Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee
Meeting date: Tuesday, June 6, 2017
Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Subordinate Legislation, Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Decision on Taking Business in Private
- Subordinate Legislation
- Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
Loch Carron Urgent Marine Conservation Order 2017 (SSI 2017/158)
Agenda item 2 is an evidence-taking session with the Scottish Government on the Loch Carron Urgent Marine Conservation Order 2017 (SSI 2017/158). I welcome to the meeting Michael McLeod, who is the head of marine conservation at the Scottish Government. Members will put a series of questions to you, and other issues might be identified as a result of those questions and your answers, which might mean that we will need to write to you for further clarification.
To begin with, can you outline the need for urgency with regard to the order? Did the Government fear that a repetition of incidents was likely?
We could not rule out a repeat incident. It would be bad for the environment, the Government and the fishing industry if such a thing were to happen again; the easiest way to ensure that it cannot happen again is to put in place management measures to control activity.
Two points arise from that response. First, there were two incidents. Was the same vessel involved in both? Secondly, what percentage of the flame shell bed has been damaged?
On your first question, we believe that it was the same vessel on both occasions. Certainly the data from the vessel monitoring system, which most vessels in the Scottish fleet have, places the vessel in the area on two different occasions.
As for your second question, we do not yet know exactly how much of the bed has been damaged. The survey work that was carried out was a mixture of dive surveys, with divers looking at the damage, and high-definition video footage that was filmed by Marine Scotland science. A considerable amount of analysis has to be done to establish how much of the bed remains and how much appears to be damaged. That work is on-going.
Can we get a ballpark figure? Has, say, 50 per cent been damaged, or is the figure less than that?
I would not like to put a figure on the damage.
Good morning, Mr McLeod. The policy note states that
“flame shell beds could take over 100 years to recover from just one pass of scallop dredge fishing gear.”
The marine conservation order will be in place for two years, but I presume that little recovery will take place in those two years. What are Marine Scotland’s plans once the MCO has expired? Can it be reissued?
The short answer is yes. Urgent designation of a marine protected area can last for a maximum of only two years. Between now and two years’ time, we will need to progress designation of Loch Carron as a full nature conservation MPA and put in place the necessary management measures for long-term recovery of the habitat.
With regard to MPAs and the MCO, what would you say to critics who suggest that closing areas to dredging in the past has achieved nothing but the creation of marine deserts that are populated by starfish, and inevitable overfishing of the remaining areas? I am thinking in particular of Broad Bay in Lewis, in the Western Isles. We took evidence on it some time ago, in a previous parliamentary session, when claims were made that such areas just create sea beds full of starfish.
I have not seen evidence of a scientific survey of Broad Bay from before its closure, which I think was in 1989, and I have not seen a full survey of the area since. There has been occasional partial survey work, but it has not been for biodiversity purposes. There was a scallop-stock survey; the survey took up some starfish in its hauls and not very many scallops, but I would say that that is not enough evidence to say that closing areas turns the seabed into a marine desert.
Just for the record, some such evidence was shared with the Environment and Rural Development Committee in a previous parliamentary session.
First, I welcome the swift designation by the Scottish Government. What information is available to the fishing industry in relation to priority marine features that are outwith MPAs in order that people can ensure that they do not intrude on to those MPAs, and how is that information distributed to the fishing industry?
There is a considerable amount of evidence relating to priority marine features on the national marine plan interactive web mapping tool, which is hosted on the Scottish Government website. One can look at data layers for the various habitats and species that are priority marine features.
Is the information readily available and has it been highlighted to the fishing industry through its organisations and in other ways—local community groups and so on? With the best will in the world, people still need the information in order to be able to respect the environmental concerns.
I absolutely agree with that. My team and I and our partner organisations will be thinking very carefully over the next few months about whether we are providing the right information in the right format that is easily digestible for users of the sea. We can always make improvements on how we provide that information; I think that this situation has brought that into focus.
Thank you. That was helpful.
My understanding is that five candidate areas were proposed as potential MPAs for flame shell reefs. Two are designated, two are not designated, and another was not designated but has, ostensibly, been destroyed and is now up for designation. What are the differences between those areas?
We currently have five marine protected areas for flame shell beds. It is true that Loch Carron was under consideration during the MPA selection process. I do not like to use the term “lost out” but it was number 6 on the list. You have to bear it in mind that the MPA network is not meant to be about protecting everything, everywhere; it is about making sure that we have a representative sample of key habitats and species represented in the network, almost like an insurance policy.
