The Blue Hope Alliance – Eyes Under Water in the North West

This story-blog is a celebration of seven years of discovery: an exploration of the beauty of the underwater world, as well as the first signs of recovery as parts of the marine protected area in Wester Ross begin to restore. Sadly our surveys also include the discovery of damage to this recovery too. For we also focus on threats to it,  as this becomes more visible to our eyes underwater.

Our citizen science surveys reflect our hopes and concerns, as we explore the ups and downs of life below the waves. Our ‘eyes under water’ have fed into consultation responses and have been used to advocate for better management.  Sea Change and many other groups from fishermen to divers and wild fish lobby and anglers within our expanding alliance work hard to help restore the whole web-of-life, according to our individual interests.

For we are an alliance of groups with different remits, sharing a common interest in underwater surveys.

Blue Hope Alliance

Below is a photo compilation of survey highlights produced by our ever growing network. This blog is a way to thank all those who have supported our alliance as well as a chance to take stock of our collective achievements. As Stevie Wonder says “It’s the team that makes the dream.”

We are delighted to announce that we have just been given funding to secure a Blue Hope Alliance  project officer and data analyst. We will be reporting more as we make progress.


2020 LOCKDOWN has not been a great time for surveys. However we did manage a few: most importantly we celebrated Andy Jackson’s life and talent as a diver and cameraman with a survey in Loch Carron – a dive site that was special to him. His love for the area is shared by many other divers too as well as fishermen.  Those that took part were volunteer marine scientists, divers and fishermen, as well as Sea Change.

Our focus on this memorial survey was to honour Andy’s contribution to Wester Ross and the whole of the north west where he loved to dive. In the early days soon after Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA) was created, Andy helped Sea Change and the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation document the MPA underwater. This helped Sea Change lobby for better management using his footage in films and as scientific evidence. This was used to appeal to the Ministers and parliamentary committees, as well as  share it widely in communities along the coastline.

Our films have helped bring awareness to how a healthy marine ecosystem underpins the wellbeing of us all.  Andy and SubSeaTV helped build the foundations of this survey alliance, working with us to build a record of the condition of species in early stages of recovery.   The Loch Carron survey is an ongoing study which we’ve named  The Andy Jackson Memorial Survey. Our first task was mapping the maerl bed in the Marine Protected Area. (more info and pictures are below).


Lockdown was a time to take stock and get all our survey footage backed up and stored safely. Thanks to a grant from the Community Marine Monitoring Equipment Fund supported by the William Grant Foundation, we were able to buy an extra-large external drive to achieve that.  Logged below is a glimpse of some of the surveys being stored on this drive in high quality video and photos.

As a growing web of people and groups collaborating to survey in the north west, The Blue Hope Alliance is collecting together all our survey video footage to create a pool of underwater footage stored on our hard drive for non commercial community use. We hope this will become a valuable asset for future generations.  Scientists, fishermen, school children, artists and filmmakers will be able to be inspired by what the area was like, and glimpse the restoration process as it is recorded by citizen scientists.


Involving as many local people as possible in the collection of our citizen science data sets has helped us build greater custodianship together and inspire others. Surveys also supply evidence. Our information is, or will be, reported to official data bases as open source information, whilst the commercial rights are retained by the diver-cameramen themselves. However the community benefits from copies of the survey footage as a record to be used for non-commercial use such as local education, science projects or film or art with non commercial objectives  – hopefully helping document impacts of climate, fishing, farming, acidification, and ocean plastic over time.

The survey footage has already contributed to films and storytelling as well as science data, helping to build a picture of what is going on under the veil of water.  We have shown films and photos on social media or at local screenings which has encouraged many others to join the journey of discovery beneath the waves.   People protect what they love.  We share what we love in the hope others will also join us in making a stand for the sea, and speaking up to help us protect, restore and manage it better.

After Sea Change’s campaign in 2014-15,  working alongside the creel and dive fishermen to ban dredgers within Wester Ross Marine Protected Area had been successful – and the area was finally dredge free – our focus shifted to building a cross-sector citizen science survey alliance in the north west. Having eyes below the surface, has been vital to protect the recovery we worked so hard to achieve in the first place. From this early work we’ve connected with others who share our purpose and built the Blue Hope Alliance together, guided by the encouragement of Ali Hughson of SCFF.

Bobtail Squid. Photo by Mark Skea for the Andy Jackson Memorial Survey: Loch Carron maerl bed mapping September 2020″


We worked exceptionally hard to have a voice during the MPA network debates. Sea Change’s vision is to build community support for the MPA and encourage the full restoration of the ecosystem within it. From this restoration the community can build a more sustainable low impact economy to regenerate the area economically – without doing the harm jobs in the past have done.

Group meetings in 2015 and 2016 helped identify top survey priorities. Working with Glasgow University and the Glasgow Science Festival,  our aim was to produce a ‘baseline survey’ and build a comprehensive picture of the MPA’s species in order to monitor change going forward.  Ambitiously we wanted to make a full biota assessment to provide this baseline starting point by which to measure recovery of the state of the sea bed as well as improvements in biodiversity across the wider ecosystem.

David Bailey from Glasgow University prompted us to come up with a primary question that would underpin our survey quests. The question of whether MPAs led to recovery (once the practice of dragging metal across the sea bed stopped) seemed ludicrously obvious to us. However the question of whether and how fast the MPA would lead to the recovery of commercial fisheries which had been the target of previous exploitation was one that we felt would engage local  fishermen, anglers and the tourist sector.   We could focus on good indicator species as well as measure ecosystem change beyond the specific species with legal protection in the MPA.

The Priority Marine Features with official conservation protection now the MPA was created would be monitored by Govt. agencies – and Scallops and prawns would have landing data. We felt we could help build a much wider base of knowledge and expand beyond the Government agencies focus on a set of priority species – as well as satisfy our curiosity to discover what other weird and wonderful creatures existed below the veil of water.

But the devil fools with the best laid plans.


Chris Rickard Photo of Flapper Skate on maerl bed in channel between Fada and Tanera Beg. Transect no 3 Sept 2019

The group debated the options and chose to focus on commercial fisheries as well as charismatic species. Herring and maerl are both keystone species in the area. Herring had been the most important commercial fishery until it collapsed. Maerl was the most important spawning and nursery grounds for herring, scallops and fin fish and multiple other species. We wanted to monitor fin-fish restoration (haddock, cod and halibut) so Maerl’s relationship to fin-fish and scallops seemed a priority. We also chose Flapper Skate as the area was once world famous for its Skate Angling competition and had a Skate Ball – and these giant fish with wing spans like barn doors were also easily identifiable individuals which could attract school children’s interest.

The anglers within the group wanted Sea trout included which had once been a world class fishery, attracting anglers from across the world.  Then there was Seagrass (and sea horses) spiny lobsters, Nephrops, & Burrowed mud. And of course the much beleaguered Salmon, locally already in the extinction vortex. We were also curious about the impact trawlers had on the ecosystem especially flat bottom fish & hake, but this habitat was deep and would need an ROV. Something we eventually have succeeded in getting – with extra equipment supplied by the Community Marine Monitoring Equipment Fund who made it possible to purchase an 100m cable for our ROV and a proper video monitor.  That has expanded our potential a great deal as divers cannot go that deep.

