CONCERNS have been raised about Scotland's ability to protect its precious waters from rogue fishermen through a 'failure' to adequately prosecute incursions while protecting the anonymity of perpetrators.

Over six years there have been nearly 200 reported incursions into protected and closed waters - but official data shows there have been just nine fixed penalties handed out.

Environmentalists are concerned that the number of officially reported incursions into marine protected areas (MPAs) designed to protect fish stocks, and preserve sea life - are just the tip of the iceberg to the problem.

It is not against the law fishermen to enter Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), but environmental groups have raised growing concerns that a lack of prosecutions and the the low value of fines is hitting hard.

There is also concern that the fixed penalties, offered as an alternative to prosecution, allow those responsible to remain anonymous and there becomes no record of crime.

Marine sustainability charity Open Seas says there needs to be remote electronic monitoring on all Scottish fishing boats to stamp out illegal fishing.

They say that despite spending £2m of public money on it since 2018, the Scottish Government has "failed to deliver it" on more than a handful of scallop dredgers. "Scotland's seas deserve better," they said.

The Scottish Fishermen's Federation has said that it is wrong to say that any reported incursion means there is illegal activity.

It comes after the Herald of Sunday revealed that North Sea cod, one of Britain's favourite fish, has lost its sustainability certification for a third year due to deep worries about stock levels, leading to concerns about whether enough is being done to protect Scotland's marine environment.

HeraldScotland:

UK and Scottish ministers have come under fire over a failure to properly police and protect Scottish waters as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) confirmed that certificates for North Sea cod fisheries have remained suspended this year as concerns remain that stocks are below "safe biological level".

UK and Scottish ministers have come under fire for an "ignoring" of official advice over the state of cod by agreeing with the EU and Norway to a 10% cut in the total allowable catch this year to 15,903 tonnes in its first year as an independent coastal state.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), the world's oldest intergovernmental science organisation which advises nations on stocks said there should have been a 16.5% cut from 17,670 tonnes to 14,755 tonnes as the state of cod was described as being at a "critical level" with fishing pressure too high.

MPAs are areas of sea defined so as to protect to habitats, wildlife, geology, undersea landforms, historic shipwrecks, and to demonstrate sustainable management of the sea.

As of December 2020, approximately 37% of Scotland's seas are covered by the Scottish MPA network, which comprises 244 sites.

Since January, 2019, a period largely covered by Covid restrictions, there have been just three cases referred to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) for consideration of prosecution over fishery offences. Only one related to illegal fishing in protected areas.

That resulted in a fine of £2,200, imposed in September in the wake of an incident in which a trawler was believed to have illegally deployed nets within the South Arran 'no take zone'.

It is the only area in Scotland to have that degree of protection.

HeraldScotland: North Sea fish stocks have risen in recent years thanks to strict regulations

The fishing ban has been in place since 2008, and was brought in as concerns grew that the marine ecosystem around the island had steadily collapsed, as bottom-trawlers and dredgers intensively combed the seabed with their vibrating spikes.

The fine was described by campaigners as "paltry" and that it was not going to deter the activity or reflect the risk of environmental harm.

Jenny Crockett, outreach and communications manager with the Community of Arran Seabed Trust said: "Acts of illegal fishing in Marine Protected Areas not only undermine the purpose of these areas to recover and protect marine life, seabed health and productivity, but also damage the reputation of other fishers who comply with the regulations.

"Frequent reports of illegal fishing or suspicious fishing activity in Scotland’s inshore waters are very concerning. It is notoriously difficult to secure convictions for incursion cases like the one in Lamlash Bay, and the fine issued in this case was frustratingly small, highlighting serious inadequacies of the whole compliance process."

A prohibited act within a Marine Protected Area carries a possible fine of up to £50,000, reflecting the seriousness of the environmental harm caused.

According to official data released under freedom of information betwee 2015 and 2019 there were 112 reported incursion leading to three fixed-penalty notices and two warning letters for illegal fishing And between May 26, 2019 and May 25, 2020 there were 48 reports to Marine Scotland of suspected or actual infringements to protected or closed areas involving 45 individual vessels. Only two resulted in fixed penalty notices, with one involving a £4000 penalty.

