Discovery Wester Ross

Latest update July 24, 2019 Started on July 7, 2016

As citizen scientists our mission is to protect Wester Ross MPA in the Highlands of Scotland by sharing stories of discovery & mapping species and habitats which support our fisheries - our key focus is on maerl a beautiful pink seaweed.

July 7, 2016
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Re:NEWS ILLEGAL DREDGING - We are still busy sharing information around the sea change network and beyond - as well as with some of the recreational divers who live around the area to see what footage there is of the site before this illegal dredging took place. We think it may be a maerl bed. Yes, there are still people willing to destroy something as fragile and life supporting as mearl for a few scallops.

How to persuade them not to is the key? No point hating, blaming or judging - because some fear-driven blinkered vision is driving it. Maybe beauty and story telling is the key? Something to get to their hearts.

The fishermen and an NGO as well as sea change are collecting evidence alongside Marine Scotland's investigation... but for us this is a story about people policing our own waters - waters that people on the coast look out on daily and love. If we do not who else will? ...we will share more on that over time I am sure as its a truly collective effort not just about our group.

So back to why we need a trident! Well Illegal dredging is one reason!

A trident would help us act quickly and get evidence even in areas deeper than divers can go safely. We have been building a neighbour hood watch scheme for some time to deter illegal fishing and that has become important recently. Maerl beds are so fragile it’s like ploughing a coral reef. ..... In Scotland there have been two incidents of illegal dredging within the last few days…one in an MPA south of us around Jura and one in Wester Ross …Heartbreaking and we suspect its being going on for some time.

The incident which was most tragic was close to the southern border of the wester ross MPA. This was late winter last year (2018) when a local near Loch Gairloch protected area sited a dredger fishing IN the protected zone. A diver (george brown) went down to look and got the evidence. This triggered a massive outcry and 40 groups getting together...Thats the short story...

So good can come from bad.

That news update aside this is an opportunity to share our longer term plans for surveying and why in addition to collecting evidence of illegal fishing we need a trident!

Let me say this up front - I do not expect anyone to be dedicated enough to read this in full: this is really a useful log of our intentions and a check list of aims to refer to over the coming years. Already compiled but posted here for to refer to.


As citizen scientists Sea Change set out to map the seabed of the MPA (the areas not yet known) as well as to monitor recovery from the baseline, in a number of ways mostly of maerl. We also set out to tell stories. This requires different methods for each of course. ...

Our key science and survey focus is on monitoring change on 3 (maybe 4 ) maerl transects in areas damaged by dredgers as well as fish farms. This will help us tell a story of the MPA’s recovery.

Herring and maerl are two keystone species and telling their story seem pretty key to explain all the amazing interconnections ....but we probably can't do that alone.

1 To protect the MPAs mearl and flameshells is the most urgent need.

As storytellers as well as citizen scientists we want to help tell the story of maerl and its relation to fisheries like herring, scallops, crustaceans, humans and whales.

There’s a lot to explore on 'The Pink Seaweed' and the creatures living in the nooks and crannies of it - we do not know really what does live there. We would like to know.

Our storytelling is about how we are related to everything else - herring is an amazing example of this interrelationship - between us and many other species in the web of life.

Herring likes to spawn on maerl and herring is a fishery which collapsed from over fishing. Herring is also a keystone species in the area which we hope is beginning to recover. This means the ecosystem can also recover…

Documenting recovery on film

We would like to film the return of the ecosystem and finfish species. The trident would help. It would help us know what was happening… divers like Andy Jackson are making this a key story for them - but there are many other aspects of the story like the nursery areas in the MPA and how herring shoals move around it and inside creels as well as the whales that come for the shoals ? so it would be great to capture some of this….of course we are volunteers so this is not some organised process like Blue Planet. But we can do our best.

Expanding local interest

Having a trident to explore the area would get more people interested. So far our surveys have been dive surveys as we’ve needed to focus on getting evidence to protect the MPA and maerl is the most protected species - we have used our films to engage people or to lobby Ministers but it is hard to include lots of people when the aim to to get evidence of maerl to protect the MPA.

The Trident would be a more direct way to engage many more people in the process of discovery who cannot dive and even show schools what it is like down there. We hope also to do snorkel and free dive surveys and this would help tell that story

Flameshells in deeper water

There are flameshells which are quite deep in Little Loch Broom and we’ve been keen to document these but they are 30m so we’ve not been able to prioritise this so far. ..

Common skate

Skate used to be abundant in the area but now it is on the red list for highly endangered species due to bottom trawling, we believe. Yet divers say they saw them returning....Skate are seen in the area by fishermen and it would be great to follow some of the individuals and film them.

What lives in mearl?

Scallop spat is an important indicator of fishery recovery. Scallops love maerl.

