Scottish ministers have pledged to protect 30 per cent of the country’s water bodies for ecosystem restoration by 2030.
However, a briefing document produced by Scottish Environment Link concludes that the network of marine protected areas (MPAs) is not effectively protecting the species and habitats it is designed to conserve.
Ambitious action is urgently needed to enable the restoration of the marine environment so that it can help address interconnected climate and natural crises, the group said.
Marine ecosystems such as seagrass and seabed sediments are crucial in the fight against climate change, as Scotland’s seabed and lakes sequester three times as much carbon as forestry every year.
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They also provide important breeding areas for countless fish and shellfish, including valuable commercial species.
Activists stress that existing and new sites must be “really protected from harmful activity” to help restore Scottish seas to health.
This would mean designating at least 10 percent as new highly protected marine areas, where only the least invasive practices — like hand-diving and some recreational activities — could take place under tight controls.
The MPA network covers 37 per cent of Scotland’s seas, but campaigners say the majority of sites “exist in name only” and lack ecosystem-based spatial management for fisheries and other human activities.
They call for a package of measures including targeted restoration of degraded seabed areas and critical habitats for endangered or threatened species; a minimum site size should be established to provide the best conditions for recovery; and management should consider the broader ecosystem and not a patchwork of individual residual traits.
They say that keeping Scotland’s marine environment in the best possible condition will benefit everyone – including industry.
Calum Duncan is Director of Conservation for Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society, which is part of the Coalition.
“Scotland’s seas are globally important for cold-water corals, mussel beds, seabirds, seals, whales and dolphins, basking sharks and many other species and habitats, but they are facing increasing pressures from climate change and industry,” he said.
“Restoring the health of our oceans is one of the most important actions we can take to combat climate change.
“We welcome the commitments made to increase levels of protection and call on the Scottish Government to take the ambitious and urgent action needed to put our seas on a recovery path by 2030.
“This must mean that in these new areas, which are to be designated as Highly Protected Marine Areas, the highest international standards are adopted so that they are fully protected from all extractive and destructive activities.
“It is crucial that all existing sites also urgently need to be protected from the most harmful activities so that only environmentally friendly, sustainable activities are allowed.
“We know that Scotland’s seas, coasts and marine life are important to the world and it is therefore important that at least 30 per cent are truly protected from harmful activity to drive urgent ocean recovery.”
Link members have based their recommendations on the MPA guide, which incorporates advice from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government has committed to designating at least 10 per cent of Scotland’s coastal and offshore waters as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) by 2026 – before the end of the current Scottish Parliamentary term. As part of the Bute House agreement with the Scottish Green Party, this is a world-leading commitment – it meets the EU’s 10 per cent target but on a shorter timeframe. HPMAs prohibit all mining, demolition, and dumping activities and allow other activities only at non-damaging levels.
“Scotland’s network of marine protected areas (MPA) already covers more than 37 per cent of our sea area, exceeding the proposed new global target of 30 per cent coverage by 2030. Management actions are designed to protect the distinctive features of each area and vary between MPAs. We have committed to implementing fisheries management measures for existing MPAs by March 2024 at the latest if they do not already exist.
“Sustainability, promoting biodiversity and taking care of the wider ecosystem are at the core of how we manage Scotland’s waters and fisheries. Our fisheries management strategy sets policy initiatives for the next decade that protect the environment and ensure we manage our marine fisheries in a responsible and sustainable manner.”