There is always the unknown and undiscovered ….the extraordinary bizarre creatures we did not even know existed.  Some of these were revelations to us during our first surveys, although not to the scallop divers. This long armed crab decorated in seaweed seemed to dance in the underwater currents and fascinated us all. Of course these were familiar to scallop divers but a new form of delight to us. Their flowing dance is great set to music as we discovered in our films.

Images by Andy Jackson and Graham Saunders


Despite our long wish list, our  final shortlist was herring, maerl, scallops, skate and sea trout. Chosen to accommodate the cross-sector local interests within our alliance. Of course everyone including the tourists love whales, dolphins and porpoise, so they were not forgotten either.


A few months after designing our targets, things went pear shaped when our ambitious citizen science plans to work with Glasgow University and the science festival failed to get lottery funding. To our dismay two Norwegian Salmon Farm Multinationals targeted Wester Ross Marine Protected Area for expansion. Three large fish farms were proposed all with a footprint the size of 30 Rugby Pitches each. Right in the heart of the the Summer Isles where the most biodiverse habitats are – and near maerl beds.

Wester Ross is the largest maerl MPA in Scotland. Maerl is a keystone species  – equivalent to the Barrier Reef in its life-giving support for the whole web of life – underpinning many commercial fisheries too.  Especially scallops, herring, and crustaceans. Plus other fin fish species too.  All needing restoration.

Our priority changed overnight.

We were back working with the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation and local anglers in defence of the “umbrella ecosystem” recovery we had worked so hard to secure during the MPA campaign – as well as protecting the recovery of Priority Marine Features and commercial fisheries locally. Given the threats to salmon and sea trout were the focus of Wild Fishery groups,  and the burrowed mud where prawns live, ( threatened by fish farm chemicals) was the priority of  the local creel fishermen, we felt the gap we could fill was to focus on making a stand for the maerl habitats that underpinned the recovery of the whole ecosystem –  as well as the other ordinary seaweed habitats which had important nursery functions for other species in the area  – which these proposed salmon farms would harm.

Ordinary seabed and seaweed also serves a function in the whole web of life. Sea Change is for the truly sustainable use of the sea. We do not believe open cage salmon farms are compatible with that objective. They do not meet our definition  of sustainable which is considering the whole ecosystem and long term community benefit. We have done socio-economic assessments of the multiple impacts and greener alternatives which these farms displace and made that conclusion on what we consider the best evidence.


Sharing the footage which Andy Jackson of SubSeaTV filmed in 2016 during our SCFF-Sea Change surveys helped us show the extraordinary beauty under water which we hoped would encourage delight, wonder and respect.  We made 3 short birthday films  funded by Dundonnel Estate about Sea Change’s aims in the hope of generating greater community support and greater custodianship.

More survey films followed: see The Sea Change Channel on vimeo: our films & survey’s – Sea Change Wester Ross

Andy Jackson SubSea TV, A Goby hiding in Maerl,  Planet Rock 2016

Our first whole week long survey in 2016 was a fast learning curve,  but there was a real sense of shared purpose and joy in discovery.  For three days Ali Hughson (Keltic Sea Fare and Chairman of SCFF) took his Scallop fishing boat and fishermen away from supplying smart restaurants in London and the continent in order to work with Sea Change members and Andy Jackson of SubSea.TV to get footage of the areas threatened by these new salmon farms.  Other boat owners and skippers helped too but as a scallop diver Ali was crucial because he knew where the maerl beds were – Ali’s knowledge was absolutely vital to our success.  He was our eyes under water prior to Andy’s camera being able to document it and give the community a better idea of what they couldn’t see.

Andy captured all manner of microscopic life inside their twiggy homes at Planet Rock. With Ali’s help we officially discovered a new maerl bed – or a very much more extensive bed than had previously been known in the area. Maerl functions as a nursery and Andy showed this magnificently using his macro lens during our 2016 survey of maerl in the Summer Isles. In the nooks and crannies between the pink nobbly twiglets,  tiny fish and alien creatures with multiple legs hid  – as well as scallop spat, tiny crustaceans and shrimps…

SNH helped by getting much of this footage assessed by Heriot Watt and this fed in to SNH’s official report to the Minister on the Wester Ross MPA in 2019.  Ben at SNHs guidance back to us was really helpful – he politely flagged up the difference between film making about “charismatic species” and getting distracted by weird creatures and filming for good science records.

It was a fast learning curve for all of us and helped us decide on what our true priorities were –   from these surveys and Ben’s advice we developed really good survey protocols and discipline and produced a PDF guide for others to share widely.

See below.


This first week long exploration led to our focus on a more in-depth study on maerl and a more ambitious scale of study.  5 years later our first few years of data and the development of the protocols is in the final stages of being reported on.

The delay has been caused by lengthy conversations agonising over methodology as well as email debates ping-ponging between volunteer marine scientists and Sea Change about what citizen scientists, in the real world,  can actually cope with. After all getting the footage of random quadrats of  maerl on a 25m transect is hard enough coordinating.  But then the trouble really starts. How do you measure the percentage of maerl in the quadrat and standardise this so everyone would assess it the same way? Otherwise the data sets are meaningless. We discovered the counting varied with each person and that was not going to give accurate assessments.  For the hard work to be viable we needed to have REAL evidence that was reliable.


Once large waves of this coralline seaweed surrounded the west coast like pink crocheted blankets. In 2016 we had focused on long dive swim over surveys of the areas of maerl we felt were damaged or were good examples of intact maerl.

Over the next few years we set up 25m transects on four very different maerl beds within Wester Ross MPA. We have returned to these transects over the years to record their condition as a baseline as well as to see how the habitat changes.

We have also done spot checks and survey swims on other maerl beds to explore their condition. For example Ali Hughson (SCFF) and Andy Jackson returned in 2018 to document the maerl habitat near Horse Island which was threatened by the fish farm proposal as part of our week long survey.

In 2016 we’d documented the habitat directly under the proposed site which were creel grounds for crab and lobster fishermen – although we were unable to go into the deeper parts which were burrowed mud where prawns lived. We  noted the large numbers of seal colonies near the site. In the same week we documented the  area of sea bed surrounding the Tanera bay fish farm to see what it was like and what Horse Island could become if the salmon farm succeeded  – even if  quite different seabed.

In 2018 we found the maerl bed at Horse Island was around 250m from the site of the proposed fish farm.  Given waste from farms can travel large distances (up to 4km dependent upon currentsa) and  extra nutrient levels may add stress to maerl – this was way too close and we began to protest vigorously using this survey information.

The maerl bed above – is shown  in the film  Horse Island & The Pink Seaweed in more detail. This film explains some of the reasons we are protesting.

Horse Island maerl is one of the best maerl beds in the MPA that we have monitored – there are other beds but this is just our highlights.

