Sea Scotland conference: speech

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham discusses the importance of Scotland's marine environment at the Sea Scotland conference.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum vote, I pledged that I would not allow Brexit to be used as an excuse to roll back our hard-won environmental protections.

While much has changed in the political landscape since then, my commitment to honouring that pledge, and to ensuring that our magnificent environment is protected, has not.

These are not mere words. Scotland has made significant, tangible advances in tackling some of the most serious environmental challenges we face.

We have made huge progress in relation to commitments such as our world-leading climate change and renewable energy targets. In addition, our network of marine protected areas (MPAs), covering 20% of our seas, is continuing to ensure that our amazing marine ecosystems are safeguarded for future generations to enjoy.

We also continue to make significant strides towards achieving 'Good Environmental Status' in relation to Marine Strategy Framework Directive requirements. But we cannot afford to rest on our laurels and allow this success to be put at risk.

As well as the wider benefits such as single market access, membership of the EU has enabled huge progress to be made in protecting our precious natural assets. It has facilitated the collective action needed to tackle major environmental challenges.

We have also benefitted hugely from significant EU funding to support our marine ambitions, and from the skills and hard work of EU nationals who have chosen to live and work in Scotland.

Make no mistake, however. Brexit not only threatens jobs and growth in Scotland, it also threatens much of the legislation which underpins our marine environmental protection arrangements. We also risk losing the knowledge and expertise of EU nationals working in our marine industries and in marine science in Scotland – and that's before we consider the threat to vital funding streams such as the Data Collection Framework and the Horizon 2020 programme, which have played such a key role in in supporting our scientific capabilities.

Since 2014, almost €352 million of funding has been secured by Scottish organisations through the Horizon 2020 programme and, at present, the Data Collection Framework funds 80% of the survey activity carried out by Marine Scotland Science. In the absence of such funding in the future, difficult choices will need to be made – both by the Scottish Government and by other organisations – which could potentially have a serious impact on our coastal communities, our marine industries and our scientific capabilities in Scotland.

It is no secret that the Scottish Government did not, and does not, support withdrawal from the EU. It remains our view that independent membership of the EU would be the best outcome for Scotland. Neither, however, is it a secret that some people in Scotland do not support the Scottish Government's position on EU membership. We acknowledge, and respect, those differing views.

Regardless of views on Brexit, however, we would all agree that our oceans, seas and marine resources should be conserved and used sustainably, on the basis of scientific advice and in line with UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Our duty to protect Scotland's rich marine environment is taken extremely seriously and in every scenario for Scotland's future, we are clear that Scotland, as a responsible global citizen, has a continuing moral and legal obligation to protect our country's magnificent natural environment.

Scotland's approach to environmental policy is founded on certain core environmental principles such as polluter pays, source control and the precautionary principle. These principles will remain the foundation of our approach to environmental protection in a post-EU era – although we will also look for opportunities to improve existing approaches if they will deliver better outcomes for our environment.

But while our relationship with the EU may change, our willingness and commitment to work with other European nations, in areas such as sustainable fisheries management, will remain the same – reflecting the fact that fisheries and environmental issues do not respect international boundaries.

An example of our commitment to the importance of marine science is the European Marine Biological Science Research Centre. The Scottish Government, through Marine Scotland, is the UK's lead for this research infrastructure initiative. If it is successful, it will link the UK marine science community, including three Scottish institutes, with eight other European countries for collaborative work and access to marine biological infrastructure and EU funding.

It is important in an era of uncertainty that we continue to engage in national, international and cross-sector collaboration, and that we are prepared as a community of environmental actors to influence future decisions and be ready to propose solutions.

The Scottish Government supports a number of partnership initiatives that enable a strategic, co-ordinated and prioritised approach to monitoring and research to support the sustainable development of offshore renewables.

These include:

Regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the UK will continue to be bound by a range of other international treaty obligations, such as the OSPAR Convention. These will remain in force and require us to meet certain environmental standards. The Scottish Government will continue to meet its own obligations, and will press the UK Government to do likewise where they have responsibility. We will strive to ensure that we have the correct tools to fulfil our global obligations.

It is important to recognise, however, that we do not protect our marine environment simply because we are obliged to. We protect it because it is both the right thing to do, and because it is an economic necessity.

Our marine environment underpins our economy, our health and our way of life, and is of critical importance to many of our rural and coastal communities, which is why we continue to ensure that sustainability is at the heart of our approach to our marine industries. 'Scotland's Marine Atlas', published in 2011 to support the first national marine plan, very much demonstrated the linkages between the seas and our economy.

And that is why it is important that the voice of all stakeholders, including environmental and community groups, is heard as fisheries management is reformed. Through our Inshore Fisheries Strategy, the Scottish Government is getting on with the day job and delivering improvements to develop more sustainable, profitable and well-managed inshore fisheries in Scotland – helping enable the fishing industry to sit alongside and work well with many other marine interests, in what is recognised as an increasingly complex and competitive inshore marine environment.

