Open Seas: West Shetland Shelf MPA

Marine Plan Sea Loch

Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been in the news recently following a Greenpeace investigation claiming the Government allows these areas to be exploited by some of the largest trawlers operating in our seas.

The Scottish Government respond to these accusations by claiming their ability to establish protections is limited by the EU Common Fisheries Policy in offshore MPAs (those outside 12 nautical miles from the coast) and must go through an EU process that has been disrupted by the complicated implications of Brexit.

It is our view that Ministers are cherry picking which rules they follow. We set out details in this blog showing how Ministers have already broken the laws designed to protect these sites, following neither the EU or domestic rules when it has come to deregulating activities in a protected area.

What happened?

Our seas have been in decline for some time, notably with stock sizes and catches of key fish stocks such as cod falling very rapidly in the late 1990s. Around the 2000s measures were taken to try to recover them. One measure was to designate areas to protect areas where they spawn.

Trawling was banned in an area informally known as “the Windsock”  (due to its shape) because of the large number of female cod found in the area. It’s a relatively shallow area of sea where the sandy, gravelly seabed provides ideal spawning grounds for fish such as cod, haddock and others. Similar measures also seemed to work other areas in the North Sea for some time but were later repealed.

Acknowledging that the declines were happening across the entire marine ecosystem and not just the fish stocks, Westminster and Scottish Parliament subsequently passed legislation requiring that Ministers “protect, and where appropriate recover” the health of the sea and designate a network of marine protected areas.

The Scottish Government designated 30 Marine Protected Areas back in 2014 using powers included in the Marine (Scotland) Act, amongst these was the West Shetland Shelf Marine Protected Area (MPA) covering an area of sea around the same size as the Cairngorms National Park. This MPA covered the same area as the ‘Windsock’. Because trawling was already banned here, the West Shetland Shelf MPA was seen as an ‘easy win’.


Designation itself does not mean restriction (there are nuances around this you could debate but we’ll leave that for another time); it just means that Ministers must ensure that the “structures and functions, quality and the composition” of “offshore subtidal sands and gravel”  habitat in the MPA are “healthy and not deteriorating, and their extent is stable or increasing”.

However, Ministers have an obligation to follow the scientific advice given to them, and JNCC’s advice stated that if the windsock trawl closure were to be revoked “specific management actions would need to be considered to ensure the offshore subtidal sands and gravels achieve their conservation objectives”. Because the Windsock ban would end in 2018-19, Marine Scotland took this advice and started considering what alternative protection would be needed during meetings held in 2015.

These proposals were refined further and presented to EU Fisheries Management groups in 2016. A consultation was held in late September and a workshop in October 2016. The proposed management of the site looked like the map below, with trawling banned in the area in blue. As can be seen, some concessions were made, but overall a large area of protection was provided.

Given Marine Scotland were attempting to deliver this management within the EU Common Fisheries Policy, the June 2016 Brexit vote clearly will have had significant ramifications for the discussions. That said, negotiations continued after the vote, and notably the following timeline was set out in April 2017 nearly a year afterward.

Read more at Open Seas: Did Scottish Ministers act illegally by allowing trawling to resume in the West Shetland Shelf MPA? Probably.

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