I want to thank Strathclyde University for hosting this event. Strathclyde is of course a leader in key aspects of marine research. For example the One Ocean Hub – which Strathclyde leads, and which many Scottish universities are part of – brings together more than 60 partners in Africa, the south Pacific and the Caribbean, together with several UN bodies.
So we probably couldn’t have a more appropriate venue in Scotland for hosting this conference which is a very significant landmark for the Scottish Government.
Scotland’s economy, history and identity have been all been shaped by our seas. We possess well over half of the UK’s coastal waters. By some measurements – when you include all of our islands and inlets and sea lochs – we have a longer coastline than India.
We are home to globally important populations of sea birds, marine mammals, plants, lichens and molluscs such as flame shells.
And of course our economy benefits enormously from industries such as fishing, marine tourism, aquaculture and energy. Offshore wind and tidal power are increasingly helping to lay the foundations for a carbon neutral future that all of us want to achieve.
So the management of our seas is fundamental to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of everyone across our country.
And an event like this – where we can share expertise, information and ideas about the marine environment – is hugely important to communities across our country and maybe even to other countries around the world.
I know that, in addition to delegates from Scotland and the rest of the UK, there are also representatives here from more than 10 other nations here. I want to offer all of you the very warmest of welcomes to Scotland.
I won’t go into detail about all of the conference themes in my remarks, but I do want to highlight three specific issues – marine protected areas, blue carbon, and marine litter. All of them are of great relevance to this event, and all of them are areas where Scotland is trying to show international leadership.
Marine protected areas, for example, are widely and rightly recognised as a success story. In the last seven years Scotland’s network has doubled in size. That has provided better protection for birds such as the black guillemot and fish such as the common skate.
So the Scottish Government is consulting on creating several new areas. These would help to protect species such as basking sharks, Risso’s dolphins and Minke whales; and to preserve the flame shell and red lichen beds at Loch Carron.
I can also confirm today that the Scottish Government will consult on creating two new historic MPAs at Lerwick and Scapa Flow. The Scapa Flow site in particular –where the German High Seas fleet was scuttled after World War 1 – is one which I know will attract international interest. It shows how MPAs can help us protect our historic environment, together with our natural heritage.
In addition to those proposals, we are also looking to create a new marine reserve in the north east Atlantic – where the waters are more than 800 metres deep. The proposed reserve is almost 150,000 square kilometres in size – almost twice the size of Scotland’s landmass. In fact, it would almost double the overall size of our marine protected areas.
Instead of covering 22% of our territorial waters, they would cover 42%.
That expansion also illustrates a broader point. There is an international commitment – under the Convention on Biological Diversity – for marine protected areas to account for 10% of the world’s seas. Scotland already comfortably exceeds that target. The fact that we want to go further still is a good example of our desire – not simply to meet, but to go beyond our international obligations. We are trying to demonstrate global leadership in our stewardship of the seas.
That’s true also of the second area I want to highlight – blue carbon.
Scotland recognises climate change as the most important issue facing our planet. We, in Scotland, have almost halved our carbon emissions since 1990. We have some of the toughest statutory climate change targets anywhere in the world and we’re in the process now of legislating to make those targets even tougher.
And so we see it as being hugely important to know more about the role of our oceans in storing carbon.
Rising temperatures are having a negative effect on ecosystems around the world. So it is widely known that climate change affects our oceans. However our oceans also affect climate change. They absorb around a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions, and produce more than half of our oxygen.
In fact, Scottish Natural Heritage estimates that the seas around Scotland store more than 2,000 million tonnes of carbon. That’s the equivalent of around 200 years of our current carbon emissions.
Research by St Andrews University backs that up. It suggests that more carbon is captured and stored in our sea lochs than in all of our peatlands and forests. For example just one sea loch on the Ardnamurchan peninsula – stores almost 27 million tonnes of carbon.
Now, blue carbon, as the carbon stored in the sea is called, is still a relatively new area for detailed investigation. So we need to know more about it – in particular, we need to understand how human activity affects the ability of the oceans to store carbon. And as part of that, we need to understand whether we can do anything which might enable our oceans to store more carbon.
