Scottish Marine Protected Areas – where next?

14 Mar 2016

mpas_work_bannerMarine Policy Officer for Scottish Environment LINK, Esther Brooker, takes stock of lessons learnt during recent debate over the management of MPAs in Scotland…

After a heated and drawn-out debate on the recent inshore MPA management measures, some of which faced the threat of annulment in Parliament, it’s time to step back and think about where these fall within the bigger picture and how we move forward. Remember, these management measures are just the first part of what must eventually become a well-managed, well-connected, UK-wide network of MPAs, to which Scotland is required to contribute under domestic and European law. So once these first management measures (Marine Conservation Orders and Fishing Orders) are adopted and in place, where do we go next?

There’s still a long way to go…and the target is to complete the network by the end of this year! The outstanding parts of the MPA network include:

  • Second batch of management measures for inshore sites (for less sensitive features, such as sandy seabed types, and bottlenose dolphins and seals)
  • Establishing management for 13 offshore MPAs
  • Consultation on the designation of a further 4 four MPAs, 3 three of which are for iconic mobile and migratory species such as the minke whale, basking shark and Risso’s dolphin.
  • Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for vulnerable harbour porpoise populations
  • Consultation on a proposed Demonstration and Research MPA around the Fair Isle
  • Progressing the designation of 14 Special Protected Areas for seabirds in Scotland

Greater than the sum of its parts

It sounds like a lot, but the management measures will vary for the different MPAs depending on the protected features and the amount of human activities that take place within the sites. Ultimately, we think that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts – all these protected sites and their associated management measures will offer a Scotland-wide opportunity to improve our much modified and depleted marine species and habitats, and help towards safeguarding what’s left for future generations. Wildlife has an intrinsic value to many people and there is clear evidence that Scotland’s natural icons and spectacular landscapes and seascapes are the reason we receive so many visitors every year. These visitors fill our guesthouses, eat our local foods, frequent our landmarks and attractions and buy our locally-made products. Without them and the reason for their visit – i.e. our beautiful environment – our economy would be much poorer.

Thinking long-term

We also recognise the functional value of healthy seas, which we hope MPAs will support. By this we mean that there should be better habitat condition for commercial fish and shellfish species, and therefore improved fish stocks and greater opportunities for fishing. Also, greater complexity of seabed habitats will mean the environment is more resilient to short-term events (such as storms) and long-term impacts (such as climate change). Better protection of carbon-absorbing habitats, such as seagrass beds and coldwater corals, will help to reduce the impact of climate change, which affects us all in one way or another. The list goes on, but evidence suggests that the long-term benefits will exceed any short-term impacts – and the Scottish Government’s commitment to monitoring the ecological and economic change will help us to better understand what these will mean for us.

It is also incumbent on us to learn lessons from the first part of the MPA management process. The recent Rural Affairs Climate Change and Environment Committee session debating some of the proposed management orders highlighted deeply entrenched and polarised views between mobile fishing stakeholders, who are fearful that their very livelihoods are at risk, and a variety of others supporting a more ambitious progressive approach to management. Whilst these viewpoints are unlikely to change, it’s important that we try to better understand where those of a different perspective are coming from and how we can work together more effectively to achieve the common vision: healthy and productive seas.

Getting out of a ‘mess’

During the same Committee session, one of the members Mike Russell MSP observed that: “[w]e are in this mess because we are not learning from examples elsewhere.” And he’s right – there are a number of countries around the world who have well-established marine protected areas and management measures where scientists and fishers are now seeing increased biodiversity and fish stocks. So if they have managed to get through it, so can we, and we can learn from their processes and governance structures to help support our Scottish stakeholders.

One thing is clear from this process: ‘consultation fatigue’ is a real condition! We have been discussing and consulting on MPAs for nearly 5 years and, a year and a half since the designations of 30 MPAs, we are still only on the first batch of management measures. It’s easy to say things like: “These things always take longer than you think!” but the delays we have now been through as a result of re-consultation and annulment motions mean only one thing for our biodiversity: more potential risk of damage. The longer these MPAs remain ‘paper parks’ with no meaningful management in place, the longer they are exposed to activities which have been deemed high risk to the features and the more chance there is of potential damage to the ecology.

Let’s get the management measures in place and move forward constructively, using monitoring to see what the effects of the measures are making any necessary changes where the evidence suggests it might be required. The whole point of these measures is that they are adaptive, and will be subject to review at regular intervals.

So how do we move forward constructively and collaboratively to the next phase of the MPA process? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Stop ‘taking sides’! We all have a common vision: healthy and productive seas. MPAs are one of the tools we have to use to achieve that vision, and we must try and work through this without becoming polarised, particularly in the way we communicate with each other.
  2. Embrace the positive: Government assessments are so focused on the potential cost to industry, in terms of fish landings and revenue, that it forces people to see only the negative. How about we spend more time working out how to present the value of the benefits to compare that to?
  3. All pitch in: There are lots of things we can all do to support successful MPAs and those who use them, from using our organisational resources to contribute to scientific understanding, to simply buying more local seafood to support local sustainable fishing businesses.
  4. Make your voice heard: The sea belongs to everyone and you have a right to your opinion. While we and our counterparts in other stakeholder groups work hard to make representations on behalf of our members, public consultation is a forum for everyone to get their views across. So don’t just leave it to the reps! Get yourself involved!
  5. Great expectations: Somehow within the pre-consultation and consultation process wires have crossed, leaving some stakeholders with the impression that the measures that went to consultation in November 2014 were a ‘done deal’. This unfortunate misunderstanding has meant the changes to the proposed measures as a result of the views expressed during consultation and through our ‘Don’t Take The P’ campaign were beyond the expectations of some.

Better communication and expectation management is needed all round as we go forwards in this process.

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