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 Official 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 was 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. Our collective efforts alongside the SCFF fishermen’s representatives 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 in early 2014. 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 so we could locate where the signatures originated. Some of the community councils in the area wrote in support.
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.
In the Summer of 2014 Professor Callum Roberts who we’d engaged with regarding some of the science data visited Achiltibuie on holiday. A small handful of us involved at the time met him at the Fuaran Bar overlooking the Summer Isles. We explained the area to Callum by showing him a Summer Isles tea cloth for lack of having a proper chart to hand. We then wrote to Howard, one of the founders of the community group, C.O.A.S.T. It reveals our thoughts at the time.
Dear Howard and Tom, Update from Achiltibuie and The Wester Ross ‘so called’ MPA. When Callum Roberts was in Achiltibuie on holiday we gathered a small group of fishermen together (creel fisherman and a scallop diver) as well as a skipper of a local tourist boat and a few others. We have been campaigning (with a petition) to ban dredgers in our area. The fishermen speak for a wider community of people who feel their needs are not being heard. As you know our Wester Ross MPA was designated but as a local scientist put it ‘ we’ve just moved from being a “possible MPA” to a “so called MPA”. This is an act worthy of political satire given it offers almost no protection as it is “voluntary!”. Its been a huge public cost with nothing much achieved….
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. We were very chuffed.
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“. He also said “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
The gap between intention and reality is where the story of Sea Change really began. 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.
What the Government was offering were Marine Protected Areas which were little more than ‘paper parks’. The boundary line was meaningless as there were only small islands of protection from dredgers within the area. The irony was that trawlers and dredgers could continue to damage the inshore waters with the MPAs – 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 restrictions were so limited it would not produce the recovery urgently needed.
Outside a few marine scientists, fishermen and anglers there was little public awareness of the story of decline in our Seas. Only “The End of the Line” (2009) a documentary on fishery collapse had shown the urgency. TV and our national newspapers were virtually silent on the issue. The sea was seen as an infinite resource to exploit for jobs rather than a living ecosystem with extraordinary relationships between species which was unravelling. 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. 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. 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. Whale bellies are full of detritus. Plastic chokes sea mammals and is ingested by small creatures too. The Seas are warming and acidifying. 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
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. Or imagine dragging metal over brittle coral.
Sea Change’s primary focus was recovery. This recovery underpins our prosperity. The only way to achieve recovery is to ban these destructive fishing methods which destroyed habitats.
Storytelling and the ‘Alternative Economy’ built on recovery.
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. It was not fleshed out in full technicolour people living here experienced – we could see what was missing. The evidence for change was more robust than it supposed. With the help of our creel fishing friends we invited Alan up and set to work. He came up and stayed in Achiltibuie, presenting the case he had made in his research for the 3 Mile Limit to a group meeting.
An American group Ocean River Institute supported us with a massive online petition too. They also supplied us with a Go-pro camera for drop down surveys.
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 and 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 displaced. It hinted at future possibilities and other businesses which did not yet exist as the marine environment was too poor for them.
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. Before arguments had been presented which suggested a dichotomy which said you had to choose between peoples jobs and business profits and the planet. It was not an either/or scenario. We felt we had replaced this with more evidence that showed benefits for profit and businesses (people), as well as the planet could be aligned. We could have it all if we chose to foster only truly sustainable ‘green’ businesses. For some of us this also meant being a voice for the sea and the species within it. The silent victims in the whole story.
Working Together to Build a Dialogue with Government
This multi-sector approach fostered the sharing of knowledge amongst local stakeholders across different sectors around the Marine Protected Area is helping to build a more collective voice to expand awareness of the local situation amongst officials within Government agencies. We hope our ideas 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. They must have been quite surprised by the passion in the room.
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. Scientists were too. They became our 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 a real 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 legal 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. At this early stage it was known as the Summer Isles and Northern Sea Lochs MPA.
Once the MPAs designation was confirmed on July 24th 2014, Sea Change set out to secure umbrella protection for the whole ecosystem. The ‘paper parks’ were bureaucratic approaches to Nature – seeing species as separate – rather than part of an entangled food web. They lacked ambition.
“Separation” thinking rather than joined up thinking.
Herring is a key stone species in Wester Ross. This means it plays a central role in the food web. The health of the whole ecosystem depends upon it. Herring appears to like to spawn on maerl beds (another keystone species) – especially in the southern parts. Whales eat herring too. Herring is not protected in Wester Ross despite its role in the recovery of the whole self sustaining ecological web. This is because in other parts of the UK it is not endangered. Yet here in Wester Ross it is critical to the whole. This makes no scientific sense.
It is a tick box exercise.
