To protect our seas, first we must reclaim them from 'Big Fishing'

| 10th April 2015
Small fishing boats at Lyme Regis, Dorset, where England's first big marine Protected Area was designated. Photo: Sue Hasker via Flickr (CC BY-ND).

All the UK's small fishing boats - like these at at Lyme Regis, Dorset, where England's first big marine Protected Area was designated - have under a third of the 'fishing quota' allocated to just one big trawler. Photo: Sue Hasker via Flickr (CC BY-ND).

There's strong public support for protecting marine wildlife, writes Horatio Morpurgo - so why aren't politicians championing the cause? Labour and Tories alike fear to challenge the big fishing companies that have come to believe they own Britain's offshore waters and seabed. Now it's up to use to prove they're wrong.
Since 1945, apart from nuclear submarine bases and oil rigs, the whole sea-scape has belonged to the fishing industry. To any infringements upon that, whether from MPAs or off-shore wind-farms, there is a knee-jerk, vehement and sustained reaction.

On an early spring evening, Lyme Regis was deserted. The promenade was all muffled up in a foggy muteness. It was mid-week: on Monmouth Beach, a solitary angler and his torch.

On the nearby quay, by contrast, newspapermen in black coats had gathered outside a range of old buildings.

They scribbled furiously into little notepads as fishermen and parliamentary candidates held forth. Indoors, it was already standing-room only.

The public meeting, organised by Greenpeace and NUTFA (New Under Ten Fishermen's Association), aimed to concentrate minds on fishing policy and the marine environment in the run-up to the election in May.

The 'Coastal Champion Boat Tour' will see a small dual-keel catamaran, Rising Tide, circumnavigate the British Isles. Meetings will remind voters in more than 50 constituencies just how flagrantly current fishing policy is owned by big business.

One boat alone, Dutch-owned as it happens, the Cornelis Vrolijk, controls 18% of English quota. That's more than what is available to the entire Cornish fishing fleet combined. And it is three times as much as is controlled by all the Under Ten Metre boats in the country.

So election candidates are being asked to sign up as 'coastal champions', to champion the marine environment and allocate more quota to small, lower-impact, local boats.

Lyme Bay - the UK's first major Marine Protected Area

But the meeting mattered in ways that went well beyond the forthcoming election. Because it was here in Lyme that the first Marine Protected Area of significant size in English waters was established, in 2008, amid much acrimony between fishermen and environmentalists.

That the Greenpeace event was attended by so many fishermen was in itself a triumph. The changes in the bay, too, since it was closed to the dredgers, are now well established. Recreational divers, anglers and potters have all noticed the recovery.

And the evidence isn't only anecdotal. Because this was the first, it is being studied meticulously and methodically. Lyme Bay will serve as the template for that 'ecologically coherent network' of other Marine Conservation Zones being established around the coast.

Fishermen, for example, have participated in all stages of a study to measure how different fishing regimes affect both the target species and associated sea-bed communities. This includes some areas in which no potting is carried out, so-called 'lobster refuges'. The project is run jointly by the local fishing community, Plymouth University and the Blue Marine Foundation.

What exactly is the MPA trying to protect?

It has done much to break down the barriers of seven years ago. A voluntary code of conduct has been entered into by fishermen, which will, it is hoped, both protect fish stocks and allow for the development of 'branded' Lyme Bay products. The higher prices these will command, so the theory goes, should further undermine any need to over-fish.

Since 1945, apart from nuclear submarine bases and oil rigs, the whole sea-scape has belonged to the fishing industry. To any infringements upon that, whether from MPAs or off-shore wind-farms, there is a knee-jerk, vehement and sustained reaction.

Callum Roberts, a biologist affiliated to Blue Marine, has argued that this experiment should be on a more ambitious scale, but all are agreed that it represents a major advance. It is actually far from being the only research into the bay's recovery. More than £1 million has been spent on surveying Lyme Bay, both establishing base-line data and measuring change since 2008.

Such expenditure obviously cannot be replicated at all of the more recently designated sites. But at each site it will be essentially the same question which must be asked: what are we trying to protect?

Lin Baldock is a diver who has worked on surveys of the bay both before and since the closure. She lives nearby and dives the bay recreationally, too.

For her the purpose of the Lyme Bay closure was to protect "bedrock and stony reefs supporting a diversity of sponges, hydroids and bryozoan which in turn establish a stable protective turf for hundreds of other organisms."

She agrees that the Protected Area has been a success, that watching its recovery shows that "conservation can work".

It can take a long time - but it's worth waiting for!

But Lyme Bay, it's worth remembering, was not literally the first and its predecessors help to give some idea where the stresses and strains are likely to show with these much larger Protected Areas. When dredging for scallops was banned and the tiny Marine Nature Reserve around Skomer was set up in 1988, there was in fact no immediate change.

