Our Marine Environment: Where have we come from and where are we going?

January 23, 2018 by Charles Clover


The following is the speech that Charles Clover gave at Coastal Futures at the Royal Geographical Society London on 18 January 2018.

We live in interesting times.  I have been trying to think when we last faced such momentous decisions about the future of our seas and what wisdom from the past might give us confidence as we go into an uncertain future.

When was the last time we had a really big idea about the sea?

I think that for a time when we had a big idea and had the opportunity to put it into action, you have to go back to the era of this man:













This is Michael Graham, director of the Lowestoft fisheries laboratory, marking a cod.  His classic book, The Fish Gate, published in 1943, is now, shamefully, out of print.  It is beautifully written, at times rather like the script of a Grierson documentary.  It is a work of literature as well as a seminal text for marine scientists.  Graham is a forgotten hero of the conservation movement.

In his book, Graham paints a picture of the near collapse of the British fishing industry, through overfishing, that occurred before both the First and the Second World Wars.  After the war, as director of the Lowestoft lab, he tried to shape a better future.  The seas had been rested for six years, stocks had recovered, and he was confident that it was possible to manage fish scientifically in European waters provided quotas were not exceeded.  He hired the mathematicians Ray Beverton and Sidney Holt to work out what those quotas should be.

Graham is best remembered for his Great Law of Fishing, which is that “Fisheries that are unlimited are unprofitable.”  People tend to forget his observation that The Great Law is “only fruitful in its converse form, that is, that limiting effort will restore profit to a fishery.”

We took 70 years to learn that less on all over again, but the vision was there in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Then, Britain led the world.  The vision failed for a variety of reasons, all outside Graham’s control.

Where it all went wrong is that there arose a really bad idea, that people and their jobs are more important than fish.  But, if you are to have healthy fishing industries, you must first look after the fish and in doing so you will look after the people.

That was essentially the conclusion of every story I wrote about fishing as a newspaper reporter, though the Newfoundland cod crash, and forms the substance of my book The End of the Line in 2004.















Funnily enough, that lesson also came loud and clear from a conference we, BLUE, organised at Fishmongers’ Hall last autumn along with other environmentalists and the fishing industry.  The report of the conference is called ‘Best Practice in World Fisheries: Lessons for Brexit’ – and it is published on BLUE’s website this week. Editing the report of that conference, I was struck by the revolution in Norway’s attitude to the sea over the past five decades, explained by Peter Gullestad, director general of their Directorate of Fisheries. He said that in the 1960s and 1970s, settlement and employment in coastal communities came first.  The fleet was subsidised: profitability came second.  The fish came third.   As a result, one stock was fished down after another: herring in 1970, capelin in the 1980s, cod in the 1990s. Today Norway’s priorities have neatly reversed themselves. Ecological sustainability is seen as the top priority: that is, it seen as the pre-requisite for achieving anything else. Subsidies have gone. The fish are back. That in a nutshell is where we have come from in the EU, too, and where, I hope, we in Britain are going, whether or not we leave the CFP.  I would like to think that ecological sustainability is seen as the number one priority in the EU, though recent ministerial decisions do not instil confidence.  I will say more about that after talking about marine conservation.

The idea that we should set aside areas of the sea which we do not exploit, like national parks on land, has been around for a long time.  It has been done in various parts of the world since the 1970s.  Britain has never been a world leader in this regard.  There was the Wildlife and Countryside Act: which foundered in Loch Sween where local people objected to the protection of the seabed for arcane and incomprehensible reasons.  Then came European Marine Sites which the British government did its best to neutralise – until my colleague Tom Appleby and others reminded regulators that fishing operations, like any other, should be assessed to see if they were harmful.  Then came Marine Conservation Zones – in England – an idea no one has seen fit to replicate elsewhere.  The resulting network of paper parks is in the view of Callum Roberts, a BLUE trustee, “a national embarrassment”.

