A CALL FOR KELP
Guy Grieve looks beneath the surface at the kelp forests
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