DOZENS of Scotland’s marine and coastal species are critically endangered or in rapid decline due to industrial fishing, climate change, pollution and other pressures, The Ferret has discovered.
Species most at risk include fish, birds and mammals such as cod, salmon, trout, seal, gulls, shag and guillemot.
Declining fish numbers in Scottish waters – caused by overfishing and climate change – are affecting birds, dolphins, whales and other animals that rely on fish as their main food source, while pollution, energy infrastructure and fishing gear also threatens marine life.
Scotland’s coasts and seas are home to around 8,000 species of plants and animals, according to wildlife agency NatureScot. As part of a new series from The Ferret called Scotland’s Seas In Danger, we analyze the latest data and information from Scottish government agencies, conservation bodies and others to explore which species are most at risk.
FIND OUT MORE INFORMATION: Could Shetland be at the heart of a European electric superhighway?
NatureScot said the state of Scottish marine life is “mixed”, with different pressures facing different species, including climate change, invasive species and “human activities”.
Wildlife charities have warned of the “increasing human industrial use” of Scotland’s seas, citing fishing and offshore renewables as key pressures. But adapting to climate change and protecting species that are essential food sources for marine life could help turn the situation around, they said.
The 2023 annual report for Scotland from the State Of Nature Partnership, which includes experts from more than 50 organisations, is “the most accurate analysis of what nature is like in Scotland”, according to NatureScot. It states that Scotland’s fish stocks and marine life biodiversity have “declined markedly” since 1924 due to fishing pressures. Despite the increase in fishing and sustainably harvested fish and shellfish stocks, less fish is being landed.
Cod stocks have already reached critical levels. To stem the decline, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas has recommended a total ban on fishing for cod west of Scotland, Celtic Sea cod and Irish Sea whiting, and a two-thirds reduction in Irish Sea cod. North.
SEE MORE INFORMATION: Scotland’s energy potential ‘affected by devolution caps’
Sandeels and plankton are particularly crucial, acting as an important food source for fish, seabirds and mammals. Sandeels have faced decline due to industrial fishing and climate change. Ministers announced a ban on sandeel fishing in Scottish waters on January 31.
Marine Scotland has warned that changes to plankton – microscopic plants and animals that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen – will impact fisheries and a wide range of marine life.
Climate change is also altering the behavior of some species, which could have an impact on the food chain. For example, fish larvae may not hatch at the same time as zooplankton prey and may not survive.
Ocean acidification – caused by carbon dioxide – can reduce the amount of calcium carbonate crucial to shell-forming species, and can lower the survival rate of other fish. Rising temperatures on the west coast are predicted to cause declines in species such as cod, herring and haddock.
In 2021, Marine Scotland found record numbers of Atlantic salmon and sea trout, although numbers increased by 16% and 11% respectively the following year. Atlantic salmon were first declared threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in December.
MANY species of seabirds and coastal birds are in decline, with 50 species found in Scotland listed as threatened by the British Ornithology Trust.
State of Nature found that seabirds were doing worse in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, with the average abundance of 11 species having halved since 1986. These results pre-date the recent outbreak of bird flu.
The RSPB said gannets and great skuas are likely to be among the hardest hit, of which around 50% and 60% of the global population live in Scotland respectively. The decline in seagull numbers has closely corresponded with the amount of fish landed, leading to food shortages, the report says. The birds have also been affected by non-native predators, such as the American mink, which preys on young seabirds in colonies on the West Coast and in the Western Isles.
The 2022 Wetland Bird Survey of birds that winter in Scotland found that the number of waterbirds and shorebirds – including oystercatchers, lapwings, plovers and curlews – has declined by 10% and 55% respectively since 1975.
SEE MORE INFORMATION: The UK government has yet to hold a cabinet meeting in the main hub of Edinburgh
NatureScot data, shared with The Ferret from a program detailing the status of species of “special interest”, also revealed that these bird species are at risk.
Around 42% of seabird and coastal bird populations were found to be in “unfavourable” conditions in 2023. But the picture was bleaker for birds that breed in Scotland, with more than half considered unfavourable.
