2020 Challenge for Scotland's Biodiversity

A strategy for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity in Scotland.

6 Marine and coastal


Scotland's marine and coastal environments are clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse, meeting the long-term needs of people and nature.

Key steps

  • Adopt a Scottish Marine Plan and develop regional marine plans to aid balanced decision-making in the marine environment.
  • Establish a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas, promoting sustainable use and conservation.
  • Collate information on the location and sensitivity of priority marine features, and make this information available to support their protection.
  • Achieve good environmental status for Scottish seas.
  • Bring Common Fisheries Policy fish stocks to levels consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield wherever possible, and take account of biodiversity in managing inshore fisheries.
  • Implement a rapid-response framework to prevent colonisation of new invasive species in Scotland's seas and islands.
  • Improve the monitoring of the marine environment to identify changes and guide progress towards the above outcomes.
  • Improve understanding of how coastal ecosystems are likely to adapt to climate change and develop appropriate strategies for coastal zone management.


Scotland's seas support a wealth of marine life, rich in colour and variety. Our coastline and healthy waters support valuable fisheries and internationally important bird colonies. They act as European strongholds for iconic species like the basking shark and support habitats such as cold-water coral reefs.

The marine chapter of the UKNEA (2011) [11] describes the range of ecosystem services provided by the diversity of organisms in marine habitats, which support important industries and provide benefits to society. Fish and shellfish supply us with essential foodstuffs. Seaweeds protect coasts from erosion by waves, and provide natural food additives, fertilisers and pharmaceuticals. Marine microbes biodegrade wastes, and are increasingly important in biotechnology. Charismatic animals like whales, dolphins, seals and basking sharks underpin local tourist economies. Coasts and shallow waters help engage people of all ages with the natural environment, and provide a source of health, wellbeing and recreational challenge.

Muddy sea-beds rich in life

In places where tidal movement and wave action are weak, the seabed is often covered by deep, soft mud. This muddy habitat is amongst the most productive around the coast, with an abundance of species on the mud surface, and thousands of animals living below, every square metre constantly churning and recycling the mud. One of the largest of the burrowers is the Scottish langoustine or 'prawn', Nephrops, the target of the second most valuable fishery in Scotland. Without the burrowers, the mud would be a stagnant 'gloop' with little or no life. Scottish waters contain the bulk of the UK's muddy sea-beds, so we have a special responsibility for their care and protection, not least to ensure that they continue to provide their important seafood bounty.

Predicted changes in temperature are likely to affect the distribution of marine species. Rising sea level, exacerbated by storm surges, is already leading to a greater frequency and intensity of coastal flooding, erosion and habitat loss. This adds urgency to the need for effective marine and coastal management.

The principles described in chapters 1 and 4 apply equally to the marine and coastal environments, but the pressing need for a new focus on marine management has already been recognised by the development of Scotland's Marine Nature Conservation Strategy (2011) [14] . The outcome identified at the beginning of this chapter is based on the vision of that strategy. It sets out challenging objectives and key steps for achieving these, by a mixture of wider seas policies; such as marine planning, targeted measures for protected areas and species conservation. It will be the main tool for meeting the 2020 Challenge in the marine environment, so this chapter largely mirrors its demanding commitments.

Protected marine biodiversity

The Scottish Marine Nature Conservation Strategy (2011) [13] explains the approach Marine Scotland and its partners are undertaking to develop a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas ( MPAs), with an emphasis on adaptive management. The network will support biodiversity and geodiversity objectives, contribute to measures to achieve good environmental status under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008) [30] , and help us meet other international obligations.

Protected areas should represent the best of nature around Scotland's coasts and in our seas. New MPAs will be selected not simply to protect examples of threatened habitats and species, but also to safeguard areas important for the wider marine environment. Some areas, for example, are particularly important for fish populations, including commercially valuable species.

In addition, the Marine Nature Conservation Strategy (2011) [14] proposes a system of 'priority marine features' to guide the identification of MPAs and provide focus for marine planning and other activities. The strategy recognises the need to improve our understanding of these special features, which will be protected by a range of mechanisms, including licensing and planning. Knowing where Priorty Marine Features ( PMFs) are located, and how sensitive they are, will promote better integration between marine activities and important wildlife. A range of marine habitats and species already receive protection under EC and domestic nature legislation. Voluntary measures, such as wildlife watching codes, will also play an important role.

Invasive non-native species represent a significant threat to our marine biodiversity and industries such as aquaculture. The ease with which they can spread in the marine environment makes them particularly difficult to control. The measures proposed in Chapter 4 will help tackle this threat to Scotland's seas.

Planning for sustainable use

A range of sector-based policies and legislation govern the use of the sea. Environmental assessment legislation helps ensure that strategies, plans and projects take account of environmental impacts. However, these different policies have not always been well co-ordinated within an overall system of spatial planning, despite increasing pressures on maritime space.

