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Plymouth’s marine powerhouse

Look II, Antony Gormley’s sculpture on Plymouth’s West Hoe Pier

Ocean City Plymouth

Marine consultant Josh McCarty surveys his city’s maritime heritage, present achievements and future potential as a model of innovation and sustainability

Since the first settlement in the Bronze Age, Plymouth, strategically positioned with one of the largest natural harbours on Britain’s western seaboard, has built and depended on its relationship with the sea. Once a fishing village, Plymouth developed its trade with the colonies along with its importance as a naval port through the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1689 a naval dockyard was built at Devonport, and an impressive dry dock soon came to dominate its industry for the next 200 years. Plymouth lifeboat station, opened in 1803, was one of the country’s first. The Marine Biological association was established here in 1884, and the following year saw the opening of one of the world’s first aquariums. The harbour and coastline are still protected by the breakwater built by Rennie and Whidbey in 1812, and the need to replenish its mighty boulders is our annual reminder that, no matter how much we rely on the sea, we must respect its power.

Today Plymouth is a key national fishery. As we approach the end of the Brexit transition period, the city stands ready to support this vital industry. Workstreams include a plan for sustainable fisheries, while consultations continue to ensure that the fishing and related industries can be supported through growth and evolution as the UK becomes an independent coastal state.

Plymouth’s stature today stems from the strength of its manifold connections with the ocean – in its leisure and sports facilities; its fishing, research, manufacturing, engineering, and training; its extensive range of infrastructure services; not to mention the key defence establishments of its Royal Navy and Royal Marine bases; and its university, with 3,000 marine-oriented Plymouth students.

New horizons

The city boasts more than a century of world-leading marine research experience thanks to the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the Marine Biological Association, and the University of Plymouth. It has no fewer than 12 Nobel laureates, and offers cutting-edge technology developed to understand our ocean, from its shallows to its deepest depths. Plymouth provides an ideal location for studying the Earth’s life-supporting seas, and it houses the UK’s largest concentration of marine researchers with dedicated laboratory and sea-going facilities. Unique data buoys, advanced microscopy and a fleet of research and training vessels comprise only part of the sophisticated array of equipment enabling Plymouth’s award-winning marine researchers to lead the world in so many fields.

The relationship between people and the marine environment is a key driver for Plymouth’s research, ensuring that scientific endeavour is focused clearly on the sustainability of ocean environments, economic potential, and human wellbeing. Plymouth alerted the world to the perils of microplastics and is a global leader in the study of environmental changes and their consequences for the oceans and human life across our planet. The waters of Plymouth Sound are collaboratively managed by the Tamar Estuaries Consultative Forum, which brings together the 18 organisations with statutory responsibilities for the waters in a best-practice model for the UK.

Plymouth is home to the UK’s first National Marine Park (NMP), built with a healthy recognition of the importance of naval and port activities. Arriving after decades of ever greater public disconnection from the sea, the NMP concept is championing net gain, developing blue economy models, and fostering marine citizenship – the connection each of us in this island nation has to the ocean. The NMP is being designed to unlock significant social, economic and environmental benefits, positively influencing the lives of those who work, live and play in, on and around Plymouth Sound. Scientists, fishers, the navy, leisure providers and residents are uniting to shape the future of Plymouth’s singular seascape.

Oceansgate and MBTC

Architect’s visualisation of part of the Oceansgate marine enterprise zone
Architect’s visualisation of part of the Oceansgate marine enterprise zone. Photo: Oceansgate

Oceansgate is Britain’s first marine enterprise zone. It brings together a range of businesses to create a world-class hub for marine industries, with opportunities for research, innovation and production in a collaborative environment, supported by the government’s Industrial strategy. It is leading an initiative to create a hub for maritime technology, innovation and sustainability, which bridges all of the South West’s maritime capabilities to create a much larger economic development vehicle with solid green and blue credentials. Within Oceansgate, the Marine Business Technology Centre (MBTC) was founded in 2018 to provide support for innovation in developing the next generation of advanced marine technology. MBTC has quickly established itself as an internationally recognised centre for advanced marine autonomy, clean propulsion, environmental monitoring and measurement, advanced manufacturing and materials, and marine cybersecurity.

Fundamental to MBTC, is Smart Sound Plymouth (SSP), a 1,000 sq km, fully-instrumented proving ground open to innovative businesses developing the next generation of smart marine technology in a live environment. Through the MBTC, SSP is also able to offer access to state-of-the-art assets such as USV Cetus, a cutting-edge autonomous ‘unmanned surface vehicle’ run by the University of Plymouth, and the latest generation of data buoys that make up the Western Channel Observatory, run by PML. Based on the success of SSP, the MBTC recently secured an additional £1.8 million of funding from Heart of the South West LEP, to create the first 5G-enabled marine test area in the UK. Called Smart Sound Connect, this network will allow businesses to create new marine solutions via a super-fast, low latency data network.

Innovative vessels

In the spring of 2021, four hundred and one years after the original Mayflower’s departure, Plymouth will see the sailing of a new Mayflower – an innovative autonomous craft, which will sail the Atlantic guided by ‘state of the art’ technology, without the need for a human crew COVID-19 has delayed this voyage by a few months, but it’s clear the critical thinking and innovative ideas associated with the project are already enhancing the science of autonomous ships. Another new vessel design emerging from Plymouth is the X95 from Princess Yachts, one of Plymouth’s best-known marine industries ever since its shipyard was established in 1965. Both the flybridge and main deck interior space cover almost the full length of this luxury yacht, creating the Super Flybridge – the X Class’s defining characteristic. This new layout provides 10 per cent more outdoor space and 40 per cent more indoor space than a traditional motor yacht of the same tonnage. Her innovative architecture also includes a new hull design with an all-new wave-piercing bow that extends the waterline forward and provides a 15 per cent improvement in efficiency over a traditional hull design. The novel design’s innovative use of space is already proving a leader in this class of vessel.

The urgent task now for Plymouth, is to recognise that this great city, standing at the ocean’s gateway, requires a fully integrated and collaborative approach to climate change. The rising generation has motivated us, and we are, in turn, encouraging that generation to pursue varied and fulfilling marine careers in an age of ocean crisis, and to engender a planetary resilience as the basis of survival. Plymouth’s heritage suggests that we are positioned more favourably than any other city to meet this, and to immerse ourselves fully in the ocean challenges we all face.