Am I right to be optimistic ?

Ian Burrett – Charter Skipper

ianbI was happy to get a chance to air my views in this article and I stress these are my own and not necessarily the views of SSACN.

I wrote a paper called the “Forgotten Sea” as far back as 2008.

At the time I wrote about the concern I had that the Scottish Government was turning a blind eye to the destruction of fish stocks and marine biodiversity of the West and South West coasts of Scotland because of the lucrative returns from the destructive langoustine industry and I must admit I was in despair, because as a charter skipper, I saw stocks continue to dwindle and some species like the blonde, spotted and cuckoo ray become locally depleted. Species like the spurdog had reduced from pest levels to zero in a matter of a few years.

The Scottish Marine Directorate stated in October that year “The West of Scotland management measures taken so far have not had as positive an effect as in the North Sea. We cannot be sure why not, but persistent and increasingly low level of recruitments to the fishery suggest a severely compromised reproductive capacity”

From research carried out on old papers, I concluded that if the cod and whiting stocks in the Clyde and South West Scotland were resident spawning groups with little or no cross over from other shoals. Consequently, it would be hard to see where the necessary spawning stock would come from if commercial pressure from the langoustine industry stayed at current levels.

The discards of juvenile fish in the Clyde runs into the millions and the Scottish Government has done very little to address this apart from a small area being closed around Arran as a ‘No Take Zone’ (NTZ) thanks to some great work by COAST.

Also the Scottish Shark Tagging Programme, has worked closely with government and consequently Scotland’s sharks are the most protected in Europe.

I have always believed that Scotland’s Marine environment should be a common shared resource with decisions made for all stakeholders not just commercial interests. Sadly, it would appear many officials within Marine Scotland with responsibility for inshore fisheries appear not to have taken this on board and still can’t see far beyond the interests of commercial fishermen.

So am I now right to have an optimism that things are about to improve ?

Looking at legislation and political activity:

  • Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead appears to be getting the message when he declared recently, ‘Scotland’s seas are not owned by any one individual or vested interest’.
  • EU legislation gave us, “Natura 2000” which suggested that all member states must put in place a coherent network of MPA’s by 2016. To the credit of the Scottish Government, Marine Scotland and SNH, thirty MPAs were designated last July in the seas around Scotland as a first step towards full MPA implementation and I was delighted to learn that SSACN’s proposal for an MPA to protect the common skate and their habitats had been successful.
  • At the public consultations to decide the management of the MPAs, Marine Scotland put forward their “preferred options”. I believe these may have resulted in MPAs becoming just flags on a map but an outcry from the public and a threat of legal challenge caused a ‘U’ turn. Richard Lochhead’s new proposals, with the odd exception, were seen as a bold move and more in keeping with the intentions of Natura 2000.
  • Sadly, this new thinking seems to have gone out of the window for the Luce Bay SAC. (Special Area of Conservation) where Marine Scotland seem determined to continue to allow scallop dredging in the area. They initially proposed one solution which RSA could support, then after consultation with scallop fishermen they proposed an alternative solution to meet their demands, however, it was realised that that solution fell foul of the European Habitats Directive so a further consultation meeting was held and a solution was determined which gave the scallop dredgers the majority of their preferred areas with little or no concern for the conservation objects of the SAC.
  • I have no idea, what the outcome of the Luce Bay management plans will be and I fail to see why Marine Scotland is even considering allowing the latest proposal. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) ably supported by Scotlink (http://www.scotlink.org) share this view. They have been pro-active during the MPA process and their campaign greatly helped the change of tack by the Scottish Government.
  • To address the problems in the Clyde an organisation called the Scottish Inshore Fisheries Trust has proposed a Regulating Order with the objective of regenerating the Clyde as its management has been neglected and over-fishing and the use of fishing gears which damage habitats have not only been permitted but promoted. As a consequence the inshore ecosystem has been degraded and the valuable fin-fish stocks have collapsed to the point that coastal communities no longer enjoy a mixed and vibrant economy.
  • Other EU legislation was introduced in 2010. The European Marine Strategy Framework Directive was transposed into UK legislation and requires Member States to prepare national strategies to manage their seas to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020. It’s hard to see how this will play out but pressure will need to be applied to the Scottish Government to ensure a suitable outcome.
  • Another EU initiative with an unknown outcome is the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy to ban discards. Fishermen targeting pelagic quota species such as mackerel, whiting, sprat and herring will have to land all the quota fish they catch, with a similar rule for demersal fish including cod and hake which will be phased in during the coming year. I guess some species will do well under the discards ban but I fear for species like the rays and other sharks.

On the whole I see potential improvement but there are still a few issues I am concerned about regarding the future of Scottish sea angling.

  • 2009 saw the release of the government’s economic study on the value of Scottish recreational sea angling. This showed in many areas the economic input from sea angling was greater than commercial fishing and suggested a pilot scheme should be trialled to set up “angler only areas” which would increase the economic benefits to a region and allow stocks and habitats to recover.
  • In 2010 SSACN and a few other angling bodies sat down with various Scottish Government departments to write a “a strategy for the development of recreational sea angling”. After many meetings and many hours by volunteers and government officials alike; a report was produced for Richard Lochhead and as far as I am aware it has been binned without further discussion.
  • Earlier this year another Government study, the “Grid report” was published that showed there would be vast increases to some local economies by restricting commercial fishing from inshore waters. By the lack of any positive action, it appears that the recommendations from these reports have not found favour with Marine Scotland or the Scottish Government.
  • As part of the MPA process, proposals were invited from individuals or 3rd party organisations for a Demonstration and Research MPA. As so much had been written about how socio economic benefits could be vastly improved, SSACN felt confident in submitting a proposal for an “angling only area” in Luce Bay SAC. Clearly Marine Scotland didn’t like this proposal as it would have scuppered their plans to allow scallop dredging in the bay and I can only say their handling of this process was disgraceful and certainly never produced the sought after “transparency”. As a result SSACN had to withdraw their proposal.

Although it may be EU initiatives like Natura 2000 and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) that force the Government’s hand, I am sure that pressure bearing down on the Scottish Government by organisations like SSACN, Scotlink, COAST, SIFT, MCS, Fauna and Flora and others, will eventually ensure suitable management plans prevail.

Can I be optimistic about the future for sea angling – I believe so – but it will only happen when the Scottish Government accepts Richard Lochhead’s view that “Scotland’s seas are not owned by any one individual or vested interest’.

Ian Burrett is the skipper with ‘Onyer Marks’  sea angling charters who operate out of the Mull of Galloway and have launch sites on both the east and west side of the Mull. Early in the year they head up to Oban for their annual skate hunt, and for the summer season he fishes Luce Bay and the Irish Sea. Ian is also one of the founders of SSACN.

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