Scallop dredging and docks expansion in Falmouth

Audrey Verma et al., ‘New technological interventions in conservation conflicts: Countering emotions and contested knowledge’, Human Ecology 45 (21017), 683-695

This article isn’t primarily about scallops or docks. But these make a somewhat more arresting title than the role of technological interventions in conflicts over maerl conservation, which is the central thrust of the article.

Audrey Verma et al. start by contextualising the issue. Calls for evidence-based conservation have grown in recent decades and new technologies have been employed in pursuit of a more ‘objective, rational and politically-neutral scientific knowledge’. However, a debate rages about the effect of this use of information technologies on public participation in conservation conflicts. Some suggest it side-lines and excludes the public by privileging a scientific-rational and neo-positivist discourse. Others claim it has the capacity to heighten awareness and provides opportunities for mass participation in conflicts.

This study aimed to test this by interviewing eight key actors involved in conflicts over the effects of scallop dredging and docks development on the maerl beds of the Fal estuary in the 2006-14 period. A large part of the estuary is a Special Area of Conservation. Of particular importance are the coral-like maerl beds, highly biodiverse and relatively rare. These enjoy limited protection under UK law but stronger protection from the EU (which sounds ominous). The health and condition of the maerl beds is viewed as an indication of the more general state of the estuary.

In 2003 scallop dredging was curtailed by law but dredging continued due to legal ambiguities. This was challenged from 2006 by conservationists who used visual technologies – basically underwater cameras – to prove that dredging was damaging the maerl beds. As a result, a ministerial ban was imposed in 2008.

The docks plan included widening the channel to support larger ships. This would have a direct impact on seabed features as well as affecting the sites where the spoil would be deposited. Fishermen and conservationists joined to raise concerns. This triggered more precise assessments of the extent of the maerl beds and whether the maerl was alive, or dead and relocated from live beds. (Apparently, it’s difficult to differentiate between alive and dead maerl – a bit like some of our politicians). Sophisticated technologies such as sonar imaging, underwater photography and the use of GPS and GIS were deployed in this, by both sides in the conflict.

The researchers interviewed protagonists, assessing the narratives they articulated. There was general agreement that new technologies could produce better evidential data. However, there was no consensus on what was ‘valid’ knowledge. There were issues over who had the right to derive knowledge, who had integrity and objectivity and who was sufficiently qualified to interpret the data.

Although the use of new technological interventions was welcomed on both sides, rather than resolving contentious issues they ‘generated new baselines of knowledge contestation and amplified ongoing battles for credibility and authority’. The authors conclude this is because ‘techno-scientific procedures were entrenched in the political’ and could not overcome disagreements over who was rational, balanced, reasonable or emotional.
In some instances, for example scallop dredging, new technologies can have mobilising effects, motivating political will and enabling people to articulate their concerns. In others, as in the docks issue, they can be used to counter opponents and shut down protest. The effect of technological interventions is therefore variable, ambiguous and complex.

The fundamental reason for this is fairly obvious. Technology cannot address underlying socio-political disagreement. As this article concludes, disputes over technological details can and do overlook broader contexts. In this article for instance, there is no mention of the desire to accommodate large cruise ships, the economic interests that might benefit from that and the wider role of tourism in the docks expansion plan. Nonetheless, there are obvious implications here for other struggles, such as those over housing growth and population expansion and the degradation of the Cornish environment that accompany the ongoing colonisation of our land.

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