Hundreds of Scottish fishermen say trawling has devastated the nation’s inshore waters, destroying plant and animal life. They want an exclusion zone set up so the sea can recover and a shift to sustainable fishing. Neil Mackay reports

BALLY Philp is steering his fishing boat, the Nemesis, through dark winter seas not far from the Isle of Skye. Beneath him, the seabed is destroyed. “It’s a desert,” Philp says. Fish stocks have collapsed. There’s basically nothing left down there but shellfish, Philp adds – and that’s what he’s hunting. Everything else is gone, plundered by trawlers.

For 30 years, Philp has fished Scotland’s seas. “What’s happened in that time has been an environmental disaster,” he says. Philp is a creel fisherman. Small boats like his fish in our inshore waters, sending down divers for scallops, or using pots – known as creels – to catch crab and lobster. It’s the sustainable way to fish.

However, trawlers have been given free rein to come into Scotland’s inshore waters and rip up the seabed as they scoop out their catch, according to fishermen like Philp. Tonnes of marine life is discarded and wasted, underwater plant life is destroyed, habitats and ecosystems ruined. Philp, national co-ordinator of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation – which represents 400 fishermen across Scotland – lays the blame squarely with the Scottish Government. Edinburgh has presided over the ruination of Scotland’s inshore waters, creel fishermen claim.

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A three-mile inshore exclusion zone should be established around Scotland, prohibiting trawlers, they say. In this new environmental age, they believe inshore fishing should be low-impact and sustainable to allow the sea to recover. Trawlers ploughing the sea release masses of carbon.

It’s not just about the environment, or even the livelihoods of the creel fishermen struggling for a catch in plundered seas – it’s about national economics too. Rebalancing how Scotland fishes – giving creelers like Philp a fair crack of the whip in inshore waters – would bring in more money from exports and increase jobs, it is claimed. Creelers think it’s a no-brainer, a vote-winner. So, why on Earth, ask fishermen like Philp, is the SNP Government pursuing its current policies?

Creelers worry that, because of Brexit, support among the Scottish public for them is low, and allows the Government to sideline their environmental and economic warnings. The irony is that creelers voted against Brexit en masse, knowing it would only add to their woes. When it comes to shellfish, Brexit now means that every kilo exported costs £2.50 more. That’s enough to ruin some businesses on tiny margins.

The skipper

“THERE’S only remnants of habitats left in our coastal waters, and what is left must be protected,” Philp says. In Argyll, 50 per cent of flame shells – which make up biogenic reefs – are gone. Around 90% of seagrass in the Western Isles has gone, Philp says. Fragile serpulid reefs are disappearing. Trawlers have devastated these ecosystems.

Marine Scotland, which is responsibility for Scotland’s seas, “has been an abject failure when it comes to protecting the environment, and they’ll continue to fail so long as they allow unregulated trawling right up to the shoreline”. Says Philp: “We need low-impact fishing in this coastal zone which will protect these ecosystems and allow them to recover. What’s going on is disastrous, frightening.”

Small creel boats fish inshore – deeper, treacherous seas make their job impossible. There isn’t a single inshore vessel which makes a living catching fish anymore, says Philp. “It’s 100% shellfish,” he says.

Everything else is effectively gone, along with the habitats which support them, Philp adds. “We’ve pretty much made every single species of fish, which was once fished inshore, commercially extinct.”

Shellfish are quite literally the very last creatures that can be pulled from the sea. Philp even brought the creel fishermen’s plight to COP26 - yet still nobody in Government heeds their warnings.

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“The actions of trawlers are akin to ploughing on land,” he says. “The problem is that you can plough 95% of Scotland’s seabed legally. The effect is the forests which once nurtured fish, the nurseries of juvenile fish – they’re disappearing.”

Creelers believe “the narrative” is controlled by the big trawler industry and Marine Scotland. “The wee guys aren’t at the table,” he says. That’s why the creel federation was set up. Its message is “conservation in order to save fishing communities”. To Philp, the current way Scotland runs the seas is “stuck in the 1970s and 80s, but society is in the 2020s. It’s not cool to destroy ecosystems anymore”. The fact that the Government allows inshore trawling to continue “is absolute madness. There’s no excuse left for not creating an inshore zone with a sense of urgency”.

He says that if a three-mile exclusion zone was set up to protect the environment and create sustainable fishing then trawlers should be compensated for any loss by the Scottish Government. “Any transition must be just,” he says. There are claims trawlers bully creelers – telling them to move from areas they want to fish, or destroying creeler fishing gear when they dredge.

The creel federation sneers at Scottish Government claims that the seas are well protected. It says Government claims that 37% of seas are in protected areas are misleading, and insist only 2.5% of “marine protected areas” have effective measures introduced to ensure protection.

