Western Morning News (Saturday)
Rules driving scallop divers to greater risk
Charles Clover, executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, argues a ‘one size fits all’policy is punishing the small scale sustainable harvesting of shellfish
SAM Shucker is a 20-year-old scallop diver who works out of Lyme Regis with his father John and Beau the terrier. He has been at it for about two years.
Can there be any more sustainable way of taking seafood from our seas than diving?
It is unfathomable, therefore, that a committee of the local Devon Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, the regulatory body that is tasked with managing our marine space out to six nautical miles, is forcing Sam and his father to go further afield, dive in deeper waters and take bigger risks by closing their waters in summer to scallop divers.
When diving in their local spot in Devon they can go to 24 metres and work for about an hour on the bottom at a time. They will only get two dives in a day yielding about three bags each per dive with a two-hour rest period in between. By comparison, an inshore scallop dredger in the south west could perhaps harvest 30-50 bags in a single day.
The three-month close season Devon has put in place puts dredger and diver in the same exclusion, so Sam and his father are forced across the border into Dorset waters where the beds are deeper and more dangerous to work.
Diving up to 30 metres creates a whole new raft of risks and physical restrictions. At these depths they get half the time on the bottom and must have longer decompression stops on the way up. The risk of oxygen toxicity and death are far greater at these depths and the catches poorer – perhaps oneand-a-half bags each time at the bottom and a three-hour break in between dives.
There is a special irony here. This young lad who grew up in a community driven by sustainability and chose a career path of being a fisherman using one of the most sustainable methods has fallen foul of a “one size fits all” approach to regulation.
I first wrote about Lyme Bay back in the 1990s when its rich seabed habitat was becoming known as “England’s coral garden,” Sam was at that point still a twinkle in his father’s eye.
Throughout the early 2000s conservationists and Natural England tried to stop bottom trawling and dredging activity to protect the fragile reefs, rare corals and sea fans. In 2008, the then Fisheries Minister, Jonathan Shaw, used a statutory instrument to close 60 square miles of Lyme Bay to bottomtowed fishing methods.
Our charity Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) started working with the static gear fishermen in Lyme Bay in 2011. These small-scale fishermen, most with fishing boats of less than eight metres in length, have given up seatime to come to meetings, tried new methods and carried scientists so their fishing vessels became data collection platforms.
The reefs continue to recover, thanks to their stewardship, and have seen a four-fold increase in commercially caught species. During a difficult decade for small-scale inshore fishermen these hard-working folk from the four ports, Lyme Regis, West Bay, Beer and Axmouth have been the vanguard for innovation and best practice.
So, is it any wonder that Sam, who grew up in the shadow of the marine protected area on his doorstep, decided to join his father and become a scallop diver?
Devon’s closed season for scallops (July, August and September) appears to have arisen a few years ago from a belief by the Byelaw and Permitting Sub-Committee of Devon IFCA that commercial diving and scallop dredging should be treated equally, even though the one has vastly more impact upon the seabed and scallop stocks than the other.
The ban exists at the time of year that scallop divers can fish – they cannot fish in the winter because of bad weather – and at the time there is most demand for their wares. Scallop dredgers fish all year round. The close season applies to divers even in protected areas where scallop dredging is banned and scallop stocks must be assumed to be robust – some 40 per cent of Devon’s waters.
In fairness to the IFCA, it should be said that officers attempted to abolish the close season for divers back in February. They pointed out to the committee that neither neighbouring Southern or Cornwall had a close season, though to the north Wales had a more extensive one. They said the potential impact on stocks of allowing scallop diving in summer was impossible to quantify, but they believed it to be low.
Committee members, however, pointed out that in the absence of good evidence they were obliged to apply the “precautionary principle” and expressed concern that the lifting of the close season might lead to a “klondike” of new entrants into commercial diving with an adverse effect on stocks.
That seems unlikely, to say the least. To address that anxiety, the IFCA could have imposed sensible measures such as a daily bag limit.
An important principle here seems to have been forgotten. If the UK is going to deliver its vision for sustainable fisheries, not just in small ports like those in Lyme Bay, regulators need to encourage fishermen who use low impact methods like Sam, not just simply regulate them out of business or create unnecessary and additional risks.
A few weeks from now, in September, with a number of newly appointed members, the sub-committee that made this decision to continue the ban on scallop diving against its own officers’ advice, will meet to consider that decision again. We will be watching and I hope you will too.