Out of sight, out of mind
On October 3, 2019, the UK government announced a ‘call for evidence’ from the public regarding the potential implementations of five new Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), which closes at the end of the month. These HPMAs would be the toughest form of marine protection in the UK and would expand upon the 220,000 km² of areas already designated as Marine Conservation Zones.
We spoke with Jean-Luc Solandt, specialist on UK and EU Marine Protected Area (MPA) policy, ecology and delivery and principal scientist on MPAs for the Marine Conservation Society to find out his thoughts regarding further marine protection in UK waters.
Beth Finney (BF): Many members of the public trust that, once an MPA is established, it’s out of our hands and it’s being managed in the right way. But that’s not the case?
Jean-Luc Solandt (JS): No, sadly that’s just the first step. The easy step.
BF: Do you think that the UK government has relied on that public assumption?
JS: Of course, they’re politicians. That might be cynical, but they want to spread the idea that they’re being green when they’re not. Getting the MPA assigned is the first stage in a very long process. If they were assigned with management measures (as they are in California, New Zealand and Australia) already built in, then perhaps I’d be less cynical. But marine protection management is a very difficult thing to get agreed, especially when you’re trying to set up so many MPAs in a relatively short time, when there’s a huge network being established over the course of around 10 years, it’s a much bigger task. So I’m sympathetic to a certain extent.
BF: Do you believe the HPMAs will be more effective than MPAs in achieving the necessary marine protection in the UK?
JS: They would if they were being designated over large areas. I think we need large areas of protection offshore, whilst inshore areas can be set up by communities. You can’t get these things to be respected if communities don’t want them. We’ve got more than 350 designated MPAs currently, but we’ve calculated that only 7% of those are protected from bottom trawling. So, in my opinion, only 7% of our MPAs are actually protected, and even less are designed as complete no-take zones. We’ve got a long way to go with the ones we’ve already got and I don’t want this consultation to be a distraction from that bigger message.
If we’ve got 25% (approximately 150,000 km square) of the seas in so-called MPAs, I’d rather get them working first, rather than start something new could be a distraction.
BF: If there’s such limited management of our current MPAs, how would introducing HPMAs alter that?
JS: It wouldn’t much – initially as there would be so few, and they’re likely to be miniscule. Government are thinking of setting up five ‘pilot’ sites, not 355. So they can put some budget towards an area that is going to be no-take, and then in that zone – this has happened all around the world where they are a bit more advanced than us, like in New Zealand, Australia and California – you can then see what the impacts of your other activities are both in other MPAs and in ‘open’ seas. They act as ‘reference’ or ‘control’ sites because as the biomass and the natural species diversity builds up in them, you can refer to them compared to areas outside where extraction and dumping happens. They then set that against another adjacent areas where there is varying levels of human activity. It gives us a good idea of what is going to happen to the sea. That’s been used as an argument for the last 15 years. In 2012-2013 the government had an opportunity to set up approximately 60 no-take zones, which were recommended by some stakeholder groups, but they didn’t even designate one. We think the government was pressured by the fishing lobby at the time. There’s a lot of kickback from industry.
BF: Despite the recent rise in ocean advocacy, the ocean is still out of sight and out of mind for many. How can suspect industry practices be policed with minimal budget and management?
JS: It’s very easy, the technology is already available. It’s the Initial Vessel Monitoring scheme. A mobile phone equivalent is locked on top of the wheelhouse of every vessel. The wheelhouse pings a message including a GPS position of where the boat is every minute. It’s eminently possible to put on the boats now. But our government isn’t up to pushing it. There’s a body called the Marine Management Organisation that has been ‘developing’ this technology for at least five years, which is far too slow.
BF: You once wrote: “Too many advocates the MPA still reside in Ivory Towers with no salt burn on their hands and faces.” What did you mean by that and how is it rectified?
