Forget all you thought you knew about fish catches … and think again

February 16, 2016 by Charles Clover


Anyone who has looked on the map at the modest size of the 23 Marine Conservation Zones that were designated in England last month and the size of the enormous marine reserves made or proposed in the UK Overseas Territories – in the Chagos Archipelago, the Pitcairn Islands and Ascension – has to observe that there is a contrasting ambition in the overseas territories compared to around the UK coast.  Undoubtedly the difference in scale between what is protected can be explained because many millions more people live within a few miles of the UK coastline and have an interest in the sea so the political difficulty of creating protected areas is greater than in some of the less inhabited overseas territories – witness the protests over the declaration of 30 Marine Protected Areas in Scotland last month.  But the disparity in the size of marine reserves being designated in far and near waters does also raise the question as to whether England’s Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009 or the Marine (Scotland) Act of 2010 really measured up to the challenge of marine conservation set out by scientists over the past two decades and amplified by publications this year.

One difference between the enormous no-take reserves proposed in the overseas territories and the small Marine Protected Areas and Marine Conservation Zones so far designated around the British coast is that few of those nearer to home attempt to conserve migratory species as well as static ones.  One of the few exceptions is the Sound of Mull MPA which is designated to protect the now rare Common Skate.  Undoubtedly the designation of MCZs and MPAs is to be welcomed and it is better than nothing.   But it has to be pointed out that the 50 MCZs now designated in England are fewer than the 127 originally proposed and the management measures within them have yet to be agreed.  Few protect even part of the range of, say, dolphins, porpoises, or sharks, or even large cod, which the public are likely to care about. Around the British coast this is left to fisheries policy; in the overseas territories it is part of the ambition of large no-take reserves.  This disparity is a nettle that is one day going to have to be grasped.

One of the reasons for doing so is the monumental analysis of global fish catches published in Nature Communications last month by Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller.  This shows that the global fish catch peaked a lot higher than was reported in the official statistics compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Administration.  Peak fish catches hit 130 million tonnes in 1996 and have since declined much faster than previously thought, instead of hitting 86 million tons and remaining roughly stable since then as the official records show.  The reason for catches being 50 per cent higher than previously thought is that the official statistics do not include “discards” – the practice of dumping unwanted fish dead at sea, notably by prawn trawlers – small scale artisanal fisheries, recreational fisheries or indeed illegal fisheries.  Daniel Pauly, professor at the University of British Columbia, put together a team of 300 scientists all around the world to reconstruct the “missing fish.”  It is a huge piece of work and the detailed follow-up to Pauly’s 2002 letter in Nature showing that – when misreporting by China was removed – wild fish catches were not going up but down.

Anyone who cares about our oceans and attempts to conserve them has to readjust their thinking in the light of this detailed demolition of what we thought we knew.  It has implications for Europe’s bedding-in fisheries reforms – for only a fraction of commercial species are subject to stock assessments.  It also has implications for marine conservation areas.  Both look unambitious by comparison with what we now know is the challenge.

BLUE’s plan is to think about how it might be possible to construct a vision for our waters that will actually conserve fish and marine habitats for the future.  It is unrealistic to expect more UK legislation for several years – unless there is Brexit – but it is possible that where there are synergies between conservation and fishing progress might be achieved more quickly and initially on a voluntary basis.  After all, that is what Blue and others have achieved in Lyme Bay, by common agreement.  It is a big challenge.  We will keep you informed as our thinking develops.



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