On a recent visit to the Orkney Islands I saw how the archaeological dig of Neolithic buildings at Ness of Brodgar is helping rewrite the history books by placing the islands right at the centre of ancient Britain, as opposed to its fringes as originally thought.
My trip also revealed Orkney to be at the centre of a number of ground-breaking initiatives involving oysters, penguins and brown crabs, all of which could help to define a more sustainable future for Scotland and beyond.
The Oyster and the Penguin are the names of just two of a number of giant wave and tidal power machines being tested off the coast of the islands, while the brown crabs are exactly that. As I have come to learn, Orkney is home to the largest brown-crab fishery in the UK and, with landings clocking in at thousands of tonnes every year, it is responsible for up to one-quarter of the annual Scottish brown crab catch.
I spent a highly informative few days in the company of marine scientists, fishermen, representatives of Orkney Fishermen's Society and retailer Marks & Spencer. We were gathered for an update on an exciting four-year project that aims to support local fishermen and ensure their fishery remains sustainable and the marine environment healthy.
With lines of crab pots strung out on the seabed, it is a fishery that is already pretty low-impact in environmental terms, which is exactly why progressive retailers such as Marks & Spencer are sourcing from it. However, as the skipper of one crabbing boat told to me: "Now is exactly the time for us to be taking steps to keep it sustainable."
I fully agree, and that is precisely why WWF supports the aptly-named Fisheries Improvement Project under way on the islands. With the help of a number of local skippers, the project is recording the size, numbers and location of crabs. The number and type of any marine life accidentally caught in the pots is also being noted. In addition, thousands of crabs are being tagged and released back into the sea to find out more about their movements.
In time, it is hoped the data will be used to help the fishermen devise a harvesting strategy and fishing methods that help protect the marine environment, sustain the fishery and support the livelihoods of Orkney fishermen and coastal communities into the future. The findings will be watched closely by those communities, businesses and nations that rely upon the sea in some way.
In a link to a much younger, but rapidly growing industry also found on the islands, part of the project is backed by Marine Scotland and the Crown Estate. Using a GPS tracking technology the crab boats' locations and routes are being mapped in real time and in great detail. It is hoped the information will help in the future deployment of marine renewables. If important sites for crab and other sensitive areas can be avoided then it could help reduce any potential conflict between sea-users and thus help speed up the deployment of renewable devices.
And Orkney is still very much a hive of activity when it comes to renewables. Thanks to the presence of the European Marine Energy Centre on the main island, Orkney is now home to the greatest concentration of experimental wave and tidal power devices anywhere in the world. With continued support from politicians, plus the data from this and other projects, it is possible that, by the end of the decade, Orkney will become the global launch pad for dozens of commercially viable, pollution-free wave and tidal power devices, creating jobs and potential export opportunities.
I think it is pretty amazing to think that a study about the humble brown crab could end up by helping to deliver a double win for the people of Orkney: a profitable, sustainable fishery and clean, green marine power industry.
Here's hoping Orkney keeps rewriting history
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