Scallop dredgers 'lay waste to spectacular reef'

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The Independent Online

Booming demand for scallops is putting pressure on one of Scotland's most important marine habitats as environmentalists and fishermen fightover a tiny area of sea.

Booming demand for scallops is putting pressure on one of Scotland's most important marine habitats as environmentalists and fishermen fightover a tiny area of sea.

Described as an area where the Atlantic Ocean meets plankton rich coastal waters above an unseen but spectacular underwater mountain range, the Firth of Lorne, 15 miles south of Oban on Scotland's west coast, is of global importance to marine conservation.

But the area, which is just four miles by 10 miles, is also a fertile fishing ground for sea-going scallop dredgers which make up about 5 per cent of the UK's fishing fleet.

In an attempt to have the area classed as off-limits to dredgers, divers and environmentalists are calling for greater European Union protection. The Scottish Sub Aqua Club (SSAC) and British Sub Aqua Club have backed a submission to the EU commissioner on environment demanding urgent action and presenting video evidence of the damage to the reefs caused by the heavy steel-toothed bars and chains dragged across the seabed by trawlers.

Scallop dredging is acknowledged as one of the most destructive methods of fishing on the marine environment.

"We have confirmed video evidence of damage from scallop dredging on this habitat," said Andrew MacLeod, a member of the SSAC. "This is the most significant form of damage to the seabed in terms of the kill rate and extent of the damage. Scallop dredgers almost have the complete freedom of the sea and the areas they are affecting are vast. We are not looking for the scallop fishing to be stopped everywhere, just for these special areas of marine conservation to be properly protected."

"If we upset the balance of this area we run the risk of destroying it for future generations," said marine biologist David Ainsley. "It is not just marine life that is at risk, shoals of sand eels and small fish support a healthy colony of seabirds, dolphins, porpoise and whales.

"It makes no sense to identify this as an area worthy of conservation and not protect it."

Although Scotland's Marine Special Areas of Conservation are designated under a European directive as special because of their marine biology, scallop dredging is still permitted in and around those areas.

Local fishermen dispute the claims of the environmentalists and even go as far as suggesting that their photographic evidence might not be genuine. "It might be genuine or it might not be," said John Hermse, a spokesman for the Scallop Dredging Association, who dismissed the claims that fishermen were responsible for widespread destruction.

"Dredging has being gone on in this area for some 60 years," Mr Hermse said. "Fishermen go out of their way to avoid causing damage to the reefs. You cannot dredge on reefs. It would snarl up the gear and pose significant safety implications to the vessels and crew, so they simply can not do it. There is no evidence that the damage has been caused by fishermen, it could have been something else such as weather conditions."

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