Catherine swimming in the sea

Official bathing season in Scotland offers a chance to give back to the ocean

3 minute read

Catherine Gemmell

Catherine Gemmell, Policy and Advocacy Manager

1 Jun 2024

Saturday the 1st of June marks the start of the official Bathing Season in Scotland when there will be even more people finding joy in their local blue space. Our Policy and Advocacy Manager, Catherine Gemmell, asks if there is more we can be doing to give back to the ocean.

After a day behind the computer screen working with fellow ocean optimists, ‘Fancy a swim tonight?’ is the perfect message to receive from my friend. Since moving back to my home coastline of Moray, I head for a dip in the sea at least once a week. Now, with the weather warming up, it can almost be a daily activity!

It's been a joy to see so many old friends and family join me in falling in love with the sea all over again through taking a dip off one of our local beaches. From the laughs and screams on walking or jumping in, to the chats and giggles while bobbing around, to the wonder of sharing the space with wildlife like seals and dolphins.

Across Scotland, there are over 80 official bathing waters where water quality is monitored from 1st June to 15th September by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). Each bathing water is given a classification based on water quality samples taken during the previous four bathing seasons  – excellent, good, sufficient and poor.

Bathing waters are also monitored through visual checks for sewage related debris – items that have been incorrectly flushed down the toilet and have ended up washing up on the beach.

Sewage-related debris a problem on Scottish beaches

Unfortunately, sewage related debris such as wet wipes, cotton bud sticks and sanitary items, is still a huge problem on many Scottish beaches. If you take part in our Beachwatch citizen science project, you'll likely have seen items like wet wipes and cotton bud sticks on the survey form. You might have also seen sewage related debris on the beach itself, especially if you’ve spent time on stretches of coast near highly populated areas.

Collage of pollution found on Scottish beaches

Credit: Catherine Gemmell

In fact, our volunteers found over 30,000 wet wipes on surveyed Scottish beaches last year and nearly 70% of our cleans found sewage related debris of all kinds.

Using this data, we have successfully campaigned for a commitment from governments across the UK to ban plastic in single-use wet wipes – so we should hopefully see those numbers decrease. However, we also need people to stop flushing these items down the toilet. If you need to use them, make sure to bin them so they don't end up on our beautiful beaches!

When these items are flushed, they can cause blockages in the pipes which can then lead to a cocktail of sewage, run off and litter being spilled into our seas.

Scottish Water recently shared data on how many of these spills from overflows happened in 2023. Monitored overflows spilled over 21,000 times in 2023 for an average of 10 hours per spill. Not good news for our seas and beaches - or our bathers! The problem may also be underreported, as the data only covers a small percentage of the network. Approximately 7% of the network is currently monitored for spills.

100% monitoring of overflows is needed

One of our key policy asks in Scotland is for 100% monitoring of overflows, matching ambition in England and Wales, so we know where the problems are. Scottish Water have been working in response to this, and we are pleased to see the increase from 4% coverage to 7% this year for published data. By the end of this year 1,000 new monitors will also be in place which will be visible to the public and will be included in the annual data publication by Scottish Water in 2025.

Without this, vital data investment can not be targeted at the problem areas and the public can’t make informed decisions about when and where to go in the water. Put simply, when we know where the problem areas are, more can be done to fix them. That's why our 100% monitoring ask is so crucial.

You can help by asking your Member of the Scottish Parliament what they are doing to stop sewage spoiling Scotland’s seas and beaches and help us call on the Scottish Government to commit to monitoring 100% of overflows.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency have just published a new Bathing Waters website which we would encourage you to look at to learn more about Scotland’s Bathing Waters.

So when someone next asks me if I fancy a swim, I will also think about what else I could do to help protect the amazing blue space we are about to enjoy!

Have a wonderful and safe bathing season everyone!

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