And between May 2020 and 2021 there were 29 incursion reports and four fixed penalty notices.

Environmental groups such Open Seas are also concerned at the lack of transparency over the prosecutions that do occur and details of the Arran incident have been scant.

They also are critical of the fixed penalty system which they see as giving fishing skippers the power to buy anonymity.

Open Seas says that the current guidance for fixed penalties fails to tackle the seriousness of illegal fishing in protected areas and keeps the perpetrators anonymous.

It says: “We think that transparency is fundamental – if a fishing business is operating in an illegal way that is harming the environment, the public – and consumers – have a right to know.

"Scotland’s seafood sector relies upon a solid reputation and strong environmental credentials.

"More transparency will ensure that buyers will know whether they are at risk of unwittingly allowing illegal seafood to enter their supply, the ‘grey fish’ traceability problem we have highlighted in depth."

It has emerged that several fishing vessels also received fixed penalties of £2000 by Marine Scotland for illegally fishing in the St Abbs and Eyemouth Static Gear Reserve.

The vessels were observed illegally trawling in 2019 and evidence was submitted by a number of witnesses to Marine Scotland.

Trawling and dredging are prohibited all year round within the protected area under the Inshore Fishing (Prohibition of Fishing and Fishing Methods) (Scotland) Order 2004 and protections are there to protect rocky reefs, sea caves and grey seals.

HeraldScotland:

It is believed that large numbers of squid are using this reserve and the wider Berwickshire and North Northumberland Coast Special Area of Conservation to breed and lay their eggs.

The Blue Marine Foundation is concerned that fishermen are targetting the squid with their trawls.

They say fears for the population being fished out prior to spawning or before they reach maturity have been raised by the community.

Despite reports of illegal fishing within the area dating back to 2004, this was seen as the first penalty Marine Scotland have issued.

The evidence collected included photographs, video, tracking data and satellite imagery, along with verified descriptions and timelines of the offence by several witnesses.

Charles Clover executive director of Blue Marine Foundation, said “The decision to penalise is a welcome move but comes two years after the incident occurred and a fixed penalty of £2000 seems very low for the offence. In fact, how much has this cost the state to levy this fine?

"I suspect the fine does not even get close to covering this cost.

"We see this penalty as a payment to continue fishing without a criminal record or consequence for their action.

"Scottish ministers have a legal duty to protect Marine Protected Areas. The question remains, is the ease of the process in issuing fixed penalties at these amounts from Marine Scotland outweighing the severity of the offence and ultimately leading to continued damage of Marine Protected Areas.

Philip Taylor, head of policy from marine sustainability charity Open Seas said: "Illegal fishing inside Scotland's protected areas is an ongoing problem that the government has failed to deter, properly penalise or account for.

"This behaviour steals from coastal communities and other fishermen and should be condemned by all.

"People around our coasts want change and it is their actions which led to these fines being issued.

"Open Seas commends those who sounded the alarm and were so persistent in their challenge of the Government's poor management."

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the SFF, said: “Fishing is permitted in many Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – there is no blanket ban. This is because MPAs are designated to protect specific features, and the management measures for each MPA will determine the activities that are permitted within that area, based on what the MPA is designed to protect.

“Marine Scotland’s website, where statistics are published on reports of alleged illegal fishing in MPAs, states that: ‘Reports are received from a range of sources and may range from very accurate to completely inaccurate. They do not prove wrongdoing or suggest guilt and it is misleading to present them as such.’

"It goes on to say that: ‘Reports received are taken at face value and accuracy cannot be verified until followed up at a later stage.’ “Clearly if that follow-up leads to evidence of illegal fishing then it is right that enforcement action is taken to address that. But it is wrong, and indeed Marine Scotland themselves are clear that it is wrong, to suggest that all alleged reports of illegal fishing are in fact contraventions of the law.”

Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers added: “It is the case that not all MPAs restrict bottom trawling, however, in cases where it does then it is clear that penalties should be at a level commensurate with the incident. "SWFPA is a proponent of Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) on all scallop dredgers, irrespective of size or location. We are currently working with Marine Scotland to promote a speedy roll-out across the scallop sector. This level of ongoing commitment from the fishermen, in what has become a pilloried sector, should satisfy even those at the helm of Open Seas."