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Object to more scallop dredging in Cardigan Bay SAC

Welsh Government consultation Scallop Fishing in Cardigan Bay: New Management Measures

There is a great deal wrong with this consultation.  There is also a great deal of misleading and downright wrong information flying around the Internet, on websites, Facebook and Twitter.  All the classic misinformation techniques are being used to undermine and ridicule objections to the consultation: cherry-picking, straw-man arguments, disregarding contrary evidence, endorsing invalid assumptions and more; beware.

It is important to remember that this consultation is about a suite of management measures, delivered as permit conditions, and not actually about whether more of the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC), an area of European marine nature conservation importance, should be reopened to scallop dredging – the consultation makes the presumption that this will happen.  This is unacceptable.

Prior to opening more of the SAC to dredging, there is a legal obligation on WG to carry out a “Habitats Regulations Assessment”.  Before re-opening to dredging, WG is legally obliged to demonstrate, beyond reasonable scientific doubt, that the dredging will not have an “adverse effect on the integrity” of the SAC.  In the case of any doubt, WG must not open more of the SAC to dredging.  This requirement is not open to discussion, it is case-law established in the European Court of Justice (the “Waddensea judgement”).  It is clear, considering all available and relevant evidence, that there is indeed at least considerable scientific doubt about the acceptability of impacts of dredging in the SAC.

Apart from the fundamental issue of reopening more of the SAC to scallop dredging, there is an awful lot more wrong with this consultation. Several aspects need response, though the most important are not actually those that Welsh Government (WG) is asking you to respond to.

 


The detailed arguments and evidence for and against re-opening are complicated.  It is impossible to address the full breadth of this complexity here and the recommendations below do not attempt to cover all the issues in the consultation that could be objected to or commented on.  The issues below are perhaps the most important, but you are encouraged to object or comment on any other issues important to you.

Importantly, if you mean you “object” then don’t be afraid to say so; don’t use vague terms such as “I am concerned about …” or “I do not support …” which could be mischievously misinterpreted.  It is crucially important to minimise any chance of deliberate misinterpretation or “misunderstanding” in responses to government consultations.

As the consultation is looking for views on permit conditions, it is written assuming that more of Cardigan Bay SAC will be opened to dredging for scallops.

So, the first important response needed is to object (assuming you do object) to opening of any more of the SAC at all, full stop.  You could also complain about WG’s failure to publicly consult on the proposal to open further areas of the SAC and also, if you feel strongly about it, recommend that the area of the SAC that is open and has been (according to the consultation document) overfished should also be closed.

The second major issue is the very poor consultation document that excludes crucial information and is riddled with misleading statements, half-truths and distortions (more detail below).

Thirdly, the reasons given and justification for planning to open more of the SAC are unacceptable or not valid, and the assumptions on damage and potential for recovery of the seabed and its wildlife are also invalid (more detail below).

The Wildlife Trusts Wales website has a good summary of the issue here and here.  The second page links to a template response letter.  Without wishing to appear either critical or to make this job any more laborious than it need be, you are recommended only use templates such as this as a skeleton and to make your response letter very much your own.  80% or so of the responses to WG’s 2012 MCZ consultation were supportive of MCZs but used a template provided by WWF.  All the responses recognised as using that template were lumped together and counted as a single response.  Of course this is unacceptable, but it’s important to make sure it doesn’t happen again in this case.  So if you do use the template, make sure your letter doesn’t look like the template and don’t forget to go into the document’s properties and replace the name of the Wildlife Trust’s author with your own.

Recommended response content

1)  Object to WG’s:

  • proposal to open more of the SAC to scallop dredging (regardless of any permit conditions),
  • presumption that the SAC will be further opened for scallop dredging,
  • failure to publicly consult on the proposal to open further areas of the SAC.

If you feel strongly about it, you could also recommend that the area of the SAC that is already open and has been (according to the consultation document) overfished should also be closed.

2) You may or may not choose to comment on the proposed permit conditions.  If you do not wish to comment on them (because they should not be relevant as the SAC should not be open to dredging anyway) you need to make it clear that you are not responding and why.

3)  Object to the lack of crucial information. The document fails to identify:

  • the area that WG wishes to open to dredging area and that the consultation proposals would apply to;
  • any information (maps) on the distribution of seabed habitats;
  • whether or not WG has undertaken, or plans to undertake, a Habitats Regulations Assessment (as required under the European Habitats Directive) for opening the SAC to dredging (the document only says WG will carry out an HRA on the proposed permit conditions, not actually opening the SAC to fishing);
  • how the management of any additional fishery would be policed, or how its impacts might be monitored, or how either of these would be funded;
  • which Bangor University studies or documents that WG have relied on.  (The web link in the consultation takes you to a University web page listing several dozen reports; at least seven of these, amounting to several hundred pages, are related to scallop populations and dredging in Cardigan Bay);
  • or provide a useful summary of the evidence from these reports that WG relies on.

