| Threatened seabirds 'neglected' in plans for Scottish marine protected areas|
|Conservationists have accused Scottish ministers of overlooking highly threatened seabird populations as part of plans to create about 30 new marine protected areas, stretching from coastal waters to the Atlantic ocean west of Rockall.|
The RSPB and other environment groups said it was bizarre to set up a network of offshore marine protection zones which neglected birds such as kittiwakes and razorbills, which have seen steep declines in numbers in 2013 after the coldest spring in 50 years.
The Scottish government unveiled a list of 33 proposed marine protection areas (MPAs), which will cover over 11% of Scottish waters, for a 16-week consultation. Due to be in place by 2016, around 30 of the sites are expected to be chosen, completing a UK-wide network of MPAs.
The proposed zones would help protect kelp forests; large populations of ocean quahog, a species of clam which can live to be 500 years old; sea mounts, deep sea sponges and maerl beds; oysters; beds of flameshell – a form of mussel which has vibrant fringes of red and yellow tentacles; common skate; as well as geological features dating back to the last ice age.
A number of MPA sites will protect black guillemots but the RSPB were highly critical of the decision to exclude all other seabirds from the new network. The group Whale and Dolphin Conservation criticised a delay on selecting sites for minke whales, several dolphin species and basking sharks, pending further research. Environmentalists said the omissions marred an otherwise strong set of candidate sites and a very detailed assessment process.
There are fears too of clashes with offshore energy developments at one proposed site, the Forth Banks in the North Sea east of Edinburgh, home to significant populations of one of ocean quahog, while the oil industry could be affected by MPAs off Barra and the Hebrides. In a parallel consultation exercise released on Thursday, Scottish ministers also identified parts of the Forth Banks for a major offshore windfarm called the Forth Array.
Lloyd Austin, head of conservation policy with RSPB Scotland, said ministers, Scottish Natural Heritage and the UK's Joint Nature Conservation Committee had backed off because of fears that including seabirds in a far larger or more comprehensive MPA network would conflict with renewable energy and fisheries industries. "It's partly a fear of a backlash and a desire to balance things out," he said.
Officials with SNH, the conservation agency which collaborated with the JNCC to draft the list of sites, denied they were ignoring or neglecting seabirds. They said other work was already under way to identify offshore areas for waterfowl, terns, red-throated divers and shags and other "offshore aggregations" of species to become new special protection areas (SPAs) under the European Union birds directive. Those would be in place alongside every MPA.
Black guillemots had been identified for protection under the MPA system because they were not listed under the birds directive and were non-migratory. And the MPAs protected seabirds in other ways, by designating areas for sandeels – one of their main food supplies, for the first time in UK waters.
Katie Gillham, an SNH official who helped draft the MPA list, said: "There's such an extensive programme of work going on under the birds directive, once we've finished there will be adequate protection for sea birds. What we're trying to do is make sure it all comes together as a network."
Other species of dolphin and whale were integral to another set of potential MPAs now being investigated in four extra search areas, including white beaked dolphins in the outer Moray Firth; Risso's dolphins off the Butt of Lewis in the Western Isles and minke whales off Skye, Mull and Tiree.
Austin said this approach failed to protect numerous sea bird populations and sites around Scotland which did not meet the birds directive's test of being of international importance. The SPA system was designed to protect the top 1% of Europe's bird populations, not those of national or regional importance.