The Rural Affairs, Islands & Natural Environment Committee heard evidence on the impacts of the Seasonal Clyde Cod Spawning Closure

The Rural Affairs, Islands & Natural Environment Committee heard evidence on the impacts of the Seasonal Clyde Cod Spawning Closure

The Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, held on Wednesday 02 March 2022, heard on the impacts of the Seasonal Clyde Cod Spawning Closure from fishermen and fishing representatives.

The West Coast Regional Inshore Fisheries Group claimed that the degree of effect will not be as great as it was originally thought, with the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation that the impacts were “devastating across all sectors”.

Some were concerned that the reduced fishing area would lead to more conflict between the mobile fishing gear fleet and the static gear fleet as they battle for fishing grounds, but the impact was also felt across the fishing community as fishing families feel they have lost trust in the Government.

Simon Macdonald of the West Coast Regional Inshore Fisheries Group told the Committee, “The whole thing will have an effect to a degree on the fishers, but it will not be as great as it was originally forecast to be. The evening before the announcement was made, I got a call to say that there would be the corresponding closure but that all the exceptions were being removed. Needless to say, there were a lot of hurried calls back and forward. A few days later, we had a meeting with Marine Scotland and other stakeholders to discuss the matter further, and it was decided that an area could still be open for fishing.

“Generally, cod do not spawn on mud; they spawn on rocky, shingly and gravel areas instead. The langoustine or nephrop fishery in the Clyde is a very important sector of our fisheries, so it is vital that it should continue. Drawings and plans were brought to the meeting to show clearly the areas that would have to be closed off, because they were where the cod were reckoned to be spawning, but a good corridor was left open covering all the muddy area. Since then, the decision has been made to cut off some of the muddy area so that fishing does not encroach on the cod. Cod are very sensitive to sound, so that was done to prevent the cod from being spooked and not spawning.

“There is, therefore, still an area in which fishing can continue, and that applies to both mobile and static gear. I know that there are concerns about the area being reduced. That means that there are possibly issues pertaining to conflict with trawlers and creel boats.”

Bally Philp of Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation described how his association’s membership were affected. He said, “The impacts of the original proposal were devastating across all the sectors. It looked as though the whole southern part of the Clyde was going to be closed. With regard to the mitigations as a result of the proposed changes, the revised order will alleviate the impact for some of the Clyde vessels, but I do not think that it provides any mitigation for the static gear boats that work the prawn fishery, which is carried out on soft mud. I appreciate that the amended proposal offers about 30 per cent of the area that it was previously proposed would be closed, and that that area is mostly nephrops ground—soft mud. However, it is worth noting that it is not possible to fish prawn creels in an area where there are prawn trawlers.

“The business and regulatory impact assessment refers to “creel ground”. I am not quite sure what that is. I think that it means hard ground where the trawlers do not work, where the crab and the lobster fisheries take place, but creel ground is exactly the same thing as trawl ground when it comes to the nephrops fishery. Unless there is some sort of spatial management or allocation of zones for creels and for trawlers, opening up nephrops ground or muddy areas in the Clyde does nothing to alleviate the problem for the creel boats. Essentially, they are disbarred from fishing areas that are known to be occupied by trawlers.

“That means that, for the few nephrops creel boats that are impacted, the impacts are quite dramatic and the mitigations in the amended policy do nothing to lessen those. The business and regulatory impact assessment acknowledges that the smallest creel boats will have the biggest trouble moving, so it explicitly acknowledges that the impacts will be greatest for those boats. We do not see any proposals to mitigate the situation for those boats, which it is acknowledged are the most adversely impacted.

“For a small group of boats, especially the nephrops creel boats, the impacts are quite dramatic, and the changed policy does nothing to mitigate that.”

Elaine Whyte of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association said, “You asked about the impact. The first thing to say is that there has been a massive impact on trust in the process. Many fishermen still do not even understand why the fishing ground has been closed, because of the speed of the process and the confusion around the level of consultation. There have been a number of consultations, and I had fishermen phoning me to ask whether they had already responded to the consultation on the revised order. It was such a confusing landscape for them, and even I was confused. Things moved really quickly.

“Financially, the closure has had a massive impact. We have had mobile boats that have lost areas but, more significantly, we have had creel boats that have completely lost their areas and which have no other option to go anywhere. I have three members whose families are directly impacted by the closure.

“The Government used the wording that the closure would have “a short-term impact”, but it is not a short-term impact—we are talking about boats having no income for three months. They were given hardly any warning to enable them to diversify or to go anywhere else.

“In the longer term, there will be an impact on markets. We have just come through Covid and Brexit, and we are trying to build up our European Union markets again. Those are the markets that the live and fresh boats will be reliant on. We are talking about strangling supply for about four months of the year. That will have a massive impact on who in the EU will want to work with us in the future. We are being put at a regional disadvantage compared with other areas in the UK and EU countries such as Ireland that can supply that product.

“On the financial impact, we have asked whether there would be some kind of compensation for those men, because they had no warning of what was happening. We have not heard anything back on that yet. Nevertheless, we commend a lot of our MSPs, who have done the best that they can to pursue that.

“With regard to the static gear, that obviously cannot move. Our fleet in the Clyde has been reduced by 50 per cent over the past few years anyway, and the remaining boats are very old—we have the oldest gauging boat in the whole of Scotland. They are not safe to go out to various other areas, so they do not have that option. That is very concerning.

