Give oceans real protection – everyone gains

More than two thirds of the Earth’s surface is ocean and yet we give it barely a thought, at least according to a recent poll by KnowSeas which shows that only a third of UK citizens are worried by ocean health whereas around 60% of Portuguese and Spaniards have the oceans on their minds.  Might it be because the per capita consumption of fish is twice as high in Spain and three times as high in Portugal compared with the UK?
The oceans have a great contribution to make in feeding the world.  If fish stocks recover we could harvest more fish from those more abundant stocks.  But this depends on reducing fishing pressure in the short term in order to increase it in the medium term – and that’s something that fishermen across the world have been loath to do.
Whether it be the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery or the driving to near extinction of the great whales, fishermen have too often pushed stocks past the point of sustainable harvesting and caused stocks to decline and with them catches.
Fisheries haven’t just harmed the stocks on which they depend, they have also had major impacts on the wider ecosystem.  Examples include the deaths of dolphins in tuna nets, the declines of most of the world’s albatrosses driven by longline fishing and the destruction of the seabed communities of corals, molluscs and other bottom-living species by frequent trawling of the seabed.  Some scientists fear that we may enter an age of ‘slime’ with the oceans being dominated by microbes, jellyfish and algae.
The research by KnowSeas shows that the EU public distrusts the competence of private industry, like fisheries, to manage the environment whereas most of the public think that environmental groups and scientists are competent.
A big question in marine wildlife conservation and marine resource management is over the role of marine protected areas – areas where exploitation is limited either a bit or a lot, or perhaps completely.  Any area that is suggested for such designation is usually opposed by fishermen and lauded by environmental groups.  That might be why the UK has only three small areas of sea where all fishing is currently excluded: the east side of Lundy island, a tiny area off Flamborough Head and Lamlash Bay in Arran (comprising about 0.01% of British waters).
Some recent scientific studies hold out hope that no-take zones not only work for wildlife but also for fishermen.
A study of lobsters in the Lundy no-take zone showed that not only have the lobsters grown in size and number within the no-take zone (the number of lobsters of catchable size in the no-take area more than doubled in just four years) but that benefit has been transferred to nearby areas which aren’t protected in the same way – protecting some of the area completely has benefitted a much wider area too.   And in this case the lobster fishermen had been fairly relaxed about the chosen no-take zone as it had not been a prime lobster fishing area before it received no-take status.
A recent Australian study used genetic measures to demonstrate that fish from small clownfish to large groupers can establish their breeding locations over 100km from where they were hatched.   This means that strict protection of some areas may benefit fishermen far from the protected areas.
It seems to be in fishermen’s interests to work much more closely with environmental groups and scientists to help set up marine no-take zones that work for wildlife and work more generally for the marine environment.  The need for such an approach was signalled at the 2010 Nagoya conference where countries signed up to a series of Aichi targets, one of which (Target 11) commits governments to conserve by 2020 ‘… at least…10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.’.
That’s quite a mouthful, and quite an ambition, and the UK has done very badly so far in domestic waters but it has a great opportunity to make a truly global contribution in the UK’s Overseas Territories although it isn’t clear that the UK has a plan.  The UK made the waters around the Chagos Archipelago the largest no-take zone in the world’s oceans in 2010.  Other governments, such as Australia, are following suit and further no-take zones are said to be being considered by the Foreign Office, Defra and DFID, alongside the individual territorial administrations, in the seas of South Georgia, Bermuda and Pitcairn Island.  It seems that not only would this be a quick win for the UK to deliver global environmental ambitions but also that the science suggests that this would be good for the world’s fishermen and fish-eaters, as well as the world’s fish.

11 Replies to “Give oceans real protection – everyone gains”

  1. Great article! State of our oceans is best indication of state of whole planet. No matter how far anyone lives from seas we are all inextricably dependant upon them.

  2. Ocean fisheries are a classic example of the problem of ‘commons’ and why we should distrust the ability of private industry to manage fish stocks sustainably. I am sure that every trawler man knows that if he takes too many fish then the stocks will collapse sooner or later but his problem is that if he shows restraint but another skipper doesn’t then he loses out and the stocks collapse anyway. This is particularly the case where highly industralised fishing fleets fish all over the world far from their home ports.

