Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Conserving a coral or a community?

In the latest post from our H2 Marine Resources students, Eoina Rodgers explores the complex issue of cold water corals and island communities.... 

The conflicts between conservation and community have recently been highlighted with the proposed Special Area of Conservation at the East Mingulay site on the Outer Hebrides, west of Scotland. The areas East of the Isle of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides play host to reefs composed of a cold-water coral, Lophelia pertusa. These reefs are the only known complexes of their kind in inshore UK waters and are therefore a candidate for an SAC.
The Marine Scotland Act has indicated a transition in the way in which Scotland’s seas are planned, licensed and managed. The act has empowered Marine Protected Areas and ensured that certain habitats and species are protected by scientifically selecting sites known as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). This is a requirement of the European Habitats Directive and reefs are listed within this as a habitat which the designations of SAC is necessary. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have led the consultation process on this SAC site. The proposed SAC at East Mingulay would safeguard nine reefs within an area of approximately 26km. 

There are fears on Barra that the implementation of an SAC could cause irreversible damage to the fragile fishing industry and economy of the island.  The locals are acutely aware of fishing bans in place in existing marine SAC sites around the UK and the concept of an SAC on their door step is an alarming one. Much of the community of Barra does not feel the SAC is necessary as the fishermen of the island claim to operate in a sustainable manner. It is felt that as the reefs are in good condition, it is evident the fishing industry is not having a negative effect upon the conservation of these habitats. In response to the plans the local action group, Southern Hebrides Against Marine Environmental Designations (SHAMED), have been vocal in their opposition to the plans and have suggested that there has been a flawed consultation and designation process.
When questioned, 64.7% of people on Barra did not feel that SNH were supportive of local fishing industries. People commented that there was ‘No local control’ and ‘(SNH) have in their minds already decided on the designation area with little or no consultation with local people who would suffer greatly due to this decision’.  Confidence in SNH is at its lowest in Barra and people feel alienated. An SAC at this site will undoubtedly have an effect upon the fishing industry of Barra. The community of Barra feel that they have been overlooked in favour of the conservation of this coral. The low levels of support for SNH, and in particular, their consultation process, are very evident - achieving balance between community and conservation is more challenging than ever.

'The SAC at the East Mingulay site may not prove to be wholly disadvantageous to the economy of Barra. For instance, with sizeable investment, tourism could develop. This could then potentially provide a surge in the numbers of people visiting Barra, using local  services. The disputes between the community and promoters of the SAC could be alleviated by the formation of an equal and proportional committee comprising of local members and officers, scientists etc. This would provide a medium for communication between the groups and would allow for more local control. This would benefit the fishermen, who claim to have conservation in mind, as they would have a channel to voice their concerns. For example, they could monitor the types of fishing occurring at these sites and could make suggestions as to which would not be a conservational issue and which could be a problem . Scientists and could provide guidance and appropriate information for decision making. Finding mechanisms that conserve the habitat, deliver economic opportunities, and ensure local control should be at the heart of the solution.


  1. From what you say here it seems that SNH want to put an SAC in just bacause there's cold water coral present. Surely it would be worth an assessment of local fishing practices to determine what impact these have on the reefs. Once this is done it would provide an indicator of what is necessary; total fishing ban, seasonal/gear restrictions, etc. If SNH could implement this it would encourage fisher participation and nurture a feeling that the fishers are being taken into account and not just being walked over.

  2. Would be interested to hear how many written responses you had in the recent consultation. I had a peek in the 'box' at the local coop on a few occasions and can't remember being overly impressed. If my suspicions are correct it would suggest that there is no great feeling locally one way or another.
    Having witnessed at first hand the damage caused by prawn boats on the seabed, I am amazed at the claim that the local boats fish in a 'sustainable manner'.
    Well done on being at least a bit objective in the report on what is a very subjective topic.

  3. We know so little about cold water corals such as Lophelia that it would be very difficult to say how susatinable the fishing practices are as we don't really know what the baseline is. Lophelia reefs are hugely diverse - a better understanding of this would surely help decisions for the future. A full assessment of the fishing practices would help to balance ecosystem conservation and economics.