People in Scotland believe sewage and chemical pollution pose the biggest threat to the health of our seas, according to new research.
The opinion poll, conducted by Survation on behalf of the environmental coalition Scottish Environment LINK, also found high levels of public concern over litter and the impact of climate change on our seas.
9 in 10 Scots say that it is important to them personally that Scotland’s seas are in a healthy state, according to the poll. But sea health is being damaged by a range of factors, including plastic, chemical and sewage pollution.
One factor concerning environmental charities is the lack of monitoring of sewage releases in Scotland – with the public left in the dark over the scale of the problem.
Sanitary waste such as wet wipes and cotton bud sticks can end up in our seas when sewers overflow due to heavy rainfall or insufficient capacity in the network.
These storm overflows, which release untreated sewage into rivers and coastal waters, are intended to operate during extreme weather events – but the Marine Conservation Society has raised concerns that storm overflows may be being used on a more regular basis.
Evidence from Marine Conservation Society volunteer Beachwatch litter surveys suggest a higher level of sewage related debris on Scottish beaches than in England and Wales, where monitoring rules are stricter.
Scottish Water monitor only 9% of storm overflows, and are required to monitor only 3%. In comparison, over 80% of overflows in England and Wales are monitored, with a commitment for 100% to be monitored by the end of 2023.
Scottish Water reported 10,763 spills in 2021 – however, this only covers the 3% of overflows they are required to monitor, suggesting a much more widespread problem. Environmental charities have called on the Scottish Government to install electronic monitoring on all sewer overflows by 2024.
Calum Duncan, Convener of the Scottish Environment LINK Marine Group and Head of Conservation for Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society, said:
“Scotland’s beaches are beautiful – but anybody who has visited one in recent years will have noticed pollution being washed up on our shores.
“Our ocean is fundamental to life on earth, and inextricably linked to all our health and wellbeing.
“But our seas are being used as a dumping ground for sewage, plastic rubbish and ‘forever chemicals’, all of which continue to build up over time, wreaking havoc on our planet.
“We need much stronger monitoring on our sewer overflows to help target improvements and reduce the sewage and debris entering Scotland’s seas, and a ban on all non-essential ‘forever chemicals’.”
Clare Cavers, Senior Projects Manager at Fidra said:
“Evidence of pollution in our rivers and seas from invisible chemicals and tiny plastic particles is growing all the time, and a lot is known to come from sewage.
“There needs to be an urgent increase in monitoring sewage from storm overflows in Scotland, so that we can understand exactly what is coming through the sewers and where it is coming from.
“Then we can work with manufacturers, retailers and government to turn off the pollution tap and protect Scotland’s stunning seas for the next generation to enjoy.”
The UK’s fishing industry has long been a fundamental part of vibrant coastal communities, providing livelihoods to many and food to feed us, from Cullen Skink on a cold winter’s evening, to whole grilled mackerel with lemon and garlic, or scampi and chips by the sea.
However, our seas, wildlife and the fishers whose livelihoods are dependent upon healthy marine ecosystems, are suffering. International marine biodiversity targets have not been met and the UK, as a whole, has failed to meet 11 out of the 15 indicators for achieving Good Environmental Status. Commercial fishing continues to be the most widespread pressure on the marine environment but it also has real opportunity to provide solutions and help recover our seas if done sustainably.
Meanwhile, for fishers, uncertainties regarding market access and the increase in fuel prices have resulted in unemployment and family upheavals; with some fishers tying up their boats for good and having to relocate their families in search of alternative employment. It is a turbulent time for the fishing industry and they need to be given certainty.
The Discard Ban
For many years one of the key concerns over the impacts of fishing on biodiversity was the wasteful nature of many fisheries in which significant amounts of unwanted fish were dumped back into the sea, a process known as discarding.
A discard ban was introduced with the hope that it would incentivise more selective fishing and less discarding. The rule made sense, but it was poorly managed and enforced with little evidence of widespread uptake. The fact that such a policy which required fishers to significantly change the way they operated, was not accompanied by robust monitoring to ensure a level playing field, gave it little chance of success from the outset; and many saw this coming.
How do you catch a haddock without catching a cod?
In the North Sea a lot of the fish we catch are part of mixed fisheries – fish like haddock and cod tend to swim together (unlike mackerel, which swims higher up in the water column as a more exclusive and fast-moving shoal).
The problem for fishers who target these mixed fisheries is that the quota for one fish (e.g. cod), might be very low or even set to zero, while the quota for another (e.g. haddock) might be much higher. So how do you catch a haddock without catching a cod?
We are constantly learning new things about the UK’s marine life. If you chase a haddock, for example, it will likely swim up towards the surface. If you chase a cod, it will swim down to the safety of the seabed.
