A new ten-year assessment reaches the stark conclusion that in many respects the health of Scotland’s marine environment is still deteriorating. What actions does our government need to take to actively recover our seas?
As one decade ends and another begins, the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 has finally been published, and sadly confirms what many now know – that our seas are still in environmental decline. Despite the bold intentions of the Marine Scotland Act in 2010 to “protect and enhance” our seas and kickstart a recovery from spiralling fish populations and vanishing habitats, this much-needed ‘enhancement’ is simply not happening – the Assessment documents many symptoms of environmental deterioration.
The Assessment confirms serious declines in biogenic seabed habitats (previously revealed in a leaked Government report) and makes similar findings for seabed habitats generally throughout Scotland’s inshore seas. It also confirmed that many of Scotland’s fish populations such as cod, whiting and herring, once mainstay stocks for the Scottish fishing industry, remain in poor or even declining condition. Declines are recorded in ‘species richness’ and ‘species diversity’ indicators for fish, particularly in offshore areas.
The Assessment is an important publication, and nothing should be taken away from the huge collaborative effort that has gone into its production, but it would be difficult to put a very positive spin on its findings. The Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham talked of “good progress” and “reason for for optimism” on certain points whilst generally understating the “challenges” with wild and farmed food production (read fishing), noting that “pressures associated with these activities…need to be addressed.”
The Assessment itself is straightforward, and acknowledges that fishing, due to the size of the its footprint and the nature of the activity, is the dominant pressure causing activity in the marine environment>” and that “Disturbance of seafloor habitats from towed, bottom-contacting fishing activity is predicted to be widespread. The indicator predicts seafloor habitats are in poor condition across more than half of their area in nine out of 21 regions, and some level of damage is likely in all regions.”
So what is the Government doing?
The Scottish Government now claims to protect more than 37% of Scotland’s marine area, but in reality, and often to the surprise of many, Scotland’s marine protected areas do not necessarily limit some of the most damaging activities in our seas.
How did we get to the point where Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), designed to protect and recover the environment are not actually safeguarding marine life in these areas of our seas?
The Scottish Government has designated four new Marine Protected Areas for whales, dolphins, sandeels and habitats on the seabed, including sea fans and sponge fields – as well as establishing Europe’s largest protected area – the West of Scotland MPA (previously known as a “Deep Sea Marine Reserve”, but not really a reserve in practice). This expansion of the MPA network now underpins these new on-paper statistics about “37% protected”, but it fails to explain what is really going on.
Not only was the designation of these protected areas delayed – by a long time (they were due to become MPAs in 2015 as part of Scotland’s international commitments and promised in the SNP’s programme for government since 2016), they were reduced in size due to pressure from various marine industries and only forced onto the legislative timetable after pressure from other parties
And while the current Minister is taking lots of credit for the announcement https://t.co/yaeC6WQg5l the progress was actually forced by @scotgp (@patrickharvie) during the 2018 Budget Debate. Without it, there’s a good chance these urgent measures would have been delayed further pic.twitter.com/bRa9F6Ozsf
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) December 8, 2020
More importantly, designating these MPAs is the easy part, actually protecting the seas inside them is another. As indicated in “table b” of the Marine Assessment’s MPA assessment, 17 of the 31 Scottish Marine Protected Areas have no fisheries measures in place, and only 9 of the MPAs have achieved their stated “Conservation Objective” – this last point is particularly important because Scottish Ministers have a legal duty to ensure it is achieved. This brings into sharp relief the Government’s headline figure, that “37% of our seas is protected”.
|MPAs where [protective] measures are in place||MPAs where [the Conservation Objective] have been achieved?|
|“Partial” (read, “No”)||17||15|
On top of this, there is a growing recognition that ‘protected areas’, protecting the little of what we have left, is by itself an inadequate response to the climate and biodiversity crisis. Governments around the world are looking to measures that drive ecosystem-level restoration, to underpin the benefits of a healthy environment.
Another 10 years?
As 2020 comes to a close, Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 allows our research and political communities to take stock, but also Scotland’s business and coastal communities.
If there is going to be ecological recovery in our seas, we need to see the fine words of our politicians put into practice. We cannot look ahead to 2030 and set ourselves new targets to miss. We cannot slip into comfortable new decadal timelines making minor incremental improvements that attempt to appease short-term commercial interests.
It is abundantly clear that the pace of change and the current vision for recovery measures is not enough to restore the ecological health of our seas; restoration that is profoundly important for Scotland’s economy and well-being in the long-term. Protection of fish nursery and spawning grounds is described as a vague, optional (“where appropriate“) possibility in the Fisheries Strategy, alongside quietly regressive back-sliding on fishing rules. Ecosystem-based management is pinned purely to conservation initiatives, such as the Priority Marine Feature review which remains in deep freeze. Meanwhile the Scottish Government is pushing, once again, to allocate fishing quota in excess of scientific advice.
These shortcomings need to be called out – at the earliest opportunity – by as many people who have the energy to engage and pressure our politicians into more urgent action. Otherwise we are sleepwalking into another decade of decline.