On Friday 5th May Leonie met up with Joe Terburgh to talk about his experience and observations as a diver and inshore fisherman in the Firth of Forth. We met at Port Seton harbour where he was cleaning out the boat engine which had become contaminated by what is referred to as diesel bug – microbes which live at the fuel/water interface where they live in the water and feed on the fuel. I was interested in Joe’s previous work as a razor shell fisherman – collecting razor clams by walking along the sea bed. He has done this at various sites across the Firth of Forth and has some great first-hand experience of what is going on down there. In order to identify promising areas he used to work with the eider ducks who know exactly where the razor shell beds are and they would join him on the seabed to share in the harvest.
The first question was what is the seabed in the Firth of Forth like? On the basis of his observations the seabed has all been regularly worked particularly for shellfish and there is little if anything which is undisturbed unless protected by rocks preventing access by larger boats. This is pretty depressing but it does mean that at least there are sanctuaries which are not currently exploited and which could act to ‘seed’ other areas if exploitation pressures are removed. Research by Thurstan 1 et al concludes that habitats have been dramatically impacted and degraded by over fishing particularly of the massive oyster beds now all gone and as a result of early bottom trawling and dredging and that now soft sediments predominate which is exactly what Joe reports.
I asked Joe if he has ever seen any oysters. Although he acknowledged he hasn’t been looking for them he certainly hasn’t seen any. I then asked him if in his view there was any suitable oyster habitat. He thought about that and then said ‘the Inch’. By this he meant Inch Keith – an island midway between Kirkcaldy to the north and Leith to the south. I said well that’s a coincidence! This is where Heriot Watt have concluded that suitable habitat exists through a lengthy process of data collation, GIS mapping, diving and sampling a range of sites in the Firth of Forth!
Joe then considered other potential sites and interestingly identified the cove on the West side of the Bass Rock, East and West Wemyss where there is a large rocky outcrop offshore, Kirkcaldy Bay where there are 3 reefs running parallel to the shore and in addition he notes no sources of pollution, rocks offshore from the old Cockenzie Power Station site, large flat rocks off Largo Bay and rocky outcrops off shore from the east side of Forth Ports. On hearing this, Prof. Bill Sanderson who heads up the oyster team at Restoration Forth (https://www.wwf.org.uk/scotland/restoration-forth ) noted the key importance of Local Ecological Knowledge and will follow up on investigating Joe’s suggestions for suitable sites.
Joe had a lot of other very interesting observations to share. First of all the ‘trillions’ of young blue mussels attaching to ropes. Blue mussels have declined in the Firth of Forth for reasons which are subject to current research by NatureScot. On a more positive note Joe also said that there are extensive horse mussel beds to the west on Inch Keith. On only one occasion Joe saw tens of thousands of common starfish carpeting the sand and working their way over the seabed.
A big thank you to Joe for his time!