The Community of Arran Seabed Trust

READ about how two divers created the foundations for a thriving community-led organisation working to protect their coastal wildlife.

As well as community engagement, the fledgling COAST team soon realised that it also had to confront a history of poor management of the marine environment. In those early days, prior to devolution in 1999, it was equally apparent that there was little appetite for marine reserves from the then Scottish Office.

The value of having communities that were willing and able to offer practical solutions locally – solutions that could then be scaled up as part of a wider strategic vision – seemed lost on the powers-that-be. “Instead, we were told what was not possible and that we must wait for appropriate legislation before being able to progress our plans,” says Howard.

But the local community demonstrated rather greater openness to change. One night in 1998, Howard and Don gathered together all six Arran-based commercial fishermen – creelers and shellfish divers all – to explain their idea of creating an area closed to fishing within Lamlash Bay and how it would improve the local marine environment. By the end of the night, all understood the thinking behind the proposal.

During the discussion it became clear that a No Take Zone covering the entirety of the bay would have little support as it would prevent local angling and creeling from taking place, but it was agreed that a portion of it could be set aside.

It was suggested where the boundaries of such a zone could be placed, with a view that Lamlash Bay could be easily geographically defined, with a clear entrance and exit from either end of Holy Island making it obvious when any fishing boat had entered the area.

COAST talk to First Minister Jack McConnel

By this time, Howard and Don had also gathered together an influential ‘brains trust’ of pro bono advisors from elsewhere. It was a support network that began with Bill Ballantine, who advised from afar, and soon extended to other key figures, including world renowned marine scientists such as Professor Callum Roberts and Dr Julie Hawkins.

Help too came in the form of devolution. With fisheries a devolved issue, and closer proximity to decision makers in the Scottish Parliament, Howard and Don made it their business to be in regular communication with MSPs of all political persuasions. The same applied to the Inshore Fisheries Branch within the new Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department, the Crown Estate, Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot) and North Ayrshire Council.

They learned fast – about community, public engagement, use of the media, how the Scottish Parliament worked and who held what power.

Bill Ballantine and Don Macneish

Later, a further key contact was made in the shape of Calum Duncan at the Marine Conservation Society. In March 2003, Calum trained Howard and other local divers in the Seasearch methodology, equipping them with the necessary skills to survey the seabed and submit records to the national Seasearch database.

In all, the citizen science records returned from the 2003 surveys included many new discoveries: a 4km-long expanse of seagrass in Whiting Bay which was home to many juvenile fish; an expanse of reef off Pladda alive with soft corals and anemones; and areas of healthy maerl beds, a fragile, coralline seaweed that takes decades to grow, elsewhere in Lamlash Bay. All are what are now known as Priority Marine Features – species that are a priority for conservation in Scotland’s seas.

It was a citizen science project that paid dividends almost immediately, and emphasised COAST’s growing credibility and standing. The following year, COAST fought a long campaign against an application for a sewage outfall pipe in Lamlash Bay during which it provided detailed ecological information, supported by photographic evidence, of the important marine features in the bay.

As a result, the outfall pipe was rerouted – a big win that was well received by islanders. Support for the COAST cause grew, both on the island and elsewhere. 

A diver carrying out a survey on the seabed.
Surveying dive © Howard Wood & COAST
Two men wearing suits.
Howard Wood and Tom Appleby 2015 © COAST

Success at last. A sigh of relief and time to relax? Yes and no. Within days of the designation there was an incursion by a scallop dredger, with the authorities appearing powerless to take any action. Already, the next challenge was apparent: compliance and enforcement.

Marine Scotland, the public body charged with enforcement of the No Take Zone, was hampered by having just one inshore fisheries vessel for the entire coastline of Scotland. So, in typical fashion, COAST took up the mantle. A suite of volunteers learned how to report suspicious fishing activity in the area to assist Marine Scotland in enforcement of the new rules.

Monitoring of the area was required not just for compliance of the law but also in respect of the protection given to the marine life within the No Take Zone. Again, COAST stepped up, enlisting local divers and other islanders to work alongside scientists to monitor the protected area.

Transitioning from being a voluntary, community-based organisation to having an employee, an office and funding commitments was a huge step change at the time.

Andrew Binnie

In its first years, science was the priority – the kind of repetitive year on year research that is so key for building a picture of species recovery. Collaborating with leading research universities, including York, Glasgow, Stirling, Edinburgh and Napier, COAST was able to demonstrate significant increases in the abundance and diversity of marine life within and, over time, beyond the No Take Zone.

That return of life, and the years of struggle that preceded it, also created the conditions for something more. In early 2011, COAST became a constituted charity, securing funding for three years and employing Andrew Binnie as its first official member of staff. Andrew had just finished an MSc in aquatic system management as a mature student and, prior to that, had worked in natural resource management around the world, including on the Isle of Eigg.

“Transitioning from being a voluntary, community-based organisation to having an employee, an office and funding commitments was a huge step change at the time,” recalls Andrew, who remains on COAST’s community advisory panel today.

