How Scotland plans to rewild its seas

The Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party have pledged to designate 10% of the country’s seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas, offering depleted ecosystems a chance to bounce back. It's a complicated task.

Seagrass farming is seen as a critical habitat and tool to fight climate change, and is capable of sequestering carbon 35 times quicker than tropical rainforests without the associated burning hazards. The habitat is vulnerable to fishing methods such as seafloor dredging.  

Photograph by Seawild
By Lauren Jarvis
Published 26 Apr 2023, 11:09 BST

Our boat is rocking just a few miles offshore, as we watch nature unleash a wildly dynamic display. Churning the ocean into a bubbling cauldron creatures from sea and sky dart and dive to feast on the invisible schools of mackerel and sand eels below the waves. At least seven minke whales rise and fall as seals swirl, shearwaters swoop and gannets launch missile attacks with pointed precision from above. This astonishing scene could be taking place in South Africa or New Zealand, but my boat is bobbing in the frigid North Atlantic waters of the Inner Hebrides, an archipelago off the coast of Argyll in western Scotland.

“Our marine and birdlife here is pretty spectacular,” says Shane Wasik, founder of Basking Shark Scotland, which leads low-impact wildlife and water sport tours around Argyll’s coastline and islands. A hotspot for the second-largest fish in the ocean, the Inner Hebrides sees large numbers of basking sharks visiting the region each summer, feeding with their huge mouths agape in the zooplankton-rich seas. 

I’m on a five-day mission to find them from my guesthouse base on the Isle of Coll. We see dolphins, porpoises and whales, cruise uninhabited islands and snorkel in legendary Fingal’s Cave, swim with seals and explore forests of swaying kelp and golden spaghetti seaweed: vital fish nurseries around the rocky islets of the idyllic Cairns of Coll. 

A trained marine biologist, dive master, and underwater photographer, Wasik was inspired to launch the company after living in New Zealand, where wildlife tourism is thriving. Now international travellers cross miles to experience the interactions Shane had around Scotland’s coast as a boy growing up in Fife. His summer months are spent with the basking sharks around Coll, and for the rest of the year his company runs diving, wildlife, kayaking and paddle boarding tours from the mainland in Oban. In winter, the team sometimes lead expeditions to swim with orcas in the Norwegian fjords.

Coll 2 (C) Lauren Jarvis.JPG

The isle of Coll in Argyll is located west of the larger isle of Mull. It has a resting population of less than 200 residents.

Photograph by Lauren Jarvis

“Compared to some regions, we are in a good place here with our marine sightings,” says Shane. “But before commercial fishing, dredging and trawling took their toll, these seas would have been absolutely teeming with life.” When I arrive in Coll to see the sharks, they’re late, with local fishermen reporting an unusual lack of lobsters, too. “The sharks and many other marine creatures come here because of the zooplankton,” explains Shane. “And the plankton is dependent on lots of ‘big picture’ stuff, from sea temperatures to atmospheric conditions, and the strength of the Gulf Stream. But it also needs to be at the surface for us to see the sharks feeding.” Unlike cetaceans which need to surface to breathe, little is known about this shark's life once it dives into deeper water. 

With a wildly rugged coastline, 79 islands, sheltered sea lochs, deep-water sounds, and the world’s second-largest whirlpool, the almost-mythical Corryvreckan, the region is second only to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides when it comes to Scottish biodiversity. To safeguard precious habitats, the basking sharks, a key migration route for Atlantic salmon and the breeding grounds of the critically endangered flapper skate—Europe’s largest species of skate—a coalition of 24 community-based organisations, known as the Coastal Communities Network, succeeded in having the region recognised as the Argyll Coast and Islands Hope Spot in 2019. 

Designated by Mission Blue, the marine conservation network founded by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and renowned marine biologist, Dr. Sylvia Earle, the Hope Spot is the first in mainland UK and incorporates Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and a range of Priority Marine Features (PMFs), including seagrassnative oyster and maerl beds.  

