Scotland's fishing industry must join the fight against climate change, not resist it – Nick Underdown

How do you double turnover from the marine economy and recover our seas from decades of environmental decline while tackling the climate crisis?

Proper management of the seas could enable fish populations to recover, allowing more to be caught, while protecting marine habitats and reducing carbon emissions (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
Proper management of the seas could enable fish populations to recover, allowing more to be caught, while protecting marine habitats and reducing carbon emissions (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

These were manifesto pledges that the Scottish National Party and Scottish Greens were trying to reconcile in their recent power-sharing negotiations.

Whilst it would be easy to view these as conflicting objectives, they are not: proper management of our seas and ecosystems could achieve them all. Recover fish populations to catch more fish, prevent a free-for-all race to the bottom and secure more and better jobs. Limit the footprint of destructive fisheries to protect and regenerate marine habitats, recover biodiversity, produce sustainable seafood, sequester carbon and move closer to net-zero.

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The Scottish government’s own research found reductions in bottom trawling inshore would yield £14 million a year more gross value added for Scotland as a whole.

Unfortunately, as the political dust settles, the SNP-Green deal does not appear to hard-wire environmental recovery, but largely maintains pre-existing policies and arguably even establishes further delays.

Whether the Scottish Greens can harness their new-found power to champion Scotland’s marine environment and sustainable, climate-friendly fisheries is now a key test of their coalition.

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Our seas are not in healthy condition. The SNP government failed their 2010 target to prevent the loss of seabed habitats, such as corals and mussel beds, and the Sustainable Development Goal to end over-fishing by 2020.

The UK’s trade and cooperation agreement with the EU meant that catch limits for many North Sea stocks were only belatedly set at sustainable levels, but iconic fisheries, such as cod, remain over-exploited or, worse still, collapsed.

Recently both the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) have claimed this over-fishing is not happening, but sadly it is. And worse, a lot of over-fishing occurs hidden and unrecorded, due to the wasteful practice of discarding that continues unmonitored at sea, despite it being made illegal in 2019.

They also claim that all Scottish seafood is ‘climate smart’ food. They are partly correct: some types of fishing, mackerel and herring, for example, return huge yields for low fuel use and are equivalent to some vegetable types in terms of emissions. Others, however, such as dredged scallops or bottom-trawled prawns, better known as scampi, involve significant emissions.

These sectors of the fishing industry urgently need to acknowledge their responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions.

Whilst beef and agricultural industries have sought to own and address their emissions issues, acknowledging all sectors have a role to play in the climate crisis, it is worrying to see the SFF glibly deflect and claim there are “bigger fish to fry”.

They loudly seized upon figures for direct emissions caused by fuel-use, but have completely disregarded a much bigger cause of emissions within the fleet: the growing body of evidence that bottom-trawling is contributing potentially huge greenhouse gas emissions by re-suspending organic carbon from the seabed.

Bottom-trawling is a widespread method of fishing in Scotland with a footprint that has continued to expand since the 1980s. Prawn-trawling involves the use of a heavy nets, weighted with rock-hoppers (big rubber discs that bounce over rocks, but which also plough through softer sediments).

Prawns live in burrows within muddy seabeds and when bottom-trawl gear is dragged over these habitats, plumes of mud containing organic carbon are kicked up into the water column.

Mud, often dismissed as formless seabed devoid of diversity, in fact provides essential habitat that helps cycle nutrients and sequester carbon. Scotland’s marine environment is estimated to store more carbon than terrestrial stores such as peatland and forests, and Scotland’s seabed sediments hold around two thirds of the total held within the UK exclusive economic zone. The highest densities of organic carbon are found in the muds within our coastal sea lochs.

But when bottom-trawls are dragged through a muddy seabed, carbon is disturbed, re-mineralised and can re-enter the atmosphere. It can also reduce the capacity of seawater to absorb atmospheric carbon – one of the vital roles our ocean plays in regulating the climate.

Consequently, trawled langoustine for scampi, one of Scotland’s biggest seafood products, is definitively not a “climate-smart” food – with one study estimating it has higher per kilo emissions than beef, even without ‘blue carbon’ impacts factored in.

Notwithstanding, the big fishing propaganda machine is currently in full swing, seemingly forgetting the industry’s need for a social license and attacking an amorphous ‘green lobby’ for simply raising the issues, as if environmental concerns were held by just a fringe faction of society.

So why has Scotland’s agriculture sector taken a leadership role over climate change as Scotland’s fishing sector downplays the problem?

Whilst the Scottish government was declaring a climate emergency, a 2019 public consultation on a ten-year plan for Scotland’s fisheries mentioned climate change only once. It wasn’t until universities sounded the alarm bell that Marine Scotland’s sea fisheries division made amends, although even now it seems an afterthought.

The SNP’s strategy for fisheries management sets out commitments to deliver ecosystem-based, productive fisheries management, but the details of their proposals were simply more of the same.

To date this has not worked for the marine environment, the climate or, in fact, most fishermen, many of whom are small-scale and crying out for better fisheries management.

What is needed is real vision and the courage to deliver it. Building momentum for land reform has been unpopular in some quarters and met with vociferous resistance from established interests who benefited most from the status quo.

The current fisheries management system similarly favours the big players whose focus is to retrench their own rights to quotas, not take actions to safeguard long-term sustainability for the industry and coastal communities.

In the coming months, the SNP and Scottish Greens will publish their adapted ‘catching policy’. An early first test will be whether it can yield something truly progressive, rather than just claiming to be.

Nick Underdown is head of campaigns at seafood-sustainability charity Open Seas

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