Scottish Parliament dives into detail of MPAs

02 Sep 2014

Scottish Parliament's Rural Affairs Climate Change & Environment CommitteeThis month, the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Climate Change & Environment (RACCE) Committee took the welcome step of exercising its role of post-legislative scrutiny – and lent its analytical lens to the important issue of Marine Protected Area project and its continued implementation. For anyone not following the detail of what has been a complex three year process, please read this and this. After literally years of campaigning that has slowly encouraged legislative change, we now actually have new MPAs. 30 of them. In the water. Backed up by Scots and UK law. The big question that people now have is:

  • are they enough? (given that in ecological terms, Scotland’s seas need a serious dose of TLC – for more ref, read Our Precious Sea Areas need to rest)
  • what difference will they make?

Gratefully these were some of the questions that were being grappled with by the Scottish Parliament’s RACCE Committee in two separate sessions on the 13th August and 20th August. The first of the evidence sessions included a host of eminent marine scientists specialising in benthic, seabird and sea mammal conservation as well as representatives of Scottish fishermen, Scottish renewables companies and the oil and gas industry.

The roundtable group

Lloyd Austin, Head of Conservation Policy, RSPB Scotland;
Professor Bob Furness, University of Glasgow;
Dr Mike Tetley, Consultant, Marine Sciences and Ecology, WDC and IUCN Joint SSC/WCPA Task Force on Marine Mammal Protected Areas (MMPATF);
Mick Borwell, Environmental Issues Director, Oil and Gas UK;
Calum Duncan, Scotland Programme Manager, Marine Conservation Society;
Jenny Hogan, Director of Policy, Scottish Renewables;
Professor Phil Hammond, University of St Andrews;
Ross Dougal, Vice President, Scottish Fishermen’s Federation

In advance of the session we submitted an evidence briefing outlining our key concerns about the MPAs, as did SAMS and one of our members, Whale & Dolphin Conservation. In the second session, the RACCE Committee asked questions directly of the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead who was supported by Marine Scotland advisors David Mallon and David Palmer.

You can watch the 13th August session:
video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

and watch the 20th August 2014 session:
video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

But if you want a summary with the above questions in mind, then read on….

Are they enough? The short answer is no. Those attending the committee seemed fairly well agreed on this point: that the 30 MPAs are a welcome and substantial step towards creating a good network of MPAs, but that more sites will be needed for seabirds, whales, dolphins, as well as other mobile species and habitats. This is very much a work-in-progress.

Bob Furness – a seabird ecology expert – provided background about the dramatic declines of some seabird populations and Lloyd Austin Head of Conservation at RSPB Scotland highlighted that criteria for developing MPAs has effectively excluded some mobile species and seabirds from the MPA selection process. This led to an extended discussion around the importance of sandeels and the extent to which they have een adequately protected within the MPA network, with Bob Furness concluding that “[t]here are very strong grounds for arguing that sand eels are a key feature in the North Sea. They are of huge importance to sea birds, marine mammals and predatory fish. Therefore, we should be very concerned about protecting them.” The Committee heard from contributors that 14 new Special Protected Areas (SPAs) for seabirds are now being discussed and that these will be necessary to ensure protection for key foraging grounds for seabirds.

Dr Mike Tetley of Whale & Dolphin Conservation welcomed efforts to protect minke whales, but admitted “that my colleagues and I think that further efforts could be made on additional sites for Risso’s dolphins and a programme of work for white-beaked dolphins is also needed, which was not identified for any sites.”

For other seabed and low-mobility species, Calum Duncan flagged that certain species spiny lobster and heart cockle aggregations and burrowing anemones would benefit from area-based protection. The need for more species and habitats is the crux of the “complex topic” of ‘ecological coherence,’ explained Duncan, continuing: “the most graspable element is that it has to be representative of the full range of biodiversity”…”The report to Marine Scotland overtly acknowledged that there are gaps” and that a “coherent network needs to protect enough of the populations and the range of species and habitats, and has to have replication of sites in order to increase resilience.”

In short, more MPAs are needed for:

  • seabirds
  • whales/dolphins
  • other seabed features/habitats, not currently represented in the network
  • some species and habitats already in the network (eg common skate, sandeels, basking shark and others), but for which there is insufficient coverage or ‘replication’

What difference will they make (ie how will they be managed)? This proved a trickier question. There is a strong concern that the emerging management of MPAs will not restrict some activities that people expected MPAs to restrict, namely dredging and trawling in sensitive inshore habitats. It is worth highlighting for background that although the MPAs are now in force – and will therefore need to be respected by licensed activities (offshore developments such as offshore wind arrays, subsea cable-laying and oil and gas exploration), management of fisheries has yet to be developed. Stopgap voluntary measures have been introduced by some fishermen’s associations to comply with legal requirements in the meantime (we have highlighted the complexity of this situation – and some of its problems – here and here).