A disaster, said the newspapers, after four years. The scallops did recover in the end, but it took them 15 years. A miracle, said the newspapers, after 15 years.

The sea fans around Lundy, which were supposed to benefit from a No Take Zone, in fact did not respond. The lobsters did, so they became the story. But it hadn't been set up for them. Velvet swimming crabs actually declined, because lobsters eat them.

Their fate did not prevent journalists from conjuring up a miraculously restored submarine paradise. More lobsters survived to a greater age, so the incidence of certain diseases increased. The Lundy NTZ, accordingly, lurched from underwater paradise to environmental disaster zone.

There had, of course, been no disaster in either instance. And no miracle either. There had been political bravery, followed by slow, complicated, unspectacular change. But nobody wants to hear stories like that. They don't sell newspapers. So they don't get told.

The truth is often messy and hard to discern

None of this discredits either of those earlier designations, but it should have prepared us. Blaise Bullimore led the team of divers which monitored the sea bed's recovery around Skomer. He put it to me like this:

"Everyone talks about 'evidence-based data', but evidence is expensive. The sea moves around. It rusts everything. It stops you doing what you want to ... Still, it's only when you get into the water and see for yourself that you get some feel for the inherent variation of these habitats. If you haven't had heads under the water to see these very heterogeneous sea-beds, you'll just think, well, it's all a rocky reef, it's all the same. But it isn't."

Such misgivings about the remote surveying being carried out in the new Conservation Zones are widespread among divers. Many of the organisms which the Lundy No Take Zone was set up to conserve are the same as those in Lyme Bay. Miles Hoskins, another experienced diver, and for many years director of the survey there, put it like this:

"We did all our counting directly. It's more reliable than remote imagery. There are five or six sponges that look very similar in the early stages ... In fact anything smaller than a golf ball you could struggle to differentiate with a video sledge."

Emma Sheehan, of Plymouth University, director of the survey in Lyme Bay has defended the use of video surveys. The towed camera, adapted from an array originally developed for use off Australia, is 'flown' about one metre over the sea-bed.

"The video records many kilometres of sea-bed - so we're very aware of how variable it is. And you'd be surprised how close we can get. It's quite true the diving community can answer questions that the camera can't. But the methodology around the camera is robust. What it does very well is survey large-scale change, using methods we can repeat, generating data-sets we can then compare."

Statistical methods for the "analysis of variance" on the sea-bed have been refined over several decades and are fit for purpose, she argues.

Making surveys cost effective - but what is being lost?

All university research, in Lyme Bay or anywhere else, must now be carried on with one eye on funding. Under current economic conditions, another advantage of remote surveying is that it is, per square metre of sea-bed, much cheaper than dived surveys. Divers themselves readily concede this - here's Lin Baldock again:

"For the day rate for a survey vessel using divers you might survey four locations each of 50-100 square metres at best. With the drop video you will have images (of variable quality) of a swath several kilometres in length visualising several hundreds of square meters. You can take this back to the office and study it at your leisure in a warm, dry environment."

A photographer herself, Baldock has suggested the quality of these images might be improved by adjusting the lighting angle and / or replacing black and white scale bar with "something more subtle". She also agrees with Bullimore - and indeed with Sheehan - that some species cannot be identified by video.

One solution, if in doubt, is to "record at a higher level than species" - in other words to keep an image and record the creature's family or order, reserving judgement on a more exact identification.

It cannot be denied that tensions between these two approaches have arisen. Unhelpful habits have crept in. There has been a tendency perhaps on the part of divers to see conspiracy where there is something more like a cock-up.

Conversely, the remote surveyors insist on referring to the divers as 'natural historians'. Consciously intended or not, there's an unmistakable touch of the patronising about such terms. It suggests something not quite professional, not quite 21st century.

As in all walks of life, a lot depends on people feeling they've been listened to.

No substitute for 'heads under the water'

The quality of research, however conducted, ultimately depends upon the expertise of your researchers. When certain ranges of experience are subtly relegated, this affects the whole enterprise.

Colin Munro studied the effects of scallop-dredging on the seabed for his MSc at Plymouth University back in 1991. He took photographs showing the damage being done by dredges in Lyme Bay, which appeared in the Devon Wildlife Trust magazine in the following year and triggered the calls for greater protection.

From 1994-2000, using methods adapted from Skomer, he ran the most intensive study of pink sea fans ever undertaken in northern waters. He then helped to monitor the areas which were closed under the voluntary agreements which preceded the MPA designation and has worked on other surveys around the coast, including recent work on Scotland's No Take Zone in Lamlash Bay.

Very few people, in other words, have as much experience of hands-on monitoring of British marine habitats in general and Lyme Bay in particular. It was no surprise to anyone when he was chosen to lead the team of divers involved in Plymouth University's monitoring of the bay's recovery.

His divers would study a sample of the transect stations over which the university's video sledge had flown. What they saw would then be correlated with what the video had recorded, as a quality control.

