Come on chaps!

I’ve been thinking, off and on, about the marine wildlife riches around Pitcairn Island since the meeting at the Royal Society last week. It was wonderful to get some comments on this blog from Pitcairn Islanders too.

I hope it’s not too presumptuous to think that the case for strong protection of the marine wildlife, supported as it is by the whole human population of the Pitcairn Islands, should rapidly come to pass.

But it’s becoming clearer to me that the way that the UK government handles the UK Overseas Territories is far from ideal.  This is a classic situation where responsibility is shared and therefore disappears through the cracks between government departments.

My main interest in the UKOTs is in their history, their people and their wildlife but clearly they are relevant to the UK because of their military value, economic value, and all sorts of other values.  And so we see that the Department for International Development has a hand in some of the UKOTs – the economically poorer ones like Pitcairn.  This always strikes me as being tremendously politically incorrect!  Why isn’t DFID involved with the poorer parts of Glasgow, Newcastle or London?  But that’s how it is, and the trouble with that is that DFID has a very poor grasp of environmental matters – ever since Claire Short got rid of most of the experts in her Department years ago. So DFID worries me.

Believe it or not, the Department for Culture Media and Sport also has a bit of a role as it has responsibility for World Heritage Sites – and Henderson Island, Gough Island and Inaccessible Island are all World Heritage Sites (along with the Town of St George on Bermuda).  DCMS has put forward St Helena and the Turks and Caicos Islands as potential World Heritage Sites too.  DCMS is the parent body for the National Lottery but has not given guidance to the Lottery to make money available for the UKOTs (you can’t buy lottery tickets in UKOTs (but then I have never bought one in my life)).

Defra recognises that the environment of the UKOTs is important and that what happens in those places can contribute to UK international obligations.  But Defra will say that it has little money to spend on the UKOTs and that the FCO is loaded with resources.  In addition, the Defra staff dealing with the UKOTs are split between terrestrial and marine branches and so almost everything about the UKOTs requires a meeting between people for whom the UKOTs are one rather small part of their already busy jobs.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office do see the UKOTs as important but will pass the buck to other departments whenever it comes to doing anything that the FCO feels isn’t their bag.  And that certainly applies to anything environmental.

The impression one gets, talking to people involved in the UKOTs, is that the variety of government departments makes life difficult.  Particularly when they behave like a bunch of kids with lots of  ‘it’s not me it’s him!’ thrown in.

Trying to sort this out is probably one of the reasons why the Environmental Audit Committee is investigating sustainability in the UKOTs right now.

In the recent (June 2012) Overseas Territories White Paper the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary wax lyrical about the interest and commitment of the UK to the UKOTs.  But both, rightly, go further.

David Cameron says: ‘We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environments we have inherited.’ – well said, Prime Minister!

And William Hague says: ‘We have not in the past devoted enough attention to the vast and pristine environments in the lands and seas of our Territories. We are stewards of these assets for future generations.’ – well said, Foreign Secretary!

I am happy to acknowledge that here two of the most senior members of the coalition government have sent the right signals, said the right things and thought the right thoughts.  But as with Directors General of the BBC, or Chief Executives of Banks, you also have to be a manager as well as a leader.  Saying it is not enough – you have to make it happen.

Delivering better stewardship of the extraordinary environments of the UKOTs is currently a shared responsibility of many junior civil servants distributed across Whitehall Departments and each with many other things to do.  So, my fear, is that it just won’t happen without a nudge from above.

I wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to spend more than a few minutes on this subject in his busy life, so here is the draft of an email for David Cameron to cut and paste and send to DFID, Defra, DCMS and FCO.

‘Come on chaps – get a grip! The UKOTs are important to us and we are making a bit of a meal of all this.  I’d like you all to come up with a plan for some real action on environmental progress.  Some ideas that will make us look good (we are struggling a bit on that ‘greenest government ever’ thing) and which tick lots of boxes for contributing to international agreements. If it’s going to cost a few million quid then so be it – we need some good news on the environment and I’ll tell George to look for some money down the back of the sofa if it’s needed.  Come back to me with some ideas in a fortnight.’

There you are PM – cut and paste – and send!


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5 Replies to “Come on chaps!”

  1. Funny I was thinking about this issue a few days back…thanks Mark! What “re-triggered” my memory cells was I had in the background some naff TV programme on, on the programme they were showing how the Aussies were dealing with illegal fishermen taking primarily shark fins from protected areas. What stood out to me was 1) The resources thrown at the problem, basically a military plane loaded with expensive surveillance gear working with a military ship 2) The “real” commitment shown on the ground, or sea, by those enforcing the law and the punishment handed out to those caught, which was at first a fine followed up by confiscation of the shipping vessels involved. Now confiscation may not seem severe but when those involved in illegal taking are quite poor, it’s a REAL punishment. Now at first when I saw the islands on the globe I thought “well they’re reasonably isolated, can’t seeing it be much of a problem”, I was wrong, it seems one big boat/ship floats around whilst smaller vessels do the fishing, take the catch back to the main boat, unload and carry on, so under these operating conditions the islands don’t seem to be that isolated.
    But all that effort done by the Aussies illustrates to me the underlying problem. Costs. The boats and planes involved were all military, and the UK has slashed massively the armed forces, for example where currently is the pride of the UK naval fleet, the ARK ROYAL, we had Nimrods patrolling the skies and seas off the UK, where are they? If you bleieve in recycling they’re probably a fridge by now! They haven’t been replaced. Could we ask the Aussies or Kiwis to do it on our behalf with subsidies? Instead of scrapping the old navy ships can we reassign them and hand them over to a coalition of Islanders to be trained on how to use them and make them responsible for the protection of the seas around their islands, at least we would know it was being done properly.
    Maybe I’m being a negative ninny, but I fear what Cameron meant was protecting what “we” have “inherited” as “we want the right to farm and collect the natural resources (fish/and crude oil)”, look at the Falklands. Yet we have no problems protecting the interests of those islands, which are even more remote!

