THE plan for 30 new marine conservation areas unveiled by Scottish ministers last week fails to ban one of the most environmentally destructive forms of fishing - dredging the seabed for scallops.
A community environmental group says it leaves a gaping loophole in measures to protect marine wildlife. Fishermen, however, warn "ill-informed restrictions" must not be imposed on Scotland's multi-million scallop-dredging industry.
Environment Minister Richard Lochhead announced on Thursday that Scotland's "iconic marine species and habitats" were to get greater protection.
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New Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around the coast would, he promised, "enhance our marine environment so that it remains a prized asset for future generations."
What he did not mention was that in some MPAs, large, toothed rakes could still be dragged across the seabed, threatening coral reefs, fish nurseries and other marine wildlife.
This means the new areas will be ineffectual, according to the Community Of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast). It wants dredging banned in all near-shore waters.
Coast manager Andrew Binnie said: "Dredging will continue over most of our MPA and others with the exception of a few select habitats within them.
"This means a lot of MPAs will be paper parks - lines on maps with no effective regulation of the most damaging activities."
Binnie called for tougher management plans for MPAs. "At present the plans will only appease a few dredgers at the continued expense of the environment and a healthier Clyde Sea," he said.
Calum Duncan of umbrella group Scottish Environment Link is also concerned dredging will be allowed in some MPAs. "Impractical patch-management could seriously dilute the positive effects of MPAs," he said.
"The ecological footprint of this heavy gear remains too great and needs to be reduced."
Dr Bryce Beukers-Stewart, a marine environment expert from York University, said broad areas of the seabed needed to be protected, not just specific features.
"Scientific studies have demonstrated scallop dredges are among the most damaging of all fishing gears to benthic species and habitats," he said.
Scallops are Scotland's second most valuable shellfish, with 80% exported. Dredging for them earned Scottish fishermen £150 million between 2007 and 2011.
Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, dismissed Coast's criticism. He pointed out scallop dredging was banned in three areas in the South Arran MPA thanks to a voluntary agreement introduced by fishermen.
He said: "Our scallop fishermen concentrate their efforts in less sensitive habitats such as sand and gravel, which are naturally dynamic environments due to the movement of water on the seabed … to impose undue and ill-informed restrictions to this sector would deny the majority of consumers the chance to enjoy this marvellous-tasting shellfish."
Lochhead did not deny dredging would be allowed in MPAs, but highlighted the "voluntary measures" introduced by fishermen.