July 15, 2008

Territorial Waters Scotland Needs Greater Control of the Sea

CONSERVATION and economic growth tend to be difficult bedfellows, yet fishermen, environmentalists and renewable-energy generators have all welcomed the proposals for a Marine Bill for Scotland, published yesterday. That is because a coherent planning framework for the sea is long overdue. The waters around Scotland are a richly diverse environment, home to more than 40,000 species including some of the largest and the smallest on the planet, yet they also produce more than GBP2.2bn for the Scottish economy - and that is excluding oil and gas.

The test of the bill that eventually results from this consultation will be how it regulates a reasonable co-existence between exploitation and conservation. As on land, the key is sustainability. Environmental campaigners concerned about the decline in sea birds and marine mammals have called the bill a once- in-a- lifetime opportunity. They are probably right. The pressures are growing. The rising price of oil and new technology will extend the life of the North Sea oil and gas fields which support 145,000 jobs, and climate change is spurring the development of renewable energy generation, but there is also evidence that global warming is one of the factors causing the decline of species. At the same time, marine wildlife is a growing component in the tourism industry in Scotland, which in turn provides an important market for both farmed and wild fish and shellfish.

The environment secretary, Richard Lochhead, keen to keep all sides on board, emphasised balance as he launched the consultation document, but that will not be easily maintained. Despite the welcome, the various lobby groups have divergent aims. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the Scottish Renewables Forum welcomed a presumption in favour of using the sea, while the environmentalists' umbrella body believes the bill holds out the prospect of reversing neglect and exploitation. The proposal that a new body, Marine Scotland, will have responsibility for the stewardship of Scotland's seas and for stategic planning for the location of wind farms and renewable energy plants has the potential to balance conflicting interests between development and conservation, but much will depend on its composition and relationship to government.

There is, however, also a political divide over the future control of our seas. The Scottish Government's powers are limited to 12 miles beyond the coast, with control between 12 and 200 miles retained by Westminster. The SNP wants the devolved powers extended to the 200-mile limit and talks are currently taking place. As there is already a Marine Bill going through the UK parliament, which will have the powers to designate marine conservation zones and introduce a planning system for UK waters, it is vital that these are resolved quickly. Scotland has the lion's share of UK waters; it therefore makes sense to have control, for example over permitting wind farms, beyond 12 miles. Without that, the new proposals are in danger of losing the coherence they are designed to achieve.

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

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