For our objection to SEPA, Lewis Press one of the very generous volunteer scientists who began helping us in June 2018 (alongside Graham Saunders) did a species report based on Andy Jackson’s footage from our Horse island survey. Adding to it with North East Dive’s footage too from the same time as we had met them in Ullapool as Andy knew them. (see report at the end of this objection to SEPA in this link below – this holds records of species found)

Seachange Wester Ross_Objection-SSF CAR Licence_Horse Island

Horse Island location was first recommended by the Highland council as a move out of Tanera Bay and written into the Two Brooms Coastal Plan. This pre-dated the creation of the MPA and the conservation aims to restore maerl beds. The Two Brooms Coastal Plan was not a recommendation that Horse Island salmon farm was an ADDITION to the one in Tanera bay.

Jason Hall Spencers research working with SNH and SEPA stated clearly that salmon farms in maerl areas should not be moved on the basis that the damage done to maerl might take decades to recover,  if at all. Once damage had been done – it was best not to go damage another area which was the normal procedure of a fallowing system. This process was not appropriate in maerl areas, least of all Maerl MPAs.

HORSE ISLAND maerl bed June 2018


In June 2018 our week long survey was a combination of fun and intense hard work for the divers. They did the hard grind of citizen science transects and quadrat photography, rewarded by fun dives when they could photograph “charismatic” species and pockets of rich and diverse habitats. Even wrecks like the Fairweather covered with plumose anemone’s and lions mane jellyfish and fish. This is covered in more detail in the section on our biodiversity surveys.

Once again Ali Hughson (SCFF), Andy Jackson (SubSeaTV) worked together with Sea Change – this time joined by volunteer marine scientists Graham Saunders and Lewis Press adding real expertise. Tanera lent us a rib with an outboard motor and Ali Hughson supported with the Atlantia,  his scallop fishing boat with extra divers coming from his scallop dive team and seasearch divers from Inverness Sub Aqua club.  Robyn Dutton and Scott offered a days dive with Goldseeker too.



We decided to monitor the fragments of maerl left after dredgers had erased a maerl bed at Fox Point. According to local divers it had suffered from repeated dredging which had left scattered fragments and broken shells which we documented on Andy Jackson’s 2016 swim over.  Maerls recovery is painfully slow once damaged and so how fast this area recovered, and what species recolonised it first, would be of great interest. We monitored this site in June 2018, Sept 2018, March 2019, Sept 2019.  In Sept 2019 a highly excited seasearcher diver photographed a flapper skate at the site.


In contrast to Fox Point we also set up a transect in 2018 at the extensive and intact maerl bed which we had discovered in 2016 thanks to Ali Hughson’s knowledge of the area at Planet Rock. In 2016 Andy Jackson had done both a swim over, as well as dives focused on macro footage.  If the fish farm went ahead at Horse Island this bed was in the range of potential damage too, not so much from organic waste taken on the tidal currents which was a risk –  but by extra nutrients causing algae growth. With risks to maerl coming from acidification any extra stress is to our minds contrary to the  purpose of the legal conservation status of maerls “recovery”.

LATER IN THE YEAR we did a second week long survey in Sept 2018.  This time Owen Paisley the seasearch coordinator took over the leadership of the science surveying  with support from Lewis Press and Frank Melvin as a key video camera operator with high quality footage. We gathered divers from all over the UK to help. Everyone packed in to Reiff Beach cottage for the duration, including Andy Jackson.

It was a lot of fun.


This week was also the start of a study focused on the biodiversity in the Summer Isles which was the idea of Owen Paisley the Seasearch West coordinator. The idea  was to compare the biodiversity records fromd dive surveys done in August 1981 with dive surveys – at the same points of the chart and around the same time of year in 2018 and 2019 too. (actually just a bit later due to accommodation in August being very full in the Summer Isles)

Again Tanera Restoration lent us their boat to explore the Summer Isles with which was very kind. On one occasion in May 2019 they also even helped us support a Masters Student we’d agreed to help with accommodation and whatever local support was needed. She wanted to get data from our maerl transects about the fish that were on maerl beds. Josy’s dissertation will be posted in due course.And again when we needed to get evidence of illegal dredging in the Marine Protected Area.

A few of the divers most interested in maerl transects returned in March 2019 to do more  – and then again in Sept 2019 to continue both transects and biodiversity studies.


Later in 2019 after this alarming illegal dredge incident on a maerl bed in the summer isles – Andy Jackson, diving with George Brown revisited Planet Rock maerl site  –  they  found it colonised by flame shells and the maerl in clumps. See below. Ben James at SNH was notified.


The maerl bed in the channel at Fada and Tanera had first been visited in Sept 2018 as part of the 1981 Biodiversity Comparison Study that we had been begun working on as a collaboration with Seasearch West. During this time Owen Paisley the marine scientist and coordinator identified it as a good site for a transect because of the concern about its proximity to a fish farm and the growth of algae.

The concern was this algae growth ( caused by the extra nutrients in the water from the farm)  could smother the maerl which likes to have a lot of light and clear water.

This  third transect was set up in March 2019 by Frank Melvin, Owen Paisley and Lewis Press. In Sept 2018 and March 2019 it was a rather thick pink maerl bed but in Sept 2019 it was quite different – it seemed to have shifted and so the conclusion was it was a very dynamic and ‘mobile’ maerl bed.  Possibly in some trouble too.

We flagged the worrying signs of algae growth up to SNH with footage and photos. Our aim is to film the maerl at the back of Tanera too to see if this also has algae.

When this Fada- Tanera beg maerl channel was dived in  Sept 2019 we found the maerl bed had shifted and its condition was very different. But we were lucky to have the excitement of Chris Rickard filming a flapper skate on it shortly after the excitement of the flapper skate on the Fox point transect too.

Tanera restoration project very kindly lent us boats for both March and September surveys.


A fourth transect was set up in Sept 2019 in Loch Ewe on a maerl bed that seemed as if it was being smothered.  It had similar algae growth to the channel at Tanera beg and Fada in the Summer Isles. The likely suspect was again considered to be the fish farm in Loch Ewe which had moved around a lot over the years and had once been close to the spot being monitored.   Jason Hall Spencer the leading expert on maerl saw the pictures below and said it showed signs typical of salmon farm damage.  We suspect this in fact could be a mixture of salmon farm impacts and pollution from Poolewe.

Our network is the eyes underwater and without divers we’d not have been able to see this damage. We also flagged this up to Ben at  SNH.

Our transect monitoring in Loch Ewe began in Sept 2019. This was a year before the promised departure of the Mowi fish farm from Loch Ewe in Dec 2020.  During the decades of its existence – the farm had shifted around the loch. It had never passed its benthic test.  The link to the damage to maerl was not being made, only the wild fish concerns about salmon and sea trout were being heard – even though ironically these fish also benefit from healthy maerl as feeding grounds.

Mowi had identified Loch Ewe as candidate for relocation due to limited production capabilities dictated by the enclosed nature of the sea loch and the site’s proximity to sensitive wild salmonid habitats. Mowi announced closure of Loch Ewe farm in July 2019.


Sea trout in Loch Maree had completely collapsed during this time and salmon was also very depleted and in the extinction vortex. We believe it was not only wild salmon and sea trout that this farm had done great damage to, but the entire ecosystem. Of course the damage to salmon is not just farming. But equally the damage from open cage farms is not just to wild salmon and sea trout. Far less is known about the way they harm  these ancient and precious maerl beds which our survey us able to flag up, but we would like a full scale university study on this. Equally the chemical impacts on burrowed mud areas needs more enquiry.

