Electrofishing and Razor Clams
2nd May 2017
Following the high-profile consultation by the Scottish Government on the controversial use of electrofishing for razor clams, controlled trials using the method have been authorised.
In this article, we take a look at the electrofishing method, why it’s causing a stir with environmentalists and what the impact of the recent change of heart can mean for the future of razor fishing in Scotland.
Razor Fishing: A Brief History
Razor clams, also known as spoots, are bivalve molluscs and have risen to global prominence as a culinary delicacy over the last few decades. With their unique, unusual but pleasant tasting white flesh (similar to squid), the humble razor clam is gracing the tables of some of the finest restaurants in Europe and Asia.
An unusual addition to the seafood market, this increased demand for razor clams overseas has led to a commensurate rise in fishing activities in the UK. Fishermen, keen to meet consumer demands for this sought-after shellfish, are currently able to harvest razor clams without limit. Landing sizes however are controlled by the EU and must meet a minimum length of 100mm; this is to prevent the harvest of juvenile stock. Recent consultations have suggested increasing this measure to 130mm
In the past, fishing for razor clams has always been done by hand either from the shore at low tide or by divers using manual digging or raking. Methods of mechanisation in recent decades include suction and hydraulic dredging, both of which cause disturbance to the sea floor and sediment.
Electrofishing and Razor Clams
Electrofishing has been a commonly used tool in the fishing world for many decades and is often employed by research scientists as a means of surveying a population of fish in large bodies of water. A simple system of using a submerged cathode and anode, an electric charge is passed into a body of water or along the seabed (or riverbed). The electric current is sufficient to temporarily stun any fish caught in the field of charge making them easy to catch or, in the case of survey teams, to count.
The charge causes a muscle spasm in the fish rendering them immobile; a temporary state from which they return to normal just a few minutes after the initial charge is passed through them.
An effective way to target a species to make them easier to catch, electrofishing (or pulse trawling) has been used for commercial fishing in many countries outside of Europe. Inside Europe, The Netherlands successfully lobbied the EU commission and has a fleet of 80 trawlers fitted for pulse trawling.
The Dutch fleet targets flatfish and brown shrimp using a specially adapted trawl rig, fitted with pulse gear. The gear looks rather like an airplane wing fitted with electric cables that sends a charge into the water.
In the early 2000s, this commonly used method was found to be effective at inducing razor clams to surface from the sea bed making it easy for divers to collect. However, this method of fishing was made illegal by the EU in 1998 across marine fisheries and as such it remains illegal to employ the method here in the UK.
Say the words electricity and water in the same sentence and most people will naturally draw in a sharp breath through the teeth. Naturally, the combination of the two is not entirely without risk and there are cases where divers have been seriously injured as well as a couple of cases where divers have died during electrofishing. Isolated incidences where evidence suggests to a failure to follow routine safety procedures for diving and not just electrofishing diving, there can still be no complacency around the need for strict safety measures.
Electrofishing in the Headlines
Since discovering how effectively electrofishing works to make fishing for razor clams easier a small number of fishing vessels have been caught using the method. The consequences have been strict penalties and fines but the use of electrofishing continues with pressure being applied on both the UK Government as well as the Scottish Parliament to reconsider its legal status.
The use of electrofishing has always been viewed as controversial with media reports often failing to point out key facts. One glaring omission with reporting is the failure to highlight the alternative methods by comparison with electrofishing. At present, stimulation to increase hauls is mechanically manipulated and can have a damaging effect on the ocean floor. By contrast, pulse trawling significantly reduces this impact preserving habitats and ensuring healthier communities for more sustainable fishing.
The other imbalance often levied against electrofishing is a rather sensationalist misconception that the method wholesale ‘electrocutes’ all marine life, leaving them paralysed, and at greater risk of being caught by predators.
Whilst it is true that electrofishing is indiscriminate to other species, the conjecture that the method had a devastating and long term effect has not been proven. There is certainly more research needed to clear this up but the most recent findings suggest that there is little impact on non target species. Work by IMARES (the Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies) is continuing to work alongside Dutch trawlers to create a dossier of information to help in its research.
Report by ‘Marine Scotland’ Brings Balance
Enter Marine Scotland who in 2014 produced a report, ‘Scottish Marine and Freshwater Science Volume 5 Number 14: Electrofishing for Razor Clams (Ensis siliqua and E. arquatus): Effects on Survival and Recovery of Target and Non-Target Species’ which found that electrofishing had little short term effect on non-target species and had less of an impact on the environment than dredging.
Scotland: A Change in Government Opinion
In April 2017, the Scottish Government finally authorised controlled trials as a way of establishing electrofishing as a sustainable and controlled method for razor clam harvesting. In association with Marine Scotland, suitable locations are being assessed for the trials and it is expected that the results from this pilot study will pave new ground for this fishing method.
Keen to maintain economic growth in fishing industries for Scotland whilst balancing the need for preserving the rich and diverse habitat of its unique fishing grounds, the Scottish Government is keen to see a positive result from the trials.
The current methods of harvesting razor clams in Scotland brings in an estimated 900 tonnes of shellfish worth around £3.1m.
It is likely that a suitable site will be found for the trials to commence by the end of 2017 with a report being available before 2020. Further, the imminent break for the EU with Brexit will have an impact on the way fisheries are able to be managed under domestic legislation instead of via Europe.
Clearly, the method is a little way off being accepted as a legitimate and legal form of fishing for razor clams but there is hope it will be a viable, and responsibly sustainable, method of fishing in the next few years. What needs to follow next is a more neutral (or at least balanced) media coverage of the trials in Scotland to help change public opinion.
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