Areas of the seabed around Shetland have been closed to scallop dredging as part of a voluntary agreement to protect certain species defined as important under the EU habitats directive.
A total of 25 square kilometres over 19 locations where where mearl, horse mussel or eel grass beds have previously been identified will now be out of bounds.
As the habitats could be disturbed by dredge fishing activity, a minimum distance “buffer zone” of 50 metres has been installed around beds, although for large beds and some shallow voes this has been extended to hundreds of metres.
The voluntary initiative to conserve important habitats is the only one of its kind currently in Scotland and possibly the UK and Europe.
In addition to the closing of areas known to contain important habitats, fishermen have also agreed to avoid locations where there are unconfirmed reports of others, and from their own knowledge of Shetland waters to report beds that have not been officially defined so that they can be incorporated into agreement in the future.
At its meeting on 2nd September the Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation (SSMO) board unanimously agreed to take forward the initiative. The board includes representatives from the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and the Shetland Inshore Fishermen’s Association.
SSMO fisheries manager Jennifer Mouat said it was a policy which would not only protect important marine habitats but demonstrate the ongoing pro-active approach to fisheries management in Shetland.
She said: “I am very pleased that the board has made this bold decision which will add to the suite of measures which we already have in place to ensure the long term sustainability of the shellfish fishery and the marine environment.
“The shellfish sector has an annual value of over £5 million to the Shetland economy and is key in terms of supporting some of the remoter areas and communities within the Shetland Islands. It is therefore important that we continue to work with the fishermen themselves as well as other key stakeholders to ensure the fisheries continued success.”
NAFC head of marine science and technology Martin Robinson said: “I am proud and delighted that the centre has been able to support the SSMO and its members in taking these steps toward preserving some of the important habitats around Shetland.
“It is truly an innovative step in the context of European inshore fisheries management, and will hopefully point the way forward for others to follow. Shetland is acknowledged as being ahead of the curve both in the quality of its inshore fishing data and marine spatial planning, the former being due to the continued support of the centre and the SSMO by Shetland Islands Council, the latter with additional assistance from the Scottish Sustainable Marine Environment Initiative (SSMEI).
“This is an example where these strengths have been combined and utilised by the innovative SSMO stakeholders to instigate spatial management that has unquestionable benefits.”
Full details of the plan can be found on the SSMO website www.ssmo.co.uk