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Safeguarding our seafloors

Calum Duncan reflects on the UK Governments’ failure to safeguard Scotland, and the UK's seabeds, as announced in the UK Marine Strategy and explores whether current conservation measures are sufficient to recover Scotland’s depleted seabed.

June 2019

Under the UK Marine strategy, Scotland, along with all UK nations, is required to ensure our sea floor is healthy by safeguarding its structure and the wildlife that call it home. The official term for this is ‘Seafloor Integrity’ which captures the complex relationship between the geology of the seafloor, the species that call it home, and its interactions with the broader marine environment. For example, the seafloor often provides refuge and nursery areas for fish, shellfish and other invertebrate species. If this is damaged or disturbed, the fish, invertebrates and predators such as marine mammals and seabirds that rely on those species could suffer too.

A healthy seabed is the basis of healthy, diverse seas, the goal that the UK Marine Strategy is required to achieve. If our seafloors our healthy they should be home to flourishing sealife, able to support the food chain, store carbon and deliver vital nutrient cycling services. They should also support sustainable human activity, including fishing, recreation (such as diving and sea-angling) and space for appropriately located offshore developments.

The UK Marine Strategy requires the UK Governments to collectively achieve ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES) for Sea Floor Integrity, in short obligating us to safeguard our seafloor. But, the UK Governments’ latest assessment of progress showed they have failed to achieve their collective promises to ensure our seafloors are healthy and thriving, in turn putting the whole marine environment at risk.

The damage to our seafloors that has led to this failure has been caused by a number of activities. However, Scotland’s Marine Atlas and Charting Progress 2 highlight fishing, along with climate change, as the most widespread pressure on our seas. The UK Marine Strategy consultation document itself (see page 59) also concluded that damage from bottom fisheries far outweighs damage from other industries and activities.

To improve our understanding of the impacts of bottom-towed fishing on the seafloor, Scottish Environment LINK commissioned a report to inform how far the fisheries measures put in place in Scotland’s most vulnerable inshore Marine Protected Areas, and expected future management measures, would contribute to requirements to achieve seafloor integrity.

The report unpacked the complex term of seafloor integrity, acknowledging widespread consensus that mobile fishing gear “can destroy or seriously degrade some types of seabed such as maerl and cold-water corals”, but it highlighted that the prognosis was less straightforward for seabed types of lower vulnerability. Ultimately, the report found that Scotland’s seafloor is likely to be so far modified from its natural state that it would be hard to know what its natural state once was. Instead, the critical test would be the ability of the seafloor to recover and use of the seabed should only progress once the recovery rate and, crucially, potential is known. To test sustainability and seafloor recovery, the report recommended the use of Scotland’s new nature conservation MPAs and establishment of further demonstration and research MPAs, of which currently there is only one.

At Scottish Environment LINK, we therefore welcome the emerging MPA network, commitments to improve protection of Priority Marine Features outside of MPAs following the damage to Loch Carron (now itself protected), commitment to establishing a deep-water marine reserve and the fact that there is a MPA Monitoring Strategy. As the UK Governments’, by their own admission, have failed to achieve GES for seafloor integrity across UK seafloors, they must grasp the severity of the risks this poses for the marine environment. The first step should be to revise the UK Marine Strategy to ensure it is as ambitious as possible. This should include clear assessments of the sustainability of activities that can impact seafloor integrity, particularly the use of mobile fishing gear, and follow the increasing weight of scientific evidence that requires a precautionary approach for managing and protecting the seafloor.

Environment Links UK will be pushing for more action to safeguard our seabeds in their response to the UK Marine Strategy consultation, which closes on June 20th.

Calum Duncan, Marine Conservation Society’s Head of Conservation in Scotland and Chair of Scottish Environment LINK’s Marine Group.

Follow @CalumDuncanMCS, @SaveScotsSeas and @mcsuk.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.