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A bold plan to preserve one of the finest coastlines in Britain
By Paul Kelbie,

Scotland Correspondent - The Independent

27th May 2003

The Inner Hebrides are some of the loveliest islands in the world; the adjacent coastline is majestic and as little spoilt as anywhere in Britain; most of all, the surrounding seas are still teeming with marine life. But there is a dark cloud on the horizon. The area is at risk from the kind of industrial fishing by foreign fleets that has cleaned out much of the North Sea.

Now, a group of Scottish conservationists wants to make the Inner Hebrides the centre of Britain's first marine national park, with legal protection so that the rich flora and fauna of their waters can only be used sustainably.

The group hopes that the Scottish Parliament will bring in legislation to protect the seas around islands from Rum down to Mull, including Eigg, Muck, Coll and Tiree the Inner Hebrides' core and along the coast of the north-west Highlands from Mallaig in the north, round to Fort William, and down to Crinan, south of Oban.

Marine parks around the world have been credited by environmental scientists with protecting valuable coral reefs and other habitat while at the same time improving fishing stocks on the parks' borders.

Catches around the Caribbean island of St Lucia doubled after marine reserves were set up there.

Researchers found that in the Leigh marine reserve to the north of New Zealand, numbers of snapper fish and spring lobster increased significantly after a marine park was set up. After a reserve was created in the Gulf of Maine in America, scallop populations went to nine to 14 times their density in fished areas.

The Hebridean Marine National Park Partnership, which is in talks with the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, hopes to be able to present its plans to the Scottish Parliament in the next few months.

The area it has in mind constitutes the Romantic heart of old Gaelic Scotland, including Iona, where St Columba founded his monastery AD563 and so marked the beginning of Christianity in the north, and Loch nan Uamh near Arisaig, from where Bonnie Prince Charlie departed in 1746.

It is an area of astounding beauty, where rugged rocky shores alternate with beaches of golden sand against a background of spectacular mountains and deep sea lochs, and its wildlife is legendary. It is the region of two eagles the golden eagle, which soars over the moors and mountains, and the white-tailed sea eagle, which was reintroduced from Norway in recent decades and is now to be seen on the cliffs of Rum and Mull. But most of all it is the marine life with which the partnership is concerned.

The minke whales, bottlenose dolphins and basking sharks that can all be seen, especially in summer, are the most visible of a vast array of underwater creatures that the conservationists feel could now be at risk.

"We are in a particularly rich area for flora and fauna as we are situated right on the boundary of northern and southern species," said Mark Carter, a marine scientist from Oban and the partnership's chairman. "Because of the Atlantic drift current, we get the warmer species and the colder species coming down from the north and meeting around this area."

The seas are mainly exploited by fishing boats, often from isolated communities, in the way the environment can support; the fear is of overfishing in the future. "The problem is that as the North Sea situation gets worse, the sort of people who have overfished there are going to come here," Mr Carter said.

"At the moment, there's lots of local agreements but in the future we could easily see the Spanish or the French coming here with their bigger boats and wiping out everything we have in our seas."

If the park is established, it will be the first marine national park in Britain. "We already have three marine nature reserves, but they don't have nearly the same powers or responsibilities as a national park," Mr Carter said. "The whole idea of the park is to preserve what we have and encourage sustainable rural use. Because of where we are, it is obviously a remote area and lots of rural communities rely on the sea, just as they have been doing for centuries. What we want to do is make sure that future generations enjoy the same opportunity.

"What we don't want to see is big industrial use such as that by the giant factory ships which hoover up the sea in the search of fish; at the moment there is very little to stop it happening," Mr Carter said. "A hundred years ago in Oban bay, the common oyster was precisely that common. Now Scottish Natural Heritage are carrying out a survey to identify the last remaining colonies of them around Scotland."

The Worldwide Fund for Nature has voiced its support for the creation of marine national parks and has helped to fund research by the partnership into the willingness of local people to support such a move. WWF Scotland warns the seas are threatened by overfishing and pollution, which in turn risks wildlife, and the livelihoods of coastal communities.

A spokesman said: "Scotland's living marine resources are at risk from overexploitation, pollution and disturbance like never before. We know from worldwide experience that conservation of our seas requires local fisheries management, strengthened planning controls, and the routing of oil tankers away from inshore routes. National park status could provide a perfect mechanism for this kind of improved protection for sea and coastal areas."

Creation of a marine national park would boost the area's economy, the partnership believes. Mr Carter said: "Value will be increased on goods from within the area, if people can say that fish, for example, comes from a national park area.There would also be considerable benefits from tourism like those enjoyed by marine-based national parks in other countries