More widely, Scotland trades internationally on our reputation as a clean, green country producing wholesome food and drink, such as our iconic seafood products, and we want to maintain and enhance that reputation. Our world renowned aquaculture industry is already a key driver of prosperity in many of our rural and coastal communities and we want to ensure that the industry can continue to underpin sustainable growth in these areas and provide long-term quality employment. We welcome the industry's ambitions, overseen by the Aquaculture Industry Leadership Group, and are working with the sector to achieve continued sustainable growth by carefully and responsibly balancing economic, environmental and social responsibilities.

I mentioned at the start of my speech our MPA network. Since 2007 there has been considerable progress towards an ecologically coherent network in the Northeast Atlantic. The OSPAR MPA network status report will be published later this year detailing progress. The Scottish MPA network forms a considerable part of the wider OSPAR network and we should be proud of that.

The network isn't quite complete yet but we will fill the gaps when resources permit. At the end of 2018 I will report to Parliament on the status of the MPA network. Please be assured that the report will provide clarity about the completeness of the MPA network.

Having an MPA network also requires fisheries management measures. Despite the uncertainty of Brexit, Marine Scotland continues to engage with other member states and the European Commission to develop proposals for offshore MPAs. The process for measures under the Common Fisheries Policy is difficult enough without the added complexity of Brexit.

I call on the other member states not to block these proposals on political grounds. We have a shared responsibility to protect the Northeast Atlantic, and unrelated political matters should not get in the way of that. Marine Scotland will get on with the day job of delivering the measures necessary to make the network well managed.

A well-managed MPA network also needs to be monitored to measure progress towards achieving conservation objectives. That is why I am so pleased today to be announcing the launch of the Scottish MPA Monitoring Strategy.

Developed in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the MPA monitoring strategy develops our long-term approach to survey and monitoring in Scottish waters. It will ensure that we can monitor the wealth of protected sites to meet our assessment and reporting obligations.

However, we cannot do this alone.

I recognise that there is a wealth of expertise and knowledge present in local coastal communities. Therefore, by promoting collaborations with a wide range of marine stakeholders, the Strategy will endeavour to deliver better co-ordination of monitoring activities in the future, ensuring the success of marine conservation action.

That is why I am pleased to announce that Marine Scotland has secured funding from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).

Working in partnership with the fishing industry, the three-year project will offer opportunities for fishermen to take part in marine survey and monitoring work. This fulfils a promise made by my predecessor, Richard Lochhead, in December 2015.

Beyond the EMFF project there is also a growing army of recreational divers who spend their weekends documenting the wonderful habitats and species in our coastal waters. I very much welcome your efforts, and the evidence you can provide has a key role to play going forward in implementing the strategy.

Without that recreational dive effort through the Seasearch programme, the damage to the Loch Carron flame shell bed may never have been discovered. While it's unfortunate that the damage did occur, the scope for recovery looks good. That's why I designated the Loch Carron MPA, and underpinned it with appropriate fisheries management measures.

The incident in Loch Carron has brought into sharp focus consideration of how we conserve our seas beyond the MPA network. We need to manage the rest of our seas appropriately. A review of the most vulnerable priority marine features has begun, to ensure that development and use of the marine environment is not having a significant impact on their status. This is a task of considerable magnitude and there will be opportunities for you to engage with this process in the coming months.

Marine Scotland are also looking at how we manage wide-ranging species in our seas. Work has begun to develop a small cetaceans strategy to ensure that the populations of harbour porpoise and the dolphin species are maintained at favourable conservation status. There will be a stakeholder workshop to help develop this later in the year.

Our seas provide a magnificent place for marine wildlife watching, which brings visitors from across the world, providing a significant boost to Scotland's economy. Therefore I welcome the newly revised Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code which provides guidance to people on how to watch marine wildlife in a responsible manner.

Management of the wider marine environment is very much the remit of marine planning. The publication of Scotland's first National Marine Plan in 2015 marked a significant milestone in the management of our marine environment. It was made possible by the sustained contribution of various marine interests, including many of you here today.

Next year, the plan will have been in place for three years. It will be time to review and report on its effectiveness, and to reflect on whether it remains fit for purpose. The review process is underway now. I hope you will all contribute to that process and help us explore the opportunities for marine planning, and the National Marine Plan, as we move towards a new world out with the EU.

Regional Marine Planning empowers coastal communities and uses the knowledge of people working and living in these regions to manage their local seas in a sustainable way.

The Shetland Isles and Clyde regions have begun the process of developing regional marine plans, and the Orkney Islands will be the next. The experience gained from these regions will inform the rollout of regional marine planning around our coastline.

I have outlined some of the progressive steps we have taken to improve stewardship of our marine environment, and recognised the magnificent contribution of stakeholders. I have also highlighted some aspects of the day job that continue despite the uncertainties of Brexit, and the opportunities for you all to participate.

Your support is needed now more than ever to help us continue improving our marine environment. I hope you are up for that challenge.


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