Stuart Housden: Protecting our seas makes economic sense

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FOLLOWING a decade of campaigning, RSPB Scotland was delighted to see the Marine (Scotland) Act finally become law in 2010.

We even went so far as to brief our partners in the EU about its excellence. After years of the marine environment being the poor cousin, here was an opportunity to ensure it was placed at the heart of decisions on how and where human activity took place at sea.

What an opportunity it is too, full of ambitious commitments which should help recover Scotland’s beleaguered seas, including responsibilities on ministers to declare a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) and create a national marine plan. Cross-party and industry support gave this idea spectacular momentum, which one might have expected to continue for many years after the words became law.

Just a couple of years later, the reality is rather different. The plans to roll out marine renewable energy and an oil and gas strategy continue apace but we are still without the national marine plan – the very document that is supposed to ensure these activities happen sustainably.

Most worryingly, the process of identifying protected areas – the cornerstone of any conservation programme – is the greatest missed opportunity. The marine environment has been notoriously under-protected. There is not one protected area safeguarding the important places where seabirds feed at sea. In spite of this, they have been almost completely ignored in the process of identifying the proposed MPAs. The Scottish Government says seabirds will be adequately protected by sites designated under EU legislation – the current state of play gives us little faith that this will be the case.

It is a big leap forward to have new protected areas in Scotland’s seas – but why the huge lack of ambition? Why is the environment viewed by politicians as inferior to economic interests? Even economically speaking, this is short-sighted – studies show MPAs could generate as much as £10 billion over 20 years.

Ecological sustainability is the foundation of economic sustainability. The Scottish Government forgets that at our peril.

• Stuart Housden is director of RSPB Scotland.