Marine Protection in Scottish Seas

August 31, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Marine Protection in Scottish seas

(This article first appeared in SubSea Magazine, Spring 2016)

John Collins reports on recently granted Marine Protected status for the Sound of Mull.

Marine Protected Areas are a hot topic throughout the European Union. All countries are obliged to protect some areas of their waters under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive or face substantial fines. On a recent trip to dive the Sound of Mull – a longtime favourite among divers, the announcement that the waters most popular for diving had just been granted protection, was great news for divers and dive centres alike. This prompted the question as to what possible areas in Ireland might be protected in the future and how this might affect popular dive sites.

I had joined a group of friends from Dalkey Scuba Divers for a long weekend’s diving from Ballycastle, taking in Rathlin Island and the Scottish Isles, with Richard Lafferty of Aquaholics. Frequently billed as the “best diving weekend ever!”, this group has been doing the trip since 2008. Conditions do vary of course each year, but the diving in the Sound of Mull and the neighbouring islands is always something special. This year, the water was unseasonably cold for mid June – a chilly 9°C – and the visibility was down on previous years but that did not dampen enthusiasm. There are some really nice scenic dives but the highlight of diving in this area are the shipwrecks.

After the 60 mile crossing from Ballycastle to Oban, the first available wreck is that of the ‘Breda’, a short distance from the town. This is quite often a ‘green’ dive as the area does not get a significant wash of tide each day but, being intact and upright, it is an easily navigated and enjoyable dive. The same cannot be said for the wrecks in the Sound of Mull itself – really strong tidal streams restrict diving on most of the wrecks to slack water. This does make them biologically high energy sites and all the of the wrecks have wonderful encrusting marine life.

The human stories behind the wrecks are always intriguing and some of the shipping losses have occurred in comparatively recent times. One of the most dramatic wreck dives is on that of the ‘Rondo’. Built towards the end of World War I, she had started life as the ‘War Wonder I’, but as the fit out was not complete until September 1918, she did not see any war action and was renamed ‘Lithopolis’. She was renamed twice more with ownership changes, firstly to ‘Laurie’ in 1930, and then to ‘Rondo’ by its Norwegian owners in 1934. In January of the following year, she was making her way from Glasgow to Dunstan in ballast to pick up a cargo destined for Oslo. Sailing north into the Sound of Mull, a savage winter storm forced her to take shelter from a blinding snowstorm in Aros Bay near Tobermory. Unfortunately, the anchor chain parted and she was soon drifting helplessly eastwards down the Sound by gale force winds and strong tides, until being swept on to the point on Dearg Sgeir, narrowly missing the small lighthouse. By dawn, the Captain and 22 crew realised that they were high and dry astride a rock. Attempts at repair and salvage failed and the ship eventually broke up and slipped into deep water. Today, the ‘Rondo’ lies almost vertically in the water, with the bow at 50 metres, while the stern and rudder post are just a few metres from the surface. This dramatic incline makes it a cracking visual tour, criss-crossing the decks from your chosen depth up to the shallows and your safety stop.

There are enough wrecks in the area to keep a diver occupied for several days, including the ‘Hispania’ and the ‘Shuna’. However, it is even better to venture outside the Sound to the nearby island of Coll, as the visibility increases dramatically in the open water. Weather does not always favour diving the wreck of the ‘Tapti’ and it is quite a long boat journey offshore, but it is a rare treat to dive a wonderfully varied wreck with beautiful marine life in easy depth. It is the most recent of the wrecks in the area, having been lost in 1951. This 6600 ton cargo vessel was also in ballast, making its way from the Mersey to the Tyne to pick up a cargo bound for India, when she was caught in a violent storm and was driven up on the rocks at Soa Island on the south end of Coll. As well as being a fantastic dive in its own right, the area is known for its abundance of both seals and basking sharks.

