Britain's shell fish disaster

Image nephrops prawn langoustine  bycatch fish waste

The catch from an Irish Sea bottom trawler – all they were after were the little red prawns. Copyright Johnny Woodlock

Here’s the top of my Observer Magazine  story on the sad and destructive prawn and scallop trawling that’s now the west coast’s most valuable fishery. A huge and interesting response – see the comments here – from academics, fishermen and shellfish lovers… Please tell me what you think below.

The dispute is savage (between the scientists and between the fishermen). Here’s an email I got today from a casual diver I know well:

I was diving for scallops off Lochmaddy 3 years ago and an Oban Registered scallop dredger steamed full throttle towards me and my buddy just after we had surfaced – very intimidating stuff – the intention was very clear and hostile, threatening words were shouted at us. The other thing that no-one sees is the damage these dredgers do to the seabed – everything is obliterated, torn from the sand, ripped and destroyed. It takes decades for the seabed to recover.

If you’re interested, make sure and watch Hugh’s Fish Fight on Channel 4  tomorrow, 14th Feb. We need a simple, clear public campaign not to ban bottom trawling, but just set a modest limit on the inshore seabed ploughing that’s doing so much damage – 1.5km or 3km has been suggested by the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust.  There’s evidence that the Welsh and Scottish governments might be movable.

War on the seabed: the

shellfishing battle

Observer Magazine, 10 February 2013

The trawler was a mass of battered metal looming high above our little boat, a great bucket of rust on the bright blue Hebridean sea. For two days last July we watched it plough up and down a shallow patch inshore, just where we’d been used to seeing a school of basking sharks feeding. But those had gone, and so had the seals that sunbathed on the nearby rocks. A clanking noise filled the air, broken kelp fronds were washing up on the beach, and the water in the shallows, usually crystal-clear, was hazy. We decided to go out and have a look.

As our dinghy pulled close we realised what the boat was doing: dredging for scallops. Island lore had it that the dredgers had long disappeared from these waters. They’d taken all the scallops and ruined the cod banks decades ago. But here it was, a Clyde-registered scallop boat. Over its high sides hung a mesh of old iron – rings, spikes and chains, starfish, sea urchins and broken crabs tangled among them. We came alongside and called up to the wheelhouse to ask if we could buy some scallops.

For £10 the fishermen threw down a generous sack. Undamaged, the contents might have cost £50 at the fishmonger. But many of the shells were broken. At least half the scallops seemed very small. They tasted gorgeous later, fried in butter with bacon. But as each sweet, salty mouthful went down, I thought with guilt of the damage that had been done to get them.

The problem with bottom-trawling is that it lacks discrimination. The gear ploughs through the seabed, taking or breaking nearly everything in its path. What can’t be sold – the baby fish, the little crabs, mangled skate, monkfish and the smashed shells – still dies. It’s a way of making a living, and those are in short supply on the Atlantic coasts of Britain and Ireland. But it is among the most wasteful ways of gathering protein mankind has ever devised.

Dragging the sea-bottom for scallops and langoustine – also known as Dublin Bay prawns, or scampi – is Britain’s most valuable inshore fishery nowadays, and the least sustainable. It has been called total war fishing. There was a good reason the dredger we met had been working the patch for so long. First its metal “swords” had to cut through and uproot the seaweed forest. Then, once the bare ground was exposed, the dredge’s teeth had to burrow through the mud, exposing and catching the animals and leaving the bottom furrowed like a field, many of the contours erased. There’s little escape. Spring-loading lets the gear bounce over all but the biggest rocks. Smaller dredgers use sonar to fish out the gullies.

The waste is awful. Half the life on the seabed goes when a scallop dredge first passes. In langoustine trawling, between 40% and 90% of the catch is thrown away – you can pick between the studies. The eminent author and marine biologist Callum Roberts compares dredging for scallops to cutting down a rainforest to catch a parrot.

Read more (free)…

  • Image is of the catch from a prawn boat, fishing off Howth in the Irish sea. Obviously, only the little red langoustines in the picture will be kept. Copyright Johnny Woodlock jwoodlock@eircom.net

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