Allowing scallop dredging in ‘strictly protected’ dolphin reserves is madness

Three weeks ago, a friend and I took our kayaks down to Cardigan Bay, and launched them onto a flat sea. Even from the beach we could see that something was happening: the sea serpent heads of cormorants were emerging from the water with mackerel in their beaks, while gulls squabbled over the smaller fish being driven to the surface.

By the time we were half a mile from the shore, we found ourselves surrounded by great flocks of herring gulls, guillemots and razorbills, sitting on the surface, watching a constellation of tiny flashes as shoals of sandeels were herded by the mackerel far below. Every so often, as a shoal was driven towards the surface, the gulls would go mad, squawking and fighting and dipping their heads into the water, and the diving birds would disappear into the sea.

A little further out, we found ourselves among the top predators. We saw them from a distance at first, breaching and blowing. But soon they surrounded us, coming at times within three metres of the boats: bottlenose dolphins, scooping up mackerel as they sleeked past. They seemed unhurried, swimming steadily in a wide circle, emerging with a brief puff every few metres in a rhythm as regular as clockwork.

Occasionally, one would leap out of the water, sometimes twisting or cartwheeling before crashing back into the sea, prompted, it seemed, by nothing but exhilaration. The dolphins circled us for about an hour before disappearing towards the horizon.

The original meaning of the word ecstasy is “standing outside oneself”. It is an accurate description of how I felt. Everything that weighs on my mind, that tethers me to the world of thought and work and care sloughed off. Experiences like this are among the defining moments of my life, that I will remember even if I forget all else.

The dolphins in Bae Ceredigion (Cardigan Bay) are Britain’s largest breeding population. People come from all over the country to watch them and experience something unavailable almost anywhere else in Britain: encounters with megafauna.

As you might expect, much of the water in which they live is, on paper, protected. Two of the areas in which they hunt and breed have been granted the highest designation available under European law: a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The Bae Ceredigion and Pen Llŷn a’r Sarnau SACs cover significant parts of the bay, though there is plenty of sea used by the dolphins that is still without protection.

So here’s a simple quiz for you. What is the most appropriate way to manage the SACs set aside to support our largest population of bottlenose dolphins? I’ll give you two options:

1. Allow the dolphins and other marine life to recover from decades of ecological destruction caused by the fishing industry and to flourish once more.

2. Allow beam trawlers and scallop dredgers to operate inside these “protected areas”, ripping the seafloor to shreds and destroying almost all the living creatures the SACs contain.

You didn’t choose option 1, did you? What were you even thinking?

You plainly need a lesson from the Welsh government. It believes that the appropriate way in which to manage a SAC is to rip it to pieces.

Last month it launched a consultation on reopening sections of the Bae Ceredigion SAC to scallop dredging. Already the dredgers are allowed into part of the reserve. Now, if the government gets its way, they will be able to extend the area in which they operate. The consultation doesn’t mention beam trawlers, however, for the simple reason that they are already allowed to work throughout the “protected” areas.

4256Scallop dredges are rakes with long steel tines that dig into the seafloor, towed at great speed by boats. They tear out the entire structure of the seabed, and catch the scallops in chainmail baskets.

Sea floors that have not been dredged or trawled tend to be covered with a dense reef of living creatures: oysters, fan mussels and many other shelly species, soft corals, sea pens, sea fans, sponges, coralline seaweeds, peacock worms and anenomes. Living among them are lobsters and crabs of many species, as well as a great variety of fish.

When bottlenose dolphin calves are young, their mothers rely for much of their food on slow or sedentary animals on the seafloor*, as they cannot travel fast or far at this time. Sustaining a healthy dolphin population, in other words, means sustaining a healthy seabed.

 

Read full story: The Guardian by George Monboit

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