Fears have been raised over the long-term sustainability of Shetland’s scallop fishery, with calls being made for supermarket chain Waitrose to stop selling the locally-sourced produce.
Charitable pressure group Open Seas has queried the coveted eco-label given to Shetland scallops by the Marine Stewardship Council, insisting concerns it raised over certification of the stock had not been adequately considered.
The organisation has pointed to Scottish government assessments of scallop stocks which indicated the numbers of scallops in Shetland waters are in decline.
However, an industry representative from the Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation (SSMO) has dismissed the concerns and insisted stock levels – said to be worth around £2.4 million annually – are sustainable.
The MSC accreditation, the only one of its kind given to a UK scallop fishery, is due to be renewed at the end of next month.
But Open Seas spokesman Nick Underdown said it had raised concerns after a draft report was prepared by assessor Acoura Marine, which has been working on the fishery’s MSC certificate since 2012.
Mr Underdown said Open Seas had raised several points surrounding “voluntarily closed areas” and the relatively short distances they covered.
“This is a very important issue for the SSMO and the fishery more widely in Shetland,” he said.
“We’ve engaged in good faith with the assessors, Acoura, which are carrying out the assessment in terms of the MSC guidelines and criteria. We were assured our concerns would be accounted for in the way our assessment was reported.
“We’ve now seen the public comment draft report, and it’s making the recommendation for re-certification – but doesn’t at any stage reference concerns we have raised.”
Mr Underdown insisted Open Seas did not believe that dredge fisheries should be banned “full stop”.
He said: “We think dredging has a serious impact on the seabed and ecological system. The assessor seems to consider that these impacts are mitigated by voluntarily closed areas that the SSMO has established.
“Our view is that these cover just 20 square kilometres of Shetland’s whole onshore sea areas, and while they do protect maerl and horse mussel beds there are a whole range of other species and habitats that we know exist outside of these closed areas.”
SSMO chairman Ian Walterson insisted that Shetland scallops were responsibly fished, however.
“The dredge-caught scallop fishery is in the process of re-accreditation after a five-year period,” he said.
“The Shetland scallop dredge fishery is most certainly a sustainable fishery – we have no doubt about that.
“It began more than 50 years ago, and fully half a century later boats are catching scallops in the same grounds, and those grounds are replenishing themselves.
“It is certainly a fishery that is sustainable.”
Asked about Scottish government findings which indicated a drop in scallop numbers, Mr Walterson said: “I believe that there are some sort of figures from Marine Scotland that we’re going to look at, because it’s at odds with what our figures are telling us.”
Mr Walterson said log sheets filled in return by fishermen were analysed and collated by experts at the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway to advise SSMO on stock levels.
He said: “The criteria for gaining MSC accreditation is very detailed and very difficult. It’s a lot of work to get any fishery through the MSC process to gain accreditation.”
Mr Walterson said he “totally” dismissed concerns raised by Open Seas, insisting the group was intent on “putting the livelihoods of hard-working fishermen in jeopardy with their policies”.
“They seem to be targeting the Shetland caught scallops because they have MSC accreditation,” he said. “It’s going through the process of re-accreditation and we are awaiting the outcomes of that. We are not aware of any significant problems with the scallop re-accreditation for MSC.”
An MSC spokesman, Matthew Sowemimo, insisted any objections would be considered.
“The fishery has not yet been re-certified,” he said. “There’s been public comment draft report and we’ve had stakeholder responses to that.
“Before 30th January the independent scientific body, who are managed by a company called Acoura, will come up with a draft decision and stakeholders can raise objections to that decision.
“Then the objections will be considered and there will be a final decision before 30th January 2018, and we have to accept that.
“In that decision – for anyone who raises objections, the decision will respond to that objection. It will either say we agree with this or we don’t agree with this for the following reasons.
“Fundamentally, the final decision about whether the fishery is re-certified – and whether or not fish from that fishery can continue to hold our blue label – that decision has yet to be made.”
In the meantime, Waitrose said it would continue to offer Shetland scallops on its shelves, which forms the majority of its king scallops sold.
The company stated: “Waitrose introduced the concept of responsibly sourced seafood into UK supermarkets more than 20 years ago and we take our role in marine conservation very seriously.
“While the MSC certification of the Shetland scallop fishery is under consultation, it is still valid and it would be wrong for us to pre-empt this process.
“This consultation provides the opportunity for the Open Seas Trust to raise its concerns about the Shetland fishery and we would encourage it to do so.”