Twelve reasons for a Demonstration & Research MPA in Fair Isle waters

(The following text is taken from FIMETI's Newsletter, No. 11, April 2014. Editorial, pages 1 to 5.)

Marine Scotland will be assessing Demonstration & Research Marine Protected Area (D&R MPA) proposals in the first half of 2014. Fair Isle has all the credentials for this form of MPA.  Let’s look more closely at these.


Quality and extent of Fair Isle’s seabird monitoring data: Fair Isle is a major contributor to the UK’s Seabird Monitoring Programme, administered by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The Fair Isle Bird Observatory was a key player in the planning and instigation of the programme, launched in 1986; and has supplied annual data since on population sizes, breeding success, food brought to chicks and other ecological aspects for more species than at any other site. Additional information on seabird population change dates back to the mid 1950s.


Quality and extent of Fair Isle’s meteorological data: The Fair Isle weather station, run by Fair Islander Dave Wheeler, has an unrivalled meteorological data set incorporating a range of climatic features for land and sea. It is part of the Meteorological Office network and the Met Office has invested a considerable amount of money to demonstrate its long-term commitment to the station. Marine data include sea surface temperature and salinity levels. Dave set up his weather station in the 1970s but by assiduous research has been able to locate further datasets stretching sea surface temperatures back to 1969. Dave’s data show significant fluctuations and trends in temperature and salinity levels which have direct relevance to changes we have observed in the marine environment. The marine data are supplied to the Scottish Fisheries Research Services and make an important contribution to the FRS’s Scottish Ocean Climate Status analyses.

Continuous Plankton Recorder data set: in the 1930s, and with immense forethought, the oceanographer Sir Alister Hardy established a monitoring system for plankton in UK waters using automatic plankton trawls at set sites along regular ferry routes. The survey is operated by the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS), Plymouth. Apart from the interruption of the second world war, SAHFOS has a virtually unbroken weekly data set for various parts of UK waters including a location south-east of Fair Isle sampled from the Aberdeen to Lerwick ferry. There have been massive changes in plankton composition over the last 30 years, including the virtual disappearance of a copepod which had previously been the bulk of summer captures. SAHFOS indicated some years ago that these data would be accessible for research purposes.

Baseline data set from inshore sites, including underwater reefs and caves: Underwater reefs and caves are listed as a priority habitat for conservation by the European Union. Fair Isle only failed to achieve Special Area of Conservation status for that feature because Papa Stour is even more impressive and the Government chose to select only one site for Shetland. However, ask any diver and they will tell you that Fair Isle’s underwater caves, surge gullies, reefs and underwater cliffs are spectacular; and clothed in colourful wildlife. A detailed survey was made of the fauna and flora around the isle in 1987 by divers working for the UK’s Marine Nature Conservation Review. Amongst their conclusions was that the area from the Head of Tind to innermost Smirri Geo was an excellent example of a very exposed to very sheltered coastline incapsulated over a very short distance. The Fair Isle database holds their records, which form a baseline against which change may be measured. The Clipperton Project is sending an expedition group of marine biologists this June and they plan to investigate the current status of a selection of these sites.

Recent baseline information for the seabed: Our experimental proposals include leaving the sea bed alone. A recent offshore survey for Scottish Natural Heritage discovered a seabed with “sparse evidence of life”. The few species found were typical indicators of a heavily disturbed environment. Far from undermining the research element, the current situation sets an excellent baseline for measuring the recovery of biota, especially skate, from a very low base over time. Experimental research is needed to test the hypothesis that biodiversity is limited by seabed disturbance. Since the Second World War the skate has gone from common to extremely rare in Fair Isle waters and nationally it is a threatened species.


Clear objectives for sustainable management through experimental research: the Fair Isle MPA proposal sets out a series of simple, clear objectives to achieve sustainable management of the marine resource. Sustainable management measures such as no-take zones and steering fishing activities away from damaging methods have been demonstrated in many parts of the world to be hugely successful and beneficial to all, including the fishing community (by building up stocks). Any arguments that conditions are different and it won’t work in the UK are undermined by the lack of experimental work to prove or disprove this. A Fair Isle Demonstration and Research (D&R) MPA presents an opportunity to put that right. Such work has to be the basis of the demonstration element. There is a growing clamour from the general public to know such matters.

Ideal location for monitoring climate change: Fair Isle’s location, on a cusp between the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, and northern and more southern ecological components makes it an ideal site for studying the actions and ramifications of long-term climate change. Its relative isolation, in terms of distance from other land, helps to filter out anthropogenic influences which mask or muddy the ability to evaluate change.


