Sea Change’s achievements in our MPA’s first year!

Cousteau made the oceans rock’n’roll!  He made marine exploration exciting, cool and fun. That has to be our number one aim for 2017 as we embark on our second year of the Marine Protected Area and hopefully more sea bed surveys to start to build a picture and map our MPA.

However it goes beyond that. The sea becomes everyone’s business when a straw tossed into the sand could end up a turtle’s nose, or a plastic bag blown by the wind might end up in a stomach of a whale, or plastic gun wads shot in fun might kill a dolphin, or over fishing might kill a colony of sea birds. A nylon thread off your jersey might end up being ingested by plankton…

As Sea Change celebrates Wester Ross MPA’s first Birthday the question facing us is will the politicians lead us to change fast enough? Will we demand it? This does beg the question of whether we get the politicians we deserve?  Doing something small at a local level, one step at a time, choosing to act differently may not seem like a powerful choice, but it perhaps is the one thing that can truly change everything.

To me it is obvious that our separation from nature is at the heart of the problem. It is normal to talk of the sea as an economic resource to exploit. Bureaucratic lanquage creates distances us enough to allow it to be exploited by a small minority, or used for political expediency to win votes or further an ideological end.

But something deeper is emerging and that is that people throughout the world are noticing that this serves just a few and are getting connected. Small acts, in small places are joining up. The sea is alive and we are all deeply connected to it – and how we treat it is an indicator of our ability to thrive as a species and to respond intelligently when we see the impact we are having.  Many of us our responding to the call, and we are connecting.

There are inspiring examples of people who have gone to extraordinary lengths like Lewis Hugh who wild swam his way into the heart of Putin’s Kremlin to beg for the Ross MPA. An artist who lived in a van for four years to tour the west coast to highlight plastic polution But it is often the small unnoticed acts like someone picking up litter on the beach that can make a big difference too.

Perhaps we can wild snorkel and survey our way into the hearts of Politicians who hold the fate of our MPA network in their hands. Will they listen to their own political agendas or the heart beat of our planet? And those of us calling for change.

Looking back on our first year

LOOKING BACK and Celebrating the year since the creation of Wester Ross MPA that old adage that you can do less than you imagine in a day and more in a year seems to fit. Sea Change has been taking one small step at a time and only by looking back does one see the tremendous distance travelled.

So it is time to celebrate our journey so far before we take the next step.   We celebrate that:

  • Heavily dredged areas have had well over one year to recover as the MPA was closed to dredgers on the 18th August 2015 after a violation of the Voluntary Exclusion Zone.
  • This ban means the ecosystem of the MPA has had over one full year to restore under the protection of the “MPA Umbrella Effect” (other species benefit from the protection offered to a small list of species)
  • Some burrowed mud areas are no longer being trawled which means by-catch and damage to the wider ecosystem is reduced.
  • Sea Change formed alliances with other Coastal Communities to lobby the RACCE committee for the ban of mobile gear within MPAs and then met at a very successful gathering in May organised by Flora and Fauna International. This has proved a useful alliance when opposing fish farms in MPAs and new groups are being formed and getting connected all the time.
  • Sea Change built close relations with our friends in Skye (SSSI)  and Glasgow University and Glasgow Science Festival, and also connected with the Fair Isle group, Small Isles Group as well as groups in Argyll such as Cromach and the Friends of Jura.
  • The National Trust for Scotland funded a film which helped explain the MPA’s benefits to the community and visitors to the area. This was shown at the Summer Isles Festival and very widely seen. It’s success over 2000 views has proved that there is a great appetite for knowledge of the sea.
  • Sea Change managed to achieve a first baseline survey focused on the heavily dredged sites and proposed fish farm sites and may have undiscovered a new maerl beds.
  • According to the scallop divers observation “there were good signs of recovery.” and much more widespread maerl in the MPA than has been documented.
  • Sea Change blog and FB page is being developed and some short films are being made from the August survey footage.
  • We sourcing funding for a baseline survey.


