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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Most of Scotland is underwater

Not even our rivers run free.

Misquote from Mickey MacConnell’s 1965 song, Only Our Rivers Run Free

The Scotland that lies under water has a special place in the whole land reform story. Until recently, it has been largely ignored that six times more of Scotland’s territory is under the sea than above it. And when you add in our river and loch systems, and their contribution to the health of our ecosystem, their importance to the land reform story becomes clear. During my three terms at Holyrood we addressed several ways to reform the control and management of our rivers, lochs and seas. We set up a coherent direction, albeit only the early steps, towards the goal of a democratic and fair use of our natural resources under sovereign control. As they are such key resources, transparent management of their biodiversity will immeasurably aid Scotland’s sustainable future.

A Europe-wide agenda to create marine protected areas (MPAs) had serious implications at a local level in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament was conscious of the reported fall in numbers of wild salmon and sea trout, so new proposals for wild fisheries were brought forward for consultation. Because aquaculture has been greatly increasing in importance to consumers over recent decades, its footprint now affects our marine ecology to a greater extent than ever before. Farmed fish now make up the biggest percentage of food exports from Scotland. In contrast, river angling interests have been exercised over dwindling catches. When I was an MSP, some saw a direct link between these two activities where others saw more complex factors. Nonetheless, a bill to tighten regulation of the aquaculture industry was passed in 2013 and all of these natural resource components were addressed in the National Marine Plan for Scotland of 2015 proposed by the Scottish Government. As the relevant Holyrood committee, myself and the rest of the RACCE spent considerable time and effort to understand and streamline this plan to make it effective.

In one of the early years of my mandate, as a regional member for Highlands and Islands, the issue of protecting marine features, such as in the Firth of Lorne, were subject to SSIs. These government orders were, in this case, to regulate fishing – especially scallop dredging which needed to be excluded from pressured areas. I had a strong impression that cavalier, unscrupulous fishing had to be curbed to protect the spawning grounds that regenerated many fish stocks, be they langoustine, haddock or cod. In my huge region, particularly in the Minch, the lack of fin fish (as opposed to shellfish) was a strong sign of overfishing. So I welcomed an opportunity to bring this debate to parliament after a visit to Arran. Although this was not in my constituency, the land and water was already familiar to me from my visits over many years.

In 2005, my old friend Henry Murdo – bagpipe maker, hill walker and environmental watchdog – introduced Eleanor and I to key members of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST). One member, Don Macneish, as well as being a fellow hill walker, was a keen diver. Along with Howard Wood, another member of COAST, they had sought to protect a portion of Lamlash Bay from scallop dredging for over a decade, but without success. Their focus was saving rare maerl beds. Maerl is a form of cold-water coral which is found on the seabed of Lamlash Bay. We all met at the home of Tom Vellaboyle in Whiting Bay and agreed a plan. Our advice was to lodge a reasoned petition at Holyrood where the Public Petitions Committee (PPP) would give it a fair hearing. We suggested that if they were asked to give evidence, they should alert us so that we might suggest to PPP members they should think to involve the RACCE. 1 And that’s what happened.

The committee was due an away day to plan the programme for session 2006–7 during the August recess, so Eleanor and I persuaded the rest of the committee to hold it on Arran. As part of the trip we would review the maerl beds and to take some time to assess the plight of small land holders at Sliddery on Arran’s south coast. The latter issue was still ongoing at the time of the 2015 Land Reform Bill.

On Arran, we duly donned waterproof gear and embarked on a fast rib owned by Arran Adventures from Brodick to Lamlash Bay. The exhilarating, wave-splashed ride round Clauchlands Point took us into the calm of the bay where Wood met us in another rib over the maerl beds. His dive to the seafloor brought us small samples of the coral so that we could discuss how solutions to end their destruction by dredgers could be ordered. The committee agreed to write to the Environment Minister and suggest a ‘no take’ zone for the Lamlash maerl beds. This met with the approval of the Scottish Executive and it fell to Richard Lochhead, the incoming Cabinet Secretary, to move the regulation in 2007.

