Government launch electro-fishing consultation
A controversial method of catching razor clams using electricity could be legalised, under new Scottish government plans.
Ministers are considering applying for an exemption to European Union laws which prohibit electro-fishing.
They have launched on consultation on the proposal.
Razor clams - or spoots - are increasingly in demand by overseas markets and fishermen can command a high price for their catch.
An environmental group said law enforcement agencies had "lost the battle" to stamp out illegal electro-fishing.
And Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing admitted that Marine Scotland had found it difficult to clamp down on the activities of some fishermen.
Mr Ewing said: "Electro-fishing is currently illegal in Scotland and Marine Scotland Compliance has taken a range of measures to tackle this illegal activity.
"Enforcement has proved to be very difficult, and changes need to be made to either make it easier to enforce the current law or, if electro-fishing is to be legalised, to ensure any electro-fishing is undertaken safely and sustainably in a properly regulated environment.
"As a result of this advice and extensive consultation with the industry, we have now decided to consult on proposals to amend the current law to allow electro-fishing to be a legal method for catching razor clams.
"This is an issue that has evoked much interest and debate. This is why I would urge all those with an interest, in particular from fishermen and people in coastal communities where such fisheries might be conducted, to respond to the consultation."
The move comes after a report by Marine Scotland found that electro-fishing had a lower environmental impact than methods like dredging and it had little short-term effect on other species.
As part of the practice of electro-fishing, electrodes shock razor fish in the seabed, causing them to rise up.
At that point they are easily collected by divers.
It is the "least worst option", according to RSPB Scotland.
Alex Kinnimouth, the charity's head of marine policy in Scotland, said: "The status quo of an illegal, unregulated and unreported razor clam fishery is clearly unacceptable.
"Marine Scotland and the police seem to have lost the battle to stamp it out and so there is a real risk that this highly efficient fishing method could cause 'spoots' to be wiped out in areas that are being repeatedly targeted.
"Alternative capture methods such as dredging are highly disruptive to the seabed.
"So on the basis of the most recent published research, a closely regulated fishery using electricity, perhaps on a pilot basis, with tight controls on method, quantity of catch, and where it can occur could be seen as the least worst option."
Food journalist and campaigner Alex Renton told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme that he believed the practice was extremely dangerous.
"When you put enormous voltages of electricity down on to beaches in Scotland, you can cause enormous damage.
"And the reports say that the other fish - and of course beaches are where young fish grow - suffer epileptic fits, haemorrhages, their spines break."
High-profile chefs Andrew Fairlie and Tom Kitchin have also voiced their opposition to the "idiocy" of uncontrolled electro-fishing.
In a letter published three years ago, they warned that, unless the practice was done very carefully, it could kill "nearly everything else in the vicinity" as well as the razor fish.
The consultation was welcomed by the Scottish Conservatives whose fisheries spokesman, Finlay Carson, called for further scientific research into the sustainability of the razor clam beds.
He added: "I also hope that every effort will be made to seek as many views and expert opinions as possible during the consultation.
"It's imperative that the potential positive economic impact on coastal communities from razor clam fishing is founded on proper scientific research with sustainability as a primary concern."
The Scottish government has previously taken a hard line with fishermen caught using the technique.
In May 2014, it announced tougher licensing measures in a bid to clamp down on the illegal practice.
In the two years before that announcement, 11 vessels were issued with a fixed penalty of up to £2,000 for electro-fishing.
Diver Graeme Mackie drowned during an electro-fishing expedition for razor clams in the Firth of Forth in 2011.
Dunfermline Sheriff Court heard that there was no evidence that the electric current directly caused Mr Mackie's death.
Skipper Ronald MacNeil was ordered to carry out 300 hours of unpaid work after admitting safety failings.