Our focus on Maerl is because it supports fin-fish species and scallops and crustaceans. These are important fisheries locally and a Trident would help us explore where these species are settling and what other species are living on maerl - divers going down with limited air supply means it would help to be able to recce places and then point them to where to go. We hope to support more marine scientists, dive camera and student work on fisheries and maerl.

It could help us know what happens seasonally too. For example seasonal algae growth or damage from salmon farms. It would help monitor our transects of dredged maerl, live maerl, and also our transects near salmon farms. We would need to experiment with how this worked but I imagine it would help. We hope to set up a fourth transect in Loch Ewe as there is a maerl bed near a fish farm there which has never passed its sea bottom survey tests so we think it has damaged the maerl and we would like to see for ourselves.

This farm may be moving so we could then document recovery?

Cetaceans - whales, basking sharks, dolphins, porpoise, seals, otters.

The trident could equally help with storytelling around filming humpback whales, Orca and Basking sharks when they come in to our area for herring or plankton in the Summer months. These are charismatic species which help get the wider community interested and are wonderful. We may need some training on this, or some more expertise...but the camera drone would make that much more possible as we would not need to mount a big expedition but could react more spontaneously and get great pictures too.

Unexpected discoveries?

Having a camera drone would even find things we do not expect or know. Not only could we explore habitats and find species more easily to help us protect them - without divers and large boats and air sources - we could explore off a kayak or smaller boat or even the shore.

We did stumble across an amazing habitat last year (2018 in Reiff) and an unusual abundance of sea cucumbers, and unusual anemone’s... so there are new discoveries to be made…

Burrowed mud and prawns

The key fishery in the area is prawns. The burrowed mud where they live is too deep for divers- but this is a habitat which is meant to be conserved as are the sea pens which live in it? We've never been able to see the sea pens on the deep burrowed mud floor. We could with the trident.

We have also not been able to explore burrowed mud areas which might be able to help fishermen see what is going on too and they might enjoy that - as it is too deep for divers or for our drop down camera systems. The prawn fishery is in decline. It is one of last viable commercial fisheries in the area apart from scallops. Having a drone might help any interested fishermen look at the difference between creel fished areas and trawl areas which might help us protect the area from more damage or learn what could help.

Fish farm damage and plastic The trident could help us look at damage caused by fish farms or pollution or plastics waste. And find areas were it accumulated.

Other communities outside of the MPA on the borders sometimes ask for help to find priority marine features with legally protected status which will help them protect their areas too. The drone would help us help them too!

Even to share the trident with surrounding areas and other groups who need help exploring their areas to see what priority marine features need protecting too. Whilst protecting our home patch is vital, borders don't bother most of us - we care about the sea in general— but the MPA is of course the patch we set out to protect. In the end it is all important


Storytelling is so key to engaging support from fishermen and the wider community and encourage more to be sea protectors and custodians.

The project is ongoing with a huge amount still to discover about Wester Ross MPA and how to protect the whole ecosystem from the worm to the whale. We want to ensure the MPAs is successful and has benefits for people too.

Being able to get good quality footage is vitally important to help us share stories about the MPA. It would enhance our chances of connecting and also sharing our story of the benefits of protection.

The Scottish Government’s agency SNH recently ran a workshop for community surveying after realising that communities wanted to get more and more interested as technology allows us to explore. We were really enthused as they have begun to create a survey handbook and have invited us to participate in helping to create this which will help encourage others too. We’ve put in a lot of volunteer time on this….

Native oysters We also went looking for native oysters in Loch broom but didnt find any…it would be lovely to see these restored. The search continues although I fear the vast oyster beds of old just do not exist anymore.

Collaborations and partnerships

In 2016 we began trying to fund a community-led monitoring project (supported by a university and SNH. This was back in the winter of 2016)

In many ways this survey handbook is an even better outcome evolving out of the growing interest in citizen science due to the technology innovations. This is combined with the fact we have Marine Protected Areas which encourage us to protect a particular 'home' patch.

Our interest in maerl does not exclude a curiosity about other important habitats and priority marine features.. .

Our September survey 21-28th 2019

We would absolutely love to have a trident by our September survey.

We will be diving additional points on the 1981 -2018-2019 comparison dive survey which are also good to dive - even Priest island?

It would help us find the live pink maerl at the back of Tanera we missed in our March survey time we tried to dive it.. Or find the walls to dive near Tanera anchorage bay and even go back to Cathedral or Conservation Cave

We would like to see if there is Maerl near the lighthouse point in Loch Broom which was flagged up as a potential site...

Maerl supports life. We want to show people that. It would be lovely to study closely the small creatures living within the maerl in Close ups. (And explore the differences between maerl at Horse island, Planet Rock and the shallow channel at Tanera-Fada. Very different habitats for maerl.