Ten years on, in 2018, despite sporadic arguments with Clyde-based scallop dredgers, the success of the No Take Zone was celebrated. Breeding stocks of langoustine, haddock and cod all benefitted from maerl regeneration, and also the Scottish Parliament's willingness to tackle degraded marine habitats. Indeed, the tail end of the 2011–6 session saw the adoption of 30 MPAs, including the South of Arran MPA, much to the delight of COAST and many others. These barred scallop dredgers from a much wider area. 2

In 2012, in another public petition, RACCE took evidence on the removal of Marine Stewardship Council accreditation for creel fishing for nephrops, ie langoustine, in Loch Torridon. This exposed not just the conflicts between creelers and trawlers but the excessive laying of creels in the protected area. A petition lodged at Holyrood by Richard Munday of Shieldaig exposed this dilemma. 3 The committee held a roundtable evidence session in June 2012 and considered the petition again in September 2012 after correspondence with the Scottish Government. 4 The petitioner agreed that the Scottish Government was demonstrating an attempt to address many of the issues raised by his petition, though not necessarily as a direct response. The gear conflict and fragility of fish stocks would be a constant refrain in our deliberations and led to scrutiny of the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill in second half of 2012. The bill aimed, according to the Policy Memorandum, to ensure that farmed and wild fisheries – and their interactions with each other – continue to be managed effectively, maximising their combined contribution to supporting sustainable economic growth with due regard to the wider marine environment.

to ensure that farmed and wild fisheries – and their interactions with each other – continue to be managed effectively, maximising their combined contribution to supporting sustainable economic growth with due regard to the wider marine environment.

We made two visits in November 2012 to other sites of marine interest. The first to the River Dee and a salmon netting station near Montrose. The second outing to Lochaber enabled members to see, first-hand, the issues and tensions between fish farms and freshwater fisheries that were at the heart of the bill. These visits helped to inform our Stage 1 scrutiny.

On our first visit – arranged through the good offices of the River Dee Trust and the local salmon fisheries board – we were able to see, with our own eyes, where the female salmon scrape a shallow depression, a redd, on the riverbed to lay their eggs. Thereafter the male salmon fertilise the eggs and cover the redds with gravel. Yet what struck me most was that the fishery was also seeking funds from the Scottish Government to plant trees close to the banks of the River Gairn. That place was what can only be described as a devastated landscape. Formerly clothed in Scots Pine and Birch the land had been cleared for sports shooting on any land 500 metres above sea level. The riverbanks of the fishery were located beside large areas of land bared and recently charred with the dead white stocks of burnt heather roots. RACCE was asked to support their initiative to replant this riverside area. The angling trust hoped to cultivate dappled shade which would cool the river and encourage salmon spawning and to diversify the local flora and fauna. And, by ensuring a greater salmon population, they would also be able to provide catch and release sport for wealthy anglers. For this privilege, anglers would pay handsomely to riparian owners, the private landlords of the riverbanks downstream.

The next day, we drove over the Cairn O’ Mount from Deeside down to the sea near Montrose to visit Usan Salmon Fisheries, a mixed stock wild salmon fishery. With fixed nets man-handled and harvested on cobles, this historic occupation had become the fulcrum of a clash of cultures at the heart of a dispute with the Esk District Salmon Fishery Board. In times past, long before the Scottish Parliament was founded, coastal salmon netting had coexisted peacefully with river angling. Often they were interchangeable, in terms of ownership of riverbanks or licenced fixed nets in the sea. But ancient netting rights for salmon and sea trout around our coasts had dwindled from several hundred in the middle of the 19th century to a handful of active fishing stations by 2012. However anglers, and their rich clients, began to question the drop in catchable salmon and confrontations between the two sectors flared. Legal restraints were sought against netsmen, such as Usan. Other sectoral clashes also developed with the spread of farmed salmon pens sitting in the firths and bays of the west coast; the very routes through which salmon undertook their perilous return journey to and from Greenland. The Scottish Government saw the need to streamline aquaculture regulations and to modernise salmon fishery boards to make their meetings transparent and, for the sake of biodiversity, to extend their remit to include all species in their river catchment.

RACCE members visiting Lochaber a week later saw smolt spawning in contained tanks at Glenfinnan. Some fish were for release to restock the River Lochy, others for farming, grown to full size in adjacent pens on nearby Loch Shiel. Clothed in regulation protective gear we went on the loch to see these large pens for ourselves. Biosecurity was becoming paramount. An SSI in 2009 had already regulated responses to a contagious salmon disease, Gyrodactylus salaris, commonly known as salmon fluke, which was wiping out fish on river systems in Norway. Strict rules for anglers moving between countries were brought in. The problem of sea lice, however, continues to challenge the industry to this day. While sea lice parasitize wild salmon, farmed salmon are far more vulnerable and the use of chemicals to control the problem remains controversial. After seeing the scale of the fish processing factory at Inverlochy, we had a sense of the size of the aquaculture industry. As part of this visit, we looked into nearby Loch Leven. Marine Harvest were using lice-eating fish called wrasse and lump fish to clean their pens of sea lice. Could these be caught or bred in numbers to meet the demand of salmon pens spread along the west coast from Scourie in the north to Kintyre and Arran in the south?

