There’s a long echoing blast from the past in the Our Seas coalition campaign which launches later this month.
Very few – if any – will know it. But the call for trawlers to be banned from fishing within three miles of Scotland’s shoreline is the renewal of a campaign first born 90 years ago.
The newly formed Our Seas marine conservation coalition (coastal communities, fishing and marine protection groups) wants to stop trawlers destroying the sea bed, depleting fish stocks and local livelihoods. With much the same aims, the visionary Sea League was founded in December 1933 by Compton Mackenzie and John Campbell on the island of Barra. They sought legislation to ensure sustainable fishery in Scottish waters.
Decades ahead of his time, John Campbell – the man who would gift the island of Canna to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981 – saw trawling as a threat to sustainability. Now, almost 25 years after his death, the NTS is part of the coalition campaigning to reinstate a three-nautical-mile ban which was lifted in 1984.
The League’s tactics were a model of progressive campaigning. While the Our Seas campaign prepares to launch, it is worth looking back at the aims and strategy of the 1930s.
Without benefit of Twitter or Facebook, Campbell and Mackenzie set about gaining the unanimous support of island fishing communities.
‘Increase penalties for illegal trawling’
Mackenzie was incensed when he witnessed an English steamer working a mile offshore while a fisher protection cruiser carrying a government minister was anchored in Castlebay and did nothing.
Barra fisherman worked the inshore waters of the Minch by drift netting and long-lining – traditional, low intensity forms of fishing suitable to small sailing or low-powered boats. Their vessels were no match for steam trawlers from English parts dragging huge nets along the seabed on the way home from Icelandic fishing grounds. They took large quantities of fish, and the work of the Barra fish processors too.
Technically the law forbade trawling within three miles of the coast but it was not enforced. Mackenzie was incensed when he witnessed an English steamer working a mile offshore while a fisher protection cruiser carrying a government minister was anchored in Castlebay and did nothing. He sent a telegram to the prime minister but received a noncommittal reply from 10 Downing Street and decided to take action himself. On 20 December 1933, Mackenzie formed the Sea League with himself as chairman and John as one of the secretaries. They produced a leaflet in Gaelic and English and distributed it around the island. They wanted:
- A protected zone closed to trawlers for the benefit of fishermen from Barra Head to Tiree and the Butt of Lewis to Cape Wrath
- Increased penalties for illegal trawling and more effective policing of inshore waters
- Fines for illegal trawling to compensate and finance fisherman who wanted to start inshore fishing
The two men were amazed to discover that legislation from 1895 provided protection for local fishermen and covered waters up to 14 miles from the coast. In England a dozen protected fishery districts had been established from Cornwall to the Scottish border but there were none in Scotland. They began a petition to Inverness-shire county council to set up such districts.
Mackenzie and Campbell toured Barra and neighbouring islands of Eriskay and South Uist. When everyone who caught, bought or sold fish signed the petition they went further, to Benbecula, North Uist and Scalpay and received equally unanimous support. The movement caught the imagination of the islands. On the mainland however progress was slower.
It was 1964 before a fishery limit was established. John wrote to Mackenzie, ‘31 years almost to the day after the first Sea League meeting at Castlebay our policy had been put into effect – at least one if not two generations too late.’
He wrote later: ‘I have never been more thoroughly convinced of the justice of any cause than I was of the Sea League.’ Decades ahead of his time, he also saw trawling as a threat to sustainability. Local boats using traditional methods had been fishing the Minch for countless generations. Industrial tawling was to virtually exhaust the fishery in two generations.
Turning the tide?
There are other echoes from the nearer past. This is an update of a story first published in 2010 when Richard Lochhead, then Scotland’s Fisheries Secretary, condemned the waste endangering recovery of cod in the North Sea.
The new 2010 Scottish Marine Act announced ‘a major turning point in safeguarding the future of Scotland’s seas’ with enhanced powers of marine conservation and licensing. Yet Scottish Ministers have seemed reluctant to impose a ban which would protect inshore fisheries, instead offering to ban dredging in selected rare habitats. As the Guardian’s Severin Carrell reports, campaigners claim the ‘piecemeal approach’ has failed.
Now, the NTS, launching its new marine policy Turning the Tide: A Policy for the Protection and Use of the Marine and Coastal Environment, calls on the Scottish Government to reinstate the old legislation the Sea League fought for.
The Our Seas coalition is, once again, a renewed opportunity to protect a precious and fragile environment. But campaigners will need the energy, vision and determination of John Campbell. And that means never letting go.
This is an extract from The Man Who Gave Away His Island: Birlinn. Currently out of stock but available on Kindle. A new paperback edition is due later this year.
Scottish vessels land two-thirds of the fish caught in UK waters and other facts, Scottish Government
Future of fisheries management in Scotland, Scottish Government, March 2019
There is a compelling case for new legislation to improve the management of Scottish inshore waters. We intend to build on preparatory work undertaken for an inshore fisheries bill, prior to the EU referendum, and incorporate this into wider fisheries legislation.
We will need to balance the desire for local management alongside the principle of free movement of vessels around the coast. (Chapter 6)
The Landing Obligation for all fish managed by quota limits under the EU’s CFP came into full effect on January 1 2019
EU Bill could allow UK ministers to overrule Scottish Parliament, Scotland on Sunday, January 7 2020