Scotland’s seas are home to thousands of species, including commercially-important fish and shellfish and charismatic whales, dolphins, seals, seabirds and basking sharks, all supporting livelihoods and coastal communities.
Seagrass meadows, kelp forests, cold water coral reefs, rich burrowed sediments, maerl, flameshell, native oyster and horsemussel beds are the engine-room, storing carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change.
Our seas also provide space to relax, explore and exercise, to swim, snorkel, dive, sail and walk beside. However, they need help. Climate change, overfishing, unsustainable development, invasive species, noise and litter are pushing them beyond environmental limits.
Across Scotland, coastal communities, industry and environment groups alike, have called for better. The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 overhauled an outdated licensing system and enshrined duties to protect and enhance Scotland’s seas, deliver sustainable development, mitigate and adapt to climate change and establish a National Marine Plan and Marine Protected Area (MPA) network.
In 2014, 30 new nature conservation MPAs were created. In 2016, fisheries protection measures were introduced in the 16 most vulnerable inshore sites and a large harbour porpoise site submitted to the EU. In 2017, the Loch Carron emergency MPA was established and a Government commitment to scoping a deepwater marine reserve made.
But progress has slowed. Consultation on fisheries measures for a further 17 inshore sites is expected early next year and measures for 18 offshore sites long-submitted by the Scottish Government still await formal EU approval. Many therefore remain at risk of being “paper parks”.
Known gaps in the MPA network also exist, including for birds, whales, dolphins and basking sharks, as well as for white-beaked dolphins, spiny lobsters and additional sites for the critically endangered common skate.
In January 2018, a Budget deal was secured to ensure four much-needed MPAs would be consulted on, now postponed until early 2019. Whatever the timescale, key to success will be ensuring sites are protected, concerns over which have been raised with reported incursions of scallop dredgers into protected sites, and effective monitoring of seabed health to gauge if measures are working. The Scottish Government is due to report on Scotland’s MPA network to Parliament by the end of the month.
Recovery beyond MPAs is also needed and the National Marine Plan is crucial. In April 2017, scallop dredging damage to Loch Carron flameshell beds activated a policy requiring that the national status of Priority Marine Features (PMFs) must not be significantly impacted.
An emergency MPA, containing what is possibly the world’s largest flameshell bed, was subsequently established and the Scottish Government committed to improve protection for 11 PMFS at greatest risk from fishing outside MPAs, with a consultation due next year.
The National Marine Plan also guides regional marine planning, an important mechanism for inshore recovery, and 11 marine regions have been identified. However, only Shetland and the Firth of Clyde are actively developing draft plans, with Orkney anticipated next. Loch Carron also underlined a need to modernise inshore fishing, with comprehensive vessel monitoring and traceability.
As pressure from industries such as aquaculture and marine tourism grows, the need for a precautionary and ecosystem-based approach has never been greater.
During this Year of Young People, a survey recorded that 11 to 26 year olds thought our seas should be protected but that more effort was needed.
Announcing the results at the Sea Scotland 2018 conference, Jack Dudgeon, vice chair and member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, reminded us that young people care about the environment and that they will live with the implications for the longest time.
As we approach the end of 2018 and near 2020, a target ‘super’ year for many important international commitments, opportunities to boost the health of Scotland’s seas must be grasped.
Calum Duncan, head of Conservation Scotland, Marine Conservation Society, convener, Scottish Environment LINK’s Marine Group.