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Shellfish industry accuses conservation group of ‘smear campaign’ against scallop fishery

SSMO chairman Ian Walterson.

SHETLAND’S inshore shellfish industry and local marine scientists have strongly condemned what they describe as a “series of false allegations” from a conservation organisation about the sustainability of king scallops from the islands.

The Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation (SSMO) and NAFC Marine Centre has accused campaign group Open Seas of a “smear campaign” after it called for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) not to renew its accreditation of scallops.

Open Seas has registered its objection through a formal consultation process, which SSMO hopes will result in scallops and brown crabs retaining the MSC’s coveted blue label accreditation for another five years. It was first awarded in 2012, and a decision on the renewal is expected by 30 January next year.

But Open Seas’ input into the process for the prized ecological endorsement has incensed the local shellfish industry, which on Thursday issued a forthright statement highlighting “a series of factual errors relating to Shetland shellfish” contained on Open Seas’ website.

In particular, it says that – far from the stock of scallops almost halving in since over the past five years – the biomass “has in fact remained stable”.

SSMO chairman Ian Walterson said: “We have a very well managed and sustainable scallop fishery in Shetland because fishermen, scientists and government have actively worked together to make and keep it that way.

“To attain MSC status five years ago we had to provide a huge amount of information that was fully audited, a process that we have repeated for the re-accreditation, although the final decision will not be taken until January.

“By contrast, Open Seas has resorted to a series of incorrect assertions utterly devoid of support evidence that together amount to a smear campaign.

“They must correct these errors now and apologise to the fishermen whose livelihoods they seem intent on destroying for no good reason.”

Walterson said Open Seas’ “blanket characterisation of scallop dredging as ecologically damaging is just plain silly” and that fishermen dredged in areas where the seabed was “frequently disturbed by natural wave action and currents”.

He said just five per cent of the seabed around Shetland, out to a six-mile limit, was dredged.

Meanwhile, NAFC joint head of marine science and technology Dr Beth Mouat also challenged the assertions made by Open Seas.

“It is very disappointing to see the facts and science misrepresented or in some cases completely ignored, purely to meet a political agenda,” she said.

“If Open Seas had spoken to those involved in the fishery in Shetland they would have had a greater understanding [of] the positive and proactive approach taken on sustainability.”

SSMO said stock assessments for the SSMO area “show the biomass has remained stable” and that was reflected in “very stable catch, effort and landings”, with the number of vessels accessing the fishery limited through licencing, dredge limits and a nighttime curfew.

It also dismissed suggestions from Open Seas that closed areas of seabed were “voluntary and small”, saying they were statutory “at the behest of fishermen who wanted vulnerable seabed habitats protected” and amounted to over 10 per cent of the area fished for scallops.

SSMO and the NAFC said they had worked closely with Marine Scotland on proposed management of marine protected areas (MPAs), contrary to Open Seas’ claim that they had not been taken into consideration.

Open Seas responded by saying it had “not raised our concerns to cause angst and anger from anyone, but we have legitimate concerns about an eco-labelling certification process” and rejected the accusation that it had got its facts wrong.

It said its comments were specifically related to inspection group Acoura UK Ltd’s assessment of the scallop dredge fishery against MSC criteria rather than “about the fishery more widely and SSMO’s management”.

It referred to Scottish Government data suggesting the spawning stock biomass was “around 8,000 tonnes in 2012, and was around 5,000 tonnes in 2016 – nearly half. We therefore stand firm on what we have said.”

Open Seas acknowledged that NAFC undertakes its own assessments of the stock, but those have not been formally published since 2010 “hence we have not seen those data in detail and have no way to clarify this assertion”.

“Regardless, the Scottish Government statistics do deserve some attention, and the reason for each assessment’s contradiction ought to be better understood,” a statement on its website reads.

“Fisheries are a public resource and it is reasonable to expect that any publicly-funded fisheries assessments are considered.”

You can read the SSMO/NAFC statement in full here.

You can read Open Seas’ response in full here.

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