Our Story & Evolution

Our Story & Evolution

Our Story & Evolution

 Sea Change officially emerged in 2014 in order to lobby for ecosystem-wide protection of the proposed Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Wester Ross, Scotland.  We set out to recover the habitats which had once supported abundant fisheries on the west coast, and bring back our fish!  Fishermen like fish, tourists like fish (& shellfish). Tourists also like Nature: large fishy species like whales, dolphins and basking sharks as well as salmon and sea trout, cod, haddock and herring. Local residents like fish for food, cafes and restaurants and recreation. We wanted these back.

The First Meeting of Sea Change

At our first group meeting in 2014 in the Achiltibuie Community Hall there were just a handful of us willing to face the elements to be there for the creation of the group.  Whilst our first vote was to work for the return of the 3 Mile Limit, we soon re-focused our attention on the task closer to the sledge – which was to ban scallop dredgers within the proposed MPA local to us.

There were just 7 at the first meeting.  Three were local fishermen, one was an ecologist brought up eating by-catch fishcake made by his marine scientist father, another a film maker who was born into a family of sea faring people and whose work had been focused on the environment. Another a mother with a degree in conservation.  Her baby son made the 7th. The two of them joined us to vote on our group aims and ambitions. We voted unanimously for the return of the 3 Mile Limit and a ban on dredging and trawling in inshore waters. Whilst we emerged officially in Achiltibuie, the group soon expanded in size and support with many people connected to the sea coming together, often via email and the occasional meeting across the vast area of Wester Ross MPA coastline.  We worked together to lobby for change. We were instrumental in achieving a ban on scallop dredgers in August 2015. 

 How was the ban achieved?

Our number one objective had always been to ban dredgers.  Maerl, a precious pink seaweed which supports many fisheries, including scallops was regularly being smashed by dragging metal across its brittle interlocking coral twigs. Some beds were possibly as old as the last ice age. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), suggested that dredgers could work inside the proposed MPA if they kept out of the really fragile areas of maerl that they had identified. However scallop divers told us there was more maerl than SNH knew about. As well as other species and nursery grounds we knew of. A local NGO, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, did a drop down camera survey and found some more maerl just to prove it. 

Sea Change called upon the Government to manage the sea on behalf of us all –  not just a minority stakeholder. The bottom towed mobile fishing sector is a minority in terms of boats and people it represents on the west coast – even if it speaks for a significant commercial lobby and peoples jobs too. We wanted ecosystem wide protection – as species are so interrelated. SNH’s proposals were excluding the many spawning and nursery grounds for other species – often in seaweed areas damaged by bottom dragging methods of fishing. We wanted herring back too. It was the key stone species in the area. We talked to SNH about this but for reasons explained later. Herring was already protected elsewhere. We didn’t think it made sense.

There was a local joke, which was sadly actually true. The crab and lobster fishermen used to take out sea anglers occasionally in the 80s. At this time there was plenty of haddock and many other species caught. Anglers used to come regularly to the area because the fishing was so good. Once the 3 mile limit was abolished the stocks went in to decline until eventually haddock became such a rarity that years passed without one being caught locally on a rod and line.

This resulted in a prize for the most unusual species in the local sea angling competition being awarded to a haddock one year. This was roughly 20 years after the lifting of the 3 Mile Limit. 

The older folk, most now gone,  said that they were once able to collect live stranded herring on the beach at Badentarbat with a pail. They were so abundant. 

Paper Petitions at the post office and shop

A paper petition began in Achiltibuie post office and shop, organised by Hamish Sinclair a local creel fishermen. The petition was useful as it supplied evidence that the people of Coigach (an exclusively creel and dive area) were almost unanimously in support of a ban on dredgers.  Shortly after this an online petition was set up to demonstrate wider support across the rest of Wester Ross and beyond.  A marine scientist living in Gairloch helped collect paper signatures in the southern parts of the MPA too. Again the numbers showed significant support for a ban giving us confidence that we were speaking for a majority of the wider community.  Later we did a second online petition to be able to locate where the signatures originated. An American group Ocean River Institute supported us with a massive online petition too.  

Rays of hope

We met our local MSPS such as Rob Gibson, Jean Urquhart and Charles Kennedy.  In the early days of Sea Change,  Rob Gibson was our local MSP as well as the chair of the RACCE committee. This was to become a key committee, later in the story of the MPA network debate.   When we aired our feelings to him in the Frigate Cafe in Ullapool he seemed surprised by the level of passion for change. The message had been sent and received.

