19 January 2012

(S4O-00569) Seabird Breeding Colony Special Protection Areas

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab): 1. To ask the Scottish Executive to what extent it monitors the site condition of seabird breeding colony special protection areas, including the corresponding marine extensions. (S4O-00569)

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Scottish Natural Heritage operates a site condition monitoring programme for protected areas in Scotland to determine the condition of the natural features. It uses a range of information sources to assess the condition of special protection areas for seabirds, including national population censuses and breeding surveys.

Claudia Beamish: The minister will be aware that one of the SPAs with marine extension is St Abb’s Head, which is in the region that I represent. It supports in excess of 20,000 seabirds and is truly a site of European importance. Does the minister accept that, if the monitoring of the site is not sufficiently robust, licences for marine activities could be erroneously granted and negative impacts on the seabird populations might result?

Stewart Stevenson: The member makes the point that, if we have insufficient information, we might not deal with proposals for developments correctly. I accept that point. That is why we monitor the activities of seabirds. I know, in particular, that the Isle of May, near St Abb’s Head, is an important seabird colony, particularly for gannets.

We have recently published an atlas of all marine activity, under the banner of Marine Scotland. We work with third parties, such as the RSPB, and use information from them. A wide range of information about St Abb’s Head and many of the other SPAs flows into our decision-making processes.

Roderick Campbell (North East Fife) (SNP): The Isle of May, in my constituency, is a significant seabird and grey seal colony. However, the long-term trend of decline in the number of seabirds continues. What further action can the Government take to address the decline in the seabird population, given its role in creating sustainable tourism?

Stewart Stevenson: I absolutely recognise the value of birds as a tourism icon, as well as the fact that they contribute to biodiversity. Ironically, some of the decline in the Firth of Forth has been attributable to the cleaning of the sewage outputs. Less sewage is being discharged into the Forth, which means that there is less food for some of the seabirds. Sometimes, the unintended side effects of good environmental interventions can result in situations such as the one that the member describes.

I should say that, in the Firth of Forth, the numbers of some species are improving while those of other species decline. It is a matter that we keep a close eye on, and we are always open to suggestions about how we can respond to any decline in specific species.

Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): Does the minister accept that the health of seabird populations is also a barometer of the health of the marine food chain, and that that applies equally to fish stocks? Is enough research and development being done on the subject?

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): Minister: seabirds.

Stewart Stevenson: Seabirds and perhaps also water birds are affected by the marine environment and, to varying degrees, rely on sea stocks. When we had a closure in the North Sea some 20 years ago, it was interesting to see that the puffin population rose because there was greater availability of fish.

We are absolutely aware of the interaction between fish stocks and seabird—and, indeed, water bird—populations.

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