FISHERMEN have accused ministers of acting unlawfully in a legal challenge over the "right to trawl" in Scotland's inshore waters.

The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) has lodged a petition for a judicial review which is expected to have a marked bearing on fishing rights across Scotland.

The SNP Government are being accused of acting unlawfully by "listening to its cronies" in the industrial trawling sector and ending a proposed pilot no-trawl scheme in the Inner Sound off the Isle of Skye which it is claimed could have brought greater benefits to the economy and the Scottish marine environment.

The pilot was designed to test the environmental and economic benefits of creating ‘trawl free’ potting zones in the inshore.

Those behind the case being heard at the Court of Session say the decision to end the pilot was made without a proper legal basis and that they will challenge the "right to trawl" that has existed since the early 1980s.

Before the enactment of the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act in 1984, there was, since 1889, a ban of bottom trawling within three miles of the coast providing “coastal fringe of largely undisturbed marine life”.

The prohibition was removed largely because trawling had led to an increased depletion of off-shore stocks and the mobile fishing sector - large trawlers operating in the area – wished to move inshore.

The SCFF says since the ban there has been a significant and growing body of evidence showing that the decision to open up the inshore to trawling has been disastrous both environmentally and economically.

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Robert Younger, solicitor with environmental rights organisation Fish Legal which is involved in the case said: “Unfortunately many people don’t realise that the introduction 'freedom to trawl principle' to the inshore in the 1980s has destroyed much of Scotland rich inshore marine ecology, which also forms productive basis of many of our inshore fisheries.

"There is increasing evidence showing the huge costs in terms of lost employment opportunities and lost revenue of that policy. This case is about forcing the Scottish Government to address that evidence and manage the inshore for the people of Scotland rather than for their friends in the trawl sector.”

Fish Legal said it is backing the case because of its "importance to coastal communities, artisanal fisheries recreational sea anglers and the people of Scotland".

At the centre of the case is the Skye pilot that came amidst mounting evidence that the use of trawled fishing gear in the inshore caused widespread ecological damage including significant declines in the diversity and size of commercial fish species.

The Inner Sound proposal was rejected by Marine Scotland in February this year.

The reason given states that “the responses to the consultation make it clear that there is continuing opposition to the proposers inshore fisheries pilot in the Inner Sound of Skye..the majority of the proposed measure [sic] set out in the consultation were strongly opposed by respondents”.

The case is being brought on the basis that the Scottish Government rejected the pilot because of objections from the mobile fishing communities instead of applying their own published consideration.

The SCFF believes that the decision to reject the pilot was unlawful because the Scottish Government did not properly assess the proposal - including examining learning opportunities and the wider issues of inshore fisheries management.

Dr Thomas Appleby, an environmental lawyer at the University of West England, Bristol said: “This vital case questions the basis of government decision-making on access to the UK’s fishery which, with all we know about biodiversity loss, food security and climate change, we should be managing as sensitively as possible. In continuing to allow damaging gears in the Inner Sound, the Scottish Government is running away from the problem and failing to listen to voices around the country who are calling for proper management."

Elsewhere in the UK, other small-scale fishing communities are also taking a stand against industrial, often foreign-owned trawlers in UK waters, following recent confirmation by the House of Lords that the public, not businesses or industry, own the right to fish in UK waters.

Alistair Sinclair, national co-ordinator of SCFF, said: “Scotland cannot continue defending a ‘Jair Bolsonaro slash and burn’ type model of exploitation until there is nothing left worth protecting.

"In a single generation, since the removal of the inshore three-mile limit in 1985, our inshore ecology and productivity have been destroyed. However, if Marine Scotland is willing to change, the restriction of trawled gears in the inshore will not only reverse decades of degradation and destruction but will actually create significant economic benefits: it is a win-win.”

The SCFF has raised wider concerns that this case follows a pattern that suggests that the mobile fishing sector wields too much influence with Marine Scotland and that the management of Scottish fisheries appears more aligned with the interests of the industrial trawlers than with the public interest or fisheries policy under the National Marine Plan.

Charles Clover, executive director at the anti-overfishing charity Blue Marine Foundation said: “We are seeing local fishing communities cross the UK starting to fight back against a nonsensical system that allows our inshore waters and even our offshore marine protected areas to be routinely damaged by trawlers and dredgers – a practice that makes no sense economically or environmentally."

A Scottish Government spokeman said: “We can confirm that judicial review proceedings have been raised. Since these proceedings are ongoing it would not be appropriate to comment further.”