June 17, 2008

Closure of Lyme Bay ‘Could Be Days Away’

By Phil Lockley

Scallop dredgers and trawlermen may be slung out of Lyme Bay in a matter of days if rumours are true that Fisheries Minister Jonathan Shaw will "give way to the greens".

To protect the habitat of rare and regionally endangered species like pink sea fan corals, for some time now conservationists have sought to ban scallop dredging and trawling within a 60 square mile area of Lyme Bay.

On Friday Defra's fisheries secretary, Rodney Anderson, refused to deny strong and persistent rumours that Mr Shaw is about to give a large part of Lyme Bay to the conservationists.

A Defra press officer told the WMN: "At the moment we cannot make a comment on whether such a ban will be imposed, only to confirm that Jonathan Shaw will shortly make a statement."

The chairman of the South West Inshore Fishermen's Association (SWIFA), Nick Prust, said: "For about three weeks the rumour mill has been working overtime, with many officials advising the industry to prepare for a closure announcement. We have heard how June 19 is the chosen date and Rodney Anderson refuses to deny either the date or the fact about closure.

"With the exceptionally high price demanded for fuel, we are finding it incredibly difficult to make ends meet; couple that to the huge costs now routinely incurred by the under 10m sector having to rent fish quotas, and the inshore fishing sector is simply in dire straits.

"In the face of such an ongoing onslaught I cannot bring myself to believe that these rumours may come to fruition; it would have a massive negative impact on fishermen from a very wide area. If Mr Shaw is about to cut off the lifeblood of the inshore sector, he must realise how it would be nothing short of a tragedy, and we advise him not take that decision."

A considerable fleet of visiting scallopers and trawlers share the same plight as local boats, and claim the 60 square mile region under debate is vital, yielding around pounds3 million per year to the local economy.

Mr Prust said: "We have been on death row since early 2006, when the Wildlife Trusts and Natural England lobbied for Lyme Bay to be closed. We believe Mr Shaw is about to cave in simply because of pressure from the environmentalist lobby. They have threatened him with infraction proceedings if pink sea fan corals are not given total - and, we believe, disproportionate - protection.

"With fishermen's agreement in 2006, the then Fisheries Minister, Ben Bradshaw, made the right decision to allow the creation of four closed areas of reef habitat. That trebled the area fishermen had previously given up.

"And at that time the fishermen agreed to those areas being given statutory protection. Devon Sea Fisheries Committee and Southern Sea Fisheries Committee both argued alongside the industry and remain in favour of this 'status quo' solution.

"Sadly, however, the environmental lobby may have won and our local fishermen must pay with their livelihoods."

A meeting of fishermen will take place at the Cobb, Lyme Regis, on Thursday to discuss action to be taken should the rumours be true.

The Western Morning News was told how fishing boats from across Dorset and Devon, plus a sizeable fleet from Falmouth to Shoreham will converge, and fishermen will discuss "as yet undisclosed action".

Fishermen and their families will sever contacts with any officials and may decide to launch a legal challenge for judicial review should the area be closed.

"The latter would be a very costly alternative that the industry can ill afford in this time of lowest-ever profit forecasts," said Westcountry fishermen's leader Jim Portus.

"It is almost certain that inshore fishermen will cease to co- operate with officials from Defra and the Marine Fisheries Agency, plus those from other agencies, and also with projects such as Finding Sanctuary, Fishermap and the Inshore Vessel Monitoring group.

"I am deeply disappointed that Jonathan Shaw has, over several weeks, allowed his officials to drip-feed rumours of his impending announcement.

"At any time since making up his mind he could have picked up the phone to explain his thoughts and motivation to us, and we would have welcomed that and been able to put our point of view.

"But for us to find out by whispers and innuendo is just unacceptable."

(c) 2008 Western Morning News, The Plymouth (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.