Whether it’s deforestation, habitat destruction, climate change or pollution, environmentalists face mounting obstacles in their efforts to preserve and rebuild the natural world. Every year the Goldman Environmental Prize scans the globe to find heroes who have worked to fight against those forces, and to recognize the activists for their remarkable work.
This year Scottish diver, Howard Wood (left), is the European recipient, awarded for his campaign to establish the first community-developed Marine Protected Area in Scotland, an effort that has helped bring a demolished ecosystem back to life, and has shown other communities that they can make a difference too.
A resident of the Isle of Arran in Scotland, Wood has been diving in the local waters for decades. Through his frequent trips underwater, he witnessed firsthand what local fishing practices were doing to marine wildlife.
Commercial fisheries wreaked havoc on the seafloor with their use of a scallop dredge, a particularly destructive type of fishing equipment — not just collecting prawns and scallops, the intended targets, but damaging everything in their path. That led to a drastic shift in the ecosystem, leaving the seabed with broken coral and dismantled kelp forests, areas that are critical nursery grounds for fish and shellfish. The waters that had once been home to herring, cod, haddock and turbot were becoming a ghost town.
Wood, who had watched the downfall of the local marine habitat, decided that enough was enough. Wood and his close friend Don MacNeish used their personal savings to establish the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) and began what has now been a 20-year campaign to restore the marine wildlife population.
“I always feel guilty that it’s been my generation that has basically made such a mess of the seas around about where I live,” Wood told MNN. “I just felt a responsibility along with my colleagues to do something about it so that the next generation have got some hope that we’re going to have a healthy environment.”
After 12 years of building a grassroots campaign and gaining the support of the local groups on the Isle of Arran — as well as meeting with politicians, fishermen and scientists — Wood’s work led Scotland to establish to a No Take Zone in Lamlash Bay in 2008. The No Take Zone has allowed for that particular area of coast to heal without being subjected to more fishing or the removal of other resources.
This protected area also gives COAST the ability to monitor its restoration, giving the group vital scientific data to campaign for the expanded protection of this and other marine habitats.
Wood told MNN, “The animals and plants that attach to the seabeds, to the seafloor, are now twice as abundant within the No Take Zone than in the surrounding areas.”
“The majority of the area is really bouncing back incredibly,” he said. “Juvenile scallop abundance is now up to 350 percent higher within the No Take Zone than outside areas and the scallops inside the area are now more numerous [and] growing much larger. Because they can grow much larger, they can produce hundreds of times more eggs to overspill into surrounding fishing areas. The other exciting news over the last two or three years is the lobster numbers are also increasing. They are 189 percent higher within the No Take Zone.”
Wood's work in protecting a type of seaweed led to the creation of a No Take Zone.
In cooperation with York University, COAST has been monitoring the area and has found an increase in seaweeds, hydroids, sponges, and bryozoans as well as crabs and lobsters. Wood, who still goes on about 100 dives a year, told us, “Although the science is not conclusive on it, with my own eyes we see more juvenile fish.”
After a dozen years, what finally convinced lawmakers to take Wood’s request seriously?
“What convinced the lawmakers really was the amount of support that we had on the island,” Wood says. “From 1995 onwards, we organized talks, presentations to lots of people on the island and I would show them photographs and video. So we had widespread support on the island and that widespread support lead to our local elected politicians supporting our aims.”
Not that it was always easy. Wood explained to us that there were plenty of failures before he was able to achieve success.
“Since 1995, there seems to be more times when we were really hitting our heads against a brick wall than we were succeeding,” said Wood. He credited his stubborn nature and his belief that he was right — that these habitats needed official protection — to his ability to keep working despite many years of struggle.
Wood didn’t stop when the patch of sea was given No Take Zone status. He built on his success. In 2012, COAST submitted a proposal to designate the South Arran Sea as a Marine Protected Area. In 2014, that wish was fulfilled, when the South Arran Sea became one of 30 new Marine Protected Areas off the coast of Scotland.
But Wood, despite his many achievements, knows that the work is far from over.
“The government [is] still proposing that the most damaging forms of fishing which we have, which is scallop dredging, can continue within 70 percent of the area. So there are still huge campaigns and battles ongoing and to be won, and I’m very hopeful that being awarded the Goldman prize will help in Scotland and it will help convince government. We feel it’s going to be a great help.”
The award, in addition to being one of the biggest honors in the environmental world, also comes with $175,000 to help each winner pursue his or her vision of a renewed and protected environment.
When Wood began his work back in the '90s, he had no previous experience with grassroots activism. He was just a man who saw a problem and wanted to fix it.
Knowing that, what advice he would give to others who want to make a difference in their community?
“The advice that I’m giving all the time to the different communities on the west coast is that ... you have to speak to all your local people, all your stakeholders. You have to come up with what you feel would be the best proposal.”
Wood credits his success to the on-the-ground activism that his group has inspired in his community. Now, he’s educating the next generation. With in-school programs, community events, and even a new curriculum that ties English, geography, math and more to marine biology and environmentalism, he’s helping to create a new generation of citizens who want to stand up for the planet.
The Goldman Environmental Prize was created in 1989 by civic leaders and philanthropists Richard N. Goldman and his wife, Rhoda H. Goldman. See all six winners on the Goldman Environmental Prize website.
Related on MNN: