SNP-Greens Deal fails to deliver sustainability in Scotland’s seas

By campaign group Open Seas. First published on their website on 23 August 2021

The new SNP-Green deal is breaking new ground for Scottish politics. It has been cautiously welcomed from some environmental quarters, but does it promise anything new for the sustainability of our seas, and can it deliver?

In the first deal of its kind in Scottish and UK politics, the SNP and the Scottish Green Party have announced a formal power-sharing arrangement. The deal was months in the making and it was reported that marine and fisheries issues were some of the thorny sticking points that held up the cooperation deal negotiations as the parties struggled to reconcile their differences.

The tensions were arguably inevitable: the SNP’s manifesto position promised measures to put “marine ‘assets” at the heart of the economy “doubling turnover, GVA and international trade in a decade”, with little focus on environmental safeguards. And this has likely been in direct conflict with Scottish Green party commitments to ensure sustainability for the longer-term by setting “mandatory catch limits” and urgently reducing the impact of damaging industries by “excluding dredging and trawling from much of our inshore waters… with the default being within 3 miles of Scotland’s shore.” The text of the deal sets out what they agree to collaborate on within specific areas, and under the heading ‘marine environment’ promises a “step change in marine protection”, but what does this actually mean? And does it do so?

What does the deal say?

The deal sets out a series of commitments, these include,
• Finishing protection of the existing MPA network “directly following the conclusion of the statutory consultation processes” (and by March 2024 latest)
• Designating at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as “Highly Protected Marine Areas” where no extractive industries will be allowed, with the core purpose of recovering Priority Marine Features and selected to achieve ecosystem recovery, protection of blue carbon and safeguarding of critical fish habitats.
• Cap fishing inside the 3nm limit so that it does not exceed existing levels (which are already unsustainable in many cases)
• Improved opportunities for the public to engage in marine protection policy
• A commitment require that all commercial fishing boats are fitted with tracking and monitoring systems by 2026 (or sooner if this Parliamentary term ends before then)

What does this mean?

The deal delivers little beyond pre-existing policy and actually delays some environmental protections already planned. Most of these commitments are either existing commitments (for example, the commitment to track vessels was established in 2015 and voted for by Scottish Parliament in 2018) or delays on top of the SNP government’s existing delays (for example, the commitment to protect the MPA network which scientists have been advising government is needed since 2013… ) – this last one may not even be delivered until 2024, meaning these MPAs will remain paper parks for a decade since designation.

Only the commitments to ‘highly protect’ 10% of Scotland’s seas and the ‘cap’ fishing within three miles from the shore are new plans. However, there is a similar risk that these will be perverted and end up as rubber stamping exercises. In 2020 we saw the SNP Government designate a similar “marine reserve” in the waters where trawling was already banned and no other activities were taking place. A cap preventing expansion of inshore fisheries (such as bottom-trawling) will do little to address the fact that many inshore fisheries where Government scientists have advised “a need to reduce fishing mortality” since 2016. In other words, inshore fisheries need reformed, not simply frozen, to actively recover fish populations.

What does it not include?

Perhaps what is most important is what the deal does not include. The deal does not say anything about ending overfishing or incentivising sustainable fishing, nor anything about ending the wasteful practice of discarding – both of which have resulted in declining fish populations and fishing jobs and is at odds with the rising demand for sustainable seafood. Surely this sustainability is something the SNP and Greens could have agreed on?

It also states nothing about reforming quota so that the marine and fish resources are no longer in the hands of a few individuals and companies and instead reformed to be given to those who can deliver best environmental, economic and social outcomes. It is also light on detail in relation to the “doubling turnover” from the seas, something from the SNP manifesto.

The Scottish Greens’ manifesto committed to limit “bottom-towed” fisheries that damage the seabed within three miles of the coast to incentivise lower impact alternatives, but this does not appear at all. Instead the deal only states that the parties agree to “take specific, evidence-based measures to protect the inshore seabed in areas outwith MPAs and HPMAs” – a pre-existing policy (the Priority Marine Feature Review) that the Rural Affairs Minister (whilst in a prior role) promised to be delivered by 2019 . The condition of Scotland’s inshore seabed has been in decline for decades, with many fish populations in dire condition and the seabed habitat itself being degraded by fishing methods (such as bottom-trawling and dredging) that rake and disturb the seabed. The text of the Deal indicates a roll-back on measures to effect broader scale recovery in favour of a more piecemeal approach and – we have explained why this is a real concern here.

Is this a step change in marine protection?

No.

It fails to set objectives to ensure fishing is sustainable, incentivise change or end on-going damage to Scotland’s marine environment. It rolls back on the Scottish Green Party’s manifesto commitment to reform Scotland’s fishing industry and make it sustainable, whilst simultaneously failing to ‘double turnover’ from the seas as per the SNP manifesto. It fails to address the problems our seas has faced over the past decade and which have been highlighted by the SNP Government’s 2020 Marine Assessment, and kicks the can even further down the line on delivery.

So what now?

The deal illustrates the SNP’s lack of vision when it comes to our seas, and it represents a serious roll back on Green manifesto commitments. The real test will now be whether the Scottish Green Party can work together with the SNP to use this deal to turn the Scottish Government’s approach to marine management around and deliver the change their supporters voted for, including bolder measures to secure sustainability and environmental recovery of our inshore seas and fisheries. The alternative is to continue to accept the culture of delay and decline – and that will deliver neither party’s manifesto promises.