The main thrust of his role soon became clear. With the Scottish Government having committed to the designation of MPAs around Scotland, it was mooted that COAST might explore the idea of a third-party proposal for an MPA around the south of Arran.

With the No Take Zone already attracting increasing numbers of recreational divers, it was considered a move that could potentially benefit not just sustainable fisheries but also tourism on the island. “I felt we should be part of that process and almost immediately started working on a proposal,” says Andrew.

The initial thinking was for an MPA to cover the remainder of Lamlash Bay, but Andrew sensed an opportunity for greater gains. “Part of my job was to scale up the ambition for the MPA,” he explains. “I suggested that we put in a proposal, which is almost what we arrived at in the end, going out to three nautical miles around the whole of the south of Arran.”

Such a proposal was a challenge as COAST did not at the time have research records for the entire area. However, with many more survey dives providing meticulous data, plus additional survey records from NatureScot, it was able to back up a proposal for a nature conservation MPA based on an even wider range of priority marine features that had previously been identified.

When the South of Arran MPA proposal was submitted in May 2012, it contained different levels of fishing restrictions: a ban on scallop dredging across the entire area; a ban on prawn trawling in all but a few outer edges; and four areas that banned fishing altogether due to the presence of marine features that required an extra level of protection.

Three of those areas contained maerl beds that are sensitive to any kind of bottom impact fishing, while a fourth area just off Whiting Bay is home to one of the largest known seagrass meadows in the Firth of Clyde.

In July 2014, the Scottish Government announced 30 new MPAs in Scotland including the South Arran MPA. Covering an area of around 280km2, it became the first and still only community developed MPA in the country.

But while delighted, designation was only half the battle; like so many of Scotland’s MPAs – then and now – the South of Arran MPA was a ‘paper park’ only. “You can designate an area but if there is no management of it and enforcement then it makes little difference,” notes Andrew.

Once again, COAST led community education efforts and rallied locals to keep the issue high on the political agenda. In the end, some 14,000 signatures raised in support of the proposal, a compelling evidence base and strong media interest was enough to fend off resistance from the mobile fishing sector.

Two years later, following continued seabed surveys to evidence the importance of enforcement – including the dive when Jenny Crockett eyeballed her first lobster – the MPA was finally legally enforced.

A map showing the marine protected areas around the south coast of the Isle of Arran.
MPA Map 2020 © COAST

Almost 30 years on from Howard and Don’s initial efforts to protect their local waters, the COAST story resonates far beyond the shores of Arran. The project has collected a host of environmental awards and accolades, with one in particular standing out: in 2015, Howard became a proud recipient of the Goldman Environment Prize, the world’s most prestigious award honouring grassroots environmental activists.

It was an award that put COAST on the international stage – with the prize money also helping pay for the establishment of the Discovery Centre. In what was a memorable year for Howard personally, he was also awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to the marine environment.

And around Scotland, COAST’s work helped inspire the formation of the Coastal Communities Network, a platform of community-led groups all committed to the preservation and safeguarding of Scotland’s coastal and marine environments.

Facilitated by the conservation charity Fauna & Flora International, and now comprising almost 30 partner groups, it’s an example of how others have felt empowered to increase grassroots participation in marine management.

Meanwhile, back on Arran, the COAST team continues to push for the most effective model for managing its own waters. Currently, the MPA designation brings a responsibility on statutory authorities to take into account impacts on priority marine features using spatial management of fisheries – in other words what fishing activities can take place and where.

Although an important first step – and more than most Scottish MPAs have in place – there remains no limit on what people can legally take from fishing activity within the MPA and, crucially, no proper understanding of what that level of take might mean in terms of providing for fisheries in the future.

“There is no action from the Scottish Government to develop a site-level management plan for MPAs around Scotland, so that’s on us,” explains Lucy Kay, COAST’s MPA Project Officer, who is currently working on a community-led plan for protected areas around Arran.

“When well-managed, MPAs are about research, monitoring and compliance, with all three properly resourced. But we are still a long way from that.”

Together with other coastal communities, COAST is now calling for tracking to be fitted to all fishing vessels irrespective of their size or gear. “We’d also like the development of a public portal that shows where vessels are fishing, as is the case in countries such as Norway,” adds Lucy. “As the sea is a public resource, the public should be able to see how it is being exploited.”

And as a member of the growing Our Seas coalition, COAST continues to push for a reintroduction of an inshore fishing limit around Scotland. “It was there before and should be there again,” believes Howard, who has recently retired from COAST’s Board of Trustees. “Scotland has committed to meeting a new Global Biodiversity Framework by 2030 but will get nowhere near it unless it brings in an inshore limit or closes significant areas to bottom-towed gear.”

So much has changed, but so much remains the same. For Howard and the COAST team, the work has only just begun.

As the sea is a public resource, the public should be able to see how it is being exploited.

Lucy Kay, COAST MPA Project Officer

Visit the Community of Arran Seabed Trust website to find out more.

All videos and images courtesy of Howard Wood and COAST.

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