Where We Are Now – Our Surveys, Salmon farms & Collective Action

Where We Are Now – Our Surveys, Salmon farms & Collective Action

 New Threats & Our Story Since the Creation of the MPA 

Since the creation of Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA) and the ban on scallop dredgers, Sea Change has continued to speak up for the long term socio-economic benefits of full protection for Wester Ross MPA. This has meant providing evidence to turn down proposals which threaten the precious recovery we have worked so hard to secure. This has been both locally and nationally.

Sea Change’s achievements in our MPA’s first year! – Sea Change Wester Ross


Our Survey Work to map and monitor the MPA

As recovery began, our main focus has been on surveying the MPA in order to map and monitor species and habitats of specific importance. These surveys provide us with a means to share the process of discovery on film and tell stories about custodianship of the sea, as well as to monitor change. The process of discovery is exciting. We have focused on locating Priority Marine Features such as maerl and flame shell beds as well as other important habitats that warrant protection and support our aims. Our most important surveys are on observing the process of recovery of maerl and setting up baseline studies on three maerl beds within the Summer Isles area and one in Loch Ewe.  We have added to the knowledge of maerl in the area a great deal. Much of this work takes time to feed in to the public domain. 

We are particularly excited watching the recovery we worked so hard for and seeing how it happens. 

Thinktank: a root level change

Many Sea Changer’s share a view that management of the sea is a zero sum game – we either all win or we all loose. The planets resources are threatened and no one wins a game where we are living beyond what is sustainable.  Other species suffer as well as future generations. We therefore believe that we work in the best interests of all fishermen both static and mobile sector, and on behalf of the public and future generations whether they share our passion for custodianship of the sea or not.

Alistair Sinclair has led the way as national coordinator of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) and as he often says “courage is contagious”.  After a car accident which nearly took his life and left him in a coma, he made this speech when still recovering. Alistair Sinclair talks on reform (Autumn 2016) – Sea Change Wester Ross:


Once our objective of securing a ban on dredgers was met, and the situation was no longer so urgent, we evolved quite naturally into a kind of thinktank.  We share ideas across sectors locally and working together on surveys with other groups in the area, such as Wester Ross Area Salmon Fishery Board and North Minch Shellfish Association (part of SCFF).  The lines between us when it comes to surveys have blurred. We are all in it together and do our part.

Sea Change however in particular explores how to be a voice for conscious cultural change at the root level. As part of an expanding ecosystem of groups in Scotland we do our part in bringing awareness of the need for change and to work together.  Our hope is to find ways to tell stories which helps to change the mindset that leads to ecological destruction and underpins all unsustainable practices.

Wester Ross MPA has maerl beds, flame shells, seagrass and seaweed communities which are all priority marine features because they provide nurseries for juvenile fish and spawning areas for many key species – such as herring. Herring is a key stone species within Wester Ross upon which the whole food chain depends – including whales. The protection of sea mammals – whales, dolphins, porpoise as well as skate, within the MPA is vital for tourism too as are the recovery of sea trout and salmon.  

Open cage salmon farms threaten the recovery of the MPA.

Shortly after the MPA was created, Scottish Sea Farms announced proposals to expand right in the heart of the Wester Ross MPA. Two open cage salmon farms the size of 30 rugby pitches each, were proposed.  This industrial scale farming in the MPA forced us to research the potential impacts on the ecosystem. Then the socio-economic costs to the community.  As we began to understand more we realised that government agencies had completely overlooked their responsibility to consider costs to other jobs.

We wrote to the Minister. See open letter to Roseanna Cunningham – sustainable local fisheries depend on pristine MPA – Sea Change Wester Ross


We also wrote to the Cabinet Secretary.  See open letter to Fergus Ewing – Sea Change Wester Ross.


His response is below:

Fergus Ewing’s response to our Appeal – Sea Change Wester Ross


We needed to counter the unquestioned assumptions that the jobs which salmon farmers say they will give the community, necessarily lead to net gains overall when costs to other jobs are accounted for. The promises are often misleading. 

We also knew that chemicals damaged crustacea and that acoustic devices to deter seals hurt Cetaceans (whales, porpoise and dolphins). It concerns us that there is very poor regulation (mostly self regulation) as well as vast amounts of hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals and medicines poured in to the sea. The assumption is the sea is huge and will dilute them and do no harm. This has been proved wrong. Two Parliamentary Committees investigating salmon farms have suggested the status quo is not an option and urgent reform is needed. 

As other groups began to protest against salmon farms around the coast and emerged as powerful voices nationally – we began to coalesce into a united voice to ask searching questions of the agencies involved.

This has often meant learning from other groups within the Coastal Community Network as well as consulting with creel and dive fishermen, anglers and NGOs who share our opposition. The Salmon Aquaculture Reform Network Scotland was formed to tackle reform in 2018 around the Parliamentary debates. We shared information and worked with them closely, as we did with Wester Ross Area Salmon Fishery’s Board.

We believe there is sufficient peer reviewed science on the environmental impacts of  large scale open cage salmon farms to conclude that they would undermine the recovery of the MPA and impact existing jobs and fisheries.

