My Times column on fish and oceans:
The decision to create the world’s largest marine reserve around Pitcairn Islands seems to have taken campaigners by surprise. Environmentalists and celebrities had been pushing for this reserve and others in British overseas territories (around Ascension Island and the South Sandwich Islands) but their startled pleasure at George Osborne’s announcement in the budget implies that they had not expected to win anything.
You can see why. The government’s progress in creating marine conservation zones around the British coast has been grudging. Despite being under an international obligation, it has designated only 50 of 127 zones recommended by experts. Worse, the MCZs are not much more than paper preserves: with little enforcement, some fishing still allowed, but budgets galore for landlubber bureaucrats to send memos to each other.
The difference may be that the Pitcairn islanders don’t get to vote in the general election. Marine protection annoys a few fishermen disproportionately more than it pleases a lot of nature lovers. But there are four reasons why protected zones in the sea should be far and away the top priority in conservation right now: they are desperately needed; they work; the alternatives don’t; and the technology to police them is coming.
On terra firma, I am a conservation optimist. As the world gets more productive, we can (and do) reduce the amont of land we need for food, fuel and fibre, which takes the pressure off wilderness so that we can start to re-green the continents and bring back species from the brink of extinction. In the sea, by contrast, things are still getting horribly worse. What works best on land is to align incentives with conservation. Problems remain where there is free access to a common resource, like bushmeat in African forests.
And that’s how we treat the sea: as a free-for-all, with inevitable tragedies for the common good. Stock after stock has been or is being driven to extinction by gold-rush fisheries: Newfoundland cod, North Sea herring, California abalone, Chesapeake menhaden, bluefin tuna, Black Sea sturgeon, Caribbean grouper. Passing laws to ban over-fishing just isn’t working, because it’s a political process susceptible to lobbying, or because of pirates and poachers.
At sea we are behaving as our African ancestors did on arrival in Eurasia and later in the Americas and Australia: we slaughter our way through the biggest animals first, then shift down the food chain to the next, then down to the next and so on. On land we wiped out the mammoths and sabre-tooths first, then bison, gazelles and rabbits and by the end were left eating grass seeds. In the sea, it was the same and in many areas we are now down to the prawns and shellfish. No other predator has the flexibility to do this “fishing down the food chain”, which is what makes our species so lethal.
Just as on land, there is growing evidence from around the world, especially Iceland and New Zealand, that the best way to get fishermen to cherish rather than punish fish stocks is to set up transferable quotas under which they can own, buy or sell the right to a percentage of a total catch set by the government. That turns them into conservationists trying to maximise the overall catch. But politicians have proved reluctant to follow this route, so political control, and political failure, continue to be the story of fisheries.
Fishing has been by far the dominant factor spoiling the oceans. This came out clearly in The Unnatural History of the Sea, a fine book by Callum Roberts, a University of York marine biologist. Professor Roberts looked up the accounts of what each sea was like when pristine: encrusted with reefs of coral and shellfish, boiling with vast shoals of fish, attended by sharks, dolphins, seals, whales and turtles. We no longer even know just what a pristine marine ecosystem looks like, he argues, so we settle for dismal second best when saying that fisheries have “recovered” — by which we mean moderate shoals of smaller, less desirable fish in an impoverished ocean.
We tolerate the utter devastation of the seabed by nets and dredges, increasingly assisted by powerful engines, synthetic materials, sonar and electronics. Seabeds could be a veritable aquarium of reefs of water-cleansing shellfish and corals, even in the North Sea, instead of a waste of silt and rubble. We would not drag nets through forests.
Over-fishing has been more important than pollution, which — with the exception of plastic litter in some places and nitrogenous dead zones in others — has mostly done less harm. Over-fishing has far more impact than climate change or ocean acidification. Indeed, the relentless focus by the “green blob” of environmental lobbyists on the latter has sucked attention and funds from the over-fishing issue.
For example, National Geographic recently examined the plight of Iceland’s puffins, kittiwakes and arctic terns, which have failed to breed well for many years for lack of fish to feed their young — like those of Shetland and Norway, too. It blamed global warming and mercury pollution; it did not even mention over-fishing. Yet this makes no sense: the puffins, kittiwakes and arctic terns of the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are thriving at the southern, warm limit of their range, and closest to industry, but where sandeels are not exploited. The climate obsession has not served the conservation movement well: it has been a red herring.
We know that marine reserves work: examples from New Zealand, Florida, Chile and elsewhere show dramatic results. A scallop no-take reserve in Lamlash Bay off the Isle of Arran has increased the number and size of scallops inside the reserve and nearby. At Cabo Pulmo on the Mexican coast, where a no-fishing reserve was established in 1995, there has been an explosion in the number of fish, including an eleven-fold increase in large predators such as groupers and sharks: it’s a glimpse of what oceans could look like.
It is not too late. The restoration of the oceans can happen. Most populations of great whales — blues, sperm, humpback, fin, right, bowhead — are now growing by up to 8 per cent a year. Antarctic penguins and seals are rebuilding their populations.
It is surely not beyond the wit of man to find ways to do the same for bluefin tuna, albatross, sharks, halibut and giant cod. In the days of satellites, it should be possible to insist that every fishing boat has a transponder fitted so it can be tracked. Maybe the green blob could use some of its vast budget on such things.