The committee’s Aquaculture Bill Stage 1 report recommended far tougher rules for river catchment reporting systems for sea lice while also detailing ways to curb and prevent escapes for salmon pens. Publishing sea lice numbers was essential for public confidence when dealing with a very defensive salmon farming industry led by the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation. We demanded a considerable increase in the number of river catchments from which data was to be collated. There was also public concern about the number of seals being shot as an element of ‘predator control’ on the fish farms. We considered this to be a last resort. It was stated in our report that humane methods such as seal scaring should be applied first.

The proposals outlined in the bill were a necessary step to improving the accountability and transparency of District Salmon Fishery Boards. It was a necessity that board members should declare any financial interest that they might have had in board decisions. The introduction of a carcass tagging scheme with individually numbered tags would also be required to establish the credibility of overall statistics. This applied to salmon netting and also to close times and days at sea. Processes for conflict resolution had to be made clear by the Government, RACCE argued. We had been disappointed to hear about the breakdown in the relationship between netsmen and the Esk District Salmon Fishery Board. Although the committee appreciated the difficulties netsmen could encounter at trying to adhere to weekly close times in challenging weather conditions, rules to aid conservation of salmon were essential even if a degree of flexibility was needed. These issues raised big questions about inland waters and offshore management. They also exposed vested interests and flagged up the pressing need for biodiversity in an age of extreme weather due to climate change. Such concerns would have to be grasped if economic uses of species were to be sustained.

The question of who controls our waters, and who benefits from good resource management, spurred us to think further about this aspect of land reform. Related matters were set to tax our patience and understanding for the rest of the parliamentary session, in fact, to the very last committee meeting in March 2016. 5

At the RACCE, on 23 September 2015, I convened a controversial session on the plans for MPAs. An emergency MPA order was passed to set up the Wester Ross MPA covering the area from Gairloch up to Stoer in Assynt because of a series of scallop dredging incidents. Prior to the committee sitting, Clyde fishermen let off a smoke cannister whilst demonstrating against MPAs outside the Scottish Parliament; unacceptable behaviour to my mind. Our government’s urgent action, reining in unchecked scallop dredging and the despoliation of spawning grounds was a turning point for the management of inshore waters. A counter demonstration by COAST remained peaceful. At last the parliament was moving towards full scale marine protection. To underline the intensity of the confrontation over these issues, and for the only time in my tenure, police constables were stationed in the committee session for fear of trouble. 6

In committee, Duncan MacInnes, the secretary of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, spoke his mind:

On the shared marine environment, we have what we consider to be a balanced fleet that has been sustainable. We have a creel fleet. We are the largest association with static gear members in the whole of Scotland. We have been at the leading edge of conservation. For the past ten years, we have been asking Marine Scotland to introduce a pot limitation scheme, and we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. We do not want to see more creels go into the sea. I was a fisherman myself. I started fishing with 240 pots and finished 15 years later with 750 pots. If I was still at sea today, I would need 2,000 pots to catch the same amount that I used to get.

We need a sensible balance on the way forward if we are to have a shared, successful and sustainable marine environment that benefits all industries. Marine renewables are coming into that environment, and there is increased fish farming with larger fish farms that want their own section of the seabed. It is right and proper that we should discuss protecting marine features within the overall framework of future marine planning.

As I said, no fisherman wants to destroy the marine environment. Fishermen have shared that marine environment for the past 50 or 60 years. The marine features are there, and it is not as if the fishermen have destroyed the marine environment; they have been fishing it commercially and sharing it for a generation. Fragile communities such as those on the west coast, from the Clyde all the way up to Kinlochbervie, are now faced with a dilemma about how to take forward the management of the marine environment.

No one is against marine protected areas; it is their management that needs to be sorted out.

I asked Mr MacInnes to comment on the necessity of bringing in an emergency order for the Wester Ross MPA. I wondered how that squared with his assertion that trawlers were interested in maintaining the marine environment seeing as one of his boats had been accused of flouting fishing restrictions in the Summer Isles. MacInnes replied that the skipper had made a full statement to the fishery office in Ullapool and that there was a total misunderstanding about the different zones in that area. He went on:

There was a zoning approach that meant that scallop dredging should be kept deeper than 20m, yet there was one zone that had a total prohibition in it. There were seven different zones. Marine Scotland did not have the courtesy to send details of those voluntary measures to the scallop vessels that had scallop entitlements. In my opinion, it should have done that.

