A Briton has won one of the world’s most prestigious environmental prizes after leading an island community’s drive to create a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in its waters.
Howard Wood has devoted the last 30 years to protecting the waters off the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde and was today named as the first Scottish winner of the £175,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, the ‘Oscars’ of the environment.
The South Arran MPA was designated by the Scottish Government in July 2014 after a 13-year community-led campaign spearheaded by Mr Wood.
He co-founded the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) in 1995 after observing with dismay the collapse of fish stocks off the island. He worked with Arran residents and businesses first to establish a small zone in Lamlash Bay where the seabed would be protected from all fishing, and more recently to persuade the Scottish Government to designate the larger MPA.
South Arran is the first community-led MPA to be created in the UK waters with local people proposing and developing the scheme themselves. During Scotland’s official consultation on where MPAs should be created, the people of Arran sent almost 1,400 responses – 10 per cent of the total for the whole of Scotland – with 99 per cent backing the South Arran scheme.
Speaking shortly before being presented with the Goldman prize at a ceremony in San Francisco, California, he said: “I’m delighted to have got it but it’s recognition of the community and wider public who over many years have backed our aims.
“We have huge support from the island. Without that support it’s impossible to influence the government. It’s people power that matters.”
Mr Wood is highly critical of fisheries regulations that have led to whitefish stocks collapsing and the sea bed being torn up by scallop dredging and other destructive fishing techniques, but he believes there should be a healthy fishing industry around Arran.
Rather than destructive trawling and dredging, however, he and his fellow islanders are anxious to see fishing carried out sustainably and are keen to see well-managed creeling and scallop hand-diving carried out around Arran.
Until the 1990s an annual fishing festival was held on Arran but it had to be shut down because the catches that in the 1960s were measured in tonnes had collapsed to just 13kg by the last year of the event.
Dismayed at the loss of fish – the Firth of Clyde was once one of the UK’s most productive fisheries – and angered at the destruction of the inshore seabed by scallopers and other fishing vessels, he co-founded COAST.
When COAST was set up one of its aims was to ensure the island’s economy, which had been badly dented by the loss of fishing and visitors who used to travel there for the angling, was restored and he is delighted that the 5,000 population on Arran now have a £55 million annual turnover.
While the designation of South Arran MPA is seen as a step in the right direction he fears that the public will once again be let down by weak measures that favour the short term interests of the fishing industry.
“In Scotland the [protected] areas are a good start and in the right places but the proposed management is the status quo. They are paper parks,” he said.
The proposed fisheries management rules are so weak and unambitious, he said, that they will achieve little more than saving the remnants of what used to be a hugely valuable and productive sea floor: “All they are doing is the bare minimum. It’s relic management. There’s no recovery.
“Every issue, every problem, whether it’s MPAs or not, all comes back to the complete lack of effective management by the Scottish Government.
“They aren’t receptive to coastal communities that aren’t involved in big fishing. They aren’t receptive to small scale fishing like creelers. There’s a big divide between the haves and the have nots.
“It’s nothing new. Previous administrations have been as bad. In England sometimes the Ministers can favour more ambitious policies and the civil servants reel against it. It’s worse in Scotland. There’s a complete failure of inshore fisheries in Scotland.”
The 2.67km2 No Take Zone at Lamlash Bay has, he added, proved such a success that he has launched an online petition urging the public to demand one in every Scottish MPA. In just six years researchers have seen numbers of lobsters rise 189 per cent and juvenile scallops by 350 per cent, and fishermen are expected to benefit as the animals spill out into areas that can be fished. Overall, creatures living on the seabed in the NTZ are twice as abundant.
Eventually, he hopes fisheries rules effective enough to restore the Firth of Clyde to historic levels of productivity. This, he said, is as much in the fishermen’s interests any anyone else’s.
Mr Wood is one of six people from around the world to receive the Goldman award today, and one of two who won it for work on MPAs. Jean Wiener, of Haiti, was honoured for creating his country’s first MPAs.
In Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Mr Wiener worked with local communities to persuade them it was in their interests to protect mangroves and marine areas which had suffered from years of overfishing.
Two MPAs were designated by the government in 2013 and he is now working to introduce rigorous management and to extend the project to create a network of protected waters around the country.
While working with local people he helped them to find alternative work to fishing, such as creating tree nurseries, introducing them to beekeeping, and getting employment to carry out research and mangrove restoration.