BY KEITH MACKENZIE
An environmental group recently set up in South Skye has insisted that jobs and the area’s economy remain central to its aims — despite attracting criticism from local fishermen.
The South Skye Seas Initiative has been set up by a small group of campaigners who successfully led the fight against a number of fish farm applications in the Sleat and Elgol areas.
The group — which has four members — is now aiming to secure £300,000 of Lottery money through the Coastal Communities Fund for a project which they say will safeguard the marine environment and create jobs.
However, there have been concerns that the project has been launched without demonstrating community support, and could threaten the livelihood of those who currently make their living from the sea.
The group’s mission statement sets out plans to gather species and habitat data around the Loch Eishort, Loch Slapin and Loch Scavaig areas, with the intention of ‘zonal mapping’ the seabed before identifying future development opportunities.
Key aspirations, the group say, include kelp farming on ropes, scallop ranching and “marine tourism opportunities including wild swimming, snorkel trails and sub-aqua”.
This week a local creel boat skipper expressed fears that the project would become a barrier to development, limit trawling and restrict the areas where creel boats could fish.
In a lengthy post on social media — which was shared extensively — Drumfearn fisherman Iain MacAskill worried that the SSSI group were symptomatic of a wider trend.
He wrote: “They have no understanding whatsoever about what happens in the local traditional, sustainable fishing industry.
“Young working locals are getting sick of being hindered in trying to get on with their lives, whether it be crofting, fishing or trying to get planning permission for their enterprises or housing.
“This is a working landscape… not just a playground for privileged
people with time on their hands.”
He later told the Free Press: “I would just like the SSSI to come out in public and say what exactly they are, so more people are aware.”
The four members of the South Skye Seas Initiative are Ord resident Eileen Armstrong, Roger and Pat Cottis of Isleornsay and Dr James Merryweather from Auchtertyre. They have joined forces with a similar group in Wester Ross — Sea Change — to press for Coastal Communities funding, and have reached stage two of the process.
Wild fish charity Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland has also pledged backing for SSSI.
Dr Merryweather (pictured left) said: “We of SSSI have always considered the local creel fishermen and the mussel farm to be integral to Sleat life and the Sleat community. We have never considered interfering in their operations. In fact, if invited, we would always heartily support them. We are the same people who — with Sleat’s almost unanimous support — co-ordinated community objection to four fish farm planning applications (2012-2015), installations that had the potential to deprive local fishermen of valuable prawn creeling seabed west and south of Suisnish. We actually defended local fishermen’s right to fish locally.”
Ms Armstrong acknowledged that the fish farming industry provided much-need employment. She said it was the group’s intention to create jobs “more and better than the proposed fish farms would have provided or might promise if they try again”.
She added: “SSSI’s main aim is to continue the seabed survey work identifying habitats and species to build up a zonal map of the seabed. This will identify additional areas suitable for mobile/static gear, areas for conservation, such as maerl and seagrass beds which are vital as nursery grounds for fish and scallops, areas for marine tourism opportunities and areas which can be utilised for new aquaculture activity providing new business opportunities, employment and practical training for the local community.
“We are currently investigating kelp farming on ropes and we wish to speak to fishermen to see if this can fit in with or around current fishing methods. This is an opportunity to enhance and protect the marine activities currently taking place and are seeking to engage with our community, fishermen and all other interested stakeholders to work collaboratively.”
She pledged that the group would not lobby for the creation of a special environmental designation such as a Marine Protected Area, because it could “introduce constraints that could restrict our ideas”.