July 16, 2008

Scallopers Ban ‘Will Lead to More Damage’

By EXCLUSIVE Philip Bowern

Pressure from the Devon Wildlife Trust, which succeeded in banning scallopers and other bottom trawlers from an area of Lyme Bay, could force the displaced fishermen to move into even more sensitive marine areas off Devon and Dorset.

That warning was made to Paul Gompertz of the Devon Wildlife Trust as long ago as December last year in letters seen by the Western Morning News. Yet the trust pressed ahead with its calls for a ban on bottom trawling in a large area of Lyme Bay and the measure was announced by Government last month to the fury of the scallopers.

Now Chris Venmore, secretary of the South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen, who made the initial warning, is concerned the crab and lobster fishing grounds off South Devon could be put at risk because scallopers from Lyme Regis who have been turfed off their own fishing grounds by this ban will have no alternative but to seek new areas to fish.

He fears a well-observed agreement entered into voluntarily 30 years ago, which has preserved the seabed around Start Point from anything other than low-impact potting for shellfish, could be damaged because no-one has addressed the damage done to the livelihoods of the scallopers by taking away their rights to fish in Lyme Bay.

Mr Venmore pointed out the Start Point agreement preserves about 110 sq m of seabed, protecting it from mobile gear and leaving most of it pristine. He said: "It acts as a huge conservation area for breeding scallop stocks, a refuge for wet fish and a wonderful reserve for an enormous variety of flora and fauna as well, of course, as protecting our fishery and stock.

"It provides a livelihood for about 30 full-time crab vessels and protects at least seven of the main angling marks of South Devon. It is essential this area remains protected."

In an increasingly angry exchange of letters between Mr Venmore and Mr Gompertz, the fishing leader asks the wildlife campaigner: "What is the point in trying to protect one area when by doing so the probability is that we damage another area both larger and pristine?"

Mr Gompertz - who claimed in a letter published in the WMN recently to be concerned about the interests of the fisherman - tells Mr Venmore the trust would prefer it if both Lyme Bay and the area around Start Point could be protected but if forced to choose would rather see scalloping banned in Lyme Bay, where species like sea fan and other corals have been damaged by dredging.

The difference of opinion between the two sides points the way to further bitter disputes as environmentalists increasingly win Government support for the establishment of Marine Protection Areas around the South West coast and fishermen are forced to fish elsewhere.

If the area around Start Point is affected, Mr Venmore warns the impact could be catastrophic, not just for the seabed but for the internationally important crab fishery which has been in existence in the area - serving the ports of Brixham, Dartmouth and Salcombe - since the Domesday Book.

He tells Mr Gompertz: "As passive gear fishermen (potting is probably the most environmentally friendly form of fishing there is), members of the Marine Conservation Society and the Devon Conservation Forum, we support and understand fully the importance of conservation and marine management.

"While scalloping is legal, though, we have to be very watchful of the 'law of unintended consequences' when trying to legislate for scallopers activities.

"The consequences of your proposals could be devastating and we ask you to reconsider them."

Mr Gompertz refused to reconsider and the trust won Government backing for the Lyme fisheries minister Jonathan Shaw and brought into force last Friday. The scallopers are now considering a legal challenge.

Speaking on behalf of the crabbers, Mr Venmore said: "It is very disappointing that fisheries minister Mr Shaw has chosen to close such a vast area. With the shortage of quota fish, the Government has encouraged boats to switch to scalloping and some skippers have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in their boats. To now be banned from such an important area without compensation is grossly inequitable.

"It was our view that the four large areas where the scallopers had voluntarily closed should have been used as a starter point and that a management group consisting of all interested parties should have been set up (as we have off Start Point) to manage the whole of the area.

"Sadly Devon Wildlife Trust has destroyed much of that trust which organisations such as ours have been striving to build. Because co-operation will now be considered very risky by the fishermen, the unintended consequences of DWT's behaviour has done more to damage the marine environment than allowing limited access to Lyme Bay would ever have done."

Mr Gompertz was unavailable for comments but DWT's marketing manager Rod Birtles said the environmental organisation was unrepentant regarding the closure of 10 per cent of Lyme Bay to scallop dredging because something was "desperately needed to protect the marine wildlife", especially after many fishermen had failed to respect the original voluntary exclusion zone.

He said: "If what was done to Lyme Bay's seabed had been done to Dartmoor, there would have been a huge outcry. We understand the plight of the fishermen and we hope the Government will address the change in livelihood affecting them.

"But we need to protect the wildlife or it will be gone for good. Scallop dredging does not just kill scallops, it also destroys the substrate of habitat scallops live on, so there's no chance of recovery.

"We understand this exclusion zone will affect fishermen's livelihood. We have been fighting for 17 years to protect Lyme Bay but now the situation is so dire we have to bite the bullet and accept the consequences."

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