The Scottish Sea Angling Conservation Network

            A charity registered in Scotland - RegNo:: SC039015


Why I need healthy seas

Life at the Edge

Condensed from a talk given by Bill McDermott at the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Week in early February’

I have been a shellfish farmer for the past 12 years working in the South Channel of Loch Moidart. It is a magical place and I feel privileged to be able to make my contribution to sustainable development by growing a native oyster fishery there.

This is an auspicious time for the future of our marine environment, things are coming together to give me a sense of optimism that we are now grasping the challenges of an inheritance of poor stewardship of one of this country’s greatest assets - our seas.

Fifty years ago, if I had asked a fisherman what he thought of the wealth of fish in the sea, he would have responded by saying - there will always be fish, the seas are inexhaustible.

I can tell you today that the 2007 season’s report for fish landings at the former premier pelagic port of Mallaig revealed no pelagic fish landings at all for the first time in its history and only a 2 to 3 month season for demersals. Mallaig fishers now depend on prawns and scallops for their income. Our seas are exhaustible.

Six months ago for the first time ever, the world production of seafood from aquaculture outstripped that from wild fisheries. Now that has consequences for our marine environment - it offers an end to the present free-for-all management of our marine resources but, as we still use fish protein for our feedstock, it is bad news for sand eels, capelin and anchovies.

It needn’t be like this. The Japanese have perfected vegetable protein feedstock which they use extensively in their finfish aquaculture. In this country we are experimenting with small vegetable protein additions, but supermarkets are resistant to the notion of fish being fed ‘unnatural’ diets.

As a shellfish farmer, what I need are:

  • Clean seas. It is crucial to our branding quality
  • Sound management of waters classified for shellfish
  • Measures to alleviate high fuel costs in fragile, rural areas
  • The sea back in balance.

I am reasonably optimistic for the future. Everybody now recognises the need for change. We are promised a Marine Bill for Scotland which will dovetail into a UK Marine Bill. Within that, there are plans for Marine Protected Areas (MPA).

Our own fishermen are already taking their own conservation measures with the agreement on real time voluntary closures and we also have the tremendous development of a bottom-up agreement inspired by ten years of lobbying by the local community to have an MPA with No Take Zone (NTZ) in Lamlash Bay.

The most important development of all for me has been the now accepted notion, at a European level, that the basis of all future management of marine natural resources will be a recognition of the importance of the ecosystem.

It is only by removing the pressure from modern commercial fishing in certain areas that fish will be allowed to reach full maturity. We are mad to eat into our brood stock, for they represent our capital which we should be investing for the future.

New Zealand has created 27 marine reserves since 1974. These have had the full support of the fishermen who see their catches improve in volume and quality as old fish breed within the reserves and continually replenish areas outside.

My vision is a full suite of MPAs around our coasts and within those to have NTZs where necessary and a complete ban on bottom trawling.

MPAs and NTZs will not solve all the problems, we will still need improved gear which is much more selective as to size and species captured; we will need restrictions on fishing effort until there is a better balance between fish resources and the effort employed to catch them.

What of the politics of this. I would make a plea for strategic thinking here. We can’t go into this in the same way as we have dealt with wind farms which has been piecemeal and created a negative reaction to every proposal.

The same will be true for MPAs and NTZs if we don’t offer an indicative strategy of where these areas will be at the outset. The recent proposal by the Joint Nature Conservation Council to designate the Wyville-Thomson Ridge and the Stanton Bank near the Western Isles as marine SACs is a case in point.

There was a huge adverse reaction from fishermen but who can be surprised when the designation came out of nowhere with no apparent context.

To achieve sustainability in the exploitation of our fisheries we need to protect something of the order of 20%-30% of our seas from commercial fishing.

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