An old rowing boat high and dry on the beach at Barra

Decades ahead of his time…he saw trawling as a threat to sustainability.

Change can be painfully slow. This week the Scottish Government condemned the waste that endangers recovery of cod in the North Sea: a third of fish caught are thrown back dead according to Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s Fisheries Secretary.  Almost 80 years ago John was campaigning for sustainable fishery in Scottish waters.

The visionary Sea League was founded by Comptom Mackenzie and John Campbell on the island of Barra.  Their tactics are a model of progressive campaigning.

Without benefit of Twitter or Facebook Campbell and Mackenzie set about gaining the unanimous support of island fishing communities.  While Richard Lochead enters a new round of negotiations between EU and North Sea fishing nations, it is worth looking back at the aims and strategy of the Sea League.

Barra fisherman worked the inshore waters of the Minch by drift netting and long-lining – traditional, low intensity forms of fishing suitable to small sailing or low-powered boats. Their vessels were no match for steam trawlers from English parts dragging huge nets along the seabed on the way home from Icelandic fishing grounds. They took large quantities of fish, and the work of the Barra fish processors too.

Technically the law forbade trawling within three miles of the coast but it was not enforced. Mackenzie was incensed when he witnessed an English steamer working a mile offshore while a fisher protection cruiser carrying a government minister was anchored in Castlebay and did nothing. He sent a  telegram to the prime minister but received a noncommittal reply from 10 Downing Street and decided to take action himself. On 20 December 1933, Mackenzie formed the Sea League with himself as chairman and John as one of the secretaries. They produced a leaflet in Gaelic and English and distributed it around the island.  They wanted:

  1. A protected zone closed to trawlers for the benefit of fishermen from Barra Head to Tiree and the Butt of Lewis to Cape Wrath
  2. Increased penalties for illegal trawling and more effective policing of inshore waters
  3. Fines for illegal trawling to compensate and finance fisherman who wanted to start inshore fishing

The two men were amazed to discover that legislation from 1895 provided protection for local fishermen and covered waters up to 14 miles from the coast.  In England a dozen protected fishery districts had been established from Cornwall to the Scottish border but there were none in Scotland.  They began a petition to Inverness-shire county council to set up such districts.

Mackenzie and Campbell toured Barra and neighbouring islands of Eriskay and South Uist. When everyone who caught, bought or sold fish signed the petition they went further, to Benbecula, North Uist and Scalpay and received equally unanimous support. The movement caught the imagination of the islands. On the mainland however progress was slower.

It was 1964 before a fishery limit was established. John wrote to Mackenzie, ‘31 years almost to the day after the first Sea League meeting at Castlebay our policy had been put into effect – at least one if not two generations too late.’

He wrote later, ‘I have never been more thoroughly convinced of the justice of any cause than I was of the Sea League.’ Decades ahead of his time he also saw trawling as a threat to sustainability. Local boats using traditional methods had been fishing the Minch for countless generations. Industrial fishing was to virtually exhaust the fishery in two generations.

The 2010 Scottish Marine Act is an opportunity to protect a precious and fragile environment. But campaigners need the energy, vision and determination of John Campbell.

The wide expanse of the beach at Barra