The maerl seen in the photos above may have suffered smothering from the farms organic waste as well as the damage from algae growth encouraged by extra nutrients – adding perhaps to  pollution coming from Poolewe.

Proof is not possible after the horse has bolted as we did not have a ‘before’ record – but all the typical indicators of fish farm damage are there. Even if it is a combination of pollution from Poolewe too – common sense would suggest this is the case.


The final harvest of organic salmon from the farm was sold at market in early November 2020.  With the farm now empty, Mowi said they would relinquish the site lease with the Crown Estate.


We would like to continue to document this transect to see if it recovers and look at the seabed under MOWI’s former farm to see how this recovers too.  If we had capacity it would be good to look at other maerl beds in Loch Ewe too.

We also hope to fully map the area of Planet Rock and Horse Island mearl beds so we can measure their full extent and document their current state of health.

A film will be made by Frank Melvin and Sara Nason of the Loch Ewe dive supported by a local fishermen, Jamie Elder who supplied his dive and safari boat STRIKER.


In May 2021 with the help of the same local fisherman and Sea safari operator (Jamie Elder) with his boat,  we returned to the same 25m transect area in Loch Ewe.

This time with an ROV operated by a diver and surveyor. These photos are a glimpse of the survey video showing that the algae growth was still considerable in May. However the smothering we saw by the grey muddy-dusty substance looked improved. Whether this is the time of year or the removal of the farm, it is hard to say. More surveys with divers going back to the exact transect need to be done to follow up on this question.


Our surveys have generated a concern about the impact of nutrients and fish farms.  But that the condition of maerl in the MPA also may be impacted by warming seas as well as its ‘evil twin’ –  acidification which is caused by higher levels of CO2 in the sea.  We want  maerl to have  the best chance of survival and to be resilient when faced by these twin pressures. We do not think extra nutrient enrichment from additional farms is wise given it will add to the stressors that acidification,  open cage fish farms and warming seas may already be causing.  The precautionary principle has rarely been employed – the indicator that this is true is simply deduced from the emergency we are facing as a result of biodiversity loss and global warming.

We hope our camera dive surveys will be helpful in years to come in understanding how resilient maerl is to acidification. These precious habitats must get the chance to recover. Sea Change and SCFF are protesting about the extra risks salmon farms pose because of this issue as well as chemical impacts on commercial fishing – but there are multiple other reasons that are just as valid for making high density open cage salmon farming a thing of the past. We want joined up thinking – and an evolution in our behaviour fast. Some scientists say we have just a decade to change or it will be too late. We hope  we might meet that challenge.



Back in 2016 our plan was to train survey leaders of the future and build a self-sustaining community-led survey to map and monitor the ecosystem’s recovery. We wanted to record a baseline for the whole MPA. (Particularly for herring and maerl)

We were naively ambitious about what could be achieved by community volunteers, divers and fishermen. The task is huge and overwhelming, but after a fast learning curve about survey protocols we realised that our maerl data was the most invaluable contribution we could make  – given maerl is the most fragile and threatened keystone species under legal protection. Important for Scotland and Europe, indeed the world. Plus Wester Ross MPA has the lions share of it.

Continuous threats from illegal dredgers making opportunistic visits at night and under the cover of darkness – as well as the fish farm proposals at Horse Island keep Maerl at the top of our list of concerns. We hope to attract University studies to help us expand upon this base.

Tragically for maerl – and for two completely different reasons – maerl habitats are targeted by both scallop dredgers and fish farms.


With the initial help of Ben James at SNH, and marine scientists Lewis Press and Graham Saunders,  we set up our survey protocols for gathering data on the 25m maerl transects with random quadrats.

Later in 2018 and 2019 Owen Paisley Seasearch West coordinator got involved and he and Lewis and indeed Frank Melvin too took on the task of helping document the maerl quadrats.

Next we needed to report the data. In 2021 after lengthy debates, and lots of hard work Lewis Press and Owen Paisley consulted Professor Jason Hall Spencer on whether our citizen science PROTOCOLS for collecting data and reporting it were sensible. Jason thought they were, which was great news.

We need a methodology that is standardised, idiot proof and repeatable given measuring the percentage of mearl in a quadrat can lead to varying results depending on who does the counting. We needed this counting to be done by community members and not rely upon volunteer scientists.  So this is vital to having results which are meaningful, reliable as well as checkable. A series of zooms, chats and emails over the years has evolved and refined these protocols. We hope our report will be made soon.

Ideas have been explored such as using computers to enhance the image so that the pink maerl turns red and is easier to count – this was Graham Saunders preferred method which does not work for people with red-green colour blindness but can help!

He also recommended  having a camera attached to a fixed quadrat to ensure the camera was always in the same position when taking the photo and not at an angle….The photographic records would be the key records but it was also considered that assessments were made by divers during the dive as photographs can often have seaweed obscuring patches of the quadrant. No method was perfect as this too relied upon expertise and repeatable judgements. We are sure this will refine over the years but it has been important to get right.

One thing we learnt for sure was putting in one road pin to mark the start of a transect  in a very dynamic site is not as good as making a tripod out of 3 road pins to mark the GPS start and end point of the transects. There is much being learnt as we continue….Also marking them well so they can be found again is key.

Graham Saunders Marine Scientist photos

Whilst these debates have occupied much time,  we have focused on other priority marine features like flame shells too. As well as seasearch style habitat reporting.

Without funding or university involvement it has been a huge challenge. For volunteers to find the time to survey and report the science, as well as make films and blogs to share the findings to the community  – has meant delays in getting information out.   With support now from the Highlands and Islands Environment Fund and some private individuals we hope to deal with the backlog and build on  this work by employing a project officer. Nevertheless with support from a growing network of helpful people facilitating our efforts we’ve created a really good platform for this community network in the north west to build on for the future benefit of all.

Graham Saunders Marine Scientist photo of Andy Jackson


Local knowledge is often underestimated. We have found local divers, anglers and fishermen’s experience has been invaluable in building a more complete perspective of what is going on and why.  They say it takes a village to raise a child – we’d say the same with a survey. At its best it is a cross sector achievement with everyone working together.  There is knowledge from mechanics, harbour masters, skippers, air suppliers, cooks, accommodation providers. Then there are donations to be raised, equipment loaned or survey equipment made, and divers and scientists too.

The survey itself is often just the visible tip of the iceberg – below the surface there’s lots more work when it is based on volunteer time.  The key is it is a collective enterprise.

Scientific expertise and method underpins the success of it all –  but the separation between scientists from Govt. agency and universities and local people whose knowledge of the sea is more experiential had been the paradigm to date – with some notable exceptions.

Experts, Scientists or surveyors have parachuted in to areas in order to collect data which of course has enormous value to science and policy – however it can miss the opportunity that connecting to people living locally offers in the chance to build awareness outside of the science or academic sector. When scientists engage widely with the experience and knowledge of local people the experience is enhanced for all. We believe we have done our best to foster  this cross sector relationship,  because it helps ordinary people buy- in to looking after the environment we all share.

