Fishing boats have been operating in protected parts of Scottish seas for the first time, environment secretary Mairi Gougeon has admitted.
Angus MSP Ms Gougeon said boats had encroached into the Turbot Bank Marine Protected Area for the first time since its creation in 2014.
The Turbot Bank Marine Protected Area (MPA) is off Scotland’s east coast. MPAs ensure protection for some of the most vulnerable species and habitats in the country.
RSPB Scotland has called for tougher protections for the zones on the back of the comments.
How should Scottish Government respond?
Head of marine policy Alex Kinninmonth said “all eyes” were on Scotland after the UK Government signalled it would act to clamp down on overfishing of sand eels further south.
Ms Gougeon said fishing for sand eels had taken place around the Turbot Bank MPA in 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2021.
“Nevertheless, based on vessel monitoring, there was no evidence of fishing in the MPA until this year when fishing appeared to extend to the eastern edge of this area,” she added.
Where is the Turbot Bank and why does it matter?
The Turbot Bank MPA is around 44kms east of Peterhead. It is an important breeding ground for sand eels. The small fish can live buried in the underwater banks for months at a time.
Ms Gougeon was responding to a growing row about Danish and Swedish boats “hoovering up” sand eel off Scotland’s east coast.
The practice is continuing to have a damaging effect on rare seabird populations. These include puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes.
Former fishermen in Pittenweem also credit the long-standing practice with driving boats out of business in previous decades.
Mr Kinninmonth said the Scottish Government had struck an “encouraging” tone on controlling the problem. But the charity was waiting “to see what action SG actually take.”
He said there were currently “no safeguards in place” to protect the key species.
He said: “The indication that targeted fishing for sand eels has taken place this year inside the boundary of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) – designed to protect sand eels – is worrying but not unexpected.”
Mr Kinninmonth, originally from St Andrews, said the charity had been campaigning on the issue.
He said a lack of quota in the southern part of the North Sea had pushed fishing boats looking for sand eels further north.
“Proposals to close the MPA to sand eel fishing were brought forward around five years ago. But these had stalled in the EU Common Fisheries Policy processes.
“Outside of the EU, Scottish Ministers now have the legal powers to restrict fishing activity for nature conservation purposes. They should at the very least make sure this protected area is actually protected.”
Still a ‘matter of urgency’?
Ms Gougeon said 2020 research found high numbers of sand eels within the Turbot Bank MPA.
Earlier in June, she said her officials would tackle the problem as a “matter of urgency” They are currently considering what further measures could be put in place.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The position of the Scottish Government remains that we do not support fishing for sand eels in our waters.”