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 15 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.
A ‘good thing’ happened last week for conservation. I’m not sure if I was full of ‘hope’ before that thing occurred, but I’m a little more hopeful for our planet.
Or am I?
Am I simply happy that science, balance of logic, and local people came to the right choice. Am I happy that the right democratic mechanism was in place to make the right choice (for the local environment)? I think I’m more contented at that. Am I a little less depressed today because some of the initial evidence for yesterday’s decision came from something I researched and put in front of the regulators? Am I happy that one of my colleagues and other organisations have presented an excellent, patient, resolute dedicated face for progressive management decisions for our seas – for sure, that is all gratifying.
The ‘good thing’ I refer to was successfully achieved by a local fisheries regulator. That regulator has authority over fishing matters in the inshore waters of a relatively small bit of England’s coast – Sussex. The ‘Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority’ has just made the decision to stop bottom trawling over kelp forest areas (large types of seaweed).
Kelp plants provide a number of important jobs (called ‘ecosystem services’) to people and nature. They buffer the effects of storms (act as a kind of natural breakwater). They filter the seawater of excess nutrients (from our farming and urban waste water outflows). They provide essential habitat for baby / small fish (cod are known to swim between the fronds), and finally, and most pertinently, they are known to absorb carbon (that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere, or make the water column more acidic). The losers in this are the inshore trawl fishing industry, that has been catching fish in and around this area since the 1980s.
Surveys from Sussex Seasearch since the 1980s have provided strong evidence that kelps were historically expansive in the Sussex coast, on chalk reefs and boulders. However, more recent surveys have shown a decline in the kelp forest area by over 90% – both in extent, and the density of the plants.
Seasearch provides a profound beacon of hope: A little-known project of people who voluntarily spend hundreds of pounds, and countless hours learning about seabed life, how to identify it using SCUBA, and recording it. That information is then quality assessed by local marine biologists, and uploaded to a national biodiversity database. It – a citizen science project – is the second largest data provider of marine species from UK waters – providing over 750,000 species records from Shetland to the Scillies. There is further hope in the people who do this, who want to see that their data helps regulators and governments make better decisions for people and wildlife. That is what effective conservation is.
I’m hopeful that the message from this is one of logic, and securing ecosystems to help people. And this is where the balance of judgment of the committee that made this decision provides me with hope. One the plus side, we conservationists will always identify the winners in our PR on a national basis. But there are also local winners with the recovery of the kelp – anglers will have more fish (we think). The seashore (cobble and shingle beaches) will likely protect the coast from more storms, whilst sea-level rise will not result in as destructive storms as is the case wihtou the natural buffering effect of a natural swaying 3-dimensional submerged natural breakwater just below the surface – a genuine ‘forest’ of kelp plants.
But what of the losers? Who, and how many of them are they? Who in this decision is set to lose out, and where else can we emerge with hopeful decisions to create such beneficial conditions for environmental recovery, and really balance this out?
The losers are seabed trawlers who will be banned (line fishing, recreational angling, trap, pot and setnet fishing will carry on). There may be up to 6 boats that have trawled the seabed in this area in the past. There may be 3 crew and skipper on each boat. There may be a proportion of a catch that is lost to those boats and fishers. That is of course an issue for them that has been accounted for within this decision. I have no problem with any fisherman in principle. Members of the trawl fishing industry have been brought up with something called ‘the right to fish’ – a cultural identity to fish freely, with only the weather and idiosyncrasies of the sea and its conditions, and mobility of what is being caught as any restrictive element. In the past 150 years, technologies have emerged to more efficiently find fish, distances from home ports have expanded into deep-water shelves, and refrigeration has introduced over 100 years ago, allowing for such distant-water fishing, and longer trips.