All populations of Arctic skua, great crested grebe, rosy tern and black-headed gull were in “unfavorable” conditions, as were most populations of downy, black guillemot, long-tailed ducks and numerous species of gulls, terns and plovers.
A seabird census by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee showed that between 2015 and 2021, the population of Atlantic puffins in Britain and Ireland – three quarters of which are in Scotland – fell by 21%. The bird is vulnerable to extinction.
Extreme weather conditions such as storms can make it difficult for seabirds to breed or hunt, according to Marine Scotland, putting those that tend to produce small numbers of young at risk.
Rising sea levels could impact nesting habitats for Leach’s storm petrel, Arctic skua and others, which could become regionally extinct. All wild birds in Scotland are protected, although some species receive higher levels of protection.
In September, we revealed that tens of thousands of sea and coastal birds – including those with struggling populations such as the red-breasted merganser and several gull species – have been licensed to be killed by NatureScot in recent years. This led the Prime Minister to promise an investigation.
NatureScot said the cull was a “last resort”, mainly to protect food supplies or to avoid aircraft collisions, and did not affect the conservation status of the birds. The number of slaughters was falling due to changes in the licensing system, he added.
MARINE Scotland says mammals play a critical role in balancing the food chain, controlling the populations of their prey species. However, the effects of climate change and other man-made activities put us at risk. Mammals in Scottish waters include dolphins, porpoises, whales and seals.
As mammals move to areas where prey is more available, their disappearance could indicate the effects of climate change and the decline in the number of fish species they prey on, especially sandeels.
Falling sandeel numbers have already been linked to declining seal populations on the northern islands and east coast, while rising sea temperatures are reducing the range of white-beaked dolphins and pushing them further north, away from Scotland.
Other threats include pollution, energy infrastructure, storms, entanglement in fishing gear, disturbances and collisions with fishing vessels, and warming seas, which leaves them more exposed to disease.
Noise pollution from maritime traffic, oil and gas exploration and acoustic deterrent devices – used to keep animals away from fishing gear and salmon farms – can also pose a threat. Seals were previously killed by fish farming companies until the Scottish government banned the practice in 2021.
NatureScot data shows that seals are most at risk of decline, with 85% of populations in “unfavorable” conditions. However, populations of gray seals, bottlenose dolphins and porpoises were all in favorable condition.
NATURESCOT described the state of Scottish marine life as “a very mixed picture”, with different pressures facing different species.
“The latest assessments make it clear that our marine species face increasing pressures from climate change and non-native invasive species, along with direct impacts from a range of human activities,” a spokesperson said.
The Scottish Government is expected to consult on a new Scottish Seabird Conservation Strategy in 2024. The RSPB said it must protect species used as a food source for seabirds, combat the unintentional capture of birds in fishing gear, protect their habitats and launch a new strategy against bird flu.
Anne McCall, director of RSPB Scotland, said: “Our seabirds are at the mercy of human impacts and we must do everything we can as we embark on a new era of much-needed offshore renewables to reduce these impacts and build resilience in our globally important seabird populations”.
Elouise Dalziel, policy and engagement officer for the Living Seas Project at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said marine life is at risk from “a wide range of ever-expanding human industrial uses such as power generation and fishing vessels”. But “solutions to solving the environmental, economic and social problems in Scotland’s seas can be found in better marine management”, she argued.
Dalziel supports marine spatial planning, in which officials engage with different stakeholders – such as those with interests in fishing, renewable energy or conservation – to decide how to best manage the marine environment and reduce pressures such as the rerouting of shipping routes to give whales more space.
Lyndsey Dodds, ocean recovery policy manager at WWF Scotland, also called for better management of the “increasingly busy” marine and coastal environment. “It is vital to ensure there is space for nature so that it can thrive and be better able to respond and adapt to climate change and provide a range of economic, cultural, social and wellbeing benefits,” she added.
This article is part of a series on marine protection called Scotland’s Endangered Seas.
It was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe – an independent, non-profit organization based in Belgium that supports cross-border investigative journalism.
Our investigations were carried out in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), which will publish its work later this year.