Why is the coalition called Our Seas?
In ownership terms, the sea is not owned by anyone – it is a commons. But in broader terms, the sea and fisheries belong to all of us; they are a common resource, and their health is our collective concern. A healthy seabed is the cornerstone of sustainable, profitable inshore fisheries, and underpins the success of many other marine businesses and activities. This promotes a shared awareness of the interconnection between people and the life in our sea. As well as the provision of food the marine environment provides a number of services which contribute to human well-being including regulation of climate, and mental and physical health benefits. For those of us lucky enough to have access to our coastal seas these benefits cannot be overstated. The benefits of marine environments for our wellbeing are tied to the health of those environments – and conservation efforts need to factor in what some call “natural capital”.
What is the problem?
In short, the ecosystems in our coastal waters are in bad shape. Globally seabird populations fell by 70% between 1950 and 2010, our coastal seagrass meadows have been reduced by 90%, native oyster reefs, which once covered vast areas of our seabed are now completely extinct around Scotland, white fish and herring stocks have crashed to commercial extinction. There are a huge range of pressures on our seas – climate change, pollution, overfishing – but one of the fundamental problems is chronic and persistent damage to the seabed.
Over a very short time, once rich habitats that covered large areas of our coastal seabed, have been degraded or have simply disappeared. Just as peat bogs or caledonian pine forests are essential for iconic species on land, these habitats are the foundation for ecosystems; they are breeding and nursery grounds for a vast array of marine life, including species of commercial importance. Damage to these habitats has had disastrous knock-on effects.
Some fish populations such as herring and species of whitefish (eg cod, whiting, haddock and flounder), have been driven to commercial extinction within a very short time, meaning that the vast majority of inshore fishermen are now highly reliant on catching shellfish, species at the bottom of the food chain. This is known as ‘fishing down the food chain’ a term coined by Professor Daniel Pauly from the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries who says;
“When we first presented this, it was a joke – you’re going to have a jellyfish sandwich … It was a joke, but now it’s real … We really are headed for trouble.”
As fishing effort has increasingly switched to shellfish species it has started using more damaging approaches. Scallop dredging is considered the most damaging form of fishing in Europe, bottom-trawling is the second.
It is not sustainable for fishermen to rely only on shellfish. Scientists say that being left with predominantly low trophic level species in the sea (as is the case in many areas of the west coast) raises ‘serious concern’ (Christansen et al 2003).
In areas where trawlers are currently sustaining catches of Nephrops (often caught for producing scampi) – creating the appearance of sustainability – studies have shown that populations in low diversity ecosystems are naturally less stable than those in more diverse ones as they are at higher risk from disease, invasion and changes in environmental conditions (Worm et al 2006).
How bad are the fish stock declines?
Ineffective fisheries management has led to inshore stocks of species such as herring, cod, haddock, hake, turbot, saithe, whiting, plaice and flounder reaching ‘commercial extinction’ in many parts of Scottish inshore waters, meaning they have been exploited to such an extent that it is no longer viable to fish for them.
For example, the west coast cod fishery used to be a thriving and valuable industry, but fish populations have plummeted. Scientists and fishery managers now advise that no cod should be caught, because the stocks are in such peril.
What has caused these declines?
The declines have been caused by overfishing (including overfishing of juvenile fish, preventing fish from reaching breeding age and exacerbating the problem further) and damage to the habitats that fish rely upon to spawn and survive. The health and distribution of fish populations are complex and both climate change (warming waters, ocean acidification, more extreme weather events) and shifts in predator-prey dynamics can affect populations. However, the scientific consensus is that over-fishing contributed significantly to the dramatic declines documented in recent decades. Removing inshore fish populations and damaging their breeding grounds has disrupted the entire marine ecosystem.
Scottish towns and villages such as Tobermory, Ullapool and Wick were built off the back of the herring fishery, which at its peak supported over 30,000 boats. However, technical developments with boats evolving from sail to engine concentrated fishing amongst dwindling numbers of fishermen operating ever more efficient vessels until the fishery was closed in the late 1970s.
