March 7, 2018
How best to protect and conserve Scotland’s marine environment is one of the most hotly contested areas of public policy. Scottish Government has established a network of Marine Protected Areas covering approximately 20% of Scotland’s waters, and these have provided a focus for much of the conflict between different parts of the fishing industry. Despite all the conflict – or perhaps because of it – many of Scotland’s scattered coastal communities have started to organise. The Coastal Communities Network is finding its voice.
Communities all over Scotland are harnessing the power of their voices to influence government decisions and policies relevant to their local areas. Responding to consultations on local and national issues are a good way to do this, and can be a route to better community involvement in national politics.
The Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) committee, just held an open call for evidence on the environmental impacts of salmon farming, where they sought views on the recently published SAMS report reviewing the impacts from a scientific perspective. This report is the first updated review since the previous research published in 2002.
The ECCLR Committee carried this out in advance of the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) Committee’s forthcoming inquiry on aquaculture in Scotland, which opened on 8thFebruary 2018. This wider enquiry aims to “consider the current state of salmon industry in Scotland, identify opportunities for its future development and explore how the various fish health and environmental challenges it currently faces can be addressed”.
Salmon farming, and indeed aquaculture of other types, is of major concern to many coastal communities and groups. There are concerns over the risk of disease (e.g. fish lice), the accumulation of waste, genetic mixing between farmed and native salmon through escapes and the possible impacts of farms sighted within or near to marine protected areas (MPAs).
This call for evidence mobilised coastal communities to use their voices in many different ways.
Despite there being a short window of only 14 days given for written responses to be submitted, multiple individuals and community groups submitted their thoughts, comments and opinions on the impacts to their local areas. These submissions are required to be considered by the committee as part of the evidence gathering process and will then form part of a report to the REC committee as part of the full inquiry.
While it seems a small move, by getting involved in this way communities are making sure that they are being heard at a national level and the value of their local knowledge can be seen.
Others got involved by sharing petitions, running twitter storms, speaking to their local MSPs and spreading the word among their neighbours, communities and supporters.
As part of the consultation, stakeholders were called to give oral evidence to the committee at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. Among these was the only community group to be included – Friends of the Sound of Jura – represented by John Aitchison. John represented his community sitting on a panel alongside Sam Collin from Scottish Environment Link’s aquaculture subgroup and the General Manager of the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (the industry body for salmon farming in Scotland).
John spoke eloquently and passionately about the issues surrounding the environmental impacts of salmon farming, the problems of siting farms in or near to MPAs and the shortcomings of the current monitoring and regulatory processes. In the session, John gave evidence with such conviction and authority that it really caused the committee members to rethink their line of enquiry.
As well as being the only community group invited to give oral evidence, Friends of the Sound of Jura were one of only two environmental groups called, and this makes their involvement hugely influential in getting across their local and environmental views. With John representing them in such a knowledgeable and inspiring way, there’s no way that the committee could fail to take on board the evidence presented.
All of these efforts work to build the involvement and empowerment of communities in local and national politics, and ensure that stakeholder views include those of local groups.