Marine Protected Area’s – Vital for the future of Scottish Fisheries

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Passionate protests took place on the 27th of January outside the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood. Fishermen have been protesting the decision of the Rural Affairs committee to lift fishing restrictions on 14 Marine Protected Areas in Scotland. Rival demonstration from opposing sectors of the Scottish fishing industry assembled prior to the meeting, to allow their opinions to be felt.

One side of the industry argue that the restrictions will badly harm the livelihoods of fishermen and their communities. Whilst the others believe protected areas would boost the industry by allowing for recover and revival. The Proposals for the Firth of Clyde to the south of the Isle of Arran area have proved especially controversial.

Fishing occurs throughout the Clyde, the main landing ports being Campbelltown, Tarbert, Ayr and Troon, and some smaller fishing ports in Largs, Greenock and Rothesay. During the 60s and 70s boat loads of herring and white fish were landed in villages and towns all around the Clyde area, which fed and nourished Scotland’s central belt. The Clyde was renowned of its productivity for demersal, pelagic and shellfish. However today it is primarily a shellfish fishery, commercially viable white fish stocks in the Clyde no longer exist.

The primary objective of all fishery management strategies is to determine exactly what causes pressure on stocks, in order to manage and maintain a sustainable industry. Obviously, there can be no future in an industry that carries out unsustainable practices and the damages the sensitive marine habitat. Changes in fisheries management policy and marine reserves are aimed to allow fish stocks a chance to recover, making the area productive again and allowing the industry to be maintained.

The Firth of Clyde is a fjordic water body, including both transitional estuarine and coastal waters. The area consists of an inner firth, and a large, semi-enclosed outer firth, as well Loch Fyne, the longest sea loch in Scotland. However, historical overexploitation of fish stocks and current destructive and unsustainable fishing methods, such as dredging, trawling and bycatch, mean that the Firth of Clyde ecosystems remain in a degraded and commercially unproductive state.

All types of fishing have an impact on ecology, from shore fishing to trawling everything takes its toll. However, it is the impact of dredging, trawling and discards are the most important to control.

For example, a study on the direct effects of trawl disturbance was carried out in one of the un-fished sea lochs of the Clyde, Loch Gareloch. It was discovered that measures of overall species diversity decreased significantly as a result of trawls. In the Clyde, which is heavily reliant on Nephrops fisheries, the passage of ground gear over the sea bed is thought close over the entrance to burrows of Nephrops and other species. So the very practise of catching, never mind the actual fishing, is risking the productivity of future trawls.

The toothed scallop dredge, which is designed to dig into the sediment, may be the most damaging of all demersal fishing gear to benthic communities. The habitats in which scallops are dredged, Atlantic Mearl beds, are a particularly fragile habitat, which have been extensively modified by scallop dredges. The dredging equipment has been found to markedly change the topography in soft sediments, impacting the habitat significantly. Even more damaging are the effects of dredging on the more vulnerable species, such as sponges and coral. The long-term impact on these slow-growing and long-lived species is unknown.

Another significant effect on fishing results from discards, this is the discarding of by-catch organisms, returned to sea after deemed undesirable. If too many individuals are caught or the minimum landing size is not met, they are discarded usually dead. The rate of discarding in the Clyde Nephrops fishery is especially high, and the proportion discarded has been estimated between 66-80%. It has been estimated that approximately 80 tonnes of biomass are discarded every working day by Nephrops trawlers in the Clyde Sea, and that every year a minimum of 25,000 tonnes are discarded in the area.

The majority of the by-catch in the Clyde Sea reaches the sea bed quickly, where it becomes a food source to benthic scavengers. There is a direct impact of benthic populations by creating a food resources that would otherwise be unattainable for organisms, directly affecting the food web of the localised habitat.

The Firth of Clyde area has a vast array of important ecological features, all of which are vital for the productivity of fisheries. Protecting the complex habitats such as kelp forests, coralline algae beds, sea grass meadows, soft corals, mussel beds, reefs formed by invertebrates and mud burrowed by crustaceans and other organisms, are vital if fishing is to continue in the Clyde and the rest of Scotland. Damage caused by practises such as bottom trawling and dredging, have seriously impacted the condition of all of these habitats, some no longer existing. Dredging, trawling and discards (as well as other practices) both directly and indirectly effect ecology. This impact can be seen in the massive decrease in the productivity of Clyde fisheries from the glory days of the 60’s and 70’s. However, there is still the potential for recovery and regeneration, which will allow for populations of both fish, invertebrates and birds.

Which is the correct side in this debate? While the short term impact of fishing restriction within Marine Protected Areas, on Scotland’s fishing community is not known. It is certain that if the ecology of these areas are not considered, and actions made to protect biodiversity are not maintained, the long term impact will result in all types of fishery becoming unproductive, and the industry collapsing entirely.

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Ben Wright

Ben Wright

I am a consultant ecologist with a special interest in protected species and birds. I have some past experience in science writing. I formally wrote a science column for a local paper, and composed a book based on the column (Science Matters) which has just been published.

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