A scuba group navigates the Cairns of Coll lagoon, where white sand beaches and low rocky ...

A scuba group navigates the Cairns of Coll lagoon, where white sand beaches and low rocky outcrops frame clear waters.  

Photograph by Basking Shark Scotland
Danny Renton of Seawilding holds a native oyster. Restoration of the beds of these molluscs — ...

Danny Renton of Seawilding holds a native oyster. Restoration of the beds of these molluscs — now scattered and depleted — is likely to provide an economic boom as well as an environmental one. 

Photograph by Lauren Jarvis

What protection means

Scottish MPAs currently cover 37% of the country’s seas, but despite multiple layers of protection inshore and offshore, immense human pressure has continued to degrade the marine environment and its habitats, leaving species in decline. 

“In New Zealand, Marine Protected Areas are strict no-fishing zones, preserved for marine life to flourish and for responsible recreation,” reflects Shane. “But here, the MPAs are considered by many in conservation to be ‘Paper Parks’—on paper, strict protections seem to be in place, but in reality, they are legally protecting very little. We’re often out on one of our RIBs looking for the basking sharks, with a fishing boat sailing along beside us. There are huge demands on our oceans, but balancing the need to protect nature and the need to feed people is never easy.” 

Scotland’s seas stretch for over 462,000 km2, an area approximately six times the maritime nation’s land area. They generate £5.14 billion (Gross Value Added) to the Scottish economy, excluding oil and gas extraction, which adds an additional £9.52 billion. In addition to hydrocarbon-based, offshore wind and marine energy, wild fisheries, aquaculture, military activities, yachting, shipping, infrastructure development and tourism have resulted in a range of impacts on the ocean, as Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 revealed. Commissioned by the government and used to inform a much-needed update to the country’s National Marine Plan, the assessment was made by a partnership including experts from Marine ScotlandNatureScot and Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland

“Scotland’s seas stretch for over 462,000 square kilometres, an area approximately six times the maritime nation’s land area. ”

A sobering read, the assessment concludes that climate change is the most critical factor affecting Scotland’s marine environment, with impacts such as rising sea levels, flooding, erosion and sea temperature rises, which are changing species distributions. The report also warns that ocean acidification could potentially impact shellfish and other marine invertebrates, and the pressures associated with bottom-contacting and pelagic fishing were found to be the most geographically widespread, with direct pressures across the majority of Scottish Marine Regions and Offshore Marine Regions. "Fishing, due to the size of its footprint and the nature of the activity, is the dominant pressure-causing activity in the marine environment,” concludes Dr. Philip Boulcott, Topic Lead on the assessment. 

The report’s findings, the combined biodiversity and climate crises, and a growing concern from an array of Scottish marine conservation and nature organisations, has prompted the Scottish Government to propose a network of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), in both inshore and offshore areas, to cast a stricter-controlled, stronger safety net over Scotland’s seas. 

A Government spokesperson told National Geographic: “Scotland, like other nations around the world, is facing the twin crises of climate change and loss of nature and biodiversity. Highly Protected Marine Areas would allow key species and habitats to restore and recover, benefiting both nature and our economy by making sure there are sustainable levels of fish and other marine products to be derived and benefited from our seas.”

In a nod to the highly effective protective zones in other countries, they continue: “Experience, in places such as New Zealand and California, demonstrates that high levels of protection can have benefits for biodiversity. The recent IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023 also highlighted the role that the conservation, protection and restoration of marine ecosystems can play in improving resilience to climate change.”

At the time of writing, these proposals are at the consultation stage, with the Government seeking views on the implementation of HPMAs which will shape any future legislation. The HPMA site selection process will include opportunities for third-party proposals from stakeholders. 


A tour boat rests off the coast of Fingal's Cave on uninhabited Staffa, an important nature reserve.

Photograph by Basking Shark Scotland

Across Argyll, community conservation groups have been witnessing the impact of human pressure on the marine environment and its animals on a daily basis, and growing increasingly frustrated by unsustainable and sometimes illegal practices happening in areas which are meant to be protected—with the perpetrators often escaping capture or prosecution. Converting the current “Paper Parks” into stringently monitored and highly protected zones is something many have been calling on for years.  