The conclusion during the application of the MPA selection guidelines was that the five sites offered sufficient representation at that time. We have to report on the status of the MPA network next year. Since we designated the MPAs, we have discovered that flame shells have a wider range than we thought in 2012, so we will have to consider next year whether we are representing that habitat in the most appropriate manner.10:00
If you were to run the MPA process again, would Loch Carron be proposed as an MPA site, given what you now know? Would it still be at number 6?
It is hard to say. We are learning all the time about the various habitats and species that were the MPA search features. It might be that we should have had more of some and fewer of others. We made what we felt was the correct selection based on the best available evidence at the time.
Have you considered a ban on scallop dredging out to 3 nautical miles?
That is a question for my sea-fisheries policy colleagues. It is not my policy area: I am sorry for being awkward, but my policy area is ensuring nature conservation, which is different.
From a nature conservation point of view, has there been consideration of a ban on scallop dredging out to 3 nautical miles, and if not, why not?
No. Up to this point in time, we have never considered that.
For the past few years, my team’s focus has been on delivering the MPA network and the management measures that are required to protect that network. We have not completed that work yet; it continues. The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform is committed to looking at how the most vulnerable priority marine features are managed for fisheries, so we will have to consider a range of different ways of delivering that, which might include considering a defined limit from shore.
Are you saying that that might include a ban on scallop dredging out to 3 nautical miles, or that it might not?
We would have to consider what is required to deliver the necessary protections in the context of the national marine plan. That might be one way to do so, but there will be other ways.
I found your final answer to Mark Ruskell quite interesting. You suggested that if you were to rerun the designation of MPAs Loch Carron might not be included. However, the order that we have in front of us today suggests that we need to take emergency action to include Loch Carron. Does that suggest that this is all about the cabinet secretary bowing to public pressure because of adverse publicity about the incident across the media?
Section 3 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 places a duty on ministers to act in a way that is calculated to improve best the health of the Scottish marine area as it is defined in the act. I argue that when a vulnerable habitat has been damaged we are duty bound to take action to recover that area as part of the overall drive to improve Scotland’s seas.
On the back of that, we have seen wholesale illegal fishing of razorclams in some areas on the west of Scotland. If there was evidence to show that the razorclam beds were being damaged, would you bring in the same sort of order, or is it just that it is easy to see that the flame shell beds have been damaged and not so easy to see that razorclam beds are being damaged? Where is the research to back all this up?
In what context do you mean?
It is suggested that damage to flame shell reefs will take 100 years to recover. The damage was very visible and we saw compelling data and video evidence that damage was done. Do you carry out the same sort of research into what might happen in razorclam beds where the same level of damage might be being done but is not as visible?
My team does not do that, but my colleagues in sea-fisheries policy and Marine Scotland science have been doing research into the methods that are used to catch razorfish and what effect those methods have on marine life in and on the sea bed. That work continues, as you may be aware.
We all understand the urgency of the order, but unlike what would normally be expected, no business and regulatory impact assessment has been carried out. Will you confirm that the assessment was not carried out because of the urgency? What plans do you have to carry one out and when will you be able to make it available?
You are absolutely right that a business and regulatory impact assessment was not carried out. When we bring forward an updated proposal to make the designation, and put in place long-term management, we will provide an impact assessment.
Are you proposing a two-year limit?
Yes. We will bring all that together as a coherent package.
Was there no reason to suspect that something like this would happen? The flame shell beds will have been known about for many years. When was the last incident of this nature, if there was one?
We do not know whether there have been other incidents—they could have been happening regularly. We do not always get lucky by having recreational divers who, in effect, witness the incident. We do not know whether it is happening elsewhere. There were a couple of previous incidents—in fact, they were the two occasions when we previously used the urgent marine conservation order powers. One was south of Arran in 2014 and one was in Wester Ross in 2015, and both incidents involved maerl beds.
I think that we have finished questions. I invite comments on the instrument from members.
I repeat that I am pleased that there has been decisive and quick action.
I agree absolutely.
Does the committee agree that it does not wish to make any recommendations in relation to the order?
Members indicated agreement.
I thank Mr McLeod for attending today. We will have a short break to prepare for the next panel of witnesses.10:08 Meeting suspended.
10:09 On resuming—