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Vote to protect Scotland's kelp today a victory for people power

By: Jack O'Donovan
Date posted: 21 November 2018

During the final stage of the Crown Estate (Scotland) Bill progressing through the Scottish Parliament today, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) voted to ban the removal of entire kelp plants from Crown Estate seabed for commercial use. However concerns were raised over the legitimate level of protection due to the lack of definition of the term ‘commercial use’ and the loosely defined nature of the amendments put forward.

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This is fantastic news for Scotland’s kelp forests, an outcome testament to people power.

Calum Duncan,
Head of Conservation Scotland
Marine Conservation Society

Kelp forests are one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on planet Earth and have often been compared to rainforest by those including Sir David Attenborough and Charles Darwin, for the life they support. An application to mechanically harvest Scotland’s wild kelp came as a great concern to the team at MCS. Local campaign groups immediately began to lobby Members of Scottish parliament and raise awareness over the destruction this mechanical harvesting would cause. Prohibiting mechanical kelp dredging was brought to the attention of parliament after more than 10,000 people signed a petition calling for a ban.

Calum Duncan, MCS Head of Conservation Scotland noted: “Sustainable hand-gathering of kelp has very careful measures in place that require the base to remain attached to the reef. Mechanically stripping swathes of pristine kelp forest clean from the reef at the scale proposed simply cannot be considered sustainable.

In today’s parliamentary session one of the most debated items on the agenda was over proposed amendments to introduce specific regulations for kelp harvesting in Scotland. Amendments to the historic Crown Estate (Scotland) Bill, which is devolving the management of Scottish Crown Estate assets to Scotland, were put forward by Mark Ruskell MSP, supported by Claudia Beamish MSP and ultimately backed by Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Roseanna Cunningham MSP. However, as the debate unfolded it also became clear that these welcome amendments will not fully protect all of Scotland’s last great wilderness.

“Kelp forests are hugely important to our marine environment. They dampen waves, protecting coastal communities from flooding and erosion, act as a habitat for hundreds of species, and store more carbon dioxide than the rainforest.” - Mark Ruskell MSP

These issues arrived in Parliament thanks to the tireless efforts of local campaigners including kelp hand-gatherer Ailsa McLennan, #HelptheKelp, Ullapool Sea Savers and many others, along with the energy and support of concerned and empowered individuals.

Calum added: “This is fantastic news for Scotland’s kelp forests, an outcome testament to people power on an historic day with powers on devolving management of Crown Estate assets being debated in the Scottish Parliament. Protection of kelp plants from being entirely removed from the seabed for commercial use has been assured thanks to welcome cross-party support. The Environment Secretary is to be commended for listening to the evidence and to coastal community concern. Everybody supports thriving coastal communities and sustainable green businesses and this outcome brings that one step closer.”

Cat Shark

This ban does not mean no mechanical harvesting can ever occur. It simply means that entire plants cannot be removed in the harvest process such that they could not regrow. Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham stressed the need for detailed scientific study into Scotland’s kelp forests. A full review of kelp harvesting will be conducted, a steering group on the matter will be set up and the views and advice of academics, NGOs and campaign groups will all be taken into account. The Environment Secretary continued that further scientific research is needed as there are five different types of kelp harvesting, all to be investigated, some with greater environmental impacts than others. This will be assessed in scoping studies into local areas to determine where future kelp industries may emerge.

The Crown Estate (Scotland) Bill relates to management of all Crown Estate assets in Scotland , which includes about half of all the country’s kelp forests. The industrial-scale kelp harvesting proposed by Marine Biopolymers Ltd. was already a marine licensing issue and had passed through all the regulatory hoops for the past eight years of their scoping and development process, a fact that in itself was worrying had it not been for the accepted amendment.

In Bantry Bay Ireland, a licence to mechanically harvest kelp has already been granted with no public consultation or environmental impact assessment. The mechanical harvesting method to be used by BioAtlantis Ltd, is in some form classified as ‘sustainable’ as it does not remove the entire plant. However, the impact of any mechanical harvesting is known to be destructive to the community of marine creatures that depend on it for food and shelter. The people of Bantry Bay are actively campaigning for the licence to be rescinded.

Some uncertainty still linger over aspects of the future protection of Scotland’s native kelp forests. We hope the review promised today will provide greater clarity on the long-term future of kelp conservation and sustainable kelp harvesting in Scottish waters.

Today however is a hard-won victory for people power. The cross-party consensus on the need to protect kelp forests through the ban on the removal of entire kelp plants is a large step in the right direction. The positive response to the #nokelpdredge campaign from the Scottish Government is another indication of the growing awareness of the importance of Scotland’s seas, the life that lives in them and their importance to sustainable coastal livelihoods.

Actions you can take

  1. The Government’s Programme for Scotland 2017-18 in full
  2. Register to take part in the Big Seaweed Search

Did you know?…

An area over 9 times the size of Wales is now in marine protected areas in the UK, but less than 1% is considered by MCS scientists to be well managed

To the shelf limits, Scotland has 61% of UK waters, of which 23% are now in existing or new ‘marine protected areas’

70% of the oxygen in the air we breathe comes from the ocean