From a boat near Orkney, glimpses of wanton destruction under the sea


The islands looked completely different from the water. I was used to their gently curving slopes, the smooth-skinned landscape of grass, thatch and heather, but from sea level I could see how I had overlooked the most remarkable feature of the Orkney coast – the way it juts out from the waves like the prow of a ship. Its cliffs and rocks, its sharp edges. From the deck of a ship, I could appreciate its vertical character in a way that I couldn’t from the land platform.

I was standing on the Sea Beaver, a research vessel that has circumnavigated the British Isles to study the environmental health of its coastal waters, as part of a joint venture between Greenpeace and Scottish environmental charity Open Seas. I joined the team for a day this summer, thinking it might give me a new perspective on the place I’ve called home for the past three years. I hadn’t realized how literal that would be.

The researchers on board, marine biologists Rohan Holt and Theo Bennison, had spent the past few days recording some of the natural gems of the Orkney Islands. Using a remote-controlled submersible device, they had mapped a seagrass meadow off the coast of Papa Westray Island and explored beds of maerl – a type of calcified seaweed that plays a similar ecological role to coral reefs. We watched their recordings together on Bennison’s laptop as we waited to sail: the turquoise of the water, the rich raspberry of the maerl, the soft tanned leather of the kelp came together in a gloriously psychedelic vision of utopia underwater. Small crabs clad in gauze of vegetative growth slid across the loose surface. The anemones pushed their starry fronds towards the light.

Beneath the surface, all kinds of marine life find refuge in the interstices between the coral fragments. Sea urchins, worms, small fish, and young scallops take shelter in the maerl beds, which have a texture, Holt told me, “like All-Bran.” Beds like these take centuries to grow, with each little nodule of maerl growing only perhaps half a millimeter a year, but they play an invaluable role in the marine ecosystem and store huge amounts of carbon .

Or they would, if left alone. The day I boarded the Sea Beaver, we were on a different mission. Local scallop divers had reported a disturbing development: a dredge boat had arrived. Open Seas had been told it was working ‘in the dark’ – with its geodata transmitter switched off – in one of Orkney’s most environmentally sensitive areas.

Hermit crab in a lost lobster trap off the Orkney Islands © Nature Picture Library/Alamy

The use of vessels equipped with bottom towed gear, i.e. bottom dragging or trawling, is considered the most destructive form of fishing. Nevertheless, it is very common and is still allowed in most of the UK’s ‘marine protected areas’, areas recognized for their rich marine life. In addition to the massive damage to the seabed and those who live there, a recent study estimated that the global practice of bottom trawling and dredging releases around one gigatonne of carbon from sediments every year, as much as the entire world. ‘aviation industry. Sustainable fishing, like that practiced by scallop fishermen, is also becoming very difficult in the wake of industrial behemoths, which mindlessly trash the seabed and then move on.

A vessel dredging scallops works by dragging heavy metal nets across the bottom of the seabed. It is a violent and indiscriminate process, scraping everything in its path for the fishermen to sort out and, if necessary, throw away. If a seabed is dredged frequently, sensitive habitats such as maerl beds or flame shell beds simply disappear. “Two or three passes of a scallop dredge cause irreversible damage,” Holt explained.

Dredging is legal; and the few checks we have, according to campaign groups, are routinely flouted. The damage this causes is almost invariably invisible and unrecorded. Too often, what happens at sea stays at sea. The crew of the Sea Beaver hoped to find evidence of what this dredge had done, of the wreckage it had left in its wake – although they told me warned that it was a “needle in a haystack” operation. Over time, the telltale raked appearance of a dredged seabed will settle in, leaving it bare, flat and featureless.

But we had information. We headed to an area where the dredge had been reported recently. To get there we had to drive around the Orkney coast. We passed Gairsay and Rousay, their voluptuous curves rising like members of a bath. Eynhallow, its name meaning Holy Island, sits low in the water. The cliffs of Birsay and the jagged coast of Yesnaby were dark, menacing, streaked with guano. Rafts of guillemots and razorbills drifted on a sun-starred sea; gannets sliced ​​like javelins in the water all around.

The reliefs that I could recognize and name. Water bodies, less. But sailors, I found, have their own signage. Cardinal buoys loomed, clad in yellow and black, warning of dangers to the north, south, east. Beacons flashed eternal caution to the winds.

At the edge of Scapa Flow, the huge natural harbor in the heart of the archipelago, we stopped at a predetermined coordinate to drop our livid orange submersible into the water. He fled into the depths, trailing his Kevlar tail, as we watched the live feed from his camera on a handheld controller. On the first pass, we found nothing notable: the seabed there was a pic’n’mix of pebbles, maërl, shells and rocks. The maerl gave her a rosy, healthy face. Large sea urchins sat like gems amidst the sediment. Not much to alarm.

But after going up and down it, not far from those same coordinates, we came across a very different scene. At first the submersible sped happily along the bottom – pebbles, crabs, vaporous hydroids waving little arms – when suddenly it hovered over an invisible boundary in a new landscape. Here the seabed was pale and bare, as neatly raked as a Japanese garden. During the dredging, much of the top layer had been scraped and screened through metal chains. Broken seashells lay all around, and sand had swelled all over. Small white particles drifted in the water, like snow.

“It’s very, very clear,” Holt said. He pointed to a pattern on the seabed where it looked like two combs had been dragged in parallel, leaving a thin undisturbed margin between the two. It was the drag of the boat, whose chain-carrying arms jutted out on each side.

The only movement from below was the hermit crabs. If the dredging tracks looked like a plowed field, it was the seagulls that picked up the remains. The area was huge, the size of a football field.

A trawler returns with its morning catch

A fishing trawler returns with its morning catch © Eric Farrelly/Alamy

I looked up from the screen. Through the boat window I could see the rolling face of Orkney in its cool greens. The emerald lime of the pastures patched here and there with the heather chamois and mole. Low, gray farm buildings huddled in the hilly landscape.

Nearby was the island of Fara, uninhabited since the 1960s. Today it appears peaceful, but from above you can still see the old fields, clearly marked out, a lasting memory of its human history. Dredge marks of the type the submersible recorded on the seabed will similarly persist; the previous ecosystem crumbles to dust and recovers only over centuries, if at all.

As I returned my attention to the screen – the scene of industrial devastation unfolding below me – I found another perspective of these islands I call home, one I had missed until now. Very often, at the edge of the water, our attention stops at the edge of the water. The sea covers the rest.

Open Seas plans to present the underwater footage to the Scottish Government as part of a growing body of evidence of fisheries management issues, demonstrating the damaging footprint of scallop dredging and the need for regulators to take tougher action to control this practice.

We still don’t know the extent of damage to the seabed caused by dredges like this, or by human activity in general. There is a huge imbalance, Holt told me, in our understanding of marine environments versus our knowledge of the land. This is largely due to observation difficulties. A submersible like this, even cheap, costs thousands of pounds. Citizen scientists who have filled in so many blanks in other areas of ecology are less able to help here. “If birdwatching requires rubber boots and binoculars, diving is like going to the moon.”

But just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Even the briefest glimpse of what is happening beneath the waves felt like a door opening in my mind. Through her, I glimpsed the importance of preserving our coasts, our seas, our unrecorded wilderness, both above and below the waterline.

Cal Flyn is the author of “Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape” (William Collins)

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