Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Monday, 26 October 2009

Casting a net far into the future

Phil MacMullen
Phil MacMullen

Debates surrounding sustainable fishing are often framed in terms of how initiatives do or do not benefit the seafood industry, or fishermen themselves. In this week's Green Room, Phil MacMullen argues that these distinctions are far less important than the goal of sustaining the ocean ecosystem and the bounties it provides.

Fisherman (AP)
Fishermen have been an easy target for much that is wrong with the marine environment today but that's not fair

Food security is now recognised as a key global issue and fish should be playing an important part in providing that security.

This challenge has now been acknowledged at all levels, from the UN to consumers.

Global seafood consumption doubled between 1970 and 2000. The global population grew but increasing affluence and awareness of the health benefits of seafood also resulted in an increase in per capita consumption.

Capture fisheries have produced around 85 million tonnes annually since the mid-1980s with the gap between wild supply and overall demand filled by aquaculture.

With farmed fish feed containing less and less fishmeal, we're currently enjoying a period of stability in global seafood markets.

But it's plain that more people mean more pressure on the planet. Our seas and oceans need a better legal framework for managing the marine environment.

This must work for our long-term benefit by balancing the need for conservation against our need for food and other services.

Marine Bills

In the UK, that framework will be provided by Marine Bills currently going through our parliaments.

These will introduce "marine spatial planning" in order to accommodate the demands of a wide variety of commercial activities along with the need to protect special habitats and the wider marine environment.

The UK seafood industry supports this approach because it depends on a healthy marine environment.

But making marine planning work fairly and effectively is going to be very challenging: we all have to agree what we need to achieve through an inclusive process and we must base our decisions on the best possible information.

A broad seafood industry perspective is that fishermen must be recognised as an essential part of building a sustainable future for the marine environment.

Fishing and conservation are natural bedfellows. There's no reason why fishing shouldn't continue indefinitely and play its part in providing food for the future.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a key part of the Marine Bills. Designation will result in management arrangements that should protect the conservation status of each MPA.

Trawlers in Bermeo, Spain (AP)
The fishing industry should be involved in managing marine protected areas

But two contrasting approaches to this are apparent; one seems to view MPAs as a panacea to all the problems we face providing that a given proportion of our sea areas is designated for protection.

The other recognises that, whilst the principle is sound, each site must be identified on the basis of good evidence - including its ecological and human characteristics - and managed in order to achieve clear and measurable objectives.

The panacea proponents frequently claim that an MPA will automatically benefit commercial fisheries. A more measured approach will tell us that there may be fisheries benefits but these must be considered a bonus.

This confusion arises because most experience of MPAs comes from tropical or semi-tropical areas, often based on complex, reef-type habitats.

Most commercially exploited species in these habitats tend to be territorial, so restricting fishing will result in an increase in their populations.

In UK waters, however, most commercial finfish species range fairly widely so relatively small-scale MPAs will have little or no impact upon their status. On the other hand, many commercially important populations of shellfish in UK waters, such as lobsters and scallops, could benefit from carefully planned MPAs.

Spatial measures work well in fisheries management but are not the same as the conservation MPA approach.

Industry role

Global studies have demonstrated that successful MPA designation and management require the involvement of fishermen.

They can help to identify seabed features, collect environmental data and monitor sites. Involvement builds trust and can help to ensure appropriate, rather than aspirational, designation.

The industry also innovates in fisheries management. In recent years, the UK fishing industry has become more modern, efficient, forward-looking and environmentally conscious.

Arctic tern and sandeel (SPL)
Sandeel fishing is limited in Shetland so that the birds get their share

Measures to manage fishing effort and protect spawning areas have been introduced voluntarily by fishermen.

The Trevose Box was agreed between Cornish and continental fishermen and closes an area of 3600 square miles off North Cornwall each year to protect spawning flatfish.

In Scotland, the Conservation Credits Scheme allows fishermen to top up their days at sea allowance in return for conservation measures.

In Shetland, local fishermen have an agreement to limit sandeel catches to ensure adequate food for seabirds. These schemes are fully endorsed by groups like WWF and RSPB.

