COAST: A Marine Protection Success Story in Scotland - PART I

Battlegrounds Part One – Manuela de los Rios – COAST Conservationist

By Blake Butterfield – Co-Editor in Chief and Head Correspondent

A Quest is Spawned

Manuela de los Rios is the Communications Officer* for COAST, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust. It is one of the best examples of a community influencing meaningful policies of conservation and protection of formerly fished-to-exhaustion-or-worse marine environments. As Manuela explains, the Trust engages in communications, research and educational work to do just this.

She was asked about the history of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Arran, in the Firth of Clyde, off the West Coast of Scotland. This MPA includes Lamlash Bay where the first No Take Zone in Scotland was established, and where this story begins.

 Manuela de los Rios, snorkeling in Lamlash Bay, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Manuela de los Rios, snorkeling in Lamlash Bay, Isle of Arran, Scotland

How did COAST become established? Who is involved, and what are their roles? 

COAST was founded in 1995 by two local divers and fishers, Howard Wood and Don MacNeish, she begins the story. Their mothers would often ask them to fish something for supper and they would go out and succeed. They were used to diving  in the area and knew where the fish would be, where they spawned, etc. When, in the 1980s, the Thatcher government decided to end the 3-mile limit and open inshore waters to bottom trawling , they were quite shocked to see dredging happening right in their own Lamlash Bay. They could clearly see the impact this was having. An area full of life was literally being swept away and destroyed by large, heavy equipment that scraped along the seafloor, destroying the whole ecosystem. It wasn’t just Howard and Don who noticed, either. There were plenty of sea-anglers in those days and, while they were not diving and so could not see the full measure of the destruction, they all realized there were no big fish left.

Howard and Don realized they would not be able to make this happen on their own. They needed to engage with fishermen and they needed the support of the community.

Don traveled to New Zealand where he met Bill Ballantine, also known as the "father of marine conservation,” a pioneer in Marine Reserves. Don was excited to find that one could actually protect a marine space and let it recover. Full of energy over this discovery, he returned to Arran to share his vision with Howard and a few others. They thought, if it could be done in New Zealand, why not in Scotland, too? Thus, they began their quest to create the first No Take Zone (NTZ) in Scotland.

Getting Started

As Manuela tells it, they started off by talking to local politicians and sending letters to the government in London, where political control over Scotland remained at that time. Initial reactions from politicians were disinterested and not very encouraging. After some perseverance, however, some politicians began to show interest, recognizing that the idea had worked elsewhere. However, these lawmakers made it clear that they would need to have absolutely everyone on board. By everyone, they meant local fishermen.

Howard and Don realized they would not be able to make this happen on their own. They needed to engage with fishermen and they needed the support of the community. They would also require science to be on their side. However, when they and the government consulted with scientific bodies at the time, the impression was that the area had very little of worth. In other words, Manuela says, they needed to make the case for why to protect this area and not one with better known value; to show what makes this place special and why it should remain a part of the community's culture. They needed to collect evidence of what was living in their waters, what the community stood to lose, and what they might end up with.

They received support from many individuals from other organizations and universities, but the first person who came to Arran was the Marine Conservation Society’s Calum Duncan. Calum taught Howard and few others how to conduct Seasearch surveys, which trains volunteer divers on how to collect data in areas of concern. They got into photography and video in a big way, which was key, as they could then show the island community what they were seeing, a first for many. 

To recap, they found that you can’t just raise your voice as a small group of two or three people and hope to get much accomplished. They found three key areas they needed to focus on in order to accomplish their goal. Those were:

1)     Political Savvy: Who should they contact, and how should those persons be addressed? They needed to properly frame their proposal as well.

2)     Science and Technology: The evidence and data, and the imagery that helped build their supporter base.

3)     The Community: They needed to show that there is strong community support from both local people and fishermen, the users of the resource, for any proposal being put forth. 

Positive Numbers

Manuela told Sealives Initiative that between 1995, when COAST was founded, and 2008, the seabed bottom trawling and dredging continued unabated. Neither the government nor the fishing industry was going to apply the precautionary principle. Then, in 2008, after many letters, meetings and petitions, the very first community-led No Take Zone was created in Lamlash Bay. In 2014, the South Arran Marine Protected Area was designated by the Scottish government as an MPA covering approximately 280 square kilometers. This huge success has led to a great sense of ownership and pride in this island community of just over 5,000 where only a few perhaps view the term "No Take Zone" in a negative manner. But the essence is simply this: “If you don’t leave an area completely to itself to re-wild, to just leave it as it is, how can you ever tell what kind of difference you’re making? It’s like a living laboratory of the sea.”

 Manuela de los Rios, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Manuela de los Rios, Isle of Arran, Scotland

How can COAST tell what kind of difference their NTZ has made, then?

The answer is more science. For the past seven years, they have been collecting data in partnership with the University of York and a local creeler named Ian, who works for what used to be the “Arran Creelers.” For the purposes of science, and with special permission, they catch, collect information, and then release in the NTZ. These data are compared with various data collected from outside the NTZ at various distances. The crustacean research in the NTZ has been taking place since 2011, and it aims to assess the effects of the NTZ in preserving and enhancing their populations. Specifically, they look at the populations of the European Lobster and brown crabs to see what kind of recovery has occurred. For a separate research project with the University, they have also surveyed scallops.

