Energy, fishing and other industries that profit from the sea would have to pay to help save marine wildlife under a scheme being put forward by environmentalists.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust, which has over 40,000 members, is proposing a plan for a Marine Stewardship Fund that would require payments from companies for conservation.
A levy on oil and gas corporations, renewable wind, wave and tidal companies, fishing boats and salmon farming multinationals would help fund measures to reverse environmental damage, cut pollution and change practices.
The Scottish Government says is it willing to explore “all possible ideas” to protect the marine environment. Industries, however, have reacted cautiously to the idea, with the fishing industry being critical.
A major State of Nature report by 70 UK wildlife organisations on 3 October warned that nearly half of Scotland’s species have decreased over the last 50 years. Populations of 12 breeding seabirds fell by 38 per cent between 1986 and 2016.
According to a UK government marine strategy report in May, the UK is set to fail to meet 11 of 15 indicators of good environmental status by 2020. They include failing to conserve fish, to protect underwater habitats and to tackle marine litter.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust pointed out that Scotland’s marine industries contributed £3.8 billion to the economy in 2016. “Decades of intensive exploitation have left the marine world in a poor and denuded state,” said the trust’s marine planning manager, Dr Sam Collin.
The wealth of resources that Scotland’s seas provide have allowed marine industries to grow, he argued. “The increasing activity of marine industries has reduced the environment’s ability to replenish and maintain the very resources that both industry and society depend on,” he added.
“With marine activity expected to increase significantly over the coming decades – for example aquaculture, renewable energy, marine tourism – the Scottish Wildlife Trust believes now is the time for the industries that benefit from the marine environment to contribute towards improving its health through the establishment of a Marine Stewardship Fund.”
Collin pointed out that similar approaches had been adopted in Norway and the US. “It seems logical that those industries that contribute to the decline in environmental health should be required to contribute towards reversing the situation,” he said.
A “radical rethink” was needed, he argued. “It is clear that without a drastic change in how we use and manage the marine environment, the health of our seas will continue to decline.”
The trust’s proposal was backed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. “We need urgent transformative actions to tackle the ecological and climate emergencies,” said the society’s head of marine policy in Scotland,” Alex Kinninmonth.
“Mechanisms such as this, which can increase and pool funds on the scale required for ecosystem recovery, will be essential if we are to improve our natural world for future generations.”
The Scottish Government suggested it would consider the proposed fund. “We will explore all possible ideas and proposals which will help us address the current global climate emergency, which is having a devastating impact on the environment,” a spokesperson told The Ferret.
“And we will look at what more needs to be done to protect our marine resources and environment.”
But marine industries were more circumspect, stressing the contributions they already make. Oil and Gas UK, which represents companies working offshore, said it was “committed to working collaboratively with stakeholders.”
The association’s health, safety and environment director, Matt Abraham, said: “We will engage constructively on any formal proposals to change the existing framework.
“The UK oil and gas sector continues to share critical scientific data to help monitor the environmental status of the UK seas, participates in a transparent planning process and carefully manages approved activities in line with independently set conservation objectives.”
The renewables industry pointed out that it existed to tackle climate change, which posed the greatest threat to the health of oceans. “Scotland’s offshore renewables sector is deeply committed to the responsible use of the seas,” said Stephanie Conesa, policy manager for the industry body, Scottish Renewables.
“Developers and Scottish Renewables are already working with organisations like RSPB Scotland and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee on a range of projects to monitor and improve marine biodiversity, including a £480,000 national census of the UK’s breeding seabird populations.”
She highlighted that renewable energy developments had to complete rigorous environmental impact assessments prior to construction. “In many cases this involves years of work, and we would welcome proposals which seek to treat all users of the sea equally in this regard,” she said.
“It would be invidious for fisheries to be subjected to retrospective EIAs when established land-based industries such as farming, which have altered the terrestrial environment, are not,” said the federation’s chief executive, Elspeth Macdonald.
“The overall abundance of fish in the North Sea, a commercially key fishery for the Scottish fleet for many years, is high. The volume of the six principal commercial species has more than doubled in the last 20 years.”
She added: “The industry works closely with government and a wide range of other stakeholders on the conservation of sensitive marine species, habitats and features through the network of marine protected areas.
“The logical solution would be for the funds accrued by the Crown Estate revenues which have now transferred to the Scottish Government and local authorities to play a role in supporting the sustainable knowledge base.”
The fish farming industry, whose pesticide pollution has been reported by The Ferret, didn’t dismiss the proposed fund. “This is an interesting proposal from the Scottish Wildlife Trust,” said Hamish Macdonell, director of strategic engagement for the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation.
“But without further detail around the levels of investment in and management of the Marine Stewardship Fund concept we are unable to comment further at this stage.”
This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.