We need a Scottish Environment Act to help deliver thriving seas

By: Calum Duncan
Date posted: 22 March 2019

“Who will guard the guards themselves?” is the literal translation of the ancient rhetorical question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”. Governments make decisions on behalf of the people, but what if they are poor decisions or the people disagree? This is a key concern with our departure from the European Union, where currently the European Commission provides an excellent opportunity to hold power to account. Anybody can complain to the Commission about poor or non-delivery of EU legal requirements by Member State governments at no cost; if a complaint is upheld, Member States must deliver or risk infraction.

Scuba diver

Once out of the EU, that opportunity is lost to the people of Scotland. As one of 35 environmental charities from across Scotland, we have come together to “Fight for Scotland’s Nature” and gather support for a new Scottish Environment Act to:

You can support the campaign here.

I have spent a good chunk of my time at the Marine Conservation Society working closely with conservation partners to help secure the Marine (Scotland) Act in 2010, along with ensuring effective implementation of marine protected areas and marine planning to help boost the health of Scotland’s considerable stretch of seas. On the northwest edge of Europe, jutting into the Atlantic, Scotland has a sea area almost six times greater than that of the land, comprising 61% of UK waters, 13% of all European seas and an 18,000km coastline - enough to stretch from here to Australia. As marine conservation is devolved, fully within 12 nautical miles and executively beyond 12nm, Scotland therefore has considerable responsibility for ensuring a great wedge of the northeast Atlantic is in good health. These waters are globally important for sealife large and small, from basking sharks, seals and seabird colonies, to coldwater corals, flameshells and maerl beds. Great strides in marine conservation have been taken by the Scottish Government in recent years, but marine species and habitats continue to struggle.

Caithness Grey Seals Caithness Grey Seals

Some 80% of Scottish environmental protections stem from the EU, including legislation to protect vulnerable marine habitats, improve coastal water quality, phase out non-recyclable single-use plastic and ensure our seas are overall in “Good Environmental Status”. EU protections have unquestionably played an overwhelmingly positive role in protecting and enhancing our natural environment by setting clear objectives for legislation, providing funding mechanisms and a variety of routes to ensure implementation.

Through EU membership, Scotland has been able to better protect our natural environment and develop world-leading policies setting the bar across Europe and beyond.

Sound of Mull Treshnish Isles

The Habitats Directive required that some of the most internationally important places in our seas, including for living reefs, rocky reefs and many sea lochs, bays and Firths, were properly protected as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) to ensure they were in “Favourable Conservation Status”. At the Marine Conservation Society, we were deeply concerned this was not the case for many sites across the UK. Following a successful complaint made to the EC by community campaigners in Argyll to exclude scallop dredging from the Firth of Lorn SAC in 2007, MCS and Client Earth wrote to Defra that same year highlighting that the UK Government was not meeting legal commitments to properly protect SACs in England, a concern we then shared with the Scottish Government in 2009.

The prospect of a formal complaint to the European Commission merited serious consideration and a new process was instigated for England to protect SACs for the most vulnerable features from damaging trawling and dredging. In Scotland, fisheries protection measures were consulted on for the most vulnerable nature conservation Marine Protected Areas designated (arising from the hard-won Marine (Scotland) Act 2010) and marine SACs in 2014. To have most confidence in meeting EU requirements, and mindful of over 4,700 responses to the MCS-led #donttaketheP campaign, the Scottish Government excluded trawling and dredging from the most vulnerable SACs, including St Kilda, East Mingulay, Treshnish Isles and Lochs Duich, Long and Alsh. Without the driver of EU legislation, and the relative ease of potential access to justice through the European Commission, who knows whether such a positive outcome for vulnerable seabed habitats, and the livelihoods that rely upon them being healthy, would have been possible?

Wild Salmon leap Wild salmon leaping

Enjoyment of cleaner seas has been possible thanks to the EU Bathing Water Directive, which MCS successfully campaigned to toughen up using our independent Good Beach Guide. Without the prospect of EU infraction, it is unlikely that investment to improve sewage treatment works throughout Scotland and the UK would have been at the level and rate it has. It also spurred the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to develop world-leading electronic bathing water quality prediction telemetry and signs. Billions of pounds-worth of upgrades resulted in cleaner seas to swim and paddle in, though with particular challenges of wetter summers, system overflows and run-off from coastal livestock, there is still room for improvement.

Legislation and appeal mechanisms enshrined by the EU have clearly benefited Scotland’s environment and people. An EU exit with no mechanisms for independent oversight and appeal in place threatens to unravel critical environmental protections at a time when one in eleven species in Scotland is at risk of extinction. We cannot afford to be left behind EU and global partners. This is why we need a Scottish Environment Act to set clear ambitions for our own environmental policy, put in place an independent environmental watchdog and set a clear trajectory towards a truly sustainable future. This is all the more important as we approach 2020, a “super year” which will be critical for the culmination of global efforts to halt biodiversity loss, including existing European commitments for our seas to be in “Good Environmental Status”. It will also be Scotland’s “Year of Coasts and Seas” for which a newly established independent guardian for the health of our marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments would be a most fitting legacy.

If you want to help the Fight for Thriving Seas, click here

Coral in Scotland