Edinburgh Ocean Leaders exchange with CCN

In late March, during a week of particularly pleasant weather, members of the Coastal Communities Network (CCN) in the north western reaches of Scotland met up with an international group of Ocean Leaders as part of their “field mission” to explore marine conservation challenges faced by remote coastal communities.

The group used a boat to visit remote coastal communities.

It was a chilly early Monday morning when I bundled onto a bus to head up to the isolated peninsula of Knoydart for a 5-day trip.  My objective was to facilitate a learning exchange between Edinburgh Ocean Leaders (EOL) and members of the CCN.

The EOL, a leadership programme organised by the University of Edinburgh, is designed for young ocean professionals to be supported on their career path. The EOLs come an array of backgrounds ranging from industry, conservation and research to media and education.

The programme organiers – Dr Meriwether Wilson and her husband Professor Sandy Tudhope from the University of Edinburgh – accompanied the EOLs, alongside their coach and members of their Advisory Panel.

Upon arriving in Mallaig, we were warmly welcomed by the local RNLI station where we were given a tour of the lifeboat and learnt about the work of the RNLI from the lifeboat crew members.

The RLNI lifeboat in Mallaig is the most westerly lifeboat station on the British mainland.

Then it was off on the Western Isles Ferry to the village of Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula. Knoydart is one of the most remote areas of mainland Britain, only accessible by boat (or an 18-mile hike across bog and hills). This rugged, mountainous peninsula is a haven for hillwalkers and wildlife enthusiasts. Formerly part of the Knoydart Estate, the land is now managed by the Knoydart Foundation, which leads a community-led rewilding effort to expand native woodland and encourage the return of native species.

Once settled on Knoydart, I set about connecting the EOLs with three coastal community groups, all members of CCN.

The first was Knoydart Climate Action Group (formerly the Knoydart Loch Nevis Group), where we heard about their plans to restore seagrass meadows in the shallow bay that fronts the village that had been degraded following construction of a new pier. The group have received funding to revisit a previous survey of the seagrass beds to chart its decline.  We discussed the challenges of seagrass restoration and how it links to other community initiatives on Knoydart.

Meeting with the Knoydart Loch Nevis coastal community group.

The next group we set out to meet were the South Skye Seas initiative (SSSi), over on – as you might have guessed – the Isle of Skye. However, owing to the ongoing Covid situation, a last-minute decision was made to move the meeting online. James, Roger, and Eileen from SSSi were waiting patiently for us online as we huddled around laptops in the lodge. To kick us of, we were treated to a video introduction to the Skye and Lochalsh Environment Forum (of which SSSi is a subgroup) and their various projects. We were delighted to see how the group had engaged the local primary school children in donning wetsuits to survey the shallow subtidal waters for seagrass and other marine life. We had an enriching discussion about salmon aquaculture – and the EOLs were shocked to learn how “sustainable” Scottish aquaculture is not actually that sustainable!

The third and final group we met was Friends of Loch Hourn.  To reach them, we took the boat around the peninsula to Arnisdale, where we were met by Melanie, Mick, Phoebe and Peter from the group in the village hall. Themes of the exchange weaved around aquaculture (no surprise since Loch Hourn hosts a Mowi fish farm), environmental law, declining marine life, and climate change. I was heartened to see committed Melanie and the others were to protect and enhance the marine environment of Loch Hourn, and the sheer weight of challenges that stand against them, not least corporate greed and ineffective government policy.

Meeting with Friends of Loch Hourn.

I was so grateful to be part of this inspiring exchange between ocean leaders. In Scotland and beyond, there is an emerging movement of marine change makers and, in a time of global environmental crises, it has never been more important to foster connection and solidarity.  I left with a particular appreciation for the efforts of local community groups who, through sheer hard graft and dedication, are slowly shifting the tide on marine protection.

The EOL group on the Knoydart Peninsula.

I trust the EOLs will go back their own countries with a similar appreciation for local-led action and apply some of their learnings to related issues.

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