This month the Scottish Rewilding Alliance launched a call to make Scotland a ‘rewilding nation’. We take a look at what marine rewilding is, and how ecological restoration in Scotland’s seas can be led by communities
A recent opinion poll of Scotland’s adult population found that over 75% of people supported ‘rewilding’. Rewilding is environmental action on a “large-scale” which aims to reintroduce locally extinct species and “restore ecosystems.”
As a member of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance, we see this as hugely significant. It demonstrates that a strong majority in Scottish society are in favour of rewilding, and that there is a general recognition that we need to improve the ecological health of our country. We might not all be out-and-out ‘greenies’, but there is a mainstream respect for our natural heritage and awareness that we need to live in balance with it.
“The new opinion poll shows people know that nature’s health is our nation’s wealth. Incentivising lower impact fisheries around our coastline would help degraded habitats and fish populations recover, and regenerate our harbours and coastal towns.”
Reflecting this clear public support, Highland MSP Gail Ross has lodged a Parliamentary Motion calling for Scotland to become the world’s first ‘Rewilding Nation’. and the Scottish Rewilding Alliance’s online launch was viewed by thousands of people.
We participated in the Q&A session and have been very encouraged by the recent and growing interest and support for ‘marine rewilding’ . To date the rewilding debate has focussed a lot on land, but increasingly resource managers and policy-makers are realising the essential role of our oceans in climate regulation, sustainable food production, and resilient communities – and the urgency with which we need to act.
Support the Scottish Rewilding Alliance’s calls to make our country a ‘rewilding nation’.
Over 80% of Scotland’s territorial landmass is underwater. And yet our seas are in decline. In the past ten years we have continued to lose marine habitats that are vital fish nurseries and carbon stores.
Marine rewilding is a positive agenda to address this: it is more of a movement capturing a set of broad principles, than a fixed template of defined policy actions. It sets out a path towards nature recovery, rather than piecemeal protection.
There are already some incredible rewilding initiatives underway in Scotland.
- The pioneering work of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust that campaigned for Scotland’s first ‘No Take Zone’.
- A community-led initiative by CROMACH and Seawilding to restore native oyster beds in Loch Craignish
- The ‘DEEP’ collaboration between Glenmorangie Distillery, Marine Conservation Society and University of Heriot Watt to reintroduce native oysters to the Dornoch Firth
- The proposals of Project Seagrass to re-seed seagrass around Scotland’s coastline. We have lost the vast majority of our seagrass beds. And we are still losing these habitats, even in the past ten years seagrass beds around the Western Isles declined by 25%.
And there are many more. Some of these initiatives are not overtly ‘branded’ as rewilding, but that is exactly what they are: actions taken to restore and strengthen natural processes, at ecosystem scale. Rather than taking a “protect what’s left approach,” marine rewilding is about recovering lost abundance.
There is a common denominator to the success of these projects: people and place. From Open Seas’ perspective, marine rewilding is fundamentally intertwined with ‘re-peopling’. The socio-economic benefits of ecosystem-based management are core to sustainable development and can help us tackle social problems, such as rural depopulation and unemployment. Research shows that measures to recover the marine environment are good for local economies. One of the earliest pieces of analysis we undertook was a review of the impact of marine protected areas on the landings of fish to local ports. With the New Economics Foundation, we co-published a report looking at the socio-economic results of fisheries management: A net positive effect? Assessing the impact on fishing opportunities within multiple-use MPAs. A case study from Scotland. The findings are clear: environmental measures can support local economies.
The challenges that we are currently facing as a country are the biggest of our generation: climate change and biodiversity loss. The disruptive political and public health impacts of Brexit and the covid pandemic are putting a huge pressure on our marine industries, in particular fishing. We are firmly of the view that environmental action for our seas can contribute to the ‘Green Recovery’. This is an essential task for putting Scotland’s economy on a more sustainable footing – we have set this out in detail in our vision for a ‘Blue Recovery’ . And while some measures needed to recover the environmental health of our seas may have impacts, we are strongly of the view that any measures must be planned as part of a just transition.
However, for marine rewilding (or whatever we choose to call it) to take root in Scotland, our communities must be at the forefront of how decisions are made. And for marine this is perhaps more difficult than on land. There are no local politicians with a responsibility to make representative decisions about Ballantrae Bank or Rockall; to navigate, reflect and mediate between the complex interests within a community connected to those places. We therefore need better planning processes and transparent governance in place to make these decisions – urgently.
The Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee recently made this point very clearly in what was a quietly damning report about the lack of progress in marine planning:
A decade on from the Marine (Scotland) Act, no Regional Marine Plans have been approved.
We have been reviewing the marine planning system in Scotland, and today’s report explains our concerns about progress made so far and what action needs to be taken.
— ECCLR Committee (@SP_ECCLR) December 17, 2020
The Committee made two particularly stand-out recommendations: firstly, that Regional Marine Planning Partnerships should be progressed more urgently and that the Scottish Government should make clearer the membership and decision-making processes for this part of our planning system.
Secondly, that Regional Inshore Fisheries Groups are turned into statutory bodies. Currently there are no structures in place for local, statutory management of fisheries. In other countries, there is stronger local government in place where decisions are made and laws passed at a more local level. It is not clear from the recently-published Scottish Fisheries Management Strategy, whether there are any imminent plans to empower and make RIFGs locally accountable. There should be.
Society’s role in recovering our seas, starts with people. And until these gaps in governance are sorted out, the measures that are needed to tackle the growing climate and biodiversity crises through nature recovery (rewilding) will be impeded.
For the time being it will be the task and responsibility of communities to navigate and take the lead, because environmental action is no longer an optional extra, it is integral to any decision-making for a resilient Scotland.
In the meantime, if you would like to support marine rewilding, support the Scottish Rewilding Alliance’s calls to make our country a ‘rewilding nation’.