FOLLOWING almost 20 years of negotiations, UN member states signed a treaty over the weekend which aims to protect vast swathes of the world’s oceans from biodiversity loss.

The High Seas Treaty seeks to make 30% of the world’s international waters marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2030.

This move has been welcomed by campaigners. However, as one rewilding project in Scotland shows, the promise of marine protected areas doesn’t always translate into improved outcomes for biodiversity.

Danny Renton, the CEO and founder of Seawilding – a marine rewilding charity based on the west coast, said that MPAs in Scotland simply don’t protect biodiversity as they should.

The Scottish Government says that 37% of Scotland’s seas are MPAs. But that doesn’t mean that practices with a negative impact on wildlife are forbidden to take place in these areas.

The National: A core sampling takes place in Loch CraignishA core sampling takes place in Loch Craignish (Image: Philip Price/Seawilding)

“The Scottish Government are often trumpeting the fact that 37% of our seas are MPAs,” he told The National. “But it’s nonsense.

“Scallop dredging happens within meters of the shore within many of them. That’s boats scouring the bottom of the seabed and destroying much of the habitat there. That shouldn’t be happening within an MPA.”

Native oysters 

Seawilding started in 2018 with the aim of campaigning for marine conservation in a different way.

Instead of calling for certain practices such as scallop dredging to be stopped, Renton and members of the community in Loch Craignish in Argyll wanted to take action and try to replace habitat they knew had been lost.

He said: “Loch Craignish is typical of any west coast sea loch. It’s got aquaculture, it’s got a very busy marina, it’s had scallop dredgers.

“And we know that within living memory the biodiversity of the loch has seriously declined.

The National: Snorkelers plant seagrass seedlings in Loch Craignish with the assistance of paddleboardsSnorkelers plant seagrass seedlings in Loch Craignish with the assistance of paddleboards (Image: Philip Price/Seawilding)

“If you talk to people in the area who are in their 80s or 90s, they’ll tell you what was once here and isn’t anymore. That’s everything from an abundance of bird life and fish to bigger scallops and seagrass meadows.

“So, we as a community were looking at the loch and thinking about what we could do to address this decline.”

To begin with they settled on trying to re-establish once vast populations of native oysters.

These oysters were once abundant in Scotland’s sea lochs, with fisheries in the Firth of Forth harvesting around 30 million a year in the 19th century.

Yet by 1957 they were declared extinct in the Firth of Forth – a pattern that has been repeated in many areas of Scotland’s coast.

“They’re a real keystone species,” said Renton. “When they are in abundance they clean the water, create complex reefs and provide great habitat for fish nurseries and spawning.

The National: A native oyster nestled in a seagrass meadowA native oyster nestled in a seagrass meadow (Image: Philip Price/Seawilding)

“So, our idea was to put a million oysters in Loch Craignish over five years. We get them from a hatchery when they’re the size of fingernail, grow them in floating cages, and then put them down in the loch.

“The hope was that if we did that it would establish a self-sustaining population, which would then allow a very well-regulated and sustainable community fishery. But it’s primarily for biodiversity.”

It is now the biggest native oyster project in the UK and aims to supply other projects around Scotland with oysters to kickstart their own populations.


The oyster project goes hand in hand with Seawilding’s work on seagrass: a habitat that has also been decimated by mechanical disturbance, largely dredgers.

“We have around 5 hectares of seagrass in Loch Craignish. But there’s good reason to believe that there was once 80 hectares of it in the loch.

“Not only does it sequester carbon through photosynthesis, it also buries it right down into its roots – sort of like a peat bog – it’s also an incredibly important fish spawning ground.

“If you come and swim in our seagrass meadows you see that they are just teaming with life.”

'There isn't an enabling environment'

Seawilding has planted around half a hectare of seagrass in the loch and is currently trialling methods to restore the habitat at scale and at low cost.

But doing so comes with challenges. Namely, the administrative hoops that communities have to get over just to replace a habitat they know has been destroyed.

“The problem in Scotland is there isn’t an enabling environment. The licencing and permissions you have to get through in order to do this stuff is not for the faint hearted.

“We have a situation where you can take a scallop dredger, dredge three metres away from the shore and completely destroy the ecosystem in one fell swoop.

“But if you want to put it back again it will take you a year and half of licencing.

“We’ve had fantastic support from NatureScot and the Scottish Government in many ways.

The National: Members of Seawilding pack seagrass seedlings ready to be planted into the sea lochMembers of Seawilding pack seagrass seedlings ready to be planted into the sea loch (Image: Philip Price/Seawilding)

“The problem is that the regulatory framework isn’t designed for people to restore nature; it’s only designed for people to extract and destroy it.”

According to Renton, the group currently isn’t allowed to restore more than 0.1 hectares of seagrass a year without getting a marine construction licence – the same licence needed to build offshore windfarms or undersea cables.

This is a project with widespread community support, which not only seeks to restore biodiversity but also provide jobs for local people.

READ MORE: The rewilding project set to be swallowed by the city of Perth

Seagrass meadows provide habitat for a diverse range of species, including commercially attractive ones such as cod.

There’s no doubt that the High Seas Treaty has the potential to boost marine biodiversity on a global scale.

But countries like Scotland should remember that restoring marine habitat is a local as well global pursuit – and that examining the barriers to protection in our own waters is just as urgent as safeguarding the world’s.