In true seafaring spirit, 64-year-old Scottish fisherman Donald Francis MacNeil has made his musical debut by featuring in Highland folk band Skipinnish’s latest release, The Clearances Again.
Eloquent and emotive, this melancholic protest song has reached the ears and touched the hearts of thousands of listeners. Referencing the forced evictions or “clearances” of Highland tenants in the 18th and 19th centuries, the lyrics draw attention to the potential life-changing impact that the Scottish government’s proposed Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) would have on remote communities by banning all forms of fishing – even low impact ones – in at least 10 per cent of Scottish waters.
A child of the (increasingly fraught) Bute House Agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, the HPMA proposals are designed to protect Scotland’s oceans and address climate change. Defenders say that prohibiting fishing in certain areas is one of the best ways to promote biodiversity in delicate marine ecosystems.
But far away from the polished corridors of Holyrood, disquiet and unrest is brewing among some of Scotland’s most vulnerable family businesses.
Alongside contested claims that remote communities were inadequately engaged in the consultation process, fishermen say that they are “looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.”
And while First Minister Humza Yousaf vowed not to “steamroll” the plans and impose sites, fishing communities feel anguish, wondering if the oncoming clouds will pass or downpour in an almighty thunderstorm.
I have never set foot on a fishing vessel. Yet as someone who was raised on a family farm, MacNeil’s sombre words “I’m a fisherman through to the bone” and “the sea is my way and my truth,” hit me hard.
I understand the deeply held feeling that an occupation is more than a “job”, but a way of life. MacNeil’s nightmare of HPMAs becoming reality and falling within the 10 per cent boundary is not only a threat to his “office”. It could mean a lifetime of memories – his family’s past, present and future – tied idle in harbour forever, reduced to a quaint new normal for visitors passing by.
A consultation on HPMAs may indeed have commenced in the usual and proper manner. But the extent to which the unique perspective of coastal communities has so far been meaningfully heard is debateable.
As the city becomes the de-facto backdrop of existence for increasing numbers, the chasm of understanding between urban and rural grows evermore.
Protecting our oceans is a vital cause. But when environmental policies are driven from a predominantly urban perspective, fatal blind-spots can appear in our treatment of people in supposedly remote areas.
The ocean environment is not an abstract concept to fishing communities, but their everyday life. With generations of practical wisdom, they should be approached with curiosity and respect in the quest for sustainability. Close collaboration between scientists and fishermen has resultred in proven positive outcomes for marine conservation.
Good communication is not just about persuasive talking, but genuine listening.
Let’s grant this grace to MacNeil and his community. They demonstrate the value of empathy, and the life-altering consequences when political goals are pursued without it.
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