The skipper of the vessel was unaware that he had a fishery cruiser beside him that Saturday morning. The fishery protection vessel did not tell him that he was operating in a voluntary closed area. In the area where he was fishing, he did not go shallower than a depth of 30m, so he was well within the agreed 20m zoning. He has requested that Marine Scotland show photographic evidence that he caused any damage in that area, and that evidence has not been given to him.

There was a total misunderstanding and that has been conveyed to Marine Scotland. If nobody in life ever misunderstood anything, this room would be empty. We are dealing with a misunderstanding or an interpretation of the information available.

This confusing catalogue of assertions was but one of several such infractions of the ban in the Summer Isles waters. Boats from Northern Ireland and elsewhere had been implicated in the same place thus mounting up evidence for urgent regulation. In committee, another panel member immediately begged to differ. Alasdair Hughson, who was representing the Scottish Scallop Divers Association, was also a local scallop diver. What he said was damning:

I am afraid that I must take issue with the evidence from Duncan MacInnes. I was made aware of the incursion into the voluntary zone by the Siarach III within 15 or 20 minutes of it happening because I had phone calls from local residents, who were out taking photographs of the vessel. Within an hour, I had been sent the photographs by email and it was decided between me and some local residents that, if it was to be proven that the infraction had taken place, we had to get evidence from the sea bed, because we were aware that the vessel might well have been just towing its dredges below the boat – they might not have been on the sea bed.

It was arranged that a local vessel would take me out to the area and that I would dive on it. I dived in the area on the Tuesday and found the dredge marks on the sea bed. The shallowest point of the dredge marks was 19m. I have video evidence of that, which has been submitted to Marine Scotland. 7

What more public corroboration of infraction could be had? The behaviour of mobile gear fishermen – a scallop or prawn dredger in this case – had resulted in this MPA being brought forward earlier than it might have been. The committee was left in no doubt about the urgency to meet European targets for marine protection and, following the SSI lodged in January 2016, held a high-pressure session. RACCE finally recommended that Parliament introduce 30 MPAs around Scotland’s coasts. The recommendation was carried by a vote of seven to two (SNP and Labour versus Tory and Lib Dem).

A particularly sensitive issue was flagged up on our committee work programme: the ownership of quotas to fish for white fish species such as haddock and cod and for the truly mega scale pelagic fishery for mackerel conducted by fewer than 25 large trawlers. Strong suspicions had arisen over the years, following each annual Common Fisheries Policy agreement, that only a few companies owned much of the available quota. These few were dubbed ‘slipper skippers’. They sold their rights to actual fishing boat owners for a set number of catches. Due to pressing business from all our other responsibilities, RACCE members were unable to find time for a committee enquiry. Suffice to say that, in 2018, it was revealed that around five families owned the bulk of available quota in Scotland. So much for the idea that Scottish fishing communities are bastions of our coastal economy.

The interaction of salmon that live in rivers, lochs and high seas became a fitting culmination of the RACCE session regarding aquatic policy. It produced a lengthy debate triggered by a petition to the European Commission lodged by Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC) suggesting that the Scottish Government was not protecting wild salmon from offshore mixed stock fisheries. The Salmon and Trout Association which had been founded in 1903 claims to ‘have been a voice for the UK’s watery places and the wild fish that live there’. Its website explains:

Previously Salmon and Trout Association, we received charitable status in 2008 which allowed us to specialise as a campaign based, science-led, lobbying organisation under our new identity, Salmon & Trout Conservation.

Wild salmon and trout are natural indicators of a happy and healthy water environment. Their wellbeing is a fundamental interest for everyone with a love of rivers, lakes and their wildlife. With this belief at our heart, we were established as the Salmon and Trout Association in 1903.

We fight to keep UK waters wild. We do this without the use of taxpayer’s money, so we are not compromised in challenging Governments. All our work is a product of your passion and support, which enables us to be your voice and to stand up openly for wild fish and water with no strings attached. 8

Needless to say, ST&C has a Scottish arm and it claims success in halting mixed stock salmon netting as well as hastening the most recent Scottish Parliament enquiries into salmon farming practices in Session 5 (2016–21). In 2016, the Scottish Government had to respond to the possible consequences of any financial penalties that could be demanded for negligence in safeguarding wild salmon, if proven by the European Commission regulators of the European Environment Agency. The Scottish Government’s response to the ST&C challenge was to be the final subject of RACCE deliberations in our last meeting in March 2016.

