Reflections of a Coastal Ranger

Conor Drummond, finished his six month contract as a Coastal Ranger in October 2021, during his time with Plastic@Bay he removed 1100 kg of ocean plastic pollution, and did amazing outreach with the local community, including the weekly Coastal Clean-up walk, work with Aberdeen Science Centre Highland Outreach, and the local high school.

In this article Conor’s reflects on his time with Plastic@Bay. First, he wrote this heartfelt article about his six months as a Coastal Ranger and his time spent living amongst the Durness Community. Here he highlights the experiences of a fresh faced graduate suddenly hit the reality of ocean plastic pollution in rural coastal villages in the Scotland.

Second, he made a short video clip for his funders, the Highlands and Islands Environmental Foundation highlighting his accomplished over six six month contract.

We would like to thank Conor for all his hard work and kind words.

Six months as a Coastal Ranger in Durness by Conor Drummond

I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my time as a coastal ranger for Plastic@Bay. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working in the North West coast of Scotland and gained valuable first hand experience into the issue of marine plastic pollution. This article is not a cry from atop a soapbox and neither is it written on the back of an extremely questionable climate meeting that took place recently. Instead, it is a factual account of first hand experience into the reality of marine plastic pollution of North West Scotland.

I wish to preface this by acknowledging the popularity of ocean plastic pollution. Over the past decade or so, marine plastic pollution has became a hot topic, if not the hottest topic, in media, science and many forms of daily life. This has been due in part to the likes of the BBC documentary Blue Planet showing graphic imagery of wildlife afflicted by “ghost fishing” gear (discarded nets and ropes that entangle and kill marine life) and of course the notorious pictures of plastic straws and turtles, ring pull plastics around the necks of seals etc etc. Not that these issues are not serious, on the contrary I consider ghost fishing to be a serious issue that has not been fully addressed as of yet, but the constant photos and videos that are awash on social media no longer have the same impact they once had. The public as a whole are aware of plastic pollution, know that it is extremely harmful to both wildlife and the environment and do their part to take action either through beach cleans, donations to organisations or through decreasing their plastic usage. For a realistic impact to be taken, there has to be a greater input and uptake of action from larger bodies including global businesses and most importantly the government.

Picture of Scouriemore, a small bay on the west coast of Scotland, The beach is awash with ropes and other large pieces of marine litter. Conor (right) stands with a fish farm pip over his shoulder, Hugo (left) carrying a bucket full of ropes)

During my 6 months as the coastal ranger for Plastic@Bay, I removed ~1100kg of marine litter in a 50 mile stretch of coastline. This averages out at 6.1kg a day being removed and helps put the issue into perspective. A group clean in the month of May saw upwards of 300kg be removed from an area no more than 2km in length. Areas like Old Grudy (aforementioned) and Scouriemore (another pollution hotspot, pictured above) are polluted to the point where it is likely they will never be rid of the plastic that is present and the deeper impact of the pollution (toxin leaching into the substrate and uptake/presence in the food web). The nature of plastic pollution is that there is more than what meet the eye. In the sense that we can only observe what pollution is present on the surface (there is a large proportion of plastic pollution that gets buried over time due to shifts in the profile of the beach) and the previously mentioned effect of the plastic in the ecosystem, being ingested by wildlife and leaching toxins that have been accumulated during production or during time at sea. The final piece to the plastic pollution puzzle is where is it all coming from. From the data that Plastic@Bay have collected over the years and from the cleans that I conducted, fishing equipment makes up the majority (~80%) and this consists primarily of ropes, nets, fish boxes and buoys. This is no surprise due to the popularity and importance of fishing in the North West coast of Scotland. Making up the remaining 20% was the generic hard plastics (bottles, jerry cans etc) but also a large abundance of MOD paraphernalia (due to historic and current military activity in the area). Before starting my work, I was unaware of the sheer scale of the pollution and was constantly taken aback by the state of the beaches and coves. The work that Plastic@Bay is doing is invaluable and widely unknown and underappreciated.

It is not all doom and gloom however. Joan Darcy and Julien Moreau founded and are the co directors of Plastic@Bay. Both hailing from geophysics and geochemistry backgrounds they now focus their efforts on tackling marine plastic pollution in the NW coast of Scotland. Having been active since 2017, they have worked tirelessly to raise the issue but also develop methods to recycle the plastic being washed ashore. Julien is currently adding the finishing touches to his one of a kind prototype which takes shredded ocean plastic and through a series of heating and cooling apparatus can produce structural plastic of varying sizes and shapes giving it a new purpose. Joan is working in tandem with Women in Innovation to introduce an affordable and sustainable means for fishermen to recycle their damaged/old nets by creating affordable shredders and placing them in harbours across Scotland. They do this while still taking the time to clean Balnakeil Bay once every week, as they have been doing for the past 4 years. Nothing short of a superhuman effort on the back of two extremely smart and determined individuals. Their passion has rubbed off on the Durness community who are always there to take part in group cleans and drop some plastics in the beach bin every now and then. Running it all on a shoestring has not been an easy feat but the work that they’ve managed and will continue to create will be nothing short of amazing.

I wish to end this by thanking both Joan and Julien for giving me my first opportunity to work in the field of marine science and for passing down such invaluable wisdom in all aspects of life. The 6 months I spent in Durness would not have been as smooth or as amazing as they were if not for them or the welcoming Durness community. The issue of marine plastic pollution is not going to go away anytime soon, and so more, much much more has to be done to not only mitigate the issue as a whole but to support brilliant organisations including Plastic@Bay to carry out the crucial work that they do day in day out.

Conor Drummond, coastal ranger, reflects on 6 months at Plastic@Bay CIC