Scotland’s coastline and inshore waters support a wealth of marine species and ecosystems, much of it vital to local livelihoods, but all too often its coastal communities have not been given a voice in how their seas are managed.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) works closely with coastal communities and local NGOs to support their efforts to ensure a better future for Scotland’s inshore waters. One of the most active of our Scottish partners is COAST (the Community of Arran Seabed Trust), recognised as a global pioneer in community-led conservation after establishing the first and only community-managed no-take zone in UK waters.

With world leaders preparing to gather at COP26 in Glasgow – just 50 miles from Arran as the gannet flies – we asked Jenny Crockett, Outreach & Communications Manager at COAST, to give us an insight into her community’s hopes, fears and expectations as this crucial climate conference unfolds on her doorstep.

Jenny Crockett with Howard Wood OBE, co-founder of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust. Credit: COAST

What was the rationale for establishing COAST?

COAST was established in the face of catastrophic collapses in the Clyde sea fisheries, damage to seabed habitats and loss of marine life that were witnessed directly by the local Arran community. These ecosystem-wide impacts in the Clyde occurred as a result of the failure of fisheries management to address overfishing, and the opening up of all coastal waters to towed bottom fishing gear in 1984 when the three-mile inshore fisheries limit was repealed.

COAST was founded by two local Arran divers who worked with the local community to successfully campaign for protection of areas of sea around their island. Their sustained efforts over many years resulted in the establishment of the Lamlash Bay No Take Zone (NTZ) in 2008 and, following this, the designation (2014) and subsequent legal protection from mobile bottom fishing (2016) of a larger area of nearly 300 km2 as the South Arran Marine Protected Area (MPA).

How has it benefited the island community?

As a community-led organisation, COAST has championed the rights of local people to have their voices heard in decision-making about their local seas, including fisheries management.

The success of grassroots activism on Arran has led to a sense of ownership of the protected areas, and locals feel empowered to help protect them. For example, we have a number of MPA compliance spotters, who have met with Marine Scotland Compliance to challenge the inadequate levels of protection afforded to our MPAs in Scotland.

Other benefits have included a boost to ecotourism, particularly those activities based on, in or by the sea, and local walking and wildlife guides understand the connection between healthy, abundant seas and vibrant and clean coastlines.

Jenny with Lucy Kay, MPA project officer, next to ecotourist signage. Credit: COAST

The success of the NTZ and MPA has generated significant press interest, helping to boost the local economy and bringing wider recognition for the effectiveness of grassroots marine conservation. COAST has won a series of awards, including the Nature of Scotland Award 2014, Goldman Environmental Prize 2015, Spirit of the Community Environment Winner 2017. Just this year, it was recognised as one of the top 20 ‘Outstanding Examples’ of the United Nations 100+ Positive Practices for Biodiversity around the World.

What differences have you noticed since the no-take zone was established?

Collaborative research is showing how proper protection of seabed habitats from bottom-towed fishing gear supports the recovery of marine biodiversity, ecosystem function and populations of commercially important species.

For example, king scallops within the NTZ have increased significantly both in size and density (almost fourfold) since protection was put in place. Densities are now increasing outside the NTZ, in the MPA, where scallop diving is allowed, with a greater than sixfold increase since scallop dredging was prohibited in 2016.

King scallop among brittlestars. Credit: COAST

Data from 2018 showed numbers of legal-sized European lobster are over four times higher in the NTZ than in adjacent areas. Lobsters in the NTZ are also larger and produce 135% more eggs than seen outside a protected area. Local fishermen are witnessing a ‘spillover’ effect, leading to higher catches of lobster and scallop outside the protected area.

In the NTZ, total cover of both plants and animals growing on the seabed is approximately twice that in areas still open to scallop dredging. In the South Arran MPA the total density of marine life has more than doubled.

What is so important about the marine ecosystems you’re working to protect?

These habitats are recognised globally as some of the most biodiverse and productive marine areas. They include, but are not limited to, kelp beds, seagrass, maerl beds and rocky reefs. These areas are essential for many fauna and flora species including commercially important species in Scotland such as cod, haddock and whiting at various stages of their lives.

