This past week a trawler has been fishing around the south end of the island. It has come remarkably close to the shore – sometimes as near as a quarter of a mile. Back and forth it has gone, day and night, scooping up everything it could find. On Friday evening it was joined by three others.
Once onboard, many (perhaps most) of the fish will have been thrown back into the sea dead, because they were undersized. Illogical European laws, intended to protect fish stocks, allow – the fishermen would say encourage – this waste.
Fish stocks around Fair Isle have been steadily depleting over the years. The sea used to provide a living to many of the families on the island, but now it has little to offer. Seabird populations are suffering too, and though the reasons for this decline are complex and not fully understood, hunger is a very real and serious part of the problem.
The fishermen come, they take a few decent fish, and they throw the rest away. And at the moment there is nothing we can do about it.
For more than two decades Fair Isle has been calling for some form of protection for the seas around the island. The marine environment has been, and remains, a crucial part of the island’s sustainability, but it is seriously threatened by over-fishing and also by oil-related shipping in the Fair Isle Channel.
In 1985 the island was awarded a European Diploma by the Council of Europe, and it has since been renewed four times. This award is intended to recognise “protected natural or semi-natural areas of exceptional European interest from the point of view of conservation of biological, geological or landscape diversity that have an appropriate protection status.”
In Fair Isle’s case, the diploma was given “aesthetically because of the beauty of the landscape; culturally because of the existence of a prosperous farming community . . . and scientifically because the island is an important breeding site for seabird populations and a crossroads for certain migratory species”.
Only five areas in the UK have received a European Diploma – the Peak District National Park, Minsmere Nature Reserve, the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, Purbeck Heritage Coast, and Fair Isle. Each of these areas is subject to significant levels of protection for the natural environment. Fair Isle itself is a “National Scenic Area”, and parts of the island are designated as a “Special Protection Area” because of the importance of the bird life.
When renewing the diploma however, the Council of Europe made several recommendations that it felt were essential in order to maintain or improve the situation here. Most important among these were several measures designed to protect the marine environment. Although the UK is meant to take the directives very seriously indeed, so far it has chosen to ignore them.
Much work has been done locally in order to try and push for greater protection of the seas around the island. The Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative has done their best to keep things moving, but it can be frustrating to witness, time and again, the ineptitude of those whose job it is to make the decisions that affect us.
The Scottish Executive has been talking for some time about creating the UK’s first Marine National Park. Fair Isle, of course, would seem a natural contender. But despite Shetland being on the long-list of areas under consideration, and despite the fact that this is probably the only community in Scotland that is entirely united in its desire to be chosen, the signs do not look good.
Fair Isle is crying out for protection. How long before somebody listens?
Photograph by Dave Wheeler