Comment: We can lead world in marine planning

Our ports like Aberdeen are now geared towards industrial fishing and providing the logistics for a renewables energy boom.  'Picture: Getty

Our ports like Aberdeen are now geared towards industrial fishing and providing the logistics for a renewables energy boom. 'Picture: Getty

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FOR THE first time, we now have the means to monitor and look after the ecological health of our seas, says Calum Duncan

FOR centuries, our seas have been heavily exploited for their fish, and as the highways of our trade. More recently a host of different, new industries, such as fossil fuel extraction, fish farming, recreation and renewable energy generation, have emerged and our seas are now far busier. Will the currently emerging planning system for our seas ensure that we manage and balance all of these interests for the wider public benefit?

Deep in the cultural fibre of coastal communities around Scotland, the decline of our fisheries and the broader health of our seas is felt as a painful environmental, economic and social loss. Village quaysides once bustled with the traffic of small boats, but our inshore fleet now struggles to make ends meet. Our bigger ports have become sites to facilitate industrial-scale fishing and provide the logistics for an energy boom, now switching all-too-slowly from fossil fuels to cleaner renewables. Our connections with the sea are changing.

Our seas and the life within them are a shared, national resource, yet until recently Scotland has not had the means to manage it effectively. Separate regimes, from Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels have regulated and licensed the different industries. They operated in regulatory silos, and the ecological health of our seas paid the price, entering a state of serious decline.

Under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 (and its UK counterpart) we now have the golden opportunity to create an effective, integrated planning system to monitor and plan for the combined impacts of all this activity – and to deliver the statutory duty to “protect and, where appropriate, enhance” the marine environment.

Just as the current debate on land reform is about the best expression of the public and environmental interest, so is the implementation of the Marine Act. For the first time, we will be able to plan how we comprehensively look after our shared marine resources for the long-term.

The framework of the new, statutory National Marine Plan (NMP) can provide a mechanism for us to develop responsible industries, create jobs and taxable revenue streams for the benefit of all Scotland, and bring new hope to our coastal communities.

Amid the political ferment in post-referendum Scotland, Holyrood is currently in the process of ratifying the country’s first ever NMP. As we take this step we face a major choice. We can have a plan that continues to pretend that the seas have room for unlimited growth, or we can have one that seeks to repair their health and restore their potential. It is not clear, currently, in what direction we are headed. A quick look at the evidence suggests serious confusion.

There are grave concerns being voiced about growth targets for the aquaculture industry. Targets to increase production of farmed salmon and other products by 2020 might help to underpin trade relations with China, but they have never been subjected to the appropriate rigours of a planning system.

The draft NMP also contains disturbing contradictions as it seeks to maximise recovery of oil and gas reserves whilst also meeting ambitious climate change targets. Amazingly, the draft plan fails to even acknowledge the direct climate change impacts of burning oil and gas. This is a considerable weakness, given climate change is arguably the greatest challenge facing us all.

There is also a danger that the emergent Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) will lead towards few changes in fisheries management, despite strong emerging evidence that limits to dredging and trawling in inshore waters could lead to clear economic and environmental gains.

Instead of this confusion, we need to view environmental management not as a 
constraint, but as a means to achieve and safeguard the common good. Scottish Environment LINK’s members believe, firmly and fundamentally, that the NMP must set out a stronger vision of how to enhance our diminished marine environment. An invigorated Scotland can lead the world here and think for the longer term.

The lessons from land use can provide some encouragement. Our more experienced terrestrial planners, in forestry for example, have become well accustomed to thinking over long planning timeframes. The Scottish Forestry Strategy in 2009 established a programme to increase woodland cover in Scotland from 17 per cent to around 25 per cent in the second half of this century, to deliver broad economic, environmental and social objectives. Gradually, forestry developments are being integrated with other land uses, under the Land Use Strategy established by the Climate Change (Scotland) Act (2009).

We should apply some real vision and approach marine planning and “seabed use” in the same way as we do for terrestrial planning and land use strategy – but, as the emerging marine plans are scrutinised in Parliament, this has become urgent.

As the plans are finalised, LINK members will continue to press for a clear, long-term vision and the broader public interest.

• Calum Duncan is convenor of Scottish Environment LINK’s marine taskforce

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