Does fishy science leave nature scraping the barrel?

This month, November 2017, a new season of scallop fishing begins in Cardigan Bay, off the west coast of Wales.

llangrannog-cardigan-bay-janet-baxter

Cardigan Bay. Janet Baxter. Web. Accessed 12/11/17. https://www.cardigan-bay.com/llangrannog-cardigan-bay-wales.php

At first sight this seems unremarkable – Cardigan Bay has supported a high abundance of king scallops and a profitable scallop fishery for many years. But conservationists are not so sure.

The scallops in Cardigan Bay are harvested by dredging – towing steel rakes and a collection net along the seabed, including an area which has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Dredging inevitably results in disturbance and damage. The SAC contains reefs and sandbanks, and the UK’s largest breeding population of bottlenose dolphins. Defra defines SACs as ‘strictly protected’, and as making a ‘significant contribution’ to conservation.

After a big increase in dredging during 2008, conservation bodies complained that continued fishing was unacceptable in the SAC. These complaints centred on the impact of dredging on the benthic ecosystem that supports the dolphin population. This led to a fierce campaign and a petition signed by over 30,000 people. So why are fisheries continuing to disrupt this habitat?

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Protest to protect Cardigan Bay from dredging. Julie Makin, 2016. Web. Accessed 12/11/17. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-mid-wales-38188097

Time for a restrictive regime?

In response, the Welsh Government decided to enforce a more restrictive regime, including a ban on dredging. This was to be an interim arrangement until 2017. Meanwhile, a Scallop Strategy Group, led by Seafish – a statutory body representing the UK sea fishing industry – and including Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales, scientists from Bangor University, and commercial fishermen, was convened to determine future strategy. Their task: to include new research, seabed mapping, studies of the impact of different fishing intensities and trials of technology to monitor the use of dredging gear (Welsh Government, 2015).

On the face of it, with a strong framework of statutory controls, independent research, governmental accountability, and a wide consultancy process, this would appear to be everything conservationists strive for in decision making.

After two years, the Bangor University scientists concluded there was in fact little evidence that scallop dredging causes significant damage to the ecology of the SAC, because the disturbance caused was no more significant than that resulting from natural dynamic processes of the Bay (Lambert et al., 2015).

The end result was that the fishery reopened, with the lifting of the restriction on dredging.

aberystwyth-harbour

Aberystwyth Harbour. Jane Baxter. Web. Accessed 12/11/17. https://www.cardigan-bay.com/aberystwyth-cardigan-bay-wales.php

Not as it seems

So – what’s the problem? A closer look illustrates how the outcome of a process ostensibly designed to balance ecological, political, and economic interests can be skewed from the outset to produce results that favour one side.

In this case, the Scallop Strategy Group was chaired by an industry body. Conservation NGOs were notably excluded on the claim that Natural Resources Wales represented the conservation sector as a whole. In reality, it also spoke for industry interests.

Reporting on the Bangor University research in 2015, environmental advocate George Monbiot pointed out that the starting point for the comparisons was wrong – areas of seabed that had been dredged for scallops should have been compared with areas that had never been dredged. Instead, they were compared with areas with a long and recent history of dredging. This is bad science. He quoted marine biologist Professor Callum Roberts at the University of York:

“This is a dreadful piece of science. Imagine that you stop cutting the lawn for five years. Would you have a highly biodiverse oak forest at the end? No, it would be a scrappy patch of weeds. Protect a heavily dredged piece of seabed for five years and you will have the underwater equivalent of weeds.” (Monbiot, 2015)

The public consultation had produced well over 5,000 responses. The clear majority expressed opposition to the proposed regime, and those in favour were almost exclusively from commercial fishing interests. Although a review of the objections was undertaken, some of its premises are telling. This review restricted itself to a narrow “scientific” perspective and did not include an examination of the claims made in support of the resumption of dredging – in other words, the presumption was that dredging should be resumed unless clear evidence of harm could be produced.

Objections based on political principle (the protection of the designation), the precautionary principle (a presumption in favour of no intervention), or simply on a wish not to see industrial activity in a culturally and spiritually significant landscape were not even considered (Welsh Government Fisheries Science Department, 2016).

In summing up their concerns about the opening of this year’s new season, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales pointed out,

 “The sustainability of the other aspects of the site, other than the economics of the fishery, such as the wider marine ecosystem, social and other economic activities that rely on the protected site, have been overlooked.” (The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, 2017)

A lesson in management

For conservationists, this is surely a hard lesson. A model that appeared watertight has failed, despite apparent checks and balances, scientific rigour, and consultation. The designation of Cardigan Bay as a Special Area of Conservation has, in practice meant only that those interested in exploiting it have to pursue a more complicated route to achieve their ends. It has not contributed significantly to that protection. Perhaps of even more concern is what it says about how “independent” scientific research can be skewed by the most powerful political and economic actors in the process. A review of the Bangor research described it as meeting the criteria for ‘Best Available Science’ for fisheries and environmental science policy and management (Stokesbury, 2016). Yet the concerns voiced by the local Wildlife Trusts remain unaddressed.

This problem is echoed in other anecdotes in marine governance around the world. For example, the most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita porpoise, appears to be headed to extinction despite extensive legislative attempts to protect it. The highly lucrative totaba fishery in the Gulf of California is so valuable that it has proved impossible to limit vaquita loss.

If this can happen in a society with a political and civil society as developed and intricate as the UK or the USA, then it will surely be even harder in those where public accountability is weaker. It is important that conservation decisions rest on conservation priorities, and not the interests of those who see the environment as a seabed to be dredged. Hook, line and sinker.

References:

Countryside Council for Wales, 2009. ‘Cardigan Bay European Marine Site: advice provided by the Countryside Council for Wales in fulfilment of regulation 33 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations 1994’. Countryside Commission for Wales, Cardiff.

Lambert, G.I., Murray, L.G., Hiddink, J.G., Hinz, H., Salomonsen, H. and Kaiser, M.J., 2015. Impact of scallop dredging on benthic communities and habitat features in the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation. Fisheries and Conservation Report No. 59. Bangor.

Monbiot, G., 2015. ‘Allowing scallop dredging in “strictly protected” dolphin reserves is madness’ Guardian. 9th November. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2015/nov/09/allowing-scallop-dredging-in-strictly-protected-dolphin-reserves-is-madness Accessed 11th November 2017.

Stokesbury, K.D.E., 2016. ‘Scallop Dredging of Cardigan Bay – Peer Scientific Review of underpinning data and evidence’. Correspondence submitted in evidence to Welsh Government. 9th February. http://gov.wales/docs/drah/publications/161019-peer-review-profesor-k-stokesbury-university-of-massachusetts-scallop-management-cardigan-bay-en.pdf Accessed 11th November 2017.

The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, 2017. ‘Proposed new management measures for scallop fishing in Cardigan Bay’ https://www.welshwildlife.org/uncategorized/proposed-new-management-measures-scallop-fishing-cardigan-bay/ Accessed 11th November 2017.

Welsh Government, 2015. ‘Consultation Document: Scallop Fishing in Cardigan Bay – new management measures’. Welsh Government, Cardiff.

Welsh Government Fisheries Science Department, 2016. ‘Evidence Review of Scallop Consultation  2016 Responses’ Welsh Government, Cardiff .

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