Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Closed Areas Cautionary Tales Pt. 2: Scotland’s Firth of Clyde

Two fishing vessels dot the horizon on the Firth of Clyde. Image via Wikimedia Commons

New England’s fishery managers are poised to allow large scale commercial fishing in thousands of square miles of New England waters, which have long been set aside to protect cod and other struggling fish populations. These groundfish closed areas were put in place following widespread crashes of fish populations in the early 1990’s and were intended to protect juvenile fish, spawning areas and seafloor habitat.  Biological productivity has begun to start showing improvements only recently.

As fishery managers consider re-introducing damaging forms of fishing like bottom trawling into these protected areas, they should also consider the experiences of other fisheries that exploited protected areas. The first post in this series looked at the actions that led to commercial extinction of the cod fishery in some Canadian waters. The experience of the Firth of Clyde in Scotland is another example with a sobering moral.

The Firth (or bay) at the mouth of the Clyde River southwest of Glasgow has been fished for centuries. But the area suffered a crippling collapse in populations of the most important fin fish after eliminating protected areas which had stood for decades. University of York marine conservation biologist Callum Roberts tells the story in his most recent book, Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea (Viking, May, 2012).

Landings of cod from Firth of Clyde 1960-2006. Source: Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland (DAFS) and Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency (SFPA).

Roberts recounts how a downturn in the herring fishery triggered a ban on bottom trawling in the Firth in the early 20th century. As the accompanying graphs indicate, landings of groundfish did well up until the 1980s. That’s when fisheries managers succumbed to pressure from industry and politicians to open up the closed areas. The ban was repealed in 1984, and then, as Roberts writes:

[C]od, plaice, haddock, whiting—in fact all of the Firth’s productive fisheries—declined to virtually nothing within 20 years. Today the seabed is barren and the only fisheries left are for prawns and scallops, and even they are overfished.

Roberts writes that fishing industry representatives first attempted to discredit the science pointing to declining fish populations. When the science could no longer be ignored, they attempted to pin the blame on something else: “pollution, seals and climate change were the straws they clutched.”

Landings of haddock from Firth of Clyde 1960-2006. Source: DAFS and SFPA.

Politicians and fisheries officials, Roberts writes, bought into the claims that more regulation to help fish recover would bring too much hardship to the industry while ignoring the much greater risk posed by their continued failure to act. Roberts is unsparing in his final assessment of the relationship that developed between politicians and the fishing industry. It had become, he writes, “like that of a doctor assisting the suicide of a patient.”

In the mid-2000s, a citizens group on the Isle of Arran in the Firth worked to reestablish a protected area in the Firth of Clyde. In 2008 they won protection for a small section of coast in the Firth’s Lamlash Bay. Within two years, Roberts writes, habitat in the protected area was looking healthier and juvenile scallops were more numerous. Recovery of groundfish there will take much longer, however, and recent studies found that even those populations showing stronger numbers are still not producing fish large enough to be landed.


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