Coastal Futures 2020 – the takeaway messages

January 17, 2020


Concluding speech to conference by Charles Clover, Executive Director, Blue Marine Foundation.


With apologies that this is necessarily a subjective account – here are what I consider are the takeaway messages from this year’s Coastal Futures conference:

We heard that 2020 is a “super year” for the ocean – a tipping point ecologically and politically. It is the year that renewed urgency on climate change and marine conservation meet a new government with new players and new priorities.

The climate emergency was all too real on the first day of the conference, which was about climate change. Most striking was the news that sea level rise has risen from 1.2 mm per year, in 1997, to 5 mm per year today. That would place nearly a metre of water on the Essex marshes by 2100, about twice what we thought it would be at the time of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group 1 report in 1990.

We heard that to fulfil UK commitments under the Climate Change Act, in response to this threat, we would need to increase the amount of offshore wind generation tenfold. That is an enormous amount of engineering in the sea and is bound to have impacts.

On a personality level, I detected that the marine community was delighted to welcome Rebecca Pow as an environment minister, as she had covered many of these issues as a journalist and had been welcomed into the Commons in 2015 by the Climate Coalition as “the greenest new MP.” [Her speech is available here] People were also pleased to see Richard Benyon, a former environment minister, at the conference presenting on his Highly Protected Marine Areas review. His is a rare case of a politician who never gives up on unfinished business.

On climate and ocean policy, many asked the question, will we be able to look back to January 2020 as the moment we stepped up?

There are certainly opportunities to be grasped: Alec Taylor from WWF said we should “Allow the Ocean to be a hero.” That is, we should take up the opportunities for action to mitigate climate change and create resilience at the same time. The current policy silos are preventing this, though. Single stock assessments for commercial fish species do not let us look at fisheries, and the habitat damage they do, in the round as ecosystem impacts and as part of the carbon cycle or indeed gain maximum benefit for society.

How can we step up to the challenge of the climate and ocean crisis in the context of this year’s COP 26 in Glasgow, which is meant to reconcile climate and oceans policy? What progress can be made at the CBD COP in China at the end of the year and the negotiation of a new codicil to the UN Law of the Sea creating marine reserves in areas beyond national jurisdiction?

One domestic opportunity, mentioned by Mark Duffy from English Nature and arising from the Fisheries Bill, arguably the first wholly new Fisheries Bill for over 100 years, is to ban fishing for sandeels and other “industrial” or forage fish, as a UK policy. This, he said, would be an appropriate mitigation measure for the massive expansion of offshore wind, which will have an impact on seabirds which eat sandeels, such as kittiwakes and have benefits to other species like cod.

There are other challenges, for the marine community and for Government. These are highlighted by the failure to meet good environmental status for 11 out of 15 marine indicators. The indicators flashing up red include fish, birds and seabeds. Among the fish in trouble are the iconic cod: for which ICES has recommended a 70 per cent cut in total allowable catch this year.

The Fisheries Bill was described by one participant as a “conventional economic measure” ie not a measure which would immediately give the UK best conservation practice in world fisheries. Callum Duncan, from WWF Scotland, pointed out that 60 per cent of fish catches were made in Scotland, so how this bill would have only indirect effects.

Helen McLachlan of WWF pointed out that the Bill needed to say that fish were a public resource and should be managed for wider environmental reasons, such as carbon mitigation, and the public interest as well as conventional fisheries objectives.

She said that, as yet, the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield was not yet a legal duty or obligation upon the government, which it needed to be if the Bill was to be accepted. The Government has written itself a let-out, for use in negotiations with other countries who may not want to accept MSY. But MSY in itself is not necessarily sustainable or the best measure to judge success – as the retiring Defra chief scientist, Ian Boyd, pointed out on his departure. Maximum Economic Yield is better for the biodiversity and for industry.

The Environment Bill was described by Richard Benwell of Wildlife and Countryside link as a weak measure in its present form. There was insufficient mention of “marine,” so some biodiversity targets could be met exclusively on land. There was no legal requirement to protect wildlife or bring about ecosystem recovery. There was no legal to require the fishing industry to provide “public goods” – which we expect of farmers in return for subsidies. (Fishing is likely to continue to receive subsidy, even if not from the EU.)

Highly Protected Marine Areas: Richard Benyon, head of the Government’s review, spotted a hint from the minister that we shall get some, but will they be small or very remote? Who can say? Mr Benyon pointed out that there was a deal to be done, post Brexit, by giving more quota to fish elsewhere to those fisheries displaced from no-take zones. These kind of bargains are the same as those that could be used to secure marine parks – not otherwise mentioned at the conference – with HMPAs at their core.

It seemed an assumption of many speakers that we, as a marine community, are those who need to devise a vision for the future in this post-Brexit world. The Government is likely to be too busy to draw up long-term strategies, but a strategy, or vision, is needed after Brexit, especially for low impact fisheries for fish and shellfish in inshore waters.

Chris Williams from NEF set up a standard many are likely to gather around. He said we needed a strategy for allocating fishing opportunities which was not based on historic rights – as it has been since the 1970s – but on public good, and this should include carbon. He cited NEF research showing that mobile fishing gears – trawls and dredges – were “destroying value to society.”

One way of recreating that value was, of course, the provision in the reformed Common Fisheries Policy called Article 17, which says that opportunities to fish should be directed at the most environmentally friendly and socially important fisheries. The opportunity to lobby for the implementation of Article 17 evaporates in UK waters with Brexit and its provisions deserve to be transcribed into the Fisheries Bill.

The value of kelp – one of a number of carbon “sinks” discussed during the day – was a theme from Dan Smale, from the Marine Biological Association, and Callum Duncan, MCS Scotland. If we are to use species like kelp we should be putting far more effort in to kelp farming and not allowing the destructive practices of kelp harvesting.

Roger Proudfoot from the Environment Agency discussed an as-yet-unfunded EA proposal to fund the restoration of 15 per cent of UK saltmarsh over the next 25 years and spending of £1m a year on seagrass and oysters as part of the UK’s carbon mitigation.

The most immediate decision likely to be made in the area of fishing and climate mitigation is likely to be in Sussex, where the IFCA is due to decide as soon as next week whether to ban mobile fishing gears in an attempt to save the vast, depleted kelp bed which runs along the coast from Worthing to Selsey Bill.

This is an experiment in carbon mitigation we should all support, with the potential also to restore fisheries habitat at zero overall cost to fisheries, once changes in gear type are made.

Peter Barham, Seabed User and Developer Group (SUDG), urged against “Paralysis through analysis” and called for urgent action instead on the marine and climate front.

In conclusion, it is possibly worth reflecting on the surprisingly large areas where mobile gears are already banned because of protected sites in the Southern IFCA area, shown in a slide by Rob Clarke, head of the IFCA.

The possibility is that, when it comes to favouring low-impact fisheries, we are doing it already – in some places that are not yet getting the credit for it.

Maybe the conclusion is that some areas, and some countries within UK, just need to level up!

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