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July 25, 2018

Plastic action

All of sudden we’re all talking about the horrors of single use plastic and the threat it poses to our marine environment.  In no small part that’s been due to the efforts of David Attenborough and in particular his documentary series, Blue Planet 2. While talking about the problem is important and necessary if we are to find solutions, nothing’s going change unless people are prepared to walk that talk as well. And increasingly, they are. From the inspirational efforts of one man on the beaches of Mumbai to Scotland’s island communities, local action is spreading.


Simon Barnes, The Times

Walk along the tideline. Any beach will do, anywhere in the world. This one was at North Berwick, overlooking the Firth of Forth, with the extraordinary gannet colony of Bass Rock clearly visible out to sea. Beyond us the great air force of gannets banked and plunged. But we were supposed to be looking down, not up, and we found what we were looking for. Alas.

We were looking for nurdles. That’s what they call them at Fidra, which is a small NGO based here, named for the island in the Firth that’s said to have inspired Treasure Island. The plastics industry calls them preproduction plastic pellets. Billions of them are used every year, for nearly all plastic products. With spills and mishandling, masses of these tiny beads end up in the sea.

Whose sea is it anyway? That question has suddenly shot up the political agenda. Is the sea a private place to be divvied up between the government and big business? Or do we all have a share? Call it Blue Planet syndrome.

The wildlife documentary series Blue Planet II, with commentary from the incomparable David Attenborough, was the most watched television programme in the UK last year, attracting 17m viewers. The most emotional issue in the show was plastics. Every year an estimated 8m tons of the material ends up in the oceans. There was footage of albatrosses feeding their chicks with plastic, we saw a mourning pilot whale carrying her stillborn calf, there was a hawksbill turtle entangled in a plastic sack. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, said he was “haunted” by the images.

In January, the government announced a 25-year environment plan that stresses the conservation of the oceans. It’s long on ambition, if short on legal guarantees. The prime minister, Theresa May, announced plans to cut plastic waste pollution, pointing out that one-third of all fish caught in the English Channel contained pieces of plastic. The Marine Conservation Society held a nationwide beach clean-up and reported 718 items of rubbish for every 100 metres of beach.

“All the plastic we have ever made is still out there — and most of it is in the sea,” says Sarah Archer of Fidra. It gets there with very few people noticing, as is the way with problems at sea. Nurdles attract toxins and absorb them. Long-banned chemicals such as DDT are still in the system, washed — like so much else — into the sea, where they can be found concentrated in these plastic pellets. Nurdles look like fish eggs and are consumed by the creatures of the sea. These tend not to be passed out, so the animal in question feels permanently full and stops eating. Autopsies on puffins have also revealed nurdles in their stomachs.

We humans consume plastics in our drinking water and in shellfish. “It’s a totally avoidable form of pollution,” Archer says. Fidra is working to convince the plastics industry that the problem is serious, and has worked to establish best practice. “The solution,” Archer says, “is sometimes as simple as a dustpan and brush.”

Groups all over the country take part in the Great Nurdle Hunt, and Fidra shows the plastics industry the results. Last time, nurdles were found on 93% of British beaches surveyed, and just under half of the hunts collected more than 100 pellets. A survey of Limekilns beach on the Firth showed that every year between 200,000 and 2m nurdles are washed up there.

Fidra has already had success with its Cotton Bud Project, which encouraged the cosmetics industry to use cotton buds with paper stems rather than the plastic ones that routinely wash up on beaches. Johnson & Johnson, Waitrose and most big supermarkets have agreed to make the change. Local people really can affect the behaviour of big business.

Britain is an archipelago; we who live here are beginning to believe that our surrounding seas deserve something better. It’s a feeling echoed around the world and in unexpected places: Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, has put serious money into a complex debt-relief system in the Seychelles that will ultimately benefit dolphins, turtles and other marine life.

But this feeling is particularly intense for those who live on the smaller islands here in Britain. These close-knit communities have a strong tradition of organising themselves, and are prepared to stand up against anybody to protect what matters. They can teach important lessons to those of us who live on the largest island.

