Year One: march 2016-2017 Our MPA’s first year: small choices and simple actions, every day. 

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 is everyone’s business when a straw tossed into the sand after a picnic ends up inside a turtle’s nostril, or a plastic bag or bottle blown by the wind might end up in a stomach of a whale, or plastic gun wads shot in fun might choke a dolphin who thinks it is a baby squid. Or over fishing sand eels to feed salmon might kill a colony of sea birds…Even a nylon thread off your jersey might end up being ingested by plankton or something else…

As Sea Change celebrates Wester Ross MPA’s first Birthday (march 2017) the question facing us is will the politicians lead us to change fast enough?  Is it not our responsibility too. Perhaps it is the grassroots which has to lead the change if Government is not leading – after all its not all the responsibility of Government. We can make a huge difference. Doing something small at a local level, one step at a time, choosing to act differently. This may not seem like a powerful choice, but it perhaps is the one thing that can truly change everything.

Small choices and simple actions, every day. By lots of people.

To me it is obvious that our separation from nature is at the heart of the problem. One hears people just assuming the sea is an economic resource just to exploit. Bureaucratic language about “resources” doesn’t help reconnect us to it as a living thing either.

But something deeper is emerging and that is that people throughout the world are getting reconnected. Small acts, in small places are joining up. The sea is alive and how we treat it seems to reflect how we treat ourselves in many ways. It is also perhaps 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…many Sea Changer’s are becoming Sea Protectors!

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 pollution.  But it is often the small unnoticed acts like someone picking up litter on the beach every day – that can make a big difference too. We hope to post some of these people on facebook and celebrate them if we get the chance.

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.

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 “MPA Umbrella Effect” (the whole ecosystem gets protected by accident rather than design, given the Government originally planned just to protect a short list of priority species )
  • Parts of the MPA burrowed mud areas are no longer being trawled which means by-catch and damage to the wider ecosystem is reduced. We are not entirely sure this meets the “conserve” target for the MPA but we are happy for now.
  • Sea Change formed alliances with other Coastal Communities to lobby the RACCE committee for the ban of mobile gear within other MPAs.
  • We had a very successful 1st gathering of community groups at Gartmore in May 2016 organised by Flora and Fauna International. This has proved to be a useful alliance when sharing tips on how to oppose fish farms in MPAs which seem on the verge of expansion into these areas which were set up to protect species so it seems a bit odd to us. New community 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. Our connection with our Skye friends may evolve into a joint survey project.
  • The National Trust for Scotland funded a film called The Bountiful Sea the Story of Wester Ross Marine Protected Area which helped explain the MPA’s benefits to the community and visitors to the area. This was shown at the Summer Isles Festival (although sadly the beauty of it was not visible) but very widely seen online. It has had well over 2000 views and rising so it has proved that there is a great appetite for knowledge of the sea.
  • Sea Change managed to achieve a first baseline survey of maerl focused on the heavily dredged sites – dorney sound and fox point as well as explore proposed fish farm sites around Bottle island and Horse Island shellfish site.
  • We may have discovered a new maerl bed or a very large extension of an existing one.
  • According to the scallop divers purely anecdotal observations “there were good signs of recovery in scallop spat.” and much more widespread maerl in the MPA than we believe has been documented and some of it in good condition too.
  • Sea Change blog and FB page is being developed and some short Birthday films are being made from the August survey footage which Andy Jackson filmed.
  • We are now sourcing funding for a much larger baseline survey project to help support training for a community led survey.


2016 – A year of hope, hard work and surprises…

The early part of 2016 was a nerve wracking part of the year.

The Clyde Fishermen’s Association challenged the closures of Marine Protected Areas to dredgers in South Arran and Wester Ross particularly.

This forced the RACCE Committee in to an investigation in to Richard Lochhead’s decision to ban dredgers from the Wester Ross MPA…in two committee meetings.  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. 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.  With little notice we drove down on a cold wet night ready for the next day. We stood outside parliament united with COAST of Arran and other groups with cardboard placards. 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. The aggression 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 who spent her life saving animals made them look like bullies.

A fresh egg landed on Beatrice, and we did have to talk her out of giving a trawler-man a tirade …he may have even got a hand bagging if not – a very unequal match.)

This was going on OUTSIDE


Whilst INSIDE the parliamentary Committee this was going on:   

See 46.44mins where the evidence of Alistair Sinclair (Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation) and Ali Hughson (Leader for the Scallop divers)  begins. These are the low impact fishermen. 

The Committee’s verdict was in our favour.

Years of lobbying by Sea Change supported by the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation,  local scallop divers and members of the community had finally paid off  a precious chance for recovery and socio-economic regeneration.

On the 23rd of March 2016 the MPA was ratified by Parliament. The group met and we drank to the MPA with  a private screening of The Bountiful Sea The Story of Wester Ross Marine Protected Area – a film commissioned by the National Trust to be made to share the reasons for the creation of the Marine Protected Area and its benefits to the community.

