Persistence, combined with legal action, beats resistance, says Kevin Curley

Community groups should use the law to seek the changes they need, rather than rely on voluntary agreements, he argues

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

I'm writing my first In the Community piece from the rocks overlooking Lamlash Bay on the Scottish island of Arran. I was last here in March last year, a few days after a huge snow storm blew in from the Kintyre peninsula, leaving villages on Arran's west coast cut off by 15-feet drifts and the whole island population of 4,600 without electricity for a week. I wrote then about the vital part village halls played in sustaining this community.

Lamlash Bay is unique for being the first marine reserve in Britain where fishing is banned on the recommendation of local people. After a campaign organised by the Community of Arran Seabed Trust, known as Coast, a large part of the bay was declared a No Take Zone in 2008 by an order of the Scottish parliament. No recreational or commercial fishing from shore or boat is permitted, and no shellfish can be taken. Just five years later, research by York University has shown that the bay is 40 per cent more complex and healthier than the area outside the No Take Zone. The scallops and lobsters are bigger and more fertile, so their eggs spread to neighbouring waters, giving commercial fishermen bigger and better catches.

Failure to agree

Remarkably, Coast has a supporter base of 2,000 people on Arran – more than half of the adult population. With this strong community support, the organisation tried for 15 years to reach a voluntary agreement with the Clyde Fishermen's Association to protect declining fish stocks. "It was a long, hard fight with people who had a very short-term vision," says Andrew Binnie, Coast's marine conservation officer. "In the end, the voluntary agreement would not work and we had to petition parliament for a change in the law."

What was won for the community was the Inshore Fishing (Prohibition on Fishing) (Lamlash Bay) (Scotland) Order 2008. It's a striking example of why community groups should use the law to seek the changes they need, rather than rely on voluntary agreements or the endless pursuit of consensus between conflicted interests.

My visit coincided with the UK Environmental Law Association's annual Wild Law weekend on Arran. Its coordinator, Ian Cowan, says: "Groups like Coast have had to use the law to fight for the people's right to have our waters managed for everyone's benefit." Without the use of environmental law, the argument with commercial fishermen would still be unresolved as fish stocks plummet.

Coast's next battle is to get the sea around the south of Arran designated as a Marine Protected Area. Unlike the No Take Zone, this will not stop people from sea angling or creeling, but it will create an area protected from bottom trawling and dredging. Again, the community is up against trawlermen, but after the success of Lamlash Bay, it will confidently use the law to challenge commercial interests. Coast's experience encourages all community groups to combine popular support and charitable mission with legal action to take the fight to vested interests.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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