The continued development of fishing gear has enabled trawling to occur on harder areas of seabed, bouncing over stones that would have previously snagged and torn lighter nets. This means a larger area of Scotland’s seabed has become intensively ‘swept’ by these fishing methods. Furthermore, in the mid-1970s the introduction of spring-tined Newhaven scallop dredges enabled scallop vessels to dredge rougher and harder ground than before, damaging yet more areas of seabed.
For nearly 100 years our coastal waters were protected from bottom-trawling by the ‘Three Mile Limit’. (Also see Question ‘What was the 3 mile limit?‘) This was set up to safeguard inshore fisheries such as herring and was a haven for fishing and marine life.. Alongside significant commercial fisheries, a vibrant recreational fishery supported a large number of jobs for our coastal communities through boat charter, sea angling and tourism. The removal of the Three Mile Limit resulted in devastating declines in white and ground fish stocks.
The irony is that when the Three Mile limit was put in place fishing boats were comparatively inefficient and did not do as much damage compared to those in operation now. The boats that began to exploit the inshore waters when the limit was removed in 1984 were bigger, more powerful, and capable of covering a lot more ground in a day than those from 100 years previously.
Fish finders were developed making it possible for fishermen to exploit stocks far more intensively than they had in the past.
What evidence is there that these habitats have been damaged by bottom-trawling and dredging?
Heavy equipment dragged over sensitive habitats damages the habitats, and the species that rely on them. Any sessile species, or those too slow to get out of the way are collateral damage. Some species, including monkfish, rays, dogfish, sole and plaice are caught as bycatch, other species are left damaged on the seabed.
There is a vast amount of science to back this up, see references on the right. Well known marine biologist and research scholar Calum Roberts from the University of York equates scallop dredging with ‘Cutting down a rainforest to catch a parrot’.
Seafish – the fishing industry’s own marketing body – states that scallop dredging damages benthic epifauna and has a high level of bycatch.
Over the past century – and in recent decades -, the habitats covering Scotland’s seabed have been degraded to a fraction of their former extent. Oyster beds that once carpeted our Firths have been raked to local extinction; seagrass beds are confined to just a few small pockets of our coastline; maerl beds that once supported a huge amount of life have been dredged into gravels.
There are many examples of damage to habitats that Scottish Natural Heritage deem ‘Priority Marine Features’ both inside and outside Marine Protected Areas.
What was the Three Mile Limit?
A ‘Three Mile Limit’ on steam-powered bottom-trawling was introduced in Scotland in 1889 to protect fish populations and the interests of inshore fishermen, whose livelihoods were being threatened by more industrialised forms of fishing.
At the time, scallop dredging had not developed as a commercial fishery, so the fishing method of scallop dredging was not expressly prohibited. This ‘inshore limit’ of coastal protection was in place until 1984.
Why was the Three Mile Limit removed?
With the collapse of fish stocks in offshore waters , there was an increasing demand for alternative fishing grounds.
Illegal incursions into the inshore area became increasingly common due to a lack of policing, and in 1984 – following pressure from commercial trawlers who wished to exploit the rich fishing grounds near to shore – the UK Government of the day (under Margaret Thatcher) repealed the coastal limit on bottom trawling. The rest, unfortunately, has been history -critically important seabed habitats, including fish spawning grounds and nurseries, have been destroyed. This has fundamentally changed the ecological health of our seabed. The result has been a collapse in many inshore fisheries, and a loss of vital economic opportunities for coastal communities.
Callum Roberts & Ruth Thurstan describe the results in “Ecological Meltdown in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland: Two Centuries of Change in a Coastal Marine Ecosystem.”
“The trawl closure within three nautical miles of the coast was repealed in 1984 under pressure from the industry. Thereafter, bottom fish landings went into terminal decline, with all species collapsing to zero or near zero landings by the early 21st century.”
Why is the seabed so important?
The seabed is the cradle of life in our inshore waters, it is not a featureless desert – although increasingly some areas are starting to look that way.
