Escalating threat to the future of Scotland’s seas

Scotland’s marine life could be almost wiped out within 50 years unless tough action is taken to manage the way humans use the seas, a consortium of environmental organisations has warned.

They called for a new marine planning system designed to control developments such as oilrigs and offshore wind farms as well as fishing, fish farms and tourism along with protection for sensitive areas.

Scottish Environment LINK’s marine task force also said a new organisation should be created to oversee all activity at sea.

Without these moves, they warned that fish, sea birds and marine mammals would be increasingly at risk as the waters off Scotland become more and more crowded.

Jonny Hughes, the head of policy at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: “Sixteen out of 21 Scottish fish stocks, including cod and Atlantic salmon, are currently being exploited beyond sustainable levels. Unless we get some kind of planning system in place to ensure recovery and sustainable use of all our marine life then, in combination with the effects of climate change, in 40 or 50 years’ time much of our important wildlife will have perished.”

A recent international review of marine fisheries found 90 per cent of the population of the world’s large predatory fish, including tuna, swordfish, cod, halibut, and flounder, had disappeared in the past 50 years.

But fishing is not the only form of human activity threatening sea life. Salmon farms have expanded 13-fold since 1986.

There is concern that in the wrong place such aquaculture can cause damage to other marine life because of the use of chemicals and nutrients.

Coastal development is another serious issue. It has halved the size of the natural inter-tidal area in the Firth of Forth, which was about 18 square miles in the 17th century, while today it is less than nine square miles.

These areas are particularly important for mudflats and seagrass beds, which provide vital feeding areas for migrating birds and young fish. A lack of food has been blamed for serious problems in seabird colonies.

In 1994, more than 75,000 seabirds, including guillemots, shags, kittiwakes and puffins, washed ashore after starving to death and there have been similar, if less severe, starvation events since then. In 2005, the British Trust for Ornithology estimated 1,000 shags died in just two months out of a Scottish population of 21,000 breeding pairs, which makes up 40 per cent of the entire global population of the bird.

While for some animals there is not enough to eat, for others the problem is that what looks like food is actually a deadly trap left by careless humans. Highly endangered leatherback turtles are prone to eating plastic bags and other litter, which can choke them.

In 2004, a specialised boat, the St Mungo, began clearing litter from Firth of Clyde and removed 300 tonnes of litter and debris in its first year.

A report by Scottish Natural Heritage also found there was “some evidence” that harbour porpoises and bottle-nose dolphins in Scottish waters were in decline.

Part of the problem in attempting to address the concerns about marine biodiversity is that too little is known about which species are at most risk, however key members of the marine task force are now convinced that urgent action is needed.

Ahead of this year’s elections for the Scottish Parliament, they are all calling for political parties to back a new Scottish Marine Bill, whose provisions would include: