Open Seas: Way off track

Fisheries disputes, fishing boat, track

When something is going wrong, the right thing to do is to fix it early, so the problem doesn’t get bigger. Like a boat with a leak, you head to port and repair. Unfortunately, last week the Scottish Government announced yet further delays to urgently-needed fixes for the environmentally degraded state of our coastal seas.

Politicians have long been aware of the plummeting health of inshore ecosystems. Many fisheries are still languishing after decades of decline. West coast cod and whiting populations are so low that international scientists recommend a zero-catch policy to enable stocks to recover. Marine habitats continue to decline in condition and extent. Ongoing trawler bycatch, and (sometimes illegal) damage to the seabed continue to undermine these once thriving fisheries.


There is now widespread recognition that the current rules are not good enough to enable recovery of Scotland’s seas. And many of the rules are themselves unenforceable. Until we improve the rules and improve their enforcement, our inshore ecosystems remain vulnerable, at a time when we desperately need greater resilience. In the meantime, we continue to see damage to the seabed caused by illegal scallop dredging and no-one being penalised for it. 

This sorry predicament was acknowledged, with all the usual policy euphemisms, way back in 2015, when the Scottish Government published its ‘Inshore Fisheries Strategy’. Amongst a raft of measures this included a commitment to vessel monitoring by 2020, with the aim to better track who fished where and enforcing protected areas.

The promise

A five year timeframe. Surely doable? Little progress was made in the first three years, and only after a raft of illegal activity did Fisheries minister Fergus Ewing proudly announce he was to spend £1.5m of public money to “enhance the monitoring of under-12m vessels” to meet his 2020 deadline. 

Soon after the announcement, scallop dredge vessels illegally scraped over seabed in Loch Gairloch. Ministers then confirmed they would accelerate the roll-out of tracking “in 2019” for these “higher risk vessels”. 

This received broad political backing in December 2018, when MSPs gave cross-party support to effectively track all Scottish fishing vessels. Unfortunately, the acceleration never happened and yet more illegal destruction was recorded.

By the end of November 2019, the Scottish Government, possibly hoping no-one would notice, announced yet another delay telling Parliament that it was now ‘fast-tracking’ vessel tracking for scallop dredge fleet by ‘spring 2020’.

Last week, during the Animal and Wildlife Powers, Protections and Penalties Bill, the Scottish Government not only blocked amendments that would have toughened penalties for damaging marine life in protected areas, they also announced yet another delay to vessel tracking. We are now deep into 2020, and the Scottish Government has once again shifted the goalposts, with the first phase slipping by a further year to April 2021

So why the hold up? Coronavirus has had a huge impact on our way of life and public administration, but these delays cannot be fully explained by the crises of the past three months. Fishing Minister Fergus Ewing is supportive of vessel monitoring – this is not political bluster; for governments vessel tracking generates more knowledge to better manage a public resource.

So with no shortage of political will, this has some of the key ingredients for a public tendering fiasco. When will the vessel tracking be rolled out for other sectors of the fleet? Will it enable effective enforcement for >12m vessels, similar to what is being urged at UK level in the (constitutionally fraught) Fisheries Bill? 

Way off track

The Government has duties to recover the environmental health of our seas that are fundamentally strategic for the sustainable development of our country – they include protecting seabed habitats and recovering fish stocks in line with scientific advice. Three years ago, the Government set up a seabed review to protect habitats across our inshore area from dredging and bottom-trawling. Three years later and there has been no progress.

Action on this issue is not for bonus points. These are legal responsibilities established in the context of a climate and biodiversity crisis. Fergus Ewing has been confronted with a straightforward task to deploy tried and tested technology that will help stop illegal and environmentally damaging fishing. When will our Scottish Government start walking its talk, get back on track – and take recovery of our seas and inshore fisheries more seriously?

What can you do?

  1. Raise awareness and get informed. Awareness is a vital first step. 
  2. Follow Open Seas for regular updates on the actions you can take on this issue (and others) to improve the health of Scotland’s seas. 
  3. We are part of a new coalition – #OurSeas – that is campaigning collectively for a transition away from damaging fishing in inshore waters. Find out more here:

This piece was kindly shared via Open Seas June email update: Way off track.

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