There was much coverage over the weekend about the creation of an historic UN agreement to protect the world’s international oceans. There is also much to do to protect Scotland’s seas.
The world’s nations agreed in 2012 at the Rio+20 meeting to work on this kind of agreement and, just over 20 years later, after five sets of talks, and late on a Saturday night, the last two weeks of negotiations resulted in the High Seas Treaty.
The Treaty applies to around half of the planet’s surface and the headline commitment is that 30% of international waters will be protected from damage by 2030, delivering on a promise from last year’s biodiversity talks. There will be a new body to oversee conservation of marine wildlife and create protected areas for wildlife. There will be more scrutiny of activities which affect the marine environment, including fishing, mining, and oil and gas extraction. And there will be more sharing between nations of the income from products derived from the oceans, including medicines.
There is even money attached, with €4bn of ocean finance promised by 2025 from European public banks. The Treaty is a great step forward for conservation but it does not come into force until 60 nations have ratified it. This could take two years, leaving only 5 years to deliver on the 30% protection pledge.
As well as being vital for nature, the oceans provide a livelihood for around half the world’s population and absorb most of the extra heat and a quarter of the climate change emissions we have been adding to the atmosphere. This is such a massive contribution; without healthy oceans we face climate catastrophe.
Like all territorial waters, Scotland’s seas are not covered by the Treaty, although the 30% protection pledge does apply as an international commitment. Scotland’s sea area is perhaps surprisingly large, at six times the size of our land area, and makes up 61% of the area controlled by the UK.
There are already 233 sites of varying sorts protected for nature in Scottish waters, including top level former-European protections, covering 37% of our marine area. The Bute House Agreement between the Scottish Greens and the SNP requires this to go further with 10% of waters protected on as ‘Highly-Protected Marine Areas’ by 2026. These would be areas basically left for nature to do its thing undisturbed.
Sounds good but all is not well above and beneath the surface. Our seas are among the most biologically productive in the world, supporting around 6,500 species. But they are feeling the impacts of climate change, pollution and over-fishing.
Climate change is changing the balance of species, contributing to significant declines in seabird numbers, a huge drop in harbour porpoise numbers and increasing the acidity of the oceans, making it harder for shellfish to build their shells. Microplastics are found in the waters all around Scotland, with the Clyde, Forth, Tay and Solway the most contaminated. Destructive fishing practices are wrecking the seabed even in some protected areas.
The new Treaty is very important but implementation in international waters needs to start right away, and action here in Scotland needs to accelerate if we was to have clean, healthy and productive seas.
A version of this blog appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on 9th March 2023.