2016 was a year of hope, hard work and some surprises…

Early winter 2016 was a nerve wracking part of the year. The RACCE Committee examined Richard Lochhead’s decision to ban dredgers from the Wester Ross MPA twice. This scrutiny gave us nail biting anxiety that the ban on dredgers might not stay in place. The Creel and Dive Fishermen were asked to give evidence but not the coastal community groups and we worried that the public interest might be forfeited due to intense lobbying by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation which represents the dredgers and trawlers – whose activity was the main reason why the MPAs were necessary in the first place.

Rob Gibson MSP had formerly quoted our Sea Change Consultation document in the Marine Plan Debate in Parliament, and we did feel some degree of confidence that the facts, the demonstration of local support for the dredger ban as well as history itself, would prove to be on our side.

Eggs and orange smoke

Beatrice and myself were the only Sea change members free to travel down to Parliament to represent Sea Change – others hoped to come but work did not permit it. We united with COAST at the demonstration to ensure that whilst we were not invited to give evidence, the RACCE committee members would get to know communities were watching and concerned. The day will go down in Sea Change history. It was a turning point. For the first time the press witnessed the tactics of the mobile sector. It was visible. They scored a home goal when they hit Beatrice with a fresh egg.  Throwing eggs at women old enough to be their grandmother made them look like bullies.

There was a piece in The Times which did not mince it’s words.  The press until then had largely reported in a biased, lazy and ill informed way.  My respect for the proffession I had been a member of fell to an all time low. Few journalists were doing their homework.  I was ashamed of the lazy sensationalist reporting and wrote to say so on a few occasions. However they were better informed this time. A fresh egg landed on Beatrice, and we did have to talk her out of giving a trawlerman a tirade …he may have got a hand bagging if not – a very unequal match.)

Whilst the mob outside Parliament was angry and threatening – one nevertheless can feel empathy for anyone who perceives they will be loosing a job. It should never happen like that – for it surely must be cheaper to compensate fishermen than to allow them to go on thrashing the sea bed and in parts like Wester Ross, known for its former biodiversity creating a desert of the sea bed in parts…. The Govt. should not make fishermen jobless overnight.

The relief was palpable when on the 23rd March Wester Ross MPA was created. What a day. Some of us savoured the moment with a lunch and some fizz – and then Sea Change met for a premier screening of  “A Bountiful Sea, The Story of Wester Ross MPA” at the Ceilidh Place.  This went on to be shown widely, at the Summer Isles Festival and on the National Trust for Scotland’s website. It currently has over 2300 hits – proving that there IS an appetite for marine conservation. The National Trust funded the film and it was a chance for some of the elders of the community who had seen the baseline shift to speak up.  Some of Sea Change group members did too.  As Sandy Boots says in the narration, quoting JFK “we all have saltwater in our veins.” (Sandy sadly died in January 2017, and his experience will be sorely missed)

In May 2016 we had a weekend Coastal Group Gathering near Stirling where many of the people who were ‘shaking the tree’ around the coast of Scotland gathered to unite voices and connect with kindred spirits.

Sea Change members particularly connected with Coast, Fair Isles, SSSi (James Merryweather) and The Small Isles as well as Caroline Younger’s group from Craignish in Argyll. We also learnt of the Regional Marine Plan and The Community Empowerment Bill.

It was fun too, with lots of musicians amongst the group. Inge Thomson from Fair Isle’s with Songs of the Sea ….Rib Gibson MSP even sung a rousing Native rebel song about Geronimo on Guitar. Sea Change members met with Glasgow University and made plans for the Sea Bed Survey.  Later we demonstrated our support for other communities with MPA’s when we wrote in during their consultations – a show of solidarity for the Fair Isle and the Small Isles MPAs and joined forces with SSSi to apply for a grant.

We hoped for a year of rest and recuperations after two exhausting years lobbying Government regarding mobile gear against a well resourced East Coast Lobby – but it was not to be. No sooner was the ink dry on the MPA legislation then Marine Harvest and Scottish Sea Farms (big multinational Norwegian Fish Farms) began to focus their sights on the MPAs as an area to expand into.  When will it end?

It was almost as we were taking our first deep breath looking out across a horizon of protected water  – that the email popped up titled “pre app at Bottle marine harvest”….and shortly after another at Tanera and Horse Island.  (regarding a Tanera expansion and move).

