Sunday, March 3, 2013

You, me and Hugh, we’ve finally tipped the scales

Brussels has voted for radical fisheries reform – a victory for public opinion. Charles Clover, who has helped to lead the fight, says what must happen next.

The sea is more like the lawless west the farther out you go. I was reminded of the wanton destruction of the wild herds of American buffalo last week when scientists published estimates that around 100m sharks are killed each year by commercial fishermen in a largely unregulated trade that is driving many species towards extinction.

It is sad that we need scientists to tell us an obvious truth: that slow-growing marine animals such as sharks cannot keep up with current rates of attrition. Yet the message was timely, just before members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) arrived in Bangkok for a two-week meeting.

On the agenda are proposals to regulate trade in overfished hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and porbeagles as well as two species of manta ray. Regulate, mind, not ban. These are entirely moderate proposals. Why would anyone want to kill a glorious, huge manta ray, anyway? Why can’t tuna fishermen who catch sharks “by accident” just put them back?

Advocates for these creatures face a fight because of the diehard opposition to the regulation of trade in any marine species by Japan and other fishing nations.

I know how hard the fight will be and how dirtily it may be fought. At the last Cites, three years ago, I was one of the makers of The End of the Line, the award-winning film about overfishing. We were part of a campaign to protect 13 marine species, from sharks to bluefin tuna. Our champions, the EU, America and Monaco, which made the proposal, were roundly defeated by a cynical alliance led by Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s Libya and Japan.

I am more optimistic this time, and not just because of Gadaffi’s demise. There is a popular awakening going on. All around the world the public seems to have realised that marine species are wildlife that need managing. People are grasping that the sea is, according to UN law, their property and they are entitled to a say in how it is governed.

Last autumn it became clear that our bluefin battle was not in vain: for the first time quotas in the Mediterranean were set in line with scientific advice. There is a hint of stock recovery. Now, at Cites, proposals to protect five shark and two manta species are being supported by a number of developing countries as well as America and the EU. World politics is swinging behind saving the oceans.

An awakening has been happening at home, too, in the landslide vote by the European parliament last month for a radical reform of the common fisheries policy. It was endorsed last week by EU fisheries ministers, led by Britain’s Richard Benyon, despite pressure from the Irish, who hold the EU presidency, to weaken the reform.

Regrettably, Spain, France and Portugal managed to insert loopholes for their fleets. But I believe we are getting there. Europe’s fishing industry has learnt that the public will no longer accept the practice of discarding perfectly good fish — exposed in a brilliant image of a curtain of dead fish sinking to the sea bed in a television programme made last year by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Keo Films.

I am an unlikely recruit to this cause. I never thought I was joining such a movement when I began fly fishing as a boy. I get seasick and I avoid diving, as I have had bad ears since childhood, so I struggle to compete with can-do marine-biology folk. I had no immediate ambition to become an advocate for fish.

Nor did I ever dream I would make a film about them or be chairman of a marine conservation charity that would play a key part in creating the largest no-take reserve in the world, around the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Yet I love, more than most things, talking to fishermen, for we have something in common. I can see the fishermen’s side of the argument as clearly as that of the conservationists. This, I believe, is the key to solving the latest argument playing out around our own coasts and around the world — about the creation of marine reserves.

The outfit I chair, the Blue Marine Foundation, is getting somewhere, working with fishermen to make protected areas work around the British coast, starting in Lyme Bay — a project featured in Hugh’s Fish Fight documentary on Thursday night.

Now we have taken up conservation, it is Hugh’s turn to take the flak — and for the rest of us to judge whether that is unfair. When we read the yards of coverage about the programme in Fishing News we notice that fishermen’s leaders are struggling to deal with the realities perceived by the public.

The headline is: “Industry fury at Hugh’s ‘unbalanced’ Fish Fight”. But which part of the industry is furious: the trawlers and dredgers, or the inshore fishermen, many of whom do not object to protected areas as long as they are told how they can fish in them? I think we can guess.

