UK ISLANDERS UNANIMOUS IN CALL FOR MARINE PROTECTION
Added: Wed 21st Mar 12
The entire population of one of the most isolated islands in the British Isles has backed demands for the waters that surround them to be protected to boost fish stocks.
Islanders from Fair Isle, between the Shetlands and Orkney, have applied to the Scottish Government for the waters around the island to be designated demonstration marine protected area.
The creation of the demonstration marine protected area (MPA) would allow research to take place that would allow restrictions on fishing to be introduced to measure how effective they are at protecting wildlife and in increasing the number of fish and other creatures in the region.
The islanders gave the proposal 100 per cent backing and have now sent a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for an MPA to be created because of the international importance of the seabirds and surrounding marine environment.
It is hoped the Scottish Government will agree to the demonstration MPA, including a no take zone of up to 10km2, being extended five km out to sea. Such a zone is expected to boost commercial stocks of fish and to help the critically endangered common skate recover.
The proposal has been made with financial support from the Blue Marine Foundation, sister organisation to Fish2fork, which was impressed at the determination of the islanders to be able to care for and protect the waters round their shores from overfishing.
Fair Isle residents wanted a full-blown MPA but were told by the Scottish Government that they didn’t qualify. But a demonstration MPA, which lasts for a set number of years before being lifted, would give marine life breathing space to recover.
“There is enthusiastic 100% support from the island community, all of whom derive direct or indirect benefit from a healthy, fully functioning marine environment,” the application stated.
Nick Riddiford, who is coordinating the application, said the sea is an important resource for the 70 people living on Fair Isle and fears that conditions will deteriorate if not protected.
“If it’s done properly there’s all sorts of benefits not just to us but to other small communities in Scotland. And it would offer Scotland the opportunity of demonstrating it is sustainable and looking after its marine resource.
“We are just trying to do our bit to make sure we are going to leave to the next generation what we had.”
Waters around Fair Isle have been heavily fished in the past and little commercial fishing has taken place since the collapse of the sandeel fishery which at its height in the mid-1980s saw landings of 1,000 tonnes a week. Other wildlife which has suffered include lobsters and crabs while bottom dredging is blamed for destroying a range of species such as sea fans.
However, the area remains an important nursery ground for commercial species including whiting, haddock, flounder, saithe and pollock. Juvenile cod can also be found in large numbers.
The loss of the sandeels has hit birdlife on the island and as long ago as 1989 the islanders were raising concerns that fishing levels were affecting animals such as puffins. Bird spotting is one of the primary reasons for people travelling to Fair Isle, which relies heavily on visitors for its economy.
One of the main aims of the proposed MPA is improve the availability of food to sea birds by banning fishing techniques that take sandeels and other small fish.
The islanders hope that technical measures such as limits on the size of vessels operating around Fair Isle and new rules on the types of gear used will eliminate catches of juvenile fish and bycatch of non-commercial species.
They are also anxious to restore lobster numbers to levels in the 1950s when one lobster would be caught for every two creels set. The no-take zone and limits on the number of creels allowed to be set are among the measures that are designed within five years to restore numbers to one lobster caught for every four creels set.
Common skate were caught historically by fishermen trying to catch haddock but none have been taken in the last 40 years – nor are there any commercial catches of haddock left.
In the mid-nineteenth century common skate were landed by the boatload around the UK but crashed with the advent of steam-trawling in the 1880s. They are now classified by the IUCN as critically endangered and Professor Callum Roberts, of the University of York, estimates they are “at least 1000 times less common today than they were in the mid-19th century”.
However, the MPA is expected to help the species to recover in number and the proposal document notes that there are indications, such as fresh egg cases washing up on the shore, that the common skate may be staging a comeback off Fair Isle.