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So what might Scottish independence mean for marine conservation ?

Tina's otter 2

A Scottish otter (which lives in the marine environment)

As the referendum for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom (which besides Scotland current includes Northern Ireland and Wales in addition to England, although you would be forgiven from all the media coverage to think that it only included the former and latter) approaches, I’ve been asked what would independence for Scotland mean for marine conservation? Well in some ways, not a lot. Nature Conservation in Scotland is largely a devolved issue anyway, dealt with by Scottish Natural Heritage, and numerous laws related to the marine environment have been passed by the Scottish parliament over the past decade or so.

Marine issues have had a slightly higher political profile in Scotland compared to south of the border, probably because of the large fishing industry, extensive marine natural resources and a large large marine tourism industry. From public surveys, it appears that the Scottish public actually has a reasonably good knowledge about the marine environment and many species within, and is greatly concerned about its conservation (1). With greater budgetary freedom, it’s possible that a fully independent Scottish government may allocate more financial resources to oceans.

Technically, existing Scottish laws (2) and SNH’s marine management remit extends to 12 nautical miles from the coast, which encompasses a lot of marine species and habitats of conservation concern. At present conservation management of the Scottish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from 12-200nm, is largely done on a larger UK basis, under Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), a government body which has been argued by many, to be more concerned about keeping the farming and fishing lobby placated, rather than promoting wildlife, conservation and science-based management (the huge controversy about badger management is a prime example (3)). The laws and policies effecting this EEZ (beyond 12 nm) are largely determined at a European Union (EU) level. As an country independent of the UK, Scotland may have more of an individual voice at an international level, including at an EU level. For example, at the International Whaling Commission meeting, which is currently going on in Slovenia, all four UK nations are represented by the UK commissioner (who is typically a Defra employee). With independence, Scotland would have their own Commissioner and a separate delegation. The same would go for other international treaty organizations, such as CITES.

There has been much talk about how Scotland will be able to remain economically self-sustainable. This really is a major item of debate, and controversy, which I will not go into here. However, offshore oil and gas extraction, is the largest economic activity in Scotland, alongside tourism and the whisky industry. There is also a huge potential for offshore wind, wave and tidal power in Scotland. There is likely to be a greater push for using the marine environment post-independence, which could lead to increased environmental degradation and pollution, especially if the economy falters. A faltering economy would likely, of course, mean government funds are prioritized to social and economic issues such as preventing unemployment or banking bailouts, as opposed to environmental issues.  However, as mentioned above, the tourism industry is a major economic activity and one of the main employers for the country, and beautiful seascapes and diverse marine wildlife (especially seabirds and marine mammals) and locally caught, unpolluted seafood, are important factors for a thriving tourism industry in the nation. It may be very important for a newly independent Scottish government to not let short-term gains by exploiting the marine environment for oil and energy, sacrifice long-term gains from having a healthy marine environment, and thriving tourism and seafood industry. At least, that is what I would hope. However, if the worst case scenario of the nay-sayers is correct, and the Scottish economy fails … all bets are off. I am striving to be somewhat more optimistic, however.

So in short, at a local level, there may change little, at an international policy level, there may be a chance for Scotland to be more involved in marine conservation issues, but it largely depends on how a newly independent Scottish Government views the oceans – as a resource to be plundered for the short-term or as a resource to be carefully managed and nurtured for the long-term. Scots have a well-earned reputation for both science-based thinking and valuing their natural environment, so I hope it would be the latter.

Laird MacPherson

(1) For example, Scott, N.J. and Parsons, E.C.M. A survey of public awareness of the occurrence and diversity of cetaceans in Southwest Scotland. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 84: 1101-1104; Scott, N.J. and Parsons, E.C.M. 2005. A survey of public opinions in Southwest Scotland on cetacean conservation issues. Aquatic Conservation 15: 299-312; Howard, C. and Parsons, E.C.M. 2006. Attitudes of Scottish city inhabitants to cetacean conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation 15: 4335-4356.

(2) For a review of marine wildlife laws in Scotland, and the Scottish vs UK levels of management, see: Parsons, E.C.M., Clark, J. and Simmonds, M.P. 2010. The conservation of British cetaceans: a review of the threats and protection afforded to whales, dolphins and porpoises in UK Waters, Part 2.  International Journal of Wildlife Law and Policy 13(2): 99-175.

(3) For example, Brumfiel, G. 2012. Badger battle erupts in England. Nature 490(7420): 317–318.


Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology for nearly a decade and is currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society and the Society for Marine Mammalogy. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.


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