FISHERMEN have joined environmental lawyers in attacking ministers’ “failure” to adequately protect the Firth of Clyde and support a recovery programme in an area which was once a jewel of the Scottish fishing industry.

The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) is upset that eight years after then-Scottish Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead set out a “2020 Vision” statement that the Clyde could “once again be a national asset” there has been “no single practical measure” taken to improve the state of its ecosystem.

It set out its concerns in a briefing and has launched a legal challenge over an “unlawful right to trawl” in Scotland’s inshore waters. The SCFF has lodged a petition for a judicial review which is expected to have a marked bearing on fishing rights across Scotland.

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The SNP Government is 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. 

But the Scottish Government has been accused of turning it down due to the objections of trawlermen, rather than applying its own published consideration.

Fishing was once big business in the Firth of Clyde, employing hundreds of people directly and thousands more in related jobs like packing, processing and selling the produce. But the good times did not last.

Decades of overfishing, poor management and scraping the seabed with “destructive” techniques like dredging led to a loss of habitat and biodiversity. 

In 2012, a Clyde Ecosystem Review (CER) by Marine Scotland concluded that past fishing has had “a major ecological impact” on the firth. As many as 90 per cent of the fish were seen to be smaller than the minimum landing size while 72% of them were just one species – whiting.

It compared the Clyde to “used agricultural land in need of restoration”. 

One factor blamed for preventing the recovery was that bigger fish are taken as by-catch – unwanted fish thrown back into the sea – by what was then the Clyde’s £20 million prawn trawler industry.

Data from the Government’s scientific observers suggested the trawlers “may be partly responsible for the current absence of older, larger fish in the Clyde”.

That was fiercely rejected by the prawn trawling industry, which denies it is to blame.
It showed that although the Clyde had been impacted by years of intensive trawler fishing it still supported significant quantities of fish and was demonstrating some signs of recovery. It said the major component affecting the Clyde was associated with the substantial historical and current inputs of hazardous substances from industrial and domestic waste, saying it was arguably Scotland’s most heavily contaminated water body.

It added that the ecosystem had been altered, resulting in many more smaller fish – particularly young whiting – and a lack of larger predator species.

The report said that while not yet a healthy fish population, the Clyde ecosystem is still active and productive, with the potential to be restored.

And it said it “could be argued that the Clyde gives Scotland an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in terms of ecosystem restoration”. 

Richard Lochhead responded by saying the Government now intended to engage with conservation bodies, fishermen and local communities to agree on a “shared vision” for the future of fishing on the Clyde.

This led to the Clyde 2020 initiative which aimed to bring together both scientific research and practical measures to improve the marine ecosystem of the Clyde.

But the SCFF, the environmental lawyers’ group Fish Legal, and the anti-overfishing charity the Blue Marine Foundation say little has been achieved, and an attempt to plan out a Firth recovery was rejected by ministers.

Fish Legal said the Firth of Clyde issue is one of its “current cases”, and stated: “The Scottish Government pledged an action programme to restore the ecological condition of the Firth of Clyde by 2020. Yet no measures have been taken and the state of the Firth of Clyde remains unchanged.”

HeraldScotland:

The SCFF said: “It is a reasonable assumption given the advice of the scientists that the ecology of the Firth of Clyde cannot recover without some substantial changes being made to fishing practice, particularly to allow more fish to survive into maturity.
“By the year 2020, six years on from Richard Lochhead’s ‘2020 Vision’ statement and eight years on from the publication of the CER, not a single practical measure has been taken to improve the state of the Clyde ecosystem.

“This tells one all one needs to know about how much the Scottish Government values ecosystem recovery even when what needs recovery is such an iconic part of Scotland landscape and heritage.”

In 2016, the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust (SIFT) said it was “disappointed” after the Scottish Government rejected a fisheries plan designed by scientists for shellfishing in the Clyde involving granting fishing rights to successful applicants with an aim of allowing it to recover and thrive again.

SIFT said ministers felt it would “add complexity” to the management of the Firth and that Marine Protected Areas recently introduced there needed to be assessed before other management measures could be introduced and that there was “low support” for the proposal from elements of the commercial fishery sector. 

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SIFT said it “disputed” the arguments and said that management complexity only arose because the Scottish Government had failed to introduce vessel monitoring technology which is widely used by other maritime nations and that Marine Protected Areas are for conservation purposes and not related to fishery management.

And it stated that the only opponents to its proposals were “the trawl and dredge fishermen who are the primary cause of the damage SIFT’s proposals sought to address”.
The SCFF’s case against ministers claims that the decision to end the Inner Sound pilot was done without a proper legal basis and was a challenge to 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.

The rejection of the Inner Sound pilot came amid 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.

Charles Clover, co-founder and executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, said: “This is another ‘Scottish Government sit on its hands while environmental disaster unfolds’ story.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are aware judicial review proceedings have been raised and since proceedings are ongoing cannot comment further.”