Empowering communities to get involved and learn experientially, builds a greater depth of knowledge whilst encouraging better choices and more care for the sea.  This leads to a fundamental shifts in attitude  –  for example less dumping of chemicals, nets or rubbish over board,  or on the beach or rivers is just one outcome. Picking up litter is another – There are countless more ways which demonstrate greater respect for other species and indeed our own survival, which  are by products of learning experientially –  with surveys. Not to mention the films.


Some of the core founding members of the Sea Change thinktank had been thinking  deeply about why our culture was facing a climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. With our culture so out of balance with Nature we felt it was revealing the rarely acknowledged darker side of our civilisation and that it was likely to be up to ordinary people in grassroots movements to work for the change needed to evolve the institutions of power – because they were so entrenched in the old paradigm.  The focus on short term profits and jobs, whilst the environment – or rather our thinking about the environment – is bottom of the list, seemed myopic to us.  Political decisions were seemingly made on the premise that the economy was separate to the environment. To destroy the environment for profit, without consideration for the   life support system we unravel at the same time, seems an irrational blind spot our culture has.

Back in 2014 we observed that all the separate sources of knowledge, both within sectors and between sectors, were tending to work in isolation from each other.  This reflected the dysfunctional way the ecosystem was perceived and managed – carved up in to separate agencies which barely communicated or shared knowledge. Yet the ecosystem itself was an entangled web which relied upon all the parts of the web functioning together.

We also noted that even within the environment sector,  groups were competing for resources rather than cooperating. The focus on brand building, public profile and fund raising – which are all important when in balance – had in some cases eclipsed the original aims and were being pursued as the priority over and above the urgent need to work together to reverse the crisis. We felt that some institutions and organisations had lost sight of their original purpose and had become part of the problem they were set up to solve.

To use the existing model to solve the problem seemed to make no sense if we were all floating around on the same planet facing the same crisis – but trying to solve it using the kind of thinking that had caused the problem in the first place. It seemed like the old paradigm required fresh thinking.

Many Sea Change members believed that a network of cooperation was key, a network which could allow for differing perspectives within a common framework. We were informed partly by traditional crofting values, combined with an understanding of quaker and indigenous decision making circles which focused on how wisdom comes from listening to multiple different perspectives, as well as experiential learning.  We wanted to honour personal vision and individual perspectives too. Many species in nature balance the individual needs with that of the collective. Maintaining this balance requires very real wisdom,  discernment and clear boundaries –  for not everyone is motivated by the same goals and careful navigation,  local insight and skill are needed. A learning curve for everyone.

A grassroot cross-sector network of volunteers addresses a gap – if built by people living within the community who are accountable to people in the community  –  avoiding a sense of purpose being disrupted by commercial or corporate ambition because for volunteers there is none. We wanted to stand for change on the basis of the evidence and the need for a new paradigm.  Making the focus the building of a network with a shared endeavour. In our first consultation response from 2014 we set out this objective –

* ConsultationResponse_ SEA CHANGE for Wester Ross MPA AND petition results copy

see also the annex references to the former Ullapool sea angling festivals. In Robinson, Laurie (1970) Sea Fishing in Scotland. Adam & Charles Black, London. 182pp. ISBN 0 7136 1073 5


Retired fishermen and anglers who knew what the historic baseline was like before the fishery collapses – and where the fish were when they still existed,  have been really helpful in gaining some kind of mapping of the MPA before fin-fish declines.

Some of the stories are captured on film such as the first prawn fisherman in the north west Fraser Muir and Ali Beag Macleod talking about the lifting of the 3 mile limit. Sadly a few we talked to even in the last 5 years have passed on now.

Working scallop divers have been particularly valuable as eyes underwater.  Anglers, local scientists, sailors, kayakers, ecologists, writers, artists, land and river owners and ordinary folk all add to the pool of knowledge. The collective talent in the group, and the multiple perspectives has massively enhanced our knowledge and capacity.   Like the parable of the 12 blind men describing an Elephant, the different perspectives on the sea as seen from fishermen, filmmakers, artists, academics, scientists, divers and anglers has created a diversity which is our strength.  Each sector can offer different resources and talents too. Together we have discovered new species, found new or expanded maerl beds, monitored existing ones and flagged up issues.  Whilst individual groups within the network have made their own stand for the MPAs recovery.

It has truly been a collective effort.


Our original survey alliance network organically evolved into a wider network focused around monitoring maerl and other priority marine features in a wider area. As others outside of the MPA area were also interested in saving their patches, it made sense to share knowledge and work together for the common cause.

The rise in citizen scientists is a testimony to a rising awareness of in coastal communities. New technology can take a good deal of the credit in making the watery world more visible – but in the north west we think Andy’s extraordinary footage supported by Ali Hughson’s knowledge really helped us jumpstart this interest locally by being able to share what was being found underwater to ordinary people.

Revealing the extraordinary beauty and strangeness of life beneath the waves to coastal communities within and beyond the Wester Ross MPA has stirred a fascination. Whilst Attenborough’s Blue Planet has astonished audiences on a global scale, SubSeaTV and Sea Change shared a vision for doing the same in Scottish waters at a local scale. We wanted to help show that Wester Ross, indeed the whole north west had pockets of beauty from which the future restoration could be seeded which could match Blue Planet in wonder – seeds of hope  – if we could get the public and policymakers on our side.  That is still the aim.

Science that goes into data bases and is invisible doesn’t impact ordinary folk. It may change policy, if politicians listen,  but economic or commercial lobby’s tend to dominate policy rather than science.  As a thinktank  Sea change has seen its role as focused on attitude change as much as science reporting.

It was Ali Hughson a local scallop diver who dived to get the evidence from the seabed, taken out by  a local creel fishermen –  This evidence led to the  closure of  the MPA,  after an illegal dredger came in. Sea Change members had set up a neighbourhood watch system to get the right photographic evidence from land too. Supported by many in the community and beyond who signed our petition.

We  believe we’ve collectively spearheaded the grassroots movement for change in the north west with our science and films on social media. In just 7 years there has been a remarkable change and this brings great hope.

The Coastal Community Network and SNH’s community monitoring project has been simultaneously galvanising citizen scientists. Like multiple stones thrown into water – we hope the ripple effect will continue until a critical mass leads to the the kind of change our planet needs.



Our north west citizen science survey alliance seemed to form organically in response to threats to the recovery of the MPA’s ecosystem. Groups with concern within the MPA started to communicate with groups outside the MPA or on its border when asked to share knowledge or help.  For example the Fishery Board to the North of the MPA had concerns over a proposed fish farm in Enard Bay which would have damaged fresh water pearl mussels – already on the brink of extinction in the north west.  The board covers areas like Loch Laxford, Handa Island and Kinlochbervie. We hope divers and groups in these areas might join us in documenting these waters more beyond wild fish interests.

An expanded network began to form out of the old core network combining fishermen-community-diver-and anglers to share resources and help each other out. This  was dubbed by one of our members The Blue Hope Alliance. The name stuck.

