Kerri joined Fauna & Flora International in June 2014 and began to work as their Marine Community Support Officer in Scotland on a new project delivered in partnership with the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST). She came over from Northern Ireland where she spent the last few years with Ulster Wildlife working as their Living Seas Community Engagement Officer. She has a range of professional and voluntary experience with NGOs and Community Based Organisations; both within the environment sector and other charitable sectors, however through her personal passion for the ocean she has developed a keen focus on marine conservation. Kerri studied a BA in Politics in Queens University Belfast and more recently completed with Distinction an MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Rural Development, which she studied part-time after receiving a scholarship from the Gibson Institute for Land, Food and Environment.
Last week I returned from my most recent trip to Fair Isle, my seventh trip up to the most remote inhabited island in the British Isles. Somehow, I always manage to look forward to the next trip a little bit more each time! This time there was an extra special event…
In Autumn of last year the Fair Isle Demonstration & Research Marine Protected Area was finally designated – Scotland’s first ever Marine Protected Area (MPA) of this kind. It was proposed and developed by the entire Fair Isle community and was the result of decades of effort to get some kind of local management in place for the seas around the island.
The unique MPA is now in place to investigate and protect the marine environment out to 5km around the island. Fair Isle is famed for its migratory bird populations and attracts visitors the world over. The community living here is truly reliant upon a healthy marine environment, including healthy seabird populations, to underpin their wildlife tourism industry.
There have been many sightings of orca whales over the past several years. © Samuel Hood
Getting this local framework for management in place took decades of community campaigning, patience and foresight – as well as realms of research compiled by local ecologist Nick Riddiford who, since the early 1990’s, has spear-headed the community group, the Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative (FIMETI), which proposed the MPA in 2011.
Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been working closely with the community since 2014 to support their conservation efforts – hence the seven trips I’ve been very privileged to have now gone on.
My journey this time started with a slightly delayed start and an unplanned overnight stop in Lerwick as flights were not leaving Tingwall due to low, thick cloud. The (circa) three mile by one mile sandstone island of Fair Isle, sits inimitably in the ocean where the Atlantic meets the North Sea. The island is small and remote – 24 miles from mainland Shetland and 27 miles from the most northerly of the Orkney Islands, North Ronaldsay. It is an island subject to sweeping Atlantic winds and often turbulent seas.
This isolation means it is an extremely interesting spot for analysing the population and productivity of landfall seabirds, as well as a great site for conducting research into climate change impacts through such means as plankton sampling.
After my second attempt to fly in the next morning was hampered again by the fog, it was time to turn to a sea crossing and to the Good Shepherd (IV) ferry. This sturdy little vessel tests the hardiest of sea-farers – and I wouldn’t say I fall into that category in any case!
We get ready to brave the Good Shepherd IV. Credit: Kerri Whiteside/FFI.
Most of us went straight down to the passenger hold to get comfortable and prepare for the rocky four and half hours ahead, with a few enthusiasts staying on the deck – and their dedication certainly paid off as they spotted, not only harbour porpoise and minke whales, but also a large spray from the water which they suspected came from the blowhole of a humpback whale (a few days later a humpback was spotted on the, this time north-bound, Good Shepherd – giving more confidence to their suspicions).
Once we pulled into the harbour at Fair Isle there was a warm welcome waiting for us, with smiling, friendly faces and plenty of hugs! I was staying in the Fair Isle Bird Observatory with several other MPA related people and so we made our way up for dinner just in time for the daily bird counts in the lounge. The Fair Isle Bird Observatory was founded in 1948 by George Waterson and is a fantastic facility providing training for ornithologists and various amenities for external researchers – as well as plenty of visitor accommodation and some of the heartiest and homeliest feeds you could hope to look forward to…
The expertly camouflaged Fair Isle Bird Observatory. Credit: Kerri Whiteside/FFI.
Friday was the big day and it was kicked off by a special guided walk for some of the DR MPA Steering Group members led by the Bird Observatory ranger, during which we were able to wave up at the rest of the group as they flew in above us.
We were very lucky that all but one of the Demonstration & Research MPA Steering Group members made it in for the meeting. The Steering Group is a vital part of the functioning of the MPA – it includes representatives from a variety of sectors including fisheries, government, researchers and environmental NGOs, and is a space for sharing research, forming ideas and deciding upon relevant management mechanisms within the site.
This was our second meeting as a group, having met for the first time (post-designation, I should say, as there were a lot of pre-designation meetings) in Lerwick in March 2017. We were joined this time by Tavish Scott MSP who had also flown in to be part of the celebrations that evening.
Seabird research was presented by both the Fair Isle Bird Observatory and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and several ideas for specific focus points are already emerging – in particular recent research from the University of Edinburgh into the interactions between fisheries and seabirds (focusing on razorbills, arctic terns, European shag and herring gulls) within the Fair Isle Demonstration & Research MPA was presented on by SNH.
It is hoped that soon a full-time project officer post and programme of work will underpin the MPA. FIMETI is currently focused on capacity building (always a pertinent concern with a resident population of around 60) and ensuring that a strong organisational foundation and adequate resources are in place to ensure the sustainable management and ongoing delivery of the objectives of Fair Isle’s Demonstration & Research MPA.
In the evening it was time for the celebration and it felt like almost the whole island made it along. A marquee was set up down at the Havens, and as the unsleeping sea thrashed around us we gave it a good match for the night and celebrated the MPA in all the right ways – with speeches to start, followed by bubbly and a BBQ, an extra special cake, and of course tunes being played into the wee hours!
During the speeches we heard from Tavish Scott MSP as well as the National Trust for Scotland and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. However, the speech receiving the biggest cheers from the crowd came from islander Nick Riddiford, without whom the MPA would not have been designated. Nick took everyone on a whistle-stop tour of the community’s decades of efforts and attempts for local marine management leading to the recent success of the designation – and afterwards he cut the MPA cake.
Fair Isle residents Neil Thomson and Nick Riddiford. Credit: Kerri Whiteside/FFI.
It was lovely to have FFI’s contributions mentioned by Nick and others in their speeches – and a huge privilege to have been able to give this support to the community’s efforts over the past three years. Nick cheerfully declared ‘honorary citizenship’ for myself and Karen Hall from SNH – who has been an integral cog in the DR MPA machinery since the beginning. Karen and I were recently honoured by being invited into the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Board as the two newest Directors – so I think it is safe to say we will not be gotten rid of any time soon!
I stayed for another few nights so I had some time to catch up with others and enjoy the isle, which I always treasure – being palpably surrounded by the ocean tends to give you (or me at least) a clearer and calmer perspective on your place in everything. The oft-neglected mantra to “take each day as it comes” actually plays out here and is a useful exercise in mindfulness.
This is undoubtedly aided by such wonderful events as sighting Risso’s dolphins, as we did on Saturday – a pod of perhaps around a dozen were sighted from off the South Light. My phone camera could not even attempt to do justice to what we could spy through the Bird Observatory scope, but luckily resident photographer Tommy snapped some good shots.
There is a long and incredibly worthwhile journey ahead for the Fair Isle Demonstration & Research MPA. Last weekend merely marked the beginning of this newest chapter – I have a feeling that the community of Fair Isle are more than ready for what’s next!
Flying out saying goodbye to Fair Isle, until next time… Credit: Kerri Whiteside/FFI.
Kerri manages FFI’s Marine Community Support Project in Scotland; supporting groups to meet their own aims with regards to marine conservation and networking grassroots action across Scotland's coast.