The Dolphin Killers of Cardigan Bay

Why does the Welsh government propose this gratuitous act of destruction? It refuses to say.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 9th November 2015

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 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, or 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 Special Areas of Conservation 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.
  1. 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 Special Area of Conservation 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.

Scallop 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.

The dredges destroy almost everything. Their rakes and chainmail nets smash the sessile life forms to pieces and quickly reduce a rich ecosystem to a sandy or muddy desert. Many of the bare sea floors covered in loose sediments, that we have come to see as natural, are artefacts created by various forms of trawling.

It is likely to take decades, possibly even centuries, for the rich crust of life that once covered the sea floor to recover. The idea that scallop dredging is an appropriate activity within a special area of conservation (SAC) beggars belief.

The Welsh government launched the consultation with the support of fishermen’s organisations, but failed to discuss its plans with conservationists. In fact it appears to have hidden its intentions from them: at a meeting with conservation groups just two weeks before the consultation was launched, no mention of it was made.

How does the government justify its proposal? By relying on a study it commissioned from Bangor University. This, it says, “supports a controlled [scallop] fishery in the area of the Special Area of Conservation which is currently closed to [scallop] fishing.”

Broadly speaking, the study claims that the mud and sand on the seafloor contain little in the way of wildlife, so the seabed will not be greatly harmed by a resumption of scallop dredging. It assumes that the near-absence of lifeforms is natural. But until 2010 scallop dredging throughout the areas it studied was legal, and beam trawling (which is almost as destructive) has continued without interruption. Illegal scallop dredgers have frequently been seen in the protected areas too. Surely this renders the assumption that the seabed is naturally lifeless unsafe – to say the least?

But I didn’t feel confident in judging the scientific quality of a study like this. So I asked Britain’s leading authority on marine conservation, Professor Callum Roberts at the University of York, for his assessment. This is what he told me:

“This is a dreadful piece of science. Imagine that you stop cutting the lawn for five years. Would you have a highly biodiverse oak forest at the end? No, it would be a scrappy patch of weeds. Protect a heavily dredged piece of seabed for five years and you will have the underwater equivalent of weeds. … We lost the oak forests long ago – i.e. the seabed encrusted with fabulously diverse communities of invertebrates and coralline seaweeds that built up over centuries. … All that is left today is muddy bottom with scattered rocks and the odd horse mussel.”

That’s about the most damning assessment of a scientific report by another scientist that I’ve ever read. Coming from the leading scientist in this field, it should surely be the death knell for any claim by the Welsh government to be acting on the basis of sound science.

The Welsh government has a reputation for being environmentally responsible, not least as a result of its groundbreaking Well Being of Future Generations Act. But on this issue it positions itself among the most destructive governments on Earth. It has repeatedly ignored its own advisers, who have pointed out that scallop dredging is incompatible with protecting the species for which the SACs were created.

In rushing this consultation out, it appears to be trying to establish the principle of allowing scallop dredging inside protected areas before a number of new SACs and Special Protected Areas are created in Welsh waters, intended to protect porpoises, terns, red-throated divers and shearwaters. It tells you something when even the Westminster government, with its dithering, slithering attempts at marine conservation in England, looks good by comparison.

So why is the Welsh government seeking to vandalise its marine reserves? Most of the scallop dredgers operating in Welsh seas are not even based in Wales. They come down from Scotland and the Isle of Man, spend a few weeks trashing Welsh ecosystems, then move on. They undermine the assets on which local livelihoods depend: recreational angling, dolphin watching, scuba diving, crab and lobster potting and the rest, which generate far more income and employment than fishing with towed gear (nets and dredges) does.

While I was researching my book Feral, I interviewed Elin Jones, who was then the Welsh minister for rural affairs, and who took the original decision to allow scallop dredgers into the Bae Ceredigion SAC. She told me she wanted to strike a balance between “the need to protect our seas” and “to protect and even enhance the coastal fishery that we have.” So, I asked, given that most of the dredgers come from elsewhere, how do their activities enhance the Welsh coastal fishery?

“Well it means that people in Aberystwyth and Machynlleth who want to eat scallops can hopefully eat scallops from Cardigan Bay. … scallops are eaten by people from this area, and I want them to be fished from as close a source as possible.”

I pointed out that the great majority of the scallops taken from the bay are shipped abroad, mostly to Spain, France and other parts of Europe.

“Yes, I know, that’s part of the weakness of what we have at the moment, which is something that I’m trying to address, through the funding activities that we have in the European Fisheries Fund, to improve the quayside infrastructure that we have in Aberystwyth or Cardigan, to ensure that all of this fish that’s caught can be kept locally and sold locally.”

Some £6 million pounds’ worth of scallops were being caught at that time in Cardigan Bay every year. The population on and around the bay is tiny and overwhelmingly poor. The dredging industry exists because of lucrative markets abroad. There is no obvious mechanism by which local people could outspend these markets, even if they developed a sudden craving for Coquille St Jacques at breakfast, lunch and tea. In other words, of all the idiocies I’ve heard issuing from the mouths of ministers (and there have been a few), this must be the most ridiculous.

I tried asking the same question of the current Welsh government: how does it help the people of Wales to allow Scottish and Manx dredgers to destroy their national heritage? I received a rambling non-answer, that did not even seek to address my enquiry, but was written as if in response to a different question. I’m used to such evasions from the Westminster government. Less so from Cardiff.

It makes me wonder what hold this industry has over the Welsh government? Do the scallop dredgers possess compromising photos of government ministers? Or is this an extreme example of extractivism: an ideology that sees the defence of destructive industries as a holy duty, even when they trash more income and employment than they create? In five years of following this issue, I have come across nothing that resembles a rational explanation.

Whatever the reason may be, the government is doing all it can to ensure that these “strictly protected areas” remain worthless paper parks, no more than lines on the map, that offer no protection to the wildlife they are meant to support.

It’s not just scallop dredging that is inherently incompatible with the protection of the life of the sea. It is trawling of all kinds. A special area of conservation should be just that: a place in which wildlife is allowed to proliferate, rather than being smashed and dragged and sieved to destruction.

So please respond to the consultation the Welsh government has launched. It takes only a couple of minutes. And where it asks for extra comments, you might recommend that there should be no scallop dredging at all in protected areas and that other destructive fishing techniques (those involving towed gear in other words) should also be excluded from the SACs.

This is your chance to intervene against the blatant and pointless destruction of what is supposed to be a strict conservation zone. If the response is big enough, the Welsh government will have to back down. If we can’t protect our own threatened megafauna, how can we expect any other nations to do so?

*PGH Evans and K Hintner, 2010. A review of the direct and indirect impacts of fishing activity on marine mammals in Welsh waters. Countryside Council for Wales Policy Research Report, Number 104. The Welsh government, perhaps unsurprisingly, has failed to make this study available online.