If you have a fishing net with larger ‘escape panels’ in the roof of the net – then you’ll not catch many haddock, but you will catch cod. Other fish can take advantage of their shape, e.g. sole, which will squeeze through fish nets with horizontal slits. Using highly selective fishing gear (that is designed taking into account fish behaviour, preferences, shape etc.) can help catch the fish you want and avoid the ones you don’t.
However, an obstacle to investing in highly selective fishing gear is that it comes at a cost. The cost of the gear itself which can run into the tens of thousands and the cost of some marketable fish that pass through the ‘selective’ gear. With very little monitoring at sea, the impact of the discard ban was not clear. While some complied and invested in new gear, others continued to operate with business as usual. Without the level playing field, which would have been achieved with robust monitoring, it created a competitive advantage for those that continued to discard.
A game-changing technology is ready for roll-out
The good news is there is a tried and tested solution that’s a win-win-win for wildlife, fishers and you: Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras.
REM is a powerful and cost-effective tool that answers three fundamental questions: where boats are fishing, when and how they are fishing and most importantly, what is being removed from the water – target and non-target species. With a much clearer picture we can improve fisheries management, help prevent overfishing and ensure fishing is sustainable for future generations.
Design and illustration by edharrison.co.uk
People are increasingly concerned with the provenance of their seafood, and the impact it has on marine wildlife. The best tool to help de-risk fisheries and give green light for access to more retailers is REM with cameras. This technology enables fishers to demonstrate to the public and retailers that they are operating in a sustainable way, using best practice and highest levels of selectivity.
REM would also empower fishers by putting them at the heart of the data collection process, bridging the gap between them and fisheries managers. Fishers spend a significant amount of their lives at sea and claims that catch quotas are out of touch with what they are seeing in their nets need to be addressed. The ‘fish-counting’ cameras provide fishers with an opportunity to document what they are seeing and feed into the science of quota setting. In the Netherlands, smart cameras have been taught to differentiate between different fish species. With ongoing developments in technology, we envisage a day where scientific data will be accessed by fisheries, managers and fishers alike, in real-time, after each haul.
REM has been tried and tested for more than 20 years and is in use across many fisheries globally. In Denmark, following successful trials, REM is being rolled out across their fishing fleet which is very similar to that of the UK. Across the food sector, it has become standard practice to safeguard work places through the use of cameras. Cameras are mandatory in slaughterhouses in the UK, with recordings processed in line with data protection requirements to address privacy issues. Fisheries should be no different.
UK governments must seize the opportunity
Following Britain’s departure from the EU, UK governments are developing new ‘catching’ policies which if done right, could both improve the health of our seas and make livelihoods more secure.
Accountability and confidence will be central principles of these new policies, however, without equipping vessels with the tools they need to provide the required levels of at-sea monitoring these policies will fall short of their objectives.
Last month, one of the UK Government’s own statutory bodies, Natural England, released a report with the key message that Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras is vital to achieving Good Environmental Status (GES) and recommended the immediate roll-out of this technology to the ‘highest risk’ fleets such as demersal trawls to: 1) help promote compliance; 2) collect data for data-poor fisheries; 3) protect sensitive species; and 4) contribute to achieving GES.
It was disappointing that UK governments did not take the opportunity to commit to rolling out REM across the UK fishing fleet when they produced the draft Joint Fisheries Statement – a document that sets out how fisheries will be managed across the UK now that we have left the EU.
There is still an opportunity, however, as the final version of the JFS has yet to make an appearance. We believe there is still an opportunity for all four government administrations to provide a unified voice in support of REM with cameras being a key element of fishing in UK waters. UK governments are still to develop their individual plans or ‘catching policies’ which should require REM as a key means of helping delivery and providing support.
The Scottish Government is to be credited for taking forward REM with consultations for roll-out to the scallop dredge and pelagic fleets, however, the concern is that plans to roll-out REM are not prioritising the vessels which need it the most.
We know that gillnets and longlines carry some of the highest risk of seabird bycatch while whales are often accidentally killed in creel lines and other cetaceans like porpoises become entangled in gillnets and dolphins are caught in trawl nets. We are yet to achieve good environmental status for whales and dolphins, and the situation for seabirds is getting worse instead of better1 We also know that demersal trawls have the highest risk of shark and skate bycatch and discarding. REM can help to monitor bycatch rates and the use of mitigation measures.
Whatever changes are implemented in the new catching policies, we believe that the degree to which they are underpinned by robust at-sea monitoring with cameras will be a defining factor in achieving sustainable fisheries in the UK.
The question is… when will the UK governments step up and roll-out REM to the fleets that highest-risk fleets and embrace the benefits that REM brings for wildlife, fishers and the consumer?
Current levels of wildlife protection in Scotland’s seas are too weak, according to an opinion poll gauging the views of Scots on the health of the marine environment. Only around half of respondents felt that Scotland’s seas are in good condition, with 46% stating that the quality of Scotland’s seas have worsened in the last 10 years. Pollution, the effects of climate change and industrial fishing are cited as the greatest perceived threat to our seas.