On Arran, an island with a population of 5,000 off the west coast of Scotland, I met Howard Wood, a one-time jack-the-lad diver. He’s potty about the sea, old Howard. He still goes down there every day, in the mad, wild world beneath the waves; the world few people ever see, the world where people can do as they like and no one notices. But Wood noticed all right.

In 1984, the three-mile offshore limit for fishing was done away with. Now, the big boats could come right into the island’s shores; the scallop dredgers got in deep around Arran and trashed the place from the bottom up. They ploughed up the seabed and took away the life and the beauty and the meaning and the food.

Someone’s got to do something about this, Wood thought. It was a Bob Geldof moment. The answer came rushing back from the emptiness — sorry, Howard, but it’s you. So he and his diving buddy Don MacNeish founded an organisation called Coast, a neat acronym for Community of Arran Seabed Trust. MacNeish had connections with New Zealand, a place often ahead of the rest of the world in conservation. New Zealand had established “no-take” zones: areas where fishing is banned. That, they concluded, was what Arran needed.

Arran’s problems affected more than Wood’s favourite dive sites. It affected the local creelers, one-man bands, tough independent men in tiny boats who set pots in the sea. Arran had to cancel its international sea-angling festival in Lamlash Bay, and the boost to the economy was lost. No fish, no fishing competition.

“The attitude we came up against was that it was nothing to do with the public,” Wood says. “It was a closed shop between the big fisheries and the government. I asked why, as an islander, can I not have a voice in the sea that surrounds us?”

Wood believes that the sea belongs to us all — and because of him that principle has been legally established by lawyers working pro bono with Coast. The seas are a public resource and a public asset; the government has an obligation to manage the sea on behalf of the public. “They wouldn’t accept it for a long time, but six or seven years ago, they had to take it on.”

It began as the vision of one man and his mate, but it’s now an islandwide project. Most of the people who work at Coast are involved in the sea in some more or less passionate form: diving, snorkelling, kayaking. They are drawn together because — well, they’re potty about the sea. And they’re islanders, so they work together, incomers and Arran-born people alike.

A small no-take zone has been established, and also what’s called a marine protected area (MPA). This is an official designation, representing the government’s belated realisation that it has national and international responsibilities for the oceans that surround us.

Around Arran, it’s often a battle between the trawlers and the creelers. One has a great lobby and all the heft of big business, the other comprises independent people unaccustomed to acting collectively.

The creelers are behind Coast. When Iain Cusick goes on his rounds gathering up pots, he often takes Coast people with him to help them gather scientific information. I met him as we bounced around near the no-take zone in an inflatable. He was just beyond its limit, between water and watery sun with a boat full of langoustines. Without Coast, he wouldn’t be in business. That’s not something he takes for granted.

“The trawler people, they’re always trying to portray us as a bunch of tree-huggers,” Wood says. “They’re frightened that other communities will get organised like Coast. They see us as enemies, and it’s nonsense. The fact is we should all be on the same side — we all want more fish.”

At heart, Coast is about the revolutionary notion of putting people and their quality of life ahead of profit for large companies. And there are signs of recovery around Arran — the sea’s capacity for self-healing has not been entirely dredged away.

Luke Nelson has been doing voluntary work for Coast for some years. I met him as he was getting ready to attend his first meeting of Coast’s community advisory panel. He is 13. All committee meetings should have a smart 13-year-old present, to keep speeches short and jargon-free.

“I just love everything about the sea and the marine environment,” he said. “I want to do everything I can to help it. I want to be a marine biologist. I get out there every morning, snorkelling with the crabs and the baby cod and starfish and the urchins — and they’re all within the bay.”

That’s what amazes, again and again: what wonders there are beneath the surface of the sea. We all saw remarkable things on Blue Planet II, but you don’t have to travel to the Antarctic or the Great Barrier Reef to find them.