4)  Object to the failure of the consultation to consider all relevant areas of the site and SAC features, including dolphins, which are likely to be impacted or disturbed by dredging (see here) or to take into account that recent monitoring in the Bay shows increasing evidence that bottlenose dolphins are using the SAC less and that low bottlenose dolphin birth rates followed an increase in scallop dredging activity (see here and here).

5) You may wish to comment on and criticise:

  • WG’s conflict of interests.  The consultation makes it clear that WG is responding to the fishing industry and is being driven by economic concerns, whilst it is also the statutory regulator for management of fisheries in a designated site of European marine conservation importance.  It is both “poacher and gamekeeper”.
  • WG’s use of industry’s opinions and perceptions rather than evidence to support its case (despite WG regularly claiming the importance of evidence-based decision making).
  • The way the consultation is written leads responders to WG’s preferred outcome: misleading information on scallop abundance, likely damage, exaggerated economic value and, if you make respond to any of the consultation questions 3 – 16, you are, in effect, accepting the proposal to further open the SAC.
  • The exaggerated and not substantiated claims of “high abundance of king scallops”, “evidence of an abundance of scallops in the closed areas” and that the Bay “historically had been subject to a lucrative scallop fishery for many years”.  The scallop densities in the closed area reported in Bangor University Fisheries and Conservation Science group’s report 41 (here) are substantially lower than those from other scallop surveys in protected areas such as Skomer MCZ (see here) and around the Isle of Man (see here).
  • The lack of evidence for the claimed historical economic value of scallop dredging in Cardigan Bay, particularly the value to the Wales and local Cardigan Bay vessels; or for future value, particularly since most of the Welsh fishing fleet are less than 10 metre vessels and it is likely that scallop fishermen from elsewhere would be most likely to benefit.
  • The failure to consider much greater value of activities such as wildlife tourism and recreation, which could be badly affected by dredging (worth quoting values of tourism if you have access to them).
  • WG’s inadequate fisheries management of the area that is currently open to dredging – “The areas which are open to scallop fishing have been fished to a high intensity over the past 5 years … and scallop stocks in those areas are becoming depleted.”  This failure to manage the fishery sufficiently well is not a valid reason to open the closed area.  You may also wish to comment on the illegal dredging in the closed area (WG have prosecuted several vessels & skippers; there have been many anecdotal reports; the Bangor University study reports identify dredge tracks from illegal dredging).
  • The ludicrous claim that there is “a concern that these scallops may not be reaching their potential growth rate due to overcrowding and competition for resources”.  There is no evidence to support such a concern either in the closed area of the SAC or in the scientific literature generally.  Despite the numbers of scallops in Skomer MCZ being much greater, those scallops are still growing at typical rates and the numbers are still increasing.  Even the Bangor University studies undermine this claim (see report no 21 here).

6)  It is important to object to:

  • the consultation only drawing on a single source of scientific information (Bangor University’s Fisheries and Conservation Science group) and failing to show it has taken account of any other relevant information sources.  You might also wish to comment on the potential for conflict of interests arising from the very close association of Bangor University’s Fisheries and Conservation Science group and the Welsh Fishermen’s Association (see here).
  • WG’s reliance on an impact assessment study that is based on an invalid fundamental assumption, that the “control” area that forms a basic part of the experimental design is appropriate as a control, ie it has not been impacted and reflects “natural” conditions.  It simply is not.

The “control” area lies within an area that has been dredged and trawled for decades, mostly likely for well over a century.  Over 70 scallopers heavily dredged it in 1980 (see here) and again a large number of vessels dredged for scallops in 2008.  Even though most of the SAC was closed to dredging in 2010, there have been numerous incidents of illegal dredging, several of which have resulted in prosecutions.  It has been impacted on many occasions over a long time.

The consultation document repeats the seabed description in Bangor University reports 23, 28, 59, 60 & 61 here (without acknowledging the source) and implies the seabed in the experimental area is naturally mostly mobile and insensitive to damage from dredging.  There is no evidence that this really is the natural state.  On the contrary, there is considerable research, including by Bangor University scientists as well as others (two examples, here and here; there are plenty more), which shows that long-term fishing activity can cause long-term changes to seabed structure and biodiversity.  Even a published research paper authored by several of the same Bangor University scientific staff as the impact assessment reports (here) undermines the claim: “Although we did not detect any effects of scallop dredging on the macro-epibenthic community at the Cardigan Bay SAC, it must be recognized that scallop dredging has been a common fishing practice in Cardigan Bay (including the SAC) for over 30 yr. Thus, scallop dredging may have caused previous impacts that are no longer detectable because they have become widespread and long-term.”

For these reasons, the short timescale of the Bangor study provided insufficient opportunity to demonstrate recovery to a more complex and biodiverse habitat; the failure to detect recovery to a more stable and biodiverse conditions in the timescale is not surprising.

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We fully expect that none of the above will convince those who want to see the SAC re-opened to dredging, or that want to believe there is an environmentally acceptable “balance” between dredging and conservation in Cardigan Bay SAC, or that scallop dredging can be genuinely “sustainable”.  All we can do is be honest.

 


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