During the Marine Plan debate he and Jean Urquhart, our very supportive local MSP read out extracts from the  first consultation response we had submitted to Marine Scotland ( Jan-Feb 2015) as part of the discussion of the Marine Plan in Parliament.  ( See page 49, page 50,  and page 67 ) Sea Change’s objectives were sited as an example of progressive thinking. 

A few of us, including the scientists amongst us,  had been collecting scientific literature on decline for years. This helped. Professor Callum Roberts encouraged us – giving us confidence that what we saw and heard anecdotally was backed by science as well as common sense. Alistair Sinclair from the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation inspired us with his own example, giving us the courage to speak the truth despite the challenges. As he often said ” courage is contagious”. After all what does it say about you if you know and do nothing? What was going on in the sea was unacceptable – even a form of insanity. Politicians were caving into commercial pressures with the carrot of jobs in the short term – which would only lead to collapse in the long term.

The MPA debate – an historic moment for Scotland’s seas

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are the equivalent of national parks on land. The intention behind MPAs is to protect species and habitats vital for the recovery of our fisheries and for the health of our oceans.

The gap between intention and reality is where the story of Sea Change really began. What the Government was offering were Marine Protected Areas which were little more than paper parks. The boundaries line was meaningless as there were only islands of protection from dredgers within the area. The irony was that trawlers and dredgers could continue to damage the inshore waters – despite the fact they were the original reason which was behind the urgent need for  Marine Protected Areas in the first place.  They were the cause of the damage but the message was lets continue doing more of what has not worked…. 

Outside a few marine scientists, fishermen, anglers there was little public awareness of the  story of decline in our Seas.  Only “End of the Line” a  documentary on fishery collapse that shown the urgency.  TV and our national newspapers were virtually silent on the issue.  The sea was seen as a infinite resource to exploit for jobs rather than a living ecosystem with extraordinary relationships between species which was unravelling before our eyes. It needed safe places and time to restore.

The institutions set up to manage the seas for the public good were failing us due in part to powerful commercial lobbies. Some believed this was a case of regulatory capture. Eminent marine scientists warned that we were already fishing the bottom of the food chain with only scallops and prawns left. These species are the equivalent of insects on land. We had been unravelling the delicate interconnectedness of species within the sea for decades. MPAs were an insurance policy against the worst case scenario.  Adding resilience. A chance. 

Shifting Baselines: What We Accept as ‘Normal’

What is ‘normal’  today,  would have been considered by our ancestors as a sea empty of fish and half dead. The great shoals of herring, cod, and other white fish are long gone. The whales and basking sharks which they were so familiar with are now infrequent sitings.  Pods of Orca are infertile from toxic pollutants. Plastic chokes sea mammals and is ingested by small creatures too. The Seas are warming. In the past fleets of small boats fishing for white fish and herring had supported the local economy and way of life locally.  Everyone had seafood suppers. Fish was plentiful. It was thought the bountiful sea had an infinite supply.

See John McIntyre’s Blog: Shifting Baselines – Sea Change Wester Ross


One by one the fin-fish fisheries had collapsed.  The only commercial fisheries left on the west coast were species at the bottom of the food chain. 

The Network of Marine Protected Areas offered a historic opportunity to reverse the decline which had been accelerated by the lifting of the 3 Mile Limit. This opened our inshore areas  – which were also nursery and spawning grounds – to the mobile gear sector which dragged metal across the sea bed. Try that on your garden flowers and plants.

Sea Change’s primary focus was to ban these destructive fishing methods which destroyed habitats. We wanted recovery.  This recovery underpins our prosperity.

Storytelling and the ‘Alternative Economy’

Our task was to gather the data from the many economic sectors within Wester Ross to provide a complete overview of the cost of destructive fishing practices and mismanagement of the seas to the economy rather than be seduced by the short term attractions of profits and job. This cycle was a spiral to destruction. We needed to set this against the socio-economic benefits of an alternative economy based on recovering the sea. As well as an alternative way of thinking.

We were lucky. We needed to work with the best hard evidence we could find and Marine Scotland had already done that. They had just buried the results. 

A highly respected economist called Alan Radford had produced an exciting paper with Geoff Riddlington, called Management of The Scottish Inshore Fisheries; Assessing the Options for Change. It had shown the economic benefits of the  3 mile limit in the Clyde were a no brainer. But ironically this evidence was pushed of the list of ‘Options’ itself as being at that time politically impossible. It provided good evidence for change but we felt that the picture in the North West was too sketchy and not fleshed out in full technicolour – and we knew what was missing. The evidence for change was more robust than it supposed. With the help of our creel fishing friends we invited Alan to work with us. He came up and stayed in Achiltibuie, presenting the case he had made in his research for the 3 Mile Limit to  the group. 