An obviously bigger idea about marine conservation comes from America.  It is the wilderness park, like Yellowstone.  It is an idea that has already won –  in terms of the area of sea protected in UK waters where roughly half of the 4 million sq kms of Blue Belt in UK waters is fully protected.  The adoption of fully protected areas in the British Overseas Territories, first of all in the Chagos archipelago, runs contrary to and is enormously challenging to the views of established UK conservation thinking.  UK conservation agency staff were brought up on the idea that, on land anyway, there is no wilderness left, that there has to be a scientific reason for doing anything and that surviving ecosystems are not large enough to regenerate themselves.

There is a long way to go in the conflict between these two ideas. The Blue Belts created around the Overseas Territories, will, I predict, create inevitable pressure to “bring it all back home” and create fully protected areas – which of course have benefits for fishing – off the British coast.  In the globalisation of ideas there are winners and losers, as in everything else.  In the end, it is what resonates with the public that matters.












So what’s the next big idea?  As we stumble towards Brexit, I think we need the vision and the courage to make choices.  For the Fisheries Act we will need will be the first wholly-new Act in more than 100 years.  What should it say?

I think we need to start by asking an even bigger question than I have heard anyone ask today: what do we want UK waters to look like?

We should listen to the public, which is much more informed about the sea since the days of Michael Graham, partly thanks to Blue Planet II and being able to see marine life eyeball to eyeball on the TV screen.  Fish stocks and the marine environment are public goods and we want to see them healthy.  So a Bill needs to incorporate the interests of all of the public, those who live away from the sea as well as the usual suspects, or vested interests, which ministries like to call stakeholders.  We are all stakeholders.  That is another lesson of the past 20 years.

We need to ask ourselves what we would like UK waters to look like because, assuredly, if we do not ask that question what will happen is first come, first served, which is what happened with pulse fishing.

I think many of the answers are in our conference report.

I would assume that everyone wants to see an end to overfishing and a recovery of fish stocks.  But as the former adviser to the US Senate, Margaret Spring, told our conference, you have to make that a legal requirement in your law if you want it to happen.  And, it goes without saying, you need to ensure that politicians can be subject to legal challenge if recovery does not happen.  Arguably one of the greatest things wrong with the EU is that you cannot sue the government, which you can in most Common Law administrations.

We are unaccustomed to making the tough decisions that will be needed.  If we really want fish stocks to recover, then it is no longer acceptable to operate the west coast of this country as a shellfish farm that suppresses the recovery of white fish such as cod and haddock.

We will need to decide, too, whether we want reduction fisheries in our waters.  It is especially difficult to bring back healthy stocks of whitefish when you have a fishery undermining the food chain for both fish and other wildlife.

We have the opportunity to favour fisheries which provide the maximum benefit for the economy, the environment and local communities.  This I believe Blue has done with local fishermen in Lyme Bay. If we are to maximise those benefits, then we have to do far more for the million or two recreational sea anglers who are of similar economic benefit to the country as the entire wild capture industry.  Those anglers have to be much more cooperative in reporting their catches in future.











I’m afraid I don’t see the same social, economic or environmental gains coming from Norwegian-owned salmon farms, pair trawlers or pulse fishing.

Do we want healthy offshore fisheries for larger but sustainable fishing enterprises?  If so need to offer convincing and progressive leadership in international bodies that involve the EU and Norway.  We will need to make those countries love us, as Donald Tusk still apparently does, if we are to manage our shared stocks.

On devolution, I would observe that none of the countries we looked at – the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Norway – fully devolved the management of their offshore fisheries.  Australia was fully devolved inshore, but that extends out only three miles.

If we prioritise what the public appears to want, as we have the opportunity to do, the future will look very different from the past.  We maybe should not have a Fisheries Act at all but, as the Norwegians do, a Marine Resources Act.

In conclusion I think we need to ask ourselves, what would Michael Graham do?  And we should include all the recent lessons from the recent non-EU European and North American experience.  What these tell us is that we need to start making choices.  As a Norwegian speaker put it at our conference: “You cannot have everything, you have to make a choice and set priorities.”

Despite everything I have heard today, I do not see that happening yet.  But it must happen and it must be inclusive.  Until we have agreed some priorities, I worry that we will squander yet another opportunity.

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