By Hugh Raven, John Ellerman Foundation, 27th March 2017
When I first grappled with slippery beasts in salty water – professionally-speaking, at least – I recall telling anyone who’d listen what an exhilarating time it was for marine conservation. It was the early noughties. I was proud of my new career. It seemed that at last things were shifting, and some in the right direction.
And indeed things have moved perceptibly since. Over the intervening decade and a half, we’ve seen more fisheries certified as improving. Several of the UK’s most important fish stocks are now above safe biological limits. The Common Fisheries Policy has seen root and branch reform. Technology enables us, if we can only find the will, to check in real time that our fleets are behaving at sea. In the supermarket aisle and on the restaurant menu, we’re better able to distinguish the reasonably sustainable from the fish that should have been left in the sea.
And in another positive sign, in the world of trusts and foundations, more than ever we are recognising the importance of marine matters, and listing them in our guidelines.
Nonetheless what I see now, when I look back fifteen years, is a shaming poverty of ambition. How mired we were. In 2017, older and I hope wiser, my trope is that we can and surely must do so much better. The big opportunity of the decade is Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – maritime areas, clearly delineated, and protected in one way or another from atop the foaming wave to Davy Jones’s locker.
The scientific literature tells us such measures, when managed well, can make a huge difference. Habitats recover and expand, seabed communities grow richer, important species proliferate in size and number. Fishing catches increase – such as those for scallops around the Isle of Man, where scallop densities are thirty times higher in areas that were closed, and for lobster and cod in the well-managed waters south of Norway. We tend to look outside the UK inshore zone for evidence, as until recently our own fisheries management has been so poor.
Almost all our MPAs allow some use within their boundaries, so long as it doesn’t damage the very species and habitats the protection is intended to help. Only a tiny number of sites – and a miniscule area – are fully protected, despite the great weight of opinion and evidence supporting such ‘no take zones’. Environmental social science also strongly shows that protected areas are far more effective when users are involved from the outset in the management process, and allowed the ownership and responsibility from which comes pride in their natural resources.
MPAs are now well-established in ocean conservation, and increasingly used by developing nations and economic superpowers alike. You’d be forgiven for having missed HMG’s announcement last autumn of an 840,000 km-squared MPA around Pitcairn, one of our most exotic Overseas Territories – not least because it’s in the remotest Pacific Ocean. Surrounding the impossibly romantic, fabled home of HMS Bounty’s notorious mutineers, for a while it was the world’s largest MPA. But not for long. In a matter of weeks President Obama bettered it with a million square kilometres – the extension to the US’s Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument, off Hawaii.
However, we have yet to prove that what is sauce for our sparsely-populated empire remnant goose is also sauce for our home waters’ gander. The next three years will see our chance to do so.
The Tories’ 2015 election-winning manifesto pledged a completed network of Marine Conservation Zones (MPAs by another name) during this Parliament, and creation of a ‘UK Blue Belt of protected sites’. There’s our chance. At least fifty more are required in the waters of England and Wales, if the government is to implement the advice of its statutory advisers. In Scotland – which controls more than half the UK’s inshore waters – the SNP election win means they too are manifesto-bound to complete a patchwork of MPAs.
MPA protection is for named species and habitats – muddy sediments, submerged sandbanks, seagrass beds, rocky reefs, coldwater corals, seahorses, mussels, dolphins, whales and rays. All are covered. But for them to make a meaningful difference, they need meaningful management, effective compliance and enforcement, and routine and widespread monitoring of benefits.
That’s hard work. Arduous toil costs cash. Trusts and foundations have an important role. Fisheries authorities we are not. But nor are we powerless – far from it. The expert NGOs need resources to inform our Parliamentarians and demand more government designations. Communities need small grants to organise themselves and raise local awareness. Fishing authorities need persuading of the benefits to local fleets of regenerated fish and shellfish populations. Biological researchers and marine laboratories need capacity to monitor the impacts and publish their results.
Now is the moment. UK seas need our foundations’ help.
Hugh Raven chairs the Environmental Funders Network. He’s a trustee of the John Ellerman Foundation, co-owner of Ardtornish Estate and chair of the Open Seas Trust and the Marine Conservation Society.