Think of Scotland and no doubt a multitude of images will come to mind: rolling hills, kilts, sea lochs, bagpipes, whisky, castles…
For me, now, when I think of Scotland, images innately entwined with breath-taking coastlines and busy inshore waters flood into my mind. For me, Scotland is dramatic cliffs and sea caves; it’s prawns and lobsters and scallops; it is a sea eagle flying to a treetop nest on a tiny skerry; and it is views of silent munros and secluded lochs on my long solo drives.
Since making the small leap over from Northern Ireland to Scotland almost eighteen months ago I’ve had the opportunity to not only truly appreciate the breath-taking beauty of her coastlines but also the energy, passion and determination of the people living along them.
As a Marine Community Support Officer, I offer support to existing or emerging grassroots groups living along the Scottish coast who want to have more say in the management of their local seas. My role is responsive, helping groups who request my support to meet their own unique objectives. I gather an ongoing sense of various community groups’ experiences, offer access to relevant knowledge and expertise, and work toward connecting the groups together to ultimately support a self-functioning network of coastal community groups across Scotland.
But what’s it all about?
From most people I know or meet along the way I often hear that I am a “lucky sod” who has one of those jobs where every day I get to do something that I care about – and it’s true. I don’t just get to focus on my love (and fascination) of the ocean but I also get to support working toward, in the long term, the more equitable and democratic management of its resources.
The ‘wanting a healthy ocean’ part is quite straight-forward to most I guess, but beyond that – once you start to unravel the connections between coastal communities, their sense of place, and the sea – it all gets slightly more complicated. Cue curious friends and family wondering why exactly I keep flying out to a tiny little island in the middle of the North Sea, home to just over 50 inhabitants (if you’re curious, it’s Fair Isle…and if your curiosity continues, it’s because we’ve been supporting the community there with a Marine Protected Area proposal).
Coastal communities basically just want to be part of the solution for keeping our seas healthy. They want a say in how their local seas are managed because they recognise that the quality of their livelihoods depend upon the seas being healthy enough to make a long-term return – whether that return is a healthy number of prawns in a creel pot or scallops in a mesh-bag, a peaceful and picturesque view from a B&B patio, a whale breaching during a wildlife tour, or a diverse rocky shore ready to be explored by a class of school kids.
Over the last several decades however, with a growth in the political voice of commercial fishery representatives, there has been little space for the balanced representation of all sectors of society who use these resources.
Scottish Marine Protected Areas – an opportunity for real change?
Like many countries around the world, Scotland has (in July 2014) designated a suite of marine protected areas (MPAs) which could offer a great opportunity for change. Although these MPAs are primarily designed to meet EU biodiversity criteria, a well-managed MPA network will also benefit ecosystems and enable healthier and more productive seas.
The complexities of our marine ecosystems underpin the productivity of our waters. MPAs can help ensure this complexity remains, and can help safeguard more vulnerable areas from, for example, particular types of fishing methods.
Protecting inshore waters can be particularly important in this regard, as these shallow habitats provide important shelter and structures for young fish, making them key nursery grounds for many commercial species.
Some fishing methods are inherently less damaging than others. Creel fishing for prawns or hand diving for scallops, for example, are traditional methods that have less physical impact on the seabed and are also highly selective, taking only the target species and thus avoiding the waste of by-catch. However it is fair to say that, even in these cases, local overfishing can occur without the correct safeguards in place.
Larger, more mobile practices such as trawling and dredging involve dragging heavy gear over potentially sensitive areas of seabed (which can damage the very structures that young fish rely on), and so are better suited to less vulnerable habitats. It is these kinds of safeguards for key and sensitive marine habitats (and associated species) that MPAs are now to introduce.
We currently await final decisions from the Scottish government on the detail of the management measures for a number of our MPAs. However it has been exciting for me to watch the active and growing engagement of communities from around Scotland’s coastline develop within the statutory MPA designation and consultation process. Not only that, but there are also good indications to suggest that the Scottish government has been listening to their concerns – strengthening the management plans for MPAs to ensure they deliver the nature conservation benefits for which they were designed.
For me, Scotland has not only become a special place, but also an exciting one for marine conservation and community empowerment – with the very recent enactment of the Community Empowerment Bill running parallel to all of this.
The same spirit of participation embedded in the current Scottish government’s ethos can be applied to coastal communities when planning the use of marine resources. I do feel that in Scotland right now there is hope for the genuine protection of our seas and the coastal communities who rely upon them.