Taking Stock – Lessons learnt in 2020 and opportunities to set a clear path of Ocean recovery in 2021

17 Dec 2020

As 2020 comes to an end, it is time to reflect on this challenging year, and the opportunities that lie ahead!


As this challenging year comes to an end, we are all lifting our heads to the horizon for glimmers of hope. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how much we all rely on nature for our health and well-being and across the globe, people are calling on governments to build back better and work together for a brighter, fairer and more sustainable future.

Toward the end of 2020 there was good news with the extension of the Scottish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) network to cover approximately 37% of Scotland’s seas. We  firmly welcome the designation of the West of Scotland MPA, now the largest protected area in Europe [1],  the four long-awaited inshore MPAs for basking sharks, minke whales, Risso’s dolphin, northern seafan and sponge communities, burrowed mud and large seabed and geological features, accelerated thanks to the Scottish Green Party’s  2018-2019 budget deal with the Scottish Government [2], and 12 Special Protection Areas for marine birds. Although disappointed at the absence of two SPAs from Orkney, we hope to see their designation next year.

Our coast and seas are among Scotland’s greatest assets,  deeply shaping communities and cultural identity and providing the foundation of the maritime economy. We have some of the most productive seas in Europe, containing crucial fishing grounds, and of international importance for many species, including seabirds, grey seals, basking sharks, whales and dolphins and habitats such as coldwater coral reefs, maerl beds and flameshell beds.

Yet, 2020 bore witness to a continued decline in the health of marine ecosystems, and our ocean is a shadow of what it once was. Harbour seals populations decreased by 95% in some areas of Scotland; the Scottish breeding seabird indicator shows a 38% decline since 1986 [3]; North Sea cod stocks have reduced by 31% since 2015 and most of Scotland’s seabed is not in good condition. In fact, UK administrations collectively failed to achieve 11 of 15 Good Environmental Status (GES) indicators under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive that was required by 2020.

Highlighting both what we stand to lose and the scope for ocean recovery, divers with the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) recently discovered only the second known extant flameshell bed in the Firth of Clyde, approximately 30 tennis courts in size, in the South Arran MPA. We still await next steps on proposals to improve protection of Priority Marine Features (PMFs ) beyond the MPA network and will continue to push for a presumption against trawling and dredging in a significant part of Scotland’s inshore seas in keeping with our response to the Future of Fisheries Management discussion paper.

Whilst the extension of the MPA network is good news , the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 not only requires designation of a network of MPAs, but places a duty upon Scottish Ministers to, where appropriate, enhance the health of Scotland’s seas. 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 that is fished by trawlers and dredgers has subsequently been protected from those heavy industrial activities within the existing MPA network. Only one very small fisheries no-take zone (NTZ) exists in the whole of Scotland, pioneered by COAST in north Lamlash Bay, Isle of Arran. Meanwhile, new salmon-farms are still being proposed in existing MPAs, such as in Wester Ross to which we have collectively objected.

In a survey commissioned by Scottish Environment LINK, three out of four Scots polled agreed that Scotland should commit to the target of 30% or more of the sea to be protected from extractive activities.  NTZs have been demonstrated to spark huge benefits inside and outside their boundaries, enabling the recovery of marine species, including commercial fish and shellfish stocks.

A debate in the Scottish Parliament on December 15th called for the Scottish Government to create new NTZs [4], the further roll-out of which we would firmly support, both as part of transforming the Marine Protected Area network and contributing to spatial measures to support climate and nature positive fisheries management.

We welcomed Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands speaking on behalf of Mairi Gougeon, Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment recognizing the importance of NTZs :

“The statement of intent also commits to delivering a new Scottish biodiversity strategy within 12 months of the new global framework being agreed by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021. Members will wish to note that a new OSPAR north-east Atlantic environment strategy is also expected in 2021. That means that a new course will need to be set for 2030, so that we can meet the new international targets that are expected to be agreed next year. In setting that new course, consideration can be given to the need for tools such as no-take zones, which members from across the chamber have called for, and other forms of strict protection, to achieve the outcomes that we desire.”

As 2021 brings a new beginning and hope to fully recover from the pandemic, it is time to turn rhetoric into reality and build back better. With next year being the start of the UN Decades of Ecosystem Restoration and Ocean Science for Sustainable development [5], and Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Water continuing, Scottish Environment 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.

To watch our Ocean Recovery film:


2021 will bring vital opportunities for the Scottish Government to lead the world and set international gold-standards for marine conservation. It will have the responsibility to set ambitious recovery targets and strategies, such as the Environment Strategy, the Scottish Seabird Conservation Strategy and  the UK Dolphin and Porpoise Conservation Strategy.

The Save Scottish Seas coalition calls  for the Scottish Government to develop strong positions for the Conference of the Parties (COP) 15 intercessional on biodiversity, championing an ambitious post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity including supporting an ambitious target of at least 30% of our seas under higher levels of protection, and COP 26 on climate change, championing the importance of ocean recovery in helping tackle the climate emergency.

Irrespective of the detail of the future relationship between the UK and the EU, the Scottish Government has a vital role to play to ensure a just transition to a modern, climate and nature positive fishing industry, including through contribution to developing a Joint Fisheries Statement and Fisheries Management Plans required of the Fisheries Act 2020. We therefore welcome the publication of Scotland’s Future Fisheries Management Strategy, including the commitment to an ecosystem-based approach, recognising that MPAs and other habitat protections can help fish stocks and sequester carbon and consideration of increased protection for keystone ecosystem species like sandeels. A net positive outcome for nature is key to ocean recovery. We will engage closely to push for the strategy to deliver net benefits for nature and contribute to ocean recovery.

Whilst international best practice recommends at least 30% of ocean should be under high levels of protection [7], currently in Scotland that figure is probably less than 1%. Increased levels of protection within the MPA network and beyond would help boost sea life, including commercial fish and shellfish, improve the capacity of the ocean and seabed to lock up carbon and help fight against climate change and ensure coastal communities and livelihoods can grow and thrive long into the future. With the Holyrood election next May, it is crucial all manifestoes include substantial ambition. We will continue working hard to help secure this as the foundation for a decade of ocean recovery.


Click here to read our Ocean Recovery Plan

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[1] https://www.gov.scot/news/protecting-scotlands-marine-environment/

[2] https://www.gov.scot/publications/draft-budget-2018-2019-derek-mackays-response-to-patrick-harvie/

[3] Hayhow DB, Eaton MA, Stanbury AJ, Burns F, Kirby WB, Bailey N, Beckmann B, Bedford J, Boersch-Supan PH, Coomber F, Dennis EB, Dolman SJ, Dunn E, Hall J, Harrower C, Hatfield JH, Hawley J, Haysom K, Hughes J, Johns DG, Mathews F, McQuatters-Gollop A, Noble DG, Outhwaite CL, Pearce-Higgins JW, Pescott OL, Powney GD and Symes N (2019) The State of Nature 2019. The State of Nature partnership. Available at: https://nbn.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/State-of-Nature-2019-UK-full-report.pdf


[5] https://en.unesco.org/ocean-decade




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