JS: I live in Ross-on-Wye so I’m one of them! But one of the difficulties with marine protection is that it’s partly aspirational. There are not enough people who actually use the sea talking about it, and real closures to provide for recovery. It’s out of sight and out of mind, even for sea users. The only sea users who see the seabed are divers. We need to have more of the people who have used the sea – that’s anglers, trawlermen, people who work in oil and gas and people who work in ports – to be able to somehow understand what the marine ecosystem looks like and, more importantly, what it once looked like, how its changed, and what that means for everyone – not just users themselves.
At the moment, there are too many people saying, with confidence, that ‘nothing has changed’ – because they didn’t see the sea 30, 60, 90, 120 years ago – a phenomenon called ‘shifting baselines’, where each generation sees a new ‘normal’ of environmental decline. The same thing occurs everywhere in ecosystems – they are diminished with each generation. All the damage has really occurred in the last century, so how on earth are we going to properly assess what ‘natural’ is or what a ‘reasonable level of impact’ is for these areas? Some ecologists, including myself, have been described as purists because we would like to go back to a pre-industrial state of what the ecosystem looked like in our MPAs. There’s great kickback to that because a lot of people say that the MPAs have to be kept in the same condition as the time they were designated. So, if an MPA is designated in 1992, that’s the state in which it should remain, which is ludicrously unambitious.
BF: Why do you think there is so much kickback in spite of the fact that catch is not as fruitful today as it once was and the overspill effect of areas with marine protection has been proven again and again?
JS: Some people are still getting very rich from the sea. Fish are no longer a ‘public’ asset, so the arguments about management are vested for the profits of the few. Also, if you have an MPA you’ve got to enforce it. If you allow the one or two law-breakers out of 50-odd law-abiding people in a port to go and damage that site society is much less likely to support these things. Also, everyone has their patch, so static-gear fishermen (who set their nets, pots, traps and lines on the seabed in specific places) are going to be particularly resistant to no-take zones being designated. My philosophy is to restrict everybody to a certain extent. Put HPMAs everywhere to a certain size, reduce everyone’s effort and within five to ten years you’ll get a spill over from the site. Otherwise we’ll just stay where we are.
BF: What do you think the best method is for managing vast areas of the high seas?
JS: The European Commission is already using a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), but boats only ‘transpond’ their position every two hours, which is ludicrous. You can fish through 8km in two hours and go through the edge of an MPA (and the middle of smaller ones). Because of the power of the fishing industry lobby, which is massive relative to its profit, and also how much we support the fishing industry through subsidies like fuel, gear and infrastructure in ports, they have an extremely powerful voice over and above their contribution to society as an industry. It’s not their fault, it’s the fault of the people who govern them. If I were a fisherman, I’d just be running a business trying to make as much money as I can in a day and push the rules without breaking them to make a living. That’s the way businesses often operate. The trawling industry representatives are extremely powerful and are continually looking for the profits of the way the fishing industry is currently run, rather than it being run for Maximum Economic Yield, or considering the wider ecosystem colateral damage that is caused. That is why fishing quota is bought, sold and exchanged for great profit (as a consideration) rather than accounting for the numbers and natural balances of life in the sea. Another way of looking at this is that the numbers of fish in the sea is not profit: Profit is how much you sell what exists in the sea for. So, I don’t necessarily believe that the greater parts of the fishing industry’s representatives are looking for the public good. They’re looking out for the current level of profit being made from fisheries being maintained, and more importantly, staying in the hands it is in.
I don’t necessarily mind that sort of psychology with private industry, but when it is industry that relates to a natural resource base that is finite, and the secondary effects of doing the extraction starts having major impacts, then I really start giving a sh*t. Trawling affects carbon capture, nutrient recycling, natural food webs and biodiversity, and therefore impacts climate change and human wellbeing. This is happening every day on the scale of the United Kingdom in our continental shelf at sea. It is an outrage that we allow just 2% of our sea not to be trawled. Before we even start talking about HPMAs we need to stop trawling in all or large number of the MPAs we already have.
BF: Why is it important to differentiate between managing features and managing ecosystems?
