Scotland fails to protect marine areas


Marine conservation areas have failed to protect wildlife from the fishing industry, according to a study by Scottish Government scientists.

Researchers from the government’s marine laboratory in Aberdeen have found that less than one per cent of trawling and dredging around Scotland’s coast has been covered by controls in marine protected areas (MPAs).

This is “unlikely to significantly reduce the fishing pressure” on rare seabed plants and animals, they say. The way MPA networks have been claimed to provide protection is “misleading”, they warn.

Environmental groups say the new study confirms fears that MPAs have been ineffective, and are calling for more restrictions on fishing. Industry bodies, however, criticise the study, saying the MPAs are not meant to be a way of managing fishing.

Marine Protected Areas

Marine protected areas were first introduced in 2014. There are now 217 for nature conservation covering 22 per cent of Scotland’s seas. According to the Scottish Government, they are meant “to ensure protection of some of the most vulnerable species and habitats.”

Four research scientists from Marine Scotland Science led by its head of conservation, Dr Peter Wright, have published a study in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Biological Conservation. Their work was funded by the Scottish Government.

The study was entitled “Are MPAs effective in removing fishing pressure from benthic species and habitats?” It pointed out that dragging trawling or dredging gear along the seabed put the “most widespread anthropogenic pressure” on marine wildlife.

MPAs were designed to protect endangered shellfish such as the fan mussel and ocean quahog found in soft seabed sediments, the study said. “Removing fishing usually leads to positive biological effects,” it argued.

Management Measures

The study compared the extent of controls in 41 MPAs with the levels of trawling and dredging in previous years. “MPAs and MPA management measures were found to overlap with less than one per cent of the historic mobile bottom fishing activity in the study region,” it concluded.

This indicated that “current measures within the network are unlikely to significantly reduce the fishing pressure to which benthic habitats and species are exposed,” it said.

The study pointed out that the effectiveness of MPA networks was often assessed by reference to their total area. “Reliance on MPA area estimates in reporting progress can be misleading and, if used injudiciously by marine managers, is likely to erode stakeholder trust in the process,” it cautioned.

“Inclusion in an MPA does not necessarily mean that all damaging activities are removed. Fishing activity has only been removed from a fraction of the MPA network in the study region.”

The study acknowledged that MPA management measures in areas where there had previously been little or no fishing could protect pristine habitats from future activity.

“However, if no pressure is removed such a management approach cannot be expected to deliver a demonstrable improvement in the habitats and species as there is no conservation action,” it said.

The study suggested that imposing restrictions could be “guided by a reluctance to displace or reduce fishing intensity”. It warned that this may provide “inadequate protection” for wildlife and leave marine managers with “difficult decisions”.

Marine habitats ‘being lost’

A new coalition of 51 community, environmental, fishing and businesses groups called Our Seas described the new study as worrying. “MPAs do not do what they say on the tin,” said a spokesperson for the coalition.

“To say 20 per cent of coastal waters are protected by MPAs is misleading, because in reality just a small proportion of our seabed is off limits to bottom-trawling and dredging. These are often nooks and crannies that are naturally inaccessible to damaging fishing methods.”

Our Seas urged “broader, strategic measures to recover our coastal waters, rather than piecemeal protection.” It called on Scottish ministers to “consider the reinstatement of a modern, inshore limit and make an urgent plan for a just transition to sustainable fisheries.”

The campaign group, Open Seas, warned that damage to Scotland’s seabed must not continue. “The Scottish Government promised a review on trawling and dredging back in 2017, but there has been no real progress,” said the group’s Nick Underdown.

“While ministers drag their heels, we continue to lose what’s left of our marine habitats,” he added.

Read the full article Scotland fails to protect marine wildlife from trawling, say government scientists at The Ferret.

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