CALLS are being made for significantly stronger penalties for illegally damaging Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas when MSPs discuss new animal and wildlife legislation this week.

Holyrood will debate the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill on Wednesday.

Conservation charities have appealed for measure that would for the first time mean that offences against marine wildlife would be dealt with in the same way as similar wildlife crime on land, and an amendment to that effect has been put forward by Labour’s Claudia Beamish.

If backed by MSPs, it would mean custodial sentences of up to a year would be available to the courts, alongside fines of up to £50,000 originally introduced in 2010.

Illegal damage to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) would also be looked at by existing specialist wildlife crime officers from the law enforcement agencies for the first time.

The charities say that under Marine Scotland guidance, fines under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 are typically related to the value of the fish caught illegally, rather than the damage done to protected ecosystems and the impact on wildlife itself.

They say there have been 112 reports of suspected incursions into Scotland’s protected seas between 2015 and 2019. In some cases, Marine Scotland has gathered sufficient evidence to charge vessels operating illegally and issued fixed penalty notices.

However, the organisations say that no fine has exceeded £10,000 for illegal fishing in a closed area in Scotland, and the typical fine is much less, at around £2000. Fines issued in England are significantly greater and one issued in 2019 started at £67k.

Phil Taylor, head of policy and operations at Scottish sustainability charity Open Seas, said: “It’s a sad fact that we have seen repeated damage to marine wildlife caused by illegal fishing inside MPAs. During 2018, illegal damage to the seabed was observed in one west coast protected area on at least three occasions.

“Our seabeds hold slow-growing habitats that provide fish nursery grounds and take decades to establish.

Damaging protected habitats like maerl beds is just as unacceptable as illegally felling an ancient oak forest.

“It would be irrational to treat wildlife crimes at sea as somehow less serious as those on land. It is clear the penalties issued to date have not been enough to deter illegal fishing and this needs to end. By formally recognising these offences as wildlife crimes, this amendment will ensure the true loss to society can be taken into account by those enforcing the laws.”

Charles Millar, executive director of Scotland’s Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, said: “Most of our inshore fleet respect the rules regarding Scotland’s MPAs but there is a minority which continues to fish these areas.

“They are making short-term profits at the expense of the long-term health of the seas. Even if they are fined, it does not always appear to be a deterrent, as the fines may be less than the value of the illegally caught fish. This irresponsible behaviour damages ecosystems and undermines the reputation of the wider fishing industry. The existing sanctions are too weak.

“We want to see a thriving and diversified inshore fishing sector but the few who commit wildlife crimes at sea should be subject to the same sort of sanctions as those who do it on land. It’s time for Parliament to unite to give MPAs the protection the public already believe they have.”

Alasdair Hughson, director at Keltic Seafare and chairman of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, said: “Everyone who fishes in Scotland’s waters knows they shouldn’t break the rules around MPA.

“But there are some who do it anyway because they have little fear of being caught and can make more money from illegal fishing than they would lose in fines – assuming they even go to court. This change in the law would provide a much better deterrent, which I welcome because irresponsible fishing tarnishes the reputation of the whole sector.

“As a group we fought long and hard to convince people our inshore waters required better protection. Having gained these measures it is devastating to see a few unscrupulous operators flout the rules and hold back the recovery of these fabulous habitats. I would urge Parliament to take it seriously and back these changes on Wednesday.”