2 Feb 2018 - The Scottish Government has announced new funding to support the development of four Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around the Scottish coastline.
The four MPAs include the Sea of the Hebrides MPA, Shiant East Bank MPA, North-East Lewis MPA and Southern Trench MPA, all of which were first proposed in 2012 but development was delayed in order to gather more evidence that the additional protections were needed. Scottish National Heritage commissioned a study which formally recommended the development of the MPAs, and funding was announced on 31 January 2018.
The new MPAs will be the world's first sites to offer protection for minke whales, basking sharks and Risso's dolphins. Although cetaceans are already protected under EU law, and basking sharks under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act, the new MPAs will provide additional resources to ensure the protection of the animals in areas where they are now known to congregate, especially for feeding, breeding and calving.
Minke whales are mostly seasonal visitors, returning each year to feed in the rich coastal waters such as the Sea of the Hebrides and the Southern Trench. Aside from their importance as a species, they are a great benefit to Scottish tourism, with more than 51,000 visitors reported to have participated in whale watching tours during 2015. Risso's dolphins are found throughout the year and many young calves have been spotted around the Isle of St Lewis.
Basking sharks are listed as endangered by the IUCN, and although they are already afforded protection in Scottish waters, research in 2016 by the University of Exeter and the Marine Conservation Society demonstrated how the Sea of the Hebrides is particularly important to the species, in an area where they are known to congregate.
'We commend the Scottish Government’s commitment to speed up progress on Scotland’s MPA network, which along with welcome existing commitments, will help ensure healthy seas now and tomorrow,' says Calum Duncan of the Marine Conservation Society. 'These four MPAs are urgently needed to fill gaps in the network, particularly for the endangered basking shark and other iconic species, but also for sand eels, sea fan and sponge habitats and landscape-scale features important for the wider health of Scotland’s seas, provided they become well-managed.'
Sarah Dolman of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) organisation, expressed her delight at the announcement. 'We were proud to provide Scottish Government with more than 36,000 postcards supporting whale and dolphin MPAs, alongside our own scientific evidence back in 2012. These MPAs will be world-firsts – including for Risso’s dolphins, where WDC have been studying their little-known calving and feeding behaviour off Lewis since 2010. Once designation and management are in place, these MPAs will ensure the protection of Scotland’s much loved marine wildlife, including minke whales and Risso’s dolphins.'
Dr Sam Collin, Marine Planning Officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust said: 'There is wealth of research pointing to the significance of these areas for species including basking sharks and minke whale so we’re very pleased that the Scottish Government has now committed to moving these new Marine Protected Areas forward. The designation of these sites would reinforce the Scottish Government’s commitment through the UN Sustainable Development Goals to conserve and sustainably use Scotland’s seas.'
Dr Lauren Hartny-Mills, Science and Policy Officer for the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust: “We are absolutely thrilled to hear that the Scottish Government plans to progress these important MPAs which will help protect Scotland’s iconic mobile species. Our research on cetaceans and basking sharks on the west coast of Scotland has helped provide the scientific evidence needed to support these sites. These MPAs will protect important feeding and breeding grounds for charismatic species such as minke whales in the Sea of Hebrides, where some individuals have been returning every year for over a decade. With our marine environments under increasing pressure from human activity and the effects of climate change, we need to act now to provide the protection they need.'
MPAs are recognised as an effective conservation tool globally, and with the right management measures in place can provide much needed spatial protection to highly mobile species as well as seabed habitats. As well as the larger, mobile species, the MPAs will increase protection for sand eels, sea fan and sponge communities, as well as burrowed mud, oceanic fronts, shelf banks and mounds, and sand and mixed sediment communities.