Coast has provided a template for other islands to follow. Fair Isle lies north of Orkney, nearly 500 miles from Arran, a glorious dot in the ocean. In 1989, the fisheries around the island were in a state of dismal decline and the seabirds were dying in their hundreds on the beaches. It was a prevision of hell.


Fair Isle has about 50 permanent residents, so the people who live there must do everything. Take Stewart Thomson. He was, like his father, a lighthouse keeper. He used to be a crofter, running sheep. He plays the accordion. He makes exquisite chairs with woven straw backs. He grows his own Shetland oats for the straw he needs. He still goes out to fish. And he was essential in the setting up of the MPA that now surrounds Fair Isle.

There are many factors that drive the economy of Fair Isle, but by far the biggest is birds. Fair Isle Bird Observatory attracts dedicated birders seeking extreme rarities, people looking for the spectacle of the seabird colonies and the matchless scenery, and others making day trips from cruise ships. All bring money into the island, some of them buying Fair Isle knitwear, which has gone through a recent revival. Without visitors, Fair Isle can’t survive.

It follows, then, that when the seabirds were dying in thousands, it was a big deal. The surrounding seas had been cleared of sand eels by the trawlers, the birds had to fly to distant places to find food, the repeated journeys exhausted them and they died.

“I used to bait up a longline with 300 hooks,” Thomson said. “You’d lower it in, and as soon as you’d done so, you could start hauling it back in. And there’d be enough fish for your family with some to sell and some to salt. But they abolished the three-mile limit round the island and the boats came and they left us with nothing.”

What are we going to do? On an island, that is never a rhetorical question. The former warden of the observatory, Nick Riddiford, still lives on Fair Isle, working as an ecologist. “It’s not a backwater, a lot of us do international work. We’re an innovative community,” he said.

He used his expertise to put forward a proposal for the MPA. It began with much discouragement; they were told by Scottish National Heritage (SNH) that there were “far more pressing conservation issues”. There weren’t. It’s just that you can’t see the problems under the sea. You’re unaware of the devastation till the corpses start piling up on the beaches. SNH eventually accepted this and came on side.

With advice and finance from Fauna & Flora International, an NGO that had already become involved with Coast and other coastal organisations, the Fair Isle MPA was established in 2016. Riddiford made a speech: “It’s taken us five years to get this far. Now the real hard work has to begin.”

And it has. Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative was established by the islanders to manage their marine resources sustainably. The logistics are overseen by Susannah Parnaby, administrator at the observatory and lay preacher, and Fiona Mitchell, a former chairwoman of the council, who runs the island shop. Hers was the last face I saw as I left the island. She’s also an airfield firefighter. It’s that kind of place. Resourceful.

“We’re building a positive relationship with the fishing industry,” Mitchell said. “They’ve been supportive. They sent representatives to our MPA launch party. It’s a big thing for them. Our organisation is driven by the community — the opposite of the way things work in most places.”

We are all richer for the existence of these island communities. They tell us things we have forgotten about, things we envy on the mainland. Information about the sea can seem like news from Mars, but for islanders it’s a daily reality. And it is impossible for a visitor not to be deeply moved by it all.

The story of the oceans is about what happens beneath the waves, out of sight, remote from daily concern for most of us. When we learn what’s going on, the truth is shocking. Blue Planet’s sudden and dramatic revelation of the damage caused by plastics shows signs of being a game-changer. But what can we do about it? Ask our island communities — they know what happens beneath the waves, they know about standing up against the machine.

And so, a long stolen moment for myself. A brief clamber, and I was on a beach, being gently washed in the smallest kind of rain that’s still capable of falling downwards. A head rose up from the water to examine me gravely, about 20 yards off, and then lowered again. Another, and another, till they were all up at the same time: Atlantic grey seals, two dozen of them. Absurdly, I was reminded of a public meeting, with people getting to speak and then sitting down again. Heads rose, heads fell. They watched me, like the angels in the hymn, with sad and wondering eyes. And then, do you know, one of the seals lifted up his voice in song.