Fishermen have been an easy target for much that is wrong with the marine environment today but that's not fair. The industry has changed and we all need to look further ahead to some much more fundamental problems.

All that we have all been working for will come to nothing if we cannot address the problem of ocean acidification that is resulting from increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Put simply, if we don't resolve this one we will lose most of the services that our oceans provide, including providing us with 50% of our life-giving oxygen.

We must work together to create a sustainable marine environment for future generations, and we must conserve our oceans - one of mankind's greatest natural resources really is under threat.

Phil MacMullen is head of environmental responsibility at Seafish, an industry-funded body that aims to "support the seafood industry for a sustainable, profitable future".

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website.

Do you agree with Phil MacMullen? Can sustainable fishing measures be drawn up that are fair to the industry and to the oceans, with seafood on our plates in perpetuity? Will the current legislation, in place or in discussion, help to reach those goals?

Perky the fish decided to hack onto the internet for a change and caught a glimpse of scientific articles saying fish in the sea might be largely gone in 50yrs due to overfishing, temperature rise and ocean acidification. He learned the Aurel Sea had largely dried up in a few decades when rivers were diverted. The future of coral reefs looked so bleak that serious consideration was given to freezing tissue samples for later reseeding. Upper regions of the atmosphere were thinning and cooling in response to surface warming and it was noted that a planet with a surface temp of over 800 degrees also had a cold outer atmosphere. Dead zones where spreading further out to sea where not much but jellyfish could live. Crop runoff, sonar testing, methane bubbles coming up from sediments, ... Perky couldn't sleep. Perky wasn't perky any more. John the fisherman looked out to sea. Cussing that rules kept him from getting the fish he knew were there just for the taking. No work today... Meanwhile at a store check out counter a customer thought to himself as he whipped out a reusable bag that it seemed odd that robotics were not being used to capture plastic build up far out to sea. Maybe it's time to fish for something else.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

I agree this very nice article which are important part of the climate change now in the world. Marine environment are vulnerable in the entire world and it is very essential to build up it sustainable for our future generation. Marine protected areas are now played a vital role in the conservation of marine world. But it is not sufficient for marine world. A lot of measures to be taken in the marine industry jurisdiction if we would like to see our green ocean. Definitely this discussion will create an positive impact in entire marine environment.
Ms Sharmin Akhter, Goshala,Kushtia,Bangladesh

Ocean acidification is only one symptom of the real problem; Human Activity And as we continue hurtling along in our daft expectation that somehow that Human Activity can spiral on upwards unchecked by anything; then eventually that growing pressure will cave in and collapse any and all of these MPA schemes. "The gun will always beat the armor" - unless we actually stop shooting ! None of the these schemes, be they bounded by GPS co-ordinates, or Technical limits on gear or fishing methods; none of these things can "save the oceans" if the people proposing them and policing them have no power to "push back" against that increasing pressure of Human Activity. The real question is whether these rules and their policemen have the mandate to say "you've had your lot, and you have to stop !" So these schemes may have a mandate for looking after the fish. But do they have a mandate to actually "stop" the human race in it's unquestioning expectation of ripping up "more more more" planet ? Like King Kanute holding his hand up to the tide; If the tide refuses to stop rising; these schemes are not worth a wet kipper ! Net size, or which bit of ocean we can set-aside now; are all irrellevant. These schemes and plans are all very well and dandy if things were to cruise along in steady state. But the problem is; the line on the graph is heading upwards The planet has steadfastly, stubbornly, remained 24,000 miles in diameter all the 50 years I have been here; but during my lifetime the Human race has doubled, and their individual expectations has gone up many fold on top of that. The question is; who's job is it to tell us to stop; when 7billion, 8billion, 9billion, 10billion . . . . more more more people keep on gate-crashing the planet expecting more more more things to eat, whilst the oceans themselves get more more more depleted ? Who's up for that job ? Or is that getting into deep water ?
Steven Walker, Penzance