There was a piece in The Times called a Thunderer written by the deputy editor Katherine O’Donnell which did not mince it’s words.  To our surprise the press, until then, had largely reported in a biased, lazy and ill informed way, hardly bothering to even realise that there was not one group called  “The Fishermen”.  Our respect for the newspapers had until then fallen to an all time low. Few journalists were doing their homework.

As coordinator of Sea Change and a former journalist I was ashamed of the lazy sensationalist reporting and wrote to say so on a few occasions. However they were better informed on this occasion.

Whilst the mob outside Parliament was angry and threatening – one nevertheless can feel empathy for anyone who fears loosing a job.  Decommissioning and change should never happen over night without proper consideration for the fishermen – but it surely must be cheaper to compensate fishermen than to allow them to go on trashing the sea bed.  In parts of Wester Ross, known for its former biodiversity, dredgers had creating a desert… Nevertheless I could not see the Government making fishermen jobless overnight.

The elation 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  “The Bountiful Sea, The Story of Wester Ross MPA” at the Ceilidh Place.

This went on to be seen at the Summer Isles Festival (or heard as the screening was sadly a poor quality) 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.  Sandy Boots a well known fishermen narrated it.  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). Many of the people in the film were members of the group.

The First Coastal Community Gartmore Gathering in May 2016

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 members, The Fair Isles, SSSi (James Merryweather and Eilean) 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 a collaboration on a community led Citizen science Sea Bed Survey project.

Later Sea Change demonstrated our support for other communities with MPA’s by writing in to support their consultations – a show of solidarity for the Fair Isle and the Small Isles MPAs.

We then joined forces with SSSi to apply for a grant from the Coastal Community Fund working with Flora and Fauna International, SNH and Glasgow University. This was to create a self sustaining community led monitoring programme. 

We had hoped for a year of rest and recuperations after two utterly exhausting years lobbying Government and building community awareness. Two years of being opposed by a well resourced, mostly East Coast Mobile Gear fishermen’s Lobby in the form of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. But no sooner was the ink dry on the MPA legislation than Marine Harvest and Scottish Sea Farms (big Norwegian multinational Salmon Farmers) began to train their sights on the MPAs as an area to expand into.

When will it end and the MPA able to recover?

From dredgers to salmon Farmers 

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 about East Tanera and Horse Island.  (regarding Tanera island salmon farms expansion and move).

Another meeting to form a plan:

We held a meeting on the sea bed survey we planned – but this also ended up being about a strategy to 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…

See: Open letter to Fergus Ewing (2017) – Sea Change Wester Ross

Fergus Ewing SNP (former lawyer) who had been in business and tourism replaced Richard Lochhead as fisheries Minister. The role was split in to two and his counterpart was Roseanna Cunnigham.

We got some good rather ambiguous  responses from them both which were worded so carefully they could be interpreted.  They were focused on compliance with the finer matters of MPA law there was no mention of the legal requirement to apply the precautionary principle or meet the intentions behind the Marine Strategy Framework Directive which was “good environmental status”.

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 the Wester Ross Area Salmon Fisheries Board WRASFB which proved fruitful as it joined us up. They helped support us to make our three birthday films.

Surveys of the salmon farm sites

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 survey footage.  We contacted Andy Jackson, (a brilliant underwater cameraman) and Ali Hughson helped – we were also assisted by 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.  That very day about 30 tonnes of dead fish with Amoebic Gill Disease were shipped off Tanera leaving a stinking slimey trail of blood and guts across the harbour….smelly sea water sloshing out the back of the lorry as it climbed the hills on its way to the incinerator, somewhere far away…..

Closed Containment ?

We asked Scottish Sea Farms to explore closed containment which would provide jobs but not damage the MPA ecosystem or fisheries. We hoped that with government incentives to locate in Wester Ross it could work. We desperately wanted to allow the ‘Umbrella’ ecosystem recovery we felt we had fought so hard for.

The creel and dive fisheries also needed a chance to recover, we wanted to protect this recovery as we knew from many science reports on MPAs that well protected MPAs would restored fisheries and lead to more sustainable and secure coastal communities.  We might get jobs in the short term jobs but these would steal from   jobs in the long term. Thats not to mention the impact on the legally protected habitats like maerl which also support fisheries.

With the change of Ministerial leadership, it became 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 was not hopeful.

The only hope of real leadership in fisheries was coming from the creel and dive fishermen, as well as other coastal community groups, and scientists prepared to jump off the fence and say what needed to be said. We were surprised that so few scientists were speaking up given the crisis we were heading to, even if the MPA network was fully protected.

Community-Fishermen Led Surveys August 2016

Andy Jackson of Subsea Tv came up in August 2016 to help us provide the first proper citizen science dive survey in our area. There had been a drop down camera surveys by SWT and SNH had done a lot of dive and drop down camera surveys to designate the MPA – but there had not been citizen science survey done by the ‘community’ and fishermen before.  Although over the years the odd recreational seasearch divers had done some work.

Due to the emphasis on Fish farms our survey was dominated by our curiosity about what was under the proposed fish farm sites – as well as  identifying the maerl which was near to it.

