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28 Sep 2021

Turning the tide

Written by Cal Flyn
A view of the striking basalt columns that form the cliff-side of the island of Staffa, seen from the sea. The water is choppy and the sky heavy.
Staffa NNR is one of the many islands in the Trust’s care. | Image: Dougie Cunningham
In Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, we’re working hard to protect our marine environment for a sustainable future.

Shifting silver sands and fjord-like sea lochs; clifftop castles and smugglers’ caves; estuaries and mudflats crowded with honking geese: Scotland’s beautiful, intricate coastline stretches for thousands of miles. Our coastlines and islands are home to around a fifth of all breeding seabirds in Scotland, while a quarter of the world’s population of gannets and the UK’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins live at St Kilda. Beyond the shores, our nation’s seas, dotted with more than 900 islands, are nearly six times larger than Scotland’s land area. They serve as summer feeding grounds for basking sharks and the occasional leatherback turtle, and are home to a third of the global population of grey seals, as well as 24 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

A puffin walks across a mossy patch on a hillside, surrounded by pink thrift flowers. The blue sky in the background contrasts against the pink shimmer of the ground.
Puffin, Fair Isle | Image: Giedrius Stakauskas / Alamy Stock Photo

The National Trust for Scotland has responsibility for huge swathes of mainland and island coastline, including some of the most iconic stretches – those spectacular black basaltic columns that rise from the sea to create Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, for instance, and the wild Atlantic outpost of St Kilda. As well as places of great natural beauty, these areas are sites of major environmental significance. At present, nine Marine Protected Areas and four of Scotland’s marine Special Areas of Conservation are adjacent to Trust places, and the promontory of St Abb’s Head on the east coast is the site of Scotland’s only Voluntary Marine Reserve.

We take seriously our responsibility for the conservation of the land in our care as well as the adjoining coast and seas. ‘Our core purpose is to protect and care for Scotland’s heritage,’ says Policy Officer Rebecca Millar. ‘Part of that involves our natural heritage, including our seas and coastlines, which form an important element of the country’s national identity.’

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“But our amazing marine environment is very much under threat. It needs better protection, and, as a caretaker of Scotland’s heritage, we are committed to taking action.”
Rebecca Millar
Policy Officer, National Trust for Scotland

This action can take the form of interventions at our places. For example, on Canna we have worked hard to protect the fragile coastal ecosystem, thanks to a major rat eradication project allowing the puffin population to rebound. However, beyond the places we care for ourselves, we have a wider role to play in advocating for the conservation and recovery of our coastal and marine environment.

Two kittiwakes perch on a tiny ledge on a steep rocky cliff. Their nest is made of rough grass.
Kittiwakes | Image: DP Wildlife Vertebrates / Alamy Stock Photo

Turning the tide

We recently set out our marine policy in a paper entitled ‘Turning the Tide’, which identifies the critical issues facing our coastal and marine environments – including unsustainable fishing, climate change and pollution – and gives direction to our advocacy work, so we know where to focus our efforts. It also sets out measures to meet these challenges in order to safeguard our most valuable marine habitats well into the future.

One of our concerns is around aquaculture – the farming of fish and other sealife – which is a major source of marine pollution. As Rebecca explains: ‘If not managed properly, it can cause a lot of problems in the immediate area, such as the depositing of large amounts of organic waste that cannot necessarily be dispersed by currents and which subsequently harms the environment.’

The Trust has been working hard to minimise sources of pollution at our own places, promoting traditional crofting practices at Balmacara, using seaweed as fertiliser at Inverewe Garden, and cutting the use of plastic packaging. Where issues are broader and more systemic, we also have a responsibility to contribute through lobbying efforts, advocacy and support for related research. One such issue is the unsustainable management of fisheries, which has led to overfishing and degradation of our marine environment through the use of bottom-towed fishing gear. This endangers both our coastal communities and our marine wildlife and biodiversity in equal measure.

An underwater shot of a large grey seal swimming towards the camera, with its flippers stretched wide either side. In the foreground is a thick forest of kelp and seaweed, growing on the sea bed.
A grey seal roams a kelp forest in the North Sea | Image: Minden Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Overfishing has led to steep declines in fish stocks, including a shocking 31% decline in North Sea cod over five years. ‘The way that our fisheries are managed – how our seas are fished – is unsustainable at the moment,’ explains Rebecca. ‘Fishermen are being forced to catch a narrower variety of stocks, so they don’t have the opportunity to diversify, making the industry less resilient to shocks like Brexit.’

