Saturday, 15 June 2013

Science, oil and adventure: the story of Rockall

ICES have recommended that five new sites around Rockall are closed to bottom fisheries (which is fishing that interacts with the seabed, such as bottom trawling and dredging) after discoveries of new ecosystems and species by Scotia, the Marine Scotland research vessel. 

The Scotia, built in 1998, is equipped both as a hydrographic research vessel and a trawler, and fishes for scientific samples around the North Sea and North East Atlantic. In 2012, the Scotia's crew found some interesting marine habitats around Rockall, a rocky Atlantic outcrop west of Scotland. These included areas of coral reef, a plethora of sponges and sea fans, and a locally unique cold-seep ecosystem (where gas is released into the ocean from beneath the sea bed, creating unique marine living conditions) that is home to two previously unrecorded species of clams. The Scotia also caught a frilled shark, a prehistoric 'living fossil' dating back at least ninety million years and rarely found in northern latitudes. The Guardian spoke to Marine Scotland scientist Francis Neat about the survey. He emphasised how important the Rockall basin is to marine science, because it's "the only major outcrop of subsea peaks west of the UK". He went on to describe Rockall as "really quite special, having a lot of species we wouldn't normally find that far offshore. It provides a shallow water habitat in what is otherwise a deep water environment."

Rockall, Middle of Nowhere, North Atlantic.

Britain Claiming Rockall, 1955.
I recently did some research on the geopolitics of Rockall for a paper on property regimes in the North East Atlantic, which I presented at the Cornell Land Institute's Summer Workshop on Contested Landscapes. It's really fascinating stuff.
1955, Rockall.

Rockall is currently the centre of an international territorial dispute between the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland, enacted through a variety of legal measures and (silly) symbolic stunts. In 1955, the British navy placed a brass plaque (content summary: "this is ours") and Union Flag on the rock. They weren't the only ones - during the 1980s, fisheries protection offers were required as part of their jobs by the Scottish Department for Agriculture and Fisheries (DAFS) to go onto Rockall and remove any plaques that had been mounted there by other nations. In 1985 Tom McClean, a former SAS soldier, even lived on Rockall for over a month in an effort to affirm the UK's claim to the islet and its surrounding mineral resources.

Fisheries officer removing a plaque
During this period, the UK claimed a 200nm exclusive economic zone (an area with exclusive rights over fishing and undersea mining) around Rockall (see the red line on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee map, below). However, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets the international law of marine property rights, states that exclusive fishing rights cannot be claimed around rocks that are incapable of sustaining human habitation (which Rockall clearly is, despite Tom McClean's best efforts to prove otherwise). This meant that in 1997, when the UK ratified UNCLOS, the country's EEZ had to be reduced to represent Rockall's non-island status. A new EEZ, based on the (uninhabited, but inhabitable) St Kilda, was created (the shaded blue area on the map). This is the only time in history that an island has been downgraded and maritime limits resultantly reduced. The islet of Rockall still falls within the UK EEZ area, but the surrounding seamounts and continental shelf - including the areas surveyed by Scotia - do not.

1904 Norwegian news illustration.
I remember discussing the downgrading of Rockall with Scottish fishermen a few years ago, and there was much consternation about the loss of the area, and specifically the resulting overfishing ("now it's in international waters, so anyone can catch as much as they want. They've ruined it!"). Much of this was blamed on Russian trawlers. A number of fishermen I spoke to during this period expressed concerns about the amount of fishing going on to the west of Rockall, and many blamed this on the border change. Incidentally, a number of fisheries managers' offices I have visited in the last few years still have large wall maps showing the old, larger boundaries, although I put this down to lackadaisical redecoration practices rather than obduracy!

Joint Nature Conservation Committee: fisheries with shifting borders

The map above, which was of course made by a British organisation, is pointedly casual in its labelling of the Rockall surrounds as the "UK Continental Shelf Area". Not everyone would agree with this, however. Ireland, Denmark and Iceland all also claim the tiny, barren rock and its undersea surrounds as their rightful national property, and a natural extension of their respective continental shelves.

The Irish government have pointed out that Ireland is the landmass that is actually closest to Rockall, being around 20 miles nearer to the island than Invernesshire. Not to be beaten by the UK's various plaque-placing publicity stunts, Irish Rockallites have dispatched navy vessels to 'protect' the island, and one Irish politician even changed his middle name to "Rockall". Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the UK's SAS Rockall survival hero McClean was actually born in Ireland.

According to Denmark, Rockall is a part of a range of islands that make up a natural system that is "the Faroes Rockall plateau". And if we are to believe Iceland, Rockall isn't an island at all, and has no geopolitical significance - but the seabed around it is a natural extension of the Icelandic continental shelf.

One of the principal reasons for these national claims and counter-claims is the rich hydrocarbon resources that run underneath the ocean in this area, which offer the 'owning' state millions of pounds worth of valuable oil and gas revenues. The UN is currently overseeing the less flashy and more legal aspects to these disputes, and each state must be now waiting with bated breath to see in whose hands the islet and its resources will land.

Although these geopolitics may not be the explicit reasoning behind scientific studies and adventurous occupations,  such as that of Marine Scotland and Nick Hancock, they all certainly play a part in these tussles over ownership. Much like a disputed area of suburban car parking, 'use' of something makes a valuable addition to claims of property.

The Marine Scotland scientists of Scotia, and the Greenpeace Activists who 'colonised' Rockall in 1997 as part of an anti-oil exploration protest, have spoken out voraciously against hydrocarbon exploration in the Rockall basin. I can't help wondering if, despite their protests, their activity in this area is seen as a useful tool for the UK's claim to the region, which is based on a geopolitical desire for the oil beneath the waves.