At that time Marine Scotland had devised a scheme which composed three classes of fishery districts. The bulk of Scotland’s west coast rivers were deemed Grade 3, the most threatened, Grade 2 would allow limited catch and release and Grade 1 gave the greatest cause for hope. Grades 1 and 2 were scattered along our east and north mainland river catchments. It emerged, as we questioned the Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochead, that these could be reclassified if evidence of improvement was to hand. The big caveat was a three-year moratorium on coastal netting of salmon and sea trout by firms such as Usan near Montrose and that of the Mackays of Armadale in north Sutherland. Committee members quizzed Lochhead at length and found him hampered from full answers to our questions. His deputy Dr Aileen McLeod was unable to attend due to illness and, for several months, any previous informal dialogue with her we had held had probed the Marine Scotland plan.

Our proposed plan was to assess and classify the conservation status assigned to each river district. This would inform further management measures and actions that might be considered at a local and national level. The options listed were conservation, restoration, enhancement and management of wild Atlantic salmon stocks considering the best scientific evidence available. The conservation plans would detail existing and future local initiatives to address the current assessment of the fishery district and identify (and where possible quantify) other factors that might have a material impact, such as marine renewable energy, predation, aquaculture and other barriers. 9

Several MSPs, including Jackie Baillie, with specific interests in angling clubs in central Scotland, asked questions. Joan McAlpine supported the recreational fishery of Haaf netting on the Solway.

I had been lobbied strongly by coastal netters in my constituency. Most of our rivers were in Grade 1 conditions but all would be subject to a three-year moratorium, a ban that some thought would be permanent. Mr Skinner at Balintore could not accept that netting could occur inside the Cromarty Firth, two miles away from his business. James Mackay on the north coast had worked with the River Naver Board collaboratively for many years. His livelihood was threatened. Ian Paterson from a family steeped in coastal netting for a century had produced verifiable statistics from Scottish Government data showing that from 2009 to 2014 rod and line angling had caught 159,731 fish while mixed stock coastal netting accounted for 118,366 fish.

I was seriously exercised by this issue. Not only because constituents’ livelihoods were at stake but there was a deeper disquiet. Sport fishing was posing in the guise of conservation and had forced the Scottish Government to ‘meet EU and international obligations’ in response to growing concerns about Scotland’s salmon stocks. 10

Certainly, mixed stock coastal netting was not immune from responsibility for interference with salmon returning by tortuous routes to the rivers of their birth. However, seal predation, climate change warming our seas, indiscriminate fishing efforts around Greenland and the disputed mortality figures for catch and release by anglers all had a part to play in the overall picture of wild salmon population health.

The SSIs we debated that day were vital to meet Scotland’s international obligations. However, it meant the end of sales of wild salmon, which had Label Rouge accreditation in France as anglers who catch salmon and sea trout cannot sell them by law. A whole new set of regulations were set to govern the harvest of our rivers and coasts whether for sport or commerce. The difference as of March 2016 was that the Scottish Parliament had to agree less than palatable terms to satisfy EU environmental imperatives. Had the committee rejected the SSIs then the parliament would have held a vote. It is inconceivable that MSPs would have willingly opened the door to large fines levied against Scotland. In the end, searching questions arose about the ability and capacity of Marine Scotland to monitor, assess and police our waters.

My own concerns about sport angling posing as the guardian of salmon and sea trout had to be weighed against the accusation from Europe of infractions. Party politics close to an election brought the committee to split five against annulment of the order and four in favour. Basically, it amounted to SNP versus Tory, Lib Dem and Labour members. 11

As a codicil to this chapter, the Scotland Act 2016 passed in Westminster devolved management of the assets of Scottish Crown Estate. While the Smith Commission recommended complete devolution of the Crown Estate, the future relationship of the Scottish Crown Estate with local authorities and Holyrood would have a beneficial effect on licencing and planning powers over fish farms. These had been uneasily set some years earlier but offered coastal communities more scope in future to gain from licences near their areas. A future Crown Estate Scotland Act would lay out the way ahead in the fifth session of the Scottish Parliament. As I previously stated in debate, devolution of the Crown Estate moved more slowly than glaciers. Only we now know glaciers are melting much more quickly than we previously thought!


1 Public Petition No.

2 See below, January 2016


4 19 September 2011

5 RACCE OR date

7 RACCE OR 23 September 2015

9 RACCE/S4/16/8/1

10 Letter Dr Aileen McLeod to RACCE, 19 January 2016

11 RACCE OR, March 2016

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