Razor clams, also known as razor fish or "spoots", are common molluscs found burrowed in sandy inter-tidal and sub-tidal areas throughout Europe. In Scottish waters there are two commercially important species: Ensis arcuatus, known as “bendies” and the larger pod razor Ensis siliqua.
It is not illegal to fish or dive for razor clams. They can be harvested by hand by divers or by different types of dredges, including suction dredges. However, it is believed that a great deal of fishing for razor clams taking place at present is being done with the help of electricity (electrofishing). This involves probes being pulled slowly over the sea bed from a fishing vessel. The electric field stuns the clams and causes them to suddenly emerge from their burrows and divers follow the probes, collecting the clams.
‘Electrofishing’ is illegal under EU regulations made in 1998 (the Technical Conservation regime) with an exception that permits fishing with beam trawl using an electrical pulse current in a specific area of the southern North Sea. A range of actions has been used to combat the illegal practice, but enforcement at sea is very difficult because it requires Fishery Officers and Marine Protection Vessels to catch vessels ‘in the act’.
Scientific Study of Electrofishing
Alongside activity to deter and combat illegal fishing, the Scottish Government has also been considering whether electrofishing for razors can in fact be conducted safely and sustainably, a matter that has been in dispute for some time, and not just within Scotland.
In 2014 Marine Scotland Science published a report “Electrofishing for Razor Clams: Effects on Survival and Recovery of Target and Non-target Species”. The research, both field and laboratory-based, concluded that electrofishing for razor clams does not have immediate or short-term lethal effects or prolonged behavioural effects on other marine life (vertebrate or invertebrate species) exposed to the electric field generated. The report also concluded that electrofishing is likely to be less environmentally damaging than some other traditional methods, such as dredging. The study looked at the short and not long-term effects of the method, and did not assess stocks nor consider appropriate harvesting levels.
Consultation on Electrofishing
In light of this scientific evidence and a European Commission proposal to replace the EU legislation that prohibits electrofishing, the Scottish Government launched a public consultation seeking views on whether electrofishing should in future be a permitted method for catching razor clams.
The consultation closed on 30 September 2016. The consultation document, published consultation responses (subject to permission), consultation analysis and the Government’s response are all available online.
On 3 April 2017, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, announced that the Government will authorise a limited trial electrofishery for razor clams. The trial provides an opportunity to address matters raised in the consultation and will be designed as a scientific investigation to gather further information about electrofishing and the potential of the fishery within sustainable limits. More information on the trial is available here.