FOR generations, the people of north-west Scotland lived and died by herring.

It was the business of catching, gutting and smoking the silver darlings that created and sustained many a lochside community in Wester Ross.

Now there is hope the fish can come back with the discovery of spawning grounds off Gairloch. 

However, environmentalists say not enough is being done to protect the fragile ocean floor where herring leave their eggs – not least from those dredging for another lucrative seafood: scallops.

Scallops are usually caught by dredgers, which drag heavy equipment, often weighing more than two tonnes, along the seabed. This plows the ocean floor like a field collecting scallops but often destroying rare reefs and wildlife in the process.

This is illegal in certain protected areas across Scotland including Marine Protected Areas, set up by the Scottish Government in 2014.

Officials from national fisheries watchdog Marine Scotland have already discussed a voluntary spring moratorium on fishing in the area – a broad sweep of sea where Loch Gairloch meets the Minch – as this is the time of year when herring gather waiting to spawn. 

However, Marine Scotland has not confirmed arrangements yet. Campaign group Open Seas says just shutting down the fishery temporarily – and voluntarily – is not good enough.

“There is a good reason that the herring choose this area to spawn,” said the charity’s Nick Underdown. “The herring lay their eggs here because it is home to patches of healthy seabed. 

“Dredging and bottom-trawling have already reduced healthy seabeds like this to a tiny fraction of their historic extent. 

“To safeguard the future of fish stocks and recover our seas, this damage should be ended urgently and  permanently – not just for a few weeks a year. 

“A short holiday from increasingly intensive scallop dredging will not halt the continued degradation of our seabed.”

Scallopers dispute criticism that their industry is unsustainable, but are ready to stop fishing the area during the spring run.

However, Open Seas argues that it is not enough to merely not disturb the spawn on the gnarly seabed. They want dredging to be banned for good to preserve the maerl, the crusty mix of coral and algae where herring eggs are laid. 

This would extended a protected area that already includes the inner loch.

Mr Underdown continued: “West coast herring populations have collapsed. We respect the complexity of inshore fisheries management, but it is a crying shame that there are apparently still no formal measures in place to protect these spawning grounds from scallop dredging and bottom-trawling.

“It would defy logic for Scottish Government ministers to consider a temporary, non-statutory measure amidst a climate and biodiversity crisis. 

“A short holiday from increasingly intensive scallop dredging will not halt the continued degradation of our seabed.”

Femke de Boer, of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, which represents scallopers, said: “We whole-heartedly agree with the voluntary closure.

“If science shows that a permanent closure would really make a difference we would be happy to discuss putting that in place.”

Ms de Boer did not seek to minimize the impact on dredging but stressed that the technique could be part of a sustainable fishery, depending on where it was used and especially if areas with slow-growing organisms were avoided.

She said: “Of course, dredging will effect the seabed, we won’t deny that. But on land we also use heavy machinery. You will always have an effect when you are getting food.”

Industry leaders say scallop dredging is highly regulated and carefully targeted. 

The Scottish White Fish Producers Association has previously accused critics of hiding behind “emotive and utterly misleading platitudes”.

Most Scottish scallops are exported – largely to southern Europe – and almost all are harvested using dredges. 

The industry said it would be impossible to meet this demand with shellfish hand-picked by divers, which accounts for just one in 20 scallops landed.

They add that most scallops are found in gravel or sand beds – not on coral. Critics claim dredging over decades has ground maerl into gravel and created a monoculture where once there was a more diverse eco-system.

John Finnie called for better management in and around Gairloch. The Green list MSP for the Highlands and Islands, whose grandmother gutted herring, said: “The destructive effect if dredging is well understood and there is ample video evidence that should be acted upon.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The West Coast Regional Inshore Fisheries Group has been discussing a voluntary closure to protect a herring spawning area near Gairloch. No decision has been made yet on the way forward. Broader national fisheries management measures are being considered under our Future Fisheries Management national discussion.”