Seabirds in Shetland need more legal protection, according to the local RSPB wardens.
They said the Scottish government’s publication of potential Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) this week, which could protect 20 per cent of the seas around Scotland, would not help seabirds.
Although local wardens welcomed the publication, they, and the conservation charity in general, expressed deep disappointment about a lack of protection for seabirds under the Marine (Scotland) Act. Seabirds are important in their own right, said RSPB warden for the South Mainland Helen Moncrieff, and there is a socio-economic reason for protection too – tourists from all over the world and local school groups come to see Shetland’s sea birds, notably the puffins at Sumburgh.
Ms Moncrieff said: “It’s good to get the marine protection area but it’s not ambitious enough. Shetland is a hugely important place for sea birds, they do have some legal protection on land but MPAs don’t go far enough for seabirds.”
Director of RSPB Scotland Stuart Housden said: “This week’s announcement, whilst a step in the right direction, is a massive missed opportunity.
“Despite Scotland being globally important for seabirds, these have been almost completely marginalised in the identification of Scotland’s new Marine Protected Areas. These proposals offer precious little protection for iconic species like the puffin, razorbill and kittiwake.
“The government claims seabirds will be adequately protected by Special Protection Areas designated under European legislation. Let there be no confusion – these promised SPAs are essential, but they cannot and will not protect nationally important concentrations of seabirds feeding out at sea.
“We have been pressing for a coherent and meaningful suite of protected areas for marine wildlife since 2002 – this is not the end of the process by any means.”
Scotland holds a significant percentage of Europe’s breeding seabird population, but recent figures have indicated alarming declines. Research suggests that changes in the food chain, particularly a lack of sandeels, a vital food source for most species, may be driving these population crashes.
Ms Moncrieff said local work is ongoing to understand where Shetland seabirds find food.
Mr Housden added: “While it is good to see some ‘search areas’ for sandeels, we are alarmed that one of the most important North Sea sites, the Firth of Forth, may not be formally protected for this species. This undermines the defining principle of a protected area – ‘protect the best’ – and calls in to question the ambition of the Scottish Government. “Scotland will fail to meet international obligations to protect seabirds unless our government designates Scottish MPAs for Scottish seabirds. We hope that ministers will use the months prior to the public consultation on these sites to strengthen and improve these proposals.”
If designated, Scottish minister for the enviroment Richard Lochhead said the MPA would protect diverse habitats and rare species and ensure a healthy marine ecosystem which underpins the nursery grounds for fish.