It would also help us find a maerl bed which we were told existed but so far have not found…

Do a biodiversity study of Reiff which is an unusual habitat with a kelp forest and an enormous number of squid eggs. What got us looking there was we thought it was a place with blue mussel reefs or horse mussels but instead we found a rich variety of other species in amongst a kelp forest including an octopus.

The species included some of my favourites - the lightbulb sea squirts ( Clavelina lepadiformis). Herringbone hydroid almost certainly Halecium halecinum, blue ray limpets, nudibranchs - probably Polycera quadrilineata, painted top shells - Calliostoma zizyphinum, feather stars, Dead Man’s Fingers. Pretty sure there were Devonshire Cup Corals and sunstars but we'd want verification of that. We will need to return and do a proper seasearch study of this beautiful and really intact rocky area.

Possible explore further sitings of horse mussels and flameshells in Little loch broom and native oysters.

Its an never ending exploration.

Sea Change Wester Ross is also a member of the Coastal Community Network which is a network for all the voluntary community groups to work together in a network to amplify our voice. We share our survey data with the national data archives and Scottish Natural Heritage. We are also part of a growing network of marine groups who are taking action because our leadership is not.

Today 23 July 2019 is not a good day for pink seaweed and Wester Ross Marine Protected Area. We worked very very hard indeed to secure the MPA from scallop dredgers - so it is heartbreaking to think that they have been coming in and doing damage for some time - and we believe that could well be the case.....we have had reports for some time ....

See this newspaper report below on possible illegal dredging in Wester Ross Marine Protected area ( 23rd July.) We think it is near a maerl bed which is in recovery and we may have filmed before..

This is beyond heartbreaking actually. Maerl is ancient. Up to as old as the ice age and it supports so many fisheries. To damage it is wanton vandalism and we hope the mearl just may have escaped it ..of course will not know if this maerl is damaged until divers go down and report.

This is a story illustrating how urgent a Trident is for our work so we can collect evidence fast which will help us secure our Marine Protected Area from illegal scallop dredgers and act quickly.

The pink seaweed we are protecting is a keystone species. So much depends on it.......but the story of the pink seaweed is really about our interdependence and the interconnectivity of sea, our fisheries, people, the coastal economy (herring, scallops, cod, crustaceans) and in the long run our survival and of course this big blue planet.

Illegal scallop dredging is a major threat to our MPAs ecosystem recovery as well as our hopes for fisheries restoration which support coastal communities....

MPAs in Scotland face two major threats - illegal dredging and salmon farm damage. Of course there is climate change and acidification and plastic and ghost fishing and other challenges as well. Today we are overwhelmed by the task....But hopeful something good will come out of this.

It must.

Perhaps the return of the 3 mile limit?

Something good MUST come of it....eventually.

Hope springs eternal...

See where they dredged. Caught red handed on camera. No AIS tracks. Outrageous. The film will need permission to show, so I will not share that as it requires the fishermen's permission.

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What Fish Live on Maerl beds?

Maerl the Pink Seaweed, Fisheries and 'us' - (and the story of herring spawning)

In May a student from Edinburgh University who was doing a Masters degree in Marine Policy came up to study the link between fisheries and maerl which was something we have been interested in documenting since group discussions began about what to survey after the MPA was created back in March 2016. Maerl and fisheries, particularly herring and scallops was one of the top answers.

On May 21st Josie the marine student came up - supported by Sea Change and a local fisheries trust to put out baited fish traps ( with a camera and light hooked up to it) This was using an adapted version of John McIntyre's design which he developed with David Bailey from Glasgow University back in the winter of 2016) This was a slightly different version which Josie had developed with a local fishery trust with a cage around it - but along the same principles. On the 21st of May she put this out on our three 25m maerl transects for around 30 mins or so....each. It was meant to be an hour but that is another story...

Very generously, Scott a creel fishermen and his partner Robyn helped Josie by supporting this with their survey boat, Goldseeker. Tanera Island took her out to the survey boat in one of their launches to help out so she felt very supported. Goldseeker is a great survey boat owned by an ex-scallop diver-creel fishermen and his partner who is a fishermen's representative and a member of Sea Change. It has teas and coffee and shelter on board as well as a loo. Quite something.

We hope to post more on Josie's Masters study, as well as a little film about her day - but that's all work in progress and has developed in to a learning curve about how to film fish on maerl....... Not many fish came to sniff the rotten herring which was a little disappointing but perhaps because one of the common fish that live on maerl are Goby's - and they like algae not herring.

If any divers see OTHER fish types on Maerl we'd like to know what species you see - so we can know how to attract them .

