MSPs back ban on kelp dredging

The plans to harvest kelp commercially in west coast waters has sparked controversy.

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Petitioners against wild kelp dredging are ‘delighted’ after a Holyrood committee voted to ban the practice.

Ayr-based Marine Biopolymers Ltd (MBL) is applying to the Scottish Government for a five-year licence to ‘sustainably harvest wild kelp’, or Laminaria hyperborea, to extract natural polymers for uses in foods and pharmaceuticals, in seas inside the Western Isles from the Firth of Lorn to Stornoway.

MBL hopes to ‘unlock the hidden treasures that are the different components of seaweeds’, and harvest up to 1,300 tonnes in wet weight the first year, rising to 29,800 tonnes in year five, the minimum required per year to be commercially viable. The kelp would be transported to MBL’s proposed processing plant at Mallaig, subject to a future planning application to Highland Council.

MBL’s scoping report, subject to a consultation, states this is a first for Scotland, but harvesting has been carried out ‘sustainably for many decades in Norway, France and Iceland’.

But by Tuesday more than 15,500 people had signed a petition calling for Roseanna Cunningham MSP, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, not to grant any licences for mechanical kelp dredging in Scottish waters.

Campaigners and fishermen warned it could be damage kelp beds as well as fish and shellfish stocks. Dozens of businesses from Argyll, Lochaber and Skye, which ‘rely on a healthy coastal environment to prosper’, are among the 116 names that signed a letter calling for a ban.

Now the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has backed an amendment from Green MSP Mark Ruskell which bans the removal of entire kelp plants from Scottish waters. Three committee members voted in favour of the amendment and there were six abstentions. It means harvesting would be allowed only where the plant can recover and rules out dredging.

Ullapool oyster farmer Ailsa McLellan, who started the petition, said: ‘We were delighted to see that this amendment passed today, which is an enormous landmark for a campaign that began so recently.’

Mr Ruskell, the Scottish Greens’ environment spokesman, added: ‘Kelp forests provide a precious habitat for young fish and shellfish species. Removing these en masse will have a devastating impact on many of these populations and a knock-on effect of Scotland’s other fishing sectors.

‘The forests also act as an important buffer for our island and coastal communities, protecting them from the more damaging effects of waves and coastal erosion.

‘Members of the environment committee have received a wealth of submissions in recent weeks in support of a ban. There’s now plenty of time to consider these in even more depth before we vote on the final bill in the coming months.’

Charles Millar, Scottish Inshore Fisheries Trust executive director and founder of Help the Kelp, said the vote will require all harvesting of kelp in Scottish waters to follow the rule hand-harvesters obey – that the plant must be allow to regrow.

‘This wording would not ban mechanical harvesting of farmed kelp, nor would it obstruct any of the businesses currently using seaweed for everything from the drinks industry to make-up to food for racing camels.

‘We know the Scottish Government may seek to remove these provisions when the bill goes into its final stage, but I would urge ministers to listen to the overwhelming voice of business and public opposition, and to accept that Scotland’s growing seaweed industry is itself best served by following this simple rule when licences are to be issued.’