    Some form of externally applied regulation is therefore necessary to protect the marine ecosystems and also to protect fishermen from themselves. Quotas seem to be an ineffective method as it appears that they lead to terrible wastage as undersized fish or less desirable species often get thrown back dead into the sea as skippers try to bring home the most valuable catch they can. No take zones therefore seem to be a very valuable conservation tool that is ultimately in the fishermens’ interests, especially given the evidence you report from Australia that they can act as a source for population recruitment into waters well beyond the boundary of the zone itself.
    Sadly it is difficult to be optimistic that much progress will be made given the typical short termism of most politicians.

    1. Oscuramente forte è la vita, wrote Quasimodo, life is mysteriously strong. Sometimes we should just leave well alone, and give nature a chance.

  3. I have been in Portugal for the last 2 months and have been struck by the knowledge and, more importantly, interest local people here have off issues of overfishing. I think that, perhaps, more than the higher consumption of fish here, this is due to the dependence of people´s livelihoods on fishing. Also, people don´t just consume more fish here, they go to the local market to buy fish caught locally which makes them more sensitive to small changes in the local catch.

    1. Although the Iberian Peninsula, Spain in particular, is a major consumer of fish and other sea-food caught in UK waters so they are not only selecting locally caught fish.
      Another aspect of Iberian attitudes to fish though that may be more sustainable than our own is a readiness to eat a wider range of fish. For example we export monkfish heads (i.e a large proportion of the whole fish) to Spain for soup that would otherwise be thrown away by British consumers, as well as fish species such as megrim and witch which can be important by-catch and which British consumers are not interested in buying. If we are going to haul fish out of the sea it behoves us to use what we catch as efficiently as possible and not throw half of it away!
      Despite the best efforts of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall though we remain firmly wedded to cod and haddock.

  4. Interesting to note that Mull,Coll and Tiree have had their best year for over 20 years with the number of Minke Whales, Basking Sharks [one count of 997!], Dolphins and just last Thursday Killer Whales. They have also had the best summer weather for many a year with plankton samples been very high helping the whole food chain!!

  5. I agree with all written Mark, I even emailed my MP about these issues and Im landlocked! I got the usual drivel back Politicians are so able to produce.

    I don’t eat fish, my cat does not have any fish in her diet. Cats do not need it remember( Think of what a cats natural diet would be) Although I would love to see a tabby catch a Tuna.

    Most of the big pet food companies do NOT use by-catch so we can all help change this misconception and let cat owners know.Likewise with dog foods, don’t buy ocean white fish for ya animals please. Naturally they would not eat ocean going fish

    If it was up to me I would stop industrial fishing for 4 years around our coast and dam them all. So many other people loose their jobs why do these people who are ruining our envrionment get so much help? Didnt see Rover workers or Woolworths staff get help-just the dole Q for them so save the fish and if jobs go…they go..Sorry

  6. As you know Mark I fashed lobsters for over 15 years. Me being me had the most creels out in the water and was rather good at the job. With prices going down I sold the boat and 1000 creels at good money. When I sold the price per KG was £8.50 PK in summer and £25.00 PK at the peak in winter.
    Fast forward to last week and the price was £6.00 PK and the skippers had a meeting asking boats to cut back catches until the prices go up !!
    Not a chance as all it takes is one boat to break ranks and the others loose !!
    BTW St Andrews bay is a no tow zone but seal numbers have wiped out the flatfish breeding population !!

  7. Sorry I have been away. The state of the worlds seas could hardly be worse. If we farmed the way we fish two Chinook Helicopters would pull a giant net weighed down with concrete bocks across the countryside for a few hours, eventually landing before flying off with any big cattle they caught and leaving the sheep and calf by-catch to rot. It is not simply the unsustainable catches that are the problem it is also the amazingly destructive way they are achieved.
    What is particularly galling is that we know what to do to stop this catastrophe, we know it is technically easy and cheap and that it’s benefits are universal, with the fishermen being the main long term benefactors.
    What is needed are a series of large strategic marine reserves which are total no take zones and fish populations bounce back in quality and quantity providing better fishing in the remaining fishing zones than is currently available fishing the whole sea. You only have to look at the impact of the two World Wars to see the impact that de facto no take zones can on fish populations.
    An example of how bad it is occured in my local Sainsbury’s when I found some fillets of Orange Roughie, these are deep sea fish from the South Atlantic who can only be caught when the spawn on isolated sea mounts and even then the trawlers are working at their technical limit. The fillets on display looked remakably edible when one considers that they had come from the other side of the world and the person in charge said they hoped they could develop a market for them. I was able to tell him not to bother as there was not a fish there that was less than sixty years old and the population would almost certainly be functionally extinct in a week or two.
    But hey, who cares about fish?

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