Scottish Government accused of "broken promises" over marine protection 3

Scottish Government accused of “broken promises” over marine protection

The Scottish Government has been accused of “very serious political delays” over its promises to better protect the marine environment.

The Bute House Agreement between the Scottish National Party and Scottish Greens in 2021 committed the government to establishing new fisheries management measures for marine protected areas (MPAs) by March 2024.

But these commitments have been pushed back to 2025 and campaigners fear the revised timetable is in “serious danger of not passing the finish line” before the Scottish Parliament breaks up ahead of its next election in 2026.

Scotland's seas in danger

The Our Seas coalition – which comprises more than 130 organisations including community groups, marine conservationists and fishers – claims the “biggest threat” to the marine environment is the government’s “ongoing failure to protect it due to broken promises and endless delays”.

However, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) claimed that Our Seas is “substantially to blame for the situation” due to “a constant stream of freedom of information requests and legal action” in recent years. “The irony of Our Seas complaining about ‘political delays’ in the establishment of new fisheries management measures for MPAs should be made very clear to the public,” the SFF said.

The Scottish Government told The Ferret that new measures to protect MPAs remain a “top government priority”. It also pointed out that developing “evidence-based and effective fisheries” policy for over 160 sites “is a complex and challenging process” which has resulted in a delay to “the ambitious timeline set in 2022”.

It has been almost ten years since the Scottish Government announced its network of MPAs as required by the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. They are intended to safeguard a wide range of marine features – including important habitats and geological features. But green groups claim that many MPAs are vulnerable to the impact of poorly-managed fishing such as scallop dredging because ministers have failed to deliver fisheries management.

Scallop dredging and bottom-trawling – the most environmentally harmful forms of fishing – are restricted in less than five per cent of Scotland’s seas. Scallop dredging involves heavy-duty metal framed nets being pulled over the seabed, while bottom-trawling involves nets towed to catch fish and other marine species close to the seabed.

Environmentalists argue that both fishing practices are unsustainable because of the scale of damage they cause to the seabed. 

Scallop dredging is an issue The Ferret has covered since 2015. In 2023, for example, we revealed that evidence of scallop dredging had been found inside an Orkney MPA at Papa Westray. Two years earlier, we reported that six fishing boats had been investigated for illegal fishing since March 2020. Dredgers allegedly targeted the Firth of Lorn, a special area of conservation in the Southern Hebrides protected for rocky reef habitats which support species that are “amongst the most diverse in both the UK and Europe”.

Scottish Government accused of "broken promises" over marine protection

Our Seas wants to see an inshore limit on bottom-trawling and dredging restored by the Scottish Government. Hayley Wolcott, coordinator of the coalition, told The Ferret: “For nearly 100 years bottom-trawling was banned in Scotland’s seas within three miles of the shore, until commercial lobbying saw it removed. We recognise that this would require major reform, but our coalition wants to see a limit restored in a fair way that incentivises a transition across the industry and supports low-impact fishing.”

Robert Younger, director of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, claimed “all the evidence suggests that the current pattern of fishing is not only economically sub-optimal but also environmentally disastrous”. He added: “This is because fishing rules favour bottom-trawling rather than creel fishing, allowing the trawl sector to monopolise catches, despite the creel fishery’s better economic and environmental performance.”

Ten years of political inaction has kept the health of both Scotland’s marine environment and fishing industry on a trajectory of decline.

Phil Taylor, Open Seas

Phil Taylor, director of campaign group Open Seas, claimed that many MPAs “remain completely open to environmental harm”. He said: “Ten years of political inaction has kept the health of both Scotland’s marine environment and fishing industry on a trajectory of decline. The widespread footprint of scallop dredging is undermining the condition of seabed habitats. Many of our MPAs remain paper parks, just lines on maps with no real protection.”

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said that over “70 per cent of Scotland’s key commercial stocks are fished at sustainable levels – the highest for over 30 years”.

She added: “There is also clear international scientific recognition of the healthy status of cod in Scottish waters despite what Open Seas and other NGOs have pedalled to the public over recent years.

Rejecting claims the inshore seabed is not being protected, Macdonald pointed out that management measures were introduced back in 2016 for 11 MPAs and nine SACs.

She also denied the claim that trawl fishing was prioritised over static gear, citing studies that show Scotland needs both its mobile and static gear sectors.

“Finally, the public should also be aware that scallop dredging only takes place in areas where the habitat is suitable, which amounts to around 15 per cent of our waters. To suggest that it is widespread in inshore waters is utterly misleading,” Macdonald said.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said management measures for the “most vulnerable sites” in the Scottish MPA network were implemented in 2016, and putting in place the remaining measures to “protect priority marine features and MPAs remains a top government priority.”

Elain Whyte, executive secretary of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, said that “blanket nationally imposed policies from any one perspective often don’t offer the best or most sustainable solution for all”.

She added: “We are a local community based regional organisation with small scale static and small scale mobile boats who work together. We also try to make every effort to work with government through the channels which formally exist to develop local and national policy, and feel this is the best approach available to us.

“Forums such as the Inshore Fisheries Groups (IFGs) and Inshore Fisheries Management and Conservation (IFMAC) exist to help develop collaborative co-management for local coastal communities. A number of sustainably focused management measures have already been created through these channels with grassroots fishermen at the heart of the development. Projects such as appropriate seasonal closures and local effort limitation schemes have grown through these routes.

“We would prefer to continue to develop policy consensually together with other small scale static, mobile, line and dive fishing communities in these forums.”

Scottish Government accused of "broken promises" over marine protection 4

They added: “The Scottish Government does not prioritise one sector of the industry or interest group over another. We would encourage all groups to work collaboratively with our co-management fisheries management and conservation group to help improve management of our inshore static fisheries.”

The Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association, Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the Clyde Fishermen’s Association have been asked to comment.

Main image: CBCK-Christine/iStock

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