This was supported by SCFF director Ali Hughson (Owner of Keltic Sea Fare) This was almost exactly one year on from when Ali Hughson and Hamish went out to film the tracks of the dredger that ploughed through the Voluntary Exclusion Zone – this violation had triggered the closure of the MPA to dredgers by the Minister Richard Lochhead.

Fishermen (SCFF) & Community Collaboration

Alistair Hughson (SCFF) and Keltic Sea Fare offered his boat, time and air (and eventually car) to help survey the area. Enormous generosity and commitment to the MPAs recovery.

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.

Three films of this have been made in celebration of the MPAs first Birthday.

A silver bullet?

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, boosting the coastal communities incomes around the MPA…..and mapping the underwater habitat.

Group meetings over survey targets & development of a drop down camera on a pole. 

Sea Change Group met a few times to discuss the species to be targeted for surveying and John McIntyre developed a drop Down Camera rigs on a pole to trial. John McIntyre and David Bailey worked on this design and then John made it in his workshop from bits and pieces he found. It was a great and very useful makeshift bit of equipment with a go-pro camera as well as a light. We also had a balloon  set up with a  GPS tracker Sara bought for the August survey.

The design was slightly adjusted with David in Inverness when the Community led survey ‘Steering Committee’ met with SNH to devise a plan for community monitoring which would be well in to the future.

Alistair’s near fatal road accident

In August Alastair Sinclair the Chairman of SCFF had a road accident.  He was in a coma in a very critical condition. After some very anxious weeks 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 under our films. We were  full of admiration for this man and his leadership and courage.

Meeting with the Skye Group

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 for surveying.  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 had met in Dundonnel, had kept in touch over the fish farms issue and was devising a strategy to deal with this as well as a plan for research.

Seasearch with Inverness Sub Aqua Club surveys 

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. We have begun CHARTING where fishermen caught species and species we consider important.We interviewed some of the elders of the community who remembered where fish species had been caught in the past and began to plot this on a chart.

It was a busy time building relations with Glasgow University, writing up grant applications and planning future surveys.

We also began building relations with Seasearch to do a few trial Sea bed surveys. Glasgow University & Glasgow Science festival seem the logical partners alongside SNH and we welcomed their involvement. We shared our ambitions and plans, identified species in our area we cared most about for monitoring – and wrote it all up.

Tesco Bags of Help gave us £200 – our first survey funding grant! 

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 shared the science metadata and  survey footage with Glasgow University and SNH – now with marks plotted on charts.

Sea Change attended The Highlands Environment Forum a few times to suggest marine issues were higher up the agenda and connected with the Marine Conservation Society who suggested we all became Sea Champion Volunteers to help with beach cleans etc We shared this widely FaceBook page and finally did a beachclean of reiff.

For a while the summer was full of marine activities organised by Noel and SWT. HWDT & WDT cetacean week – shortly after the OCEAN festival in Inverness. Then Rob Moir from Ocean River visited.

It felt as if 2016 really was the year for oceans. So much was crammed in to one year.

Sue Pomeroy promised to encouraging school children to plan a logo for the MPA or perhaps Sea Change? ( this was work in progress as well as start snorkelling in Little loch broom)…and Diyanne came up with excellent thesis on the prawns industry.

First Government Checks on the MPA

The Government sent researchers to Wester Ross to assess the newly formed MPAs and their potential socio-economic impact. This was one of the first ‘evidence gathering processes’ Fergus Ewings did as a minister.  It felt illogical and premature. How could things have changed much in a year? Slight alarm bells rang as we wondered if he was looking for excuses to dismantle some of the protection…

Not surprisingly their report concluded it was too early to see any impact.  What a waste of Government time and money. We could have said that.

Open Seas which was a newly formed NGO gave a more positive verdict of MPAs suggesting a clear trajectory upwards for prawn landings and divers told us that,  anecdotally at least, within the MPA it had been the best year for some time for scallops.

Alliance of Coastal Community groups

We began building a coastal group alliance – sharing concerns and ideas on fish farms and other concerns.

We commissioned some research into salmon farming from Sally Campbell – (a scientist who worked for SCFF ) to pull together all the impacts in to one report.  A plan was discussed about an alliance of Coastal Groups getting together under The New Economics Foundation Blue New Deal Action Plan to oppose fish farms in MPAs and lobby the Ministers to take the MPA network seriously.  Sally got too busy so we ended up piecing this together ourselves.

The urgent need for research with marine change 

Life in our sea is having to adapt fast to cope with climate change and other stresses – a properly protected MPA network will help provide resilience and reduce the stresses on the ecosystem. Yet we need to monitor the effects of increasing sea temperatures due to climate change and 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).  This is why protected areas are so important as fish do not breed when young they need TIME and not to be caught before they get time to breed.

One of our member supporters – Julia Barton Littoral Art Project encouraged us to focus on Plastic Pollution – since 2015 she had been building awareness in the area of this and the horrifying consequences.  Some examples of great films on this are  The Smog of The Sea, the latest film on plastic pollution. Well worth a watch.

Signs of hope amidst uncertainty

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 and we are beginning to join up. Many 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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