Canna Island


Marine life around Scotland’s coasts is not receiving adequate protection due to broken promises by Edinburgh ministers, warn environmental campaigners.

Leading charities, such as the Marine Conservation Society and the National Trust for Scotland, criticise the Scottish government for missing deadlines to safeguard vulnerable marine life from overfishing and climate change impacts.

These charities cite government seabed surveys and expert evidence highlighting damage caused by trawlers, including scallop dredgers, operating within Marine Protection Areas (MPAs) established in 2014.

Open Seas, a campaign group, notes that action to protect priority marine features like flame shell reefs outside MPAs has been significantly delayed. Of the 233 designated sites, only 46 have their protected features in favorable or recovering condition, with many sites yet to be surveyed.

The charities are calling on ministers to impose fishing restrictions within MPAs by 2025, increase fishery protection vessels to deter illegal fishing, set legal targets to rehabilitate damaged marine features, and introduce surveillance and tagging for all fishing vessels.

These criticisms come amid heightened scrutiny of Scotland’s environmental policies following the collapse of a power-sharing deal between the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Scottish Greens. The dissolution of this Bute House agreement, caused by Scotland abandoning its 2030 climate target, led to Humza Yousaf’s resignation as First Minister and the appointment of John Swinney as his successor.

Environmentalists were further alarmed when Kate Forbes, a known critic of a proposed network of highly protected marine areas (HPMAs), was appointed as Deputy First Minister and Economy Secretary. These HPMAs, which would have banned inshore fisheries and covered 10% of Scottish waters, were a key part of the Bute House agreement but were scrapped after opposition from coastal communities. Forbes is anticipated to oppose or weaken new fishing restrictions as the general election approaches.

Conservation charities assert that the HPMA debacle exemplifies long-standing failures in Scotland’s marine protection policies. Their criticisms include:

  • Missing three target dates (2016, 2020, and March 2024) for imposing fishing restrictions within MPAs.
  • Failing to survey all seabed and marine features designated for protection.
  • Not designating any MPAs as nature reserves, wilderness areas, or national parks.

These criticisms are supported by a report from James Harrison, a professor of environmental law at Edinburgh University. Harrison’s report warns that Scotland is diverging from EU standards, which mandate that 10% of seas be “strictly protected” by 2030. He indicates that Scotland fails to meet standards set by international bodies like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which requires at least 30% of MPAs to prohibit extractive activities.

Stuart Brooks, director of conservation for the National Trust for Scotland, urges ministers to adopt Harrison’s recommendations.

Calum Duncan, the marine group convener for Scottish Environment Link, an umbrella group for NGOs, and head of policy at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “Scotland’s marine protected areas are essential not only for the nation but for the global effort to reverse the decline of nature and help address the climate emergency.

“The continued failure to deliver marine protection measures contributes to the decline of our seas. A healthy ocean underpins coastal communities and supports our efforts to tackle climate change.”

The Scottish government said it wanted to put management measures in place “as soon as possible”, but to do so with the correct evidence “for over 160 sites in the inshore area alone is a complex and challenging process”, a spokesperson said.

“Ministers are determined to protect our oceans and do so in a way that is fair, and ensures our seas remain a source of prosperity for the nation, especially in our coastal and island communities.”

Campaigners highlight the Hebridean islands of Canna and Rum as examples of failure. The seabed around these islands, part of the Small Isles MPA, designated in 2014 as a “high risk” site, has been severely impacted by scallop dredgers and bottom-trawling.

These waters, south-west of Skye, should be thriving with maerl beds, horse mussel and fan mussel reefs, and diverse sand and mud habitats. However, Open Seas reports that bottom-trawling has stripped these habitats from the seabed. Despite being a designated MPA, bottom-trawling continues legally because the Scottish government has yet to implement any fishery management controls in the area.

Campaigners urge immediate action to fulfil the promises made and to protect Scotland’s marine biodiversity effectively.

“Instead of finding a rich, three-dimensional mosaic of habitats, the crew discovered the seabed had been levelled to an underwater gravel park,” it said.



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