The new statutory system of marine planning provided by the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 56 is designed to deliver significant improvement to the management of our seas. Plans for each of Scotland's marine regions will provide an opportunity to protect and enhance PMFs, contribute to the management of existing and new protected areas, and enable protection of Scotland's wider seas through coordinated licensing and spatial planning for sustainable development.

The National Marine Plan (2011) [57] will help guide the activity of marine industries, to ensure they are sustainable and to direct appropriate developments to the right places. Planners, decision-makers and developers all have a role to play in this process, to ensure the sustainable use of our seas and to support productivity and economic growth. The Scottish Government will work with the European Commission to ensure that sustainability principles are also applied to those fish stocks covered by the Common Fisheries Policy.

Involving people and improving understanding

There is a high level of public interest in the coastal and marine environment, and it is essential to provide opportunities for public involvement. Marine Scotland already takes an inclusive approach to developing policies and initiatives in the marine environment - by involving others at an early stage in the development of proposals; by encouraging the public to get involved; and by active consultation exercises.

Marine policies are assisted at a national level by the Marine Strategy Forum a cross-sectoral group representing Scotland's marine industries and other interests. The Scottish Coastal Forum has a similar role in relation to coastal management.

Marine and coastal biodiversity supports many tourism industries that are economically important to coastal communities. The Scottish Government recognises this and will encourage initiatives aimed at combining improved understanding of Scotland's marine biodiversity with new opportunities for sustainable tourism.

Marine Scotland has published the Atlas of Scotland's Seas (2011) [16] as a contribution to UK-wide understanding of marine biodiversity, and funded a new programme of surveys to inform MPA work. Greater effort is needed to improve the monitoring of habitats and species, achieve closer collaboration on surveys and data sharing, and increase our understanding of ecosystems and the services they provide to society. This will be achieved through the implementation of the Scottish Marine Science Strategy (2011) [58] , which sets out methods of collaboration and information sharing within Scotland as well as with external partners.


Scotland's coasts are of immense value for wildlife and people. Many species are attracted to our coasts as nursery areas, to breed or to feed in, and many of our tourism and recreational industries are shore and coast based. Many of us live near the coast or take our leisure there. Many coastal communities have traditions intimately tied to the marine environment on which they depend, providing an especially rich Scottish cultural heritage.

The Government and its agencies aim to heighten awareness of the role coastal habitats play in providing natural flood protection, erosion control and in supporting distinctive wildlife. Co-ordinated planning, conservation and management across marine and terrestrial environments will ensure the protection and expansion of some of these habitats. We can begin to achieve this through better linkages between existing legislation and policies, such as flood risk management plans, river basin management plans and shoreline management plans.

As sea-level rise accelerates, coastal habitats will move inland, except where barriers exist. It may be necessary to breach some man-made coastal barriers so that this 'roll-back' can operate, recognising that this will inevitably mean local loss of land. We need to plan in advance for coastal adaptation, considering the needs of neighbouring settlements, transport infrastructure and facilities, but also taking account of the valuable protection afforded by coastal habitats and landforms that are allowed to adjust naturally. These issues will predominantly be tackled at a local level, through local flood risk management strategies, and will be coordinated at a national level.

Scotland's islands

Scotland has more than 700 offshore islands. This is the largest European island complex by area, with the significant archipelagos of the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Only 99 of our islands have human settlements so many of these islands are undisturbed strongholds for marine and coastal biodiversity. Surrounded by productive seas, they are home to many endemic races and species. They support internationally important feeding and breeding areas for sea birds and marine mammals - providing key refuges for threatened species. Their extensive coastlines, varied and unique habitats, and isolation make them distinct from the mainland in many regards. Islands are particularly vulnerable to pressures such as habitat loss, climate change and invasive non-native species.

The lack of ground-based predators such as foxes, stoats and weasels makes islands safe havens for ground-nesting birds. The large concentrations of birds are particularly vulnerable to predation by invasive alien species and species native to the neighbouring mainland, but not native to our smaller islands. The combination of biodiversity richness, unique features and vulnerability means that Scottish islands need special attention and protection.

Key messages from this chapter

  • Scotland's seas and coasts provide rich natural harvests and varied ecosystem services, including climate control, coastal protection, nutrient recycling, health benefits and leisure opportunities, as well as supporting a diverse biodiversity that adds value to local tourist economies.
  • Sustainable management of the seas to deliver multiple benefits will be assured through implementation of the Scottish Marine Nature Conservation Strategy and the National Marine Plan.
  • Management of the coastal zone will be increasingly challenged by the impacts of climate change.
  • Scotland's islands are especially valuable, but vulnerable, havens of biodiversity.

What will be different as a result of applying the principles in this chapter?

  • An ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas will protect the best of Scotland's marine nature, promote sustainable use and aid recovery of commercially valuable fish and shellfish.
  • An innovative system of marine planning will include all those with an interest in the marine environment to ensure the sustainable management of our seas, coasts and islands.
  • Better understanding of the marine environment will help us identify the marine features most in need of protection, and give better advice on marine and coastal management.
  • Coasts will be managed to help adapt to pressures from climate change.


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