IT HAS had a gestation period longer longer than the celebrated spiny dogfish, but at last Scotland’s Marine Bill has been passed, promising the birth of a new era for our seas and the prospect of, potentiallly, a brighter future for all the creatures that live in them and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.

The historic legislation was agreed on February 4, the culmination of years of planning, months of consultation, endless drafting, rewrites and amendments and – inevitably – some procrastination.

Among the key measures it will deliver are the creation of :

  • A national marine plan to help clarify decision making about the marine environment and to encourage investment
  • Simpler licensing to help stimulate economic growth and investment
  • New powers governing the identification and management of Marine Protected Areas to help ‘at risk’ species and locales regenerate
  • New responsibilities to protect Scottish waters up to 200 miles off shore and to govern marine planning within the same area
  • Greater protection and licensing for seal populations

Cabinet Minister for Rural Affairs and the Environment Richard Lochhead gets the glory and his name stamped on the legislation, so it was with obvious satisfaction, and no little relief, that he treated Holyrood to some snappy soundbites in support of the final reading.

Richard Lochhead
Richard Lochhead

“This is a truly historic day for Scotland . . . a step change in our approach to the marine environment . . . a new era for Scotland’s marine environment. . . .It is trail blazing time. . . .one of the Parliament’s proudest moments.”

It may, in time, prove to be all of these things. But that will depend on both the interpretation and the delivery of the new laws in practice. Nevertheless the Government must be allowed a pat on the back for the dogged determination to bring the Marine Bill to fruition.

It was, of course, helped in that regard by the enormous weight of public opinion, as well as support from all political quarters. The extent of interest in the public consultation process which lasted more than two years, took the Government in general and Lochhead in particular somewhat by surprise – which he acknowledged in his Holyrood speech. The process has also woken up politicians and officials to the extent and value of recreational sea angling both economically and environmentally.

He said: “Judging by the public’s response to this Bill, more people than ever before are interested in our seas. We have listened to their views and will now focus on delivering improvements.” The Bill itself, he maintained, ensured the safety our our marine environment “for our children, their children and generations beyond.” And it provided the Government with the tools “safely to exploit the full resource potential of the seas.”

Responses were broadly optimistic. Calum Duncan, convener of Scottish Environment LINK’s marine task force, said they welcomed a marine planning system which included environmental targets.

Ian Jardine, chief executive of  Scottish Natural Heritage, said the Bill was “a turning point” which should help us achieve healthier seas and contribute to prosperity.

Johanna Yates, marine policy manager at Scottish Renewables said the bill was “a significant step” towards a new way of working in our seas.

But Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation was more guarded. He said: “Whilst we welcome the broad overall aims of the Bill, it is absolutely essential that fishing has a proper place in the marine planning process with the primary objectives of ensuring a profitable sustainable industry.”

And he sounded a warning that the creation of marine protection areas would not be take place without safeguarding “traditional fishing grounds”.

The Scottish Sea Anglers’ Conservation Network, one of the most active lobby groups which took part in the consultation process, said they hoped the Bill “will set the foundation for the regeneration of Scotland’s seas and a consequent improvement in the quality of the sea angling experience.”

The legislation is, of course, a key component in the Government’s renewable energy strategy since its framework encompasses regulations controlling planning and administration as well as investment generation for off-shore wind, wave and tidal projects crucial to hitting 2020 targets.

About 25% of Europe’s total tidal and offshore wind resource and 10% of its wind power potential lies in Scottish Waters. But it would be churlish to suggest that this was the key driver behind the Government’s determination to see the Bill through.

The real yardstick is whether the emergence of a national marine plan, protected areas and a new planning system, can actually deliver a better balance between exploitation and conservation.  And that will mean just as much political will and juggling of priorities tomorrow as it does today.