Islanders a ‘big step’ forward in 25-year fight for marine protection

July 01, 2015


Islanders living in one of Britain’s remotest locations are celebrating a breakthrough after 25 years’ battling to win protection for their waters.

The community living on Fair Isle numbers just 55 and since 1989 they have been campaigning for a Marine Protected Area (MPA) to be established around the island.

Islanders have now been told that their proposal has been backed by an independent assessor and Marine Scotland has put it before ministers who are expected to decide shortly whether to put it out for public consultation.

“It’s amazing news,” said Kerri Whiteside, whose work as a community support officer has been part-funded by the Blue Marine Foundation. “It’s a great step forward.”

The breakthrough came after Ms Whiteside and the islanders revised the MPA proposals following a meeting with fishing organisations, particularly the crab and lobster sector which is active around Fair Isle.

Islanders agreed to make their plans for research into wildlife more specific and are now proposing studies into the extent to which the decline of sea birds is caused by climate change and how far the impacts are caused by fishing and other factors. Continued engagement with the fishing industry and other stakeholder groups is also part of the revised proposals.

The primary aim of the application for an MPA is to introduce effective management of the waters around Fair Isle to at least three miles from the shore. Management measures would be determined by the findings of scientific research.

People living on Fair Isle, an island just three square miles in area and roughly equidistant between the Orkneys and the Shetlands, have been calling for protection of their waters since 1989 amid concerns about the decline of fish stocks and sea birds.

Nick Riddiford, who as an ecologist living on the island has spearheaded the campaign on behalf of his neighbours, was delighted by the decision by Marine Scotland to put the MPA proposal to ministers.

“The independent assessor was happy with it and said it met most of the criteria,” he said. She made a recommendation to Marine Scotland and they have decided they will put it through to the ministers to seek their approval.

“We are by no means there yet but it is the biggest hurdle we have crossed in 25 years.”

He added: “The idea for an MPA came from one of the islanders who said, ‘The fish are going, the birds are dying.’ It was 1989.

“The islanders aren’t doing this as conservationists. They are just trying to do the right thing.”

Rather than the more common type of MPA in which nature conservation is the focus, Fair Isle is seeking a Demonstration & Research MPA, the only one is Scotland, in which “demonstrating, or carrying out research on sustainable methods of marine management or exploitation” is the primary purpose.

Fair Isle’s waters used to be a rich ground for fish and sea birds but by the 1980s fish stocks had collapsed and the birds, many of which were dependent on sand eels, were in decline.

Until stocks collapsed a mainstay of the island’s economy was fishing but today eco-tourism is the most important source of income. There are, however, concerns, that is wildlife continues to decline, tourism will slump.

Mr Riddiford said that islanders “lost all control” of their waters in previous decades but hope an MPA will restore the community’s say in how the seas around Fair Isle are treated.

Ms Whiteside’s role as a community officer for Fauna and Flora International (FFI) has been paid for by BLUE and other organisations, and involves collaborating with coastal communities across Scotland in seeking to protect the marine environment.

Clare Brook, CEO of the Blue Marine Foundation commented:

“The Blue Marine Foundation fully backs the creation of Marine Protected Areas in Fair Isle and the rest of Scotland.

“This is a perfect example of how Marine Protected Areas can bring benefits to island communities – in this case more fish mean more birds, more birds means more tourists, more tourists mean more money. Everyone wins.”


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