When did members last enjoy a native oyster? Oysters are seen as a luxury, but native oysters were once called “the poor man’s food”. During the industrial revolution, millions of them were harvested to feed urban populations and Scotland’s coast boasted large oyster fisheries. Oyster scalps in the Firth of Forth covered an area larger than Edinburgh. However, overexploitation led to declining stocks and the complete destruction of many oyster beds. Now, no living oysters remain in the Firth of Forth and communities along our coastline have lost a once-plentiful food supply.
Those communities have also lost the natural flood defences that oyster beds once provided by protecting shorelines from erosion, tides and storm surges.
That is not the only problem that coastal communities face, of course. For decades, they have struggled as a result of a lack of investment and people leaving to find work. One industry that provides jobs is finfish aquaculture, but it is not without controversy. The sector is dominated by a small number of companies, many of which are based outside Scotland, and which often give jobs to those whom they already employ, rather than creating new jobs for local people. Further, the figures for aquaculture jobs include those that involve dealing with the industry’s harmful effects, such as working at the pit in North Uist where huge numbers of dead, diseased salmon are dumped.
Would it not be better if young people in coastal communities had a wider range of jobs available to them, including jobs that promote wellbeing and nature, if they could work for community-based businesses that shared profits for community benefit and for Scotland’s coastal waters to be recognised for their contribution to our environment and biodiversity. We can make that a reality. We can support coastal businesses and activities that promote wellbeing, such as wild swimming, recreational diving and responsible tourism. Domestic tourism to coastal locations generates £391 million for the Scottish economy every year, and nature-based tourism provides 39,000 jobs, but destinations become less attractive if there are large fish farms, if water quality is poor, or marine life less diverse.
It is crucial to invest in nature restoration and research in the inshore environment. Many respected organisations are already doing that, but there is also a rising wave of community-led projects that are producing tangible, positive outcomes. The Seawilding project at Loch Craignish aims to restore 1 million native oysters over the next five years; it has created six jobs and is working with six local primary schools, five universities and around 60 volunteers. There is now high demand for its training, creating the potential to expand the model across coastal and island communities. The South Skye Seas Initiative set up a community seagrass monitoring project to feed data to NatureScot in order to improve local protection measures for priority marine features.