There was one final wreck that everybody was looking forward to diving back in the Sound itself – the 1887 Belfast built ‘Thesis’. Details of the loss of this ship in October 1889 are vague but it is known that she did strike a reef towards the southern end of the Sound. All eleven crew managed to make it safely ashore but the ship sank in deep water within a few hours. The wreck lies on a steeply sloped shingle seabed between 20 and 35 metres depth. It has always been enjoyable as the decks and iron plating have fallen away over the years and all that remains is the hull. Visibility is often excellent and as the light penetrates, the many openings along the hull create a visually stunning wreck-scape. This is how we recalled this dive from previous years but heard locally in Tobermory that a scallop dredger had damaged the wreck last winter. 

As we descended the shot line, we were greeted with an unrecognisable wreck that had been badly damaged. This was only my second Scottish Isles trip with Richard – I had done just one dive on the ‘Thesis’ on which I shot video – but I could not recognise this as being the same wreck at all. Back on the boat, everyone agreed that the wreck had been hugely damaged which opened the conversation as to what type of fishing equipment had caused such destruction. Later, we went ashore for a lunchtime surface interval and asked the staff at Lochaline Dive Centre about the damage to the ‘Thesis’. The answer was a mixture of disappointment and disbelief but allied to the recently announced Marine Protected Area for the Sound of Mull – there was an air of optimism that the marine life and shipwrecks in the area would at least get a break from now on. 

We also chatted about one of the scenic wall dives that we had done near Tobermory, as a few divers noticed a lot of damage to the seabed just off the wall. It is hard not to conclude that bottom trawling and scallop dredging in particular are seriously destructive. Stopping these alone would be a good thing for the marine environment. I have asked many people since then about Marine Protected Areas and Special Areas of Conservation and it is both a complex and contentious area. Fishing communities will rarely agree to changes that restrict long held practices but, without buy-in from locals, any imposed restrictions seem doomed to failure. A case in point is Lyme Bay in Dorset where a decision to close off 60 square nautical miles of the bay to scallop dredging and bottom-trawling in 2008, had been a complete failure, as it resulted in the doubling of other fishing techniques. In 2012, a collaborative approach was taken by the British Blue Marine Foundation who sought to engage with the local community and have successfully got fishermen from four ports to sign up to a voluntary code to restrict the amount of gear used by any one boat to 250 crab and lobster pots, 500 whelk pots and individual nets of a maximum 600m. The partnership, which is more “low impact” than “no-take”, aims to “boost tourism and the local economy”.

It did make me wonder about protecting some of our popular diving areas, and how this might affect the marine life in years to come. One of the longest established Marine Reserves in Europe is Lough Hyne in Co. Cork. Established under the 1976 Wildlife Act, its protected status dates back 1981 we in Ireland have much to protect around our coastline since then, in establishing Special Areas of Conservation (SAC’s) and Special Protection Areas (SPA’s). These go some way towards meeting our commitments under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive but the hard work of establishing fully protected marine areas is only beginning. Getting agreement from fishing communities is going to be difficult however, judging by just one example in west Cork. Efforts to draft a management plan for Roaringwater Bay – deemed a site of exceptional conservation importance, supporting diverse marine and terrestrial habitats – have not reached agreement after prolonged discussions.

It is difficult to be optimistic after reading about and discussing these topics with Marine Scientists. Perhaps the only viable protected areas will be those where a boost to tourism would outweigh fishing revenues and where communities would take a longer term view. The recent designation of 30 new Marine Protected Areas in Scottish seas, increasing the level of MPA’s and marine conservation zones to over 20% of Scottish waters, is estimated to have a “scenario-based” value of between £6.3 billion and £10 billion, boosting fish stocks, biological diversity and tourism revenues whilst generating employment for coastal communities in sustainable employment programmes. And while it is too late for the previously wonderful wreck of the ‘Thesis’, at least the Sound of Mull and other Marine Protected Areas may preserve the marine environment for future generations of divers to enjoy.


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