Wednesday, April 09, 2008

740 miles of Scottish coast is crumbling into sea

View GalleryBy David Maddox Scottish Political Correspondent

SCOTLAND'S seas and coastline are facing a new series of threats because of rapid climate change, The Scotsman can reveal.

The first report into the state of the nation's seas highlights the fact that 12 per cent of the country's coastline is already subject to serious erosion, and that is set to get worse.

The report, Scotland's Seas – Towards Understanding Their State, was ordered by Richard Lochhead, the Rural Affairs Secretary, to provide an analysis of what needs to be done to protect Scotland's marine environment and to help inform forthcoming marine legislation.

The authors warn that climate change will bring stormier seas, higher sea levels and bigger waves. They claim that 740 miles of Scottish coastline has already suffered serious erosion problems, increasing the risk of more flooding and damage to the natural habitat of wildlife.

The report also states that sea temperatures are now rising at between 0.2 and 0.4 per cent per decade compared to 0.07 per cent 100 years ago.

There is also evidence that water acidity levels are increasing in some areas, which adversely affects wildlife such as bottlenose dolphins. But the report admits there are gaps in the knowledge on bottlenose dolphins, which are believed to be in decline in the Moray Firth and along the east coast.

Populations of common seals and Arctic terns are being dramatically reduced, although some species like gannets have seen an increase in numbers.

The report, which was drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Fisheries Research Council (FRC) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), once again underlines the problem of the over-fishing of cod in Scottish waters and says stocks are in a dangerous state.

Worries are also raised about some of the life forms at the bottom of the food chain – zooplankton – which are the diet for many seabirds.

The authors said that 34 special areas of conservation have been set up in Scottish seas and are showing "favourable signs" of improvement but that it may take "decades or even centuries for full recovery in some cases."

Richard Lochhead, cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment, said: "Climate change is a truly global issue and can only be tackled if we work together.

"Our seas play a vital role in regulating our climate and are a lifeline for the communities that live around them. Our winters are getting wetter and warmer, sea levels are rising and coastal erosion is increasing. Our marine wildlife is now having to cope with these as well as other pressures, and is beginning to suffer as a result. Our marine industries also have to cope with changes. These are happening now and we must take action."

However, it was not all bad news, as Scotland's seas are much cleaner than they were in 2000. The report noted that 94 per cent of Scottish waters are now "clean and safe" and there has been a 72 per cent reduction in unsatisfactory or seriously polluted waters to just 90.5km of coastline in total.

Chemical contamination levels in samples taken from estuaries are also down, although 30 different types of metal, including cadmium, mercury, lead, copper and zinc, are present.

Problems remain with litter on Scottish beaches – 90 per cent of the rubbish contains plastic and 80 per cent comes from land-based sources, usually through fly-tipping or being casually discarded.

The report says more needs to be done to manage chemical discharges from towns and farms.

It also highlights the importance of the seas to the Scottish economy. Marine-based industries, including fishing but excluding oil and gas, are worth £2.2 billion in Scotland and employ around 50,000 people.

Robin Cook, the chief executive of the Fisheries Research Services (FRS), said: "Scotland's seas are rich, diverse and productive.

"This report forms an important step in ensuring the sound stewardship of our marine environment and the protection of the many thousands jobs that are dependent on our seas."

And SEPA chief executive Campbell Gemmell said: "There is a vast amount of work already being carried out. This is the first step to a more comprehensive and detailed report on the state of the marine environment, due in 2010."

SNH chief executive Ian Jardine added: "As a maritime nation, we have a long history of studying and exploiting our marine natural resources. In the 21st century, our challenge is to use our marine environment sustainably. Most of the population of Scotland has an interest in marine issues, even if that's to enjoy a day out on a clean beach.

"But we know there are challenges ahead in agreeing how best to use these resources, and protect them in the face of climate change and threats from new, invasive species.

"To ensure the future long-term health of Scottish seas, it is essential to maintain a balance between sustainable exploitation of marine resources and the protection of wildlife and natural features. This important report will help us all to co-ordinate action for our seas."


THE most obvious example of climate change is the rate at which the seas are warming up. This is now at 0.2 to 0.4 per cent per decade compared to 0.07 per cent a century ago.

About 12 per cent of the coastline is at serious risk of erosion, which is increasing because of rising sea levels.

In Aberdeen the sea is rising at a rate of 0.7mm a year, but at some places, such as Lerwick, the level has decreased slightly since 1957.

The report also suggests that the seas will get stormier, with higher waves creating surges that could create further coastal erosion.

This could damage habitats and cause problems for areas such as Moray which are prone to flooding.


MARINE agriculture is worth £2.2 billion to the Scottish economy and employs around 50,000 people, according to the report.

The biggest employer is fish processing, accounting for around 14,000 people. It was worth £481 million to the economy in 2004-5.

Building and repairing ships and boats, once Scotland's biggest industry, was worth £312.9 million and employed 7,216 people.

Sea fishing had 2,684 people employed and made £149.5 million. Fish farming covered 2,468 people and had an income of £121.7 million.

Oil and gas brought in £20 billion in 2005, one-fifth of the total Scottish gross domestic product. It employs around 145,000 people.


UNCERTAINTY surrounds the future of bottlenose dolphins. The authors believe that numbers have declined. This fits in with recent concerns of the Green Party about the impact of oil exploration in the Moray Firth.

The number of common seals has almost halved since the mid-1990s, but the grey seal population has shot up by around 25,000.

Many bird populations have also fallen, although actual numbers are not given. The proportion of breeding Arctic terns are down by 95 per cent since the mid-1980s; Arctic skuas were down 63 per cent and little terns 54 per cent. This could be due to a 70 per cent drop in zooplankton since the mid-1960s, the main food source for many seabirds.


SINCE 2000, there has been a 72 per cent improvement in the waters off the Scottish coast, with stretches totalling 90.5km still unsatisfactory or seriously polluted. It means that 94 per cent of the coastal waters are now clean and safe.

The report also notes that contamination levels in estuaries are down, although the authors say that more work needs to be done and note that over 30 metals, including copper and zinc, are still present in samples taken from the seabed. It says nitrogen levels in urban and agricultural discharges need to be better managed.

The report also highlights litter as a major problem, with 80 per cent of it coming from land-based sources.


THE Scotsman is campaigning to protect our precious marine life. We want:

• A network of marine reserves and protected areas to be created to safeguard sites properly

• A system of marine planning, effectively zoning areas for appropriate use, to safeguard important fishing grounds from offshore wind farms and other projects

• A single organisation to administer this system

• Scotland to be given control of conservation to the 200-mile boundary with international waters

It is hoped that many of these issues will be dealt in a Scottish marine bill, which has been promised by the Scottish Government. A draft UK Marine Bill was published in Westminster last week.

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