We will be creating a web page dedicated to The Blue Hope Alliance with a list of members and supporters soon: these are SCFF & (local employer keltic Seafare), Sea Change, NMSA, WRASFB, North & West District Salmon Fishery Board and Fisheries Trust, SubSeaTV,  Plastics@Bay and Seasearch divers from Inverness Sub Aqua Club.  Not to forget our wonderfully supportive volunteer marine scientists (Lewis Press & Graham Saunders)  Plus seasearch divers from all over Scotland including Seasearch West’s Owen Paisley. Many others have supported too – and our gratitude goes to them too.

Some groups prefer to focus on science without engaging  politically, or keeping to more popular causes – there is wisdom in that approach, even if it is not ours. Both can co-exist and The Blue Hope Alliance is inclusive of both approaches.  Whilst we believe it is critical to allow those who want to speak up on the evidence to do so – for the crisis is so urgent to solve – it should not rule out collaboration over data collection. Groups can still share knowledge and resources, whilst allowing each member within the alliance the freedom to politically engaged around their particular core remits.


See early SNH Survey finds – rich marine life in Wester Ross

After our successful week long survey in 2016 focused on maerl and reported above – we followed it up in 2017 by hosting two survey weeks with seasearch divers from ISAC. Mostly these ended up being just a few days working as the divers from the Inverness Sub Aqua Club were mostly around during  the weekend. These were in April and then again in June. Given there were  3 fish farm proposals at the time, in April we were joined by Bill the chairman of Wester Ross Area Salmon Board who helped us explore areas where there were salmon farms proposed – such as the east side of Tanera and further around the side of  Tanera.  The chart of the June survey is below. One of the divers did an exploratory dive in Little Loch Broom too.

Sea Change Sea Search Surveys 2017 – Sea Change Wester Ross actual report here: Wester-Ross-2017.pdf

In 2016 Andy had dived in Tanera bay close to the fish farm to explore the damage done to the seabed by the farm. In doing so Andy discovered an unusual anemone which was very abundant and quite alien looking.

In 2017 this  siting was properly confirmed as Anthopleura Ballii and more thoroughly documented by George Brown.


George also found the bejewelled and beautiful miniature Placida denditrica in the area of Tanera bay on some sea lettuce.

George Brown’s Photos

The 2017 Seasearch- Sea Change report is here:

2017 Seasearch-SeaChange surveys

When our surveys began in 2015 we just had a go-pro camera on the end of a fishing rod, cast from a moving boat. Dragging the camera fast across the seabed – or just above it. This led to swirling pictures which were challenging to identify small species from. We thought we found a blue mussel reef and sea pens underwater below the Reiff cliffs. But the camera got stuck in rocks or seaweed – or a mermaid or the Blue Men of the Minch got it. Whatever the case it never returned. We were left wondering…

In June 2018 we returned  to the site only to discover the blue mussel reef was a bed of cobbles and our sea pens were hydroids. Both identified by Graham Saunders. However our curiosity was rewarded by the extraordinary richness of the habitat – there were herringbone hydroids and lightbulb squirts, feather stars and all manner of species which  Graham Saunders (marine scientist) Lewis Press and Andy Jackson recorded in a fantastic photographic and video record – also made into a film.

Graham Saunders Marine Scientist photos

Graham Saunders Marine Scientist photos

 This  survey with Andy Jackson of SubSea TV, SCFF’s Ali Hughson,  Graham Saunders, Lewis Press and Sea search divers from ISAC was also supported by boats from Tanera and Goldseeker. See the film  of the June 2018 survey.

An Underwater Ecosystem & ‘Flowers of the Sea Forest on Vimeo

See more on the June Survey here: PHOTOS of it An Underwater Eden – Sea Change Wester Ross

During this same June 2018 survey, Lewis Press, Andy and Graham also went to some of the smaller Summer islands to film sea hares mating and documented an unusual abundance and variety of sea cucumbers as well as a mass of feather stars covering rocks like fluffy carpets. A glimpse is below.

Graham Saunders Marine Scientist photos


During the same survey week in June 2018,  Ali Hughson took Andy Jackson to Horse Island to video the maerl bed which is reported above. In 2020 Lewis Press very kindly reviewed this Horse island dive and reported on the diversity of species recorded in the maerl. This report is included at the end of this document s Seachange Wester Ross_Objection-SSF CAR Licence_Horse Island


In September 2018 we began working with Owen Paisley on returning to the sites recorded in a former survey during 1981. This was an early biodiversity survey done by the group that preceded seasearch as an organisation.   We had 8-9 divers with a target of  40 sites to compare that had been dived in 1981.

Many of the points in the chart included maerl. We set out to compare these points as they were in  2018 and 2019. In doing so we realised that the 1981 team had more scientists with more identification skills, and the exact spots were not documented precisely enough to work as a proper comparison to work out ecosystem change – but it was still very valuable to use these sites as a guide to biodiverse areas in the past.

Sadly we missed documenting the maerl bed at the back of Tanera by being too close in to shore where the maerl was white and dead. So we did not verify the condition of the live maerl. But we did not find maerl to the east of Tanera where divers had remembered it.

We want to go back to check the condition of the live maerl given this area is in the flow of the fish farm at Fada. We also scouted about for oyster beds in places they had been previously reported like Dorney and beside Isle Ristol. No luck.

2018 Survey Sea Change, Sea Search survey comparison study of 1981 survey with 2018.  Map of 1981 sites below.

On windy days the divers went to Loch Broom and dived the flame shell site – confirming for the first time that there were Horse Mussels still in the area of the flame shell bed. The SNH surveys had not  confirmed these from previous records in their more recent surveys documenting the flame shell site, although there were previous records so it was good to confirm this. We also went in search for native oysters and dived at Ardmair and Ristol.  Films are in the pipe line.


Owen Paisley is still writing the Sea Change – Seasearch report from the dives done in 2018-2019. Both comparing the 1981 dives with those in 2018-2019 as well as the maerl data in Wester Ross MPA. We hope our project officer might take this task on.

Further links to blogs on this survey  are here: Tanera & The Summer Isles survey by Seasearch & Sea Change – Sea Change Wester Ross

Ring of Bright Seaweed – Sea Change Wester Ross


Of note during the 2018 and 2019 surveys was the numbers of small fish around the shallows of the Summer Isles – the divers considered this a sign of the Marine Protected Areas recovery.

An unusual arctic sea cucumber was found in the shallows by Owen in September 2018. During this survey Frank Melvin joined us with Rob Spray and Steve and Caroline from Bingley club.


in SEPTEMBER 2019 whilst doing a survey at fox point transect one of the  divers spotted a flapper skate.  Later a flapper skate was also spotted on maerl in the Fada – Tanera Beg channel. The speculation was these were good feeding grounds. The latter was photographed by Chris Rickard,  both were reported to

Frank Melvin produced a very rough film of Chris on one dive in the Summer Isles along with other footage – this is very much work in progress.


BACK IN 2016 John McIntyre designed an amazing drop down Go-Pro camera on a pole to explore from kayaks. This has  been useful to test places before “wasting” divers air and energy on them. However in  2019  we were  lucky enough to be given a SOFAR ROV from the National Geographic – again thanks to the Community Marine Monitoring Equipment Fund we were able to purchase the 100m cable, a handheld monitor and a protective suitcase and import these to the UK.


