How can we help better protect our oceans?
So why do we need to protect marine areas?
The idea is to find the best locations to create ocean recovery zones.
Sometimes referred to as no take zones in their own right, they protect marine sites in a way that allows nature to recover, undisturbed from human activity.
Put simply, they are the equivalent of nature reserves and National Parks on land, or set aside areas on our farms.
We want to see them introduced in a way that benefits nature and communities and are consulting on how that might work. Their proven success elsewhere can transform our marine habits for generations to come.
They all recognise the need to provide space for nature if we are to continue benefiting from healthy ecosystems.
How necessary are they?
You might well ask. The recent Wild Isles series on the BBC broadcast an unavoidable message: that the UK’s nature is in trouble.
As Sir David Attenborough, the Godfather of all things nature, said:
“We now have a few short years to make a choice, where just enough remains of the natural world for it to recover.”
All of us depend on a healthy natural world, because nature underpins life. It’s not a ‘nice to have’: it’s essential.
But species are being lost today even faster than in any of the previous five mass extinctions, and scientists say that ecosystems will collapse if we do not stop this biodiversity loss.
So, bluntly, we have to act.
How worried should we be?
You might want to sit down for this. Some of our more precious living marine habitats such as seagrass meadows and flame shell beds have suffered catastrophic decline due to overfishing and other human activities.
Researchers estimate some 90% of UK seagrass has already been lost.
Once seabed habitats are damaged (as in this video) they take decades to recover. Habitat loss puts all marine wildlife at risk, with impacts all the way up the food chain, through seabirds, terrestrial mammals and of course humans.
Video on left was taken while doing a seabed survey in 2014. On the right less than a week later same site after a Scallop dredger worked in the area for a day. #InshoreLimit If only the public could see it 1st hand. pic.twitter.com/kI6a8opBT2— Howard Wood (@howardlwood) April 18, 2023
If we don’t take action, fish stocks will continue to suffer, making it harder and harder to earn a living as a fisher.
And losing the flood defences provided by healthy coastal habitats would cost billions and put vulnerable coastal communities at greater risk.
Only a healthy ocean can combat the climate crisis.
Sounds sensible - so how do you make that happen?
The Bute House Agreement between the Scottish Greens and Scottish Government commits to finding ways of protecting our seas.
These kind of areas would cover just a small but important fraction of the more than 470,000 square kilometres of ocean Scotland benefits from.
The Scottish Government has already begun a comprehensive process of engagement with coastal and island communities.
The first high profile public consultation recently finished and it was cleae communities wanted to be involved but had some concerns about the first proposals.
But having secured agreement that something needs done, new plans are being put on place on how to arrive at a solution with coastal coummunities at the heart of efforts to protect oceans.
What sort of proposals are being suggested?
The first public consultation proposed sought to bring in protection from all “extractive, destructive or depositional activities”.
To explain, that really looks at things such as fishing, salmon farming, oil and gas exploration and construction, renewable energy development, mining, dumping of waste and chemicals, and the use of explosives.
No areas were identified, but the basic principles were laid out.
The European Union is also rolling out similar areas across the region having committed to do so by 2030, the same date Scotland has set for becoming nature-positive.
Don’t we already have protections?
That’s a question that often comes up. Already 37% of Scotland’s seas are covered by Marine Protected Areas.
But many MPAs don’t place any restrictions on fishing, even high-impact dredging and trawling.
A study found that all except two of Scotland’s offshore seabed MPAs were damaged by bottom-towed trawling and dredging in 2020.
Highly Protected Marine Areas were one suggestion to help protect valuable natural areas from damage, but would also welcome responsible recreational and tourism activity such as snorkelling, SCUBA diving, boat tours, water sports, and any boat transit.
Scotland is an island nation, and the oceans are our last great commons. Although the seabed is leased out by Crown Estate Scotland, nobody owns the sea itself.
That means we all have an opportunity and a responsibility to take care of it. But our seas have suffered from irresponsible management for decades.
In truth, Scotland is currently failing in its legal duty to maintain our seas to ‘Good Environmental Status’.
That means no take zones are more vital than ever.
The challenge is finding the best way to deliver on that.
It makes sense - so why are some people getting so worked up about it then?
There has been noisy opposition to HPMAs from some quarters due to perceived concerns around job losses in fishing and associated industries, and frankly, some politicians stoking those fears for political gain.
To be clear, HPMAs are not about putting an end to fishing, in fact, quite the opposite which is what some other parties refuse to admit. In the end though it was clear a new approach was needed.
No take zones themselves are about protecting fisheries for the future, creating nursery grounds where fish can breed and repopulate.
Currently 46% of fish stocks surveyed are overfished beyond their catch limits, and most of those limits are set much higher than the scientific limit for maintaining fish numbers.
Many stocks don’t even have catch limits at all.
Not all fishing is the same. Low impact fishing differs from mobile fleets, some sustain local livelihoods while oters are nomadic are reward only foreign-owned vessels.
Continuing with business as usual is what would put an end to fishing – so now the objective is finding a collaborative way of helpingh reverse this trend.
Protecting fish habitats will lead to more fish, better catches for fishers and more food for us all.
It is also worth remembering that Scotland has a legal duty to manage its seas to Good Environmental Status, something that remains a challenge.
So you say, but where’s the proof, huh?
There’s proof aplenty. Evidence from no-take zones and similar schemes around the world show that they increase the numbers and size of fish and shellfish, benefitting fishers who operate close to them.
Take Scotland’s only current no-take zone in Lamlash Bay on Arran for example, an internationally recognised example of good practice
Similar benefits are seen around HPMAs and no-take zones in California, Florida, New Zealand and the Mediterranean.
Even the Tory Government at Westminster understands the benefits, with England set to get its first three HPMAs later this year.
We can’t let Scotland lag behind the rest of the UK and Europe and miss the urgent window of opportunity to turn around the health of our oceans.
Are there other benefits too?
We’re glad you asked, they are good for coastal communities in the wider sense.
Fishing is of course an indispensable part of Scotland’s culture and identity, and plays a vital role in coastal towns. But it makes up just 6% of marine economic value, and 7% of marine employment.
Our coastal economies draw their strength from many other sectors, including recreation, hospitality, tourism, renewables and shipping.
Many of these sectors stand to benefit from better marine protections.
In Arran, the no-take zone attracts more tourists to the area, boosting the recreation, hospitality and accommodation sectors.
Enhanced marine protections in Scotland can become world-famous places where visitors and residents alike enjoy the beautiful, nature-rich waters.
Ok, that’s quite a lot to explain, what’s your doorstep pitch?
Scottish Greens in Government are making transformational changes across society to tackle the climate and nature crises, like record investment for active travel, replanting forests and rewilding glens with the Nature Restoration Fund, and delivering a Just Transition for North East Scotland with £500m of funding.
But we also need transformational policies for our seas.
We need to help high impact fishers switch to more sustainable models.
Ensuring technology is used and employing enough staff means fleet activity could be properly monitored.
Spatial management and inshore caps to prevent overfishing makes complete sense.
So too does having low impact areas that preserve traditions like scallop diving or using pots on the seafloor that don't destroy habitats like bottom towed fishing can.
Let’s make the choice to protect them, to protect us all against ecosystem decline and the worst impacts of climate change. We can still save our seas and strengthen communities if we act now, and if we all get involved.
The sixth episode of David Attenborough’s Wild Isles features a beautiful segment on the no-take zone at Lundy Bay in England.
Or discover where other protected marine areas exist around the world via the Marine Protection Atlas.