Locals remembered the seas before the 3 Mile Limit was lifted, but no one had told the whole story locally.

Members of the group (a scientist, ex journalist-film maker and a creel fishermen) worked with Alan and Geoff to produce our first socio-economic report on the benefits of ecosystem protection – this was achieved with the support of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation. John McIntyre a local scientist plotted months of fisheries data and through a combination of his extraordinary dedication to data crunching, a few journalistic skills and huge amounts of information gathering from all the sectors involved,  Alan and Geoff produced a picture of the economic importance of the seabed in the North West. Tourism emerged clearly as the key industry to benefit alongside creel and dive fisheries and anglers. The potential of Nature, Sea angling and marine tourism and the opportunities for sustainable fishing the MPA could deliver were clear.  As well as the benefits of an economy built around sustainable business rather than the politically expediency and short term exploitation.

 Storytelling is key.

Our Socio-economic report told the story of an ecosystem as well as a whole community,  based on local evidence and knowledge.  For the first time we could assess the cumulative impact of bottom towed mobile gear on a specific area and the sustainable fisheries it had displacing. It hinted at future possibilities and other businesses which did not yet exist as the marine environment was too poor for them. 

Light-bulb clarity

This report combined with our petition demonstrated the case for an alternative, diverse and truly sustainable economy.  It helped us advocate but it also helped open our imaginations and hopefully the Government’s to new possibilities. A different approach which meant that we could challenge the dichotomy which said you had to choose between people and planet or profits. We felt we had replaced this with evidence that could motivate decision making which showed benefits for people, planet and profit could all aligned.  For some of us this also meant being a voice for the sea and the species within it. The silent victims in all this.

Working Together to Build a Dialogue with Government 

This multi-sector approach fostered the sharing of knowledge amongst local stakeholders in different sectors around the Marine Protected Area. Our aim was to build a collective voice to expand awareness of the local situation amongst officials within  Government agencies.

We hoped new idea could feed into better management for the Marine Protected Area.  Our hope was and is, to create a model for what is possible.

Complaining about Marine Compliance and Dredge Incursions

Next we met with Marine Scotland’s Compliance Unit in the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool to complain about their inaction when dredgers broke the voluntary agreements in place during the debate. We stressed just one incursion could damage maerl for decades.

Gear Conflict & “Prawn Wars”

Prawn fishermen’s lives had been enmeshed in gear conflict since the 3 mile limit and beyond.  Bullying was endemic. The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation was speaking out about the loss of gear and bullying. Scientists were too. They became strong allies.

Working with the low impact, sustainable fishermen

Sea Change worked with the leader of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, Alistair Sinclair, who worked tirelessly to persuade nervous politicians to be brave, he supplied evidence to anyone who would listen that the MPA network was of great benefit to coastal communities and west coast fishermen. After all full protection would allow the rest of the seas to be re-seeded by the MPA network and “fishing the line” could help the mobile sector too.  

Community groups such as COAST of Arran and David Ainsley were also key sources of help and inspiration. They were well seasoned and had run successful local campaigns.   S.I.F.T. also offered sources for evidence.   COAST had been invited to visit Achiltibuie to help us form a group to oppose scallop dredging in 2011, but it took the threat of an MPA with  dredgers dragging metal bars across fragile maerl beds within it to finally focus minds.

Securing Wester Ross MPAs ‘Umbrella’ protection. 

Preceding the creation of the Scottish Marine Protected Area network, Sea Change had begun by helping to advocate for the designation of the proposed Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Wester Ross which was then known as the Summer Isles and Northern Sea Lochs MPA.

Once the MPAs designation was confirmed, Sea Change set out to secure umbrella protection for the whole ecosystem. The Governments proposal for ‘paper parks’ were bureaucratic approaches to Nature – seeing species as separate – rather than part of an entangled web. They lacked ambition and joined up thinking. For example herring is a key stone species in Wester Ross. This means it is plays a central role in the food web and the health of the whole ecosystem depends upon it. Herring appears to like to spawn on maerl beds – especially in the southern parts.  Herring is not protected in Wester Ross despite its role in the recovery of the whole self sustaining ecological web because in other parts of the UK it is not endangered.  Yet here in Wester Ross it is critical to the whole.

Regulatory Capture 

Allowing trawlers and dredgers to operate  within a marine protected area where many habitats provided nursery areas for juvenile herring and other fin fish species made no scientific sense. It was a political decision resulting from the disproportionate influence of the bottom dragging mobile gear sector on Government agencies.  This situation was cheating sustainable low impact fishermen and the public from the future benefits of recovery. 