Munro became increasingly uneasy about the same questions we've heard from Bullimore and Baldock. Ecologists familiar with the fauna of Lyme Bay acquire an understanding of how these taxa appear in the field. They are aware of how possible confusions with other species might arise.

Unless, in Hoskins' phrase, you have 'heads under the water', how precise can identifications of "anything smaller than a golf ball" be?

Given Munro's long experience of the site and his role in the process which led to the MPA, his withdrawal from the survey was (and all are agreed on this) a serious loss. His departure seems to have come as a complete surprise to the survey's directors. But I wonder whether lessons learnt from the establishment of the MPA itself, back in 2008, might not usefully now be re-learnt?

Explaining, and listening

Because the biggest lesson of all has, arguably, been one about making people feel they've been listened to. Those fishermen who were open to persuasion at all were not, it turned out, opposed to the science. Explain it properly, make opportunities available, and fishermen will even help you run your experiments.

Environmentalists, in other words, have learnt to distinguish the fishermen who are a problem from those who are not. People on both 'sides' started paying more attention to what they were saying and the way they were saying it. There is a long way to go yet but meanwhile the bay is already recovering.

The easy thing to say would be that divers and statisticians should learn from each other - as of course they should. In practise the two approaches rarely seem to occur in the same individual. Journalists too are to blame, ever ready as we are to indulge in happy-world illusions of insta-recovery.

I too must plead guilty here. The sea as the last dispenser of marvels in a disenchanted age. Next, the editors who want to believe it and the public that wants to believe it too - they / we are all responsible.

But even as we bicker, let's be sure the 'auld alliance' between the fishing industry and government never slips out of view. The real problem in Lyme Bay isn't remotely gathered data vs dived surveys.

The real problem, there as elsewhere, is 'fisheries science', with its reductive, utilitarian ethos and its cynical manipulation by commercial interests.

Politicians unwilling to challenge 'Big Fishing'

The approach can be summarised as "Yes, we'll do science here and there, on a few fragments. Everywhere else we'll do economics." In a Chancellor like George Osbourne, disgusted to find "things like habitats" and other "green tape" blocking his economic path, this attitude towards the natural world has found a helpful partner.

I asked all of the parliamentary candidates in Lyme for their position on No Take Zones in English waters. Labour didn't know, UKIP prevaricated, the Tories said they aren't needed. Only the LibDems and Greens were in favour.

Yet it was for full protection that half a million people signed up. Scientists, then as now, from Plymouth University and elsewhere, continue to make the case. Peter Jones is the author of a recent book on the way science and society have struggled to reach an understanding with the fishing industry over Marine Protected Areas.

"Since 1945, apart from nuclear submarine bases and oil rigs, the whole sea-scape has belonged to the fishing industry", he explains.

"To any infringements upon that, whether from MPAs or off-shore wind-farms, there is a knee-jerk, vehement and sustained reaction. But as the degradation of the marine habitat continues, societal concern has extended further and further out to sea.

"The industry has responded to this by trying to contain the changes, to minimise them. They have not really accepted that they are no longer the only stakeholders out there, that they don't have it all to themselves any more. They had it good for a few decades and they're finding the change very difficult to adjust to."

Just remember the question - and keep on asking it!

Jones has argued that the Government and NGOs alike should have been clearer from the outset about the primary aim of the closed areas. This was clearly understood at the time to be the preservation and study of marine habitats, for their own sake. This is what the public put its signatures to in such vast numbers.

Any economic advantages which might also accrue, from ecotourism, from the eventual overspill and export of young fish from the protected areas - inevitable in the longer term - these would be more than welcome, but they would, for all that, be secondary.

Rather than engage with this, the fishing industry, by a few strategic retreats and with the active complicity of the present government, is clinging ever more desperately to its old status as the only stakeholder.

What was the Protected Area primarily set up to protect? Let us by all means explore that question in different ways. But let us never lose sight of the question, as the industrial fishing lobby and its friends in government would like us to.

Scientists working with limited funds in a notoriously changeable environment should go on asking it, even as they differ on the detail.

Fishermen who really care about the health of the sea can go on grumbling about 'ultra-greens' if they like, but let them ask that question too, even if only in private: what was the Protected Area primarily set up to protect?

Members of the public who know something is wrong with the way we are treating the sea should be asking it too. Asking that question however we can, repeatedly and honestly - and, yes, stroppily if necessary - is what everything else depends on.



Horatio Morpurgo is a journalist and campaigner. He lives about a mile away from Lyme Bay and was involved in the successful local campaign to exclude the scallop dredgers from Lyme Bay and establish a Marine Protected Area.

Also by Horatio Morpurgo:

Horatio's book 'Drake's Graffiti' (Erewhon, 2010) situates Marine Protected Areas in the longer story of the West Country's relationship with the sea.


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