Telling the story of maerl the pink seaweed really shows us the interconnectedness of everything. As already mentioned Maerl is the keystone species in the area alongside herring. Not only does maerl support herring spawning and scallop spat it supports crustaceans and cod too....we'd like to get that story too, particularly juvenile cod.

They say a week in politics. Well here in Scotland in the marine environment that's pretty much it. So much happens we are either lobbying or surveying and it does not seem to stop. An exciting story related to our Marine Protected Area and this theme of maerl and fisheries is this:


In March 2018 some scallop divers came across massive areas of herring spawning on maerl just south of the MPA area around Gairloch. It was an amazing sight as the film below shows - this footage was taken by the scallop divers themselves.

Then earlier this year in March 2019 Andy Jackson, (the cameraman we'd worked with) returned to follow up on this herring spawn story with the scallop divers - he wanted to film it actually happening. This time working independently with BBC Blue Planet - so given proper filming support. He filmed the shoals of herring actually spawning this time which was the most amazing thing and we were all incredibly excited. His footage is out of this world and whilst not produced by us - it is a story which ties in to ours and is a story we are keen to share because the relationship between mearl and fisheries and the community is so well told by this. Just amazing footage.

The photos posted below are also Andy Jacksons photos of the herring spawning - on maerl as well as a Goby fish on maerl. Thanks to him for us being able to show you. See below.

BBC One - Blue Planet UK, Series 1, Episode 5, Herring have not been seen off UK coasts for many years...until now

The greatest tragedy is that in November 2018 illegal dredging was happening in the very same area; and some of the Inverness Sub Aqua Club divers were involved in getting the evidence for this.

So maerl helps support fishing jobs, the supply of food to our tables, cetaceans (those that eat herring) and so it helps attracts tourism. In short it helps humans and the economy too. Magic stuff this pink seaweed. This is why it is such a key science focus and story for our coastal community. It is an amazing example of how everything is interrelated on this planet and it's the story of our Marine Protected Area too.

Equally the two main threats to recovery of maerl and the fisheries are illegal dredging and the expansion of salmon farms. So there is always a lot to say and so much happening - and more and more people join up around the coast to support change.

The MPAs and protected areas are being illegally dredged at night and whenever they can get away with it. It is a tragedy.

This is why we need the trident urgently.

We'd like to be able to react quickly and collect evidence of illegal dredging quickly. We have created an informal neighbour hood watch scheme so people are on the alert. We'd also like to be able to perhaps capture some of the juvenile herring as they grow in the nurseries in the MPA as it is a nursery area for herring.....and we also had reports of herring in creels at the same time of year so the shoals must be large...

In our next post we will explain what we are planning to do next (in our September survey and beyond) and why we urgently need a trident to protect the MPA from illegal dredging so we can gather evidence fast. As well as doing other studies...listed in the next post.

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In Feb- March 2019 we hosted another short survey. This was to continue working on the survey comparison we had begun in September 2018. This is a comparison dive survey between the 1981 seasearch study of the Summer Isles Archipelago (including Tanera and Priest Island) and what it is like in 2018-2019

This was also to follow up on the concern flagged up by marine scientist divers looking at maerl between an island called Tanera and Fada - which was near to a fish farm - during the September 2018 survey. The discovery of red and brown algae growth around maerl in the channel was a concern so we wanted to explore this to find out if the algae growth was caused by extra nutrients from the fish farms or the impact of warming seas and climate change -or maybe just normal seasonal change. To do this the aim was to lay a THIRD maerl transect down for future monitoring which we did.

To do this Owen Paisley the seasearch west coordinator and marine scientist wanted to look at this in winter, hence the March survey (cold seas and potentially freezing temperatures) but luckily off season so the accommodation was more easily sorted. Tanera Island lent us a boat which was nice and also on this occasion as it was one of their best boats they supplied a driver too which was even better!

We also wanted to explore another maerl bed which had been mapped by the survey divers in 1981 which was also quite close to the fish farm but tucked behind Tanera Island on the outside of one of the larger bays. It was an interesting dive site but the divers missed the live maerl which we believe is deeper and instead recorded a bay of dead mearl sand with many burrowing crabs and some unusual species. We will need to return to look at the live maerl bed which was recorded in 1981 and also in other Scottish Government studies so we think its deeper.

This survey was a small team of two marine scientists Owen Paisley and Lewis Press, backed up by a great cameraman-diver Frank Melvin who had taken the footage of the maerl bed in September. This was all backed up by community support for beds, boats, air and funding support for each of the divers expenses.

On day 3-4 We also went looking for native oysters in Loch broom but didnt find any...the search continues.

We are planning a continuation of this survey and hopefully a completion in September 2019 and another survey following the June 2018 survey with the cameramen-storyteller dive team next May for a more story orientated survey and hopefully some new finds in some of the amazing habitats in the MPA too.

