By Calum Duncan, Head of Conservation Scotland for Marine Conservation Society and Convener of Scottish Environment LINK marine group.
Last week the Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party announced a co-operation agreement and shared policy programme, the first of its kind in the UK. Whilst not exhaustive, and still to be voted on by Scottish Green members, many welcome commitments are included.
Nature recovery targets on land and sea
With thanks to everyone that supported the Fight for Scotland’s Nature campaign, we are pleased the deal commits to a Natural Environment Bill that will “put in place key legislative changes to restore and protect nature, including, but not restricted to, targets for nature restoration that cover land and sea, and an effective, statutory, target-setting monitoring, enforcing and reporting framework.” We will engage closely to ensure this delivers the ocean recovery targets so urgently needed, in tandem to achieving existing commitments for our seas to meet “Good Environmental Status”. It is also welcome to see commitment to expansion of the Nature Restoration Fund to contribute to “meeting…targets and restoring Scotland’s terrestrial and marine environment”.
Improved marine protection
Whilst commitment to “deliver fisheries management measures for existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)… as well as key coastal biodiversity locations outside of these sites” is simply restating delayed commitments for MPAs and Priority Marine Features (PMFs), it must be included. It is crucial as part of this phase that the most damaging activities are excluded from MPAs, including the use of bottom-towed fishing gear from all seabed MPAs and from areas where sensitive PMFs naturally occur. Such measures would contribute toward international standards of at least 30% of the sea in which “only light extractive activities are allowed, and other impacts are minimized to the extent possible” as defined by the IUCN global standards .
More significantly, we warmly welcome the commitment to “add to the existing MPA network by designating a world-leading suite of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) covering at least 10% of our seas” by 2026 in both inshore and offshore waters. The latter is subject to the co-operation of the UK government who hold the legislative power in the zone beyond 12 nautical miles. In other words, at least 10% of Scotland’s seas would be free from any fisheries, aquaculture or development but would allow non-damaging types of recreation and tourism to continue. Such a commitment in a government agreement could lead the way for other parts of the UK and Europe.
We welcome the commitment that selection for these sites will be ecologically representative across inshore and offshore waters, and that it will provide for the recovery of Priority Marine Features and for ecosystem recovery and biodiversity enhancement, including protection of blue carbon and critical fish habitats. The latter is also in line with Scotland’s Future Fisheries Management strategy.
Capping and reducing fishing effort
The deal also commits the Government to “take specific, evidence-based measures to protect the inshore seabed in areas outwith MPAs and HPMAs” including consulting on applying “a cap to fishing activity in inshore waters (up to three nautical miles) that will limit activity to current levels and set a ceiling from which activities that disrupt the seabed can be reduced in the light of evidence as it becomes available.” This is not a precautionary approach, whereby vessels would be excluded and only allowed to fish via licensed derogations upon proving lower impact. Whilst we would prefer a more ambitious approach to recognise there should be a presumption against trawling and dredging in a significant part of the inshore area, a cap followed by reduction in effort is a small step forward. A large-scale low impact trial could help inform the evidence-base.
Ensuring “more effective compliance” in the commercial fishing fleet and “increasing capacity and capability in marine monitoring and protection” is welcome. It is essential that this includes use of modern technology such as Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras and is implemented urgently given the current state of our seas and the many delays to date.
We must also see commitment to end overfishing and incidental bycatch of seabirds, whales, dolphins, turtles and endangered sharks, skates and rays.
In the wake of the UN issuing a red alert for humanity in the face of the latest IPCC assessment, we must look to all industries to adapt. The current deal does not recognise the role of fisheries management as a climate action. A recent report by WWF, Marine Conservation Society and RSPB reveals how Scotland can futureproof its fisheries and show world leadership in the process by ensuring a just transition and adopting a “climate-smart” strategy for the sector.
We also recognise the need to expand offshore wind in a way that maximises opportunities for ecological restoration and mitigates potential impacts on marine biodiversity, while committing to manage such impacts proportionately.
We look forward to the announced publication of the long-awaited Government response to the Salmon Interactions Working Group report in September. It is crucial that these recommendations are acted upon swiftly to provide much-needed protection for wild salmon and sea trout populations in Scotland.
The commitment to “reform the regulatory and planning framework, starting with an independent review to consider the effectiveness and efficiency of the current regime and make recommendations for further work by the end of 2021,” is a reaffirmation of recommendations arising from the Scottish Parliamentary inquiry. We would not want to see this review delay action on improving regulation of the industry’s environmental impact as already committed to.
The co-operation agreement includes new commitments to be welcomed, should they be approved this weekend. We will engage closely in all processes, keeping supporters updated as to how you can help at strategic moments to ensure urgently needed ocean recovery measures are secured. Please follow us on @savescotsseas for updates.
 “deliver fisheries management measures for existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) where these are not already in place, as well as key coastal biodiversity locations outside of these sites, by March 2024 at the latest” from the co-operation agreement.
 IUCN MPA Guide https://wdpa.s3.amazonaws.com/MPA_guide/MPAs_English_4pp.pdf
Fully and highly protected are classified by the IUCN as follows:
- Fully protected: no extractive or destructive activities are allowed, and all impacts are minimized;
- Highly protected: only light extractive activities are allowed, and other impacts are minimized to the extent possible.