Ocean recovery in 2021 and beyond

19 Jan 2021

As we begin this new year, we lift our heads to the horizon for glimmers of hope. Across the globe, people are calling on governments to build back better after the pandemic, to transform how we do business and live and work together for a brighter, fairer and more sustainable future. With the intertwined climate and nature emergencies still rampant, collective recovery packages must lock-in clean, sustainable practices that actively contribute to climate and nature recovery. Last year, international expert reports confirmed that our global ocean has warmed unabated since 1970, absorbing more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system, and that fishing has had a significant impact on marine biodiversity in the past 50 years alongside other significant drivers. Yet we also know that healthy fish populations and undamaged seabed habitats are better at locking up carbon. Overfishing, unsustainable development and climate change mutually reinforce a vicious cycle of ocean decline.

In Scotland, recent government announcements have increased the area of Scotland’s sea within the Marine Protected Area (MPA) network to approximately 37%. Yet, most of the network awaits actual effective protection from the most damaging industrial activities. For example, less than 1% of the area of inshore seabed fished by trawlers and dredgers has subsequently been protected from those heavy industrial activities within the existing MPA network. In fact, there is only one small fisheries no-take zone, pioneered by the Community of Arran Seabed Trust in north Lamlash Bay on Arran, in the whole of Scotland. Meanwhile, new salmon farms are still being proposed in existing MPAs, such as in Wester Ross to which we have collectively objected.

Business-as-usual has brought our ocean to the brink, with governments collectively failing to meet 11 of 15 Good Environmental Status indicators for the health of our seas that was required by 2020. Harbour seal populations have declined by 95% in parts of Scotland, North Sea cod stocks have reduced by 31% since 2015, black-legged kittiwake populations have declined by 69% since 1986 and most of Scotland’s seabed, particularly reef and “blue carbon” habitats, is not in good condition.

Ahead of 2021, the start of the crucial UN decade of Ecosystem Restoration and Scotland’s continued Year of Coasts and Waters, LINK’s Save Scottish Seas coalition have launched an Ocean Recovery Plan. It calls for requirements in law to set and meet ocean recovery targets, strengthening of Scotland’s MPA network to ensure at least 30% of Scotland’s seas are highly protected, with at least one-third of that area fully protected by 2030, a just transition to a climate and nature positive fishing industry and significant investment in ocean recovery.

In a poll commissioned by LINK, three out of four Scots agreed Scotland should commit to the target of 30% or more of the sea being highly protected. Whilst there has been some welcome progress in improving marine conservation, it has been slower than hoped and measures do not go far enough. International best practice recommends at least 30% of the ocean should be under high levels of protection, yet currently in Scotland that figure is lower than 1%. Increased levels of protection would help boost sea life, fight climate change and ensure coastal communities and livelihoods thrive long into the future.

The Scottish Government must turn rhetoric into reality and deliver a transformative decade of ocean recovery. Our plan charts a course to ensure that by 2030 the curve of ocean decline has been reversed and Scotland’s ocean ecosystems are on a path of recovery, able to support the fight against climate change. As we step into 2021 seeking a brighter future, nothing short of transformative change of the MPA network, fisheries management and marine conservation investment will deliver the scale of ocean recovery needed.

Calum Duncan, Convener of LINK’s Marine Group and Head of Conservation Scotland at Marine Conservation Society

A version of this blog was published in The Scotsman on 19 January 2021

Photo credit: Sandra Graham

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