NOTE: The reporting of this work on film and photo/ and science report is in progress. When the report is complete a film will be made about this survey using photos and Frank Melvin's footage. Bare with us....The film for this is in the making and there is quite a backlog: we are volunteers after all! We will upload a short vimeo clip of laying the transect soon so look out for that.


A wee story to note as part of Sea Change surveys backstory - on February the 28th at the Aquadome in Inverness - The Inverness Sub Aqua Club, (the dive club which has helped Sea Change out a great deal with surveying), awarded me (Sara) and the Sea Change Survey Project a cup called the Clam Cup.

I/we were delighted by this - not really for the sake of the cup, (which is more like what a formula one driver might drink champagne out of) but because we are so grateful for the support of some fantastic diver-photographers who have dived in the marine protected area since the 1970s and know their species too.... so it has been a real privilege to not only have their help, occasionally dive with them but to share their knowledge, insights and get their help with protecting it too.

It takes an ecosystem to protect and ecosystem and that could not be more true in our case. We have some amazing collaborations, without which we could hardly have achieved anything....

My take is the old 19C paradigm of competition between people and groups needs to be replaced by a new way which recognises the synergy created when people work together. Thats what we are trying to build here ....where people begin to see the benefits of cooperation between groups and people .... Where groups can all work together, share knowledge, resources and work to protect the area in a multiple different ways.

So this cup is a tribute to the holy grail on that - perhaps a more feminine way of approaching things? The Athena project talks about that. Whatever the truth of that is, it is not about gender. This cup recognises the holy grail of everyone working for the seas together....and the collaborations we are building between the Inverness Sub Aqua Club divers and the Sea Change project really help.

Read more about some of the ISAC divers 1970s expeditions on our Sea change blog: Seasearch & Dives of Discovery in the Summer Isles Archipelago (2017) - Sea Change Wester Ross

A short extract to whet your appetite for more?:

The ISAC Seasearch divers Neil McInnes and George Brown have been diving the Summer Isles, which are at the heart of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area, since the 1970’s.…George told me these first dives were carried out mostly between 1976 and 1979. In the summer of 1979 an expedition was mounted by Professor Davy Jones from Bangor University. During one of the dives on Tanera Beg they discovered a surge cave with the walls alive with a varieties of anenomes. They originally jokingly named it Davy Jones’s Locker but to honour the “Year of Underwater Conservation” which was in 1976, they renamed it Conservation or Cathedral Cave, as it is known to this day..... Read the full blog above for more...

We'd like to capture them on interview at some point...

This surge cave mentioned is also one of the points on our 1981 survey which we have mentioned already - which we are in the process of completing. Sadly the weather was too rough to get to it in September 2018 and March 2019 - maybe September 2019 we might make it? Keep tuning in....and share this we'd like more followers.

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In The Field

SEPTEMBER 22-28 2018 - This survey was a more formal collaboration between Seachange Wester Ross and Seasearch. It was a great collaboration because many Seasearch divers (some from Inverness Sub Aqua Club) had been exploring Wester Ross, way before our time, and had a great understanding of it. It was also great because Seachange had set out to map the gaps in what was known about the MPAs after it's creation and monitor recovery in order to keep it protected. It seemed like serendipity that it was also Seasearch's 30th birthday and had been our MPA's 2nd birthday (in March 2018).

Owen Paisley the coordinator of Seasearch West who had helped us with some of our 2017 surveys had the genius idea of setting out to do a comparative study between a Seasearch survey (or the organisation that grew into Seasearch) which had been one of the first ever dive surveys done in the area in 1981 - and our current year 2018. The original 1981 survey had been focused around Tanera island and the Summer Isles archipelago as well as Priest Island and there were 40 dive sites mapping the habitats and species.

From our point of view this would help us map key habitats as well as tell us how it had changed, was changing.... This took us slightly off the narrow focus of maerl and priority marine features as defined by the Government but we are 'ecosystem' orientated so we want to know what is down there and how it is changing - so all of it is good.

Besides many of the points which the 1981 survey divers had explored were maerl beds - so it ticked lots of boxes. Besides it has to be fun too. Many of us had loved Jacques Cousteau as kids. He made surveying rock n roll. It was fun that week - Andy Jackson also visited us briefly and a big crew of divers had a merry time sharing photos and stories and discoveries. It was also great food cooked rather exclusively by Steve Bishop - who seemed to be able to cook for the 500 after a long day diving and remain smiling.