One can carp at the details. Hugh’s first programme contrasted the area of sea bed left unfished by an enlightened scallop conservation scheme in the Isle of Man with the devastated sandy wastes of the area just outside it that scallopers had dredged. An expert eye would have noticed that the unfished area was rocky and the fished area sandy — had the rocks been towed away by the dredgers or were the areas just different?

But the public will get the broader truth that we don’t want all of the sea bed turned to rubble and some of the sandy bits should be protected to see what comes back. Some of the people I know in the scallop industry accept that. They understand that setting aside some areas will be no bad thing for fish and shellfish. We have woodland, meadows and heaths as well as ploughed fields on land: we need the equivalent at sea. The big issue of our time is how much of the sea we should be setting aside as marine reserves and just how much of that should not be fished, or used, at all.

The quest for an answer to that dates back only a few decades and most of us are still feeling our way. Where the conservation movement may well have it wrong is that it underestimates how much the success of this enterprise depends on the goodwill of the existing users of the sea.

That said, I support what Hugh is asking for. He wants the declaration of the full 127 marine conservation zones (MCZs) proposed in England by four stakeholder groups after a two-year process of consultation. He wants these to allow sustainable fishing that does not damage the sea floor, such as potting, static nets, angling and pelagic (or midwater) trawling. He wants there to be some marine reserves where no extractive or damaging activities at all are allowed, so we know what ecosystem recovery looks like.

In saying that, he is admitting pragmatically that the bit of the official proposal that is flawed is the choice of “reference areas”, or no-take zones, within some of the 127 sites. The reference areas proposed either did not protect much at all or were in places likely to cause local exasperation. More work is needed.

What makes Hugh’s charter entirely reasonable to me is that it reflects the spirit of what parliament has already said it will create and what Benyon keeps pledging to implement: an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas — though Benyon has disappointed conservationists by declaring only 31 MCZs so far.

So why the howl of rage from the fishing bodies? I suspect what we are hearing is the anxiety of an old order, based on bashing the resource until it collapses, being replaced by a new order that prizes selectivity and low-impact forms of fishing with high added value. I agree with some of those complaining — the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in England, for example. It raises points that need to be dealt with: how discards are actually to be banned and how marine-protected areas can benefit fishermen.

The criticisms that occupy most space in Fishing News are from Seafish, the industry authority. Paul Williams, its chief executive, said on Friday that the programme represented the “oversimplification of a complex issue for the purposes of television entertainment”. In my opinion that really is pompous bilge from a limpet attached to a rock.

Seafish was set up by act of parliament and reports to four government departments. We pay for it through a direct levy on the fish we buy. It carries out research projects and offers invaluable safety advice and training for fishermen. This is good work, but I have a bone to pick with the organisation.

Seafish exists, in its own words, “to support the seafood industry for a sustainable, profitable future” — but not to back the most destructive part of the seafood industry against the public interest, I humbly suggest.

It criticises Hugh’s charter for marine protected areas as “simplistic, indiscriminate and lacking in scientific evidence”. It says: “Blanket networks of marine protected areas (such as the ones called for in the Fish Fight charter), indiscriminately placed throughout the coastline, will achieve neither environmental nor commercial gains.”

Objection: that is not what Hugh advocates. The network he wants is neither blanket nor indiscriminate; it is the will of parliament, the result of two years’ consultation and the aim of all the member nations of Ospar, the convention on the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic. It is about as good an expression as one could devise of the popular will.

Seafish says no-take zones are unjustified in temperate waters because there is no empirical evidence of benefits to fish stocks or biodiversity. Is it unaware that New Zealand, whose waters are temperate, is a pioneer of successful marine reserves?

It seems clear to me that Seafish, although a public body, is acting as a sea anchor on the government. Is that its job? I don’t think so. The bullies of the fishing industry are entitled to defend themselves, but not with our money.

Source: Sunday Times

Image courtesy of r.Mb via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)