THE small, remote island of Ulva, just off the coast of Mull, is home to just eight people, but its southern shores are littered with waste – and most of if it, fishing industry and fish farm equipment. Whilst on a family holiday last week, I attended a beach clean on the island, and on an idyllic shoreline, I found a viper’s nest of net and rope, some of it now so entwined with sea weed and coastal undergrowth, it was as if it had put down roots. My kids pulled out fragments of fish boxes, milk cartons, slivers of plastic twine, a Pot Noodle carton, plastic fish farm pipes.

One thing we can be sure is that the litter on these shores was not brought here by those that live on this community-owned island, or those tourists that take the short ferry crossing to visit. It came on the waves and currents of the wild Atlantic that washes its coastline. The beaches here are what might be described as a trap for ocean litter, and Ulva is not alone in having this problem. Many of our most remote isles have beaches spoiled by incoming waste – such that some, like Islay and Bute, even have full-time beach cleaning staff to keep their sands spotless.

The eight residents of Ulva, however, could never have cleaned this garbage up. That the island was getting a volunteer clean-up was partly the brainchild of Marine Conservation Society volunteer, Kerrie Flockhart, who, along with Kate Miller and Tommy Dale of Caledonian Horticulture, organisers of the Scottish Coastal Clean-up, hatched the plan. Flockhart had been on holiday last year, visiting the island, and unable to resist the natural urge to beach clean had done a pick then, and come back with tales of waste and wanting to help.

The Ulva beach clean, however, is just a pre-event, with a much bigger clean, The Scottish Coastal Clean Up, from Aberdeen to Berwick-upon-Tweed, planned for June 4-8. Families and community groups can join the Scottish Coastal Clean Up by setting up their own clean and marking it on, or looking up the event Facebook page.

Tommy Dale was down on the shore when I arrived, lugging armfuls of rope across the beach. “On this beautiful island with all its signs of spring, amongst the eagles and the red deer and the incredible views,” he said. “There is all this waste. Sadly a lot of it is from fish farms and commercial fishing.”

This is a man who last year pledged to lead a movement to remove 70 percent of the detritus from the Scottish coastline in the next five years. He pointed at some strips of plastic. “When creel fishermen buy bait often it will come in a cardboard box with a plastic liner and will have two of these straps and unfortunately boats have got a tendency to just cut the strap off and throw it overboard. But a lot of it is accidental. Folk don’t want to lose creels and buoys.”

Also combing the shores for clean polypropylene net was Ally Mitchell of Ocean Plastic Pots, a highly-innovative company which transforms discarded fishing gear into garden plastic pots. He expressed his astonishment at the amount of fishing gear he had found behind a single gorse bush by the shore.

A 2020, World Wildlife Fund report estimated that at least 10 per cent of marine litter is made up of fishing waste, and between 500,000 and 1 million tons of fishing gear enter the ocean every year.

There are rules limiting discarding waste at sea. Under the UK Merchant Shipping Regulations on the Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships, the discharge of all garbage into the sea is prohibited with very limited exceptions. Yet, whether by accident, or chucked, gear is still ending up lost at sea.

More efforts need to be made to prevent our sea becoming the waste bin of the fishing and fish farm industries. There are good projects already making a difference – among them, Scotland’s Fishing for Litter scheme, which now has 285 vessels, operating from 20 harbours, and in which fishing boats are given big bags to collect the plastics, ghost gear and other debris that gathers in their nets whilst fishing.

Why does waste come to Ulva? Island development manager, Wendy Reid explained, “Every winter the storms bring more in. You can clear it up one year and by the next spring there’s a much washed up again. It comes because of the currents and the tides. If we’re trying to encourage tourism – though of course it’s not just about tourism – it’s just unsightly. You don’t want people coming and thinking that we don’t care about the place.”


Around 75m3 of detritus were cleared from Ulva over three days as it was restored to its wild beauty. Around 80 percent of it was from the fishing industry.

Prior to this volunteer beach clean, the shoreline was mainly cleared by Rhuri, the ferry boatman who takes me across to the island, the longest term resident of Ulva.

The waste here washes in effortlessly. It falls, or is chucked, perhaps from vessels, fairly effortlessly too. But what struck me, as I witnessed the team gather the rubbish and pack it into bags, is how much sheer effort it takes to clear a remote island like this, with no roads or ease of access. Boats had to be organised to pick up from the shore, bags carried or transported by quad bike. “You can see the logistics of doing anything here,” said Wendy Reid, “on this island off an island, just getting things here, and moving anything around the island is costly.”

That cost should rather be born by those who dumped it, than those who live in this place. What I saw on Ulva’s beaches represents part of a global shame. Much more must be done to prevent it.

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