Meeting commitments to protect at least 30% of Scottish seas for ecosystem recovery by 2030
Evidence is growing to show that the health of Scotland’s seas has been in decline for some time. Seabed habitats are a shadow of what they once were, fish stocks have dwindled, and coastlines are changing due to the impacts of climate change. By law our seas should have been in ‘Good Environmental Status’ by 2020 (seas are healthy and productive and resources are being used at sustainable levels), but unfortunately all governments across the UK failed to achieve this for 11 out of 15 indicators. And that’s not to mention the bigger picture that this is a worldwide trend, with the earth now widely recognised as being simultaneously in the midst of a climate emergency and nature crisis – a de facto ocean emergency. Arguably we now need to go further than GES. (more…)
The coastal waters of Scotland are home to several marine mammal species like bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoise and seals. It’s more common than you think to encounter them and, working for WDC on our Shorewatch project, I am fortunate enough to record numerous sightings of whales, dolphins and porpoises around the Scottish coastline. As a keen paddleboarder I have also had several encounters with dolphins, porpoise and seals while on the water.
Photo: Charlie Phillips/WDC
Watching whales and dolphins wild and free is an incredible experience and provides wonderful memories that will stay with you for years. It can even shape a young person’s life. I still remember my first cetacean sighting at 14 years old, from the Isle of Skye – it was a minke whale – and that day I decided I wanted to be involved in marine conservation.
Each year more and more people are recognising that our marine environment is a place to be celebrated and enjoyed, but this also leads to marine wildlife having to share their homes with more people, which sometimes can lead to negative impacts on the creatures we love.
Photo: Charlie Phillips/WDC
Disturbance to whales, dolphins, porpoise, and seals from watercrafts is a serious threat to their survival. Only this year a common dolphin was killed after a boat strike, while hundreds of seals have undergone harmful injuries after being driven from their resting sites. As several of our marine species live in coastal waters, there is a high likelihood that we may encounter them when out on the water. Without the right education it can be too easy to cause a disturbance. Disturbance does not always result in death or physical injury, it can alter natural behaviours like communication, resting, feeding, breeding and soliciting, and can drive marine wildlife away from important areas used as feeding grounds or nurseries. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises need to feed, rest, socialise and reproduce to stay healthy and to keep their populations strong. If we get too close, we can disrupt their natural behaviours and unwittingly cause changes to an individual’s breathing, hamper their ability to feed, or stop them getting the rest that they need. Mothers with calves are particularly vulnerable.
You might think it’s just noisy boats and jet skis that are a problem, but kayakers and paddle-boarders can disturb dolphins too, and it’s important that we all know how to behave around marine wildlife, so we can ensure their and our safety. That’s why WDC launched our #RudeToIntrude campaign to raise awareness of marine mammal disturbance, what it looks like, and how to avoid causing a disturbance and how to report any illegal activities.
We all need our personal space – so do whale and dolphins.
Following this advice will help you to remain within the law and reduce the risk of you disturbing whales and dolphins.
Keep your distance. Avoid getting too close, especially if calves are present.
Approach carefully from behind and to the side, make sure you are aware of best practice.
Three is a crowd – there should never be more than two watercrafts within the 300 metre ‘caution zone’
Don’t overstay your welcome – 15 minutes is enough.
Avoid repeated disturbance; consider staying away if the wildlife has already spent a prolonged period with vessels nearby.
It’s #RudeToIntrude. To avoid disturbing wildlife,DO NOT:
Make sudden changes to speed and direction
Approach from directly in front or behind
Drive between or scatter groups, especially mothers and calves
Chase or repeatedly approach individuals
Box them in – take care not to trap individuals between your vessel and other vessels or the shore
Swim with them or try to touch or feed them.
Disturbance of whales and dolphins is an offence, whether it is intentional or not.Reporting reckless or intentional disturbance will help protect whales and dolphins, enabling everyone to enjoy our waters.
If you see someone disturbing dolphins, porpoises or whales, do not approach them yourself. Do report them to the police by calling 101.
Tell the operator that you are reporting a wildlife crime and ask for an incident number to ensure that reports can be tracked.
Report the incident, letting them know:
the date, time and location of the disturbance
the behaviour of any vessels and of the whales and dolphins before, during and after the event
if possible, the species involved
the duration of the interaction
any identifying features of the people or vessel involved, such as the boat name and the clothes worn.
If possible, take photographic or video evidence of the disturbance. Photos and video of behaviour before and after the disturbance or from different angles can also be very helpful!
Watch the full #RudeToIntrude video!
Katie Dyke is the Shorewatch Project Coordinator for Whale and Dolphin Conservation
What can we learn about making fisheries management effective for nature conservation?
A short-term fisheries closure for the protection of spawning (breeding) cod came into force on 14th February for 11 weeks. This is an annual closure, but this year the process has taken a different turn. (more…)
A blog by Esther Brooker, Marine Policy and Engagement Officer.
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