  2. Hi Mark
    It seems to me that the only chance for wildlife in these outlying overseas territories is to make full use of the island’s potential for wildlife tourism and therefore increase local appreciation and caring for these ecosystems. However all is not quite so straightforward. In the Falkland Islands in the 1980s there were only around 500 tourists per annum, but this has increased to 69,000 tourists in 2010 of which 63,000 were on cruise ships. Falklands tourism now accounts for around £7.8 million which is aprox 8% of total GDP. If you own a small island rich in wildlife you can gain an income of £10 to £20 pounds per person by allowing cruise ship visitors to land on your island and spend a few hours walking along part of the shore. If a cruise ship has 200 passengers then you have made £2000. So owners of small islands managed as nature reserves can be making an excellent living and this is incentive alone to preserve the island ecosystems.
    We in the British Isles are led to believe that the Falkland Islands holds vast resources of fisheries income and possible future oil revenue which belongs to us. However, it appears to me that the fact of the matter is that any income gained does not come to the UK but indeed goes to the Falkland Islands government.

    Income from fisheries licences is around £20 million per annum and the fishing industry income is around a further £50 million yet in 2005/6 it cost £143 million to run the military base at Mount Pleasant airport. I do not think that the Falkland Islands government pay any of these military expenses.

    The total Falkland islands income is around £100 million GDP with individual GDP of around £30,000. A study has shown that the possible oil revenue from a best case scenario going to the Falklands Islands Government could be £180 billion. If this figure is divided amongst the 3000 aprox Falkland residents then this works out at £6 million each person or £6000 million each depending how you define billion. How important will wildlife be in such a case.? I would think low down on the list of priorities.If someone said if I give you this vast sum of money then it is possible a few penguins will die, what would you say?
    Some forward steps are being taken such as controlling the predation of albatross by longline fisheries. Progress was also being made to monitor and sustainably control the squid and other fisheries in conjunction with Argentina and their waters, but Argentina have now with drawn from this agreement claiming that all of the Falkland waters belong to them. The upside of this conflict is that Argentina want to stop oil exploitation going ahead in Falkland waters and will not allow ships linked to the oil inustry to use Argentinian ports and certainly will not allow oil to be landed in Argentina. So perhaps this conflict will stop this oil industry escalating, at least for the moment

    1. Not sure about the Argentine’s claim of not being interested in oil. On the “who owns the Falklands” issue in Argetina it went dorment. It was only after two events the whole issue reared it’s head 1)When the PM’s ratings went down, to boost popularity and to get the military on side she started to bang the drums 2)the actual discovery of oil. As for tourism and small islands it sounds great in principle, but look what’s happening to Galapogos (spelt right?) the increase in tourist, especially from cruise ships have introducded rats and from what I’ve read and heard it’s ruining the island. If it’s to be done numbers of visitors have to be kept to a low level.

      1. Douglas
        your point about rats is partly valid, but rats already exist on most pacific islands having been introduced from whaling ships or other commercial vessels centuries ago. There are a lot of introduced species on the Galapagos islands, but I understand that measures are being taken to prevent other species from gaining access. I am told that now, everyone’s kit is examined before they are allowed to land on these islands and this even goes as far as removing small plant seeds from clothing by tweezers.
        Another aspect in the Galapagos is that the income from tourism allows at least some invasive species to be controlled. On the Galapagos island of Santiago 80,000 feral goats were killed in 2009 and since then the even larger Isabella Island has also been cleared of goats. It is going to be impossible to clear some invasive species like fire ants.
        Back to British Overseas Territories : The RSPB were involved in a £1.5 million project to eradicate rats on Henderson Island in 2011. This project seemed to have worked pretty well, but since than at least one live rat has been seen in march this year (2012)…/henderson_newsletter_tcm9-300407.pdf
        Rats are also very common on most of the Falkland Islands after being introduced by whaling ships in the past. Most penguin colonies are surrounded by groups of rats which no doubt predate the penguin eggs and young chicks. Control on the larger islands is nearhand impossible, but eradication success on smaller islands has greatly helped the survival of endangered ground nesting species such as Cobb’s Wren. What has been learnt from the eradication prgogram on the relatively large Henderson Island ( around 18 square miles) may well help to get rid of rats and mice from many larger islands in the Falklands. Again recognition of the great value of wildlife tourism will help to drive this action.

  3. It’s incredibly difficult to get 2 Government Departments to work together – in fact, its quite difficult to get everyone to work together in one Government Department – in commenting on Defra’s work on the future of its agencies (the Triennial Review of which I fear we will be hearing a lot more in the next year) I questioned whether the real challenge wasn’t in fact how Defra co-ordinated & managed the relationships across the agencies, rather than what happened in the agencies themselves. As Mark knows, far from different Departments working against each other, its not unusual to find different parts of the same Department heading in opposite directions.

    For the Overseas territories, a couple of things strike me: first, its not necessarily about spending money – as Mark commented not long ago the Government could, at no cost, make no-fish reserves BEFORE the pressure comes on. I was very impressed by the arguments in Charles Clover’s book for extensive, worldwide no fish zones. Thinking of Henderson Island, one wonders whether the rat extermination wouldn’t have been a superb practical exercise for the Royal Navy ? Again, virtually no cost as the resources are already in place.

    And good for the Pitcairn Islanders – there is one thing that’s for sure, if commercial fishing did arrive there’s little chance they’d see the benefits.

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