This story considers our human role in the environment of the industrialized North Atlantic.
I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of nature tourism and heavy industry (including deep water drilling) in the economy of these remote islands and wondered—how can both co-exist? There is great abundance on this wild coast but human impact is also clearly visible.
I wanted to reveal this tension—beyond a romantic notion of pristine nature, and consider our role within the natural system. We often say our impact “on” the environment but it’s really our impact “in” the environment. The islands feed Europe with their abundant fish, while the crude oil and gas contribute to economies far away. In exchange, litter washes up here from as far away as the USA.
To see ourselves as part of the system invites the viewer to consider their impact and ways to effect change.
Seabirds are indicators of marine health, providing a window under the waves. Over the past 50 years, the world’s sea bird populations have declined by 70%. One third of the EU’s breeding sea birds are found in Scotland, with over a million nesting on the Shetland Isles and these populations mirror global trends with many species suffering dramatic crashes in past decades (while just a few are increasing in number).
Scientists closely monitor big populations by collecting them from cliffs and burrows to be ringed and have GPS tracking devices attached. The results of these studies are showing why many species are struggling.
The human population of 23,000 is outnumbered over forty to one by birds but our impact can be seen on the cliffs and shorelines. The 100 odd islands that make up Shetland offer a unique, 1,600 mile-long combined coastline which becomes home to huge sea bird “cities” in the summer time when the region enjoys around 20 hours of daylight. Warm currents allow for plankton blooms which feed the fish that in turn feed the birds.
And Shetland is no isolated wildlife sanctuary. The islands lie at the heart of the UK’s pelagic fishing grounds at the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea and feed homes and restaurants across France, Spain and the wider continent.
In an ironic twist, EU fishing quotas encourage a lot of trawlers to dump up to half of their catch in order to avoid fines. The northern gannet, fulmar petrel and great skua are adept at taking advantage of the discarded fish but are now threatened by EU proposals to scrap the system designed to protect fish stocks.
Over the past century, a close link between fishing habits and agriculture on one side and bird populations on the other has been identified. The distinctive green of fishing nets blankets some of the Shetland cliffs, collected by birds at sea who are feeding on discarded fish but often also get entangled in the nets, sometimes hanging themselves from the nest. Once again, their source of food can, in this instance, become their undoing.
Editors’ Note: Kieran Dodds’ work will be shown in full at the excellent International Photoreporter Festival, which runs from October 3 to November 1, 2015 in Saint Brieuc, Brittany (France). Come learn more about this excellent and innovative initiative.