|June 15: Sustainability on Shetland
From what we've seen on our short trip, sustainability is not the prime concern at the Shetlands. Most tourists we've seen have come for bird watching, and the economy needs jobs primarily.
These barren islands at the outmost northwestern corner of the North Sea are known as the place where the wash hangs horizontally from the lines. Wind and grazing sheep have kept any trees from taking root here. The other thing one notices immediately, are the scar-like lines over the green hills. Along the fresh ones, one can see freshly dug out peat drying in the air. Judging at the landscape and from the piles plastic bags of peat, it is still very much in use here for heating.
Despite the windy reputation of Shetland, wind energy is hardly exploited here. We've seen two privately owned turbines (one of which was defect) and one windpark (five Vestas turbines) near the oil fired powerplant at the capital Lerwick.
Houses we've seen are generally small and badly isolated in contempt of the harsh climate. Single glass window panes seem to be the rule, rather than exception. The inhabitants probably compensate by throwing some extra peat into the fireplace.
The sustainability of peat is debatable. Should it be regarded as biomass (and hence renewable) or as young fossil fuel? I would take the latter option. It's carbon taken from the atmosphere and fixed into the soil over hundreds of years. Burning it releases the carbon back into the air. Sure, peat regrows, but generally much more slowly than it is won.
The islanders have other worries. A major employer is the refinery upgrading the Northsea crude. But oil in the North Sea has peaked, so the refinery is over its prime.
Sullom Voe oil terminal
Salmon farms, another important industry, were introduced in the 1980's, even though the inland waters are not as deep as in Norway, and hence less suited for intensive aquaculture because the through-flow of water is less.
A relatively new form of aquaculture is that of mussels. We spoke with a musselfarmer who had started on salmon first. He had a hard job removing the mussels from his nets each time the salmon got harvested. After trying to beat the mussels for some time, he finally decided to join them and to switch over to mussel farming.
Floating long parallel buoy lines hold vertical nets on which the mussels spontaneously grow. They need about three years before they've reached the minimum harvesting size of 4.5 centimetre.
There seems to be a symbiosis between salmon and mussel farming. Practice has shown that mussels grow faster in the vicinity of salmon cages. The water there is 'nutritious', in other words there's a lot of salmon shit floating around. Mussels don't mind. They filter up to 40 liters a day and grow on the organic matter that it contains.
Mussels filtering the salmon waste. That sounds like a good idea. But there is little room for expansion, explains the musselfarmer. There have to be 1000 meters distance between salmon farms and 500 meters between a salmon cages and mussel nets. The best of the sheltered places have been taken by salmon farms and fitting in the mussel nets requires ingenuity. “We've been all over the map to find locations.”
Meanwhile, new sea farming possibilities are in preparation. We talked to a chemistry researcher who works with Unilever to investigate the pharmaceutical potential of seaweed. It seems to contain a substance that makes wound recovery go faster. Other properties are under investigation.
Eventually, the weed would not be plucked out of the ocean, but properly farmed and harvested on a continuous basis. If all works out fine, it might even turn into a new sustainable industry on these barren islands that are blessed with a monumental granite coastline and a richness of winged wildlife.