Sarah Dolman: Why are we waiting to save sea species?

Marine mammals, like minke whales, play a vital role in ecosystems. Picture: SWNS
Marine mammals, like minke whales, play a vital role in ecosystems. Picture: SWNS
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Urgent action is needed on Marine Protected Areas, says Sarah Dolman

In 1998, the Scottish basking shark fishery was outlawed. Over preceding decades, thousands of basking sharks – the largest fish in Scottish waters – were removed from our west coast waters for their livers. Now, 20 years later, basking sharks are starting to recover. The road to rebalancing our seas is a long haul.

Two years ago, we hailed the Scottish Government’s commitment, based on advice from Scottish Natural Heritage, to put in place Marine Protected Areas not only for basking sharks, but minke whales and Risso’s dolphins. These are Scotland’s iconic marine species and yet these MPAs have stalled.

Marine mammals and fish play a vital role in ecosystems, including by regulating food webs. They are increasingly vital to our own economic fortunes. The Scottish basking shark and whaling fisheries are gladly a thing of the past, and these ocean giants are the stars of our marine tourism industry. These charismatic creatures draw visitors in their droves to the living landscapes of our coasts and islands.

Marine Protected Areas are a vital conservation tool. Marine mammals face a range of different and complex threats today that need careful management. Scientists frequently observe strandings of whales and dolphins on our beaches and alarming levels of toxic chemicals in dolphin carcasses – the sad legacy of pollution at sea. All mobile marine species are susceptible to bycatch or entanglements in fishing gear. We need MPA protection in important habitats to manage localised disturbance and other impacts.

Three years ago, Whale & Dolphin Conservation presented evidence and the support of 36,000 people urging Scottish Government for MPAs for whales and dolphins. This was an ocean swell of support. Yet we are still waiting. MPAs provide certainty for planners, safeguard our marine tourism and most crucially protect these majestic animals. A clear timetable and designation is urgent.

• Sarah Dolman is Senior Policy Manager of Whale and Dolphin Conservation