SSACN, the Scottish sea angling conservation pressure group, is running a series of thought-provoking articles this month on many aspects of the sport.  The organisation is a touch-stone for all the key elements affecting marine conservation around our shores and plays an important part in helping to guide official policy in many areas.

It has asked a number of people across a broad range of interests to select any aspect of the state of Scotland’s marine environment, fish stocks, sea angling or conservation for their views.  SSACN hopes these will provide new insights, provoke alternative thinking or just simply show how sea angling has a part to play in delivering a greener, fairer, wealthier, healthier and inclusive Scotland.

My contribution to the series is reproduced here . . .

FOR AN island like ours it seems more than a little strange that we really should know so little about the waters which surround our shores. There are, after all, nearly 20,000 miles of UK coastline – more than half of them Scottish.

We know almost everything about the vessels which sail on them and those humans who work beneath them. Of the creatures for whom the seas are home, however, we know comparatively little; and the farther from the coast we venture, the less we know. How are they affected by their environment; how do they communicate; why and how do populations fluctuate; how is breeding is affected by changes in habitat; what influences migration patterns? The list is exhaustive.

We don’t of course consider ourselves ignorant. Quite the opposite in fact. As a nation of sea-farers did we not conquer the oceans to stamp our authority on half the world and build a glorious empire? The bellies of our warrior sailors were fed by the fearless effort of our fishermen, their commerce oiling the wheels of the economy at home as well as sating the hunger of the masses. It was with a certain amount of justifiable self-confidence that Britannia did indeed come to rule the waves. Once upon a time.

That bold arrogance lingers on in certain quarters. But today there is a paradox that the huge strides in scientific research and centuries of learning have illustrated just how little we actually understand; the sea remains an enigma. For those who sail upon it and those who tap its bounty, the oceans and waters around our shores for the most part are simply a mirror which reflects so much of human endeavour, yet reveals precious little of itself.

The sea remains the world’s last true wilderness, untamed and largely undiscovered. It would be wonderful to be able to add also: unexploited. But that, as we are all painfully aware, is not the case.

For those who remain unconvinced about the fragility of marine ecosystems and the astonishing catalogue of plunder wreaked by man through the ages, you need to read just one book – Callum Roberts’ astonishing work, The Unnatural History of the Sea. It is both a testament to man’s capacity for barbarity and gross self-interest when it comes to fishing, yet also an optimistic vision that remedial action can – not could – deliver a truly sustainable future.

For me, the most troubling aspect of the book was not the documentation of centuries of rampant over-fishing or the chilling description of the technological advances in deep sea trawling which leave the oceans’ inhabitants with few hiding places any more. No, the really disturbing element was the catalogue of political inertia which continues to harpoon conservation efforts at local, national and international levels.

You can take your pick from thousands upon thousands of pages of policies, strategies, statistics, quota levels, consultation reports, revision documents, studies, investigations, working parties and forums in place in almost any country with a coastline. The effort which accompanies their research and production is difficult to comprehend.  The rules which govern the use of our seas create giant webs of enormous complexity which network the globe.  And at the centre of each one usually sits a spider in the shape of a politician.

Here, for the sake of illustration – if not exactly simplicity – are the organisations which make up the Scottish Marine Strategy Forum, a taskforce set up by the Holyrood government in 2009 to provide ministers with advice on “issues and priorities at a strategic level” –

  • Marine Scotland • Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers • British Ports Association
  • CoSLA• David MacBrayne Ltd • Highland and Islands Enterprise/Scottish Enterprise
  • Historic Scotland • Joint Nature Conservation Committee • MAST Scotland
  • Northern Lighthouse Board • Oil and Gas UK • Royal Institute Town Planning
  • Scottish Boating Alliance • Scottish Coastal Forum • SEPA • Scottish Fishermen’s Federation
  • Scottish Natural Heritage • Scottish Renewables • Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation
  • Scottish Sea Angling Conservation Network • SSMEI Initiative • Scottish Environment LINK
  • The Crown Estate • UK Chamber of Shipping • UK Major Ports Group.

Phew! Just as well the members are not expected to reach consensus on much. However, what this group does do very successfully, is demonstrate the enormous and diverse range of interests in the seas surrounding our shores.

It also begins to show something of the pressures which politicians, particularly government ministers everywhere, face when formulating policy and, more difficult still, actually taking positive steps that directly affect the marine environment.

The record of the current SNP administration in setting up working parties and strategy forums, commissioning economic studies and scientific analyses, is commendable. The difficulty I have is in tracking down similar volumes of unambiguous decisions they have taken which have had a measurable impact on the long-term sustainability of fish at sea including, notably, migratory game species.

Recreational sea angling (RSA) today is as much about conservation as it is about sport as the efforts of dedicated organisations like SSACN and COAST demonstrate. The impact of RSA on fish stocks thankfully is minimal while its contribution to the Scottish economy alone is over £140m a year – more than golf tourism and more than all of freshwater angling combined.

It commands a powerful voice but one which all too often struggles to make itself heard among the clamour of others whose opinions and potential direct impact are often frankly questionable.  The sport should be seen as a great force for good in the community at large; but the public’s perception is stilted and frequently based on nothing more than cartoon imagery.

The time is right for a change. Angling in all its forms needs to take the initiative and become more directly involved in the politics of fish conservation. What better place to start than here in Scotland.

Angling, whether sea, game or coarse, directly sponsors no Scottish Members of either the Westminster or Holyrood Parliaments, as far as I can see from browsing official records of their interests.  True, some MSPs and MPs confess to being angling enthusiasts and are clearly sympathetic, but none appear to subject themselves to representing directly a recreational activity which is proven to have such a significant impact on jobs and incomes. I wonder why?

Few Holyrood constituencies do not host at least one river, a loch or stretch of coastline which supports some form of angling, so the potential number of candidates is large. But just how many would be willing to commit to acting unilaterally on behalf of the sport and potentially against traditional commercial and industrial interests, not to mention party line conflicts and even the blood sports lobby, is quite another matter.

We might start by polling all MSPs in order to compile a register of depth of support for angling and conservation. That would make interesting reading in the run-up to next May’s elections. The cost of such an exercise if carried out by an established independent poll agency, would not be exorbitant and might realistically be recouped by sales of the data to a wide range of business interests.

Once established, a political register could be maintained in order to track MSPs’ on-going record of support – or otherwise – for the sport. There is nothing like public accountability for concentrating political minds.

More of a challenge would be identifying a candidate to stand as an independent angling MSP. The development of angling has struggled historically because of a fragmented approach and a tendency towards factionalism throughout the sport as a whole. There would be serious issues of unity to address if a political campaign on an angling ticket was ever to be mounted, not to mention the prickly question of funding.

And that is before any kind of manifesto rears its head. Maybe Charlie Whelan, founder of Spinfish online magazine, former Labour Party spin-doctor and latterly political director of Unite, might like to stand – or at least volunteer his experience. Somehow I think not.

Nevertheless, if fishing with a rod and line is to fulfil its potential as a major contributor to the lasting sustainability of the many creatures which live in our seas and at the same time ensure that angling itself has some kind of future, someone sooner or later is going to have play the politicians at their own game.

This article was first published earlier this month by the Scottish Sea Angling Conservation Network as part of its 2011 – Think Again series.  Copyright Gordon Mack – Between The Lines. All rights reserved.