"Fishermen have been an easy target for much that is wrong with the marine environment today but that's not fair." I disagree vehemently that fishermen are not to blame. If they have changed at all they have done so in the last minute of the eleventh hour, having taken most fish stocks to under 10% of their natural level and, for many species, to the brink of extinction. For 40 years is has been clear that they have been acting like farmers who cut their trees down to pick the fruit. Mr MacMullen may choose to try to spare their blushes but every marine biologist I know does not feel so kindly towards them & their role in influencing politicians to allow them to over fish. They should be thoroughly ashamed of their recklessness.
Sebmel, London

I have difficulty reconciling the aims of 'Seafish' with the actions of their members. They continue to rape and pillage the sea, casting aside tons of juvenile fish on a daily basis, exterminating stocks, and returning or investing absolutely nothing to the sea. Its akin to farmers roaming the country, bulldozing fields at random, searching through the pile for whatever is saleable, and then moving on to the next field. Where is the sustainability?
Steve Mclaughlin, Bathgate

Fisehries management as it is currently practiced and conservation of the marine environment are mutually exclusive. This is because all the effort is concentrated on the commercially important species such as haddock and cod. The health of the marine environment is best measured by its diversity. Species, such as halibut, turbot and all the different species of skates and rays that used to make up an important part of the total catch have all but disappeared and this does not appear to of concern to anyone in the fisheries management arena. If one compared catch diversity now with what it was 50 years ago no-one would doubt that the British sea are was overfished.
David W McKay, Portknockie,Buckie,Moray

The marine environment continues to be another classic environmental paradox. Just like the fallacy of carbon trading with companies offsetting or misrepresenting their accountabilities/ responsibilities, the concept of marine protection areas is totally undermined by a global market where fishing carrying capacities are either exceeded, or given over by poor nations to predatory rich nations. As for conservation regulations, they are ignored all ooften by needy locals seeking income or by techologically advanced marine asset stripping foreign interests. King Kanute and an overwhelming tide springs to mind! I have witnessed Indian communities robbed of their livelihood by governments giving over their rights to Japanese interests; coral reefs stripped of shells, ripped up by boatmen, bleached or polluted; and listened to Australian tourist orientated fishermen talk at bars of how they hate being told what to do by 'neo-nazi environmentalists'. Sorry to be blunt, but national authorities have a huge task to both properly assess marine capacities/markets/values and then re-educate/train both the supply chain and consumers. Part of that investment challenge is either (i) restoring local accountibility / responsibility and market value/viability - rather than the current trend in allowing disempowerment and exploitation of marine assets by foriegn interests; or (ii) Globalisation of asset management - but that would require a unique and robust regulation and enforcement body with sufficient/considerable powers/resources to bring predatory or unsustainable nations to account.
Steve Rees, Maidstone, Kent

The involvement of all fishers and stakeholders in the process of formulating policies and strategies surrounding use of our public fishery resources is sound. However, no sector interest should dominate and here in Europe the complete domination of the process by the commercial catching sector is the key reason for the decades of abject failure of the CFP. Prof. Thomas Okay of the Fisheries Dept., Uni. British Columbia spelt this out almost a decade ago. It is not coincidental that one of the areas globally recognised as having turned the normal story of fishery resource depletion around into one of staggeringly successful fishery resource rebuilding -- North East USA -- has only achieved this position once the previously industry dominated Fisheries Councils became re-jigged so that no one stakeholder interest dominates proceedings. In stark contrast the often celebrated EU Regional Area Councils (RACs) are fundamentally flawed because they are legally dominated with two thirds from the commercial fishing industry. Even at the local level the Sea Fisheries Committees (soon to be re-named Inshore Fisheries Conservation Associations) in the UK are dominated by commercial fishing representation. The real irony is that where sufficiently robust restraint/controls are imposed on the catching sector that allow depleted stocks to become restored, it is the catching sector that benefit in the long term. Currently however, it is the short term considerations that drive policy and that have been shown time and time again to be catastrophic.
Malcolm Gilbert, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 3JF

