To protect or not to protect: Is that really the question when dealing with the marine environment?

Can we afford not to, in economic terms, or even for our future existence?!

To Protect or not to protect?

Sea birds, are visually apparent, often the first to show problems of anthropogenic activities.
Fulmar interacting with a vessel at sea, copyright Mark Carter-Marine Concern

Scotland lies at the convergence of several oceanic and continental currents, these in turn influence the climate and coastal upwelling. The result is both northern and southern species meet, combined with enriched nutrients from the upwelling, phytoplankton and zooplankton bloom, these form the basis of our abundant and diverse ecosystem. Diversity provides for robustness but this robustness is compromised with increased modern pressures. We need to provide better protection if Scotland’s seas are to maintain their pristine water credentials.

As the years progress, governments change, so do concepts and ideas with regard to marine exploitation and marine protection. Scotland is no different; during the previous political administration we were witness to the introduction of the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 where Section 31 provided marine provision, note that I do not use the word ‘protection’ – as it is just one of the four aims under the legislation. The current government introduced the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, which has the potential to actually protect, but here I emphasise the word potential!

Protect and potential, to safeguard, it is all about the mind-set of those in charge. Propaganda would have you thinking our coastal systems are protected, however, while the Scottish government refuse to define even the most basic and much-used key word sustainable, can marine environmental issues really be a priority?


For reference I’ve included the UN adopted version for ‘sustainability’ from the Brundtland Report “Our Common Future“, –

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Dictionaries tend to limit the term sustainable with ‘time’, something operators of scallop dredgers are keen to labour, “I’ve been scallop dredging for -10, 20, even 30 years-, therefore it must be sustainable”. Putting this into marine life context, Arctic Clams for example can live 250 years. Arctic Clams are just one species that get crushed, subject to ‘by-catch’ during fishing. Dredging and seabed trawling damage important habitats and breeding grounds of a variety of species. Add, the influence from, – government, government agencies and politicians, then environmental issues often take second place.

It is worth remembering that it was not the activities of conservationists, or the effects of climate change that ended the herring fishery in the Clyde, it was industrial scale over-fishing, a timely and pertinent point, as so called ‘super-trawlers’ ply our shores, right now. It is important to remember this when planning for our future and the future of Scotland’s pristine seas. Human exploits require healthy seas and inhabitants in order to be sustained.


2020 is the Year for the Sea in Scotland and Glasgow is to host the COP 26 (Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC) in November. It is worth stating that COP 25, the so called ‘Blue COP’, headlines included, – “Chile/Madrid Climate Change Conference Closes with Limited Ambition”.

Why ‘Blue COP’? The idea was to convey the close ties between the health of the climate and the oceans. The recent, ‘Special Report on the Ocean and the Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) covered the impacts of our world in flux and its effects on coastal communities.

To Protect or not to protect?

Entire community species are vital to the future
Species in a rock-pool on Staffa, copyright Mark Carter-Marine Concern

Now at last the BIG picture is beginning to hit home. It is clear that items such as climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidity and rising sea levels cannot be taken as individual items, they are ALL inextricably linked. An understanding of ‘Earth Systems’, ‘Feed-back Loops’ and ‘Tipping Points’, are ALL essential! If still in doubt, remember that more than 70% of Earth’s surface consists of salty water, much, much more if volume is taken into account. Add in the heat capacity of water and the Carbon Cycle, then the importance to us on ‘dry-earth’ is clear.

To Protect

Before we cover ‘protection’ of seas and oceans, it is important to take stock of where we are in 2020. Currently, less than 3.3% of oceans are afforded any type of protection at all, of that around one sixth include areas of “No-Take-Zones’ about the area of Kazakhstan…. a pittance! 

We are now, post BBC’s Blue Planet II, we are in the Extinction Rebellion protest times and the ‘Greta Effect’ is Global. Education is key and the next generation now know what is going to affect them, they are also very well aware of how our current generation has let them down. 

To Protect or not to protect?
Marine mammals are facing numerous anthropogenic problems, these capture public opinion
Common dolphin, Sea of the Hebrides, copyright Mark Carter-Marine Concern

So, what ‘Tools’ are in the box?  Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), those that include areas of No-Take, can see an average increase of 700% in fish biomass.

