There is something fishy about a  recent report, titled Fishy Falsehoods, from the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA), that aims to persuade us there is no need to worry about marine biodiversity in our waters.

“It is frequently implied,” it says, “that there is a ‘biodiversity crisis’ in Scotland’s seas or that Scotland’s marine biodiversity is being ‘lost’. Such claims are then used to justify management measures such as bans on fishing in marine protected areas.”

The report, which declares that there “is a striking lack of evidence of biodiversity loss in Scotland’s seas", smacks of a kind of crisis denial. And in a world of Net Zero scepticism, simmering climate change denial and culture war, that sets off alarm bells.

Fishy Falsehoods comes packed with graphs and figures taken from respected reports. At the heart of its argument is a questioning of the relevance of one of the key indicators used to assess marine abundance, the state of our marine bird populations. From 1994 to 2019, the average abundance of 14 species of breeding seabird fell by 41%. Between 2016 and 2019 the indicator declined by 8%.

What the SFA rightly point out is that there are other species that are increasing and represent a positive story. These include ray-finned fish, sharks and their relatives, cephalopods and other invertebrates.

The report publishes a graph which represents the rise of these fish over the decades since 1998. It seems highly convincing - but also, these graphs might easily be summarised in a line from the new Scottish Biodiversity Strategy: “Abundance indicators for fish species show some signs of recovery from deep historic lows.”

The graphs also don't give us a longer view, nor tell us the full story of marine biodiversity - just as those marine birds do not.

As Nature Scot put it in their report from which the SFA takes its figures, "Note that the 212 species included in this figure represent approximately 3.2% of the 6,500 species found in Scottish seas. While it represents the best indication that we can make with current information, this selection is heavily taxonomically biased and thus may not be representative of overall trends in biodiversity."

There are other places we might want to look for our biodiversity story than these 212 species. For instance, the state of so-called "biogenic" habitats - those featuring blue mussel, horse mussel, flame shell, maerl and seagrass beds - which are mentioned in Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020.

“The target quality threshold of zero loss,” it noted,” was not met in five of the regions: Moray Firth, West Highlans, Outer Hebrides, Argyll and Clyde”

Another possible source for guidance on how well our marine wildlife is doing is the 2023 OSPAR status report on the North East Atlantic. OSPAR  listed small-toothed cetaceans and seals as “not in good condition” in the Greater North Sea and Celtic Sea. In those same waters, coastal fish, demersal fish and pelagic fish are not in good condition. Benthic habitats, it said, “continue to be damaged”. 

There’s a familiarity to the problem here. Science never seems to have the plain-speaking appeal of a fisherman or business person. However,  having lived through a half-century of misinformation and lobbying from oil and gas giants around climate change, you would have thought we might have learned by now to trust the scientists rather than those who make a profit, or even a living, from a particular resource.

READ MORE: The incredible life of Scotland's seabed revealed

READ MORE: Viral video reveals shocking bottom trawler fish dump

Fishy Falsehoods makes several other points. Globally, it says, "most biodiversity loss is taking place in the tropics". A graph, using figures from a Living Planet report,  shows how Europe's decline of -18% since 1970 looks tiny compared with that of South America and the Caribbean at -94%.

But other reports exist that are reminders that it’s more complex than that. A recent global study found that almost half of the species on Earth are currently undergoing declines in their population sizes. Like the Living Planet report it noted that there were hotspots in the tropics. But it also observed: “While tropical species-rich regions host hotspots of declining species when measured as absolute numbers of species, these patterns shifted towards temperate regions when the figures of declining species were calculated as proportions.”

And even if it is “worse in the tropics”, that is no reason not to deal with what is happening in our own patch - particularly given our history of losses at sea reaches back beyond that start year of 1970.

The other problem I have with SFA's argument is that what is missing from this story is the biodiversity lost during the industrial era and first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
We know that there have, in our history, been profound losses at sea. I look out onto my nearby Firth of Forth, where there was once one of the most productive oyster beds in the UK, and reflect on the fact that where once 30 million oysters were sold in a year, just 30, 000 are now being reintroduced.

The story of the ecological meltdown of the Firth of Clyde and the impact of bottom trawling has been much told.

The fishing industry has the public’s ear following the HPMA consultation and the backlash that triggered along with the framing of the marine protection plan as another version of the clearances - though, of course, there are plenty within fishing and coastal communities who do want to protect marine life. 

If the latest Scottish Biodiversity Strategy is anything to go by, it does look like marine protection is stalling, as it has been for some time. 

Already delayed fisheries management for marine protected areas promised for 2024, has been put back to 2025 in the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy’s 5-year Delivery Plan.

The Scottish Government, meanwhile, tells us that 37% of our seas are protected. But what does that mean? The NGO Open Seas says that damaging fisheries such as bottom-trawling and scallop dredging, two of the most damaging fishing practices, are restricted in just 5% of Scotland’s coastal seas. 

We are marginally lagging behind the rest of the UK which has 6% protected from bottom trawling. 

In this context denial of the biodiversity crisis is worrying. It’s worrying too, because recently it has felt as if backlash and denial are everywhere and around almost all environmental protections..

We have to ask where we find our truth on something as complex as this. The question often asked ,in a post-truth world,  is whether we can trust scientists or so-called experts. What isn’t asked enough, when it comes to fishing,  is whether we can trust the industry.