Protecting Scotland’s marine habitats and reviving its coastal fisheries may go hand in hand in a ‘blue recovery’ – Philip Taylor
The Scottish government recently published its 10-year assessment of the health of our seas. The results are alarming: many fish populations remain in poor condition, the seabed is regularly damaged and goals to stop the disastrous degradation of Scotland’s underwater habitats have failed.
One of the causes, according to marine scientists, is the current approach to fishing. To quote the results, âpressures associated with bottom contact and pelagic fishing continue to be the most widespread direct pressures geographically in the majority of Scottish marine areasâ.
In the midst of this problem, there is an urgent opportunity for change.
Scotland’s second most valuable wild seafood is the humble prawn – Nephrops norvegicus, otherwise known as langoustine or what most call ‘scampi’.
It is a crustacean, like a small lobster, that lives in burrows in the carbon-rich mud of our sea lochs and the wider seabed. Recently, this shrimp has become emblematic of the woes of the sea and seafood industry in Scotland.
Insight: How Scotland’s fishery has been sunk by red tape since Brexit
As a Brexit-related trade crisis unfolded with shellfish exports disrupted and many boats still stranded, shrimp exposed some of the less resilient parts of our fishing industry.
For much of Scotland’s rich fishing history, scampi were a by-product of abundant fish catches. Fishermen sweeping the seabed in search of cod, hake and whiting, threw the shrimp overboard into the sea.
Now, following the collapse of our main coastal fisheries (herring, haddock and cod) and our consolidated fishing quotas in the hands of fewer and fewer companies, captains have resorted to shrimp trawling.
The shrimp has become a mainstay – a symptom of ‘fishing along the food chain’ and is now hailed as a jewel in Scotland’s seafood crown, worth around Â£ 80million per year, involving 450 vessels.
A large number of small boats catch shrimp using low impact fishing traps (landing the live and large shrimp to sell them as valuable langoustines), but the majority are caught by bottom trawls, which aggressively sweep the sea around the sea. seabed to sell their catch as langoustines.
That is until last year, when the thriving shrimp market collapsed by almost half due to the double shocks of Brexit and Covid. Dependence on European buyers and restaurants has made this shellfish trade particularly vulnerable.
Figures released this month show that the 2020 catches have declined by more than 30% from the previous year. Industry leaders warn that the viability of our seafood industry as it is currently structured is in jeopardy. The Scottish Government has set aside Â£ 1million for an emergency ‘Norway lobster task force’ to identify a ‘vision for the future of the industry’, as well as providing several million more as part of Covid’s emergency support.
So, are these curtains for the lowly shrimp and the boats that catch them? As a charity dedicated to promoting more sustainable seafood, we don’t think so.
A long-standing problem has been the government’s “ hands off ” approach to determining who fishes where, leaving fishermen on the water to “ sort it out among themselves ”, effectively transferring decision-making powers to regional inshore fishing groups.
So far, these groups have failed in a monumental way to implement an inshore fishing strategy and are dominated by the voices of those who control many vessels but seldom fish themselves, or who can afford to send their own. associate lobbyists. It literally leads to a race to the bottom. Competition is fierce and leads to overexploitation, reducing profit margins. The result is a fleet that does not function in the best interests of Scotland plc.
The result is a dangerously imbalanced fishing system from an environmental point of view. Bottom trawling for langoustines is very fuel-intensive, causing damage to seabed habitats and re-suspending significant amounts of marine carbon in the water column (although its provenance is yet to be understood).
It also implies high levels of bycatch of other juvenile fish: huge quantities of fish caught as bycatch are thrown back into the sea because they are either too small or there is no quota. to disembark them.
These damaging dynamics are preventing recovery from the collapse of the west coast cod population. It is also illegal, although the Scottish government has sought to deregulate discards, claiming that selectivity (i.e. catching shrimp without bycatch of juveniles) is ‘difficult to achieve’ for scampi trawlers.
But it doesn’t have to be: doing what is good for the health of our seas can lead to economic recovery.
Research commissioned by the Scottish Government has shown that better spatial management of bottom trawling in our coastal seas would yield rapid benefits, in terms of value and jobs created, simply by shifting the balance between bottom trawling and low impact creping.
This would pave the way for the re-establishment of once abundant fish populations (now accidentally caught). That would mean locally caught fish again available in places like Oban, Scotland’s seafood capital, rather than a small selection of shellfish.
Until then, we remain in the open: overfishing keeps fish catches low and suppresses economic activity. Allowing populations to recover could triple North Sea cod catches, while remaining within sustainable limits.
The Economic Recovery Advisory Group report calls for an economic recovery that is best for communities, jobs and without harming Scotland’s natural resources. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the government’s management of coastal fisheries performed poorly in all three areas: the overall value of fish landings fell by Â£ 26million between 2018 and 2019; jobs in the fishing industry have fallen by 316 since 2010. The report recommended that government support be made conditional: no more blank checks for unsustainable practices, but rather targeted funding to spur change.
We have the choice. Rather than supporting unsustainable bottom trawling in our coastal waters, the government can limit the damaging environmental footprint of bottom trawling and revive coastal fishing in Scotland. With the right program of supports, the government can protect rural communities and lead a just transition.
Philip Taylor is the policy and operations manager of the sustainable seafood charity Open Seas
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