How we manage our deep seas and offshore fisheries are vital questions for Scotland’s future. And yet democratic opportunities for public feedback are few and far between. Our blog explores the problem and suggests a few solutions…
Within 12 nautical miles of Scotland’s coastline are Scotland’s territorial waters, our inshore. But our Scottish Government also has executively devolved responsibility for the management of our offshore waters, from 12nm-200nm. This is a vast area, covering 371,859 square kilometres, around three times our land mass and a volume of sea that is difficult to conceive. It is also brimming with natural assets that we still don’t know that much about yet. What we do know is that many areas of deep sea are fragile, rich, slow-growing habitats which sustain incredible life forms and are part of a much broader ecosystem function upon which the life in our seas depends.
And yet unfortunately we are currently fishing these waters in a way that is damaging and cannot be sustained. Evidence shows that there has been a significant decline in key habitats such as sponge beds, as the direct result of bottom-towed fishing.
The fact is that we as a society do not have much of a say in how these waters are managed. Although we have fished our offshore for centuries, only in recent years have we started to prosecute our deep sea fisheries. We now have heavily-weighted fishing gear that can be trawled along the seafloor, hundreds of metres below the surface.
The management of our inshore fisheries is far from perfect, but there are growing signals that management of this closer, more coastal, public resource is no longer just an internal discussion for industry. The development of inshore MPAs is just one part of broader fisheries management, but it is an important indicator of how Government is taking forward marine-related consultation and the effort to engage the public is clear.
Marine Scotland recently won a Scottish Public Service Organisation award for the consultative processes for designating MPAs and have more recently hosted workshops (late 2014) for discussing management approaches for inshore sites. However, the process for developing management of fishing in offshore areas is different. The fisheries are regulated largely by intergovernmental agreements: the process for establishing the management of offshore MPAs (including SACs) is not entirely clear and the extent of open consultation is left to ‘Member State’ Ministerial discretion. The only guidance currently publicly available (although still largely applicable) was developed in 2000 and requires Members States to recommend management approaches to the European Commission, which then draws up technical regulations for consideration by the relevant Advisory Council (AC), in this case the North Western Waters AC and the North Sea AC. By the time it has reached this stage, the opportunities for the Scottish public – or indeed the scientific community – to have much influence is greatly reduced. There are only seven days to make amendements and finalise the measures. The decision-making happens much earlier and that is why processes to enable early public and stakeholder awareness are crucial.
Recently members of Scottish Environment LINK, Seas At Risk and Birdlife International attended Scottish Government-led workshops to discuss fisheries management in recently-designated offshore MPAs. It is a source of frustration that the details of these workshops have not been made available for public view during this process. We think it is essential that people in Scotland understand the discussions that are currently informing decisions that will be made on their behalf.
This is important for everyone. Fishing industry representatives are expending time and effort in a process that could be open to broader review by the public or at least leading academics in deep sea marine biology. Members of this campaign contend that management of fisheries should be open to the public and that Government should make proactive efforts to make accessible information and provide mechanisms for gaining public feedback.
There are significant questions to be answered and real issues for our marine environment at stake: do we manage smaller areas within Marine Protected Areas to minimise the impact on industry or do we take a more ecosystem-based approach and manage the sites for their long-term environmental health? The latter is in our view for the long-term benefit of everyone.