By Jane Powell
It’s easy when talking about Welsh food and food security to forget that a significant part of what we produce comes not from the land, but from the sea that surrounds it. The Welsh fishing industry is small in scale, with little more than 400 vessels, most of them under 10m long. Combined with some marine aquaculture, the first sale value is £29m annually. But fishing in Wales has a historic, cultural and social significance, and in rural coastal villages where there are few jobs to retain young people, every small business counts.
Making sure that Welsh fisheries have a sustainable future is the work of the Welsh Fishermen’s Association (WFA). Although it is now funded by the Welsh Government, the WFA began as a voluntary organisation bringing together five regional fishermen’s associations who wanted to bring their traditional livelihood into alignment with the modern world of quotas and EU regulations. Its growth has been a personal quest for chief executive Jim Evans, a second-generation fisherman based at Aberporth near Cardigan, and his wife Carol.
The WFA works with Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and fisheries scientists, combining the fishermen’s practical experience with modern scientific methods in order to shape fishing policy with an eye to the long-term future, as well as day to day profitability. One of their main objectives at present centres on the king scallop fishery in Cardigan Bay (so called to distinguish them from the smaller queen scallops which are caught around the Isle of Man) for which, in due course, the WFA hopes to obtain Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.
If the latest government proposals for the management of the fishery come into force, then according to a recent pre-assessment report by consultants MRAG, Welsh scallops should meet the requirements for the MSC label. This is accepted as the gold standard for sustainable fisheries and already held by scallops from the Isle of Man and Shetland. The label, the WFA hopes, could mean interest from supermarkets, investment in processing facilities and a secure market for a healthy product that contributes to the economic and social wellbeing of coastal villages.
“At present, Welsh scallops are taken to Cornwall, Ireland and northwest England for processing and export,” says Jim. “We want to keep that added value in Wales, and we also want people to value Welsh seafood as a healthy part of our diet, and of our culture. We care about our coastal communities and our traditional way of life, and that’s why we have tried so hard to ensure a sustainable outcome.”
There is a problem, though. The scallops in Cardigan Bay, although sometimes gathered by divers, are usually harvested by towing a rigid structure with a chainmail collection bag along the seabed, a process known as dredging. This has attracted strong criticism from environmental groups concerned about damage to the seafloor ecosystem. The controversy centres around the EU-designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC) near Newquay, where seabed features such as reefs and sandbanks, as well as a population of bottlenose dolphins, earned it protected status in the early 2000s.
Concerns were first raised in 2008, when growth in the local scallop population together with scallop fishery closures elsewhere in the UK led to a spike in fishing activity in Cardigan Bay, attracting boats from far afield. In response, environmental groups alerted the European Commission and the Welsh Government temporarily closed most of the SAC to scallop dredging. Now only one small part is open, from November to April each year, subject to annual assessment.
After that experience, the WFA convened the first meeting of the Scallop Strategy Group made up of Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales, Bangor University scientists, the seafood authority Seafish and fishermen. Its task was to collaborate on extensive new research into the fishery, including seabed mapping, studies of the impact of different fishing intensities and trials of technology to monitor the use of dredging gear.
This led in 2016 to proposed new management measures that are now being considered by a new government-led group. This includes environmental organizations and will in due course form an advisory board to monitor a future fishery. The new Measures will involve limiting both the annual catch and the amount of seabed disturbance, as well as monitoring fishing activity and avoiding certain areas altogether, and it is this which will be the route to the MSC label.
The controversy that was sparked in 2008 has not gone away, however. Environmental groups (who were not included in the Scallop Strategy Group because NRW was present as statutory conservation advisor), would still like to see a complete ban on dredging in the SAC. They argue that the Bangor study did not take into account damage that had already been done by fishing, and that a fairer approach would have been to use a pristine area of seabed as a reference point. They also point out the value to tourism of the dolphins, and fear that they may be affected by the dredging.
The debate about the scallops of Cardigan Bay raises many questions, and one of the most important has to do with the decision-making process itself. In a world where nearly every aspect of human life has some impact on the natural world, people will always disagree about where the limits are to be set, and compromise is inevitable. How do we do that in a way that hears everyone’s concerns, honours the complexity of the situation and allows a shared understanding to emerge? Wales has the Well-being of Future Generations Act which places a requirement on government to collaborate with business and civil society on these important matters, but we are only just beginning to find out what this means in practice.
Jim is clear on the WFA’s position. “We have always maintained that decisions about the scallop and any other fishery in Wales must be evidence-based. We understood the risk of participating in the Bangor study, because there was no guarantee of payment for the month-long experimental fishery and we had to cover vessel costs from the scallops we harvested, and of course we knew that the scientific evidence could have concluded that scallop dredging wouldn’t work in Cardigan Bay. We continued with the research because we are passionate about maintaining our fishing communities and the mixed fisheries on which they depend. I am delighted that seven years work has resulted in early indications that we are on course to meet MSC certification requirements.
“Unless we all agree to abide by the evidence and the democratic and regulatory processes, how can we have a proper debate? It becomes a battle of opinions and that is no way to decide our futures.”
Jane Powell is a freelance educator and writer active in local food matters in Aberystwyth. She writes here and on her own site, www.foodsociety.wales