Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Planning for a winter wonderland

The Sans Vitesse is an accommodation barge for oil workers, moored in Lerwick harbour  
Travelling today to Shetland, Britain's most northern island chain, further North than the tip of Greenland. An early morning wake up call to listen to Nelson Mandela's funeral on the radio. I pause in awe of the poignancy of the ceremony. But then the shipping forecast: "Wind Southerly or South-westerly storm 10 to hurricane 12, decreasing 7 to severe gale 9. Sea state high or very high, occasionally very rough at first in North. Rain or squally showers. Visibility poor." I text my colleague Ian Bryden, Vice Principal for Research at the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) who will travel up with me from Edinburgh airport: "doesn't look like we'll be flying anywhere today, Ian". He responds nonchalantly: "Loganair tend to be fairly cavalier about wind speed - otherwise nobody would ever get to Orkney and Shetland!" So I pack my thermal underwear and begin the three hour drive to the airport, hoping few trees will be blown across the road.
"No seatbelts off on this flight" said the pilot as the small Saab turboprop leapt into the air. We bounced through the murk, accompanying the small group of relaxed Shetlanders and nervous Chinese oil terminal workers heading out to help service the main economic activity on the 70 mile chain of Islands. And then the anticipated descent, lurching for long minutes a few hundred feet over mountainous seas blurred white with spindrift. And a short climb over rocky outcrops in the boiling waters below the windswept lighthouse of Sumburgh Head, a sharp turn and what seemed to be a full power noisy but perfect landing. The sigh of relief from passengers was palpable, even from the wry cabin attendant who was clutching a toilet roll and bags ready for the inevitable. "Hang on as you get out" we were warned as we braced ourselves for the howling wind.
And so to the little port of Scalloway, parking next to a brightly lit Christmas tree bent double by the wind. "You're lucky" said the hotelier, "the next flight was cancelled".
We didn't come here as adrenaline junkies: we had arranged to meet with colleagues from the NAFC Marine Centre, a specialist partner of UHI like my institute, SAMS. The smart modern buildings of the Centre increasingly staffed by qualified young people who have returned to the islands, started as the North Atlantic Fisheries College but the name changed in pace with Shetland's broadening economy and evolving view of marine management. This is a story worth telling because Shetland has pioneered one of Europe's first marine spatial plans and this is being granted statutory designation in Scotland.
Shetland's twenty thousand or so inhabitants have always been better served by resources from the sea than those provided by the bleak treeless landscape. "There's fish on the menu; we're surrounded by them" I was told in a Scalloway restaurant. But the popular view of abundance belies the fact that some resources were heavily overfished, requiring management measures such as the 'Shetland Box' negotiated with local fishermen. As early as 1974, the Zetland County Council Act gave authority over most management issues out to 12 nautical miles and the Council took an early lead in promoting Integrated Coastal Zone Management. This was at a time where there were radical changes in the use of marine space: new fin fish and shellfish aquaculture, the Sullom Voe oil terminal and rapid port development to deal with the burgeoning demands of a rapidly expanding industry. As these demands increased, so did the need for rational management of the precious marine space. And an awareness of the risks was further heightened by the disastrous Braer oil spill in 1993, highlighting the need to integrate environmental protection into planning.
So by 2004 when the concept of marine spatial planning began to emerge, Shetland was already at the forefront of innovation in planning and was an obvious choice for the first Scottish Sustainable Marine Environment Initiative (SSMEI). This piloted approaches to be used in a marine strategy for Scotland. NAFC played a leading role in this work, developing a relationship of trust with the key stakeholders. The first maps were produced showing development priorities. The evolution in thinking in the decade that has followed is impressive. There are new issues on the agenda including proposals for marine renewable energy, increased occurrence of toxic algal blooms, climate change and the potential of seaweed aquaculture. And on top of that is the changing legislative backdrop with designations of specially protected areas, the emergent EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive and new marine legislation at the UK and Scottish level. As each development has occurred, there has been a need to respond at a local level, which explains why the 2014 iteration of the Marine Spatial Plan will be the fourth.
Skills and thinking in NAFC have also evolved rapidly. There is a willingness to embrace new ideas on sensitivity mapping and cumulative impacts and the 2014 plan will reflect the state of the art. There are tangible benefits such as newly certified sustainable fisheries and the access these give to quality markets. Culture and heritage are not ignored either, a refreshing side to a potentially technocratic world. And this is reflected in the NAFC itself which hosts a little enclave of the UHI Centre for Nordic Studies, a reminder of Shetland's distant past that still resonates in its special relationship with the sea.  The Nordic heritage is also celebrated in the somewhat contrived but hugely renowned Up Helly Aa winter festival with the characteristic burning of replica Viking longboats. How welcome a break this must be from the five hours of weak winter daylight that we were witnessing.
Bodies such as NAFC are important at a community level, providing an essential bridge between competing stakeholder needs and the limited supply of natural system services to meet them. They can be seen as a source of fairness, technology, information and transferrable skills but may sometimes be undervalued when cheap short-term fixes replace more costly but sound long-term planning. Hopefully this will not happen in Shetland and the beacon of leadership in this field will shine far and wide. There are many unresolved problems to be overcome but I leave Shetland with a positive feeling about human endeavour … and what better way to finish the year!

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