We held a meeting on the sea bed survey we planned to decide on a strategy and form a Fish Farm Sub group. At the meeting it was decided to write to our MSP’s and Roseanna Cunningham and Fergus Ewing and ask about the principle of new large salmon open cage aquaculture in MPAs…

Fergus Ewing SNP (former lawyer) formerly involved with business and tourism replaced Richard Lochhead as fisheries Minister and Roseanna Cunnigham is too. We got some good legal responses which could be interpreted either way as they were about finer matters of MPA law which rather ignored the precautionary principle or the intentions behind the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

We voted to oppose new and enlarged farms. It seems clear from those who voted that the opposition from those informed about the impacts, to more farms, is strong.

A meeting was suggested with WRASFB which proved fruitful in joining us up and helped support us to make some films.

We had a meeting of a Fish Farm sub group and it became clear that we needed to know more about the sites where the farms intended to locate themselves.  We needed good quality footage and so we started work  with Andy Jackson, (a brilliant underwater cameraman) and Ali Hughson assisted as did Bill Wilder, Ken Walton and others etc.

In October Scottish Sea Farms held a meeting at Coigach Hall. Iced cakes and Scottish Farmed Salmon were offered on platters, but this was not enough to persuade the “awkward squad” to support fish farms given that on that very day about 30 tonnes of dead fish with AGD disease were shipped  off Tanera leaving a stinking slimey trail of blood and guts across the harbour and sloshing out the back of the lorry as it went up the hill to the incinerator, somewhere far away.

We asked Scottish Sea Farms to explore closed containment which would provide jobs but not damage the MPA ecosystem or fisheries. With government incentives to locate in Wester Ross it could work. We felt that under the Umbrella effect, our MPA and creel and dive fisheries have a chance to recover, we want to protect this recovery as we see that restored environments lead to more sustainable and secure coastal communities and jobs than short term jobs that impact other jobs indirectly. Thats not to mention the impact on the legally protected habitats like maerl which support fisheries.

With the change of Ministerial leadership, it is difficult to fathom if hope resides with the Scottish Government. The signs seem clear. With the potential doubling of Fish Farms and the lack of response to illegal dredging – it is not so hopeful.

For me the only promise of real leadership in Fisheries resides in the creel and dive fishing federation, as well as other coastal community groups, and scientists prepared to jump off the fence and say what needs to be said – backed by science.


Andy Jackson of Subsea Tv came up for August to help us provide the first survey in our area. Due to the emphasis on Fish farms this was rather dominated by seeing what was under the proposed fish farm sites and identifying the maerl which was near to it.    This was supported by SCFF director Ali Hughson and Keltic Sea Fare – A year on from when Ali Hughson and Hamish went out to film the tracks of the dredger that ploughed through the Voluntary Exclusion Zone and triggered the closure of the MPA to dredgers by Richard Lochhead.

Alistair Hughson (SCFF) and Keltic Sea Fare offered his boat, time and air (and eventually car) to help survey the area. Enormous generosity. Three films of this have already been put on the blog site in celebration of the Birthday.

We longed for a silver bullet or magic wand which would ensure proper protection for our MPA and allow us to get on with the business of managing recovery and boosting the coastal communities incomes around the MPA…..

Sea Change Group met a few times to discuss the species to be targeted for surveying and develop drop Down Camera rigs to trial. John McIntyre and David Bailey worked on this design and then John made it for the drop down go-pro camera as well as to set up the GPS tracker Sara bought for the August survey.  The design was slightly adjusted by David in Inverness when the Steering Committee met.

In August Alastair Sinclair the Chairman of SCFF had an road accident and was in a coma in a critical condition. He recovered enough to make a short speech by Oct for the MCS and Roseanna Cunningham, about being “brave” and this is in our blog. I am in full admiration for this man and his foresight.

In late August members of Sea Change, Sue, John McIntyre, Beatrice, Peter and myself went to meet SSSi on Skye to discuss a possible funding partnership.  We fostered closer ties with SSSi (Part of SLEF) in the hope of exchanging ideas and supporting each other.

The Fish Farm sub group which met in Dundonnel and kept in touch over the fish farms as well as devised strategy and research.  We had a number of aborted attempts at a second survey with Sea Search divers due to winter weather and boat issues – and during this process Diyanne Ross plotted on her charts all our previous dive’s as well as our dive plans and speculative maerl beds.