This dive week also explored some of the Priority Marine Features we wanted to locate, identify and check the condition of so we could report these and keep a log of condition. So we made the most of bad weather days and checked out more sheltered sites like the flame shells in Loch broom which were well documented by the Government science agency Scottish Natural Heritage - but not seen by the community. Andy Jackson (SubSeaTV) had filmed them in June for us on our June Citizen Science survey - but we had not had the chance to do a check on the condition with a scientist.

HORSE MUSSELS AND FLAME SHELLS He managed to confirm there were horse mussels in the same area which was good - not in great shape - but still there luckily as they had not been documented and confirmed to be still there for decades, at least many years .......

We do not know the impacts of fish farms on these creatures or at what distances but we do know there is a fish farm around 1km away up and the flow of the tide may bring the organic waste and chemicals.... officially the fish farm is no longer using chemicals that is good if true.

One important finding was that juvenile fish seemed present in most dives which was a good (possible) sign of recovery. We will continue to document this.

Apart from getting some good diver assessments of the species and habitats (to be reported in full later when the survey report is published 2019) the marine scientist Owen Paisley was worried about algae growth on maerl in the shallow channel between Tanera and Fada quite near another fish farm ...

Owen and a cameraman Frank Melvin explored this maerl carefully. They came up with some footage which was of concern as the maerl was covered in algae which could be a bad sign - as it would reduce light to the maerl and also it could be stressed by added nutrients from the fish farm. Owen wanted to return in the winter months.

Owen also found a fabulous sea cucumber - an arctic variety not usually seen in our area...For photos of what we saw and a more detailed blog on our website:

Ring of Bright Seaweed - Sept 2018 - Sea Change Wester Ross

Tanera & The Summer Isles survey by Seasearch & Sea Change 2018 - Sea Change Wester Ross

These survey photos are courtesy of Rob Spray And Frank Melvin amongst others. The maerl footage is by Frank Melvin

When this survey is finally reported we will upload the science report too.

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JUNE 2nd - June 8th 2018. In 2018 we had two major week long surveys - with lots of divers and two quite different crews. Out of this came some films, some blogs and some interesting discoveries.

Our June 2018 survey was with the brilliant cameraman Andy Jackson working again as a volunteer to help us map and protect the area - helped by two marine scientists as well as local fishermen Alistair Hughson and his scallop dive team, and the Inverness Sub Aqua Club divers helping. (Most of these were also seasearch divers too). The divers were backed up by a lot of help from a whole bunch of other community members in support it was a lot to pull off including accommodation, air boats and of course equipment (John McIntyre).... Andy Jackson and Graham Saunders (marine scientist) were the key camera people Andy on video more and Graham with still shots. Lewis Press another marine scientist helped out too.... Ali Hughson the scallop diver provided his boat the Atlantia and went exploring for flame shells in Loch Broom and maerl beds around Horse Island to see the condition and show the community what they looked like.

Finding and filming The Pink Seaweed was also about stopping the fish farmers trying to put a huge industrialised fish farm in the Marine Protected area at Horse Island. This was one of the best creel fishing areas so the fishermen did not want it. It also would impact wild fish so many anglers did not want it as well as people with houses overlooking Horse Island. So most importantly (the key aim of the whole trip) was to find and film the maerl (pink seaweed) we thought was near the (proposed) fish farm which we wanted to stop. We had raised funds to cover some expenses from a few supporters but most of this was again volunteer time and effort.

This was really to support the creel fishermen's protest against the salmon farm which wanted to build a giant salmon farm (30 rugby pitches) next to Horse Island. On the first day Andy and Ali found it and filmed it.

After that we set up two 25 meter transects at two maerl beds sites which we had filmed during the 2016 survey the year before and had been advised by a Government scientist would be good for baseline monitoring. One was at the dredged site at Fox point and another an intact maerl bed. These transects - which were a lot of work were done with the help of scallop divers and seasearch recreational divers from Inverness Sub Aqua club as well as the marine scientists. So it was a hugely collaborative effort.

After that the marine scientists and Andy continued exploring. Sometimes with a boat lent by the manager of Tanera, one of the islands in the Summer Isles. Another time another fishermen and fishermen's representative leant a boat called Goldseeker which was a fabulous survey boat.

Our Discoveries:

  • An usual abundance of Sea cucumbers (of various types)
  • Very intact ecosystem (with high biodiversity) at the completely unexplored northern part of the MPA. With an abundance of squid eggs which we hope to return to
  • Some mating seahares (just fun to see)
  • We set up two 25m maerl transects with video monitoring of random quadrats- one in a dredged area and one in an intact area of maerl and these are being reported on.

