Protecting our offshore and deep sea habitats – How should Scotland manage its offshore MPAs?  

27 Oct 2016


Scotland’s offshore waters are far out, but we don’t want them to be out of mind. They are home to ancient, vulnerable deepwater coral reefs and sponges, ghostly fields of tall sea pen, unusual methane-seeps, aggregations of ocean quahog – among the oldest living things on the planet. They provide habitat for keystone species such as sandeels – small shoaling fish that are an essential food source for diving birds, such as puffins, seals, porpoises, and bigger fish, including many commercial species.

Some of the complex ecosystems found deep in our offshore waters develop over centuries, with many slow-growing species taking literally thousands of years to form. Intricate and diverse assemblages of deep sea corals and sponges also provide valuable nursery grounds for fish and invertebrates and form a vital part of the whole ocean ecosystem. Many of these fragile habitats are at risk from human activity, including oil and gas exploration, potential deep-sea mining and bottom-trawling that can cause physical damage and is particularly threatening to slow-growing species, and forms of fishing that can entangle cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and deep sea sharks. Our understanding of the deep sea in particular is still in its infancy, but it has been estimated that thousands of species are still yet to be discovered. And yet, as each year passes, many of these hidden habitats continue to be damaged or remain exposed to potential damage. We must ensure adequate protection is in place to avoid losing these mysterious species and habitats.

MPA progress to date

In July 2014, 30 nature conservation Marine Protected Areas (ncMPAs) were designated in Scotland’s waters, 13 of which were for offshore habitats, a welcome stride forward for offshore marine conservation and the development of an ecologically coherent network of protected sites. Six of these MPAs are located beyond the continental shelf, where there are already 11 Special Areas of Conservation. This sets a good foundation for the protection of special habitats and species far out to sea. However, the ecological success of Scotland’s MPA network depends entirely on the effective management and enforcement of protection at these sites.

Public consultation request and engagement to date

Our offshore waters are a national public resource, and we all have a stake in what happens in and around them. This time last year Scottish Environment LINK’s Marine Group, which comprises the Save Scottish Seas coalition, wrote to Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment at that time, requesting the proposed management measures be put to a formal public consultation to ensure equal access to information and participation in decision-making in compliance with the Aarhus Convention[1].  Although short of a formal public consultation, we welcomed the response to publicise the offshore management proposals, which the Scottish Government subsequently did in August this year, to our knowledge the first time this has occurred in the EU to date.

As most of Scotland’s offshore waters are within the EU Common Fisheries Policy area, the process for deciding on management measures is complex. Not only are Scottish stakeholders and Government involved, but also the European fishers that use these waters and, ultimately, the European Commission, with advice from ICES or STECF, that has to ensure the proposals comply with wider EU regulations. The Scottish Government has shown leadership at UK and EU level, undertaking a great deal of work to engage member states, industry and NGO representatives. Over the last three years, we have welcomed the opportunity to take part in stakeholder workshops and constructive discussions regarding management measures for existing SACs and the new ncMPAs.

 Progress so far – Where our concerns remain

Scottish Environment LINK welcomes the opportunity to have engaged with the constructive workshop process thus far, and believe the proposed measures will help protect many fragile designated features, preventing some from further decline. However, we consider they do not adequately address all of the ecological concerns facing these offshore habitats, and the wider ecosystem processes they support, and we are unsure to what extent the measures will actually help reverse the decline and enhance the extent and functioning of these features, as the concerning status highlighted in Scotland’s Marine Atlas suggests is urgently needed. Our main concerns relate to the following:

Depth limit

The Scottish Government proposals suggest that there will be an 800m depth limit on mobile demersal fishing gear across all the offshore MPAs. This is a welcome step forward in deep sea habitat protection, and in keeping with recent EU-wide developments. Recent scientific evidence suggests a depth limit of 600m for all mobile demersal fishing gear is most appropriate, as beyond this depth ecological damage increases significantly while the commercial gain per unit effort decreases[2]. Deep sea habitats at 600-800m depth show high levels of productivity, have significant potential to sequester carbon, and contain a high diversity of fish species and benthic habitats, such as deep-sea sponges, coral gardens, and cold water reefs. For these reasons, we suggest that a 600m depth limit on the use of mobile demersal gear within MPAs would enable the recovery and expansion of remnant vulnerable marine ecosystems and populations, further helping to safeguard and enhance the many benefits they provide.

Ecosystem based management

We are only beginning to discover the importance of  our offshore waters, and, due to our limited knowledge of these fragile habitats, we are urging a more precautionary approach to ensure we do not impart further damage to these vulnerable ecosystems. The shelf break (200m-400m), where the continental shelf meets the continental slope, is one of the most distinctive features of our offshore waters and is an area of high productivity. An important feeding ground for large shoals of fish, flocks of oceanic birds and cetaceans, and spawning ground for several commercial fish species, we are concerned that not enough of this shelf-break habitat is adequately protected.

Seamount communities are particularly vulnerable marine ecosystems, and provide vital connectivity for deep sea features in the MPA network. We believe they need protecting from potentially damaging activities, such as bottom-towed fishing gear and extraction of deep ocean minerals, to ensure there is sufficient coverage and connectivity between sites, and therefore support the proposed measures for Rosemary Bank and Hebrides Terrace Seamounts. We recognise that the boundaries of the offshore sites have already been established, and that now is not the time for these to be reviewed, but we would urge those of Anton Dohrn Seamount to be reassessed during future MPA network reviews to better represent the entire seamount ecosystem, since the shallower crown remains unprotected.

Improved protection for mobile species

Offshore waters have an important role to play in supporting the recruitment of sandeels that are a vital food resource for diving birds, seals, porpoises and fish, including many commercial species. Whilst we support the proposals to prohibit targeted sandeel fisheries in the relevant sites, we also urge experimental zonal or seasonal restrictions for bottom-towed trawling gear in areas known to be important for sandeel recruitment. Similarly, we are calling for a precautionary ban on set nets for vulnerable mobile species, such as orange roughy, deep sea sharks, and cetaceans, within all offshore MPAs and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

An adequately-resourced monitoring strategy is an investment in Scotland’s future

Scotland’s offshore area is vast and to adequately manage and monitor these habitats requires effort and financial support. At present, we recognise budgets are tight and tightening, with limited resources available, however investing in a strategic monitoring programme could address some of the outstanding challenges for our offshore waters, helping inform an adaptive management approach. The resourcing of such programs should be seen as an investment in a sustainable future for Scotland’s waters. By protecting and improving our seas, we can secure the many benefits they provide, both directly to those reliant on extracting living and non-living resources from the sea, and indirectly to the wider public who enjoy seafood, seek a stable climate, may benefit from future deep-sea medicines or who simply value the existence of these habitats.

Our offshore habitats and deep seas are vital for the health of the entire marine environment. Don’t let out of sight become out of mind.

LINK’s Marine Group will be taking the opportunity to respond to the consultation and invites you to view the management proposals available on Scottish Government’s website.


[1] UNECE Convention of Access to Information, Public Participation and Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.

[2] Clarke, J., Milligan, R. J., Bailey, D. M. and Neat, F. C. (2015) A Scientific Basis for Regulating Deep-Sea Fishing by Depth. Current Biology 25, 1-5.

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