As on land there are a huge variety of habitats, many with as much biodiversity as a tropical rainforest, and with a greater ability to absorb carbon than any terrestrial environment. Many fish swim in open water, but many live largely on the bottom and spawn on the seabed. The juvenile life stages of a vast array of species rely on a variety of seabed habitats such as maerl beds, kelp beds, reef structures or seagrass beds for shelter and feeding opportunities.
Habitat‐forming species or “engineers” such as kelps and corals, exert control over entire communities by modifying the environment and resources available to other organisms (Jones et al 1994, Bertness and Callaway 1994).
Coastal marine biodiversity is of significant socioeconomic importance. Studies have shown that the leisure and recreation industries directly reliant on coastal marine biodiversity contribute over £11 billion to the UK economy each year (Beaumont et al 2008). Biodiversity stems from a healthy seabed.
In addition to this monetary value, engagement with marine life has considerable benefits for human health and wellbeing and has directly influenced cultural and economic activities for thousands of years (Beaumont et al 2008, Smale et al 2013).
What are the benefits of protecting the seabed?
Dredging and bottom-trawling are allowed in over 95% of Scotland’s inshore waters. Towed gear that damages the seabed ‘simplifies’ the environment over time, and this less varied and ‘simplified’ environment supports less species and fewer jobs.
Protecting areas of seabed allows habitats to recover and expand. This results in greater biodiversity which benefits commercially important species such as scallops and therefore the fishermen that rely on them.
Successive reports, commissioned by the Scottish Government indicate that restricting bottom-trawling and dredging would have both environmental and economic benefits. It’s now time to act on this evidence.
There are many examples of an increase in marine biodiversity in areas where destructive fishing is absent.
There are also alternative and less damaging ways of catching the same species. Some ways garner higher prices and employ more people, e.g. Creeling for Nephrops (prawns or langoustine) when compared to trawling for the same species, and hand-diving for scallops, when compared to dredging for them. We want to see fisheries managed in such a way that employs the maximum number of people, generating the highest amount of profit per kilogram landed, using the least amount of carbon possible.
Less than 5% of the seabed in our Scottish coastal waters is protected from the fishing methods which make contact with it, and damage it. This makes no sense commercially, or environmentally, when we have options to catch these stocks using less damaging methods.
How does seabed protection help tackle the climate crisis?
Many inshore habitats such as maerl, reef structures, kelp, seagrass and muds are incredible carbon sinks, outperforming most terrestrial environments. If these sinks are protected and given the chance to recover it will benefit us all.
Climate change is happening now and the impacts are being felt worldwide. ‘Global emissions of greenhouse gases are tracking the high emission scenarios considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggesting that future climate impacts will be more severe than widely acknowledged in policy.’ (New et al 2011).
We need to act on climate change now, urgently, not at some vague point in the future.
Rapid environmental change is a threat to the functioning of marine ecosystems. The effects of climate change are already well documented in the marine environment and this includes increasing ocean acidification which is already impacting our fish and shellfish species. Research shows that some species are finding it harder to form tough shells in acidic conditions. With more extreme weather events, and rising sea water temperature, protecting the seabed helps make our marine ecosystems more resilient to these threats (Harley et al 2006).
Many inshore habitats such as seagrass and kelp ameliorate oceanic acidification within their vicinity, creating benign environments for juvenile species to thrive. This benefits anyone that relies on or wants a species-rich environment.
Inshore habitats dissipate the force of waves and storm surges which are becoming increasingly common due to climate change. This coastal protection is vital to low-lying coastal communities and for many marine businesses such as shellfish farming, inshore fisheries and tourism.
What are the Scottish Government doing about the problems?
There is a network of ‘Marine Protected Areas’ (MPAs) in Scotland, but the name is misleading as many MPAs have few measures in place to protect anything within them, and others that do are being damaged illegally. Designations are useless without proper enforcement.
The Scottish Government acknowledges that the existing MPA system is not enough. After an incident in Loch Carron where a scallop dredger legally towed through a flame shell reef – destroying vast swathes of it – our government agreed to urgently protect the areas of Scotland’s seabed that are vulnerable to scallop dredge and bottom-trawling. The ‘Priority Marine Feature Review’ was launched three years ago and yet nothing has happened since. Large areas of our seabed remain at risk of continued damage.