Responding to this general point, the Cabinet Secretary firmly rejected the idea that Scottish MPAs are paper parks: “the mere fact that an area is designated protects it from future activities, which would have to be licensed—attention would have to be paid to the designation.” The Minister provided a clear example of this “copper-bottom guarantee” by stating: “once the designation and management plans are in place, anyone who wants to lay a pipeline on Scotland’s sea bed will have to apply for a licence, and the authority that grants the licence must refer to the designations.” Mick Borwell of Oil & Gas UK spelt out in practical terms how he saw the MPAs making a difference: “[T]o a certain extent, the MPA increases the robustness of the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] that is carried out.”

In the first evidence session, RACCE committee member Angus MacDonald MSP drilled down into the detail of this and asked whether the designations would – or should – apply to existing activities. There was disagreement on this point. Mick Borwell: “Our stated position would be that if the evidence was sufficient to designate the site, and the conservation objective is not recovery, the existing activity is not having an effect.” In other words, if the sealife (to be protected within a MPA) has been found in the first place, then ipso facto any activity already occurring in that MPA has not been damaging that sealife.

Calum Duncan argued that it was not so straightforward: “Ideally, we would like existing licensed activities to be assessed against sites’ conservation objectives, and gave the example of existing fish farms which may impact upon maerl beds, horse mussel beds and other biogenic features on the seabed. “We are not saying that those activities should not be there; we are illustrating to the committee that, potentially, there are activities in a new designation that might have an impact on a feature that is newly, legally recognised.”

Duncan urged people attending to look at the MPAs in a “much more positive way”. “They are not just about protectionism and ring fencing features for their own sake … these mosaics of habitats are the building blocks for the marine ecosystem, and everything that we enjoy from the sea derives from all those pieces of the puzzle working properly and efficiently.”

He argued that we need to “ ensure that we are not simply thinking about managing little patches of leftovers in our MPAs”, pointing out that recovery objectives apply not even to four of the 30 MPAs, but just to small patches of maerl and flame shell beds in three of them.” Both RSPB Scotland’s Lloyd Austin and MCS’ Calum Duncan argued that site objectives needed to be “ambitious” and stressed that in legal terms management of MPAs should reflect site-wide conservation objectives, not just objectives for individual features (a topic for a future blog…) [UPDATE -> Scottish MPAs: “Site” or “feature” protection”] The point was noted by the Committee which reflected that “the devil will be in the detail” when it comes to developing fisheries management.

The Committee also led a healthy and forward-thinking discussion on the point of enforcement and compliance with the new measures (yet another future topic of this blog).

So in terms of whether these MPAs will make a difference, in short:

  • the EIA process for licensed activities will be “more robust”
  • there is still no clarity about whether existing activities should be subject to designations (we think there should be)
  • the ‘devil will be in the detail’ of fisheries management discussions

Other issues:

There were a few other issues that cropped up during the session. Scottish Renewables’ Director of Policy was keen to stress that some of the management measures were likely to have a “significant impact on projects” and was concerned that they might even threaten “the prospect of projects going forward at all.” The Committee took this concern very seriously, but there seemed to be no real clarity about what those management measures would be.

The same could not be said for Oil & Gas UK’s Mick Borwell who explained very clearly that they would have “great difficulty” in complying with one of the management measures at a site level, namely the requirement that “deposited material should meet local habitat type.” “That means not putting on a mud or sand sea bed something such as rocks that were not there in the first place,” he explained. “However, we use that technique to stabilise pipelines, in particular. It is a safety feature for the fishing fleet as well as for the contents of the pipeline.” Borwell also highlighted a broader issue of marine planning, namely the urgent need to develop a methodology for a cumulative impacts assessement (again, a future topic for this blog).

Ross Dougal, VP of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation was concerned about the consequences for fishermen: “the information about the socioeconomic impacts came very late.” It is hoped that future regional workshops (planned for October) to develop fisheries management for MPAs will enable a more fine-grained understanding of how socio-economic impacts can be accounted for.


* It was with much sadness, that the late Professor Laurence Mee (Director of the Scottish Association of Marine Science, University of the Highlands and Islands) did not contribute his experience to this important Parliamentary conversation/process. He will be greatly missed.

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