Habitat and fisheries decline sparks calls for coastal recovery

Our Seas coordinator Ailsa McLellan.

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A new assessment reveals that carbon-rich seabed habitats are continuing to decline on the west coast of Scotland, prompting calls for urgent action by the Our Seas coalition.

According to the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020, many hectares of habitats around Scotland’s coasts have been lost in the last 10 years alone.

A campaign to recover the health of Scotland’s coastal seas has now gathered momentum with more than 90 concerned organisations and businesses calling on the Scottish Government to take urgent action to halt and reverse the damage being done to inshore seabeds by bottom-towed fishing gear.

The coalition supports the reinstatement of an inshore limit on bottom-trawling to recover the health of Scotland’s fish populations and safeguard sustainable fisheries.

The Argyll marine region has lost more than half of its known flame shell reefs and 35 per cent of its serpulid (a type of marine worm) aggregations, whilst the Clyde marine region has lost 9.1 per cent of its flame shell reefs and 9.9 per cent of its maerl beds.

This totals 101 hectares of lost habitat and carbon-rich seabed that provide vital fish nursery grounds.

The Our Seas coalition was established in response to decades of decline in Scotland’s inshore fisheries and, in particular, steep declines in the spawning stock of fish such as cod and whiting on the west coast, as a result of a century-long ban on bottom-trawling within three miles of the shore being removed in 1984.

The members of Our Seas coalition argue that recovery of fish populations and habitats is impossible unless the causes of those declines are addressed by the Scottish Government and that the pressures of Brexit and the Covid pandemic are laying bare long-standing problems in the health of Scotland’s fisheries.

The coalition is now raising further public awareness and has launched a new documentary film The Limit.

Ailsa McLellan, coordinator of Our Seas, said: ‘We have accepted the chronic decline in our fisheries for too long; now we must address the causes.

‘This is a hidden biodiversity crisis on our doorstep, some of the habitats being lost are significant carbon sinks, they must be protected and allowed to recover.

‘There is overwhelming evidence that coastal nursery and spawning grounds are damaged by bottom towed fishing gear, and that this has directly contributed to a decline in marine life and the historical collapse of many fish populations.

‘These declines are the fault of ineffective fisheries management, not the fishermen. Declines cannot be reversed until the Scottish Government reintroduces spatial management and incentivises a transition away from the use of intensive fishing gears close to shore”.

‘Brexit and the pandemic have exposed the desperate situation for our coastal fisheries who currently have little chance to diversify.

‘Many within the inshore fleet now rely on shellfish, when in the past they would have been able to catch a variety of fish species.

‘Conservation need not be at the expense of jobs, there are examples at home and internationally of conservationists and fishermen working together to benefit both fisheries, communities and the environment.’

Our Seas is currently organising a public petition which can be signed on its website https://www.ourseas.scot