Each year the Scottish Government publishes its Programme for Government, a plan for what it intends to do in the coming 12 months.
The plan for 2020-2021 will be published on the 1st September and it is anticipated that this programme will set out some more of the Government’s thinking on how to bounce back from the covid-19 crisis – especially since the Government’s plan for a post-covid Green Recovery was light on detail and poorly received (we set out some of our own ideas here).
Sadly, these publications have become a disappointment, with nearly all the commitments made on marine issues being ignored, delayed or forgotten about in the coming year. So, before we look at what Government say they will do for our seas in the coming year, here’s a look back what the Government has promised for our seas in previous years, and what they have actually done (or not).
The 2015-16 Programme says very little about fishing or marine but importantly, it commits to ensuring that fishermen adapt and comply with landings obligation – more commonly known as the discard ban.
“In 2016, we will work closely with fishermen as they adapt fishing practices to conform to the new landing obligation, which is being implemented as part of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy.”
Although the landing obligation was phased in from 2016 until 2019, it is widely understood not to be complied with. A report from the House of Lords in 2018 found that the ban is not really being followed and not properly enforced. We presented our own evidence in a report published last year showing images of discarding and that the species caught are not the same as those landed. Five years later this commitment remains outstanding.
In the 2016-17 programme Government committed to “build of the current Scottish Inshore Fisheries Strategy” by “modernis[ing] management of inshore fisheries” and “develop[ing] an Inshore Fisheries Bill”.
The Inshore Fisheries Strategy can be found here and includes objectives including
“By 2020 effective assessment methodologies will be in place for fishing at Maximum Sustainable Yield, achieving Good Environmental Status and maintaining compliance with other marine conservation initiatives such as the Natura Directive and the development of Marine Protected Areas.”
None of which has ever happened. The Inshore Fisheries Bill has not been brought to Parliament and, having failed to bring any of their own legislation, Scottish Government are now asking for Parliament’s approval to manage Scottish fisheries under the UK Bill (against the Smith Commission recommendation that fisheries should be fully devolved).
The programme also promised that Government “will designate up to 18 new protected areas, and deliver management measures for existing protected areas by the end of 2017.”
Only one such site was designated in 2017, Loch Carron MPA, and this was only in response to political pressure following the perfectly legal but desperately destructive scallop dredging in the world’s largest flameshell bed.
Although there have been consultations about the other 18 sites, including four MPAs for mobile species like basking sharks, and 14 Special Protection Areas for seabirds at sea, none have yet been progressed to designation. There is a rumour they will do so this Autumn, albeit 3 years overdue.
Loch Carron was a visible example of the damage caused to our seas by poor fisheries management and it meant that the 2017-18 programme promised to “improve the protection given to Priority Marine Features outside Marine Protected Areas.” This is something we welcomed at the time but 3 years later has again not resulted in any change.
In 2018 the Government held a consultation about the process they might take to considering stronger fisheries management, in their response they chose to overlook most submissions, and in 2019 they also held a workshop. However, Ministers have yet to provide any protection to “Priority Marine Features outside Marine Protected Areas” and the damage caused by poorly managed fishing continues to destroy marine habitats and the functioning of our marine ecosystem.
In fairness, there was an international conference, and there has been funding for Blue Carbon and plastics. However, they also promised “dolphin and porpoise conservation strategy”, which is yet to materialise.
In 2018 Scottish Government promised to “publish a national discussion paper on the Future of Fisheries Management in the autumn, using the views on that to develop policy proposals for consultation at the end of 2019.”
They managed half of this, a national discussion paper was published. Actual policy proposals have yet to be published, let alone consulted or acted on. Again, Fisheries Minister Fergus Ewing committed to deliver something on this later this year but this is already a year overdue.
The programme also committed to “take steps to modernise the management of inshore fisheries through the introduction of appropriate vessel tracking and monitoring”. Followers will recognise this as something we have been pushing on for a long time. This has now been changed to ‘only scallop dredge’ and Ministers have said that the steps taken will not result in the fleet being tracked until April 2021.
Other commitments include that
“In the year ahead we will consult on the creation of a national deep sea marine reserve, with the aim of this being in place by the end of 2019 [and] identify actions to address the significant declines in seabird populations, such as puffins, through a new Seabird Conservation Strategy”
The deep sea reserve (which is actually a Marine Protected Area where activity will be allowed to continue, unlike a reserve where most activity is typically banned) was consulted on in 2019 but has yet to be progressed. Just like the 18 sites promised in 2017, it remains only a draft, on paper, with no implications for the way our seas are used or protected.
Last year’s programme mirrored that of 2018,
“In the coming year, we will designate the site of a new national deep sea marine reserve, to the West of Scotland”
“We are taking forward our work on the Seabird Conservation Strategy and will consult on our proposals and adopt the final strategy in 2020”.
“We have consulted on the creation of four new Marine Protected Areas and will designate sites early next year”
Sadly, the commitments were made again, only to be missed again. The Deep Sea reserve has not been designated, neither have the four “new” Marine Protected Areas, neither has a Seabird Conservation Strategy been developed.
The 2018 commitment and promise of funding to track fishing vessels was also promised yet again
“In the coming year, we will commence work to modernise the Scottish inshore fisheries fleet, investing a further £1.5 million in inshore technologies such as the deployment of remote electronic monitoring for scallop fishing vessels. This year, we will continue our work to introduce vessel tracking systems across the inshore fleet”.
But yet again failed to materialise. We now understand it won’t happen even for the dredge fleet until 2021 earliest… and only if they stick to their deadlines this time…!
As we run through these deadlines and commitments, we see time and time again, missed opportunities and delay. As Government fumble their management of the seas, and even their management of their own work programmes, the health of the sea continues to decline (we’ve lost >150 hectares of seagrass in Scotland since 2010!). The time to act was 2015, the second best time is now.
The Year Ahead
We look forward to reading the Programme for 2020-21, but until we see action on the water these documents are just political spin. After 5 years of broken promises and failed commitments, our seas are hurting and this Government’s reputation as a credible manager of the seas is weak.
The covid-19 crisis will require meaningful action and strong leadership. Happily, in our seas, the measures that are needed to protect the marine environment will also provide social and economic benefits – read more about our recommendations for a Blue Recovery here.