Protecting Scottish seas

In his first assignment, Oceanographic’s current Storyteller in Residence, Henley Spiers, travels to Scotland to find out more about the country’s varied approaches to ocean conservation.

Words and photographs by Henley Spiers

Don MacNeish is in New Zealand on a mission of enlightenment, determined to meet a man he reverentially refers to as ‘God’. His quarry: Dr. Bill Ballantine, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Leigh Marine Laboratory, and architect of New Zealand’s no-take marine protected areas.

“How does one reach Bill?” Don asks.

“You phone him up.”

“And how do you get his number?”

“You look him up in the phone book.”

A legendary figure in marine conservation, Ballantine is surprisingly accessible. Don calls, Bill answers. ‘God’ is on the line. The rest of Don’s mission would be much, much harder…

Don hails from Arran, a quintessentially Scottish island off the Western seaboard. Only accessible by boat, its small community lives with omnipresent natural beauty: lush forests cascade down dramatic mountains, and the scenic coastline is framed by an enticing sea. The Isle of Arran had long been a popular destination for anglers, but in 1994 the celebrated Lamlash Fishing Festival was permanently cancelled as catches had collapsed by 96%. Don, alongside diving buddy Howard Wood, think they knew where the fish had disappeared. For nearly a hundred years, bottom trawling and scallop dredging had been banned within 3 miles of the Scottish coastline, but since the abolition of the ‘3 mile limit’ in 1984, Howard and Don witnessed first-hand the rapid erosion of marine life in their local dive spots.

150 miles to the east of Arran, on the Berwickshire coast, Lawson Wood was also worried. An Eyemouth native, he grew up in one of the meccas of British diving as the sport took off in the post-war period. The government encouraged outdoor recreation and, with the advent of the aqualung, scuba diving for the masses had arrived, with an exotic appeal reinforced by Jacques Cousteau’s televised undersea adventures. The fashion for British diving, supported by a network of dive clubs, was at its peak. The allure lay in its ability to turn users into explorers and, for many scuba divers in the 70s and 80s, foraging was an intrinsic part of the experience. 

With an unusual abundance of marine life, driven by the meeting of oceanic currents, St Abbs and Eyemouth attract legions of scuba divers. Like Don and Howard, Lawson was also swept up by a passion for the aquatic world but grew increasingly concerned by the impact of divers as he watched them fish for dinner during immersions. Divers were also in conflict with local fishermen, accused of deliberately interfering with their gear. So, in 1975, with youthful conviction, Lawson created the Barefoot Voluntary Marine Reserve over his family’s land in Eyemouth. Now, anyone wishing to access the shore diving sites paid a small fee and agreed to a code of conduct, whereby users pledged not to take wildlife or to interfere with local fishing activity. Over time, Lawson’s concept was adopted and in 1984 widened into the St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve. Renamed the Berwickshire Marine Reserve (BMR), it endures today as Scotland’s only voluntary marine reserve, covering 10.3km2 of coastline.

In the second half of the 20th century, advances in fishing capability reached a new peak and fishing pressure was at a historical high. The period afforded a moment of rare prescience with regards to the state of the ocean as a generation of seafaring communities, who lived through these changes, could compare current conditions with personal memories of the past. Our perception of the past is marked by a phenomenon known as ‘shifting baselines’, with each new generation judging change according to how it evolves within their own lifespan. We temper the oral histories of previous generations, thinking of them as either rose-tinted or overly harsh. Crucially, this period also saw the rise of scuba divers, a new community with eyes underwater. Our vision of the ocean was no longer restricted to what we could perceive from the surface. The likes of Don, Howard and Lawson were at the heart of these changes – one when the ocean was being transformed as a result of human practices, and they could actively see its impact underwater.

Back on Arran, bemoaning the rapid deterioration of their local waters, Howard and Don plotted ways to reverse the decline. They resisted advice to create a voluntary reserve, drawing inspiration instead from the New Zealand model, one with a no-take zone which, in time, would serve to resuscitate the seabed and replenish surrounding waters. Dr Ballantine warned that it will take a decade to come to fruition, but the pursuit of marine protection for Arran would take even longer. In 1995, Howard and Don co-founded the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST), the first step in a marathon campaign towards marine protection. Initial approaches were met with no encouragement: the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry & the Environment replied their proposals, “the seabed around Arran, although much studied… is not particularly remarkable or worthy of designation for its nature conservation interest”. This rejection was a turning point: outraged at the disconnection between official policy and the community’s first-hand experience of Arran’s seabed, COAST redoubled its efforts. At every opportunity, Howard and Don gave talks to the local community, sharing both the splendour and threats that the waters represented. Over time, the majority of the islanders were recruited in support, including, crucially, the commercial fishermen of Arran. This ‘bottom-up’ approach was allied to frequent visits to the Scottish parliament, meeting and lobbying with elected officials. Howard and Don undertook a crash course in politics, learning how the system works through painful trial and error. This brief resume of their work should not give the impression that their achievements were easily obtained. The passion and tenacity needed to overcome the barriers set in their path makes for a remarkable story of human endeavour.

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Issue 34
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This feature appears in ISSUE 34: SCOTTISH SEAS of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 34
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_arksen
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_arksen

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