RSPB Scotland’s Marine Policy Officer Ruby Temple-Long discusses why the Scottish Government's recent announcement of twelve new Special Protection Areas is such an important step and what we would like to see next to secure a brighter future for our seabirds.

By this time in the festive season we’re usually singing about a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves and three French hens, but this year, a new gift has been added to the 12 days of Christmas… 12 new Special Protection Areas (SPAs)!

A decision was finally made yesterday and most of Scotland’s proposed SPAs – a form of Marine Protected Area (MPA) – were officially classified. These all-important sites are vital for the survival of our breeding and wintering birds as they will protect areas where they seek food and shelter in Scottish waters. The new SPAs, dotted throughout our seas – from the Solway Firth in the south, right up to the Bluemull and Colgrave Sounds in the north – will deliver new protection for a whole lot of birds along the way.

Home to around a third of the breeding seabirds in Europe, Scotland is an internationally important hotspot for these birds. It’s for that reason, that our Government has a critical role to play in their conservation. Seabirds are one of the most threatened groups in the world. In Scotland, breeding seabirds dropped by 38% since the late 1980s, with kittiwake particularly hard-hit, declining by a staggering 72%. As a stronghold for many species, the actions taken here to drive seabird recovery could have a real impact.

This week’s designations are a positive step, with good management they could demonstrate a commitment to upholding strong environmental standards as we transition out of the EU, and mark progress towards international ambition for biodiversity. The SPAs will safeguard important foraging and wintering areas for 31 different species of marine birds, with terns, long-tailed ducks, skuas, fulmars, great northern divers and eiders – to name a few – all set to benefit. The announcement for birds also comes alongside four new MPAs for basking sharks, minke whales, Risso’s dolphins and, the lesser sandeel, a vital prey source for many seabirds.

The history of the sites

The classification of marine SPAs has long been a priority for RSPB Scotland. The Scottish Government has been required by law to select the most important places for birds on land and sea for special protection for the last 40 years. But until now, only breeding colonies on land and the coastal waters nearby had been given the SPA status. For our water-based birds, that by their very nature, spend most of their time away from land, this has been a clear gap.

The legacy of these particular sites goes back to at least 2014, where, following years of research, draft areas for marine birds were first identified. Since then, the SPAs have undergone extensive scientific review and public consultation – which thanks to everyone who helped us campaign over the years gained wide support. Throughout the consultation process, RSPB Scotland has been working to ensure the SPAs progressed and now, in 2020, we officially have some of Scotland’s first fully marine SPAs!

What are the next steps?

The designations are a welcome step in the right direction but it’s not quite job done yet. We still have an enormous challenge on our hands if we are to recover the health of our ocean and the iconic marine birds that rely on them. We now urgently need Government to:

  1. Designate the remaining sites

Whilst we are thrilled to hear much-needed good news about the fate of most of the proposed sites, unfortunately some have been left in limbo. Even after extensive review and the Government’s nature advisors’ recommendation to classify all the sites, those in Orkney are still awaiting a final decision. The science shows how important these sites are, so we hope to see these outstanding SPAs announced imminently.

  1. Manage potential damage to sites

Any future development and activity capable of damaging the sites will now need to be strictly controlled. A strong set of management plans to minimise the impact of human activity within the sites can help to build resilience in struggling populations and reverse the worrying trend of widespread breeding failure and declines. Without enforced management plans, these SPAs are at risk of becoming ‘paper parks’. While the Scottish Government are keen to emphasise that 37% of our seas are now covered by protected areas, the reality is that many are not effectively managed for nature and governments across the UK are failing to meet global targets

  1. Bring forward more sites to protect marine birds

Scientists continue to build up even more knowledge on our marine birds. Thanks to recent breakthroughs in technology we now have whole new insights into the lives of seabirds at sea. RSPB scientists have used seabird tracking data to reveal ‘hotspots’ of seabird activity during the breeding season and analysed how these data could be used to select protected areas at sea. In another recent RSPB study, we also made a surprising discovery – the Atlantic’s smallest seabirds, storm petrels, can travel up to 300 km in search of a meal! All this information can be used to guide planning and development, including the identification of new sites in need of protection.

  1. Tackle threats to seabird survival

On their own, protected pockets of the last remaining special places will not be enough to recover our spectacular seabirds. Further action is urgently needed to address the nature and climate crises that these birds, and the world face. If we are to encourage marine birds to flourish in Scotland, we need protected areas at sea and on land to be delivered alongside changes in how we manage and use our coasts and seas. This means taking urgent action to address pressures like climate change, unsustainable fishing and new threats emerging from offshore renewable developments. We’re working with the Scottish Government and others to develop a Scottish Seabird Conservation Strategy to drive action to tackle the key threats to seabirds in Scotland.

Where do we go now?

RSPB Scotland, with your help and support, will continue to champion the conservation needs for Scotland’s marine birds. We will keep an eye on how well these sites are protected from harmful activities and continue to advocate for further measures to ensure important areas are protected and human activities at sea are sustainable. But, we will also do more than advocate for change, we will continue to undertake world-class research and conservation work on the ground to secure a brighter future for our amazing marine birds.

As we enter the extended Year of Coasts and Waters, we hope that Government will ride this wave of ocean conservation action into the new year, by delivering on the 11 actions outlined in our Nature Recovery Plan.

Photos: Eider duck by  Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)  Long-tailed duck by Ian Francis

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