The Environment Secretary has called on the UK Government to review the provision of emergency tugs after several shipping incidents in Scottish waters.
Richard Lochhead urged Westminster to extend funding for emergency towing vehicles beyond March 2016 during a debate at Holyrood on Scotland’s draft national marine plan.
The move follows the grounding of the Lysblink Seaways cargo ship at Ardnamurchan Point yesterday and the overturning of the Cemfjord, which sank in the Pentland Firth with eight sailors on board last month.
In a third incident last October, the Danish ship MV Parida carrying radioactive nuclear waste caught fire and began drifting in the Moray Firth.
Mr Lochhead told MSPs: “There have now been three significant incidents in our waters involving large vessels in the past few months alone, reminding us all of the need to protect not only human life but our precious marine environment.
“Yet we still have the unacceptable situation that sees some of Europe’s largest and busiest waters only protected with one emergency towing vessel berthed in our northern isles, potentially leaving our waters, on the west coast in particular, severely exposed.
“I’ve raised this issue with the UK Government a number of times since the decision to slash funding and half the number of emergency tugs in our waters.
“Today, I can tell the chamber I am writing in the strongest terms to the UK Government urging it to immediately review the current provision and call on it to guarantee future funding for appropriate provision beyond 2016 when the current arrangements come to an end.
“As things stand, by Easter 2016 we could be without any cover in Scotland’s waters from that tug service.
“Given their economic and environmental importance, we simply can’t afford to gamble with our seas, so the UK Government needs to recognise the potential cost of leaving our seas vulnerable rather than be obsessed with the cost of maintaining adequate emergency tug provision.”
Rob Gibson, convener of Holyrood’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCEC), said: “It would be appalling if we lost the whole of the habitat of the Minch because the marine coastguard agency tug is taken away from that area, or even near that area, by Easter next year.
“Scottish responsibility for the MCA (Maritime and Coastguard Agency) is something which needs to take place, but we need to sort out the question of the tug, because the grounding at Ardnamurchan is just another example of the fact that round our seas the potential to destroy vast amounts of habitat are something that local groups cannot stop.”
The draft national marine plan has been developed over five years and aims to balance the development of industries such as oil, gas and fishing with emerging sectors such as marine renewables and carbon capture and storage, while at the same time protecting and enhancing the environment.
RACCEC, which scrutinised the plan, said it failed to provide a clear set of policies that can be applied across all of Scotland’s seas.
Mr Lochhead said: “I believe the plan does strike this balance appropriately, not withstanding the fact that I’m open to making changes before adopting the final plan in line with the committee’s recommendations.
“We need to act now to get a framework in place that will demonstrate Scotland’s commitment to the improved management of our seas, a framework that will demonstrate our commitment to the marine environment and marine industries alike, and will provide for truly sustainable development of our wonderful marine resources in Scottish waters.”
Labour MSP and RACCEC member Claudia Beamish said: “It is indeed a delicate balance, in the words of the Cabinet Secretary, and one that so many want to make sure will work for the future of Scotland.”
She emphasised the importance of enhancing as well as recovering and protecting the health of Scotland’s seas.
Ms Beamish said: “As we’re all keenly aware, some of our marine environment is in a poor state of health, in need of recovery, some is even denuded.”