“The increased effort required is also a concern, because the area is not large. We will potentially have creel boats fighting other creel boats, and mobile conflict with other creel boats. The decision is causing a lot of conflict. The main issue is that it should have gone through the inshore fisheries group, and what was happening should have been fully explained to fishermen. If there had been engagement with local fishermen, we could have come up with a system that would have worked.

“There is also a massive impact as a result of the lack of science. That could negatively affect management and fisheries in the future, so we really need to get that sorted out.”

All witnesses giving evidence agreed that there was a lack of consultation on the closure, and a lack of scientific knowledge in making the decision.

Bally Philip said on the subject, “What we have seen is a crass knee-jerk reaction from Marine Scotland to an overwhelming consultation response that critiqued the failures of the cod box to achieve what it said that it would achieve in the first place. The rationale was seriously lacking, and the process did not involve the stakeholders properly.”

Elaine Whyte said, “The process has been incredibly confusing. The fact that we are sitting here on 02 March, discussing the issue, when the change has been in place since 14 February, is testament to that. That is how the stakeholders feel. We are moving to managing fisheries by campaigning as opposed to by data, science and process, which sets a very worrying precedent. Bally Philp talked about whether the trawl fisheries have had an impact. To be honest, we need science to prove what is happening in the area, but we have a lower than 1 per cent bycatch rate, which I believe is the lowest bycatch rate in the EU. Our fleets are very selective. They have 300mm square mesh panels to ensure that they do not catch fish, and we have observed that on trips. The science on baseline stocks is very poor. Bally Philp is right: what will we compare the improvements with?”

The impacts of a growing spurdog population in the Firth of Clyde was also acknowledged as an issue that could affect the recovery of cod and other species. Spurdog are known to eat fish eggs and shellfish indiscriminately. There were also concerns raised about the number of seals in the area too.

Fisherman Sean McIllwraith representing the Galloway Static Gear Fishermen’s Association pointed out, “As Elaine Whyte said, there is no evidence at all to say that closin this area is actually gonnae work. That is quite worrying, and I would like to see something happening. We are puttin aw the boats intae the same area tae fish. That is no what I would like to see either, because I think we will get gear conflict, which was mentioned.

“Is it going tae recover? It goes back to what Simon Macdonald and Elaine Whyte said about the predator spurdog. My worry is also about the seal population out there—there are seals everywhere, and they have to eat something as well. That is pretty worryin, tae. We need evidence because, from what Ah can see, we are puttin men out of jobs at the moment.”

Simon Macdonald agreed, “Sean McIllwraith raised a point about predation by seals. We have two types of seals in the Clyde—the common seal, Phoca vitulina, and the grey seal, Halichoerus grypus. Each seal needs between 5kg and 9kg of fish per day to keep going. That accounts for a loss of fish stock in the area, and that is on top of the spurdog, which is a voracious predator. Science has to consider that area very closely. Government has the power to turn around and say, “Right, okay, we are closing the fishery for the area and you cannot catch anything there,” but try telling that to the seals and the dogfish. That does not work. We have to look at the actual problem below the waves in order to establish the source of the issue.”

Professor Michael Heath from the University of Strathclyde defenced the closure saying, “The cod box is an ephemeral thing. The thing about cod is that they congregate in specific areas to spawn. They have done that for centuries and those areas are long established. Cod will gather in the cod box from a much wider area. They use the cod box area to spawn, and then they disperse again. The cod box is there to protect those dense aggregations of cod. Fishing there is like taking a rifle to the zoo; the stocks are so dense and it is so easy to catch cod in the cod box that it will attract fishing boats in unless there is some regulation to prevent that. The cod box is there to protect those dense, ephemeral spawning aggregations at a particular time of year.

“How the cod are affected when they are not in the spawning cod box during the rest of the year, when they have dispersed into the wider area of the Clyde, the north channel and the northern Irish Sea, is a different question. That aspect is not covered by the cod box, which is why we need to think about other measures that may be needed to protect cod, such as habitat enhancement for juvenile fish and looking more closely at the issue of bycatch.”

Professor Heath also indicated that there were, potentially, 2 million cod caught as nephrops bycatch.

He said, “It is clear that, locally in the Clyde, the cod box has not had the desired effect of recovering the cod stock. What other measures are there? We have to look for the other sources of mortality. We have heard about predation, which might be the source, but that is not a lever that we can pull in fisheries management.

“The remaining source of cod mortality, which we can influence, is cod bycatch in the nephrops trawl fishery. The fishermen have made huge efforts to reduce that in recent years, and they have gone a long way. However, the bycatch of cod in that fishery is still about 100 tonnes a year. That figure is based on Marine Scotland and Scottish Fishermen’s Federation observer sampling data. It represents less than 2 per cent of the total biomass catch by those trawlers, so that bycatch is within the regulations. Nevertheless, that 100 tonnes represents 2 million fish. The average size of the fish that are caught in the bycatch is 15cm, and on average they weigh about 46g, so 100 tonnes equates to 2 million fish. A very rough estimate of the number of cod in the Clyde is about 3.5 million fish of all sizes—from the very smallest to the very biggest—so 2 million fish in bycatch represents a very significant fraction of the cod stock.

“If we had to look at a management measure that would go beyond the effectiveness of the spawn enclosure, it would have to address that issue. How we do that without detrimental effects on the very important nephrops trawl fishery is another matter. We have to be really creative about how that can be done in terms of when, where and how we fish.”

The draft report from the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee can be read here.

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Impacts of Clyde Closure heard at Scottish Parliament Committee

by editor time to read: 14 min