No-one knows more than the communities living around Scotland’s vast coastline how important and stunning our seas are. The health of the ocean, and particularly the seabed, is at the heart of sustaining communities reliant on wildlife tourism, fishing and aquaculture.
The ocean regulates half the oxygen we breathe. Our lives literally depend on it. It has absorbed more than 90 per cent of all the excess heat produced by society in recent decades. Despite this, the seabed has unfortunately been out of sight out of mind for most.
Globally, we’re in the midst of an ocean emergency. Areas of the ocean are becoming more acidic meaning shell-forming creatures struggle to create their shelters, other areas are becoming deoxygenated dead zones, and ocean nature is declining due to overfishing, ocean warming, inappropriate development, and a soup of plastic and invisible poisonous chemicals.
Despite this, all governments of the UK spectacularly failed to ensure our seas were in good environmental status by 2020, failing 11 of 15 targets including halting the loss of nature at sea.
Nine years after the first assessment required of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, Scottish Government scientists and advisers again highlighted that the condition of most of Scotland’s seabed was of great concern. Some living seabed habitats have declined by over 90 per cent in the space of only a few years.
The Bute House Agreement between the Scottish Government and Scottish Greens made welcome commitments to complete planned marine conservation measures, modernise inshore fisheries management more widely and commit to designating at least ten per cent of Scotland’s seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).
Such areas have proven successful worldwide. They provide oases for vulnerable and depleted marine life to recover. Allowing fish, shellfish and other species to flourish in a fully protected area also benefits the many people and activities which rely upon healthy seas. The benefits from these areas overflow into surrounding waters, increasing the abundance and resilience of sea life. This overflow can benefit nearby low-impact fishing, such as angling, creeling and hand-diving, and other fishing beyond.
Protected areas also provide excellent places for people to simply celebrate their local blue space, to enjoy it and to learn about the role and value of ocean ecosystems. An excellent example of this is the pioneering Lamlash Bay Community Marine Conservation Area. Rolling out more such areas requires a holistic and integrated approach. The proposed HPMAs would need to protect a mix of inshore and offshore waters so that the benefits and trade-offs are spread around Scotland’s coasts.
The ocean emergency is real. Our seabed habitats are under threat, and populations of seabirds continue to decline. Highly protecting a modest ten per cent of the seabed from extractive, construction, and depositional activities, could help provide multiple wider benefits if managed well, and bring all communities of place and interest onboard.
HPMAs provide core ocean recovery zones with multiple benefits; they increase biodiversity, including of living reefs, lobsters and scallops, and increase the storage of carbon in living animals and seaweeds, and the seabed itself (blue carbon). They also improve protection of the coastline from storm damage and provide ocean beacons for research and enjoyment. HPMAs would create vibrant blue spaces for kayakers, wild swimmers, beach walkers, rockpoolers, divers, wildlife spotters and others to enjoy.
It is crucial that HPMAs are placed strategically to maximise community benefits. This includes having surrounding buffer zones for low-impact fishing, into which fish and shellfish can overspill, and identifying and protecting zones for appropriate levels of fishing in the wider seas.
Everyone wants to see healthy seas supporting abundant wildlife and thriving coastal communities. Done well, HPMAs can provide a win-win for all with a stake in the health of the ocean.
Join the campaign for HPMAs at scotlink.org/oceanrecovery.
Calum Duncan is Head of Conservation Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society, and convenor of Scottish Environment LINK’s marine group
This blog was published in the Friends of the Scotsman, on Tuesday 4 April 2023.
Image credit: Calum Duncan