter varieties of marine fauna were not sufficiently explained. However, ‘The people who may be interfering with the Dolphins’ food chain in Cardigan Bay’ lacks the same impact as a headline. This article was linked to the Change.org petition. This also begs the question of where these dolphins were when the grounds were being fished before.

Because this is an emotive subject, no fishermen were willing to be interviewed on the record, but no one The Herald talked to had noticed an increase or decrease in the number of dolphins and porpoises in Cardigan Bay over the last decade. Whether Mr Monbiot had data illustrating this or not is open to question, but one would think that data which proved the main hypothesis of the article would have been reproduced, or footnoted. A number of fishermen expressed their frustrations that following one of the most detailed assessments into the impact of scallop fishing, that a consultation based on this has been extended. The Herald was told that it was in the interests of fishermen to work within any Governmentimposed restrictions, both to continue fishing, and to make sure that the industry was sustainable.

Many of those commenting on the petition seemed to imply that eco tourism or alternative fishing methods could replace the dredging industry, or such of it as remains. To some extent the latter has occurred naturally in this area; notably fewer scallop boats have been seen in Milford Docks, for example, this winter, at least partly as a result of poor catches in the permitted area. The overlap between commercial fishing and eco-tourism probably looks a lot clearer from the perspective of a holidaymaker, though it is hard to see how many transferable skills there would be between the two, and while diving for scallops may be the preferred method, the yields using this method equate to a small percentage of the total scallop catch, thought to be worth between £5 and 6mfrom Cardigan Bay alone. To respond to the relaunched Welsh Government consultation, visit: http://gov.wales/consultations/ environmentandcountryside/proposed-new-management-measures-for-the-scallop-fishery-incardigan-bay/?lang=en To sign the change.org petition, visit their website and search for Cardigan Bay.

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Dayne Stone

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