Open letter to Fergus Ewing (2017)

Dear Mr Ewing,  Sea Change Wester Ross would like to draw your attention to our series of ‘Happy Birthday’ films made to celebrate Wester Ross Marine Protected Area’s first year.  We are a local community marine conservation group set up to articulate public concern about the marine environment and encourage greater protection of the ecosystem. We also support the sustainable low impact fisheries upon which our area largely depends. Please see our 3 short films on either the blog site or our facebook page (links below). We recommend film 3 if you only have time for one film.

Happy Birthday Wester Ross Marine Protection Area film 3  – 5 mins

Happy Birthday Wester Ross Marine Protection Area film 2 – 2 mins

Happy Birthday Wester Ross Marine Protected Area – we love you! – 2 mins

Sea Change Wester Ross – FACEBOOK “About” for information on the group.

We are also writing to introduce you to Sea Change’s hopes for socio-economic regeneration around the MPA in Wester Ross, which this series of films touches upon briefly. We would also like to appeal to you to give our objectives your support.  Please accept our apology for the length of this letter but we want to outline all our concerns.

Our expectation is that over time MPAs will produce a multitude of benefits for the coastal economy as a result of the “umbrella protection” that the ecosystem receives due to the ban on dredgers which was designed to protect the specially protected features, but also serves to restore the wider area. As you know this enforcement began in August 2015 under your predecessor whom we congratulated for his bravery in making this necessary change, even when opposed by the mobile sector. This ban was implemented before the restriction on trawlers within the area, which began only when the MPA was formerly created on March 23rd 2016. We believe this offers our coastal communities a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate the socio-economic benefits of restored seas and we are seeing benefits already.

Our group speaks for the wider public interest and the generations after us, as well as those of us who depend on tourism, angling or low impact fishing as a livelihood. Many people within the coastal communities have witnessed many of our local fisheries collapse. We wish to ensure we learn from past mistakes so we do not end up repeating them.

Since the dredger ban and other restrictions have been in place we have been working to secure this protection in order to enhance the “umbrella effect” of the MPA. We want to build on the current opportunities to enhance low impact fisheries, restore sea angling as well as boost the area’s income through nature, marine and eco-tourism which can build on public interest generated by the ‘MPA designation effect.’

Sea Change has plans to map the whole MPA. We hope to work with Glasgow University and Flora and Fauna International as partners and SNH as science advisors to create a community led citizen science project to survey and monitor the MPA over years. We hope to focus the survey on species of particular socio-economic importance and use sea festivals and films to share our discoveries and interpret the findings. We hope this will not only boost local seafood sales, but attract many more visitors as well as encourage interest in conserving the marine environment.

We believe the MPA is also a chance to encourage local businesses to utilise the ‘designation effect’ to promote the MPA area as a destination of choice for recreational divers, kayakers, sailors, snorkelers and nature tourists. We hope to create a buzz around our survey discoveries as well as understand more and share  knowledge of the changes going on in our seas for the benefit of all.  We hope over time the angling fisheries will recover, attracting further benefits too.

Naturally we are eager to ensure that you understand that our plans hinge upon proper protection to achieve this longer term potential for regenerating coastal economies with the help of low impact fisheries, sea angling and nature tourism.

We believe the long term socio-economic gains from well protected seas far outweigh any short term benefits from exploitation of resources – which only serve to damage the area for short term gain at the expense of all our futures. The inshore areas are the nursery and spawning grounds for many species as well as areas of high biodiversity which are key to protect, given the whole food chain depends upon them. We believe the evidence is on our side and we have some concerns we would like to particularly outline below.

1- We believe any future monitoring of MPAs that the Government intends to do needs to capture a much wider range of changes that could flow from the MPAs, as well as ensure the Government are speaking and listening to a full spectrum of stakeholders so that decisions can be made on behalf of the wider public good rather than a small sector driving the agenda for their own commercial benefit.  We would like the long term benefits to be given as much consideration as the short term in your assessments of the MPA.

2- Secondly we would like to draw your attention to the fact that Open Seas published an extended article on the impacts of MPA management which verifies our view that concerns about the economic impact of Marine Protected Areas in both Wester Ross and along the West Coast, have been greatly exaggerated by the mobile sector, as a way to maintain a disproportionate influence upon Government. This influence benefits a minority of fishermen, who are important to the economy, but a much wider public interest needs to be served,  as well as greater support given to the much larger numbers of low impact fishermen which we feel are the foundations for future sustainability. It is better to build our economy upon these fisheries – for in this way real sustainability can be achieved. We profoundly believe the economics of renewable resources show that the public good and future generations are much better served by supporting low impact methods of fishing. We are at a critical juncture in which we are accountable to future generations for decisions made now which impact the long term sustainability of the seas.

