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.