The stakes were high. Divers talked of wastelands being created by dredging. Trawling was responsible for undermining the recovery of fish that live close to the seabed as well as destroying habitat and the way ocean floors trap gases. -They caught what is known as by-catch as well as their target species. Salmon farms were adding pollution, chemicals and creating unbalanced nutrient levels, whilst adding to the demise of wild fish. Many other factors were compounding the problem.

The story of the day which led to the closure to dredgers.

Sea Change had worked to set up a community ‘neighbourhood watch scheme’ to observe the areas of sea which had been closed by voluntary agreement during the consultation process for the MPA.  Scallop divers were the best alert system if dredgers were around but this also occasionally meant going out on boats to observe suspicious activity, or defend the ‘island patches’ which were closed by voluntary agreement. Wester Ross seemed to be targeted with sometimes 2-3 dredgers coming in to the MPA at once. These sent alarm bells ringing along the Coigach coastline.

Suspected violations were occurring with increasing frequency.  One almost certain violation took place but despite eye witness accounts whilst it was reported,  our evidence was insufficient. We needed organising to meet the legal standards for evidence which would stand up in court and provide proof.  The group met with Marine Scotland Compliance. They advised us what was necessary to collect the evidence. We shared this information widely and a kind of neighbourhood watch scheme set up along the coastline.

A violation in plain site

One day in August 2015 a violation took place in plain sight.  A scallop dredger blatantly violated the voluntary agreement in an area closed to protect maerl, a fragile pink seaweed which is more like a coral.  The community was ready.  The news spread like wildfire and many photographs were taken.

A local scallop diver, Ali Hughson was quickly alerted and taken to the site by one of the creel fishermen (one of the original members of Sea Change who had started our local petition). He dived with a camera. His footage clearly showed where the dredges had scrapped along the seabed.

Violation of the Voluntary Exclusion Zones

The Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead reviewed the photographic evidence supplied by the scallop diver and backed up by photographs taken by members of the community. He agreed a violation of the voluntary exclusion zone by a dredger had indeed taken place.

The Cabinet held a meeting in Ullapool where he was questioned directly on his intentions to close the MPA. He said if the evidence stood up he would do it. The Minister was true to his word and imposed a total ban shortly after. From August 2015 even though the MPA was not legally ratified by Parliament yet, recovery had begun.

It had been a long and exhausting campaign, yet we had finally been instrumental in securing a ban which would allow the whole of Wester Ross Marine Protected Area to recover. This was a significant amendment to the original  Management Orders proposed for the MPA which had allowed dredgers to continue operating within the National Marine Park.

We were overjoyed. Many others, both local and national too numerous to mention helped us achieve this ban.  The MPA now joins up with areas of sea to the south of the MPA in Gairloch which are also closed, providing hope and a turning point.

A REAL National Marine Park

 Now, Wester Ross MPA is a real national marine park – despite some areas still open to trawlers. The protected area is just under 600 square kilometers of sea and is one of the largest inshore MPAs within the network.  It has ‘umbrella’ protection for the wider ecosystem and has started its long process of recovery.

A nail biting Rural Affairs, Climate Change & Environment (RACCE) Committee hearing

Shortly after the ban was imposed, the MPA closures in South Arran and Wester Ross were contested by the Clyde Fishermen’s Association. This wrecking motion triggered an enquiry by the RACCE Committee. It could have unravelled all our hard efforts.  It was a nail biting time for us all.  Alistair Sinclair of SCFF and Ali Hughson the local scallop diver who had secured the evidence,  defended the decision and evidence robustly at the committee meeting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-so1YRCvX4    – 46.44mins in evidence given at the Scottish Parliament by Alistair Sinclair and Ali Hughson.

Sea Change members protested outside the RACCE hearing with other community groups amidst orange smoke and egg throwing from the mobile sector.  The Committee decided the ban must stand.


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.

New Threats

Since achieving the dredge ban we have reluctantly been forced to work to protect the MPA’s precious recovery from the expansion of industrial scale salmon farms.

The section on our current work tells the story of Sea Change since the ban. However suffice it to say we have protected our precious area with the same passion which fuelled the movement to ban dredgers. Sea Change has built on its evidence base by supplying surveys as well another socio-economic report working with Alan Radford and Geoff Riddlington again to supply evidence to oppose expansion within the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area.  

The recent Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s Report on the urgent need for reform in open cage salmon farming was accepted by the Scottish Parliament. The report questioned the way Norwegian multinational salmon farmers had exploited Scotland’s pristine seas whilst often polluting those same seas and urged reform.   We believe our position, now endorsed by Parliament is vindicated. Reform of open cage salmon farms is urgent.