Scotland's £30 million scallop-dredging industry will be the subject of a "wide-ranging review" by ministers in the wake of allegations that it is wrecking the seabed and destroying fish stocks.
A high-profile campaign by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his Hugh's Fish Fight television show has sparked widespread public concern, endorsed by environmental groups, but has also upset the industry.
Now tensions are rising over the Scottish Government's plan to re-examine the sustainability of scallop dredging. The comprehensive review, due to start in April, could lead to new controls.
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Scallops are Scotland's second most valuable shellfish, with 16,000 tonnes a year harvested, mostly for export. But dredging has attracted growing criticism because of the damage it can inflict on fish nurseries, coral reefs and marine wildlife.
The Scottish Government's review was welcomed by the Fish Fight campaign yesterday, with a spokesman calling for a network of new protected areas.
The umbrella group for Scotland's green groups, Scottish Environment Link, has been campaigning for a review of scallop dredging. Calum Duncan of the Marine Conservation Society said dredging could lead to the "ecological wipe-out" of the more sensitive areas of the seabed.
"Biologically diverse reefs and other complex habitats can be irreversibly damaged," he said. "Use of this heavy gear has to be managed sustainably for the benefit of our seas and the coastal communities that rely on them. We cannot take a business-as-usual approach."
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which is concerned about fish-eating seabirds, also welcomed the review. "But it can't be at the expense of real action to address the damaging elements of our scallop industry," said the society's senior marine policy officer, Kara Brydson.
"This review must result in a profitable and sustainable market for quality scallops which Scotland can be proud of. RSPB supports fishing businesses that are truly environmentally sustainable."
The Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust warned that the impact of scallop dredging couldn't be hidden any longer. "They are the most significant cause of ecosystem degradation in our coastal seas," said trust director Charles Millar.
"Their heavy iron teeth rip through habitats and flatten the seabed, devastating the fish nurseries that we need to restore stocks and support long-term jobs."
However, the fishing industry's reaction was muted. "It's neither welcomed nor rejected," Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, said. "It's just part of life, and we'll take part in it."
"Scalloping utilises only a very small part of the seabed, with vessels fishing the same areas decade after decade. To imply that this sector causes wide-scale damage is disingenuous and disproportionate."
Industry body Seafish says scallop fishing supports 1150 Scottish jobs. "We must not lose sight of the importance of the industry to Scotland's economically fragile coastal communities," said chief executive Dr Paul Williams.
The terms of the review of scallop dredging are currently being worked out. "Scotland is at the forefront of developing sustainable fishing practices and following a consultation on scallop fishing last year we have announced a wide-ranging review of the industry in Scotland," said a Government spokeswoman.