Mixed report card for Scotland on UN ocean goals

By: Calum Duncan
Date posted: 1 July 2019

MCS Head of Conservation Scotland, Calum Duncan contributed to an independent landmark report just published, assessing Scotland’s progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 in the “Life Below Water” chapter.

Coastal Scotland

Scotland has made some welcome progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 14 to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” although the picture is mixed. Much of the legal and policy framework is to be welcomed and is indeed world-class on paper, in many cases delivering tangible marine conservation successes.

However, in other cases the gap between rhetoric and reality remains, as concrete measures are awaited. The recent UK Marine Strategy report starkly highlighted that we are overshooting the environmental limits of our seas.

To date, the UK administrations, including the Scottish Government, reported meeting only four out of 15 indicators of Good Environmental Status.

Good blueprints but more action needed

The Marine (Scotland) Act 20101 provides a potentially world-leading legal framework with duties on Scottish Ministers to further sustainable development, including the protection and, where appropriate, enhancement of the health of the Scottish marine area, to deliver a National Marine Plan (NMP) that includes marine ecosystem objectives and to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPA). A general policy in the National Plan was crucial to trigger proposals to improve protection for vulnerable Priority Marine Features (PMFs) outside the MPA network, following scallop dredger damage to a flameshell bed in outer Loch Carron. New protection measures are however still awaited.

Whilst there is much to welcome in the NMP on paper, there has been only limited progress in developing regional marine plans that would actually deliver sustainable management and ecosystem enhancement in practice.

Tensions also exist in the plan between sectoral policies on oil and gas extraction and climate change targets, and between committing to sustainable development whilst providing in-principle support of unsustainable aquaculture industry growth targets.

Scotland’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) network is developing and already exceeds 10% of the Scottish marine area. However, there have been delays in establishing further sites needed to contribute to network coherence, although a further four sites have recently gone to public consultation and we are awaiting welcome proposals for deepsea marine reserves.

Whilst all sites are legally protected from activities other than fishing through the licensing process, there is some contention about the degree to which inshore sites are adequately protected from some licensed activities such as aquaculture. Also, much of the network, particularly offshore, still awaits essential statutory measures to provide protection from damaging fishing activity.

A tranche of management for the most vulnerable inshore MPAs provided protection for over 2,200km2 of inshore waters from damaging bottom-trawling and mechanical dredging in 2016. However, there is some frustration with delays in delivering statutory fisheries protection measures for the remaining inshore sites (a matter within the devolved competence of the Scottish Government) and for the large offshore sites that still require fisheries protection measures agreed by relevant EU member states through the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Exposed Flameshell on a dense bed in Loch Carron

Fisheries management in Scotland

On fishing, Scotland has shown leadership offshore, with initiatives such as the cod recovery plan. However, there are great concerns about the discarding of unwanted fish, particularly of ‘choke’ species across a number of fisheries in Scotland and the UK. Under the CFP, the landing obligation is a vital tool to eliminate the wasteful practice of discarding, reduce human impact on marine ecosystems, and restore fish stocks to sustainable levels. However, there are serious concerns that in Scotland and throughout the UK, the landing obligation is not being properly implemented and enforced.

The result is that stocks are being subjected to increased fishing mortality with a real risk of overfishing. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency to prevent seriously harming our fisheries resources and the wider marine environment on which our fishing industry and coastal communities depend. In the northeast Atlantic, 43% of assessed fish stocks were subject to overfishing in 2016 and there remain many more fish and shellfsh stocks that are not sufficiently assessed to know if overfishing is occurring.

Recent news about North Sea cod populations returning to a parlous state bring this into stark focus, unravelling progress made under the recovery plan. In addition, there is believed to be widespread non-compliance with the EU landing obligation which could result in an increase in fishing mortality and even further overfishing.

