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18 August 2021


A landmark new report published today (Wed 18 Aug) by WWF, Marine Conservation Society and RSPB reveals the extent to which Scotland’s seas and fisheries could play a pivotal role in the fight against the climate and nature crises.

‘Shifting Gears- achieving climate-smart fisheries’ [1] outlines the urgent action required by all four UK Governments to ‘future-proof’ the fisheries sector in order to improve its sustainability and increase the opportunity for our seas to act as a vital carbon sink.

Scotland’s marine environment is estimated to hold more than the total carbon stored in its land environment such as peatlands, forestry, and soils.  Removing fish and using fossil fuels to power boats also contributes to blue carbon impacts and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).  

According to the report, over 50% of the UK fishing fleet vessels are around 30 years old, and the vast majority are powered by fossil fuels, and - based on UK fishing vessel activity data - UK fisheries are estimated to have emitted 914.4. kilotons of CO2 over a 1 year period, the same as providing the annual energy use of over 110,000 homes.

Until now, fisheries have been largely ignored in climate negotiations, but in the wake of the recent IPCC report, and ahead of the COP26 climate summit coming to Glasgow in November, the conservation organisations are calling on all governments to show global leadership and put the sector on a sustainable footing by adopting a ‘climate-smart’ strategy.

This includes:

Limiting bottom towed fishing gear to protect blue carbon within current MPAs and in key areas outside of MPAs.

Working to decarbonise the UK fleet including removing fuel subsidies and eliminating inefficient fleet structures.

Mandate Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) across all vessels fishing in UK waters to deliver increased transparency and traceability across the fishing sector to improve stock health and increase biomass.

Reduce pressure from heavy, towed bottom fisheries gear and review the impact of passive gear use and whether incentives for gear changes are appropriate.

Strengthen overall marine policy frameworks, such as the Scottish Government’s Future Fisheries Management Strategy, with a climate change lens that focusses on tackling the climate emergency. [2]

Increase research and knowledge on blue carbon habitats, stocks, and the fishing sectors GHG emissions and blue carbon impact.

Adopting these recommendations will help future-proof fisheries across the UK by bringing about the recovery of the ocean’s health and help meet the triple challenge of sustainably feeding a growing population, while staying on track to keep global warming below 1.5°C and reversing biodiversity loss.

Mario Ray, Policy and Public Affairs Officer at WWF Scotland said:

“This report makes clear governments across all four nations must help UK fisheries to re-think practices and modernise to meet the challenge of climate change and achieving net zero.

“While the Scottish Government has responsibility for 61% of the UK’s seas, and around 60% of all the UK’s fish is landed here, its current Future Fisheries Management Strategy fails to clearly set out the role the fishing industry will play in reaching our net zero commitments.

“The ocean is the blue heart of our planet and when tackling the climate and nature crises, we ignore it at our peril.  If the Scottish Government truly wants to maintain its credentials as a climate leader it must leave no stone unturned, and this includes the fisheries sector.”

Alex Kinninmonth, Head of Marine Policy at RSPB Scotland said:

“The nature and climate emergency is threatening life above and below the waves right here in Scotland. Every industry must now play a part in driving the rapid decarbonisation and restoration of nature needed to avoid climate breakdown.

“This report offers a roadmap for fisheries managers to meet climate targets while safeguarding our seas for future generations. Ahead of crucial climate and nature COPs and with a Joint Fisheries Statement by all four governments of the UK due, now is the crucial moment to commit to and deliver an ambitious ‘climate-smart’ strategy to future proof our fisheries and revive our world.”

Calum Duncan, Head of Conservation Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society said:

“The recent IPCC report was described by the UN as “code red for humanity”. Nothing short of transformative change is needed across all aspects of society and economy to avert climate catastrophe.

“As we learn more about the important role our ocean plays in locking up carbon in the seafloor, it’s also crucial for the fisheries sector to move toward net zero engine emissions and much-reduced impact on the seabed and its blue carbon stores. This report highlights the steps that must be taken to help build a positive, sustainable and thriving future for fishing that operates with the grain of the marine ecosystem.”

Notes to Editors

[1] ‘Shifting Gears – achieving climate-smart fisheries’

[2] Scotland’s Future Fisheries Management Strategy (2020-2030) was published December 2020. The strategy sets out a 12-point action plan on how the Scottish Government will deliver the aspirations principles and outcomes detailed within the strategy, alongside delivery of their international commitments and those detailed as part of the UK Fisheries Act. While climate change is identified as a priority it is not clear how this will be delivered.

[3] Blue carbon refers to the carbon captured and stored in coastal and marine ecosystems. This includes vegetated habitats such as seagrass meadows, saltmarshes, and seaweeds, as well as carbon stored in seabed sediment and the carbon sequestered by living organisms. If left undisturbed, significant volumes of blue carbon can remain stored in the marine environment for millennia, decreasing the volume of carbon in the atmosphere that contributes to climate change.

[4] On the 23rd of November 2020, the UK Fisheries Act (2020) came into force. The UK Fisheries Act is the first to acknowledge the fishing industry’s contribution to climate change, and fisheries objective 8 of the Fisheries Act 2020 states: “The “climate change objective” is that— (a) the adverse effect of fish and aquaculture activities on climate change is minimised, and (b) fish and aquaculture activities adapt to climate change”.

[5] Under the act, each of the devolved administrations have fisheries management powers, allowing the opportunity for tailored approaches to fisheries management, specific to the needs of each administration’s marine industry and waters.

[6] A WWF report  - Thriving Within Our Planetary Means (July 2021) – outlined the UK’s disproportionately high impact on climate and nature, and called for an ambitious target to slash the UK’s global environmental footprint – the impact of everything we produce and consume - by 75% by the end of the decade.