The war on plastic and single use packing is thankfully a hot topic right now, but we also need to consider how our seafood is brought to the table too, if we want to fight further on to save our seas.
I’m not sure that many folk ever consider a scallop’s origin as its white and orange meat sits neatly presented on its open shell over crushed ice at the local fish counter. Nor do we ever really give thought to how it was taken from the sea or perhaps even at what cost. I’m not talking about the financial cost involved in their extraction from the seabed; I’m talking about the cost to the environment.
Lyme Bay counts for just a slither of Dorset’s 90 mile long “Jurassic Coast” and is not only an area of outstanding natural beauty, but forms part of a World Heritage site. Golden Cap, the highest sea cliff on the south coast stands proudly somewhere along the centre of the bay, as if keeping guard over its stretch of coastline and Chesil Beach – an 18 mile long shingle beach flanks the east while the western section eventually becomes Devon’s territory as it passes Lyme Regis and then Beer.
Of course Lyme Bay has been the place of work for generations of fisherman and alongside the many British fish species, scallops have always been among their desired yield. Scallops are bottom dwelling shellfish, with most of the creatures’ shell buried in the sand, opening and closing to allow filter feeding through its “beard”, a sieve like fleshy part of the shellfish found at the shell’s “mouth”. For us divers, it’s reasonably easy to spot them as they nervously slam themselves shut when one approaches, sending up a plume of sand or silt. Perhaps over time, evolution will iron out that little give-away sign for them?
Other than collecting scallops by hand – “diver caught scallops”, there is simply no environmentally considerate way of extracting these palm-sized fellas from the seabed without destroying everything else living among them in the process. Scallop dredging is the commercial procedure – an indiscriminate method that uses a horizontal metal beam or “sword” complete with teeth and accompanying net to scour the seabed for this shellfish while being towed by boat. The level of bi-catch achieved with the method is appalling and everything in the equipment’s wake is left broken and or dead. Until the development of a spring loaded bar system, scallop dredging was only a reliable method of bottom fishing on an area of completely flat seabed. The introduction of the spring loaded bar system meant that it could then operate on more uneven underwater terrain, such as reef systems – thus increasing the areas at which dredging could take place.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for dwellers of the great British seabed at least not for the queen scallops of Lyme Bay. Lyme Bay is considered “nationally important” and as a result has, since 2008, been the largest protected area in British waters. For 10 years now an area of 60 square nautical miles has been declared closed to scallop dredging and bottom trawling fishing, allowing the recovery of some of our most important “out of sight out of mind” marine flora and fauna varieties. The ban, although not officially a “not take zone”, imposed by DEFRA (department for environmental food and rural affairs) was brought about to aid the recovery of a diverse and most fragile eco-system. Lead by Natural England it was demonstrated to the government that this area was in desperate need of protection and after many years of survey work conducted in the area by various wildlife trusts and societies, was given the protection it required.
Lanes Ground Reef is just one part of the bay regularly visited by scientific and recreational divers and an area now rich in sponges and marine invertebrate filter feeders or ascidians. Many rare and unidentified species populate the reef systems around Lyme Bay and it is clear to see how this fragile environment could be quickly wiped off the seabed using destructive, mobile fishing methods.
The reef itself consists of medium sized boulders and cobblestones and at a relatively constant depth of 25 metres. Sunset corals, rose corals, hydroids and pink sea fans now flourish here as well as a multitude of fish species, crustaceans and cephalopods, i.e crabs, lobsters and cuttlefish to mention a few. The pink sea fan is extremely slow growing and a species restricted to southwest England. Sea fans are in fact colonies of many tiny creatures, growing to 50cm in height but averaging at around just 30cm along this part of the UK coast. They branch or fan out in a way that allows the colony to feed in the current and although flexible, can be knocked over with no effort at all and indeed totally destroyed in a moment by dredging. Cat sharks also use the pink sea fan to anchor their egg cases, or “mermaid’s purses” as they’re more fondly known. The nudi branch isn’t a stranger to these parts either – a fingertip sized slug, often associated with tropical waters and just another delicate bottom dweller living in this fragile yet super rich underwater environment.
Back in 2008, fishermen from four local ports signed an agreement on the trawling ban (with some resistance) and also agreed to limit the amount of crab and lobster pot fishing in the zone too. One worry was that banning a single type of fishing might actually increase pressure in other areas of the industry.
Ten years on, the zone has been a huge win for conservation and of course the reefs, with the model being rolled out to other areas of the UK. The Blue Marine Foundation, one of the funders behind the Lyme Bay Reserve project said that since the dredging ban: “fishermen who fish with static gear (at Lyme Bay), have seen their catches increase”. Blue is planning to, among many other tasks, “embark on an ambitious project to restore the native oyster to the Solent”.
So, this all sounds great and indeed it is, having personally seen the positive effects of growth while diving in the area and will remain great so long as it is policed. Trust has to be a major factor here and of course there are areas outside of the protection zone (which makes up just 10 percent of the bay itself), where shellfish dredging is permitted. In just February this year, divers claimed to have discovered evidence of illegal scallop dredging within a protected zone in the Firth of Lorn, off Scotland’s west coast. And in 2017 the Scottish Government said it would investigate reports of illegal dredging in Loch Carron, which was said to have devastated a rare flame shell reef. Flame shells are “bivalves”, an aquatic mollusc, that make nests on the seabed. The reef that forms around the nests is a valuable nursery ground for young scallops, crustaceans and fish.
Although diver caught scallops and indeed any diver caught shellfish should be the go to option for all seafood lovers, it should be said too that not all scallop fishermen are hell bent on tearing up reefs to get at their quarry. It is true too that not the entire seabed surrounding the UK coast is home to rich reefs systems. In less sensitive areas, biological seabed disturbance can be lower than in others, with of the seafloor in certain parts resembling that of a mere desert. These habitats will recover far more rapidly from dredging than areas home to soft corals and the like. “Regulation” has to be the key word here and as long as we protect our known areas of vulnerability from the potential ravages of the shellfish dredger, we can ensure that we completely avoid weakening nature’s ability to deliver.