Inshore, the 2015 publication of an Inshore Fisheries Strategy was welcome, but a promised commitment to introduce an Inshore Fisheries Bill, urgently needed to provide spatial management, address gear conflict and deliver ecosystem-based fisheries management, has been delayed. It has been frustrating that progress has been somewhat slowed as a result of Scotland preparing for all eventualities following the referendum on membership in the EU. However, the Future of Fisheries Management stakeholder discussion process in Scotland must be taken as an opportunity for a complete re-think. This should result in proposals for fresh legislation that delivers modernised and sustainable fisheries management which enhances the marine biodiversity of which these fish and shellfish stocks are part and parcel, and upon which their health depends.

Fishing boats in Ullapool Harbour, Scotland

Ocean plastics

On marine pollution, Scotland was the first nation in the UK to establish a Marine Litter Strategy and Action Plan, to commit to banning plastic-stemmed cotton-buds, and to commit to designing a return-to-retail deposit return scheme for plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans. Along with Scotland’s legislation to ban production and sale of rinse-off products containing plastic microbeads, which has tougher penalties than elsewhere in the UK, these are welcome and progressive initiatives. But progress has been slower than anticipated when the strategy was established in 2010. More recent commitments to meet requirements of EU Directives on single-use plastics and to progress work on tackling sources of marine litter are welcome but need continued commitment and funding.

Forth Rail Bridge Bottle

Is Scotland committed to achieving this Goal?

In response to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment in April 2019, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said ‘the protection of our natural environment is such a priority that, just as on climate change, the obligation on all of us is to look afresh at everything that we are doing and make a decision…As we have done on climate change, we need to raise the bar of global leadership and make sure that we are continuing to get much higher over the bar than anybody else.’

This recognition of the crisis facing our natural world, including life below water, is welcome, but a complete rethink is needed of how to do business at and around the sea. Published in 2011, Scotland’s Marine Atlas highlighted the many concerns and declines facing Scotland’s marine environment, seabird populations, shark, skate and ray populations, harbour seals and sedimentary and deep-water seabed habitats in particular. Almost nine years on, despite some of the welcome progress discussed, the aforementioned UK Marine Strategy underlines that we are overshooting the environmental limits of our seas. It reveals that to date the UK administrations, including the Scottish Government, have reported meeting only four out of 15 indicators of good environmental status and will fail to meet targets, including for the health of seabirds, fish, benthic habitats, non-indigenous species, commercial fish and shellfish and marine litter, by 2020.

Whilst the trends are either stable or increasing for 10 of the 11 indicators, five of these are from a baseline of failing to meet the target (fish, benthic habitats, non-indigenous species, commercial fish and shellfish and marine litter) and there is a worrying downward trend in seabird status from an already failed target. Even of the four where good environmental status has been deemed to be met, there are issues, since the ‘contaminants’ indicator that has a green rating does not take account of microplastic contamination. Despite this failure and the recent dire warning of biodiversity decline on land and sea by the IPBES, this key UK framework, which aims to help ensure marine ecosystems recover to a healthy condition, is worryingly weak.

Stonehaven harbour, Aberdeenshire

How can Scotland achieve Sustainable Development Goal 14?

If we are truly to live within environmental limits, the health of our marine ecosystems has to be front and centre of decision-making, where commitment is made to protect remaining ecosystems that are in good condition and to restore degraded ecosystems on a large-scale. On land, this thinking is widespread through recognition of the need to restore peatlands and commit to replanting forests on a landscape scale. Similar thinking is needed for life below water, both ‘passive’ restoration by removing pressure from our marine environment, and ‘active’ restoration in the form of habitat recreation/rewilding projects such as replanting seagrass beds, managed coastal realignment, and the reintroduction of reef-forming organisms such as native oysters.

With the acknowledged climate emergency, the restoration of ‘blue carbon’ stores can contribute toward mitigating and adapting to climate change by making our oceans more resilient to change. Without a step-change in approach we risk losing not only iconic nature, but also the ecosystem service benefits that a healthy marine environment provides for people, including food, energy, recreation, and a sense of wellbeing.

To achieve such a step-change we need to:

Scuba diver

The report “On Target for 2030? An independent snapshot review of Scotland’s progress against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals” is available here