Jean-Luc Solandt is a marine biologist struggling to get out of a policy expert. He worked on coral reef ecology for 15 years, providing diving survey data for the creation of Marine Protected Areas. He’s been working in the UK at the Marine Conservation Society for over 13 years on developing networks of MPAs, making sure they’re ‘well-managed’, whilst trying to manage being the ReefCheck Coordinator of the Maldives. He loves guitars and bikes.
We have different philosophies in society about what environmental protection means. I like to think this should relate to how healthy the state of a ‘marine protected area’ is when it becomes ‘protected’. There is also a ‘preservationist’ or ‘recovery’ position. The former seeks to maintain a status quo of current conditions, the ‘recovery’ perspective really relates to a notion that something (biodiversity; productivity; ecosystem services) needs improvement in the site or wider area.
One of the crises we have within marine conservation for marine protected areas is the limited evidence on the nature of the environment as it is difficult to ‘see’, and hence there is a lack of detail about what was ‘there’ in the recent past – doing this comprehensively can cost millions for the average Marine Protected Area (MPA).
We have an understanding from Prof Callum Roberts beautiful book ‘Unnatural History of the Sea’ (and the shifting baselines theory elegantly written about by Jeremy Jackson of SCRIPPS institute of marine science in California) that the UK marine environment – on a national scale at least – was once wholly more productive, with more ‘carbon’ tied up in higher levels of the food chain (whales, dolphins, seals, sharks). Complex habitats existed on the seafloor, with invertebrate ‘megafauna’ forming reefs of mussels, bivalves and oysters in sandy seabeds. Observations on pristine (isolated) coral reef environments hint at the same ideas of productivity higher up in the food chain (watch National Geographic following the wonderfully fortunate Enric Sala around the outer Hawaiian Islands counting sharks and little else). These mega/massive offshore isolated sites being proposed right now generally tick the ‘preservationist’ model of protection. Because they are generally considered to be (more) pristine.
Current EU-wide government approaches to MPAs is steeped in the notion that we should preserve what the ecosystem looks like now, rather than to recover it to something ‘better’ for society and wildlife. This is wholly unambitious, and prompts the question for me of ‘why bother’? It’s like the climate change campaigners asking for 400ppm instead of something like 350ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. It is much more likely that 350ppm will allow us to exist on this planet with enough food, water and stable weather. 400ppm will not.
This awful thinking is manifest in the current proposal by Welsh Government to re-open scallop dredging in the sand and gravel banks of Cardigan Bay, a famed location of the bottlenose dolphin, also for reefs and ‘sandbank’ habitats off western Wales. After tens of scallop dredgers drove into the grounds within the ‘protected’ area in 2008 and 2009, the government did the right thing – to close the site entirely to scallop dredging. This wasn’t completely successful, with some fishers turning off their GPS transponders (that tell the shorebound enforcement officers where they are), and others simply ignoring the boundaries of closed areas.
In 2015, a study was reported by Welsh Government into the possibility of ‘sustainable scallop dredging’ within the SAC. The notion being that the affected ‘sand and gravel’ habitats are so devoid of life that they can withstand some levels of scallop dredging (as yet to be determined). The study was carried out by a scientist with an excellent record of studying the direct impacts of towed fishing gears on seabed habitats. But he studies what exists now, rather than what could emerge or recover, and never looks at the historical baseline (before the advent of trawling). As such, this scientist was simply being asked to record the evidence of what happens to an ecosystem that has already had trawling and dredging happen on it. Rather, the law asks – what is the natural or balanced use of the ecosystem where it is completely free from such activities? Some habitats that need to recover can take decades, even perhaps up to a century to have slow growing habitat forming species attach, regrow and change the state of the seas. The Cardigan Bay study gave the sea 5 years. The marine Atlas of 1883 shows such things as oyster reefs in the southern North Sea stretching for 100s of miles. Evolution of habitats at these scales can take decades, and even centuries. Imagine that! Mussel beds filtering out vast quantities of seawater, oyster reefs providing habitat for multitudes of other attached animals and plants.
So what do you want from UK MPAs? Lines around bits of the sea on maps that effectively endorse heavy industry to exploit the natural resources with no hint of potential recovery? Or do you want some places where nature is allowed to regrow and develop at nature’s pace? 16% of the UK seabed is classified in MPAs that are meant to protect that seabed. It’s time to let it regrow – at its own pace. This approach (of recovery and repair) rather than preservation will benefit society as much as conservation. A healthier more productive sea will provide more oxygen, shoreline defense, nutrient recycling, carbon capture and biological resources.
Action: Please write to this address fisheriesmailbox@Wales.gsi.gov.uk to say you don’t want scallop dredging in any marine protected area. Please also write to the minister in case the response you make to the civil servants doesn’t somehow make it to his desk – firstname.lastname@example.org