By 2018 we were working with a large group of volunteer diver-cameramen, fishermen and recreational (seasearch) divers from the community and beyond, on a kind of ad hoc basis when it suited people - as well as being supported by local community donations, accommodation and boat assistance from fishermen. Our main focus remained on maerl )

As there were two volunteer film makers within the group we also began to tell stories with our footage to share our discoveries on film, and bring more awareness of the issues to the community and politicians. We made two films from this footage by Andy Jackson SubSea.TV and Graham Saunders. One is at the link below

The other we used for our initial introduction as it is more about the whole citizen science discovery process.

An Underwater Ecosystem & ‘Flowers of the Sea Forest on Vimeo

The film below Horse Island and the Pink Seaweed is more about our campaign to oppose fish farms and protect maerl, wild fisheries, creel fishermen's jobs, the MPAs recovery and cetaceans too.

This has proved to be effective as a way to share our message and empowering others in the community to discover for themselves what is under the sea rather than to rely upon well resourced commercial companies to tell us what they want us to know. We can now look for ourselves and draw our own conclusions

We also feel it is vital to engage the community in the process of discovery and show just how stunning, precious and extraordinary the underwater world is, with its many habitats and charismatic species too. This might build greater custodianship.

We found a wonderful kelp forested habitat which had not been documented before around Reiff in the north of the MPA.

Grahams and Andy's photos of kelp here were of particular importance when there was a national discussion over Kelp dredging and we could show people in the area what Kelp looked like and how it was encrusted with and supported other life forms - like a forest supporting many other species. It really helped bring it to life and help protect kelp as the national discussion came down in favour of protecting it. Of course this was a huge campaign by many other people leading it but we played a small part as it just happened to be lucky we had some kelp pictures to show thanks to Andy and Graham - (and Lewis and other divers). We followed this kelp theme up in September too...

An Underwater Eden - June 2018 - Sea Change Wester Ross

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In 2017 we began working with Inverness Sub Aqua Club and Seasearch West (recreational divers who know their species and tend to have cameras and do records of the species on special seasearch forms) Plus with a wider number of volunteers in the community including for a couple of the short surveys - the chairman of the Wester Ross Area Salmon Fishery Board who helped us with his boat on occasion. This was because our threat was increasingly salmon farms so working collaboratively on this was helpful.

Fish farms were wanting to exploit the recovering area for new, much larger farms. We were really determined to find evidence of maerl to stop this in support of the local creel fishermen who were protesting. Also in support of the recovery we had worked so hard for. Here is the report that came from that. Sadly my beloved mother died that year. So it was hard to focus on surveys and coordinating and some how the weather didn't help as every time we organised a dive the sea was choppy and often prevented us getting everything we had wanted. We did have a great time and are grateful to the Inverness Sub Aqua Club for their persistence and help throughout this year.

We battled on and achieved quite a lot despite this. We learnt that it was a risky business fixing a weeks survey dive a way ahead of time in the late Autumn and Spring when the weather is a little more unpredictable - but with accommodation in the area difficult for so many divers an issue in high tourist season - we did not have much choice....this was a little more fragmented than other years.

My favourite was my introduction to nudibranch and sea slugs. Wow they are like mini dragons and just beautiful. I have become a fan. These are the small overlooked creatures that I personally feel very strongly about protecting too. As a child I was known for loving the 'small things' and these are just beautiful like small gems or mini-mythological dragons...I find them utterly delightful like so many creatures in the sea they have a surreal quality.

Sea Change Sea Search Surveys 2017 - Sea Change Wester Ross

The picture below is of a placida dentrica and photographed by Hilary MacKay of ISAC seasearch divers. We do not think this has been recorded in the area before.

In The Field


BACKGROUND In 2016, given the recent MPA designation, with maerl being the most fragile legally protected species as well as one of the keystone species in the area - our first mission was to find new maerl beds and further map the maerl beds in the MPA as not all the maerl that the fishermen knew were there was recorded scientifically. We also wanted to set up a baseline to monitor change and recovery of dredged mearl. (We also mapped other priority marine features and habitats - especially when weather pushed us in to exploring other bays, inlets)

The Scottish Government has limited resources for surveys. So finding more of the species which had full legal protection was a way to guarantee more robust protection of our MPA in to the future. We realised if we wanted this we needed to get involved. It seemed to us that Govt. Agencies decisions were influenced by short term commercial pressures - we wanted to protect the sea for generations to come.

MAERL BEDS - THE PINK SEAWEED is important as they support commercial fisheries and so recording it helps protect the MPA. It attracts scallop spat, herring spawn, crustaceans and many other important species. It supports biodiversity in general too. It has "recover" status in the MPA so it is the most legally protected species as well as flame shells. Maerl is very fragile and easily damaged by metal fishing gear and salmon farming.

