A Skye scallop diver who claims to have found evidence of illegal dredging in three local lochs has described the banned practice as like a “fire burning in the sea.”
Alberto Morales has been diving around Skye for the last decade and runs the company Skye Scallop Divers Ltd alongside his business partner James Cameron.
Last month Alberto recorded underwater footage which he believes shows evidence of illegal dredging near the Skye Bridge.
The sea lochs, Alsh, Duich, and Long – which lie between the mountains of Kintail, Lochalsh, Glenelg, and Skye – are designated as a Marine Protected Area because they are home to a huge bed of elusive yet brightly coloured bivalve molluscs known as flame shell.
The MPA which came into effect in 2014 is to provide protection for the inhabitants of the burrowed mud and an estimated 100 million flame shells, which Nature Scotland describes as the largest known bed of this animal anywhere in the world.
Speaking to the Free Press, Mr Morales said: “We were diving, it was a normal day, and I found dredge marks 30 metres down inside the MPA zone.
“I took a video and it is clear to see the marks.
“I didn’t see the dredger itself, the marks looked quite recent but it is hard to say exactly when it took place – maybe a month or a couple of months.”
Mr Morales said that other local fishermen suggested the incident would have taken place during the night.
Commenting on the impact dredging has on the environment, he said: “I go scallop diving, which is probably the most environmentally friendly way of fishing. I understand that people doing this are trying to make a living, but it’s a very destructive way of fishing.
“You can read scientific information and hear experiences from other divers, and in my own experience where I have been diving around Skye for 10 years and what can I say it is very sad in some areas.
“We are fighting, for example, fires in the Amazon. For me, we have a fire in our sea that has been burning for 30 years.”
He went to say: “It makes me feel very sad, I have spent my life in the sea it and it is something that I deeply love.
“I have been working in conservation from Ireland to Cambodia to here, and diving all around the world but this is the worst situation I have seen.”
Under current European Union regulations, the vessel monitoring system is a satellite-based fishing vessel monitoring system providing data to the fisheries authorities at regular intervals on the location, course, and speed of vessels.
The system is compulsory for EU vessels above 12 m.
Commenting on current electronic vessel monitoring procedures, Nick Underdown from coastal seas and fisheries charity, Open Seas said: “There is also no mandatory tracking for vessels under 12 metres and there are a few dredge vessels that operate under that.
“The current system pings every two hours which means the data the government gets might tell them that a boat is inside a protected area but the next ping could be outside and there is nothing to show whether they are towing inside the area because you would need pings every minute or two to show the track of the vessel.”
Mr Underdown said the government could access more accurate information to track vessels suspected of illegal dredging via onboard equipment but added that this could only be obtained if there was strong evidence through videos, photography, or multiple witness statements.
He added: “The government has been talking about monitoring the fleet for the last five years, but there have been repeated delays.
“They are now saying they will do that by the end of next year for the scallop dredge.”