Scottish Seas

A Scottish Perspective; what makes Scotland's coast so special.

Scotland's West Coast


The western coastal fringes of Europe are influenced by relatively warm ocean currents, the Gulf Stream separates and it is the North Atlantic Drift Current that heads towards Scotland, this has a warming effect on the climate, with high levels of precipitation. The west coast of Scotland is influenced by both northern and southern waters, a Boreal current meets the Continental Shelf Current from the south, this produces an up-welling of nutrients and an abundance of phytoplankton and zooplankton forming the base of the food chain. As a result, large marine mammals are found here; important numbers of Pinnipeds and Cetaceans.

A Gannet out at sea on the west coast.

Extreme Topography


Scotland's climate and coastal regions are inundated with inlets, some of which resemble fjoridic and fjardic regions of Norway, Scotland's coastline is huge, Argyll, a mid county, alone has a coastline longer than that of France. A very special area which includes species at their northern and southern limits, species diversity is equal to the warm coral reefs.

A Common Dolphin in the Sea of the Hebrides.


Species Diversity


The west coast of Scotland is a 'hot-spot' for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoise), visitors include the World's second largest fish, the basking shark, along with rarer deep water rays. Scotland is home to two species of seal, the Common and Grey seals. The British Isles accounted for around 40% of the European Common (or Harbour) Seal, this has declined to around 30% in recent years. About 40% of the Global population of Grey or Atlantic Seals are resident here as well.

A rock pool on Staffa.

Scottish ecosystems are as vital as they are diverse.



Scottish Sea Lochs and Loch Etive (as an Example)

Much of Scotland's west coast is highly indented, convoluted with fjordic sealochs. Fjords are deep and steep sided with sills at their entrance limiting the inflow of seawater. Often brackish due to the immense runoff in western climes. This leads to special and difficult conditions which can contain isolated deep waters. Even the sediments are special holding varvic deposits which can give a snap-shot in time.


Highlighting Loch Etive as an example, situated midway on the west coast is an outstanding example of a Scottish fjoridic sea-loch, the pictures below are all taken in the Loch Etive water catchment area.


High up on Rannoch moor, home to a former glacial ice field rivers feed to the east, Glen Coe and Loch Etive. Peaty waters create an eerie brown tinge to the surface waters of the sea loch.

Loch Etive's upper basin, with depths exceeding 140m and a narrow sill at Bonawe Narrows. Deep waters here can be isolated for well over a year. These can become anoxic.

Tidal flows can be strong with over a metre difference in height either side of the Connel Bridge, the Falls of Lora.

With a flow exceeding 10 knots salt wedges form, overfalls, eddies and mini whirlpools.

Loch Etive has numerous fish farms, the nearest seen here is a mussel farm and in the distance a fin-fish farm.

Not all commercial practices are safe. One of the problems when commercial companies operate in remote, rural, marine locations.

Fin-fish, especially salmon farming is a big and growing industry along the Scottish west coast. Currently however, it appears that profit overcomes environmental concerns. Planning consents are conducted by those working from a terrestrial background with little allowable input from individuals or environmental groups. Government and government agencies appear hell-bent on supporting growth, especially with China's insatiable taste for salmon, but a one percent increase in supplying China would require a 50% increase in Scottish production. In its current form, that is not sustainable. The potential for environmental damage on a huge scale is very real.

These buoys support mussel lines. Mussel farming has always been considered one of the more benign methods of marine aquaculture but once again caution is needed and it has not been as more and larger farms become established.


Sea lochs and oceans, have a carrying capacity, a limit to what they can sustain without adverse issues. It has been suggested that Loch Etive has surpassed its carrying capacity, yet still they allow expansion.

Mussels syphon water; in doing so they feed by extracting particles from the water and they are very efficient, multiply that by millions and effectively the loch has one highly efficient 'cleaning' mechinism. However, when that means mass removal of other species the problem can become great.


In recent years a previously unseen mussel competed with the commercial varity, but this new commercial (actually turned out to be the original species not seen since the last ice age) species contained only 10% meat and shells were so fragile that they could not be harvested using the current commercial methods. The problem was so bad that the industry voluntarily ceased production in the hope that the edible variety might return.


Boats and moorings in Loch Etive were inundated with mussel spat (young mussels), so much so that it could become a problem. Boats moored outside of the loch but close-by had far fewer mussels and a combination of acorn barnacles and algae. Barnacles and algae in the loch were becoming less apparent. An altered ecosystem.


Is this a case of too much? More research is needed but the 'Precautionary Principle' as enshrined in the Rio 'Earth' Summit should have been utilised, often in Scotland's marine planning it is not.

Commercial activities need to look more closely at the very environment which supports it. Salmon farming is currently one of the worst offenders, where profit comes first even at the cost of the industry.


Peru and Chile have seen catastrophic collapses, Scottish salmon farming could be going the same way without enforced legislation.


It is not just aquaculture, mobile fisheries such as scallop dredging and benthic trawling destroy fish breeding grounds, few areas are given adequate protection.


There is room in our seas for production, activities and the environment such as the kayakers seen in the overfalls in the Falls of Lora, but only with real care.

Marine Protection - Marine Reserves - Marine National Parks: No-Take-Zones


Protection within the marine environment can take a variety of names from; - Marine Reserves, Marine National Parks, Marine Protected Areas, Marine Conservation Areas and more, all with a variance on the actual protection that they afford.


What is known that marine protection when applied with some degree of 'No-Take-Zones' work. No-Take-Zones are just that; nothing taken out, and in some cases nothing put in. Successful marine protection has seen fishing targeting the boundaries of the protected area with fishing effort reduced and both catch (quantity and species size) increase, including species diversity.


What is needed in any protected marine area is a region or regions of no-take, areas where nature can recover and regenerate. The size required for protection varies depending on location and commercial pressures. When the concept of no-take-zones or Highly Protected Marine Reserves were covered by the Royal Commission's 25th Report, 'Turning the Tide' in 2004 it was estimated that UK waters required 30% No-Take in order to sustain future commercial use and maintain species biodiversity and fish stocks.


Any designated protection without areas being left to recover, left to flourish are little more than paperwork exercises. Attention to detail in the wording of such protection vital, or the protected area/species becomes meaningless as has been seen in the Lismore Special Area of Conservation (SAC); designation Common Seals. Within this SAC the resident salmon farming company still shoots seals under a Scottish Government license, flouts seal haul-outs with debris and harassment; it even uses acoustic deterrents in a known cetacean hot-spot!


Once designated any protected area MUST be actively monitored and illegal activities penalised with deterrents that actually deter what can be hugely financially lucrative businesses.


NB. All photographic stills are copyright © of Mark-MC.

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