Scotland’s seas and the first ’emergency MCO’: what have we learnt?

01 Oct 2014

Great-scallop-on-maerl-bed,-Fal-1-FJb_Paul-Naylor_FRE=cropped-creditToday, the first ever Marine Conservation Order (MCO) was approved by the Scottish Parliament. The MCO – approved via a short-notice emergency procedure initiated by Marine Scotland, excludes all forms of fishing – and indeed any activity that could damage the seabed – in three areas near to the southern shores of the Isle of Arran. As many will know, North Lamlash Bay is the site of Scotland’s first and only No Take Zone and so this recent event in the Clyde once again marks a significant moment in the long and evolving story of Scotland’s seas.

Straight up, it is important to say that it is unfortunate that the emergency MCO was needed in the first place. A temporary, voluntary closure to mobile, bottom-towed fishing agreed by most of the Scottish fishing industry was already in place. The ‘urgent measure’ was triggered by a breach of that arrangement two weeks ago, when a vessel was identified fishing in one of the areas essential to the recovery of  the fragile maerl beds that need protection.

South_Arran_MCOReceiving clear-cut evidence of the infringement, Marine Scotland stepped in and made the voluntary measures mandatory. The MCO now makes it an offence to deploy any fishing gear in those areas, or risk damage to the seabed in any way. There is an excellent FAQ on the MCO here for those who want to find out a bit more.

This, however, is only a stopgap measure until longer-term management is in place. The development of longer-term management (which will be open to future public consultation) is now in train. The urgent MCO – will be as temporary as the voluntary measures, because by June 2015 it will be replaced by another (this time ‘non-emergency’) MCO, that will be the more organically-developed fruit of discussions via regional forums and subsequent public consultation.

Regional forums for fisheries management in MPAs

The regional forums are an important next stage in what has already long process and will be crucial in paving the way for a public consultation later this year. During the forums, draft options for management will be discussed by local authorities, representatives of fishing associations, fishermen from both the static and mobile sector  science-led conservation organisations and local community interest groups. Marine Scotland will refine the options and then put them out to public consultation.

Scottish Environment LINK members of this Save Scottish Seas campaign have already argued via an earlier Fisheries Displacement Study that management must be designed to recover the protected features and broader ecological health of the MPAs. And we will continue to do this. We hope it will be the start of a greater public awareness of the distinction between different types of fishing and the move towards more progressive management that starts to recover the damaged areas of our seabed and overall health of our seas. Details of these forums will be communicated via a Marine Scotland report that will accompany a public consultation on proposed measures to manage fisheries in the MPAs.

However, until then it is worth considering four main things that we can learn from this ’emergency MCO’.

1. The MCO response is a clear signal that Marine Scotland is adopting a strict approach to infringements of voluntary measures. This approach will no doubt apply to future statutory management developed as part of the emerging Marine Protected Area network.

2. Crucially, it reminds us that our seabed is fragile, and needs better protection, urgently. The Scottish Government are now pursuing a promising new policy to actively recover Scotland’s marine habitats and species. Maerl beds, such as the ones now protected by the MCO, are vital fish nursery areas and important refuges from which scallop spat can disperse. However, they are not in good condition – many of these relic maerl beds contain a high proportion of ‘dead’ maerl. Until now these three areas around Arran have been vulnerable to fishing activity, making the recovery of these maerl beds much less likely. By closing the areas completely, it signals a new political will to avoid any further damage.

3. It underlines the ongoing difficulty of communicating voluntary fisheries management to fishermen – especially those who are not members of local associations. The point was raised Dave Stewart MSP during a session of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Climate Change & Environment Committee. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation Ross Dougal acknowledged the problem and was aware of the consequences: “we are relying on the good sense of the majority to comply. People are aware that the measures are necessary and that, if they are not complied with, a big stick will come down somewhere.” This is exactly what has happened.

4. The MCO itself is a flexible legal tool. As well as regulating fishing activity, the MCO effectively stops any activity that can risk damage to the seabed. Even a drop-down camera – used for survey purposes – would technically be prohibited, although academic researchers could apply for a license to do this if they can prove there is no ‘significant risk‘ of the activity ‘hindering the conservation objectives‘ of the site.

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