“We’ve seen lights out to sea at night from our house, and we can tell from the way they move, they are scallop dredgers,” marine biologist and underwater cameraman David Ainsley, tells me, when I visit him and his wife Jean, at their home overlooking the Firth of Lorn. Designated an MPA and SAC, damaging fishing methods have been banned here for more than a decade, with Jean and David successfully driving the campaign against the use of harmful tangle nets and dredging. 

Spanning the strong tidal waters around the islands of Scarba, Jura, Lunga, The Garvellachs and the Gulf of Corryvreckan, the protections are in place to preserve the rocky reefs which support one of Europe’s most notable diversities of marine life, including sponges, feather stars, corals and sea fan anemones. Above the reefs swim large schools of fish, along with whales, porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks and an abundance of sea birds, with David leading tours to see them through his organisation, Sealife Adventures. In his office, David shows me video of Argyll’s flourishing rocky reef communities, juxtaposed with film after a scallop dredger has raked the sea bed: the colourful gardens of delicate stars, sponges and fish gone, replaced by a silty, barren desert, devoid of life. 

David has taken his own boat out at night to capture the illegal activity. “We photographed a boat moving slowly and erratically at The Garvellachs in an area that we know to have scallop grounds,” he says. “Our suspicion was that it was dredging, and then divers went down the next day and confirmed it. Less than five per cent of Scotland’s inshore waters are protected from damaging trawling and dredging. We are in the midst of a biodiversity emergency, and we must stop damaging our seas. Marine Scotland need more resources—and determination—to stop illegal dredging and bottom-trawling happening in our waters.”

Seabirds congregate above the surface of waters off the coast of Coll. 

Photograph by Lauren Jarvis

Harnessing the power of local community is something the people of Argyll know well. The Our Seas coalition has over 130 members, including divers, fishermen and marine tourism businesses, and campaigns for more sustainable fishing methods, including reinstating the historic Three-Mile Limit. Introduced in 1883 following concerns from the fishing industry about the impact of trawling, and in place until 1984, The Limit prohibited destructive fishing methods up to three miles from the shoreline. Meanwhile, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) created Scotland’s first community-led marine reserve. The Lamlash Bay No Take Zone was legally designated by the Government in 2008, protecting the region’s precious kelp forests, seagrass and maerl beds: marine habitats known to capture ‘blue carbon’. 

While governments have been talking about the link between deforestation on land and carbon emissions for many years, a more recent awareness of how marine and coastal ecosystems can sequester carbon and how much differing habitats store—or release when they are destroyed—is finally pushing governments to act. Experts estimate that as much as 1.02 billion tons of carbon dioxide are being released annually from degraded coastal ecosystems: equivalent to 19% of emissions from global tropical deforestation.

Scotland’s blue carbon sequesters three times as much as its land forestry, with saltmarshes, sand dunes, seagrasses, kelp beds, biogenic reefs, the sea floor and sea loch sediments all storing carbon. With climate change now the biggest threat to Scotland’s marine environments, advovates believe urgently restoring blue carbon habitats alongside terrestrial forests and peat marshes must be part of the country’s Climate Change Plan to reach Net Zero by 2045.

In Loch Craignish, a large tidal body of water on the coast of Argyll, half an hour from Oban, a pioneering community project—powered largely by volunteers—is restoring two effective carbon-sequestering marine habitats, recognised as Scottish Priority Marine Features: native oyster beds and seagrass, also known as common eelgrass.

Danny Renton of Seawilding.