That’s why Marine Scotland has developed a new research programme for blue carbon. And it is why, last year, the Scottish Blue Carbon Forum was established. It coordinates research on the role of our oceans in sequestering carbon. And it will help Scotland to play a leading role in one of the most important, and least understood, elements of the carbon cycle.
The third issue I want to touch upon today is – once again - a hugely important one.
Some of the scenes in “The Blue Planet 2”, of the horrific impact marine litter can have on wildlife, rightly caused worldwide uproar. They were heart-rending in themselves, but they also spoke to many people’s own sense – simply by walking along their local stretches of coast – that the plastics and waste we produce here on land are causing lasting damage out at sea.
So it is entirely appropriate that marine litter is the theme for day two of this conference. The Scottish Government is already taking a lead here. We published a strategy for reducing marine litter back in 2014 – it includes more than 40 actions to directly reduce the amount of waste entering our seas, and to change public and business attitudes to ensure further reductions in the future.
We have taken further action since then. Our ban on micro-plastics in personal care products came into force last June, and we were the first government in the UK to commit to banning plastic-stemmed cotton buds.
Tomorrow we will publish a detailed analysis of the consultation responses we received on how to introduce a deposit return scheme for bottles and other containers. So we’re doing a lot and we want to continue to move forward and make progress.
And I can confirm two further steps today.
Every day, across the UK, more than 4 million sanitary products are flushed down the toilet. That makes a major contribution to our plastic litter problem.
So the Scottish Government will work with Zero Waste Scotland on a promotional campaign for reusable sanitary products.
In the last year, we’ve become the first government anywhere in the world to provide free access to sanitary products for everyone in education. A growing proportion of those free products are reusable.
So this new campaign marks a further step in our efforts to encourage people to move away from disposable options, and to further reduce the volume of single use plastics. It is a relatively small measure which could have an important impact.
In addition to tackling marine litter which has its origins on land, we also need to tackle the smaller – but still significant – proportion which comes from our marine industries.
As many of you will know, the Scottish Government will soon be publishing a discussion paper on the future of fisheries management in Scotland. I can confirm today that one of the issues it will raise, is how we can establish it as an offence – for fishing vessels of all sizes – to throw litter overboard while at sea. It’s a measure which can help to ensure that the fishing sector plays a full part in protecting the marine environment which of course they rely on.
The most important way to address marine litter is address the problem at source – to reduce, reuse and recycle as much plastic waste as possible. As the actions I’ve just outlined demonstrate, that is what we are trying to do.
However, we also need to be able to clean up our seas once they have been affected by plastic use. That’s why the Scottish Government has worked with Zero Waste Scotland to encourage new approaches to collecting and recovering plastic materials.
We hope that the fund we have established – which is worth up to £1 million – can benefit sites which are being affected by litter sinks, such as Loch Long on the Firth of Clyde. And we also hope that the fund will enable the plastics which are found to then be reused.
Scotland is committed to the development of a much more circular economy – when materials are kept in use for as long as possible. We think that it can create economic opportunities, as well as helping us to meet environmental obligations. Our work with Zero Waste Scotland is one of the ways in which we are trying to grasp those opportunities.
In all of this, Scotland – by taking strong and determined action at home – is trying to demonstrate international leadership.
And that in turn emphasises another key point. All of the issues I’ve talked about – protecting marine habitats, blue carbon, marine litter – all of these have strong international dimensions.
That’s why we’ve been clear that – regardless of Brexit – Scotland will continue to maintain EU environmental standards. We will also comply with international agreements such as the OSPAR Convention, which protects the environment of the north-east Atlantic.
And we will of course continue to work with, and learn from, partners across the globe. That’s why, as I mentioned at the start of my remarks, I am delighted to see so many international delegates here today.
I hope of course that this event will influence policy-making here in Scotland. I also hope that it can play some part in informing environmental policies around the world.
For all of these reasons, it’s a real pleasure and privilege to launch today’s programme. I hope that you have a very productive conference. And I hope that together, we can place Scotland at the forefront of marine protection in the years and decades ahead.
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