Local community support: the support of the entire community is a boon to government because it removes the obstacle of local opposition to the designation of an MPA. It also provides the prospect of practical support for and participation in the scientific research activities and in making the science accessible; a true demonstration project. The community already has experience in this field, having taken the Project Lead for Safeguarding Our Heritage, a demonstration project on sustainable use of environmental and cultural resources under the auspices of the EU/Norwegian government’s Northern Periphery Programme, 1999-2001.

Research facilities: the isle already has its demonstration and research institute, the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. From the outset, in 1948, Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust’s dual purpose has been to engage the general public in the environment and to undertake long-term studies – with the emphasis on migratory and breeding birds. In recent years those studies have taken on a wider ecological approach. FIBOT has a policy of encouraging research by means of a research fund, accommodation offers and other facilities. It has widened its general public outreach by hosting a ranger for the isle and establishing a visitor centre, including exhibition and conference facilities. Several universities and other research institutions have long-term studies on the isle and have established close links with the Fair Isle Bird Observatory.


Flagship opportunity for Shetland: Fair Isle may be some way offshore but it is part of Shetland…and proud of it. A Demonstration and Research MPA presents a huge opportunity for the Scalloway-based North Atlantic Fisheries Centre, as part of the University of Highlands and Islands, to raise its profile through engagement in the research; and at a wider level it could be a flagship project for Shetland, showing Shetland’s commitment to the welfare of all its communities and setting a 21st Century standard for sustainable management of peripheral areas.


Council of Europe Diploma condition: The Fair Isle proposal presents the Scottish Government with the opportunity to meet its responsibility regarding the Council of Europe Diploma condition. Fair Isle is one of just two sites in Scotland and only 70 in the whole of Europe to hold this prestigious Diploma which recognises sites of outstanding natural quality whose communities live in harmony with their environment. The latest renewal of the Diploma laid down a condition that Fair Isle has an MPA. Failure to meet this condition would lead to Fair Isle losing its Diploma at or before the next renewal. The condition was signed by the Ministers of all 47 participating states - surely, then, a commitment to the isle? The Fair Isle community is within its rights to ask what the purpose was of signing the condition if no action is to be taken.

EU Birds Directive: the Birds Directive led to the designation of Special Protection Areas for Birds. In the case of Fair Isle, SPA designation was for its internationally important seabird populations. The Directive requires governments to set conservation objectives and places a legal obligation on them to meet those objectives. In the case of Fair Isle’s seabirds the objective of the SPA is to maintain and enhance the breeding populations. This objective is clearly not being met. Fair Isle’s seabirds are in a parlous state. Breeding success for many species has been very low or zero in most of the last 20 years and populations levels are falling, precipitously in the case of the kittiwake. The Fair Isle MPA proposal puts forward management measures to address the situation and seek to return the seabird populations to favourable status. MPA designation has wider, Scottish significance. It presents the opportunity to research how to manage SPAs round seabird colonies as well as establishing a model for community involvement in marine management.

With a strong current baseline, MPA designation brings the prospect of attracting further scientific research. The Fair Isle Bird Observatory set up already brings scientists and the general public together and a major element of a D&R MPA must be to ensure that the results of the research are made accessible and known to the general public. At an island scale, this is already happening.

A large part of the ranger’s role is to engage visitors in the studies and activities of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. The ranger works closely with the school children on environmental topics; and this has been extended to the wider public, residents and visitors, through the Fair Isle Wildlife Club – field events organised by the islanders themselves.

The isle will wish to give every support to the scientific endeavours and can provide facilities, such as boats and manpower, to help with routine monitoring. The isle is already demonstrating this.

FIMETI is currently involved in the development stage for an alien marine species study being planned for Shetland by the North Atlantic Fisheries Centre (Scalloway). The isle would undertake the monitoring element under NAFC guidance. It is a study that can involve the school children as well as the wider public. Local community participation provides added value to the D&R concept.

A small community cannot do it all, however, and is looking to other scientific organisations to get involved. There is huge potential to bring together the various strands of information already available into a powerful programme which extends and adds value to the research already in place.

Fair Isle is looking to Marine Scotland and its research outlets, such as The Marine Laboratory, to assist and advise so that detail can be placed on the current outline D&R framework.

Text and photographs Copyright Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative. All Rights Reserved.

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