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Argyll divers claim ‘illegal’ dredging has increased in the Firth of Lorn due to a lack of policing, making any legal protection pointless.
The government told The Oban Times it is now investigating ‘suspect vessels’, as a local MSP is calling for a Scotland-wide inquiry.
Local scallop divers Davy Stinson and Steve Barlow first witnessed an ‘incursion of scallop dredging’ within the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area (MPA) last summer.
Scotland’s MPA network, covering 20 per cent of its seas, protects vulnerable species and habitats at 168 sites, including Loch Creran, Loch Sween, the Small Isles, Lochs Duich, Long and Alsh, and Upper Loch Fyne and Loch Goil.
The Scottish Government designated Loch Carron, home to the world’s largest known flame shell bed, as an emergency MPA in May following damage due to a ‘dredging incident’. This month Holyrood launched a consultation to make the MPA permanent.
But Mr Stinson argues MPAs are becoming ‘paper parks’ because they are not enforced, with more dredgers feeling emboldened to breach them. He told Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie about the ‘failing, frustrating and heartbreaking’ situation in the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA, and in the Easdale Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
Since last summer, he wrote: ‘Many divers have reported seabed damage, and creel boats heading out in the early hours have witnessed dredgers actually fishing in the MPA. And there has been an accumulation of evidence that the MPA is being systematically breached. This includes boats making large landings early morning, yet tying up during the day.
‘Reports to the authorities have gone in from divers and crewmen, but, significantly, also from John McAlister, who owns a fleet of larger dredgers. He is no doubt concerned that this illegal fishing will rebound badly on all the mobile sector.
‘I have also seen seabed damage around Insh and Ardencaple, but most worryingly to the east of Belnahua, which is within the SAC itself.
‘The real outrage is not that certain dredger boats are breaching the MPA/SAC, but that they are emboldened by the utter lack of any repercussions from Marine Scotland.
‘More boats now seem to be trying their luck in the area, and the MPA has in real terms ceased to exist.
‘Nobody can congratulate themselves about the creation of MPAs if they only exist on a website, and what is happening in the real world is that without some form of policing the MPAs are only paper parks.
‘Whatever happens now, the damage to the marine environment has been done – we are back to ground zero.’
John Finnie MSP told The Oban Times he was ‘extremely concerned’ about reports he’d received about ‘illegal’ fishing within MPAs off the Argyll coast.
‘I’m advised the illegal practices have been reported to both the local fishery officer and Marine Scotland, neither of whom appear to have acted.
‘I have written to cabinet secretaries Roseanna Cunningham for the environment and Fergus Ewing for fisheries, asking that they initiate an immediate inquiry into what’s going on.
‘Dredging is an entirely destructive practice which can cause irreparable damage and must be controlled.
‘Scotland is a maritime nation and yet, unlike Wales, which is building new protection vessels, we apparently have no plans to enhance our fisheries protection capability. Clearly, there’s no point in having protected areas if they are not policed.’
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: ‘We have received recent reports of suspected illegal dredging in the area. Marine Scotland Compliance is actively investigating the activities of a number of suspect vessels.
‘Marine Scotland invests significant resource into regular boat patrols, as well as the presence of one of its marine protection vessels in the area to ensure compliance. The risk of breaches of regulations is considered regularly and further resources are deployed to the areas of highest perceived risk.’