A twist on the US Marine Corps recruiting slogan is no bad way to start people thinking about the 75% (yes, that much) of Scotland that is underwater. Look at a map of the UK’s territorial waters and—even if you accept Blair’s 2000 land grab in the North Sea, it is astonishing to see that, in pure area, Scotland is actually larger than England.
Currently, the UK government stewardship of this huge subsea area has been, to put it kindly, lax. Given that England has less seabed than dry land and lands only a fraction of fish that Scotland does, this—along with their selling Scotland short in the EU Common Fisheries Policy—might explain, even if it doesn’t forgive, such laxity.
As an example, fish stocks are ‘managed’ under the CFP but the Spanish in particular bend EU rules to suit themselves and have even got away with using EU subsidies intended to decommission fishing boats to actually build more boats for themselves. Then they have the cheek to use ports like Kinlochbervie to offload catch onto huge trailer lorries to get it back to Spain faster than the boat can.
Meanwhile the UK’s DEFRA comes down on Scottish boats for every infringement of some pretty crazy CFP rules and the ‘black fish’ market burgeons. It is no way to run a railway, let alone a conservation policy. If you haven’t seen it and want your sense of outrage stoked into high gear, watch Trawlermen.
Sad to say, that’s the story of the managed bit of our waters. The seabed itself is more like the Wild West—anything goes. There are no regulations on crab, lobster, prawns scallops, mussels—in fact, any crustaceans or molluscs.
In inshore and relatively shallow waters like the Firths of Forth or Clyde, a huge metal dredge goes over the side of a scallop boat to be dragged along, shredding all life on the seabed for miles. This is legal. The only thing stopping lobsters being fished out is that catching them is highly labour-intensive and the beasties are too thrawn to be farmed.
The Forth used to be so choked with native oysters that they were the poor man’s food in medieval Edinburgh. But, since they don’t move, once industrialisation came, they were fished out in Victorian times. What you get nowadays are farmed Pacific oysters from Loch Fyne—big and meaty but without the more flavoursome native Scottish oyster.
These could, in theory, be farmed but ‘rights’ on the seabed are asserted by the Crown Estates; we have an insensitive bureaucracy geared to charging for anything that touches ‘their’ seabed. They bill salmon farmers, anchorage buoys, even harbour improvements. They do nothing in return to earn the money. The other problem is that laws protecting such investments are scant—the chances of catching someone robbing an accessible place in flagrante delicto are only slightly greater than successfully prosecuting them.
Not all is doom and gloom, though. However belatedly, last year saw the first Marine Reserve in Scotland (and the second in the UK) established in Lamlash Bay, off Arran. This has been designated as a ‘no take’ area, which is, in theory, protected from having any creature down to a winkle removed from it. The theory is that, having this as a refuge, many species will thrive and pass spawn and life back into the adjacent waters. It appears to be working.
But, until now, most thought given to a National Marine Plan our seabed has been for defence purposes or for the exploitation of hyrdrocarbons. RSPB Scotland made what they consider a full response but they see things from a ‘twitcher’ perspective and, unless a marine creature is lunch for some seabird, they are likely to overlook it.
UK marine legislation (including the Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009?) is due to be reviewed under the ‘Water and Marine’ theme due to be in the spotlight on the UK Government’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’ website from Thursday 16th February 2012 for five weeks. But, as regards either reserving significant areas of Scotland’s seabed from ongoing unrestricted pillage or establishing anything like enough clones of Lamlash to make serious inroads into ongoing abuse that is unsustainable, we’re not out of the gate yet.
There is hardly much point for us to make all the efforts we are on land as regards the impact of our civilisation on land if we ignore the part three times as large that lies beneath the waves. Tourism brings in comparable earnings to fishing, with wildlife tourism growing faster than other elements, such as golf. We know very little about the Moray Firth dolphins, let alone cetaceans like the minke and pilot whales that visit and cause such thrills when sighted. We pillage their home at our peril.
At the same time, Scots have a reputation for quality produce, which applies as much to seafood as it does to salmon or fruit or even our top-notch tatties. Half the seafood consumed in Spain is actually Scottish. Articulated lorries leave Barra on the ferry to take lobster, prawns, scallops and crab to Spain within 36 hours. Why we don’t keep most of that to ourselves to retail through specialist restaurants and earn three times the money for the same beast has always been a mystery to me.
And, with 6,000km of coastline, there surely must be space for fish or shellfish farms interspersed with marine reserves so that business and conservation need not be in conflict. We have 2m of coast for every inhabitant: the massive USA has only 66mm and places like Belgium just 6mm for each of its 11m people.
We, of all people, need to take seriously the good work begun by the Scottish Environment Link’s Marine Taskforce whose Introduction to Marine Protected Areas is short but well worth a read, provided you don’t mind disentangling your eyebrows from your hairline every few lines. If we get this right, we will not just be a major tourist destination but also a flag-carrier for sustainable development of the 2/3rds of our planet that is covered in water.