Octopus brings hope to the west of Scotland
November 22 2010 Guy Grieve
Guy in his diving gear
It has been an interesting few weeks. The Isle of Man, an island off the British mainland, has set a new precedent by banning Scottish scallop dredging boats from its waters due to concern regarding the environmental impact of this style of fishing.
It is heartening to see the Manx taking active and brave ownership of their waters, as opposed to the odd brand of defiant, ‘to the end’ resignation that seems to have beset most coastal communities in Scotland.
Yet Scotland is not entirely without hope: in our own area, a concerned group of local people has fought a long battle to impose a dredging ban on the Firth of Lorn, a particularly rich and diverse area of water between Mull, the Slate Isles and Oban. In the end they won their case, but only by petitioning Europe – the Scottish government had no desire to help.
This laissez faire attitude was reflected again last week in the comments of the Scottish Fisheries Minister, Richard Lochhead, who claimed that the Manx government’s action was unjustified in the “absence of robust scientific evidence.”
So if evidence is what is required, what has happened on the Firth of Lorn? Well, the ban has been in place for four years now, and the signs of regeneration are very encouraging. This was confirmed for me last week by a local scallop diver, Dirk Campbell, who also happens to be a marine biologist.
For a complete non-scientist like me, the opportunity to speak to a bona fide marine biologist who bears witness on a daily basis to what’s going on down below is a rare one. I asked Dirk if he had noticed any changes since the dredgers had been banned from the area, and his answer was inspiring.
Free from continuous dredging, the seabed is returning to its natural state, he said, and areas that he had thought were just featureless sand and mud are being carved out by currents and tidal eddies to form a new landscape. This in turn creates increased ‘habitat complexity’ (his phrase) which means that these areas can once again begin to support life.
I asked if he had any proof.
For a moment I wondered if he was consulting an oracle in the style of Paul, the infamous German octopus who predicted the outcome of eight World Cup games. But no, Dirk is a scientist, remember, and demands nothing less than robust evidence.
Octopus build their burrows out of sand and shells, he explained, and are one of the first species to clear out of areas that are continually dredged. The fact that they are being sighted again demonstrates the regeneration that is taking place.
He went on to tell me that he is seeing greatly increased numbers of juvenile bottom dwelling fish in the Firth of Lorn – gurnard, plaice, turbot and monkfish – as well as many more juvenile scallops. In all my dives in this region – which now run into the many hundreds – I have seen no more than a handful of flat fish. This is because I dive in areas that are routinely dredged, and there is no habitat to support these fish.
In Norway, which has the world’s best fishery, first hand accounts from divers (including Dirk) tell us that their seabeds are like a highway of bottom dwellers, with cod the size of dogs a regular sight. Small family owned boats do well and many fish stocks are not threatened as they are here. Dredging in Norway is banned. Coincidence? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
Dirk’s final comment took me by surprise. He told me that he’d seen an incredible sight when ascending from a recent dive on the Lorn. Expecting to hear of a whale sighting or close encounter with a basking shark, I was surprised when it turned out that the ‘incredible sight’ was in fact his boat.
“What’s incredible about that?” Unless Dirk had wandered badly off course, the sight of his boat would not be unexpected.
“I was at twenty-six metres when I saw it.” Now I got it. Normally a diver will only be able to see his boat from about ten metres at most.
This demonstrates the enormous improvement in water clarity in the Firth of Lorn, which we can assume is a result of the seabed not being continually ploughed by dredge boats.
All this is truly exciting news. If the ban is maintained, the future looks bright for creel and line fishermen and divers on the Firth of Lorn.
However, factions from the dredging community are continually lobbying to lift the ban, and if they are successful all this regeneration could be undone in a matter of weeks, just so that one man and his underpaid crew can make a quick buck. It is rumoured that some boats have been sneaking in anyway and quickly dropping their gear for an illicit haul. No one can stop them of course, as our waters are unpoliced. This is something to think about for the future.
So back to the Scottish Fisheries Minister. No scientific evidence? Perhaps he should commission a study run by independent scientists not in the pay of any government related department, unless he is too frightened of what it might reveal.
In the meantime, I think I’ll take Dirk’s word for it. Dirk does not need people to vote for him – he just needs a healthy sea that can regenerate itself, to secure his livelihood for the future. But isn’t this what all fishermen need? A fact that often seems to be forgotten.
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