Allowing trawlers and dredgers to operate within a marine protected area where habitats provided nursery areas for juvenile herring and other fin fish species also made no scientific sense. This was 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 in maerl areas. 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 members had worked to set up a community ‘neighbourhood watch scheme’ within houses that observed 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 community members going out on boats to observe suspicious activity, to defend the ‘protected islands’ of sea which were closed by voluntary agreement only.
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.
The new coastal community Network officer Kerri Whiteside offered us a small budget for a survey with our new go-pro supplied by Ocean River. We were offered a survey boat by a very kind local person, but the day of our survey we ended up hanging out ‘watching’ a dredger so they would not violate the exclusion zones. Most of our survey day was spent ‘protecting’ the area by being there to observe. It was too much.
Suspected violations were occurring with increasing frequency. One almost certain violation took place but despite eye witness accounts whilst it was reported, and some photos, 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 amongst the 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 right in front of the houses of many of the people involved in the informal neighbourhood watch scheme. This area was 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 (Hamish, 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, for us and many who had helped us. Many members of the community, Sea Change and the fishermen 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
Wester Ross MPA was now a real national marine park with a chance of recovery – despite some areas still open to trawlers. The protected area is just under 600 square kilometres 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.
Yet it was not quite over…
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 Go to 46.44 mins 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. One egg hit one of our Sea Change members who was in her 70’s and had spent her life working to save marine mammals and other creatures. She had to be restrained from waving her handbag and umbrella at them. It was a home goal for the mobile sector.
The Committee decided the ban must stand.
An ancient traditional ceremony was performed by George Macpherson the Skye storyteller on the 10th March 2015 to secure the MPAs protection. This is seen in the film – The Bountiful Sea.
Years of lobbying by Sea Change supported by the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, local scallop divers and many members of the community had finally paid off. We had our 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.
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, as well as illegal dredging.
We have had suspected illegal dredging in Wester Ross Marine Protected Area but it has only been proved so far in the maerl beds in Loch Gairloch which is a tragedy. ( These protected areas are next door to each other)
Ullapool is at the heart of the Wester Ross MPA and was the UK’s largest herring fishery once. Gairloch was a close second.
So you can imagine the excitement when the vast areas of spawning herring were discovered in March 2018 and captured on camera by scallop divers – it was a sign of hope.
See film below
Herring Spawning on Maerl Beds in Gairloch March 2018 lower on Vimeo
The footage of the herring gave hope of the return of the historic herring. The story of the pink seaweed (maerl) is really about our interdependence and the interconnectivity with the sea, fisheries, people, the coastal economy (herring, scallops, cod, crustaceans) and in the long run of course this big blue planet of ours.
It was the scallop divers footage of spawning herring in this area the year before which led to Andy Jackson’s BBC Blue Planet UK story filming herring spawning the following year.
Tragically after herring spawning was found and filmed by the scallop divers in the spring, the maerl bed was illegally dredged in Dec 2018.
This was in the area of maerl in Loch Gairloch where the herring had spawned. This was one of the main triggers which led to collective action and the Letter of 40 groups to the First Minister.
See these links.
Probe into alleged scallop dredging in protected area – BBC News
Probe into alleged illegal dredging in Gairloch – Coastal Communities Network
This and many other previous illegal dredging incidents triggered a major outcry and a subsequent gathering of many coastal community groups in Oban. Out of this 40 Groups signed a letter to the First Minister asking for urgent reform and the 3 mile Limit. This represented a kind of manifesto for reform.
BBC Blue Planet UK’s stunning footage in the spring of 2019 shot by Andy Jackson, shows herring spawning on maerl beds (pink seaweed) once again in Loch Gairloch. ( next to Wester Ross Marine Protected Area) Watching this helps us imagine what is at stake if mearl is dredged and how damaging this is to coastal communities reliant upon fish.
BBC One – Blue Planet UK, Series 1, Episode 5, Herring on this scale had not been seen off UK coasts for many years…until now
Sea Change’s current work since the ban is told on the page
Suffice it to say we have protected our precious area with the same passion which fuelled the movement to ban dredgers. This has also meant defending it from salmon farm expansions – described on the pages “Where We Are Now”
But a potted version is that Sea Change has focused on collecting evidence on maerl beds and recovery with our citizen science survey work. We also produced another socio-economic report working with Alan Radford and Geoff Riddlington, again supplying evidence to oppose a salmon farmers ambition to expand in the heart of the Summer Isles, within the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area. This was submitted to the two Parliamentary Committees enquiry in to salmon farming.
The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s Report on open cage salmon farming called for the urgent need for reform of aquaculture. The report was critical of the way Norwegian multinational salmon farmers had exploited Scotland’s pristine seas – exporting profits whilst polluting the marine environment impacting other parts of the economy. They urged reform.
This reform was endorsed by the Scottish Parliament.
We believe our position, endorsed by Parliament, is vindicated. Reform of open cage salmon farms is urgent. Protection from illegal dredging is urgent too. We continue our work.