Whilst paddling around Scotland this summer, I realised a dream of mine to camp on one of the Summer Isles, in North West Scotland. I’ve visited the gateway to the Summer Isles, Ullapool, many times to see my friends the Ullapool Sea Savers, and even toured around the islands on board a brilliant local wildlife boat, the Shearwater, but had never had the chance to camp there! Some islands are off limits to humans on account of nesting seabirds; others are wild camping heaven.
After 22 miles of paddling and a long day on the very choppy ocean, I excitedly arrived at my Summer Isle home for the night - Tanera Beg - one of the larger islands. James and I landed onto a boulder beach, and tentatively carried our kit over the slippy rocks and seaweed. It was stunning - deserted and raw. Untouched by humans.
Making up to the strand line, I was horrified at what I found. So much litter. What must have equated to tonnes of rope, fishing pots, buoys, amongst fragmenting consumer plastic. I got to work clearing it into a pile that had already been started but knew I wouldn’t be able to take even a fraction of it off the beach.
The amount of fishing gear was unbelievable. The buoys and creel pots (cages that sit on the ocean floor and are used to catch shellfish like crabs, lobster and prawns/langoustine) could have been washed up in storms or could have been damaged and dislodged from where they were sitting by trawlers dragging their gear over the top. There were enormous, thick heavy plastic feed pipes and huge lumps of polystyrene from fish farms, which were likely washed away in storms.
Some of the rope, having been exposed to the elements for what could have been years, disintegrated into microplastics at the slightest touch, making it very difficult to gather up without contaminating the environment further. There were also thick plastic trays used to store caught fish, prawn trays used to hold live langoustines on creel boats, and the ubiquitous blue plastic gloves.
Then there was the consumer waste - less in terms of mass, but many, many individual identifiable single-use plastic products. Mostly plastic bottles, which are one of the more common items found on beaches as they float, but also cleaning products and bathroom waste. There were many non-single use items too such as a car bumper (!), a frisbee, wellies and shoes. The rocky strand line was absolutely covered; multi-coloured, stinking and a painful reminder of our human impact on even the remotest places.
We knew we couldn’t leave all of this here, so called our friends, the Ullapool Sea Savers; a group of incredibly passionate children who won’t sit by and watch the ocean they love being destroyed, and Noel and Janis, the seriously supportive adults who help enable the children to do their work. This beach was already on their radar, and they kindly agreed to let James and I accompany them on their boat a few weeks later to clear it up.
It took seven of us all day to remove over 170 kg of waste. We still had to leave a lot of waste piled into haulage bags, having run out of time for the day - it felt like a never-ending task. We were very kindly allowed to use the skip at a local fish farm and have asked them to remove the remainder of the waste. It seems only fair that industries adding to this issue take responsibility for the mess, not the local children. But still, it felt like we were able to do something positive for the place that means so much to all of us.
What can you do about this huge issue of marine pollution?
We have to stop the stem of marine litter at source. As consumers, we can take responsibility for our own plastic consumption up to a point. Choosing a good quality, and consciously-made, reusable water bottle or flask and committing to using those instead of single use plastic alternatives can save a HUGE amount of plastic over our life time, plastic which we never intend to end up in the ocean, but which sometimes does through storms blowing it away from where it was disposed of. These are easy switches, a great place to start, and a strong statement that you won't be a part of the problem.
We must also hold the industries producing all this plastic to account. Buying products without plastic and supporting brands that are enabling you to do this, is a great way to vote with your wallet, but we must make our voice heard to brands that are profiting from destroying the environment we care about and hold our government to account for allowing it to continue without those to blame for paying the price, instead of our environment.
There are lots of ways you can take action, you can use your voice on social media or write to your local MP. There is heaps more information about the brilliant Ullapool Sea Savers and marine litter online, and resources available on their website - https://ullapoolseasavers.com. Please support their work and follow them on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/UllapoolSeaSavers) and Instagram (@ullapoolseasavers).
If you want to take physical action as well, you can clean up beaches and plastic you find. Each piece you collect can no longer injure a wild animal and if you can get a group together, it can be a great day out. Despite getting filthy dirty, soaked through in the drizzle and risking our lives against man-eating midges, I had a great day out with my friends cleaning up a place I love.
Huge thanks to:
The Ullapool Sea Savers
Noel Hawkins and Janis Patterson