The Isle of Arran is a great example of how science can get a community involved in a custodial manner over something as formerly esoteric as the marine life forms inhabiting the waters around them.

When contacted again for this piece, COAST told us, “These surveys involve contrasting the species, size and gender compositions inside and outside the NTZ, which will indicate whether a difference exists between the composition of the benthic ecosystem (the bottom layer of water, including some sediment layers) where zonal exclusion of fisheries exists, and the surrounding areas.” The numbers, Manuela says, have been, “amazingly positive.” They show the lobsters are becoming larger, breaking records each year with an average growth rate of 7%. Species are also more fertile, and the sea bed is regaining its diversity. In addition, the number of lobsters caught for scientific observation are increasing each year within the NTZ, with the catch between 2017 and 2018 increasing by 53%. 

Manuela says that while it has been proven that recovery is occurring in the NTZ, there needs to be more research done on spillover effects. Spillover means recoveries that may be happening in other, nearby areas as a result of the protected area in Lamlash Bay. COAST says local fishermen are reporting spillover effects in nearby regions, regularly catching specimens that had been tagged for research in the NTZ, but they do not yet have hard data.

This research is taking place because the community has pushed for COAST, along with interested scientists, volunteers and the University of York, to conduct it. It is not something the government has set up or funded. However, Scottish Natural Heritage, a government funded advisory board responsible for the monitoring of marine protected areas has initiated a participatory monitoring project now in collaboration with a network of communities like COAST. About 1% of COAST’s 2018 budget will be provided by them to purchase an underwater drone as part of this project. The Isle of Arran is a great example of how science can get a community involved in a custodial manner over something as formerly esoteric as the marine life forms inhabiting the waters around them.

Forging Ahead 

The ongoing involvement of the community includes six trustees of the local COAST group and twelve Community Advisory Panel (CAP) members who are “just diverse members from the community.” As well, there is a volunteer writer, retired teachers, and an engineer who all work alongside COAST’s three staff.

“They meet every two months, and they actually guide our work. They are the ones our small team reports back to. They make sure that what we do fits in with the community; that we are not treading on anybody’s toes, and that we are effectively going in the right direction, which is really important.” They also have about 30 active volunteers, a lot for such a small community. They do everything from helping to renovate their building, to gardening, design work and accounting. In the water, they have snorkelers, divers and photographers. The youngest CAP member, Luke, is not even yet 16 years old. Manuela laughs as she says he helps to “youth-proof” what they do.

A boat appeared in Lamlash Bay and suspicious activities began taking place. Within a few hours, they’d received five or six phone calls from different people and various local businesses, both on land and sea.

A number of their projects have summer research students, and some locals support these students while also learning from what they are doing. Again, outside involvement works as a catalyst for local involvement. “And that’s really great,” Manuela says, “because it creates local capacity in terms of learning about what’s out there and how to conduct the research. For example, during the last two years (2016 and 2017) students from different universities have been studying the status of seagrass beds, and snorkelers and volunteers went out with the students to help them map, observe and film the seagrass and the life around it.” COAST also has social media and events that volunteers participate in. The community is their eyes and ears. 

The Long, Silent Arm of the Law

In March 2018, she says there was an incursion into the NTZ. A boat appeared in Lamlash Bay and suspicious activities began taking place. Within a few hours, they’d received five or six phone calls from different people and various local businesses, both on land and sea. Everyone was “up in arms” that there was a boat putting creels out - pots or baskets usually used for catching lobster or crabs. In this case, however, they were creeling for whelks, or sea snails, an unusual harvest in that area.

The boat was not local, so they contacted Marine Scotland Compliance, who are responsible for taking care of such happenings. Marine Scotland Compliance has one boat to patrol all inshore fisheries. That boat, she remembers, took about a day to arrive. Meanwhile, the fishing vessel owner had been contacted and asked to return to pull up and empty its creels. After the boat returned, then left again, they had to call and ask if they could please be told whether or not the creel pots had been removed, as no one volunteered that vital information. The answers they received were unhelpful.

Asked whether anything else happened with the case, she says that everything, “kind of goes into a black box once you report it. And there is no chance that we can get more information.” In fact, they can only get more information once an investigation is completely closed, and even then only if they put in a Freedom of Information request. Still, she says, COAST does have a good relationship with Marine Scotland Compliance and, “they do their best with very limited resources from the government, it is just that the system is not right. It doesn’t work, for communities.”

Nor does it appear to work for someone like this writer, who just wants to see what kind of activity the Scottish government agency is currently engaged insofar as enforcing compliance through the legal system. According to their website, their last prosecution was in October of 2015, a year in which they had five successful ones. It has now been almost three years since that last one, however. Why? Maybe the seas of Scotland are remarkably full of law-abiding vessels. Maybe the vessels that are breaking the law find it far too easy to get away with such activities. Maybe the agency is not doing much in the way of prosecuting illegal actions occurring in their waters. Or maybe the courts and laws are now rigged in favor of those committing crimes on the seas and cases are lost. We simply do not know.

Next week, Sealives will publish Part II of Manuela’s story, including more on what happened with “The Creeler Incident.”

*Manuela has since moved from the Isle of Arran and is no longer working at COAST.