23 February 2016
Cardigan Bay is a protected area and popular tourist spot, home to many bottlenose dolphins
The public consultation on reopening Cardigan Bay to scallop dredging closed last week. We expressed our concerns in our consultation response and will be monitoring closely what the Welsh government does next.
There are two reasons we are concerned about this.
The consultation questions assume that whoever is responding agrees that scallop dredging should happen in Cardigan Bay, and that the consultation is therefore looking to establish the best way to go about this.
A petition signed by nearly 30,000 people suggests this assumption is not in line with public feeling.
Regardless of how desirable a ‘viable scallop fishery’ is, Cardigan Bay was set up as a protected area to protect certain species and habitats, meaning the government has to undertake specific tests to ascertain what the effects would be of scallop dredging in this area. It’s not clear the Welsh government fully understands its legal obligations to this protected site.
This misunderstanding seems to be compounded by an over-reliance on research that asked the wrong questions about the effects of scallop dredging in Cardigan Bay.
Scallop dredging is a destructive activity. There are strong laws in place to ensure that damaging fishing activities do not affect protected sites in a long-term, negative way.
Cardigan Bay is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), set up to protect a number of species and habitats. It is most famous for the bottlenose dolphins that are native to the bay. They attract thousands of tourists each year, and evidence suggests that scallop dredging may have been the cause of problems for them in the past, such as low birth rates following the dredging.
The SAC designation does not automatically make the bay a ‘no go’ area. Instead, the EU Habitats Directive sets out a process for authorities to consider whether a proposed activity can be given the green light. In a case like this, the process will involve an assessment of the ecological impacts of the proposed activity – and this must be fulfilled before any discussion of economic benefit can start.
Under the Habitats Directive, the Welsh government is legally required to make certain that scallop dredging will not have an adverse effect on the ‘integrity’ of Cardigan Bay. This needs to be determined before they can think about whether it will benefit the area economically.
Site ‘integrity’ is not defined in the Habitats Directive. However, previous court rulings make it clear the assessment will need to look not just at the impact on the dolphins themselves, but also at the impact on the ecosystem they are living in. This means the living and non-living things that make up the Cardigan Bay ecosystem.
Given the destruction that scallop dredging causes to the seabed and the organisms that live there, we are sceptical as to whether the assessment can conclude scallop dredging would have no adverse effect on the site’s integrity.
The research that the Welsh government highlights in its consultation – a much-publicised study from Bangor University – did not really look at what the Habitats Directive requires to be assessed, particularly in relation to the state in which the site’s ecosystems should be. Understanding this is crucial to understanding whether scallop dredging is a legal possibility.
Would we get a sustainable scallop fishery if the proposals did go ahead? Just look at the condition of the small area of Cardigan Bay currently open to scallop dredging. As others have pointed out, due to a lack of proper management, scallop stocks have already been depleted due to high-intensity fishing within just five years of reopening.
We want to ensure that the Welsh government follows its legal obligations. This is part of our wider work to ensure that the Habitats Directive is implemented properly. Regardless of the consultation results, we will be expecting a transparent and thorough assessment process into the real effects of scallop dredging – resulting in a decision that truly follows the laws designed to protect Europe’s nature.