MPAs come with a variety of different names for similar designations, some have developed a somewhat mixed response regarding their success, hardly surprising when they are often not respected, plundered, not policed and offenders not properly penalised. 

MPAs, when accompanied with ‘No-Take-Zones’ have proved to be effective, Lamlash Bay, Arran is an example; the biomass population was allowed to attain greater sizes and age, which increases the probability of the next generation being successful and led to an increase in abundance and diversity. This fed into surrounding areas and has attracted and produced gains for fishing on the boundary and beyond. Greater catches for less fishing effort, keeping areas free from destruction, free to prosper.


15 years ago, the Royal Commission’s Report, ‘Turning the Tide‘ suggested that that our coasts required 30% No-Take-Zones in order to be sustainable, that’s sustainable fishing and sustainable species and habitats, sustainable without time constraints. The Royal Commission was disbanded, since then many protected areas have been developed but few have no-take-zones, the status quo, of industry first, profit first, remains.

The findings of the Scottish Parliamentary Committee, The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee (ECCLR) stated that, The status quo is not an option”, this was in relation to the farming of salmon, later endorsed by the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee (RECC). Two years on, from the outstanding production from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), the Review of the Environmental Impacts of Salmon Farming in Scotland, and still very little has altered. Do our elected members have the foresight, the will to change? Public opinion is changing?

The commercial influence is powerful, recent complaints have been voiced around Councillors being Directors of involved industries. If the status quo remains, if we continue to overlook marine environmental concerns, Scotland’s pristine coastal waters will be consigned to the history books. The elephant in the room is our huge population and the pressures from surrounding markets, that means we need to change approach, we need to adopt something that works, both for us and the breeding grounds that support us and stop exploitive and damaging activities.

We have the tools: No-Take-Zones. We need 30% No-Take, that was 15 years ago, but let’s start somewhere rather than wait for more scientific research. 30% no-take was suggested for UK waters due to the pressures upon them. New Zealand were the pioneers in marine protection and Dr Bill Ballantine called for 10% ‘down under’ where the pressures were very different to the UK and European burdens that we see around the UK. The reserves worked! Only recently, due to a lack of enforcement are the New Zealand Marine Reserves under threat.

“No-take marine reserves are the most effective protected areas in the ocean”, ICES (2018)

To Protect or not to protect?

Top-end predators are good species indicators to under-lying, often unseen problems
Common seals Loch Etive, copyright Mark Carter-Marine Concern

Scotland and the rest of the UK, indeed, Globally, Earth needs 30% No-Take-Zones NOW! No-take-zones with real spatial planning by marine (not terrestrial) planners utilising the Precautionary Principle and followed by science and an education scheme for industry, planners and politicians. The current planning directive of “Presumption in Favour” of industry must go and industry assessed on a case by case basis, really evaluated on truly sustainable processes.

Failure to act, is Not an Option, the Status Quo, is Not an Option: –

30% No-Take-Zones Now! Call them MPAs, HPMAs (Highly Protected Marine Areas), Marine Reserves, Coastal and Marine National Parks, SACs (Special Area of Conservation) and SPAs (Special Protected Areas), the name is not important, as long as they include, – 


Author, Mark Carter

Mark has a Degree in Marine Science, a background of more than 50 years in Conservation and Environmentalism, he has been Chair of a Statuary Nature Reserve and has dealt with contraventions in SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interests) designations, including officially as a police officer. For more than 40 years he has been involved with activities, in, on and around the sea.

He has experienced four of the World’s five oceans, lived on an island as well as close to the shores of several Scottish Lochs and been the Principle of Marine Activities Centre. He was Chairman and founder member of the Hebridean Marine National Park Partnership; he has been involved with numerous EC Complaints and UK/Scottish Petitions. Mark, now runs Marine Concern and is an advocate of MPAs that include no-take-zones.

Further Reading and References:

ICES Journal of Marine Science, Volume 75, Issue 3, May-June 2018, Pages 1166 1168,

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