Q&A: Electro-fishing and razor clams

Spoots Image copyright Thinkstock

A consultation on the future of electro-fishing has been launched by the Scottish government. The technique of using a low electric current to catch razor fish - or spoots - is currently banned by the European Union (EU), but Scottish fishermen have called for the government to apply for an exemption to the rules.

What is electro-fishing?

Electro-fishing uses electricity that flows between two submerged terminals, with the water being used to conduct the charge. When the method is used to catch razor clams, the equipment is typically powered by a generator aboard a small vessel. The electric rig is dragged across the seabed with a diver following to pick up the clams.

What does the electric charge do to the razor clams?

The electric charge induces the clams to come out of the sand and into the water - an effect discovered in the early 2000s. This makes them very easy to catch by the diver working with the boat.

Image copyright Marine Scotland

Are there risks to the divers?

There are obvious risks associated with using electricity in water and people have been killed and seriously injured while electro-fishing. Potentially, there are other risks to the divers - electro-fishing for razor clams is an illegal activity in Scotland and so is not regulated. Those engaged in it may not be paying full attention to accepted safety procedures related to diving.

What are the risks to the environment?

When electro-fishing is used to gather razor clams, the electric current affects other creatures in the sand as well. Razor clams are adept swimmers and can bury themselves back into the sand, but other bivalves are not able to do that and can become vulnerable to predators. Some experts argue that electro-fishing creates much less disturbance to the seabed than scallop dredging - though there is no guarantee that dredging would stop if electro-fishing in marine fisheries was legalised.

Image copyright Thinkstock

Why is the method used?

Quite simply, it is a very efficient way of fishing for razor clams. The clams are regarded as a delicacy in many parts of Europe and across Asia, so there are big profits to be made. A single fishing trip can make thousands of pounds of profit.

What's the other way of catching them?

They can be hand caught by divers, or by foraging along the beach. Sometimes salt is sprinkled on top of the razor clam's "keyhole" in the sand to encourage them to come to the surface. This way of fishing for spoots is much more labour intensive. In 2013, about 897 tonnes of razors were landed legally into Scotland, with a value of £3.1m, according to the Scottish government.

What is the legislation?

Electro-fishing has been outlawed by the EU in marine fisheries since 1998, although some areas, like the Netherlands, have secured an exemption to that. Some razor clam exporters would like to see that exemption extended to Scotland. Exceptions have been made in South Wales and Scotland in order to study the environmental impact of electro-fishing.

In 2014, the Scottish government brought in tougher licensing measures to deal with the illegal fishing of razors, estimating that about 40 vessels were involved in the practice in Scotland. Electro-fishing is often used as a legitimate (and legal) research method in rivers and is a common technique for surveying the numbers of fish.

Where in Scotland is best for razor clams?

Spoots love shallow, sandy bays and are found extensively around the Scottish coast. They are generally not hard to find.

Some background information from Andrew Binnie, Community of Arran Seabed Trust.

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