Before the covid lockdown – 2019 was an eventful year as an illegal dredger dragging its scallop bags across the seabed in a fragmented maerl bed near the Black Isle in the Summer Isles.  We launched a survey with Open Seas and SCFF as local fishermen had reported this. This was reported on Channel 4 News.The illegal industrial fishing damaging Scotland’s ‘Great Barrier Reef’ – Channel 4 News


Along with Ali Hughson of SCFF, Andy Jackson was part of our very first survey partnership and our key camera supporter in the early days. His storytelling talent was amazing and subsequently the impact of the footage he documented locally was too –  without him our survey films would not have had the impact as the quality of his pictures was so high.


In March 2018 Ali Hughson’s scallop divers found herring spawning on maerl in Gairloch. In  March 2019 Andy returned to document the herring shoals come into the shallows to spawn. He worked with George Brown again as his buddy. The footage was on Blue Planet UK and was sensational.

In October 2019 Andy died unexpectedly from a heart attack. We were shocked and missed him a great deal. We made a memorial film in his memory to honour his enormous talent and generosity. In memory of Andy Jackson on Vimeo

At his funeral his family gathered money for a cause Andy would want to support. Sea Change ended up being given these precious funds. We also raised money separately for an Andy Jackson Memorial Prize we hope to work with his wife on organising. When discussing what to do with the funds, it was an unanimous decision that we would work with a whole group of Andy’s dive friends to survey Loch Carron which was one of his most beloved dive sites. This was partly due to the bobtail squid he filmed there during the late summer and he’d been staying  at Sue Scotts house at Loch carron with his wife Jackie only weeks before.

Andy had also helped get evidence from the sea bed to close Loch carron to scallop dredgers which triggered the setting up of an emergency MPA. After a dredger had legally ploughed through what was later discovered to be the largest flame shell bed in the world, Andy, George Brown and Chris Rickard dived to record the damage. Sue Scott launched a petition to ban dredgers, which was followed by a nationwide campaign for the MPA.

The Minister also set up the Priority Marine Feature Review….to look at other areas to protect. Given this whole back story it made most sense, to survey loch carron. Particularly because a fish farm had been built near the boundary line of the MPA and its footprint overlapped i. We  decided to map the mearl bed and monitor it for change over time.

Bally Philp supplied his fishing boat and his brother dived too to keep things within household bubbles. Graham Saunders, Sue Scott and Lewis Press designed the survey. Sea Change provided the funding for the equipment and picnic.

Andy Jackson Memorial Survey: Loch Carron maerl bed mapping September 2020″

This survey funded by the money Andy’s family and friends raised at his funeral did cover a LOT of chocolate biscuits  – meat pies and some champagne to toast Andy but a great deal was achieved and the weather was superb almost as if the heavens were in alignment with our project. As the sun set a short statement was read out which was written by Jackie (Andy’s wife ) and everyone scattered rose petals on the water as it turned gold and toasted him. We said  bon voyage to our dear friend. An underwater wall is named “Andy’s Wall” now. A very great loss to us all.


Franks Melvins footage captures the day. Even Andy’s  Bobtail squid turned up to say hallo.  Eventually it will be a lovely film tribute  – not just to Andy but to the wider movement he was such a big part of.  Password “Carron”. Mark Skea and his buddy also took some great seasearch style photos of species near to Andy’s Wall.

A diagram of the maerl bed we mapped was produced by Graham Saunders who took the transect photos. Graham reported the new dimensions of the Maerl bed to Nature Scot who requested an ESRI Shapefile layer version. He calculated the survey station GPS positions and then consolidated and tabulated all of the data records (in the data package )

The transect & quadrats will give a good estimate of the proportion of live to dead maerl but a coarse visual estimate was also part of the GPS swim recording, too. We hope to repeat this annually.


1. The transition area where there is mixed maerl and flame shell (Limaria) nest material, might be worth investigating. i.e the start of the zone where maerl is no longer present and has given way to flame shell bed. We wonder whether the flame shell nest formation is aggressive enough to overgrow the maerl margins, so an accurate idea of the current interacting area might be useful as a recurring small monitoring project.

2- NE Flame shell bed margin: SNH think that most of the northern edge of the flame shell bed, east of the slipway has not been fully mapped, so any new data would be good. The estimated NE and E edge of the bed was instrumental in defining the MPA boundary, but may not be completely accurate (and may also be moving). The northern edge may be quite shallow, but deepening considerably eastwards, so that any diving needs to take this into account, together with the current and fish farm moorings etc.

3- There is also some suspicion that a local queenie dredge operation might inadvertently be straying into the bed, so observations of bed damage would be useful.

4- Horse mussel (Modiolus) beds: horse mussels technically form a “bed” if they are assessed as being “Common” on the SACFOR scale, i.e between 1-9 live individuals per metre squared. HOWEVER, most surveyors would not assign bed status to the lower density, so upwards of 8 or 9 per metre squared is more realistic. Colin Moore confirmed that the current thinking is that Modiolus is a poor competitor against flame shell bed establishment and former horse mussel beds may be losing out to flame shells. So a task could be to visit the locations that are recorded as having Modiolus beds to confirm if they are just scattered live individuals, or have disappeared completely. As horse mussels will often die leaving both shells intact it is important to make sure that observations record actual live individuals, either by directly observing the fleshy mantle poking out between the valves or by poking the shells to see whether they are empty.

5 Serpulids:The interest in this species (Serpula vermicularis), which is relatively common in Scotland and around other parts of the world, is focused on the very rare occasions when they form large coral-like aggregations, creating a habitat in itself. Only six instances of this have been reported around the world; one in a lagoon in italy two in Ireland and three in Scotland. Of all of these, possibly only one still survives as definite reef structures – Loch Creran – although these have been rapidly declining over recent years (the subject of SNH/HWU monitoring and a film project that Andy and Graham Saunders undertook in 2018. The ones that may be present in Loch Carron will probably be small developing colonies which might form reefs over time if the conditions allow, so it’s worth investigating whether they are clumping together to form aggregations. Serpulid aggregations are sensitive to excessive particulate deposition (poorly located fish farms destroyed large areas of reef in Loch Creran many years ago), but vast increases in feed efficiency and much tighter controls on depth and flow regimes when granting farm licences would reduce the risk considerably. This is worth checking.

LOCH GAIRLOCH – Spring 2021 

We had  heard reports of herring spawning near loch Torridan and pictures of a herring with spawn on the fishing boat which works out of Shieldaig. “We have had one or two in creels, which I’ve never seen before and they are big. Looks like we see them on sounder too just off Shieldaig island most mornings …”

Plus reports from the Inner sound of Skye of herring spawning on the deck of a creel boat somewhere near the Crowlin Islands –  exact locations remained elusive.

The Scottish Government stopped funding science on Herring in this area after its collapse so with the exception of the herring project managed by Peter Cunnigham we do not know a great deal.

