Video reveals devastation from scallop dredging on ‘protected’ Scottish seabed

New underwater footage taken by environmental campaigners in Scotland has revealed severe damage to marine life and habitats wreaked by scallop dredgers in “marine protected areas” (MPAs).

The Scottish government designated the seabed around the islands of Canna and Rum, on Scotland’s west coast, as the Small Isles MPA in 2014, to conserve Britain’s only colony of rare fan mussels and other features. The islands host a large breeding colony of black guillemots.


But video footage from a camera on an underwater remotely operated vehicle, deployed by Greenpeace and Open Seas, a Scottish charity, show rows of furrowed tracks across the “protected” seabed.

The tracks, from a scallop dredger, show damage to pink maerl, a fragile slow-growing coralline algae that provides fish with a spawning and nursery habitat. Open Seas contrasted the damage with footage they gathered in 2020 of the same area, showing healthy maerl.

Scallop dredgers, which fish using a highly destructive fishing method that drags heavy metal-toothed rakes along the seabed, are legally entitled to fish inside the MPA.

Phil Taylor, head of policy and operations at Open Seas, said: “This is arguably the worst example of a ‘paper park’ [one existing in name only] in Scotland and around the UK.

“The Small Isles has remained without any protection from the most destructive fishing methods, despite being called an MPA for over eight years and despite unequivocal evidence from the government’s own scientists saying this needs to stop.

“It is a shocking dereliction of duty that Scottish ministers have allowed this damage to occur,” he said.

Taylor called on the Scottish government to restrict scallop dredging within MPAs to protect marine habitats and to reverse biodiversity loss by allowing fisheries to recover.

The footage was gathered earlier this year as part of Operation Ocean Witness, a joint operation to document the condition of Scotland’s coastal seas.

Less than 5% of Scotland’s inshore seabed is protected from bottom-trawling and scallop dredging, although the Scottish government has said it is committed to increasing protection, using highly protected marine areas to ban destructive fishing and similar activities, in 10% of Scotland’s waters by 2026.

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Will McCallum, at Greenpeace UK, said: “It makes no sense at all to call something a protected area if you’re going to sit by and let fishing boats trash the seafloor. Many MPAs are just lines on maps and provide no protection whatsoever from damaging fishing, like bottom-trawling and scallop dredging.

A Scottish government spokesperson said it was determined to maintain good environmental status for all Scotland’s seas.

“As part of that, we have committed to delivering fisheries management measures for our existing, extensive MPA network, where these are not already in place, by March 2024. This will include the Small Isles MPA.”