OUR FIRST WEEK LONG CITIZEN- FISHERMEN SCIENCE SURVEY was in August 2016. This was a collaboration between community volunteers, local scallop diver-fishermen and various community supporters supplying boats, accommodation and air or helping skipper boats. Andy Jackson a brilliant cameraman-diver-storyteller was willing to help us get good film and data to know the condition of maerl, worked with us as a volunteer diver. Ali Hughson a local scallop diver and fishermen did too. It was a great team and we made 3 films from this footage to celebrate the MPAs 1st Birthday and share our discoveries as well as the sheer beauty of it.

We began the mapping of live maerl beds and recording it's condition on camera - focused first on the Summer Isles archipelago. This is an on going process which we hope to extend to the south of the MPA too as there are some very damaged mearl beds there which we have wanted to monitor for a long time. Dive depth (safety) and volunteer time - as well as boat and fuel costs can limit us. We rely upon synchronicity to help us - when it all comes together.

in 2016 our aim was to discover where all the maerl beds were, record their condition as a baseline so we could monitor their recovery from dredging. As well as stop salmon farms being located in the MPA. We filmed a swim transect in one of the heavily dredged areas near Fox Point and Dorney sound too (two areas which had been heavily dredged) We wanted a visual baseline. We also explored other habitats near Tanera Island bay and discovered a new species of anenome not recorded in the area before.

Our 2016 survey has now been included in the Government agency's report on the MPA. This ensured our discovery of this new-ish or extended maerl bed is now in the national records and protected. We are yet to be able to map the full extent of the size of it.

Our 2016 survey was the start of a baseline assessment of all the maerl beds. As we are working with volunteer fishermen (scallop) divers we also hoped to monitor scallop abundance on our maerl transects as this fishery is directly connected to maerl beds. Scallop spat settle on maerl and so maerl beds had always been targeted by dredgers seeking out these scallops. We hope over time the recovering MPA will support the restoration of this fishery as local scallop divers had been forced to fish far away from the MPA due to damaged to their stocks caused by dredging.

Expedition Background

Sea Change Wester Ross is a marine community group made up of volunteers who live around the shores of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area. We emerged in 2014 in order to lobby for ecosystem-wide protection of the proposed Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Wester Ross, Scotland.

We set out to help recover the habitats which had once supported abundant fisheries on the west coast, and bring back our fish! Fishermen like fish, tourists like fish (& shellfish). Tourists also like Nature: large fishy species like whales, dolphins and basking sharks as well as salmon and sea trout, cod, haddock and herring. Local residents like fish for food, cafes and restaurants and recreation. We wanted these back. It was not just economic. We want the ecosystem to recover for the benefit of future generations as well as respect for life and the species themselves.

In 2014 we set up a petition to ban scallop dredgers in Wester Ross which received widespread community support. This was for banning them completely from the proposed Wester Ross Marine Protected Area which was in the process of consultation. At this stage the MPA proposal was to include dredging and trawling within the MPA as the commercial lobby's were so powerful. To us this meant the MPA was no more than a "paper park". We wanted all fishing which dragged metal across the seabed banned from the whole area. So did most of the low impact creel and dive fishermen.

The Marine Protected Area was being set up to recover maerl - a fragile pink coralline seaweed as well as flame shell beds and a number of other habitats and species that were threatened. The area was unique because of its abundance of maerl which was thought to date back to the last ice age - possibly 8000 years old. Dredgers could destroy maerl beds in one tow - dragging metal over these fragile coral like maerl twiglets just to catch scallops. This damaged other fisheries. We wanted a real MPA and not just a boundary which misled people without giving any real chance of recovery.

In August 2015 we were successful and dredgers were officially banned from the whole area. In March 2016 the MPA was officially created.


Once we had managed to secure the ecosystem protection we wanted we set out to survey and map the habitats and species within the MPA - in particular maerl. We wanted to record a baseline in order to monitor recovery over the years and either know what further protections were needed or to justify the MPA's continued protection from commercial interests that might destroy it.

We had already done some drop down camera explorations in 2015 (with Go pros on a fishing line whilst drifting) but this exploration had been interrupted by dredgers coming in to the proposed MPA and dredging near mearl beds and we wanted better pictures and not to loose our camera in the rocks....(it snapped off and we never found it again)

Next John McIntyre one of our core members who was a scientist who was great at making stuff - guided by a university professor from Glasgow Uni, designed and made a drop down camera on a metal rod with a light. A Weight was put at one end (a stone in one of my old cloth handbags). It worked! It had a buoy at the top to keep the line afloat so we could find it if it went overboard but usually we just dropped it down until it felt as if it was dangling about the bottom then brought it up after a short while to see what it was seeing. A slow process and not great for precise GPS positions. It was however ok at just seeing what was down there. It did help.

This method was useful since just to find habitats or species locations - but not to film them to share, or to tell stories with. The storytelling part is important to us as it encourages greater custodianship.

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