Often ‘Marine Protected Areas protect just small remnants of once extensive habitat that provided the basis of our inshore biodiversity. By protecting only these surviving remnant features, there is no chance for habitats and species to recover or expand back into areas where they have been lost. In the Firth of Lorn SAC, scallop dredging is fully excluded and this has allowed sessile reef associated species to spread out from the initial reef area. This wider recovery cannot happen if only small patches of seabed and certain features are protected.
How can we fix this?
The Our Seas Coalition is calling for three actions that would make a big and positive difference to the health of our seabed and fisheries.
1. The return of a new, inshore limit on bottom-towed fishing, via a just transition.
2. Effective vessel tracking systems for all boats.
3. Preferential allocation of fishing opportunity to vessels that have a low environmental impact and which bring increased sustainable economic value and employment to communities.
Members of the coalition have written to the First Minister – Nicola Sturgeon – to call urgently for more purposeful action to recover the health of our inshore seabed. This on-going correspondence and the responses can be viewed here:
- 1st letter – 17th December 2018 || Reply 21st January 2019
- 2nd letter – 25th February 2019|| Reply: 18th March 2019
- 3rd letter – 22nd August 2019 || Reply: September 2019
- 4th letter – 27th October 2020
Why an inshore limit?
The Scottish Government are proposing to protect a few small areas. This is not enough. By protecting only the remnants of habitat, it provides no opportunity for habitats to recover from damage and expand beyond their now restricted range. An inshore limit – similar to the one in place for over 100 years – would enable our seas to actively recover.
How might a ‘Just Transition’ work?
The fleet has declined from over 30,000 vessels to less than 1500 in less than a century. A revival of small-scale inshore fisheries would benefit our rural economy and provide greater job security in sustainable fisheries.
Evidence now shows that a transition could be beneficial, with economic research indicating that more jobs and value are generated by low impact inshore fisheries, when compared to damaging, fuel-intensive methods. For example, study show that more jobs are created by creeling for Nephrops than by trawling for them. New spatial management will not result in less jobs.
It is incumbent on Marine Scotland to manage our waters in a way that creates the maximum amount of jobs from each fishery, in a way that does least damage to our environment, whilst reducing its climate change impacts.
It is vital that fishermen are supported through this transition. An inshore limit restricting damaging fishing methods in coastal waters would undeniably have short-term impacts on the economic activity of workers in the dredge and trawl fleet, and potentially upstream in the supply chain. However, in anticipation of establishing an inshore limit there is significant opportunity for helping skippers and those affected by any changes.
A fundamental aspect of ‘just transition’ is that workers have a stake and a say about what measures can help them during times of change in their industry. We urge Government to develop a shared understanding about the unsustainable trajectory of the inshore trawling and dredging sectors and the historically degraded condition of the seabed.
We think there are some opportunities that would help skippers affected by any spatial reforms:
- Guidance for ensuring sustainable fishing patterns outside of the inshore limit area.
- Access to other fishing opportunities to enable trawl fisheries to diversify into lower impact alternatives within the inshore zone.
- Re-allocating some fishing opportunity to inshore boats via Community Quota schemes to enable diversification. Control of fishing quota for many species such as mackerel and herring has become highly concentrated within businesses that operate larger fishing operations.
Provisions for this reallocation are already laid out in Article 17 of the Common Fisheries Policy (and must be reinforced by post-Brexit legislation). To date the Scottish Government has not effectively implemented their responsibility to allocate fishing opportunity in the wider public interest according to Article 17 which has required Member States to use transparent and objective criteria – including those of an environmental, social and economic nature – when allocating fishing opportunities. Article 17 has also required Member States to endeavour to provide incentives to fishing vessels using selective fishing gear or fishing methods that have a reduced environmental impact.
What is ‘Effective Vessel Tracking’?
Any management is pointless without proper policing. The #OurSeas Coalition is calling for Vessel Monitoring Systems on all licenced fishing vessels, to aid in management and enforcing regulations. Unfortunately some parts of the scallop dredge fleet continue to operate illegally in the tiny (<5%) area that is supposed to be protected. This highlights a serious failure in fisheries management that needs to be addressed.
