Posted: Friday 25th July 2014 by Joan
Minke whale cpt Amy Lewis
A guest blog by Alex Kinninmonth, Living Seas Policy Officer at Scottish Wildlife Trust
The designation of 30 new Marine Protected Areas in Scotland is definitely worth celebrating but it’s only the end of the beginning, writes Alex Kinninmonth of the Scottish Wildlife Trust
Marine Protected Areas are a vital component in the wider sustainable use of the marine and coastal environment
“A huge leap forward for nature conservation in Scotland.” This is how I described the announcement of the designation of 30 new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Scottish seas. In fact, if you consider that Scottish seas cover around 61% of the UK sea area, it’s a significant move for biodiversity right across these islands.
But now that the dust has almost settled after what seemed like a tidal wave of positive news, what was actually announced yesterday? Does it tally with what we wanted to see? And where do we go from here?
The headline news is that we now have 30 'nature conservation MPAs', the first to be designated in Scotland under the Scottish and UK marine Acts. The new MPAs bring additional coverage for species and habitats of national ecological importance to the existing portfolio of Marine Protected Areas - 46 Special Areas of Conservation, 45 Special Protected Areas and 61 coastal Sites of Specific Scientific Interest. The Scottish MPA network now extends to around 20% of our waters. Highlights of note from the new MPAs include the North-east Faroe Shetland Channel MPA, which at 26,807 sq. km is thought to be the largest in the EU. The Lochs Duich, Long and Alsh MPA will provide protection for the largest known grouping of flame shells anywhere on the planet. I could go on; each MPA has a fascinating ecological story to tell.
33 possible MPAs resulting from a science-based selection process were presented during the public consultation held during the summer of 2013. Along with other NGOs we campaigned on the basis of the advice that at least 29 of the possible 33 MPAs be designated. We also argued that the Firth of Forth Banks Complex (an offshore wildlife powerhouse with a unique mosaic of sand and gravel habitat important for sandeels) had to be designated over the ecologically poorer alternatives. In the end the Firth of Forth Banks was designated alongside the alternatives.
Our third objective was to get a commitment on protected areas for basking sharks, whales, dolphins and sites for seabirds at sea. So the publication of a report recommending four additional MPAs, three of which will cover Minke whales, Risso’s dolphins and basking shark, is a breakthrough moment. On seabirds, a suite of 14 draft Special Protected Areas (SPAs) has been published including two offshore locations in the seas around St Kilda and Foula that support important numbers of Arctic skua, Atlantic puffin and northern gannet among other species.
So what next? Well, something that anyone with an interest in the conservation of the natural world knows all too well is that laying down lines on a map and declaring it protected will not automatically lead to the changes needed. As tempting as it was to open the bubbly yesterday, it is important to remember that the value of an MPA will depend on its management measures and there is a great deal of work to do before we can claim that Scotland’s MPAs are ecologically coherent and well-managed.
It’s also worth acknowledging the cross-sector support the Scottish MPA project has achieved, something that might come as a surprise to those working in marine conservation elsewhere. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has long been on record as recognising the importance of MPAs to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems and has demonstrated its support already by introducing its own voluntary restrictions on the use of demersal gear to help the recovery of seabed habitats in three of the new MPAs. Now you might think this doesn’t amount to much and I would agree that the formation of enforceable regulations should follow swiftly but this kind of response is surely a positive sign.
Each Marine Protected Area has a fascinating ecological story to tell
We also have to be mindful that MPAs are not the silver bullet that will protect and revive marine biodiversity but are a vital component in the wider sustainable use of the marine and coastal environment. We don’t expect to see Scotland’s National Marine Plan adopted until after the referendum on Scottish independence, and unfortunately the consultation draft was a less than convincing national strategy. There are, however, glimmers of hope for the regional planning approach though, with the pioneering Shetland and Clyde Marine Spatial Plans providing valuable benchmarks.
There are undoubtedly details to check and tough negotiations ahead but it is still a superb achievement for all those involved to have reached this stage. Scottish Natural Heritage, JNCC and Marine Scotland deserve credit for their collaborative approach and for sticking to task, albeit with some gentle and not-so-gentle nudging required along the way. With the Commonwealth Games now in full swing in Glasgow it’s difficult not to get caught up in the competitive spirit. It certainly does seem that Scotland has leapt to the top of the MPA medal table and it’s perhaps time for neighbouring nations to try and catch up.