The latest report on the decline of our seabirds, highlights yet again our reluctance to do anything that interferes with the commercial exploitation of the sea or do anything much about climate change.
The report, from the RSPB, finds that Britain’s seabird population is falling by half a per cent a year, which may not sound much but over 25 years that builds up to a substantial fall. In the case of kittiwakes, they are down by 55 per cent since 1986, shags 42 per cent, the Arctic skua 72 per cent and the Roseate tern 75 per cent. The reasons are, of course, the shortage of fish and other sea food, habitat loss and climate change.
This week (the first week of December ) the world’s environment ministers meet again at the latest UN Climate Change conference in Doha. The Scottish environment minister Paul Wheelhouse will be there boasting about our world-beating greenhouse gas reduction target of 42 per cent by 2020. But we have already missed one of the milestone targets earlier this year. And as regards the seas around Scotland, we are pressing ahead regardless with oil and gas production, off-shore wind farms and even hoping to operate our own (more relaxed) fishing controls.
There is also a mysterious two-year delay in drawing up a National Marine Plan. And the slow progress in defining Marine Protected Areas means that energy and fishing companies can get on with their business before any new environmental restrictions are put in place.
In the long run, we seem to adopting one of John Maynard Keynes’ more unfortunate sayings: “In the long run, we are all dead.” But as Donald Trump is finding out, even in the short run, there are disadvantages to trampling on the environment. He didn’t much care about the environment when he “fixed” the sand dunes on the site of special scientific interest at the Menie Estate but now he complains that someone else wants to spoil the environment with an off-shore wind farm.
Fishermen have been hit by a similar boomerang. They want to spend more days at sea catching fish – ignoring the scientific advice from the European Commission that 70 per cent of the fish stock are being over-fished and species like the cod have very nearly been fished out altogether. Then they wonder why their industry is down from around 2,500 boats a decade ago to just 2,000 today.
They blame the Norwegians or the Faroese for stealing “their” fish and expect the hated European Commission to do something about it. They complain about the Spanish armada coming to hover up Scottish fish but the so-called slipper skippers (men who’ve retired but who still have quota permits) have often sold their permits to Spanish companies.
At next month’s fishing negotiations in Brussels Scottish fishermen hope to be given more local control over fish stocks, saying they would manage them wisely for the long term. Yet just a few years ago no fewer than 14 Scottish skippers were found guilty of breaching the quota limits in a £37m operation that went on for three years, a fraud on an industrial scale. No wonder we need three fishery protection vessels, two aircraft and a satellite tracking system to police our fishing grounds (and all paid for by the tax-payer, not the fishing industry).
The oil and gas industry is also pretty careless when it comes to looking after the North Sea. In the first three months of this year, 69 oil and chemical spills were notified to the authorities, a figure which has doubled since 2005. BP was by far the worse offender, but the French company Total also gave us the largest leak, an escape of gas from its Elgin rig off Aberdeen which lasted a month.
Scotland’s 250 marine fish farms are also potential polluters of the sea, particularly as more and more chemicals are being used to treat sea lice. The use of chemicals has increased 110 per cent in the last four years. The Salmon and Trout Association says samples of the sea around 13 per cent of fish farms have been found to have chemical residues more than the permitted limit.
The anglers are also worried about the rise of escapes from fish cages, causing contamination of wild salmon. There have only been three incidents of escapes this year – involving 11,000 salmon – but in the severe storms of January 2005 up to a million farmed salmon and trout escaped from damaged cages.
There is a bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament to tighten the regulations on fish farming. There are also moves being made under the new Marine Acts to bring in planning regulations and marine protected areas but progress is slow, suspiciously slow. Conservation organisations, under the umbrella campaign Environment Link, are outraged that the Scottish Marine Plan has been postponed from this year to 2014 – giving time, they say, for the fishing, oil and gas, and wind farm industries to go ahead with business as usual before any new conservation measures or planning controls can be brought into effect.
Preliminary survey work has been carried out on the planned network of marine protected areas (MPAs) but none so far has been introduced. Further details are to be published next month and there are some hints as to what areas are being considered. Survey work has established severe damage to the sea bed around Loch Broom, the Summer Isles, Gairloch, Loch Fyne, Loch Sween and Loch Linnhe.
Arran, of course, already has its experimental no-take fishing zone in Lamlash Bay. Islanders in the Fair Isle have put forward a plan for a demonstration MPA extending out to 15km around their coast. Parts of the North Sea, such as the Fladen Grounds, have been found to have large populations of ocean quahog, a type of clam which can live for up to 400 years. And the cold water reefs around Hatton Bank and Rochall off the West Coast have been designated European special areas of conservation. So the map of protected areas is beginning to emerge, areas in which fishing or fish farming or heavy engineering may be banned or restricted.
Of course, the fishing and oil industries say they are willing to co-operate with MPAs but I guess there will be a lot of underwater fighting – or at least behind the scenes negotiations – before a definitive map is published, ready for approval by parliament. There is already a public squabble over the criteria used to designate an MPA.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, for instance, insist that Scotland’s 20 species of whales and dolphins should be fully protected but opponents argue that whales move around rather a lot. The same could be said of cod or salmon or herring. And what about the 200 species of birds that regularly live in Scotland. Are all their habitats and food sources to be protected ?
Probably not. And the signs are that in the political balance to be struck between the different marine interests around Scotland, the commercial interests will come first and the birds and the fish and the corals and the 400 year old clams will have to take care of themselves.