‘Humans are part of the natural system’ conservationists hear every time we are rebuffed over such progressive measures as ‘help our kelp’, or introduction of trawl-restriction Marine Protected Areas. But the natural order of things in the environment has very different ‘rules’ between non humans and humans. A so-called ‘ecological arms race’ occurs in nature; whereby predators (e.g. sharks) adapt to their prey’s defence mechanisms over generations. A slight adaptation in skin, in speed, in sight may occur for a shark. They prey will similarly hide in slightly different places by adjusting its size, it may also shoal differently. The prey may make different sounds to make aware its neighbours of the threat from the predator. This evolution of a biological and mechanical relationship between predator and prey is generational, taking place over thousands and millions of years, called ‘natural selection’. The evolution of the fisherman as predator has been fast-tracked over the last 150 years. From line fishing in the 1850s, to steam trawlers in the 1870s, to refrigeration soon after. The size of vessels increased with the power of steam, leading to beam trawling – whereby tonnes of metal are dragged over the seabed to collect all seabed species of fish. When fish stocks were fished out near shore – fishermen moved offshore in the middle of the last century. This resulted in smaller fish, fish that breed earlier, different species of fish, and finally – what we see now – a huge decline in finfish over 150 years to where fishing for scallops (a shellfish) and nephrops (prawns) is the most profitable nearshore fishing in the UK. So nature has had 150 years or so to ‘evolutionarily’ adapt to human technology – and has made a poor fist of it. Not fair I’d suggest. Is fishing using trawls and fish-finders really a ‘natural part’ of marine ecology? Our response? 2% of UK seabed protected from trawls. We’re not giving nature a chance.
Fishing (in our country) has been permitted to be expansionist for decades without checks and balances. The second world war brought an end to fishing restrictions. A boom in food production was necessary. Accession to the EU was – in part – to allow growth in agriculture and fisheries. To make sure technologies were permitted to boost production, fleets were expanded, and subsidy offered (that we still have today). The politics of fishing has meant for an inability for political restriction on access and quota. Ports, harbours and individuals are ‘protected’ by the state. We argue this has been to the detriment of society because of the collateral damage of trawl-based commercial fishing, and a ‘race to fish’. So – with an historical ‘protectionist culture’ surrounding the fishing industry, it’s difficult to criticise individual fishermen’s rejection of this decision. Many fishers feel ‘entitled’ on an individual basis in large part because of this traditional belief system. Also – we (conservationists) are seldom out there, and never out there above a force 5! So who should we listen to? The people who are always there, or ‘us’ – lacking legitimacy by constantly shouting from the sidelines?
This is where the local regulator is such an important body – it is local – it goes out to sea – it has boats. It understands both fishing needs, and conservation. I laud, and have hope in the IFCA model. It understands fishing far better than I ever will.
But the hope of a radical change in our consciousness from such a.decision is manifest. A depressing conference occurred in London at the RGS last week (a venue where our eminent ‘chief scientist’ Huxley said in 1884 – in a review of UK fisheries – that the worlds’ fisheries were inexhaustible). A profound moment. The conference in January happens every year – called ‘Coastal Futures’. This year (134 years on) we heard of inevitable 60cm sea-level rise; a potential for calamitous 1.5m sea-level rise (by 2100). We also heard of the government’s never-ending plan for ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’ – as we have done for over 20. We currently have 4 that I could walk across in 3 hours if they were lined up on land. So that was a reality check on the larger scale of the problem facing us. No longer can we be ostriches, having our heads in the sand. And Huxley – a great man – was wrong.
So back to hope – Sussex IFCA gave me hope. Hope that society when democratically selected and given the right information – can come to balance winners and losers, and make the right decision; to achieve progressive measures that will benefit all IF well-respected. If we get the wider societal message to the losers (the local trawlermen), then perhaps the new closed area will be respected, and personal politics can be put aside. Only fishers will enable recovery through their actions in the long term, as the state has a very poor track record of observing and controlling fishing activity. If fishers themselves start to witness better catches, that will provide further hope. And if divers are trusted in reporting recovery through Seasearch, a new dialogue based on the potential for the ocean to recover can offer further hope.
But to solve the problem, such measures must be replicated in the rest of the UK as soon as possible if we want more food from the sea and nature to help us combat climate change. Historically this has taken so very long relative to the scale of ocean decline. Our environmental regulatory bodies are run on a shoe-string, and are inadequately financed to manage fishing AND protected areas. Indeed their very existence is threatened by Defra and Local Government cuts.
But even if such measures as those of last week are a drop in the ocean for ecological recovery, such measures definitely suggest a ‘good’ society. And that is reason enough to be hopeful.
I ask: What is the opposite of ‘death by a thousand cuts’? Perhaps recovery through a thousand positive actions. Yesterday provided us with just such an action. Today, we can be grateful….