The old hand

BEFORE Philp took over, Alistair Sinclair was the federation’s national co-ordinator. For Sinclair, now retired, the problem is the domination of big business. “Money rules – the pound comes before communities,” he says. Sinclair - who has driven the fight for change – was fishing commercially back in 1984 when a three-mile limit around Scotland’s shoreline was scrapped. “Scotland’s seas are in terminal decline,” he says. “From 1984, it became a race to fish – there’s been no proper management of inshore waters.”

It’s not as if the Government doesn’t know what’s happening, he explains. Back in 2007, information came to light which showed that in the Clyde fishery, trawlers were catching and discarding 31 million juvenile fish per year. “We want the public to understand what’s going on beneath the waves – what’s happening is being done underwater where it can’t be seen,” says Sinclair.

The lawyer

THE federation has already taken the Scottish Government to court. The Government asked for suggestions to improve the seas, the creelers sent in their plans, and in a ruckus which landed before a judicial review, ministers were found to have turned the idea down solely due to opposition from the trawling industry.

Creelers say the finding proves their point that the Scottish Government is in thrall to trawling at the expense of the environment. It is thought that the Scottish Government’s costs for the legal fight, including its ongoing appeal, could exceed £100,000 in public money.

Robert Younger, from Fish Legal, is the lawyer who helped creelers fight the case. “What disturbs me most,” he says, “is that I’d fondly imagined that what lay under the inshore waters was in a healthy state, with healthy fish populations – that the seabed was healthy. What I discovered is that there’s been an armageddon under our seas.

“What you’re seeing is pretty much every bit of the seafloor pummelled by the use of very heavy machinery that leaves very little space for healthy ecology and ecosystems to survive.”

Younger says “in the Firth of Clyde it’s virtually impossible for a fish to get much beyond 5cms because they get scooped out in trawl nets”, adding: “Healthy fish populations have pretty much disappeared. So much has been lost. Marine Scotland don’t seem to care. We just have hollow promises to improve ecology and in every instance the same wall is met and that’s opposition from [trawlers]. So long as we’ve fisheries management that’s done on measures agreeable to them, nothing will change.”

He sees the creelers’ campaign as a “David and Goliath” battle, and helped found the federation to “advocate for low-impact fishing”. Salmon farming is also helping destroy inshore fishing with toxins from fish farms spilling into the sea, he says. The massive supply chain of salmon farming leaves a heavy carbon footprint, too.

He is scathing of the Scottish Government. “If you read a lot of their literature, you’d think Scotland was in a kind of permanent Blue Planet haven – the leading fisheries nation in the world. There’s a total disconnect between the reality and the propaganda.” He thinks that post-COP26, environmental arguments may force change in Government policy. “Inshore waters are a huge carbon sink,” he says. “The fact they’re constantly raked over by trawlers could be decisive in pushing things over the edge. The seafloor is the driver of marine health. We need to remind ourselves that we actually can turn things around and make positive change.”

The scientist

DR Sally Campbell has a lifetime of marine ecology behind her. She worked with the world-famous Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California. Now she’s with the creel federation, providing the science for its campaign to set up a trawler exclusion zone and create sustainable inshore fishing. The inshore waters of Scotland, Campbell says, were “rich in fish but that went in 1984 with the change to the three-mile limit – prior to that there was protection from trawling. They had a bonanza in the inshore waters and it’s got so depleted that what we’re left with is some shellfish”.

She adds: “What we lost was areas of seabed, there was wonderful seagrass, kelp, areas of loose gravel, so cod could lay their eggs and not be disturbed. We’ve a serious problem in inshore waters.”

Areas designated “marine priority features” haven’t been properly protected, she says. “We’ve had decimation of some of those prime areas – it’s been appallingly managed.”

If trawlers were kept out of inshore waters “there’d be amazing regeneration. If you leave nature alone it will solve a lot of its own problems”. Campbell also points to the destruction of sea angling, once a huge source of jobs in tourism. “That’s a great sadness,” she says.

When it comes to the trawling industry, says Campbell, Government ministers need to “stop meeting with lobbyists and being wined and dined”. She points out that England – although far from perfect – is managing inshore waters better than Scotland. English “inshore fisheries conservation” authorities have shown themselves willing to heavily fine illegal trawling. In Sussex, a two-mile inshore trawling ban is in place to protect kelp forests.

“Nobody in Scotland gets fined for anything as far as I can see,” Campbell adds. “We need teeth in compliance – we need to police the marine environment the way we police the streets. Our seabed must be allowed to recover after years of being degraded. We’ve fished out in all the major stocks – we’re fishing out our inshore waters to the base of what’s left. We need to resurrect that – it would be a 10-year project.”