Photograph by Lauren Jarvis

Founded by Danny Renton in 2019, Seawilding is the Scottish charity leading the projects, in association with the Heart Of Argyll and Craignish Restoration of Marine and Coastal Habitats(CROMACH). Funded by The National Lottery, the native oyster project is restoring the over-dredged oyster beds which were once prevalent in the loch, rearing young oysters in submerged cages along the marina boardwalks at Ardfern Yacht Centre, and scattering them on the seabed once they’re mature enough to survive the ebb and flow of the loch. With 300,000 already creating rich, new habitat, Danny plans to add a further 700,000 over the next few years. Once established, the beds will filter and clean the water in the loch (a single oyster can filter up to 200 litres a day) and provide crevasses for other species to hide in and thrive.    

“Large native oysters were once very common in our seas,” says Danny, who spent childhood summers on the Inner Hebridean Isle of Tiree, investigating lobster pots which would be alive with dog whelks, conger eels, sea urchins, rock cod, cuckoo wrasse and velvet crabs. “Now 95% of our native oysters are gone, leaving scattered relic populations of these colossal dinosaurs, which could grow to the size of a dinner plate. So much of what we had here has been lost, but there are communities all around the coast and on the islands who desperately want to bring it back.” 

Seagrass is a keystone species, maintaining healthy ecosystems by sequestering carbon and improving water quality and clarity, while providing a safe spawning ground and nursery for fish and other species, but up to 92 per cent of seagrass meadows have disappeared around the UK coastline. Supported by NatureScot, Project Seagrass and the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Seawilding’s seagrass project will reseed and restore the meadows which have fallen victim to dredging and bottom trawling, effluent from the nearby marina, and aquaculture—in particular Atlantic salmon farming—which has become a major source of income and employment for Scotland, while simultaneously being a widely-documented environmental and ethical pariah. 

Port Charlotte, on the coast of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, at twilight. Scotland's coast runs to 1,900 kilometres on the mainland — but when islands are included, rises to 4,905 kilometres. 

Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic Image Collection

Salmon have swum in Earth’s rivers and seas long before humans existed to fish or farm them, and their epic migrations from their freshwater hatcheries to the ocean and back again, driving against the current and leaping waterfalls as they go, is the stuff of wildlife documentary legend. But in recent years, undercover film footage has captured a very different reality for Scotland’s iconic fish: thousands of intensively farmed Atlantic salmon circling in cramped, open-net sea pens. There are more than 230 salmon farms now operating in Scottish waters, owned by 11 international companies, including the world’s largest fish-farming company, Norway’s Mowi

While the 2,500 jobs which the industry directly supports are welcome in Scotland’s remote coastal regions, the negative headlines this highly controversial farming method attracts are less desirable. Farmed salmon, infested with parasitic sea lice; the use of antibiotics, parasiticides including formaldehyde to try and stem the spread of disease and lice; seabed dead-zones created by the build-up of untreated fish excrement and excess food; high death rates of cleaner fish introduced to eat sea lice; an increase in toxic algal blooms due to ocean deoxygenation; licenses granted to legally shoot salmon-hungry sealsfarmed salmon escapes—which have introduced diseases and impacted the gene pool of the teetering wild salmon population—and unacceptably high mortality rates (15 million salmon died in Scottish salmon farm pens from January to November 2022) are just some of the Scottish salmon scenarios that don’t make it onto the packaging and produce labels. Under immense pressure, and with their numbers drastically in decline, the Scottish Government has introduced the Wild Salmon Strategy to try and turn the tide. 

“So much of what we had here has been lost, but there are communities all around the coast and on the islands who desperately want to bring it back.”

Danny Renton

Commercial fish farming began in Scotland in 1965 and has become big business, with an estimated 77 million Atlantic salmon farmed annually. The country’s aquaculture operations produced 205,393 tonnes of salmon in 2021 and the fish is now the country's top food export. But like other intensively farmed animals, it’s the false – but more palatable – picture of a free-range utopia which entices consumers to the supermarket shelves, and which has helped to turn Scottish salmon farming into a £1 billion industry

The lure of Scottish seafood is firmly entrenched in the country’s economy, but the rising demand for fish, not just here but globally, has caused wild populations to crash, and led to much of the marine habitat degradation we see today. Globally, aquaculture supplies more than 50 percent of all seafood produced for human consumption, and as the human population grows, that percentage is predicted to rise. While the Scottish Government is investing in aquaculture, seeing it as a way to ease pressure on wild fish and meet the human demand for protein, many argue the numbers simply don’t add up: fish farming requires 2kg of wild fish to produce just 1kg of farmed salmon. The billions of pellets fed to fish in sea cages are a mixture of marine oils, offcuts of fish and other animals slaughtered for the food industry, and wild fish like anchovies, sardines and pilchards, which could be fed directly to people. 

