What happened in Loch Carron is a window into the bright future that could exist along our coastline and a lifeboat moment for sustainable fishing in Scotland. It shows what can be achieved with popular will, local support and political leadership – that the guardianship of our seabed for future generations is possible, and is a good thing for coastal communities.
On Friday 17th May, a diverse group including local fishermen, divers, marine scientists, school children, campaigners, and a local politician, gathered in Plockton to celebrate Loch Carron becoming a permanent Marine Protected Area. Some literally gathered in Loch Carron itself, snorkelling and diving to see first-hand what lies below the waves.
Back in April 2017 a scallop dredger had been witnessed towing its heavy and damaging dredges through the sea loch known by locals to be a rich and diverse seabed – a flame shell reef. Recreational divers were able to record the extensive and depressing damage and, by May 2017 public outcry had led the Scottish Government to designate it as an emergency Marine Protected Area (MPA).
These divers had helped to record the destruction and subsequently raise awareness: Sue Scott, Chris Rickard, George Brown, Neil MacInnes, Lynne Mackay, Andy Jackson, are among the unsung heroes who shone a light on the problem and prompted action (read ‘Loch Carron No More‘ for background). At this gathering, now two years later, some of these divers returned to the same area to look for signs of recovery.
Fortunately, because the reef is thought to be the largest in the world, undamaged and healthy sections of flame shells next to tow marks have been able to partially recolonise the dredger’s tracks. The seabed showed signs of recovery, though the flame shell reef itself appeared fragmented and thinner compared to the undamaged areas.
The Loch Carron celebration included a boat trip into the MPA, during which Maree Todd MSP and young environmental campaigners the Ullapool Seasavers snorkelled in the waters around North Strome exploring the life that lives under the waves. In the afternoon, people returned to shore for a seafood lunch of creel-caught langoustine, hand-dived scallops, mackerel, oysters, crab-claws. It showed the incredible quality of sustainable, local, Scottish seafood – the harvesting of all of this produce will benefit from protecting coastal waters.
There were many words spoken during the day, but few will echo more poignantly around the loch than those of a scallop diver:
Being a fisherman for the past 30 years has been depressing, watching our seabed being destroyed, piece by piece … It is great now to see this MPA being celebrated.”
The damage to our seabed has been an environmental and sustainability disaster, unfolding slowly for decades, below the water and out of view. Loch Carron has been an exception, after an episode of reckless scallop dredging, it was quickly closed using new legislation only enacted in 2010. Unfortunately much of the rest of Scotland’s seas have suffered decades of scallop dredging, out of public sight, until the reefs are gone, degrading a once rich seabed.
In recent decades following the decline in fish stocks, or the concentration of fish quota away from some of our fishing communities, scallop dredging has become widespread along a once fertile shoreline, raking and altering the life on the seafloor. Kelp-fringed sands have been ripped up, living maerl beds three feet deep crushed into dead gravel. Testimonies of older dredge fishermen recount the huge amount of ‘other stuff’ that was brought up in dredge hauls in the 1980s and ’90s. It will take years, potentially decades, for these areas to recover. Loch Carron is a beacon of the richness and productivity of our inshore waters, but also, we hope, a window in to what our seas can become again, if we treat them right.
We are not currently treating them right, damage to seabed is extensive, bycatch of juvenile fish remains the main reason why some stocks won’t recover, catch rates are falling. The scallop dredge fleet is literally fishing harder for less, the very definition of unsustainability. Everyone agrees something has to change.
However, change is difficult especially for those fishermen who are currently trawling or dredging in these areas. Many have turned to these fisheries following the decline in fish stocks or the fact that bigger boats operating out of the consolidated ports like Peterhead amassed much of the fishing quota.
Long term there are benefits to be had from allowing a recovery in our seas – profit margins for cod fisheries are nearly double prawn trawling, for example – but in the short term there is a cost and it would be hugely unfair for this to be borne by unsupported crew and skippers.
Rather than consider this cost, and the ways to recover our seas, the Scottish Government are currently doubling down on the damage. Where scientific advice states there should be no catch of West of Scotland cod or whiting, the government has issued thousands of tonnes of quota for each. Where ICES recommends all herring spawning grounds be protected, a piecemeal fortnight closure is considered.
Loch Carron shows what our seabed can become. The divers and snorkellers saw this first hand. The seafood showed just how productive such places can be, and how we can all benefit from them through high quality food and jobs. The fact the Government took such a bold step to protect these waters shows that courage and leadership is there. But Loch Carron remains just an example, it’s time it becomes the norm.
Local Fisherman Haydn Mackenzie Piping in Lochcarron Marine Protected area. pic.twitter.com/hEVUcbm6SO
— Alasdair Hughson (@AlasdairHughson) May 17, 2019
Over the coming months, the Scottish Government is consulting on the Future of Fisheries Management. If you have been interested by what happened in Loch Carron, then take part – the sea, and the fish in it, belong to no-one and everyone. We should all have a say in their future.