Marine Scotland Meet the Community

By Cheryl Burgess and Paul Chandler, COAST

The Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) hosted Marine Scotland Compliance officers on 8th November.

The seminar, held at the COAST Octopus Centre was fully-booked and attended by members of the public, COAST staff, and volunteers who were interested to hear how they and Marine Scotland Compliance (MSC) staff could best work together to ensure compliance with commercial fishing restrictions in the South Arran Marine Protection Area (MPA). The five MSC staff who attended included the Acting Deputy Director, the Enforcement Team Leader, a Data Analyst and two senior crew members of the inshore Marine Protection Vessel (MPV) Minna.

MSC staff talked about the limited resources at their disposal with which they try to monitor non-compliance by fishermen and consequently how they prioritise investigations. MCS monitors 619, 000 square miles of sea, with the South Arran MPA accounting for 282 square miles of that. They do so using two surveillance aircraft, which spend 22% of their time over the Clyde coast and one sea-going vessel, the MPV Minna, based on the West Coast. Two further vessels patrol the East Coast, where large factory fishing ships are the biggest threat.

We also heard about the sanctions that are used if non-compliance is proven, including the use of Fixed Penalty Notices and warning/advice letters. If evidence is strong enough the case goes to the Sheriff Court for criminal proceedings but no such action has been taken anywhere in Scotland to date.

However, of the 34 suspected incidents reported from Arran over the last two years only six have been ranked high enough to merit investigation. Two are currently under investigation, the whelk creeler in the No Take Zone (NTZ) received a warning letter, a reoffending prawn trawler in the MPA received two separate fines of £2000 and then £4000, and no proceedings were taken in the sixth case. There have been no prosecutions at all for illegal fishing incursions around Arran or indeed in any of Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas.

Reporting sightings of possible non-compliance
The importance of Arran residents continuing to report possible non-compliance was stressed – however the Enforcement Team manager also explained the challenges they face in evidencing non-compliance, particularly in taking cases to Court. They used real case examples of reported sightings from Arran residents to illustrate this. To those reporting them, the cases seemed cut and dried; for MSC staff there were ‘grey’ areas or insufficient proof to proceed. Primarily they are bound by the wording of the legislation and by the difficulties involved in proving the exact locus of the alleged offence and presenting evidence clear enough to hold up in court.

In presenting some of this evidence it was clear that fishing gear had been deployed in the Lamlash Bay No Take Zone and yet no punitive action had been taken. Paul Chandler (COAST Executive Director) was clear in stating that this was not acceptable considering the hundreds of thousands if not million pounds’ worth of COAST staff, community volunteer and academic time and money has gone into campaigning studying, monitoring and protecting Arran’s seas, the NTZ and MPA over the last two decades; ‘it can take minutes to undo decades of seabed restoration and community investment’. Chandler also stated that ‘if punitive action is not taken by Marine Scotland then their action is an invitation to reoffend and they are letting the majority of honest fishers down’.

Just this last week evidence from OpenSeas, divers and the local community in Wester Ross show that some damaging scallop dredgers feel they can dredge MPAs with impunity. Click here to see the article.

COAST staff and islanders who had reported potential fishing incursions felt strongly that MSC needs to take a Zero Tolerance approach in order to fully protect the MPAs and avoid fishermen gradually encroaching on their boundaries.

The view of MSC staff was that fishermen know that local people are watching and reporting and that this in itself is working as a deterrent. Most fishermen respect the MPA boundaries although there are a few rogue operators, and islanders know that they come in under the cover of darkness. The MSC staff felt that improvements have been made in monitoring MPAs but agreed there was room for more and they could always use more and more effective resources. MPV crew members stated that they are environmentalists and consider that they are working to the same end as those reporting non-compliance –that of marine protection.

MPV Minna Scottish patrol boat, by Dave Russell

What is the strongest evidence we can provide?
We were shown pictures of the types of vessels which might be seen in the MPA and possible signs of fishing gear deployment and use. COAST also have a guide and vessel identification sheet available from their Octopus Centre, Lamlash. The language used in reported sightings must be clear and describe exactly what was seen in relation to gear deployed – (not just vague or general references to ‘trawling’ for example). Reference should be made to any photos/video evidence available. Multiple photos and video footage are most helpful, especially those which include background landmarks which clearly pinpoint the vessel’s location. Radar, GPS info including timings, video and transit line info all help, as do sightings reported by more than one person.

The contact information for reporting sightings is: 0131 271 9700 (staffed 24 hours a day) or by the Scottish Government website  (link to ‘suspicious activity’).

Incoming iIntelligence from the public is assessed and ranked, and if backed-up by ‘strong’ evidence will be prioritised for action. A common complaint from witnesses is that ‘this is a black hole’ and there is no feedback about what became of their report. Paul Chandler suggested that each reported incident should be given a number, tracked and the witness given feedback on the action taken and why. This is similar to common policing practise and Tom Robertson (Deputy Director Marine Scotland Compliance) said that was a reasonable expectation and would look into it.

Future developments
There is funding (£1.5 million) being allocated to ensure that vessels under 12 metre, as well as those over 12 metres currently monitored, employ equipment for the Digital Monitoring System by 2020. There will also be consultation about MPAs having buffer zones for added protection, with regulations governing entry. COAST want to ensure that digital monitoring of vessels is not used as a tool by Marine Scotland to chip away at the borders of the MPAs and allow fishing vessels to continue to damage vulnerable habitats.

In the broader context, COAST see that a radical transformation is needed in the structure and function of Marine Scotland. They have conflicting roles as both promoters and regulators of marine industries, be it commercial fishing or open cage salmon farming. Thus there is a clear conflict of interest, which results in ineffective marine management. COAST would like Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to be given the teeth to regulate industry rather than just advise.