A row over scallop-dredging in Cardigan Bay has escalated after fisheries regulators ignored a demand by the Welsh Assembly’s wildlife advisers for an immediate and total ban in areas protected by European conservation legislation.
The call by the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) for all scallop-dredging authorisations to be suspended pending completion of investigations into threats to wildlife followed a formal complaint to Brussels by four conservation groups, who accused the UK and Welsh governments and fisheries regulators of defying EU law by failing to stop scalloping-boats disturbing dolphins and seals and damaging or destroying their habitats and breeding sites.
The CCW is now effectively backing that line, saying that current dredging is breaking European wildlife-protection legislation.
CCW regional manager Tim Jones told the Lancaster-based North Western and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee, which has responsibility for policing sea areas up to six miles from land, that the risk of damage to dolphins’ and seals’ habitats “may be imminent”, and that there was an “urgent” need for the committee to act.
The warning came just a month before the current scallop-dredging season in Cardigan Bay, which began in October, ends on 31 May.
But, in a response which is likely to exasperate the CCW, Stephen Atkins, the committee’s chief executive, made clear this week he was not prepared to intervene immediately to stop the dredging, which churns up the seabed and is widely recognised to be a very destructive method of gathering a highly valuable catch now classed as a luxury food.
He said: “Dredges do damage lots of types of seabed, but I am not prepared to pre-empt any decision by the committee, which does not meet next until 12 June.
“Officers do have delegated powers to take emergency action, but they are not terrifically explicit, and I would rather have committee support.”
Under a legally-backed precautionary regime within the EU Habitats Directive supposed to safeguard Cardigan Bay’s two special areas of conservation (SACs), authorities are obliged to act if there is even a well-founded suspicion that activities such as scallop-dredging could damage SACs.
But Dr Atkins said: “The trouble is the precautionary principle is a vague term, and we don’t really know how we define it.”
Some parts of the Bay’s northern and southern SACs have been closed to scalloping. But the concerns of CCW and conservation organisations including Friends of Cardigan Bay and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society
centre on about 45 square miles of theoretically protected waters off an area stretching from New Quay to Cemmaes Head known to be heavily used by bottlenose dolphins.
The tone of the letter from the CCW, which in the past has been criticised for being weak on marine protection, is uncharacteristically hard-hitting, accusing the fisheries committee of “deficiencies” in its approach “to the assessment of the potential impacts on the fishery.”
It says an assessment of environmental impacts underpinning current scallop-dredging authorisations contains weaknesses and is four years out of date, and that it is concerned that dredging currently allowed in Cardigan Bay and Pen Llyn a’r Sarnau SACs is illegal under the terms of the Habitats Directive.
The CCW has sent a similar letter to the Assembly government, which is responsible for sea areas beyond six miles from shore.
Rural affairs minister Elin Jones repeatedly refused to comment directly on the call for an immediate halt to dredging, although the bulk of scalloping tends to take place in offshore areas the government – not the fisheries
committee - is supposed to regulate.
A spokeswoman said: “The minister called in February for a review of the current restrictions for scallop-dredging in response to increasing concerns over the level of fishing in Cardigan Bay.
As part of that process the minister has asked Assembly government officials to work closely with key stakeholders including the CCW and sea fisheries committees to consider the management and sustainability of scallop-fishing in Wales.
“The working group is considering whether the management of this fishing can be further improved and if there is a need to bring forward more effective controls in the future for this fishery.”
The fisheries committee came under further pressure in a letter from Ceredigion Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams, who asked why it had not followed CCW’s advice and suspended all scalloping.