For the Open Seas report see

In summary,  Ullapool Nephrops landings increased in volume in 2016, whilst scallop landings from dredgers became less regular during this time – this is perhaps for obvious reasons given the local ban that dredgers may not use Ullapool as a landing port.  However local scallop divers report significant increases in their catch and landings from divers will be up for the year.

During Sea Change’s August survey in 2016 divers also reported that there was good evidence of a recovery in scallop spat and smalls already underway. We believe the divers who live within the community will benefit over the long term, especially as hand dived scallops are a premium product selling for higher margins, which reaps greater benefit from the resource.

Mapping the MPA and Survey plans:

With all the above in mind Sea Change Wester Ross intends to set up a very inclusive community and fishermen-led sea bed survey based on citizen science. Our aim is to regenerate the economy of the local area by building better public knowledge to enhance management decisions for the MPA. Our hopes are that this will be based on good science as well as inclusion of the community in decisions.

This project would, we hope include supporting the marketing of the MPA area more widely to expand the whole marine tourist sector which has great growth potential, as highlighted in many recent assessments of the potential for expansion within Scotland’s tourism sector. We are well placed to expand the marine sector in our area by using the MPA ‘designation effect’ to generate business and attract more visitors.  Therefore we are looking to ensure that we can indeed build upon the MPA’s attractions as a fully protected MPA.

In light of all these positive objectives for regenerating our area, based on a model of true sustainability,  we are deeply concerned about the possibility of open cage salmon farms wishing to use MPAs as places to site new or expanded farms.

Both Marine Harvest and Scottish Sea Farms are considering applications in the area despite the fact that MIAP identified Wester Ross as one of the highest risk areas for salmon and sea trout. We cannot afford any further pressures on these species.

The Herald’s recent reports on the impacts of chemicals in Loch Ewe as well as a recent film set on Loch Maree outlines many of our concerns too.  I include these for your interest.

Revealed: Scandal of 45 Scottish lochs trashed by pollution (From HeraldScotland)

We believe more fish farms will undermine our project for socio-economic regeneration around the MPA. 

In particular we are concerned about the impacts of open cage salmon farms on protected species such as maerl and flame shells which have the ‘recover’ objective. Divers report that there are many undiscovered maerl beds in the area, not to mention other protected species as yet unmapped, which we hope to identify in later surveys.  Given the fact that the MPA is still unexplored – we request that the precautionary principle is applied to ensure that full recovery of maerl is not impacted and the intentions for “good environmental status” across the ecosystem – which is the driver behind the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, is fully honoured.

Sea Change is also concerned to protect the recovery of nursery and spawning grounds in the area which have been heavily dredged. With the limits on mobile gear these are currently getting the chance to restore which is a great additional benefit to the local communities.

With the threat of open cage salmon farms in the MPA we are now very concerned about the possible impacts of nutrient enrichment which could cause algae blooms, as well as the chemical pesticide (lice treatment) impacts on other crustaceans. Salmon farm sites are close to creel and dive areas which are essential for the future of coastal communities. We believe the marine environment is being severely impacted by plastics, acidification and warming seas and additional pressures on species are potentially disastrous.  This is not to mention the fact that the open cage salmon farms have a very serious impact on sea angling fisheries and associated jobs and numerous other impacts too.

More salmon farms undermine our local attempts to market the area for eco-tourism around sea mammals, marine biodiversity as well as seafood sales and build our economy around really sustainable fisheries.

Our third film (and two shorter films) outline why we believe MPAs can have an incredibly positive impact.   Rob Gibson (former MSP and Chair of the RACCE Committee) quoted Sea Change in the Marine Plan debate in Parliament a few years ago. He noted that we were working in alignment with the aims of the Marine Plan and noted our hope that Wester Ross MPA would be an exemplary model of an MPA. Our hopes are based on the fact that recovered ecosystems have much deeper and wider socio-economic benefits for the whole community. We want to build upon this opportunity.

Thriving coastal communities need well-protected and well managed MPAs in order for real recovery to take place, as well as to  demonstrate how true sustainability pays real dividends. If we are given the chance we believe we can demonstrate that a restored ecosystem provides these greater gains for our communities. We would be grateful if the Government consider this, as well as future generations, before short term economic and political expediency.  If the Government does this,  we believe that empowering communities to participate in management, with real sustainability as the end goal will benefit the whole nation.

We hope the Government will support us and oppose new or expanded fish farms in our Marine Protected Areas, particularly when closed containment could be a better option to explore.

Yours sincerely,

Sea Change Wester Ross

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