A sea change in the law

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The wealth of marine life and priceless geological features in Scotland’s coastal waters are at risk from activities such as fishing and mining. A legal tweak could turn the tide and Edinburgh staff are contributing, writes Ronnie Kerr, PR and Media Manager and Senior Content Editor in Communications and Marketing.

Wild bottlenose dolphins are part of the teeming marine life in the Moray Firth, near Inverness

Much-needed measures to safeguard Scotland’s endangered sea life and vulnerable coastal habitats must seek to reconcile the concerns of conflicting interest groups, experts say.

Plans to upgrade Scotland’s network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) with exclusion zones that prohibit potentially harmful activities must balance conservation, commercial and leisure needs.

Legal researchers are calling for the introduction of so-called strictly protected MPAs that ban practices including fishing, fish farming, mining and dredging in fragile coastal environments.

A shared policy programme outlined recently by the Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party appears to be sympathetic to any such approach, but the experts say more detail is needed.

The Saving our Seas through Law project – a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) – is calling on politicians to act urgently and with sensitivity.

The initiative, which uses legal frameworks to enhance safeguards, wants Scottish Ministers to designate one tenth of Scottish waters as strictly protected areas – also known as marine reserves.

The UK Marine Protected Area network covers about 30 per cent of its seas, but no-take marine reserves account for less than 0.01 per cent of these waters.

Black guillemots and Arctic terns are found in the sea cliffs of the Shetland Islands

Biodiversity hotspots

Project member Professor James Harrison, from the University’s School of Law, says the natural world is under unprecedented pressure from human activity, but taking time to listen to all of the interest groups is vital.

“The process is just as important as the outcome and we need to ensure each group has a voice so that we can implement these vital safeguards effectively,” says Professor Harrison.

Researchers highlight the waters off the Hebridean islands of Rum and Canna – designated as a MPA in 2014 – as a prime example of an at-risk area lacking the necessary protections. They say the area is still without adequate fisheries management measures despite hosting the UK’s only colony of rare fan mussels.

The team says stringent measures are needed at other MPAs, including the Clyde Sea Sill between Kintyre and Galloway – a haven for local fish stocks and other marine predators. The Sill is also home to seals, porpoises, dolphins and some whale species.

Other biodiversity hotspots identified as needing better safeguards are the waters between between Fetlar and Haroldswick in Shetland; the Monach Isles, west of North Uist; Papa Westray in Orkney. Also earmarked are the cliffs of east Caithness, which provide ideal nesting conditions for breeding seabirds.

At-risk species within these vulnerable areas include black guillemot, Arctic tern, razorbill and Greenland barnacle geese.

Priceless resources

Fragile geological features also need protecting. Glacial scours off the Monach Isles, formed at the end of the last ice age, have created a wave-exposed, shallow submarine shelf where kelp and shellfish thrive in nutrient-rich waters

Sands in Papa Westray are rich in calcium carbonate that comes from the eroded shells and skeletons of plants and small animals that once lived in, or on, the sea bed.

Lobster traps (creels) lined up on the shore as the tide goes out at the Old Pier, Papa Westray, Orkney.

Horse mussel beds in Shetland support dense communities of brittlestar – similar to starfish – that form a mesmerising sea of waving arms, together with sea urchins, sponges and soft coral.

The longer more rigorous protections are delayed, the greater the risk to these priceless resources, says Professor Harrison.

Researchers point to the success of the Lamlash Bay No Take zone off the Isle of Arran, which is part of a much larger marine protected area around the island’s south coast.

Protect the seas, protect livelihoods

Campaigners say the ecological transformation has been remarkable – showing how such spatial protection enables marine life, including stocks of commercially important shellfish, to recover.

There is evidence of positive spillover effects to adjacent areas. The safeguards support marine ecosystem recovery that can benefit other businesses in the future, and help protect key marine habitats that contribute to climate change mitigation.

Inspired by this, a network of Scottish communities is now pushing for better protection of coastal waters. While Scotland has its success stories, the Scottish Government’s 2020 marine assessment revealed there is still significant pressure from human activity – particularly oil and gas exploitation and fishing.

Significant areas of habitat loss have been recorded in the past decade around Scotland’s coasts despite Scottish Government claims that 37 per cent of our seas are now protected.

Lamlash Bay, Arran

More action needed

Even where measures are in place, they tend to address a limited number of activities. Professor Harrison says: “A new system of strictly protected marine areas can offer comprehensive protection for the most valuable biodiversity hotspots.

“It will give our seas a chance to recover from the pressures to which they have been exposed over the past century. The Scottish Government has recognised that ‘strong and bold actions’ are needed in order to bring about ‘transformative change’.”

Scientific evidence shows strictly protected MPAs provide significant benefits for marine biological diversity. Scotland should therefore join the growing group of nations using this important tool, says Professor Harrison.

“The benefits of effective marine protection are clear”, says Lucy Kay, COAST’s Marine Protected Area Project Officer. “Strong action led to the establishment of the Lamlash Bay No Take Zone and protection for parts of the South Arran MPA, and we now urgently need more such decisive action by the Government to support the recovery of Scotland’s seas.”

The Saving our Seas through Law project is urging the Scottish Government to set an ambitious target for new strictly protected areas as part of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

Hopeful sign

The agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party is one step in that direction, the project team says, but the key will be how the new policy is taken forward.

Researchers say the process for designating these fully protected MPAs should not only be wide ranging, but also include proportionate sanctions for violations.

“Scotland is renowned for its lochs, moors and mountains,” says Professor Harrison, “but its rugged coastline and expansive seas are also home to a rich variety of species and habitats.

“By protecting key marine sites from human interference, we can take an important step towards recovering and conserving marine ecosystems for the benefit of future generations.”

Photography: GettyImages.