It’s not just about bringing in stricter quotas or banning fishing in certain areas, she says. ‘As part of creating a more sustainable fisheries industry, fishing communities need to be supported to ensure people are not forced out of their livelihoods. What that looks like is up for debate – a grant, perhaps, to enable people to transition to more low environmental impact fishing techniques. That’s something that needs to be decided by involving all stakeholders in the fishing industry.’

Halting the destruction

As a member of the Our Seas coalition, the National Trust for Scotland is one of more than 100 charities and businesses calling for the reinstatement of the ban on trawling and dredging within inshore waters. This was lifted in the 1980s and is thought to be a major factor in the decline of inshore fisheries.

In 2020, Scotland’s Marine Assessment found that 417 hectares of seabed habitat have been destroyed in the last decade by bottom-towed fishing practices. A ban, says Rebecca, ‘would be hugely beneficial to marine ecosystems, as it would allow our seabeds, reefs and marine life to recover; but it would also be beneficial to our coastal communities, making them more resilient – an issue we are specifically interested in.’ Scotland still accounts for three-quarters of fish landings in the UK, but poor management risks an entire industry and way of life.

The Scottish Government’s Future Fisheries Management Strategy, announced at the end of 2020, was ‘encouraging’, she says, in as much as it sets out a whole-ecosystem approach. ‘But we’d like to see more done in practice – to take the positive aspects of what was announced and run with it, to create a more sustainable system.’

Seagrass meadows, kelp forests and cold-water coral reefs under our seas are not only important spawning grounds for fish; they also serve as major carbon sinks. When damaged by dredging, ‘stored carbon gets re-released, and it takes years and years for them to recover,’ says Rebecca. ‘It was recently found that a single dredge tow can remove up to 70% of a maerl bed and an entire flame shell bed.’ These are both priority marine features for nature conservation (the world’s largest flame shell beds are in Marine Protected Areas adjacent to Balmacara Estate).

An underwater shot of a crab sitting on a seabed. It is surrounded by a grass-like seaweed. The seabed is made up of a pink and white coral-like substance.
A maerl and seagrass bed | Image: Scotland: The Big Picture / naturepl.com

Protecting our carbon stores is essential, particularly if we are to achieve the target set out in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2019 of net zero by 2045 and if we are to mitigate the serious impacts of climate change we’re already living with. Climate change is having a profound impact on marine life: warming oceans cause disruptions to the food chain as fish stocks move north, an issue that especially affects the seabird population. Species such as fulmars and Arctic skuas are hit particularly hard, and the once-cacophonous kittiwake colonies of Shetland and Fair Isle have fallen quiet in recent years.

Out at St Abb’s Head

Trust rangers such as Ciaran Hatsell, who works at St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve, play an important role in monitoring the situation on the ground. In recent years, St Abb’s Head has seen an explosion in the number of grey seals breeding there. The colony, which appeared in 2007, is closely observed by Ciaran’s team; last winter they recorded the birth of an extraordinary 1,806 pups.

A close-up view of a furry-looking grey seal, with a mottled coat.
St Abb’s Head has seen a grey seal baby boom | Image: Laurie Campbell

Trust staff are also working with a researcher at Glasgow University who is studying the formation of a new gannet colony on an offshore stack. ‘We keep track of seabird populations and productivity as a biological indicator of the health of the whole habitat,’ explains Ciaran. ‘It gives us a picture of what’s happening in the wider ocean, which is hard to study and control.’

The figures can be alarming. ‘We’ve seen a 74% decline in kittiwakes since 1989, and similar fall-offs in other species. It’s scary.’

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“If we’re to help conserve these species, any decisions need to be informed by good data. So building research relationships is important now more than ever. ”
Ciaran Hatsell
Ranger, St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve

Ciaran adds, ‘With our location on the mainland, not far from Edinburgh or Glasgow, we can support lots of different research opportunities.’

We’re also working with the RSPB and other organisations to study the impact of offshore developments and to enhance our research and already-established monitoring work. Working collaboratively will help us gain more knowledge and influence when it comes to making the big decisions regarding the future of our ecosystems.

Visitors can also be a form of disturbance, of course. To this end, staff at St Abb’s Head have worked with scientists at Edinburgh Napier University on an observational study of how human activity can affect seabird colonies. ‘We get 60,000 to 70,000 visitors a year. Through studies we can gain an understanding of these impacts to improve management practices, and balance what’s right for nature and people too.’

We want everyone to be able to enjoy Scotland’s beautiful coastline and seas. That’s why it’s so important that we act decisively to protect our marine environment – advocating for more sustainable fishing, minimising pollution, reducing habitat loss and promoting biodiversity.

Read more about our work

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