There are moves afoot to consider better protection for the marine ecosystems in Scotland’s deep sea. It’s not widely realised, but most of Scotland IS deep sea’ (our territorial waters are five times our country’s land mass, and much of this is beyond the Continental shelf). Our deep sea marine ecosystems are dark, low mobility areas, where nothing moves or grows very fast, but we are now beginning to realise it contains – and sustains – a fantastic diversity of life. We are only just beginning to survey this vast sub-sea area, let alone understand its importance for the wider ecology of our seas.
It is for this reason that the deep sea probably most epitomises the notion of “out of sight out of mind” in our society. So many issues are hidden behind closed doors, down backstreets or beneath the ground, but what could be more challenging to get to grips with than 150 miles from land and a kilometre below the waves. In recent decades, our knowledge has improved and fishing technology has developed such that we can now plumb these depths. Trawling vessels can deploy weighted nets that drag across the seabed and scoop up fish far below the surface. Many of these vessels are not ‘Scottish-owned’ boats, but make the journey from other European ports. In short, Scotland’s offshore waters are an international business. Unfortunately some of these fisheries are not demonstrably sustainable. Some are clean mid water trawls, others are damaging fragile habitats on the seafloor.
In 2014, 13 “offshore Marine Protected Aras” were designated in Scottish waters, six of them for deepwater habitats and species off the continental shelf to the north and west of Scotland. This was instantly good news, as it means that future extractive activities would have to be sensitive to the habitats. However, we are concerned that fisheries management for our offshore MPAs will not be sufficiently precautionary to protect and recover the damage that we know is occurring in the deep sea. Submersible craft are returning to the surface, showing the marks from historical tows. Recovery is slow. This debate is being had at a general level in Europe. Right now, the UK Government is joining other Member States of the European Union to agree potential effort and depth-related regulations for fishing in the deep sea.
But this process is by no means assured and the regulations arising might not suffice – it might be that offshore MPAs need more targeted protection and monitoring. It is for this reason that we wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment urging a public consultation on the measures required for the protection. Currently there has been an extensive consultation for inshore MPAs; why not for offshore ones? Unfortunately, the Scottish Government does not intend to put the measures to a full consultation, but Richard Lochhead responded by committing to publishing the measures in advance and will welcome any comments before Scotland enters negotiations with Member States of the EU in Spring. We’ll keep you posted via this newsletter of any developments on this front.