June 16, 2024

Fragile and damaged marine life around Scotland’s coasts is not being properly protected because ministers in Edinburgh have broken their promises, environment campaigners have warned.

Prominent charities including the Marine Conservation Society and the National Trust for Scotland accuse the Scottish government of repeatedly missing its deadlines to protect vulnerable marine life from overfishing and the effects of climate breakdown.

They cite the government’s own seabed surveys and expert evidence about the damage from trawlers such as scallop dredgers fishing inside marine protection areas (MPAs) that Scotland designated in 2014.

The campaign group Open Seas said ministers had also significantly delayed action to protect priority marine features such as flame shell reefs found outside the marine protection areas. Only 46 of 233 designated sites have all their protected features in favourable or recovering condition, and many have not been surveyed.

The charities have urged ministers to restrict fisheries inside MPAs by 2025; deploy more fishery protection vessels to police and deter illegal fishing; to set legal targets to improve damaged marine features; and introduce surveillance and tagging of all fishing vessels.

Their criticisms have come at a time of heightened tensions over Scotland’s environmental record after the collapse of a landmark power-sharing deal between the Scottish National party and Scottish Greens last month, known as the Bute House agreement. The crisis, triggered by Scotland scrapping its 2030 climate target, led to Humza Yousaf resigning as the first minister and his replacement by John Swinney, a veteran figure in the SNP.

Conservationists were then alarmed when Swinney appointed Kate Forbes as his deputy first minister and economy secretary. A rural MSP, she was a prominent critic of plans to set up a “world leading” network of highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) last year, which would have banned inshore fisheries.

Those zones, covering 10% of Scottish waters, were a key part of the Bute House agreement, but the policy was scrapped after a revolt by coastal communities. Forbes is expected to resist or dilute new measures to restrict fishing now she is in government, particularly with a general election imminent.

The Inner Hebridean islands of Canna and Sanday are linked by a bridge. They lie within the Small Isles MPA (marine protection area). Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Conservation charities said the HPMA debacle was an example of longer-term failures over marine protection policies. They have set out a series of criticisms of what they see as Scottish inaction on marine conservation, including:

  • Missing three target dates to restrict fisheries in marine protection areas which were set for 2016, 2020 and March 2024.

  • A failure to survey all the seabed and marine features the protection areas were set up to protect.

  • A failure to designate any of Scotland’s MPAs as nature reserves, wilderness areas or national parks.

Their criticisms are drawn heavily from a report by James Harrison, a professor of environmental law at Edinburgh University’s law school. It warned Scotland was drifting away from EU standards, including the goal that 10% of seas should be “strictly protected” by 2030.

Harrison said that meant Scotland was no longer meeting the standards set by international bodies such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which calls for states to ensure at least 30% of MPAs have no extractive activities.

Stuart Brooks, the director of conservation for the National Trust for Scotland, which owns Hebridean islands including Canna and St Kilda, urged ministers to implement Harrison’s recommendations.

Calum Duncan, the marine group convener for Scottish Environment Link, an umbrella group for NGOs, and head of policy at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “Scotland’s marine protected areas are essential not only for the nation but for the global effort to reverse the decline of nature and help address the climate emergency.

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“The continued failure to deliver marine protection measures contributes to the decline of our seas. A healthy ocean underpins coastal communities and supports our efforts to tackle climate change.”

The Scottish government said it wanted to put management measures in place “as soon as possible”, but to do so with the correct evidence “for over 160 sites in the inshore area alone is a complex and challenging process”, a spokesperson said.

“Ministers are determined to protect our oceans and do so in a way that is fair, and ensures our seas remain a source of prosperity for the nation, especially in our coastal and island communities.”

A ferry approaches Canna in the Inner Hebrides, where the seas were designated a ‘high risk’ site in 2014. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

A ‘paper park’

For marine conservation campaigners, the rich and diverse seas around the Hebridean islands of Canna and Rum are a case study in failure.

The seabed there should be safeguarded by the Small Isles marine protection area. It was one of Scotland’s first MPAs, designated in 2014 as a “high risk” site. Instead, the campaigners say, the rich and diverse marine life has been bulldozed by scallop dredgers and bottom-trawling.

These seas to the south-west of Skye ought to be teeming with maerl beds, reefs of horse mussel and fan mussel, the UK’s largest and rarest mollusc, as well as sand and mud habitats.

Open Seas has found that bottom-trawling has scraped the mussels and reefs off the sea floor. Even though it is a designated marine protection area, bottom-trawling is being legally carried out because the Scottish government has so far failed to introduce any fishery management controls there.

Open Seas describes the Small Isles MPA as a “paper park” and said its filming in 2022 had found widespread habitat loss. “Instead of finding a rich, three-dimensional mosaic of habitats, the crew discovered the seabed had been levelled to an underwater gravel park,” it said.

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