Socio-Economic case Study on Horse Island

When Scottish Sea Farms threatened to put two large salmon farms in the heart of the MPA, undermining the recovery we’d worked so hard for, we produced a second socio-economic report working with the same economist,  this time focused on a case study of a proposed industrial scale salmon farm in the MPA.

We submitted our socio-economic report to the parliamentary committee around the case study at Horse island.  The evidence for reform is now mainstream opinion since the two parliamentary committees in 2018 reviewed the scientific and socio economic evidence and broadly came to the same conclusions as us. Parliament endorsed the reports and this has now fed in to SEPA’s sector Plan review. It is no longer minority opinion that open cage salmon farming does harm to the environment and other jobs.

To the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) Committee on Salmon Farming In Scotland – Sea Change Wester Ross


We worked hard to lobby Ministers and MSPs too. Writing frequently to the Ministers as well as the Committee chairs.

To the REC Committee – stand your ground! – Sea Change Wester Ross


Below is some of the evidence supplied on salmon farming and maerl beds:

REC Committee Salmon Farming in Scotland – Sea Change Wester Ross


And some of our blogs:

Look This Salmon In the Eye Then Ask Your MSP to Ask Questions During the Parliamentary Debate on Salmon Farming (6th Feb 2019) – Sea Change Wester Ross


Big Blue Discovery

We set out to focus on the positive aspects of recovery: the process of discovery of what our MPA  had under the waves as well as to map it. It was exciting to begin:

Scallop Divers are our Eyes – Sea Change Wester Ross


Seasearch & Dives of Discovery in the Summer Isles Archipelago – Sea Change Wester Ross


More Jacques Cousteau’s please! – Sea Change Wester Ross


Our Surveys in more detail: observing habitats, species and change.

Since 2016 we began working with Andy Jackson who is a brilliant cameraman. He has supplied sensational footage to produce films which can tell our story and share the vital need to protect the sea. From our 2016 survey which was submitted to SNH to form part of the reporting on the MPA, we also made three short Happy Birthday Films celebrating the MPAs first birthday.. 

Here are the others:

Happy Birthday Wester Ross Marine Protected Area – we love you! – Sea Change Wester Ross


A Special Happy Birthday to Wester Ross Marine Protected Area – Sea Change Wester Ross


Storytelling on film helps us build awareness and is a core focus for us.  It can share the process of discovery and the beauty below the waters in Scotland – which is as stunning as anywhere in the world. This is an example from our June Survey in 2018 of the extraordinary species under the water. 

An Underwater Ecosystem & Flowers of the Sea Forest – Sea Change Wester Ross


Since 2016 we have set up 3 maerl transects to help us create baselines to monitor change, as well as to find, or expand the knowledge of maerl beds in the area.

In 2017 we did 3-4 short surveys with Seasearch divers, working with Wester Ross Salmon Fisheries Board chairman Bill Whyte.  In  2017 we began making plans to do a comparison survey between a 1981 Seasearch survey around Tanera and the Summer Isles with the habitats and species today. 

Sea Change Sea Search Surveys 2017 – Sea Change Wester Ross


This is an ongoing study which may take time to produce as we are also monitoring maerl beds around the Summer Isles at the same time as looking for Priority Marine Features within the MPA. Our maerl transects need monitoring over a long period of time and we are developing a methodology to ensure it is standardised.

In 2018 we did two surveys – one in June with three marine scientists which was focused on setting up maerl transects in the places we had filmed in 2016. As well as filming and documenting other habitats in the Summer Isles. We found a tremendous abundance of sea cucumbers.

An Underwater Eden – Sea Change Wester Ross


In September 2018 we continued working with Seasearch West and many divers from all over the UK to document the Summer Isles habitats. See our blogs on it.

Tanera & The Summer Isles survey by Seasearch & Sea Change – Sea Change Wester Ross


Ring of Bright Seaweed – Sea Change Wester Ross


We followed up the September 2018 survey with one on maerl in March 2019 as well as an exploration for native oysters. This will be reported on when the survey is completed.

We have also filmed flame shells and other habitats and are building an archive of underwater footage of the whole MPA as well as the locations of Priority Marine Features.

Surveys around proposed farm sites

Our week long surveys which have helped us add understanding of the habitats in the MPA, and the species that live there. We have a specific focus on locating and monitoring the recovery of maerl beds as well as priority marine features. 

One of the films, Horse Island and the Pink Seaweed was made from our survey which was specifically in response to the threat to the maerl bed at the bottom of Horse Island. This was just 250m from the proposed salmon farm. See our blog showing this film named after the film. 

Horse Island & The Pink Seaweed on Vimeo


And our blog Horse Island & The Pink Seaweed – Sea Change Wester Ross


Additional Threats to Recovery – Kelp dredging. 

Mechanical kelp dredging was a proposal quickly shot down by a national campaign led by others, which we added our voice of protest too.

