Tighter controls for Scotland’s coastal waters

Marine sanctuaries, coastal waters, coast

The slate grey coastal waters around Arran harbour a rich marine world of colourful sea slugs, long-clawed lobsters, kelp forests, vibrant beds of coral-like red algae and the occasional passing dolphin and whale.

And in Scotland’s Year of Coast and Waters, hopes may have run high that the precious seabed environment clinging to the fringes of the largest island in the Firth of Clyde would be given certain protection to ensure it thrives for generations to come.

Instead, concerns have emerged that coastal waters around the popular holiday island – and, indeed, the length and breadth of Scotland – could become marine deserts, with claims swirling of government inaction, unfulfilled promises, and mismanagement over inshore fishing.

Campaigners on the island of Arran have now called on the Scottish Government to avoid further environmental degradation caused by fishing boats which dredge and trawl the seabed.

Environmental watchdog group COAST (Community of Arran Seabed Trust) claims the government has failed to act on years of pledges to improve the inshore marine environment, with pledges in the past year to establish four new marine protected areas, a seabird conservation strategy and a £1.5 million investment in measures to track inshore fishing vessels unfulfilled.

“The Scottish Government say they are going to act and change things to make a difference and protect the environment and they just don’t do it,” said Jenny Stark of COAST.

“We’ve had something like five years of failed promises, every year when they announce their programme for the year they say ‘we will do this or that’, then the following year comes and they have still not achieved it.

“On paper, things look great in terms of what they want to do, but it never happens.”

Coastal Waters

Demands for action from COAST are being echoed by a nationwide campaign group Our Seas, which includes shoreline-based businesses and other organisations, among them the National Trust for Scotland.

Nick Underdown, Head of Campaigns Open Seas, a member of the coalition, described current measures which allow bottom trawling and dredging in delicately balanced marine environments and fail to adequately control protected areas are “an absolute mess”.

In one recent incident a diver intending to harvest scallops in a west coast protected area where low impact scallop diving is permitted, was horrified to find it illegally scrapped clean by a dredger, he added.

Mr Underdown added: “We understand that it’s a really challenging time. However, to say this is treated as a priority is not the case. The government is not progressing with measures that they said they would.

“Inshore fisheries and their current management are having an unsustainable impact on marine habitats and affecting ecosystem health at a fundamental level which is not good for anyone in the long term, fishermen included.

“We want measures urgently taken to stop this continued habitat loss year after year.”


The comments come in the wake the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) petitioning the Court of Session for a judicial review against the Scottish Government after it refused a pilot proposal for the Inner Sound of Skye which would have assessed the potential benefits of creeling as opposed to trawling in Scotland’s important inshore Nephrops fishery.

The Nephrops trawl fishery supplies the scampi market but is regarded as ‘high impact, low value’ because of its very high levels of bycatch.

On its website, the SCFF states: “SCFF has a wider concern that this case follows a pattern that suggests that the mobile sector wields too much influence with Marine Scotland and thus that the management of our fisheries appears more aligned with the interests of the mobile sector than with the public interest or fisheries policy under the National Marine Plan.”

Concerns over the exploitation of Scotland’s coastal waters on the west coast in particular have festered for four decades after once massive stocks of herring, cod, haddock and turbot began to dwindle to almost zero.

A decision in the mid-1980s to repel a three-mile fishing restriction which allowed dredging and trawling close to shore, sparked further decline in traditional catches and led to a swing towards shellfish – particularly scallops and prawns.

However, dredging and trawling methods of collection cause major disruption to the seabed, affecting fragile ecosystems and often removing high numbers of other species in the process.


A campaign by COAST led to the establishment of Scotland’s first No Take Zone at Lamlash Bay in 2008 which banned fishing and shellfish removal from a two-and-a-half-kilometre site.

It has been hailed as a major success after a study released earlier this year showed the density of king scallops and lobsters to be four times that of a decade earlier and evidence of a regrowth within the ecosystem.

A further study across the larger South Arran Marine Protected Area which was established in 2016, has also shown dramatic improvements to numbers of scallops and lobsters.

Ms Stark added: “We are not anti-fishing, there are sustainable methods that aren’t extracting creatures in such quantities that will over fish our seas, and methods that are not going to damage the sea bed habitat.”

COAST and the Our Seas coalition claim that among the Scottish Government pledges that have not materialised is a 2016-17 programme pledge to develop an Inshore Fisheries Bill, and up to management for Over Seas Coalition claim that among the Scottish Government pledges that have not materialised is a 2016-17 programme pledge to develop an Inshore Fisheries Bill, and mangement for 18 new Marine Protected Areas.

Only one, at Loch Carron, was designated alongside a ban on bottom-towed fishing following a serious episode of scallop dredging, while others have not yet fully progressed.

Marine Protection

A 2018 pledge which was to see policy proposals developed around a national paper on the future of fisheries management, has also not materialised.

Campaigners also say the government took a backward step in marine conservation by blocking amendments to the Animal and Wildlife Powers, Protections and Penalties Bill that would have toughened penalties for damaging marine life in protected areas.

Our Seas Coalition has called for a reinstatement of an inshore limit to halt habitat damage from scallop dredging and bottom-trawling.

“Until 1984, over a third of Scotland’s inshore waters were protected from bottom-trawling by a three-mile limit, now it’s just 5%,” it added.

“Coastal businesses rely on a healthy seabed and are being directly affected by the dramatic declines in fish populations and habitats.

“Managing our seabed as a public asset fits with the Government’s green recovery agenda. Economic research indicates that bringing back protections for our coastal seabed would actually generate jobs and boost the resilience of Scotland’s marine environment and economy.

“We cannot afford to sit on our hands during a biodiversity crisis.”

This article was originally posted as Demands for tighter controls to protect Scotland’s precious coastal waters at The Herald.

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