The economist

ALAN Radford has been an economist his entire working life, lecturing in environmental economics at university, and specialising in fisheries. He’s carried out studies for Marine Scotland and is now on the management board of the creel federation.

“Marine Scotland,” he says, “has a policy of letting trawlers fish where they like – they say it’s more profitable than creeling.” However, the claims of the Scottish Government are “economically incoherent”, he adds. “There isn’t a single economic performance indicator per tonne caught where the average trawler is better,” Radford says. In a comparison of profits per tonne, creelers are far more economically efficient than trawlers. A creeler’s high-quality produce, crucially caught live by hand and in creels, sells for around £13,000 per liveweight tonne. Trawler catches – which often bring up dead and mangled shellfish – sell for between £1,750-5,000 per tonne depending on the quality. Huge amounts are discarded, he says – often up to two-thirds in weight is thrown overboard as it’s “mashed up”.

To favour trawlers over creels “is economic madness”, he says, “which ignores the environmental consequences and the jobs that have been lost”. Radford adds: “Usually if you get poor economic performance you can say it’s good for the environment, or if you get bad environmental performance you can say it’s justified by jobs. With this, there’s no economic or environmental reason. It’s nuts. Trawlers shouldn’t operate in areas where creelers can profitably operate.

“At the heart of this, there’s dreadful market failure. There’s no competition in allocating the seabed like in agriculture where if I want to farm I have to outbid someone else. If there was a hypothetical market for the seabed, the average profits per liveweight tonne for creelers would be £600 – the average trawler profit’s about £180-330 so trawlers would never get access to the seabed as they’d be outbid. The market would say ‘sorry’ there shouldn’t be any trawlers in this area’.”

When it comes to the environment, Radford says: “If this was happening on dry land people would be appalled. If the Government wants to say it supports trawling irrespective of economic coherence or environmental tragedy then fine, at least that would be honest.”

A life changed

ALASDAIR Hughson is six miles west of Ullapool in his boat, the Auk. He is the chair of the creel federation. Today, Hughson is fishing in one of the few inshore spots, he says, which genuinely has benefited from marine protection.

He talks as he keeps one eye on his diver in the water, the mountains looming in the distance. “Seven years ago, this was in such a poor state you couldn’t fish any more but since 2015 there’s not been any legal dredging and we’ve noticed a massive difference – there’s a lot more stock. It’s amazing how quickly it recovered. We’re seeing seaweed recovering, little fish swimming about.”

If only all inshore waters were similarly respected, Hughson says, Scotland would be on a good path. The failure is down to “regulator capture” of Marine Scotland by big business. “We keep asking ourselves why the Government won’t act – all we can think is: cronyism?” The trawling industry is “well-funded and organised with a large staff and time to plan – we’ve none of that”.

Hughson laments what’s happened to the seas he loves: “When you go down to a healthy seabed you see it purple with maerl and slow-growing seaweed, and lots of species living among it. That stabilises the seabed, stops it moving the same way trees hold the earth together. Then you come along with a dredger and just rip it apart. A trashed seabed is like a desert, you’ve taken all the life out of it, broken the ability of the seabed to hold together. Some areas will never recover –there’s hundreds and thousands of square miles utterly trashed.

“The reality,” says Hughson, “is far worse than just increased costs and lower productivity. It’s changed our entire way of life.” With shellfish so hard to find, fishermen like Hughson are “now completely nomadic, living aboard our vessels, spending weeks in one spot before moving on to the next”. He adds: “The outlay and cost for the larger boats capable of living aboard has crippled us, almost bankrupted us at times. It wasn’t always this way. If it wasn’t for scallop dredging inshore, we’d likely still be using small fast boats, working two or three areas. Most importantly, we’d be home at night. It could have been so different had Marine Scotland done their job correctly. That’s the effect of this on my life.”

Scots Gov says ...

A SCOTTISH Government spokesperson said: “The vast majority of stakeholders will not recognise the scenario portrayed by this series of unfounded claims from members of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation.

“Our marine protected areas network already covers 37% of our seas and we are committed to delivering fisheries management measures for existing sites where these are not already in place by March 2024. We will also designate ‘highly protected marine areas’ covering at least 10% of our seas by 2026 which will exclude all fishing activities.

“To complement these measures we will also consult on introducing a cap on fishing activity in inshore waters that will limit activity to current levels. These elements of the co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party will help ensure Scotland leads the way on marine environmental protection, and will enhance our reputation for providing quality, sustainable seafood and position us well to deliver a green recovery.

“The agreement builds on our fisheries management strategy, which sets out policy initiatives for the next 10 years, and helps ensure that we manage our sea fisheries in a responsible and sustainable way for future generations. The Scottish Government is wholly committed to the sustainable development of our fishing industry.”