By RYAN TAYLOR
PROPOSALS aimed at balancing economic and environmental concerns in Scottish seas met with a mixed reaction in Shetland this week.
Holyrood officials hope consultation on Scotland’s first marine bill – revealed by environment secretary Richard Lochhead – will enable both traditional and new marine industries to co-exist in harmony.
The government hopes a new body called Marine Scotland can be developed to combine the efforts of existing agencies and streamline governing the waters around Scotland.
Environmental groups have broadly welcomed the measures, but fishing industry leaders fear their interests could end up taking a back seat.
Chief executive of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, Hansen Black, gave a cautious welcome to the proposals.
But he said the government needed to strike a balance between guarding the environment and working for a profit in Scottish waters.
“I would hope the marine bill could be of benefit to us, because fishermen are one of the main stakeholders in the marine environment,” he said.
“I would worry some folk may see this as an opportunity to exert undue influence over what goes on in our seas.
“I think we, as one of the major stakeholders, are going to have to be given prominence to allow our activities to carry on.
“But I would hate it to come across that we are in conflict with other marine stakeholders.
“We’ve worked well with the oil industry in the past, and we’ve worked with the aquaculture sector.
“At this moment in time there are not too many conflicts. I don’t think this marine bill was born out of a desperate need to manage the seas better because of conflict.”
Of course, the waters around Shetland are not only of concern to fishermen.
With wildlife proving more and more of a draw for travellers, the tourism sector has a vested interest in the government proposals.
Jonathan Wills, of Seabirds and Seals, said the government needed to do more to protect Shetland’s special marine wildlife interests.
He said it was “obvious” the Shetland coastline was ecologically sensitive, and it was “arbitrary to offer special protection to only some bits of it”.
He said the coastline around the isles needed special protection from destructive fishing methods like heavy sea bottom trawlers, drift nets and large-scale scallop dredgers.
“The future of the fishing industry relies on the environment and there is a very sound economic reason for giving protection to Shetland’s inshore waters.
“As far as plankton is concerned, it’s much richer even than the Barrier Reef.
“Under the water in Shetland is foggy – people think that’s because of pollution, but actually it’s because of the plankton.
“There is far more plant and animal life under the water in Shetland than there is above it. People don’t appreciate that.”
Local area officer for Scottish Natural Heritage, Karen Hall, said the plans could help reduce the amount of red tape marine organisations have to go through.
“It has been a long time coming, and I think it could be quite good for marine users in Shetland,” she said.
“Anything that sorts out the amount of different legislation we have to deal with is good for anyone.”
She said the move would help Shetland in its development of a marine spatial plan, which is being devised as part of a pilot scheme aimed at helping communities understand and participate in marine matters.
The finalised plan for Shetland is due to be published in September.
The chair of Scottish Environment LINK – a coalition of Scotland’s environment charities – also backed the government plans.
Calum Duncan said proposed powers for Scottish Ministers to set up protected areas at sea was a step in the right direction.
“We welcome the scope of the Scottish marine bill consultation, in particular the proposed new power to allow Scottish ministers to establish marine protected areas for species and habitats especially important to Scotland.
“These are urgently needed to help deliver a comprehensive network of sites to which Scotland has committed.
“There are still some areas where there is significant room for improvement and we will be pushing to ensure that the Scottish marine bill is as strong as possible.
“It is vital that the proposals for marine protected areas are robust enough to ensure that our nationally important marine species and habitats are adequately protected.”
The marine bill is seen as of crucial importance to the future of seas around Scotland.
It is charged with protecting the interests of 40,000 species and internationally important populations of marine mammals and seabirds.
But with Scottish waters generating over £2.2 billion for the Scottish economy, ministers can not afford to ignore business interests.
Fish farming alone accounts for 60 per cent of all food exports from Scotland, with a value of some £422 million.
Proposals within the bill include plans to:
- Improve conservation to ensure a healthy future for marine wildlife, including seabirds.
- A new marine planning system and a streamlined licensing system to encourage economic investment in areas like renewable energy.
- Introduce measures designed to ensure a viable future for traditional and new marine industries.
Mr Lochhead said: “Striking the right balance between the long term viability and growth of all these industries and the enhanced protection of our special marine environment is at the heart of our proposed bill