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How Orkney brown crabs could lead us all to clean, green renewable energy

Standing stones at the Ring of Brodger

On a recent visit to the Orkney Islands I saw how the ongoing archaeological dig of Neolithic buildings at Ness of Brodgar is helping to re-write the history books by placing the islands right at the centre of ancient Britain, as opposed to its fringes as originally thought.

However, my trip also revealed Orkney to be at the centre of a number of new ground-breaking initiatives involving oysters, penguins (yes, penguins!), and brown crabs – all of which could help to define a more sustainable future for Scotland and beyond.

The Oyster and the Penguin are in fact the names of just two of a number of giant wave and tidal power machines being tested off the coast of the islands (more about them later), while the brown crabs are exactly that… humble brown crabs.

As I have now come to learn, Orkney is home to the largest brown crab fishery in the UK and with landings clocking in at thousands of tonnes every year that makes it responsible for up to a quarter of the entire annual Scottish brown crab catch.

Father and son: Orkney crab fishermen

I spent a highly informative few days in the company of marine scientists, fishermen, representatives from Orkney Fishermen’s Society and the retailer Marks & Spencer. We were all gathered for an initial update on an exciting four-year project that aims to support the local fishermen ensure their fishery remains sustainable and the marine environment healthy.

With simple lines of crab ‘pots’ strung out on the sea bed, it’s a fishery that’s already pretty low-impact in environmental terms – which is exactly why progressive retailers like Marks & Spencer are sourcing from it. However, as the skipper of one crabbing boat told to me: “Now is exactly the time for us to be taking steps to keep it sustainable.”

Tagging brown crab on Orkney

I fully agree, and that is precisely why WWF is fully supportive of the aptly-named Fisheries Improvement Project that’s now underway on the islands. With the help of a number of local skippers the project is recording the size, numbers and location of crabs. The number and types of any marine life accidentally caught in the ‘pots’ is also being noted. In addition to this, thousands of crab are being tagged and released back into the sea to find out more about their movements.

One of the tags used on the Orkney brown crab

In time, it is hoped the data will be used to help the fishermen devise a harvesting strategy and fishing methods that helps protect the marine environment, sustains the fishery, and supports the livelihoods of Orkney fishermen and coastal communities long into the future. The findings will no doubt be watched closely by all communities, businesses, or nations that rely upon the sea in some way.

In a link to a much younger, but rapidly growing industry also found on the islands, part of the project is backed by Marine Scotland and the Crown Estate. Using a GPS tracking technology the crab boats’ locations and routes are being mapped in real time and in great detail. It’s hoped that the information being gathered will help in the future deployment of marine renewables. If important sites for crab and other sensitive areas can be avoided then it could help reduce any potential conflict between sea-users and thus help speed up the deployment of renewable devices.

Tidal power devices awaiting testing on Orkney

And, Orkney is still very much a hive of activity when it comes to renewables. Thanks to the presence of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) on the main island, Orkney is now home to the greatest concentration of experimental wave and tidal power devices anywhere in the world. With continued support from politicians, plus the data from this and other projects, by the end of this decade it’s possible Orkney will become the global launch pad for dozens of commercially-viable, pollution-free wave and tidal power devices. Creating jobs and potential export opportunities.

I think it’s pretty amazing to think that a study about the humble brown crab could end up helping deliver a double win for the people of Orkney of a profitable, sustainable fishery as well as clean, green marine power industry.

Here’s hoping Orkney keeps re-writing history.

You can follow Lang Banks on Twitter at @LangBanks

So, what do you think? Aren’t crabs cool? Renewables rock, right? Please feel free to add a comment below. 

Note: a version of this blog post originally appeared in The Herald newspaper.

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