A very useful advance as we now know what we need to pin down in future surveys, and some of the elders of the community were interviewed.

With the survey in mind we’ve built relationships with Glasgow University and Sea Search to do a few trial Sea bed surveys. Glasgow University & Glasgow Science festival seem the logical partners alongside SNH. We shared our ambitions and plans, identified species in our area we care most about for monitoring – a very useful process.

In the late Summer we entered the TESCO Bags of Help community funding process (tokens put in glass boxes at Tesco checkout) we won £200 from this.  John Wilding collected the cash with a photo Opportunity – it was second prize on the Community Tokens collected.

We were also lucky that my brother in law sponsored us with a handful of gifts for the Team – some waterproof skorch bags for kayaking and surveying. Only purchasable on Amazon.

We produced an assembly of all the footage – as well as the survey science written up in notes and the meta data footage is with Glasgow University and SNH – now with marks plotted on charts.

We have begun CHARTING where fishermen caught species and species we consider important.

Sea Change attended The Highlands Environment Forum a few times to suggest marine issues and connected with the MSC who suggested we all became Sea Champion Volunteers to help with beach cleans etc l put this on our FaceBook page and get others to sign up.

For a while the summer was full of marine activities organised by Noel and SWT. HWDT & WDT cetacean week – shortly after OCEAN festival in Inverness. Then Rob Moir from Ocean River visited. It felt as if 2016 really was the year for oceans.

Sue Pomeroy promised to encouraging school children to plan a logo for the MPA or perhaps Sea Change? ( work in progress )…and Diyanne came up with excellent ideas on prawns.

The divers Identify a strange bizarre green anemone under water in bay at Tanera. Sea Search Id gave some ideas and we discovered the only other place in Scotland with the species was Barra.

The Government sent researchers to Wester Ross to assess the newly formed MPAs. Not surprisingly their report concluded it was too early to see an impact.  Open Seas however gave a more positive verdict with a clear trajectory upwards for prawn landings and divers said anecdotally that it had been a great year.

We began building a coastal group alliance to protect the MPAs from the threat be it from fish farms to the protected species and the creel and dive fisheries. We commissioned some research from a scientist who works for SCFF and discussed an alliance of Coastal Groups getting together under The New Economics Foundation Blue New Deal Action Plan to oppose fish farms in MPAs at Ministerial level.  If we want to recover the sea these linked MPAs need to work and be taken seriously.

CHART Plotting

We’ve started plotting on a chart where ‘the elders’ remember fish, which is important especially skate and other species we no longer see as this is important so we can ensure protection.

Life in our sea is having to adapt fast to cope with climate change and a properly protected MPA will help reduce the stresses on the ecosystem. The research is not being done. We need to monitor the effects of increasing sea temperatures due to climate change with intact sea beds to be able to gauge the rate of change. Large mature fish are the brood stock and produce exponentially higher levels of spawn than the combined amount that multiples of smaller fish might achieve).

One of our member supporters – Julia Barton Littoral Art Project encouraged us to focus on Plastic Pollution which is horrifying.  Some examples of great work:  The Smog of The Sea, the latest film on plastic pollution. Well worth a watch.


The leadership of the creel and dive federation gives me hope, and we need hope.

There are huge numbers of invisible, yet a passionate people living in the coastal areas who are prepared to give up huge amounts of time to say what they see, want and hope.

To note: Sebastian at Marine Scotland has this to say about the penalties for dredgers incursions.

Dredging is completely banned from that MPA so there should not be a risk from a legislative perspective to those beds. Anyone deploying their fishing gear inside the boundary is thus committing an offence. However it is not the presence in an MPA that is an offence, it is the active fishing activity. The penalty is up to £50,000 as stated in the explanatory notes of the MCO; it would either be the Statutory max of £5k or £50k as the maximum fines available to a Sheriff on summary conviction. MS of course have no sway on what penalty a Sheriff would decide on, should there be sufficient evidence of actual fishing activity to prosecute. Our view is that AIS does not prove activity, merely position and sometimes speed and heading, and we are not aware as yet of any move to make it mandatory from a fishing perspective.

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