Currently public Automatic Information Systems (AIS) are legally required for all boats greater than 15m in length, but the relevant authorities do not enforce this. A separate statutory vessel monitoring system for fishing boats operates for all >12m vessels. However this existing system does not enable effective enforcement. The Scottish Government acknowledges this but has yet to address the issue. Many vessels under 12m in length are not tracked at all. The Scottish Government is in the process of trying to modernise its vessel tracking systems across the fleet. However, progress on this has stalled. This coalition is calling on the Scottish Government to urgently invest the resources needed to fit all licenced fishing boats with Vessel Monitoring Systems that signal any vessel’s position at one minute intervals. This would make it possible to accurately record what was being caught where, and it would mean that any vessels operating illegally (eg inside protected areas) could be penalised.
Will the seas not recover on their own?
If left alone the seabed will recover. However, no recovery is possible without protection from damaging fishing practises that continually scour the seabed. Less than 5% of the seabed is currently protected from bottom-trawling and dredging, and in some areas the protective measures are being ignored. The seabed and the species that rely on it cannot recover under this current regime.
How would other lower impact fisheries be managed?
The management of the creel fishery must be promoted to preserve stocks. With the current regime of mixed mobile and static gear being fished in the same area, there is currently no point imposing creel limits as a stock management measure, as reducing creel numbers would only serve to open up more ground for the trawl fleet. Restoring a limit on trawlers and dredgers would allow the creel fishery to be managed more effectively. In a creel-only area the fisheries representatives within this coalition would propose changes to the licensing regime: to cap then regulate the size of the creel sector. This would involve the introduction of a creel register with a creel tagging system to cap gear fished per vessel with a phased introduction of individual vessel allocations consistent with ongoing assessment of the sustainability of the fishery.
Who is in the Coalition?
#OurSeas is a joint campaign bringing together fishermen, scientists, sea anglers, marine tourism and coastal business, community organisations and environmental groups who are calling for a transformation in the way that our coastal seas are used and protected.
After a spate of illegal damage around our coastline, people from across Scotland gathered in Oban on a winter’s night in December 2018 to work out what to do. There was recognition that the laws in place to protect our seas were simply not stopping routine damage to Scotland’s seabed.
Do you campaign on other issues, such as salmon farming or marine plastic waste?
We acknowledge that there are many issues impacting our inshore waters, but as a coalition we are focused on the issue of seabed and fisheries by campaigning for three strategic actions. Our membership is varied with some organisations campaigning hard on other important marine issues. Please see our website for a full list of members.
How does this affect me?
We all have a stake in this. A healthy thriving environment is in everyone’s best interests.
The sea does not belong to any one group of people and our inshore waters should be managed in the public interest, not for the short-term profits of any single commercial sector.
The Scottish Government itself acknowledges this: ‘It is generally accepted that fish stocks in Scottish waters are a national resource and should be managed on behalf of all stakeholders. It is also recognised that inshore fisheries are an important resource for recreational activity such as sea angling and scuba diving, whilst inshore biodiversity is a concern for those participating in wildlife observation and tourism. The inshore is very much a shared resource and policy needs to recognise demands of a diverse range of stakeholders and be based on robust evidence’.
Why are you campaigning now?
Bad fisheries management impacts many more people than just fishermen. Given the climate crisis and the role the seabed has in ameliorating it, bad fisheries management will impact us all.
The existing formal channels for proposing fisheries management have not worked. Successive attempts to revise the system for allocating fishing opportunity have failed. The system needs reform. As time is wasted through political inaction, the vital habitats in our inshore waters continue being degraded and destroyed by poorly regulated and damaging fishing. It would be a dereliction of our social and environmental duties not to challenge the current mismanagement of our environment.
What can I do?
Recognize that the sea belongs to all of us and that its mismanagement is impacting all of us. We all have a voice and have a right to demand change as a matter of urgency, and put this issue on the political map.
You can join the coalition as an organisation, or sign up as a supporter.
SPREAD THE WORD!