Governments take the advice they want to hear. As they seek to avoid trouble and find the path of least resistance, they often look for advice that meshes with the demands of industrial lobbyists.
This problem has afflicted the life of the sea for many years. Governments consult the scientists who tell them that high catches of fish are sustainable, and ignore more cautious assessments. This allows them to get the fishing lobby off their backs, while claiming to have based their decisions on science. Bad advice from scientists and selective hearing by government were among the factors that led to the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery off Newfoundland.
One of the most destructive industries humankind has developed is scallop dredging. Scallop dredges are rakes with long steel teeth that are towed over the seafloor, ripping out not only scallops, but also much of the life and structure of the seabed. They have wrecked habitats all around our coasts.
The Cardigan Bay special area of conservation, off the west coast of Wales, is supposed to enjoy the highest level of protection available under European law. Among the reasons for its designation is that it supports the UK’s largest breeding population of bottlenose dolphins. So, in 2009, scallop dredgers were banned from the area. Astonishingly, however, fish trawlers are still allowed to operate here, making a mockery of the idea of a “strictly protected” area.
Bad enough? Not where the Welsh government is concerned. The dredgers have been lobbying to get back in, on the grounds that they have exhausted the supply of scallops elsewhere. You might have hoped that any government with even the vaguest understanding of environmental protection would have told them to bog off with extreme prejudice. The idea that this industry could be allowed to operate in a special area of conservation, as a reward for wiping out the rest of its fishing grounds, would strike most people as an outrage.
But not, unfortunately, the Welsh minister for natural resources, Carl Sargeant. The reason his department gives for seeking to let the dredgers back in is a “concern that these scallops may not be reaching their potential growth rate due to overcrowding and competition for resources”. In other words, the scallops have to be caught … for the good of the scallops. If there were a prize for the worst excuse deployed by a government for caving in to an industrial lobby, this would be a strong contender.
But if you look in the right place, you can always find the expert advice you want. To no gasps of surprise, the Welsh government turned to a team at Bangor University led by Professor Michel Kaiser.
Take a look at Kaiser’s Twitter account, and you will see what looks to me like a love-in with the fishing industry, the cheerleading of attacks on scientists who draw attention to unsustainable fishing practices, and support for people who claim that there is little or nothing to worry about.
He and his team were commissioned by the government to conduct an experiment in the conservation area.
They ran a scallop dredger across some plots on the seabed but not others, and compared the amount of animal life that remained. Their results appeared to show that, a few months later, there was little difference between the animal communities in the places they dredged and the places they did not. On this basis, they recommended that scallop dredging of up to three times a year (on gravel) and six times a year (on sand) could take place in this “strictly protected” reserve.
He reached this conclusion for two reasons. The first is that the Bangor team assumed, without supporting evidence, that the loose sand and gravel on which their experiment took place represents the natural state of the seabed. But there is no basis for this assumption. Before dredging and trawling began in this area, the sediments might have been covered and stabilised by a crust of sessile life, forming a living (biogenic) reef.
The second reason is that the researchers assumed the seabed they studied had recovered from the impact of rakes, chains and nets. “Pre-fishing” is the term they use to describe it. But the state of the seabed there is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “pre-fishing”. The survey took place just five years after intense scallop dredging officially stopped there – a blink of an eye in ecological terms. Trawling and some illegal scallop dredging continue, with the likely effect of disrupting any attempts by sedentary lifeforms to re-establish themselves.
If the original state of the seabed was a living reef, it may take many decades – possibly centuries – to recover. Given enough time without dredging and trawling, the scattered soft corals and sponges the researchers found in the experimental area could spread to cover the sediments, forming a new substrate in which other sessile species could establish themselves.
Unsurprisingly, the Bangor team was not very happy with Roberts’s assessment. It published a response in which it claimed that its findings “have shown convincingly that the seabed and its inhabitants can sustain quite high levels of fishing activity before negative effects occur”. But it then went on to make this crucial admission, which did not appear in its original report:
We cannot know for certain whether, historically speaking, the area was much more diverse and productive with biogenic reef structures.
This is the point that Roberts was making, and the issue on which the dispute hinges. It renders the conclusions of the Bangor report unsafe and the recommendations that arise from it invalid.
But the government doesn’t seem to care – it has the cover it wanted. It launched a consultation to allow a “sustainable scallop fishery” (dredging) to resume in large areas of the special area of conservation. At first the consultation was so badly worded that it gave respondents a free and fair choice between scallop dredging and scallop dredging. The questions were loaded in such a way that, whatever answer you gave, the government could claim it had support for its plans. On top of this, an electronic glitch in the online form magically changed people’s answers from no to yes.
Following protests, the consultation was withdrawn and relaunched, without the glitch and with a point of clarification to permit a more or less meaningful choice. The new consultation closes on Wednesday. It takes about a minute to complete.
There’s a wider issue here. The Cardigan Bay special area of conservation was created “to maintain its rich and varied marine life in at least as good a condition as when the site was first designated.” But when it was first designated it was in a shocking condition. Fish populations were greatly reduced and at least one species (the angel shark) was on the edge of extinction. Seafloor features had been ripped apart, and heaven knows what wider losses had been inflicted against an unknown baseline.
It’s as if a cathedral had been flattened by bombs, and the ambition of those charged with sustaining it was simply to keep it in its post-bombing condition. The disastrous ethos that governs the protection of many nature reserves on land – preserving the rubble of our devastated ecosystems rather than seeking to restore them – is now seeping into marine conservation.
This would form the basis of an interesting legal case, if anyone had the means to fund it. Special areas of conservation, under the European habitats directive, are supposed to “ensure the restoration or maintenance of natural habitats and species … at a favourable conservation status”. It says nothing about keeping them in the condition in which they were found.
When Jane Davidson was the environment minister, Wales could claim to have the greenest government in the UK. Now it competes with Northern Ireland to win the Golden Sewer award for environmental destruction. And if the dismal and ill-informed debate about scallop dredging in the Senedd in December is anything to go by, the assembly members seem incapable of holding the government to account.
So who will speak for the dolphins? For the seabed? For environmental law? For the principle that there should be some places on our god-forsaken planet that should not be torn apart for profit? You.
We have a last chance to ensure that our voices are heard, both by responding to the consultation (before Wednesday) and, by the same date, signing the petition to keep scallopers out this “strictly protected” area. Already it has attracted 26,000 signatures: an astonishing tally for an issue of this kind. The more who sign, the harder it will be for the government to abandon its responsibilities, by caving in to a tiny but disproportionately powerful industry.
If we cannot stop such destructive activities in a special area of conservation, what hope is there for nature in this country? If this is allowed to happen, nothing is safe.