Seagrass beds are biodiversity havens and vital carbon sinks. Credit: COAST

Temperate marine reserves can help restore biodiversity and seabed habitat structure; they also have a role in helping combat climate change. All the South Arran MPA habitats contribute to the storage of so-called blue carbon. Maerl beds, kelp forests, seagrass beds and mud are particularly important blue carbon habitats in the MPA and the Lamlash Bay No Take Zone. In the 2017 assessment of the contribution of Scotland’s MPAs to carbon storage, the South Arran MPA was assessed as providing an estimated total carbon stock above 8,000 tonnes per km2, equating to almost 2.25 megatonnes of carbon.

How has biodiversity loss affected your community?

The Clyde has a long history of fishing, but in the mid 1980s there was a catastrophic decline in the populations of fish stocks, essentially due to a series of poor fisheries management decisions. These decisions allowed overfishing and also opened up inshore waters to bottom trawl and dredge fisheries, where the former had previously been prohibited. This resulted in damage to seabed habitats and loss of the marine life they supported.

Net gains - Protecting biodiversity and fisher livelihoods

Seabed damaged by dredging for scallops. Credit: COAST

The Firth of Clyde ecosystem is less biologically complex than it once was, and therefore less resilient to environmental fluctuations. This also has knock-on effects for the local economy. The last 35 year have seen a 70% decline in commercial fishing jobs in the Clyde, and in the last 25 years recreational sea angling jobs have decreased by 90%, equating to a loss of approximately £10 million in annual tourism revenue. It has been estimated that Arran loses up to £2 million per year in lost sea angling revenue alone due to the biodiversity loss in our seas.

Are you optimistic about the future of Scotland’s seas?

In general, yes. We believe that the recovery in the Lamlash Bay NTZ and South Arran MPA provides a blueprint that could be replicated in seas elsewhere. There is a social and economic case for the sustainable spatial management of Scotland’s inshore waters, as marine tourism accounts for 14% of all tourism in Scotland, and contributes to 4% of Scotland’s economy – this is equivalent to the contribution made from fisheries and aquaculture combined.

Ultimately, it is local communities who have the power to demand and effect change, and that’s why we worked with FFI to establish the Coastal Communities Network, which now has 18 like-minded community groups, working together to build community capacity for marine conservation across Scotland’s coast. Local communities organising themselves in this way, and demanding a real voice in the management of what is legally a public asset and resource, is crucial to get politicians to regulate our marine environment effectively. We stand with the Our Seas coalition on this, collectively holding the Scottish government to account as we demand binding marine legislation that delivers real change.

A powerful collective voice for local conservation. Credit: COAST

If given a platform at COP26, what would be your message to decision-makers in Glasgow?

We are living in a climate crisis and the youth of today are scared, knowing that failure to act could have major implications for their future. Scotland’s seas provide a solution to both climate change and biodiversity loss. But we need to conserve what we still have and help recover what was once there; our marine environment must be cared for as a whole if it is to thrive and support local livelihoods. Communities have a vital role in taking action, and are in a unique position to help tackle these issues, but we are in need of better support to survey, monitor, research and manage our coastal waters.

If you could bring COP26 delegates to just one place that epitomised the importance of your work at COAST, where would it be, and why?

I’d direct them to the substantial flame shell bed that volunteer divers discovered just last year. Why? Because living reefs like these create an important habitat and enhance biodiversity in the area. These living reefs are not only biodiversity power houses, providing key nursery grounds for juvenile fish and commercially important scallops, they are vital blue carbon stores which can help increase our resilience to climate change.

Flame shell. Credit: COAST

Furthermore, the discovery was made by local recreational divers and citizen scientists and highlights the invaluable contribution of community groups and citizen scientists in helping survey and monitor the marine environment around our shores, much of which is done on a voluntary basis without any financial assistance from Marine Scotland.

Finally, the discovery demonstrates the value of all the work the people on Arran put in to secure protection for our seas, to help recover the marine wildlife, and to safeguard it for the future. If they hadn’t fought for this, would the bed still be there?