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Fair Isle community celebrating after winning marine protected area status – at last!

Residents in Fair Isle have been campaigning for marine protection area (MPA) status since the early 1990s.

THE COMMUNITY of Fair Isle is rejoicing after a campaign lasting around quarter of a century finally resulted in the waters around the island being designated as a marine protection area (MPA).

Scottish environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham made the announcement at the Marine Conservation Society’s annual conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday.

Residents of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS)-owned island, which lies between Shetland and Orkney, have long argued for an MPA to be created so fishermen and the wider community can gain some of the benefits enjoyed by MPAs in New Zealand, Finland and elsewhere.

While there are around 30 MPAs in Scotland already, the Fair Isle one will be different in that it has been a grassroots, community-led initiative.

The Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative (FIMETI) was set up in 1995 out of concern at “steady and unremitting damage” to the marine environment. FIMETI has lobbied alongside the island’s bird observatory and the NTS for the creation of an MPA.

Islanders argue that sustainable management of the marine area around Fair Isle will have a positive impact on the environment, tourism, education and research.

This week the Scottish Government said the creation of a Fair Isle Demonstration and Research MPA would give the community the opportunity to develop new or improved forms of marine management to protect seabirds and promote eco-tourism.

Susannah Parnaby, who along with her husband David has run Fair Isle Bird Observatory since 2011, said the whole island was “absolutely delighted” with the news.

“It’s been a long process and it’s just great news to have finally been awarded the MPA – exciting times,” she told Shetland News.

“This is just the beginning – we’re going to have to start sitting down and working through the next stages.”

She said the observatory had been involved in lots of seabird monitoring and land-based studies, and she hopes the MPA will allow it to extend that work.

“Shetland seabirds and certainly Fair Isle seabirds have suffered a substantial decline in the past 25-30 years,” Parnaby said.

“Obviously the marine environment is a complex environment and there are a lot of factors at work. We’re very much hoping it’ll allow us to look in some more detail at some of the issues and perhaps look at ways that some of the impacts of those [declines] can be ameliorated.”

She said the local economy was heavily dependent on wildlife tourism and the community was keen to safeguard that heritage for both economic and environmental reasons.

“We’ve got fantastic seabird colonies and we want to ensure that they stay healthy and bring economic benefits as well as their own value, and we need to make sure we’re protecting that,” Parnaby said.

“The island as a whole is very pleased. It’s been a community proposal from the start, it’s had unanimous support from the community and a lot of work has gone into it.”

Community councillor Fiona Mitchell said that after years of trying, it appeared that the Scottish Government’s “attitude has changed and they’ve realised they do have to have a greater responsibility for the seas around Scotland”.

She also believes the backing of Shetland Fishermen’s Association had a “huge impact” on its success as it “demonstrated we were engaging with people, and fishermen in particular, who said they were willing to support us”.

Mitchell said emails had been “flooding about” and she’d taken so many phone calls today that “my voice is starting to go”. 

She added: “the person we really need to thank is Nick Riddiford”, without whom the campaign “may well have stalled a long way back”.

Cunningham said she was pleased to confirm the designation of Fair Isle, along with the Firth of Clyde, as an MPA: “Scotland’s seas have played and continue to play valuable cultural and economic roles,” she said.

“It is our duty to protect these rich areas and historical sites while ensuring they benefit local communities. These MPAs will help protect and enhance our marine environment so it remains a prized asset for future generations.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021