Fishermen criticise Scottish government's emergency reef order

Damaged reef Image copyright Chris Rickard

The Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF) has accused ministers of demonstrating "mistrust" in their response to a rare reef being damaged.

In a letter, the SFF said the government's emergency measures undermine confidence in marine protection.

The flame-shell reef in Loch Carron was damaged when a scallop dredger dragged its gear right through it.

The incident had been investigated by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

It concluded that the damage was consistent with scallop dredging and that there was a "viable" chance of recovery.

On Friday, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham gave Loch Carron emergency protection by designating 16 square kilometres of it a Marine Protected Area (MPA).

But in a letter to Ms Cunningham and Rural Affairs Secretary Fergus Ewing, the federation's chief executive, Bertie Armstrong, raised concern about the process.

He said five similar reefs were already closed to fishing and that MPAs were designed to protect "examples" of rare sea features, not all of them.

He added that the move was a "de facto statement of mistrust" in the process of Marine Protected Areas.

Image copyright Chris Rickard
Image caption A dead flame shell photographed on the reef (L) compared with a healthy flame shell (R)
Image copyright Chris Rickard
Image caption Divers say they have photographed the "plough tracks" on the seabed caused by the dredger

The letter continued: "You will know that this logical, sequential, evidence-based endeavour is one that we, as directly affected stakeholders, have not only participated in but directly promoted on the international stage as an exemplar for others, balancing well the relevant Scottish government policies of healthy and productive seas.

"Stepping outside the process undermines confidence in a balanced government approach to MPAs."

On Friday, the environment secretary said the MPA was an emergency measure and that steps would be taken to make it permanent.

Roseanna Cunningham confirmed that the damage was consistent with scallop dredging but that there was a "viable prospect of recovery" for the reef.

The campaign group Open Seas said the move was "too little, too late" and that MPAs should be imposed on even more reefs.

The Scottish government said the reef could take 100 years to recover from the dredging.

A government spokesman added: "The approach taken by the Scottish Whitefish Producers' Association to implement three voluntary flame shell bed closures after the Loch Carron incident was a positive and responsible reaction to this issue.

"The Marine (Scotland) Act gives Scottish Ministers the power to designate MPAs on an urgent basis if there is an immediate need for protection.

"Given the recovery potential of the flame shell beds, it was important to ensure that there was not a repeat impact from dredge fishing. That's why the designation was accompanied by the urgent Marine Conservation Order."

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