New protection for Scottish seas

A victory for the Scottish marine environment came in the form of 30 Marine Protected Areas on 24 July, as the Scottish government accepted recommendations of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Sottish Natural Heritage (SNH) The consultation considered species, habitat and geology in selecting the final areas. Amongst the 30 MPAs is the North-east Faroe Shetland Channel MPA, which at 26,807 sq. km is thought to be the largest in the EU.

Of the 30 designated  areas, 17 were recommended by SNH for inshore waters and 13 by the JNCC  for offshore waters. The areas have been designated to protect  habitats and fauna such as deep sea sponges, sand eels and quahogs.

The news was welcomed by marine ecologists, although RSPB said more needed to be done to protect seabirds by including them in the MPAs and extending areas to cover the feeding grounds of birds such as kittiwakes, Arctic terns and Arctic skuas. In the hope of achieving this, draft proposals for new special protected areas have been put forward for consideration – 14 for seabirds and an additional 4 for basking shark and certain whale and dolphin species.

To create a coherent network of SPAs for seabirds and waterfowl across the UK the JNCC has been working over the past decade on behalf of all the country Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies (SNCBs). Provided with data from the JNCC on possible sites Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, and the Department of Environment Northern Ireland (DoENI) are considering several possible marine SPAs in English, Welsh and Northern Irish inshore waters, including extensions to existing seabird colony SPAs and entirely marine SPAs.

Fishing won’t necessarily be prohibited in these protected areas. Each area will be managed with different priorities, depending what it was designated for. Making sure that sound management plans and proper enforcement is in place will be the next challenge. Licensed activities at sea will be subject to the new nature conservation MPA designation orders that come into force on August 7th. Fisheries management measures for all of the sites will be developed during an intensive two years process.

The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive was put in place in 2008, with the aim of stopping degradation of the marine habitats and achieving a Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020. Member states are supposed to have a monitoring programme to measure progress in place by July 2014.

In November 2013, Defra announced the creation of 27 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs, a type of MPA) in English waters. Many were disappointed that this fell so short of the 127 areas that were recommended, but there was a promise that there would be further MCZs allocations. The next round of areas will be discussed in a consultation in early 2015.

The recommended areas in Scottish seas went through a five stage selection process to asses their suitability. Priority Marine Features were considered and some locations changed in size and shape as they have progressed through the assessment process. The network of areas  in the Scottish seas will add to the 194 special sites designated for the protection of seals earlier this month , and a Marine Planning consultation has been drafted. So it seems Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead is living up to his claim of putting that “Scotland’s seas are fundamental to our way of life.”

Evidence drawn from marine scientists has shown that something must be done to change the management of seas if we want to halt degradation. “By setting up these MPAs the government has wisely placed its confidence in that verdict,” said Callum Duncan of Marine Conservation Society. “The work does not stop here – for the time-being these MPAs are just lines on maps, so careful management will be needed to ensure they actively help recover our sealife.”