Do we want MPAs?

24 Oct 2013

north_west_sea_lochs_and_summer_islesOver 30 events have been held across Scotland since August about government plans to develop a network of MPAs. Peter Cunningham, biologist at the Wester Ross Fisheries Trust – who attended an event in Poolewe – says that local engagement with the proposal is essential…

Around 30 local people attended our local Marine Protected Area (MPA) drop-in event in September. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) staff were on hand to explain the North West Sea Lochs and Summer Isles MPA proposal and offer more information about the underpinning science. It provided a very useful forum to air and discuss emerging views on the proposed MPA. The proposed MPA encompasses an area of 611km2 and was the combination of SNH science  and a 3rd party proposal by the communities of Gairloch, Wester Ross and Loch Ewe.

Cllr Richard Greene, and chair of the NW Inshore Fisheries Group, attended the meeting and outlined some of the concerns of fishermen, many of which are in relation to the ‘burrowed mud’ habitat. The proposed management objective is to conserve this habitat with existing populations of tall sea pens. At a meeting in Ullapool in September, local inshore fishermen had expressed concerns about prospects of further restrictions on their activities.

Management solution?
However, it seems that so long as fishing effort in the area does not increase, then there would presumably be no change in the conservation status of the tall sea pen populations and the burrowed mud habitat. It may be that one management solution may allow the existing locally based prawn trawlers within the proposed MPA area to continue to operate within the area with greater say in management; but to restrict access to the larger nomadic trawlers from outwith the area. In this way, could the proposed MPA actually help local inshore fishermen?

Creeling in the area – as it is carried out at present – does not significantly threaten any of the proposed features so far as I know; indeed the presence of creels in some of the sea lochs may have done much to prevent sea bed damage to these areas to date. For the shallow water habitats – including maerl beds and flame shell beds – the main damage is caused as a result of visits by nomadic scallop dredgers from outwith the area. In August, a Barra-registered scallop dredger worked the mouth of Loch Ewe down at least as far as Isle Ewe and many people saw it. I haven’t heard a single local voice in support of allowing scallop dredging to continue to operate within the area. Would it not be sensible if a ban was put in place as soon as possible to keep scallop dredgers out of the area pending designation?

Fish farm companies are required to carry out detailed impact assessments of the damage they will do to the seabed prior to being given permission to operate, and yet a scallop dredger can with seeming impunity cause damage to sea grass beds, maerl beds, horse mussel beds, flameshell beds and many other seabed habitats considered to be of importance to other finfish and shellfish fisheries.

One assumes that those who harvest scallops in the area by diving will firmly grasp the opportunity to support the MPA proposals – if properly managed, the MPAs will likely increase levels of production of scallops and divers will be able to market their produce as being “sustainably sourced” from within a Marine Protected Area.

Explaining why this is important
Earlier in the day I attended the ‘Marine Magic’ event at Gairloch Primary school. It was a great event organised as a part of the RSPB’s Seeviews Project with primary school children from schools around the Gairloch area attending, and activities led by the Marine Conservation Society team, Highland Seashore Project, NTS Inverewe countryside ranger, storytellers, myself and one or two others. The kids from Poolewe Primary school were very knowledgeable about fish and the sea; the Gairloch kids were also pretty quick! However, there is still a very big job to do to explain to youngsters and older people what a ‘maerl bed’ is, what ‘kelp and sea weed communities on sublittoral sediment’ and ‘northern feather star aggregations on mixed substrata’ are, why they matter; and, crucially, why they need to be protected.

I showed the children one of the fan mussels that local fisherman Roddy McIver (Rotto) found in Loch Ewe several decades ago. The mussel is usually on display in Gairloch Museum below a letter from Dr Shelton, from the marine laboratory in Aberdeen, describing what it is. It was the biggest sea shell that most of the children or their teachers had ever seen (some had seen giant clams on TV). For me, the responsibility of looking after it for the day felt a bit like having to look after a stuffed Dodo or Great auk; the shell is rather fragile.

Rotto came along to the MPA drop in session during the evening. We got the sea charts out. He has dived all over Loch Ewe and showed the SNH MPA team where the fan mussels used to be on the map. People have forgotten how much has been lost. Many never knew. We hardly touched on sea angling and the potential to restore populations of sea fish (I’ve seen lots of young cod this year). The big challenge is to combine management objectives for fisheries with those for nature conservation. There are many potential win-win solutions and potentially some very good prospects for the local area compared to 28 years of mismanagement and exploitation.

The SNH team has done a good job in developing the proposals. However there is still much more work to do to raise levels of interest and awareness of the possible NW Sea lochs MPA consultation to those who live locally and are asked to participate and respond. The task is a complex one. The consultation response form is not easy to find on-line and when found is a bit confusing: not particularly user friendly. If the possible MPA was called the ‘Wester Ross MPA’ [which fits more easily into the box on the form] then that might help people to take a bit more interest in it.

SNH have done their bit; it’s now up to people around the possible MPA area and beyond to decide whether we want this MPA…

Peter Cunningham is a biologist for the Wester Ross Fisheries Trust.

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