JS: MPAs are set up for a number of biological features or habitats within those areas. It’s called network theory – it’s decided that there needs to be a bit of everything in that protected area; reef, sand, corals, sponges, etc. That’s all very well but what’s happened is that designation criteria has been applied to the management of these sites – and that is bound to fail. So the site isn’t managed in its entirety, but the individual bits are. It’s like saying that in a woodland we will only protect the oaks but not the beech and ash trees between them, or the grouse, wood pigeon, jays, deer, etc, and therefore we won’t protect the animals that move between the oaks either. As a result, we’re in this costly situation where someone has to go underwater to find out where these specific things are, if they’re ‘endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’, and then assign an amount they can be taken that is supposedly sustainable based on todays’ baseline condition. I believe we need to think of MPAs in terms of their regenerative capabilities and move away from features to looking at the site as a whole – then it will be cheaper, more efficient and more productive. And then society will be more likely to support this type of marine protection.
BF: How is the Brexit debate affecting MPA decisions?
JS: It’s not doing much at the moment either way because the biggest problem we have is marine protection in offshore sites, where we have MPAs being fished by our boats and other member states. The same goes the other way around, if other member states have an MPA and our boats currently have legal access to their waters, our guys will shout ‘it’s really important ground for us.’ So that hasn’t gone anywhere. Brexit could offer the opportunity to manage our seas to the midline (e.g. halfway to France, Spain, Belgium, Norway and Denmark etc.), to have all our waters back in terms of managing MPAs, but how would that fit within negotiations with all other trade issues with Europe? The fishing industry is such a powerful political tool that is used by people like Nigel Farage to say, ‘we need Brexit because it will get our seas back and our fish back’. It is really sensitive politically. Whilst the other side – who sell us a lot of fish – will block our fish at their ports, and we will get costly tariffs. Notwithstanding the fact that fish move between areas in international waters.
So I don’t think we’re going to get what I would like, which is if we did have our waters back maybe we could say no to anyone to fishing in our MPAs. Because of trade we sell 50% of our fish and import 50% of our fish – we’d be screwed if we started to play hardball because we wouldn’t be able to sell our fish. But this ‘get our seas back’ agenda is nonsense because fish move. Fisheries should be managed ecologically, meaning the unit is managed and granted proper marine protection. What we need is more strength and will within the European Commission. I think it’s better for society to remain in an EU block, in trade and intellectual passages, than the potential to possibly have well-managed MPAs. The seas are so vast, we have to get together to manage them properly and implement effective marine protection together. We can’t do it piecemeal. It’s just too complex.
BF: What do you think might come from this call for evidence?
JS: Well they did a big call for evidence for the last round of marine conservation zones. They got 40,000 responses with positive messages of support for increased marine protection. And then the Secretary of State Michael Gove designated every single site. So, if we get a lot of support from the public, the government might well be much more invested in finding those five HMPA sites. But relative to the current MPA network that we have, I think it’s a distraction, to be brutally honest.
We should be looking to the community led MPAs in Scotland. Scotland were very wise and forward-thinking in setting up the MPA laws because they allowed communities to set up their own and that’s quite compelling, because that allows a site to be designated based on the support of a community rather than a distant scientists deciding that this place is ‘worthy’ or meets some scientists definition of ‘criteria’. If that then engenders support, that then engenders local buy-in. It also probably allows for local marine protection enforcement because people will be watching their bit of sea. So if we have a combination in these new HMPAs, of a new law that allows communities to set up their own site, I think we might be in a much more exciting place because once communities start doing it, the idea can blossom. Start with a small MPA, then maybe you get another one on the other side of the island and then another community decides they want one. Great opportunities can grow from small shoots.
If sites are going to be designated inshore the community support is vital. Offshore, I’m much more minded to just remove the trawlers out and use the technology that is already there to keep them out. We’ve just got a lack of political will to do that because of this one stakeholder causing the damage, the large-scale fishing industry.
Photographs courtesy of Greenpeace, shot by: Christian Åslund, Julian Germain, Alex Hofford, Nancy Foote, Saf Suleyman, Nick Cobbing, Kate Davison and Will Rose.
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