New Scottish Government proposals meant to protect marine wildlife will be greeted with criticism this week for failing to prevent the damage being done by the fishing industry.
Environmental groups are preparing to savage management arrangements planned for a new network of marine protected areas around Scotland. The measures will enable business as usual for fishing boats, they will say, and precious wildlife sites will suffer as a result.
This weekend, a survey ship is due off Wester Ross to look for evidence of the kind of valuable underwater habitats at risk. It is searching for lush, purple-pink seabed forests known as maerl beds in the hope they can be protected from dredgers.
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On Tuesday, the Scottish Government is due to launch a major consultation on how 11 marine protected areas (MPAs) around the coast should be managed. The Sunday Herald understands that it will fall far short of what environmental groups were hoping for.
"We have always said that without effective management, MPAs are simply paper parks," said Calum Duncan, convener of Scottish Environment Link's marine task force and Scottish programme manager for the Marine Conservation Society.
"Over the next few months, the future of these new marine protected areas is therefore in the balance."
The search for maerl beds in an MPA off Wester Ross was initiated by the local community, and is being carried out by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT). It is using underwater camera equipment provided by the Government's conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage.
Maerl forms extensive seabed carpets of kelp and flame shells, creating an ideal habitat for young cod, scallops and crabs. Although several beds have been identified in Loch Ewe, Gruinard Bay and around the Summer Isles, there are large areas that have not been surveyed.Maerl beds grow very slowly, and can be damaged by bottom-towed fishing gear such as scallop dredgers.
"It's vital to know where these precious maerl beds are, so that we can prevent them being damaged by activities such as scallop dredging," said SWT's living seas policy officer, Alex Kinninmonth. "Marine protected areas must be managed to make sure that this doesn't happen."
There were indications that there might be several as yet unmapped maerl beds off the coast, he suggested. "If we can fill the gaps in our knowledge then better decisions on the management of Scotland's vitally important marine habitats can be made."
The fishing industry, however, insisted that carefully managed bottom-trawling could take place in MPAs as long as it didn't harm protected natural features. "Pushing for blanket no-take areas will deliver absolutely no marine conservation benefits and will just simply displace fishing into other areas," argued Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation.
He accused some conservation groups of wanting "the gratuitous displacement of sustainable fishing just for the sake of it". They seemed "unconcerned about supporting our fragile fishing communities or the importance of fish as a food supply," he alleged.
"The management of the MPAs is all about using the scientific evidence to develop management measures for each site," he added. "It is all about sensible management to achieve the twin aims of sustainable fishing and marine conservation."
The Scottish Government insisted the measures it proposed would aim to protect natural features. "These measures have been developed following discussions with the fishing industry, environmental organisations and local authorities, and are designed to ensure that the conservation objectives for each site are met," said a Government spokesman."This consultation is an opportunity for anyone who is interested in the protection of our seas to express their views about our proposals, and we are keen to hear from as many people as possible."