THERE has been plenty of talk in recent years about how bottom-trawlers and scallop dredgers are wrecking our seabed. Areas at the bottom of our ocean, the scallop diver David Stinson once told me, have been left “looking like the bottom of a quarry”. Yet despite Scottish Government reviews, protection is still just a promise, not an actuality.

Meanwhile, new research is showing that there are other powerful reasons, beyond the sea life itself, to be worried about it – and one of them is what people are now calling blue carbon, the carbon sinks beneath the sea.

Sometimes net zero and biodiversity are talked about as if they were two different things, but what’s bad for biodiversity is often also bad in terms of carbon emissions. There is increasing evidence that this is the case with bottom-trawling and scallop dredging.

When, for a feature on rewilding our seas, I recently interviewed Professor Bill Austin of St Andrews University, he described how his team were behind a project to develop what they call “a new predictive approach that will help assess how vulnerable the UK’s seabed carbon stores are to the pressures of bottom trawling by fishing boats”.

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The seabed stores Prof Austin was talking about are the equivalent of our forests and peatlands on land. We may have heard little, comparatively, about these sinks till now, but as the UK and the world shifts gear in pursuit of net zero, the idea of protecting and nurturing them is bound to become as familiar to us as the notion that we need to plant and protect trees.

It has been estimated that around the UK, 524 megtaonnes of organic carbon is stored in seabed sediment. But the problem till now has been that compared to land-based soil counterparts, the ability of these sediments to store carbon, and their vulnerability to stressors like bottom trawling have been poorly quantified.

Prof Austin, who is chair of the Scottish Blue Carbon Forum, says that this new research, carried out by PhD-researcher Kirsty Black,“adds to the weight of evidence that points towards the impacts from bottom trawling on the marine environment”. He observes: “The novelty of the work is that we now have a quantitative measure to identify and if we chose, protect the most vulnerable stores of sedimentary carbon.”

We have failed to protect our seabeds from damage in the name of the “benthic species” that make their home there, can we now start to protect it in the name of saving humanity from the destructive impact of anthropogenic climate change? Is this a turning point, in which we start to take marine protection more seriously?

These vast marine carbon stores, a St Andrews press release points out, of sedimentary organic carbon are much larger than those on land, yet remain “poorly protected”. Once disturbed, they release carbon back to the environment, potentially as an additional greenhouse gas contribution to global warming. What they are looking to identify is what might be called precious carbon “hotspots”, areas particularly vulnerable to disturbance which may need protection.

The Scottish and UK governments have profoundly failed to protect our seabed. We’ve seen that repeatedly in the reports. Analysis of fishing vessel tracking data from Global Fishing Watch and Oceana found that, last year, fishing with bottom-towed gear took on over 90 per cent (58 out of 64) offshore “benthic” marine protection areas ( MPAs), which aim to protect species that live on the seabed. In 2020, according to Oceana, of the Scottish offshore MPAs, only the deep-sea Hatton-Rockall Basin and Hatton Bank MPAs, far off to the West of Scotland, were not bottom-trawled.

Evidence of damage has been discovered too, by a recent seabed-monitoring project run by the charity Open Seas and Greenpeace. Sea Beaver, a research boat has travelled anti-clockwise around our coastline, from Eyemouth to Oban, examining our seabed using drones and remote operated underwater vehicles. The harm it found included “dredge marks within an area in Loch Gairloch, where bottom-trawling and dredging are banned” and of “‘legal’ damage by scallop dredging in an area that the Scottish Government has slated for protection”.

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Earlier this year the UK Government introduced five new “highly protected” MPAs in English waters. In Scotland we trail behind with only one no-take zone created by the community-group COAST around Arran. The good news is the Scottish Government has said it is committed to designating highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) covering at least 10% of Scotland’s inshore and offshore waters by 2026. But many still are concerned about how well these areas will be policed. Protection must mean protection, not greenwashing or paper parks.