FISHING crews illegally dredging protected scallop grounds have no fear of the penalty – because they are sure they won’t get caught due to scant surveillance, it is claimed.

Alasdair Hughson, chair of the Scottish Scallop Divers Association, spoke out to The National yesterday after evidence emerged of illegal activity in a protected area.

The Open Seas group documented broken shells and dislodged boulders on the seabed in a conservation area the Firth of Lorn after it was discovered by divers.

Dredging is a licensed activity in Scotland and it is an offence to “intentionally or recklessly kill, remove, damage or destroy” any protected feature of a Marine Protected Area (MPA). The crime carries a maximum £50,000 fine.

But Hughson says a lack of “traceability” for smaller vessels, which are not required to carry location-tracking equipment, allows them to harvest shellfish from protected waters with impunity.

He says the Firth of Lorn site is especially vulnerable because few nearby villages reduces the chance of being seen and reported to management body Marine Scotland. Calling for regulatory change, he said:

“There’s tension between people who are doing it and the bigger, more established operators who are worried about reputational damage to their sector and the fishing industry as a whole. There is animosity because of these activities and the damage they cause. They do it because they are confident they are not going to get caught.”

Open Seas says lines present on the seabed and the presence of fresh scallop meat shows a vessel had recently left the scene when the divers arrived. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has condemned illegal dredging and the Scottish Government said: “We have received recent reports of suspected illegal dredging in the area. Marine Scotland Compliance are actively investigating the activities of a number of suspect vessels.

“Marine Scotland invests significant resource into regular boat patrols, as well as the presence of one of its marine protection vessels in the area to ensure compliance. The risk of breaches of regulations are considered regularly and further resources tasked to the areas of highest perceived risk.”

Opens Seas campaign manager, Nick Underdown, said: “There is currently poor traceability within the Scottish inshore fishery.

“Under existing legislation smaller vessels do not have any electronic monitoring, so there is no way of verifying where exactly they have been fishing. Elsewhere in the UK they are rolling out more comprehensive monitoring systems and that provides confidence to the industry as well as wholesalers and retailers. Currently seafood buyers are at risk of inadvertently laundering illegally caught scallops into an otherwise legitimate the supply chain.”

He went on: “These MPAs were set up for very good reason, to recover the health of the seabed after sustaining decades of damage by bottom-towed fisheries. If our seabed is given a rest, we could see a return to a more diverse inshore fishery.”