Looking for a Few Good Molluscs

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.

Current State of Scotland's Seas

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.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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3 Responses to Looking for a Few Good Molluscs

  1. lorraine glass says:

    really interesting.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Hey, response as promised!

    First off, thanks for the kind words about LINK, it’s a really interesting job and there is all sorts of exciting things going on at the moment. My job is really about making sure the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 is properly implemented. So the Marine (Scotland) Act applies out to 12nm, the Marine and Coastal Access Act covers 12 – 200nm. However, powers surrounding planning, licensing and marine conservation have been executively devolved to Scottish Ministers. So the Scottish Government have huge powers at their disposal.

    That map actually shows the extent of damage that has been inflicted on our marine habitats. All the info is taken from the Scottish Government’s own Marine Atlas. So the red bits are all facing ‘many concerns’, which is the worst category the Atlas has. ‘Many concerns’ is a slightly more spin friendly way of saying ‘really quite badly damaged’! As the map shows, that’s the majority of our inshore waters.

    In my opinion, one of the most important things the Government can do to reverse this, is sort out their inshore fisheries. LINK has worked with the IFGs helping them to develop management plans for their areas, but now we are at the crucial implementation phase. Scot Gov really needs to step up here and support them. Unfortunately they are not seen as being as sexy as CFP reform work, so don’t get the same level of attention. But its just as crucial that we get these right.

    There is also a consultation out at the moment looking at new restrictions to scallop fisheries which you may be interested in http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2012/01/7927 It looks at things like increasing landing sizes and reducing the number of maximum permitted dredges.

    One of the main areas of my work at the moment is ensuring the Government delivers an ‘ecologically coherent’ network of MPAs as required under the Marine (Scotland) Act. We’re not starting from scratch here though, existing SACs and SSSIs will be part of that network. Problem is, many of these existing protected areas aren’t being managed as they should be. These sites are due for their six yearly monitoring to make sure they are delivering conservation benefit, but there is no guarantee the resource will be there to get it done. In my personal opinion, Marine Scotland and SNH really need to prioritise this work. If they don’t assess the condition of the sites which I’m sure will prove some are being damaged, the unsustainable activities will be allowed to continue, and we risk ending up with a series of paper parks. Not what anyone wants, and all in the gift of the Scottish Government.

    One of the problems aquaculture faces, is that there are actually not that many sites where the conditions are right for farming. For example, the Scottish Government has a policy of no sites on the east coast to help control wild fish interactions. Again, there is a consultation out looking at other measures which would increase the sustainability of the sector, and some of the proposals are really great. But the sitting issues are really important and that’s where the National Plan comes in.

    You can’t really have a go at RSPB for focusing on birds and sandeels, that’s their remit and that’s what their members expect them to do. They do a phenomenal amount of work on CFP reform and inshore fisheries etc which are linked to ensuring the birds have their lunch, but clearly have wider conservation benefits as well. And they are also members of LINK. So through LINK RSPB works with groups including Marine Conservation Society, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, WWF and the National Trust. We all work together to make sure we are representing the wider interests of the marine environment.

    The National Marine Plan will be a really important document, and it has to look at the cumulative pressures we are all putting on our seas. In contrast to the terrestrial environment, management of this is actually easier when you are dealing with one land lord.

    Anyway, that was a bit of a brain dump! If you want any more info on any of this give me a shout.


  3. Angus McLellan says:

    A good article on an important subject.

    I’m neither an EU-phobe nor an EU-phile, but on one point I wouldn’t compromise and that’s a total opt-out from the Common Fisheries Policy. The CFP keeps Norway and the Faroes out of the EU, was a major reason for Greenland leaving and is likely one of the main reasons why polls show.Icelandic support for joining the EU is low. There’s a trend there.

    If it was a mistake for Heath to sign up to the CFP it would be a far bigger one for Scotland to do so. We can have free trade and free travel in or out of the EU. So we should certainly have a vote – a referendum, not just a vote in parliament – before anyone takes the final step of signing Scotland up to the EU.

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