I was born in Yorkshire. I moved to Arran when I was 15. If you live on my side of the island you’re probably getting somewhere to being accepted as a local. If you live on the other side, which is much more local, it’s different. A farmer friend there said to me: ‘Until you have got three sets of grandparents in the graveyard. You’re not local.’
In the first ten years it was great because Arran put your dinner on your table. So there would be brill, a turbot or scallops. In the 1970s and 1980s, we would have a wee bag to pick up scallops for tea.
What happened was in the late 1980s, my colleague and my friend Don, with whom I founded COAST, and I were divers and we could see the decline. We met Bill Ballantine [pioneer of New Zealand’s No Take Zones] on holiday, and said: ‘This would be great to do off our island.’ Bill said: ‘Well, you need to be prepared because it will take you at least ten years.’ We tried our best with more failures than victories, but it actually took 13 years of really, really hard struggle.
There was change in legislation between 1962 to the final straw in 1964. The Clyde had been historically one of the biggest fishing areas in Europe. The Swedes used to come all the way over to fish the Clyde because it was so full of fish. Slowly it was overfished and then up until 1962, on the instigation of fishermen, all the fishing was for herring or whitefish.
There had been very little sea floor disturbance. In 1962, there was relaxation to allow for bottom trawling for prawns. And we have films from fishermen arguing on the pier, and the old fishermen said ‘You’ll knacker the ground. The food chain is very important for plankton.’
They were ignored because there’s good money to be earned for prawns. There was pressure and in 1962 they were allowed to trawl the bottom for prawns for the first time and ten again in the late 1970s and 1980s.
We were lobbying the fishermen’s reps – the department now called Marine Scotland – to move forward with this trial [the No Take Zone]. We wrote letters. It became obvious that [the government] wasn’t going to give it to us unless we had community backing.
Of course, you see it as a diver, healthy habitats and healthy sea beds are needed as nursery areas, particularly inshore. Scandinavian countries prize these areas. They do not allow fishing more than three miles inshore because these areas are so important as fish nurseries. Norway’s recreational fishing industry is worth hundreds of millions.
A lot depends on what kind of management is put in. If we were talking, say, that Arran became a marine-protected area, then they would ban dredging in chunks in order to protect little habitats here and there.
The science tells you a different story. The interesting thing is that since the change in legislation in 1984, you see a huge increase [in catch] followed by a complete tail off. If you wanted to implement management that looks sensible from the best science, include input from fishermen – who you want to succeed in a sustainable way. Then whenever there’s a dispute, hand it over to the lawyers. That would be the best way, but I don’t think it will ever happen.
Present proposals by the government are unmanageable. We know from seven years of compliance in the No Take Zone that the government does not have the resources. We have one inshore patrol boat for a coastline longer than France’s. England has 39 inshore patrol boats, and Scotland has just one.
The Clyde has shifted into a simplified ecosystem with the top of the food chain gone. It’s a simplified food chain of prawns and crustaceans. The fish are not reaching maturity.
As a result of all of this work, they’re now calling me an environmentalist, which I never thought I’d call myself. A lot of people connected to the land look after it better because it’s a survival technique for them, their children and their grandchildren. And we’ve got away from that. So would you call a native person from the Amazon an environmentalist?
If I was starting this again, I’d start saving as much money as I could for the best lawyers I could find. It’s not all down to the lawyers, of course – you need the public backing as well. But I think the only thing the present government is really afraid of is legal action.
1995 Founded the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST)
2008 First No Take Zone established
2012 Submits a proposal in 2012 to designate the South Arran Sea as a Marine Protected Area (MPA)
2014 The Scottish government announced 30 new MPAs in Scotland including the South Arran MPA