Jean calls for an ambitous plan to restore marine ecosystems

Scallop fishing off Skye. Photo by Alex Berger.
Scallop fishing off Skye. Photo by Alex Berger.

Jean has welcomed the Scottish Government’s draft National Marine Plan, but urged Ministers to include more ambitious measures to secure restore damaged ecosystems such as Wester Ross’s vital mearl beds.

During a Scottish Parliament debate on the plan last Thursday, Jean praised the Government for their progress on what will be the first national-level marine plan in the UK.

However, she said the final plan should aim not just to preserve damaged ecosystems in their current state, but ensure their recovery and growth.

Jean said:

“The draft National Marine Plan is a great start and ministers deserve praise for that. But as it develops, it needs to be more ambitious about restoring vital ecosystems, and more responsive to emerging science and the ever-changing nature of the sea.

“Wester Ross’s beds of the coral-like seaweed called maerl provide a habitat for thousands of other marine species. They are particularly economically important for scallop fishing, providing the perfect nursery for you scallops. But they are also among the most badly-damaged maerl beds in Scotland.

“The current plan draws a protective area tightly around the existing beds, providing little opportunity for growth. It doesn’t even cover some more recently-discovered areas, showing the necessity for a flexible plan that can respond to new information.

“There are examples like this right around Scotland, but each case is different, so it’s also important that communities have real power to implement the national plan in a way that suits local needs.”

“We also need to be sure that the plan is adhered to, otherwise it’s really just a piece of paper. That means a little more clarity in the plan itself, but most importantly it means both the Scottish and UK governments providing appropriate resources to protect our seas.

“The grounding of the Lysblink Seaways on Ardnamurchan last week was another reminder that, for both crew safety and the marine environment, we need an emergency towing vessel in the Minch.”

Scottish Natural Heritage explains what maerl is and why it is so important:

“Maerl is an unusual seaweed – an unattached red seaweed called ‘coralline’ algae. These seaweeds deposit lime in their cell walls as they grow, giving them a hard, brittle skeleton.

“Maerl beds provide vital shelter for a wide range of marine creatures. Experiments have shown that young scallops in particular have a strong preference for living maerl beds as nursery areas. Protecting maerl beds therefore helps to sustain scallop fishing, important commercially in western Scotland. It is ironic, therefore, that scallop dredging has been shown to cause significant damage both to maerl beds – by breaking up and burying the thin layer of living maerl – and to their associated species. Maerl is fragile and slow-growing, and can also be damaged by heavy anchors and mooring chains.”

Read more at the SNH website.

Speech: Stage 1 Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill

I am pleased to have the opportunity to support the bill’s basic principles at stage 1. Although a lot of my colleagues have identified during the debate issues that require more work or consideration, I think that there is consensus that work can be done to improve the sustainability, accountability and transparency of the aquaculture and wild fisheries sectors. Indeed, the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s report on the bill commented that

“the current draft of the Bill is very much the starting point, and should the Bill reach Stage 2 it will require amendment in order to make it … robust”.

There is no doubt that the cabinet secretary and the Government have a tough and delicate task on their hands. Again, the committee’s report reflected the difficulties in finding consensus on the way forward on contentious issues due to current difficulties between the aquaculture and wild fisheries sectors. Although it is not something that can always be addressed by legislation, I am sure that we would all agree that improving the relationships could and should be part of the process.

The importance of the aquaculture and wild fisheries sectors to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands communities must not be underestimated. The popularity of Scottish salmon continues to grow at an exponential rate, with aspirations to increase sustainable production by 4 to 5 per cent per annum until 2020.

Enabling the sectors to continue to grow and to provide jobs and exports in an ecologically sound manner is essential to ensuring the sustainability not only of the sectors but of many rural and remote communities. However, do we know what the increase of 5 per cent per annum until 2020 will look like? Planning applications are already being refused on the basis of proliferation. We need a national plan if we want to see such growth.

Recognising the opportunity for Scotland and realising its potential is the right thing to do. Being sensitive to the natural environment, legislating against abuse by a large industry, always protecting the fantastic wild salmon and its life cycle and believing that quality must not be compromised by quantity should all be Scotland’s trademarks.

Of the issues that the bill seeks to address, I am of the opinion that the presence of sea lice and the strategies used to contain them will be paramount to the bill’s success. I welcome the minister’s announcement of £1 million of funding for scientific research. I believe that that is essential not only to reassure the public but to ensure that we have sustainable growth in fish farming.

In conclusion, I support the bill at stage 1. I look forward to seeing work on the bill continue over the coming weeks and months to create a strong framework for the sector.