It is good article / news not only for the local fishing industry, but also for the rest of the world. I believe that modern fishing practices caused the decimation. We see that over the past 30 years the flounder, and many other species of fish, have virtually disappeared. Scientists blame the disappearance on the destruction of eelgrass, an important underwater plant on which many marine animals depend. We must have to try to restore environments, try to learn about what we're doing to these ecosystems, try to prevent damage, is critically important. We should have to plan to monitor the eelgrass beds for further signs that the health of the ecosystem has been restored. It is very necessary to restore the essential underwater plant. Because,Eelgrass benefits many marine organisms. Our oceans are really international, so nothing can be done in one part of the globe to the oceans that doesn't start to impact the other parts of the ocean in some way.
Engineer Md Abdus Salam, Kushtia, Bangladesh

Over fishing, disposal of waste material in oceans and acidification are really most alarming issues. Economies must look at the impacts of their aggressive activities on the ocean reserves. We are constantly spoiling our buffer zones and cushions. One by one, we are closing all our 'emergency exits'. Millions of tones of plastic waste are floating in the area, North pacific Gyre. Matters are becoming worse as we are struggling to conclude suitable action plans. Still, the economic growth is a 'non negotiable' part. 'Delay and Postponement' is the only alternative. Representative from the nations are advocating their business interests prior to environmental issues. Some times, I get confused between environment minister and commerce & industry minister. High priority must be given to marine related issues through sound legislative provisions and their effective implementations as these are vital to the success of MPAs. The writer is absolutely correct; Involvement of fishermen is an important factor in the development of ocean life.

Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

I'm writing this from next door to two derelict fish processing factories. A few prawn trawlers and creel boats still work from here; also several wildlife tour boats. Progress? The whitefish fishery (cod, haddock) collapsed more than ten years ago, the herring fishery sometime before then (before my time here). We could do so much better. An obvious problem is that a fisherman's income remains entirely dependent on what he can catch and how much he can sell it for. This pits fisherman against fisherman, rewards those who can find ways around regulations, promotes those who can grab it and run faster than their competitors. There is little reward for acting responsibly with the future in mind if a less responsible competitor helps himself to what you don't take. The culture (?free market-driven economy) of wild capture fisheries is all wrong for the levels of co-operation and collaboration needed to restore and protect wild fish populations. Fishermen need to have a secure income that is not tied to what they can catch, but rather how sustainably they manage fish stocks and how efficiently they harvest an agreed surplus. This requires ownership of harvesting rights, partnership working, and can probably only be achieved through government intervention. There can be many jobs in the wild fisheries management and harvesting industry, possibly many more jobs than there are now. More 'wild' fish could be nurtured and caught with much less effort (fuel, time, stress) through collaborative management and working. The financial culture of fishing has to change: harvesting technology has moved on; however the way it is applied has changed little from earlier millennia. Is there any rational in permitting the continuation of commercial 'hunting' of wild fish? Here in Scotland large areas of forests are managed by the state for timber production, wildlife and amenity. Why can't local / national / regional fisheries commissions be developed to look after our marine resources in the same way?
Peter Cunningham, Gairloch, Scotland

Iceland has Cod stocks because it did not have the Stupids of the EU deciding what quotas would be given. Watching UK trawlermen having to throw huge amounts of fish away, because of EU rules seems utter madness.
Brian Johnson, Farnham Surrey UK

Before we can strike a balance between exploiting the oceans and sustainably harvesting them we must realise that, as it stands, very few so-called 'sustainable' fisheries can be sustained at current levels (even MSC certified ones). As we move from one depleted species to another ie. cod to pollock or monkfish to gurnard, the underexploited fish becomes the next overexploited fish. Unlike wild land animals we treat wild marine species as nothing more than a commodity. Shooting seals (who have a right to their food) to protect farmed salmon is a case in point. We shall have to treat wild marine species as an infrequent luxury and pay a much higher price for them if we are ever to strike a safe balance when extracting marine species for food. Even now companies are exploiting krill to fill the fish oil demand left because of overexploited fish stocks. Talk about fishing down the food chain. What will we do when the krill have gone?

Blue Planet Society, London

I think we should all just change our HABITS.
Angie Tschopp, Youngsville, NC USA

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