Ian Napier a former herring scientist told us when the fish got within a day or two of spawning they would release the eggs spontaneously when caught/handled. A (Danish) manual on determining the maturity of herring was sent see particular  page 12 and pages 20 to 25. One of the key criteria that they identify is that the eggs become increasingly transparent as the fish approaches spawning. Based on this guide, the fish is probably at about stage IV; maybe approaching stage V.

In Gairloch, Ian a local SCFF fishermen aand Bally Philps also of SCFF supported by members of OUR SEAS recreational diver volunteers, set out to look for herring spawning on maerl beds where Andy and George Brown had documented them in March 2019.   Andy had also photographed this herring spawning  for the Blue Planet UK. Jason Hall Spencer was invited.

Jason Hall Spencer the leading expert on maerl joined the Alliance expedition in search of  herring spawning. The children of a local Gairloch SCFF fishermen tried to catch herring to help Peter Cunnigham’s local science project. The project  began after Andy Jackson filmed the herring spawning here.

The sea had leapt in temperature just before our survey so we were hopeful as the fishermen said this was a sign.  We did some checks with a  dropdown camera and went looking for gannets on the friday before: Password “Drop” but saw no signs.

Jason Hall Spencer  dived and collected maerl to put under the microscope.   According to Jason, Maerl can clone itself or reproduce with the normal male-female fertilisation process depending on the species. Wonderful to have a world class expert to help us.

   A further glimpse above surface level :

Sadly the survey failed to find a single herring and there was no spawning on the maerl bed found – although Jason got some good samples of maerl which he looked at under the microscope and it was at least spawning  – so at least we found spawning – if not the species we had anticipated.

Mysteriously the herring which had spawned in Gairloch two years running seemed to be spawning closer to Torridan, Shieldaig and Skye in 2021.  And the local fishermen seemed reluctant to share information about where the spawning was due to the recent flapper skate closure – although some did their very best to help. The fishermen who knew the sites were not happy after the Flapper Skate MPA closure to help out. Storms prevented us from finding out anyway. Jason is invited to return and we look forward to it.


Ian Napier told us that the belief was that herring tended to return to the same spawning ground every year, and that there was some evidence that they returned to the areas where they were themselves spawned. However, there was also some evidence that over time a stock might change to a different spawning ground. A source cited for that was:

It is not impossible that the herring would move to a different spawning ground, although the assumption is that they did not do so frequently. Another possibility might be that the Inner Sound herring represent a previously unknown spawning area. Regarding the possibility that herring spawn during storms to avoid predators; given that spawning takes place at the sea-bed it might be argued that they would be safer from predators (esp. gannets) during spawning than when they were ‘hanging around’ (nearer the surface) in the days / weeks before spawning. There was also a belief that a physical disturbance could trigger spawning, whether that be a storm (through the motion induced in the water), a temperature change, or even fishing activity. There is also a significant potential downside to spawning during bad weather in that the wave action may prevent the eggs adhering to the sea-bed (so they end up drifting around) or can tear up the egg mat after it has formed and even mix the eggs into the sea bed (as seen at Ballantrae in 1990), both of which are likely to result in significant egg mortality.


At that time I worked with scientists from the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, mainly on the spawning ground off Ballantrae, which was the principal known Clyde spawning ground at that time, and on a (then) newly discovered ground south of Arran. Although the latter ground was on maerl beds there was no maerl at Ballantrae. That is, while herring will spawn on maerl they do not need it and will spawn on any course (gravelly) sediment. The Aberdeen scientists put a lot of effort into surveying the spawning grounds to estimate the numbers of eggs deposited, from which they would estimate the size of the herring stock. My recollection of the herring spawn was of thicker deposits than shown in the videos – often the egg mat was about 1 cm thick and completely blanketed the sea bed.

During my studies the herring spawn at South Arran was killed by phytoplankton, which bloomed in the overlying water column and then settled on to the egg mat. I assumed that this suffocated the eggs by blocking the pores between them. I rather wonder if something similar had happened to the eggs in your first video – they shouldn’t really be ‘brown’ and I wondered if that was something blanketing the egg mat.

See first video shot by Ali Hughson’s scallop divers  Ruiaridh Maclennan who found it.Herring Spawning on Maerl Beds in Gairloch March 2018 lower on Vimeo)

The egg mats at Ballantrae were badly damaged one year by wave action, and in another year suffered a mass mortality for reasons that we could not determine. What was clear from this is that the egg mats on the sea-bed are very vulnerable to a wide range of factors, including physical disturbance, siltation, phytoplankton blooms, etc., which could cause the deaths of most or all of the eggs in a given year. Particularly at South Arran the eggs decayed into a stinking anoxic mass which blanketed the sea-bed (we could smell the Hydrogen Sulphide while diving on them).


Bally Philps and Haydn Mackenzie began surveying the Inner Sound with the Blue Hope Alliance’s ROV camera in order to find the herring spawning which fishermen reported. They didn’t find spawning but they did find illegal dredge tracks in a legally closed and protected part. Plus all sorts of fascinating finds from old cars dumped on the seabed to what looked like dead dog fish or shark (bycatch?) to stunningly beautiful and biodiverse habitats around Loch Alsh (See screen grabs from a tiny section of Ballys ROV clips below. ) Bally also used the ROV at Loch Carron to see if flapper Skate could be found after sitings were reported there in May.

This has been a process of playful discovery and exploration rather than disciplined science – but they have found the sea bed colonised by flame shell nests as well as fields of hydroids and anemone’s and brittlestars flowing in the underwater currents.  They have shared widely on Bally’s  Facebook page and many of the local community have seen this – perhaps for the first time seeing what is under the surface.

Oh and they found a diver blowing bubbles under water…JOY diving

As our alliance has evolved we have built synergy between multiple different sectors: fishermen, scientists, recreational divers, anglers, sailors, kayakers, artists, landowners and just ordinary folk – these sectors tended to work separately before.

To our way of thinking this separation was the problem. It mirrored the dysfunctional way the ecosystem was divided into species managed by different agencies as if the ecosystem had separate parts working in isolation. We see it as a web of life, deeply entangled and interdependent and we hope for a more holistic ecosystem management approach.

Some commercial fishermen and even marine scientists have a tendency to exclude the public from marine debates  – but it is everyone’s sea, and the different perspectives can inform each other.

In seven years since we began we have started to see a paradigm shift in public attitudes and awareness of the marine environment. This brings real hope.  We appreciate all those that have helped both small and large. The surveys and studies will continue.

Some final musings

When the Earth was viewed from space – astronauts were struck by its beauty suspended in the vast blackness – seeing this wholeness gave them a deeper appreciation of how the human family are connected – sharing the fate of Mother Earth.  We hope our surveys will help bring people together to bring our seas back to life, full of fish and sea mammals once more. Indigenous people, including the ancient Celts understood that we are all related and that at a deeper level of existence there is no separation.  Crisis is an opportunity, and the opportunity is for networks of cooperation to be built which can foster an understanding of that interdependence. From this perspective the future depends upon people working together in webs of interconnectivity.  This cooperation is even more vital in a the vast and relatively remote north west, where populations are small and resources are stretched. Our Maerl survey is a perfect example of cross sector cooperation, bringing resources and people together in a common purpose. We thank all those who have helped this grassroot network and invite more people to join The Blue Hope Alliance.