Sea Change Wester Ross’s response to Marine Biopolymers Ltd Wild Seaweed Harvesting Scoping Report – Sea Change Wester Ross


Legal Scallop dredging & Loch Carron the largest Flame Shell Bed in the world

An incident in Loch Carron sparked a storm. A dredger legally smashed through a flame shell bed well known to divers and marine scientists in the area. It was discovered it was the largest flame shell bed in the world. Following an outcry by the public and a petition run by the local community, it was closed shortly after and made in to a Marine Protected Area. (Shortly after of course a Salmon farm proposed a farm on the border of the Loch Carron MPA but thats another story we protested about in a submission to the Highland Council and to SEPA’s Sector Plan review)

Lochcarron Flame Shells : An Open Letter to Fergus Ewing & MS Conservation Team – Sea Change Wester Ross


The Governments Priority Marine Feature Review offered potential for real change. We again wrote in with our hopes. Improving Protection given to Priority Marine Features outside the Marine Protected Area Network – Sea Change Wester Ross


Illegal scallop dredging

Illegal scallop dredging has  also been widely publicised in the media and is a real concern for the whole Scottish MPA network and has been widely reported.

However the illegal scallop dredging around Gairloch triggered a major outcry.  The area damaged is  adjacent to the southern border of the Marine Protected Area. Maerl beds where herring was filmed spawning in a vast areas up to 2 kilometres wide were harmed. See the film below made the year before about herring spawning in the area which was later dredged.

Andy Jackson later filmed the herring return to spawn for BBC’s Blue Planet. An amazing bit of footage. 

BBC One – Blue Planet UK, Series 1, Episode 5, Herring have not been seen off UK coasts for many years…until now


 These tragic incidents, alongside incursions into other Marine Protected Areas by scallop dredgers,  keep us on the alert.  We have kept our  neighbourhood watch system going by which we share information widely.

The protest around illegal and legal scallop dredging has led to collective action and 40 groups calling for the return of the 3 Mile Limit. 

Over 40 Groups Ask First Minister, Will You Restore Our Seas? – Sea Change Wester Ross


The 3 Mile Limit: We continue to advocate for our original long term goal of the 3 mile limit. This was voted for at the start of the group and advocated by the local creel and dive fishermen, supported by Professor Callum Roberts.

The marine environment has been in rapid decline since the 3 mile limit was lifted in 1984. It is increasingly impacted by warming of the oceans, acidification, plastic as well as chemical pollution. All these impacts are compounded by continued over fishing too.

For deeper understanding of why the 3 Mile Limit was lifted see John McIntyre’s blog: 

The Three Mile Limit – Sea Change Wester Ross


Working Together and sharing knowledge: Our socio-economic research and surveys – produced with the core aim to protect the area have been conducted with the help of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation and Keltic Sea Fare and Ali Hughson. We also work closely with Wester Ross Salmon Fisheries Board as well as the North Minch Shellfish Association and local anglers and dive groups. Scientists and divers from all over Scotland have helped support our surveys and local people supply boats, accommodation, knowledge or funding. Thanks specifically goes to Andy Jackson and Inverness Sub Aqua Club. There are many other divers too who we owe thanks to including Frank Melvin for his marvellous footage, George Brown, Neil McInnes and Lynne MacKay, Pete Watson amongst many others.

Evolving focus & A New Story

The group has evolved into a kind of thinktank focused on surveys, socio-economic research and films making. Our films are made from the survey footage to bring awareness and advocate for protection.  We hope to inspire the desire to protect it, by sharing the sheer beauty and diversity of the underwater world. Our informal conversations often form around how to tell the story…

A Network of like minds

We have built a network of like-minded groups and supporters helping us survey the MPA to supply evidence for protection as well as share the sheer wonder and love of the underwater world. 

We believe we need to speak the truth to protect what we love – on the basis of the evidence even if it is not always welcome.

Evolution and the emergence of the Coastal Community Network

Sea Change is now one of many other community groups which have formed since the MPA network began which have coalesced into the Coastal Community Network. We are proud to be a member of this extraordinary collection of people.

Member of the Coastal Communities Network Scotland        http://www.communitiesforseas.scot/

Sea Change’s is made up of ordinary members of the public, scientists, artists, fishermen and conservationists, united by a shared love of our watery planet and a desire to restore it for the next generation. We are supported by many others within the community and nationally too. 

Our Bountiful Sea – The Story of Wester Ross MPA – Sea Change Wester Ross


We have made films and told stories about the often unsung heros and heroines doing good work in the area too:

The Accidental Environmentalist – Sea Change Wester Ross


Bubbles & The Seal Whisperer: Stories from the Highland Wildlife Hospital – Sea Change Wester Ross


Fraser Muir: one of the first prawn creel fisherman on the West Coast of Scotland on Vimeo


The Pink Seaweed by George Macpherson – Sea Change Wester Ross


Our groups constitution is here:


We believe we are defending what we love as best we can as a voluntary group. We welcome support so please get in touch.

All who live in Wester Ross and agree with us are welcome to join the group. Please Like our Facebook page too!


Sara Nason

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Sea Change Wester Ross

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John McIntyre

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Julien Moreau

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