Dredging in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

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A recent report by BBC Scotland highlighted evidence of alleged illegal scallop dredging (uncovered by divers from Open Seas) in the Firth of Lorn; part of the Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura MPA, which has historically been very heavily dredged but was starting to recover.

This MPA was designated to protect common skate, the largest skate species in the world, and critically endangered (i.e. at extremely high risk of extinction in the near future) due to overfishing. Common skate are non-migratory, take a long time to reach sexual maturity, and spend their entire life in one fairly small area – the Firth of Lorn is one of these.

What are MPAs, and where are they?

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010  provide the legislative basis for MPAs, which are designated to ensure the protection of some of Scotland’s most vulnerable species and habitats. The MPA network of 31 nature conservation MPAs and one Demonstration and Research MPA covers approximately 20% of Scotland’s seas.

There are also 4 outstanding MPAs under consideration:

  • Sea of Hebrides
  • Shiant East Bank
  • North-east Lewis
  • Southern Trench

These were not expected to be designated until 2019/2020. However, in a letter to Patrick Harvie MSP regarding the 2018-19 budget, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution agreed to include an extra £200,000 to accelerate their delivery, leading to formal designation a year earlier than planned.

In addition to the sites designated under the marine Acts, a number of other designations comprise Scotland’s MPA Network. The following map shows these:

MPA Network in Scottish Waters

Source: Scottish Government

As previously noted, in April 2017, damage was caused to a rare flame shell reef in Loch Carron by a dredger which was operating legally. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform subsequently designated the Loch Carron Urgent Nature Conservation MPA to protect flame shell beds. This is the first time that urgent designation powers have been used under the 2010 Marine Act.

What is Dredging?

Dredgers catch scallops by dragging a heavy bar fitted with a set of spring loaded, downward pointing teeth along the seabed, behind this a mat of steel rings is fitted. A heavy net cover is laced to the frame, sides and end of the mat to form a bag. Larger vessels generally tow two bars, and scallops are raked out by the teeth and swept into the bag.

Marine Conservation Orders (MCOs) stop dredgers from operating in certain areas to protect marine features; restrictions do not apply to divers who catch scallops by hand.


Source: WikiCommons

The BBC’s recent report on the Firth of Lorn states that the divers who uncovered the damage to the MPA “believe dredging is “common” with boats operating without location-tracking equipment and possibly at night”.

Monitoring and enforcement

Establishing the MPA network has been a major step for the protection of Scotland’s marine environment. However, monitoring the network for illegal activity is considered to be challenging.

In June 2017, Marine Scotland (MS) launched a Scottish Marine Protected Area (MPA) monitoring strategy. The agency is responsible for enforcing fisheries regulations, including MCOs. This is achieved by monitoring and inspection at sea and in ports and providing intelligence on fishing activity in the sea areas around Scotland. Information is reported as appropriate to the prosecuting authorities.

MS use a range of tools such as satellite Vessel Monitoring Systems and surveillance aircraft and vessels. On 19 December 2017, the Environment Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee heard evidence from MS on the 2018-19 budget:

“…at the moment, we are looking at a range of technologies. We already use drones and satellite technology, and we will use monitoring devices. At the moment, we are probably looking to use them on larger boats, but we could look beyond that to camera technology.”

The Committee also asked about a report in The Times that stated there had been 78 reports of suspected incursions in MPAs between 2015 and May 2017 with only one conviction. MS stated:

“One case involved 19 reports about a single vessel, and several other incidents received a number of reports. Of course, the fact that there has been a report does not necessarily mean that something has been done wrong […].

The situation is slightly overstated. […] That does not mean that we are complacent. We rely on people reporting what they see, and reporting is a good thing because it is the responsibility of everyone involved in coastal communities to support the MPA networks.”

MS’s written evidence to the ECCLR Committee provides a breakdown of enforcement and monitoring costs. Aircraft are the main method of gathering information and detecting illegal activity and cost approximately £180,000 a year. Other methods include the use of Marine Protection Vessels as a visible deterrent and rigid inflatable boat patrols; these cost £2.7m and £70,000 per annum respectively.

The recent BBC Scotland report notes that MS has received a report of suspected illegal dredging, and that they are “actively investigating the activities of a number of suspect vessels”.

Reaction of the Fishing Community

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation stated in the recent BBC Scotland report that it “distances itself from any illegal activity in MPAs, or elsewhere”. This is also echoed by the Clyde Fisherman’s Association.

The Western Inshore Scallop Group tweeted that it “cannot condone any type of fishing which damages the features in protected areas”, and that it believed that “a rogue, under 10metre non-member vessel, which does not require a vessel monitoring system (VMS)” was responsible. Furthermore:

Due to a lack of resources, we also question the ability of Marine Scotland to monitor the protected areas and to combat incursions into the MPA zones.

Open Seas have stated that it “is brave for divers to speak up about the damaging impacts of illegal scallop dredging in Scottish marine protected area. Effective enforcement is essential for seabed recovery and sustainable seafood”.

Alasdair Reid, Senior Researcher; Brexit, Environment and Rural Unit