Transferring broken intensive farming systems to fragile marine environments—already under intense pressure from climate change —seems unsustainable, before ethics are considered. The Scottish Government told National Geographic (UK) the high 2022 mortality rate in fish farms, “can largely be attributed to an unusual bloom of Muggiaea atlantica jellyfish occurring outside its normally recognised range, causing both direct and indirect mortality. It is premature to say if this will cause similar problems in future years.” With evidence that climate change and warming seas are already leading to rises in jellyfish numbers—and denied the freedoms of other wild species which are gravitating to colder climes—the future for farmed salmon seems murky.

An aerial view of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. 

Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic Image Collection

Fishing and farming 

The Government’s draft HPMA Policy Framework states that existing and new aquaculture sites will not be allowed within the protected areas to aid in ecosystem recovery and enhance biodiversity. But the question of whether other means of fishing will be allowed within the HPMAs is up for debate. And it’s one that is likely to get heated. 

A Scottish Government spokesperson told National Geographic (UK): “Part of our consultation proposes prohibiting all forms of fishing within areas designated as HPMAs. We will actively consider all responses once the consultation closes on 17 April. Scientific studies indicate that fish stocks will increase in HPMAs, providing spill-over benefits for fishers, and making a positive contribution to sustainable levels of fish and other marine products.”

Some key players within the country’s fishing community have already made their views clear, rejecting the new proposals which they fear will cost livelihoods and which they see as leaving an already beleaguered industry high and dry. A member of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the Scottish White Fish Producers Association (SWFPA) is the largest fishing association in Europe, representing 220 vessels and 1,400 fishermen. The SWFPA’s response to the Highly Protected Marine Areas draft Policy Framework states that it is vague, lacking in scientific evidence and based on “a political decision, rather than a decision to address nature conservation needs,” after the shared draft policy programme, the Bute House Agreement, was agreed by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Group in 2021. 

The Association is also concerned that protecting a further 10% of Scottish seas – already off-limits to fishing due to aquaculture, seaweed harvesting, oil and gas extraction and renewables – will be, "extremely damaging to our members, particularly in inshore waters, where opportunities are continually being eroded.” The selection process, they argue, will, “result in the identification of many sites which will clearly result in financial loss to the commercial fishing sector.”

A seal rests off the coast of Coll. The region is home to an impressive diversity of mammals, including minke whales, visiting Orca, common and bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises.

Photograph by Lauren Jarvis

“We have an opportunity to help our seas be healthier and more productive, which has never been more vital to our efforts to tackle the nature-climate emergency and support coastal and island communities to thrive,” said a spokesperson from the country’s nature agency, NatureScot. “This consultation will help the Scottish Government – in partnership with all interests – set out an approach so that we all benefit from our rich seas for generations to come.” 

Returning to Coll after a day on the ocean, seals raise curious heads from the waves. Fulmars fly above, as our boat heads back to the island. The row of historic cottages on the mini main street in Arinagour glow gold in the late-afternoon sun, and the island’s one-and-only hotel beckons for dinner and a whisky or two. Soon, the evening’s first stars of twilight peek out on the horizon, pioneers for the millions to follow, illuminating this Dark Sky Community’s heavens. On the surface, this peaceful isle’s sweeping bays, dune-backed beaches, and calls of the RSPB Nature Reserve's corncrakes paint a scene that suggests all is well. But it’s likely what happens to the natural wonders being lost out of sight beneath the waves that will tell the true story.  

Lauren Jarvis is a freelance writer based in London. Follow her on Instagram


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