Guy Grieve looks be­neath the sur­face at the kelp forests

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

For a long time now I’ve been talk­ing to my youngest son about a plan for us to dive to­gether in one of the many ar­eas of kelp for­est that abound in the shal­lows off the coast of Mull. Of­ten I find my­self swim­ming through th­ese ex­cep­tional ar­eas of tem­per­ate ma­rine fe­cun­dity as I go about my job as a scal­lop diver. And ev­ery time it feels like a pro­found priv­i­lege, just as it would walk­ing through ma­ture na­tive wood­lands or jour­ney­ing through any cor­ner of this ex­quis­ite planet which has been left mer­ci­fully un­touched.

Thank­fully, un­like forests on land, our kelp forests re­main lush like mag­nif­i­cent emer­ald gar­dens. They are the last re­main­ing nat­u­ral fe­cund zone left in the in­shore wa­ters as due to their need to grow on a rocky base the ground they’re on can­not be eas­ily dredged, un­like ev­ery­thing else past the kelp line.

Re­cently the kelp forests came un­der threat when a li­cence was re­quested by a com­mer­cial con­cern to dredge 30 tonnes of kelp per year from the West Coast is­lands and main­land coast­lines of Scot­land. On hearing this my heart sank. As it is, thanks to scal­lop dredg­ing, all ar­eas out­side of our Ma­rine Pro­tected Ar­eas now re­sem­ble car parks, mono­cul­tures of rub­ble-strewn obliv­ion de­void of all three-di­men­sional life.

The Scot­tish Govern­ment have been ac­tively look­ing at the pro­posal, al­though it has so far been thwarted by the Scot­tish Green Party which is the sole po­lit­i­cal party in the UK that un­der­stands that our only true wealth both now and in the fu­ture is our en­vi­ron­ment. Mark Ruskell, Green Party MSP for Mid-Scot­land and Fife, suc­cess­fully se­cured an amend­ment to the Crown Es­tate Bill to pro­tect Scot­land’s kelp forests.

As usual, the kelp dredg­ing pro­posal was short­ter­mist. Yes al­gi­nates are use­ful, and a com­po­nent in many prod­ucts from medicine to cos­met­ics to food, but in­stead of de­nud­ing our im­por­tant un­der­wa­ter forests, why not pro-ac­tively sup­port re­search into farm­ing kelp? The Scot­tish As­so­ci­a­tion of Ma­rine Science, lo­cated just out­side Oban, has been work­ing on this for years and is ab­so­lutely strapped for cash.

In­stead, this pro­posal smacked of the typ­i­cal min­is­te­rial ten­dency to fo­cus on the ‘big man’ and ig­nore the mas­sive so­cial and eco­nomic value of small scale op­er­a­tors. Hand gath­er­ers of seaweed are re­quired to list ev­ery sin­gle in­ver­te­brate by­catch. Would this be the case with the 30 tonnes ripped up by dredg­ing? Hand har­vesters care­fully cut a lit­tle up the kelp stalk, leav­ing the base of the kelp still at­tached to the rock so it can re­grow. Would this be the case with the dredg­ing? Low im­pact high value pro­duc­ers need to be sup­ported and al­lowed to flour­ish be­cause, in real terms, it is the only ac­tiv­ity that is sustainable.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Ma­rine Plan kelp is a pri­or­ity ma­rine fea­ture that needs to be pro­tected due to its huge im­por­tance as a nurs­ery for fish and shell­fish, as an im­mense car­bon store, and as a buf­fer against se­vere weather.

Much like the in­sid­i­ous be­lief that it is okay to dredge and trawl around ‘spe­cial fea­tures’ within our MPAs, it is clearly wrong to think that you can take a large quan­tity of one species out of the ma­rine ecosys­tem with­out af­fect­ing ev­ery­thing else. It is equiv­a­lent to, on land, clear­ing en­tire forests away to leave an an­cient oak stand­ing.

Within the MPAs, this prin­ci­ple will doubt­less lead to the de­struc­tion of as yet undis­cov­ered spe­cial fea­tures and plant and an­i­mal life as we still don’t have a full un­der­stand­ing of what’s down there. And be­yond the frankly silly reliance on pro­tect­ing ‘spe­cial fea­tures’, the true and abid­ing value of our MPAs is that dam­ag­ing mo­bile fish­ing is not al­lowed.

In our Firth Of Lorne MPA, I have seen ‘gravel banks’, which some would say sup­port no life, be­com­ing the habi­tat for an in­creas­ingly com­plex range of fish and shell­fish rel­a­tively soon af­ter be­ing pro­tected from dredg­ing. Th­ese ar­eas would be wiped out if mo­bile fish­ing was al­lowed to dredge them again as the lob­by­ists would wish.

Un­for­tu­nately all this comes down to ‘out of sight out of mind’. The sea would be much bet­ter pro­tected if peo­ple could see be­neath its sur­face and could wit­ness, as I do ev­ery day, the vastly com­plex, beau­ti­ful and fas­ci­nat­ing ecosys­tems that ex­ist down there. Once gone they can never be re­placed.

Scot­tish mag­a­zine Colum­nist of the Year

“Our only true wealth both now and in the fu­ture is our en­vi­ron­ment

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