Why do we need to travel to protect the planet?

March 24, 2020 by Charles Clover


As the forlorn wreckage of our spring and summer calendars floats through our inboxes in the form of emails cancelling events, I take huge comfort from the rising tide of online activities, the release of pent-up energy by people working from home (or, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, from their place of worship) and discovering new skills on Zoom, Teams and other online conferencing platforms.  In our private lives and enterprises, people are getting round the need to travel to make essential decisions and to entertain each other. The world is changing.  Yet some parts of it are moving at a different pace.  While the individuals instinctively adapt and respond to challenges, in some official quarters there is a danger that the coronavirus is becoming an excuse to postpone important decisions about the health of our planet that could perfectly well take place online.


This, for example, was meant to be the “super year” for ocean conservation and climate change, culminating in a marriage of climate and ocean talks at the UN climate conference, COP 26, in Glasgow in November.  On the way, there was to be a new addition to the UN Law of the Sea, a law on the protection of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction to be agreed at a meeting in New York this month, now postponed.  There was to be another chance for this law to be finalised at a UN conference in Lisbon in June – postponed too, as the Olympic Games in Japan a month later almost certainly will be. June was also supposed to see the four-yearly IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseilles.  There are also the usual meetings of regional fisheries management organisations which are meant to manage our oceans.  At best, postponing all these discussions means a serious loss of momentum, at worst it means actual harm will be done.


Around our coasts the legitimate activities of inshore fishermen have been disrupted by the closure of international markets to their shellfish and the restrictions on the domestic restaurant trade.  One hope is that hungry consumers, who would happily learn to cook unfamiliar fish such as gurnard or ling, can be connected with fishermen and local outlets online, in a temporary reversal of globalisation.   Ports are facing restrictions, but the real worry is that while legitimate activities are winding down in our seas, illegality and plunder will be getting going.


The Indian Ocean is one of the most overfished in the world and getting worse year by year.  Yet the worthies of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, the international body that is supposed to manage that ocean, have decided to postpone indefinitely the observer programme that monitors the activities of the hi-tech tuna fleets that catch the tuna that ends up in our tins. They haven’t curtailed the activities of the fleet, despite stocks being overfished and currently subject to further overfishing and despite a recovery plan evidently not working.


A group of distinguished international scientists has just written to the European Commissioner, Virginius Sinkevičius, warning that stocks of yellowfin tuna – a species that has been around for 60 million years – are at risk of collapse within six years. Scientists say catches should be cut by 25 per cent but last year they rose by around nine.  There was meant to be a meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission – a body that has failed repeatedly to control sufficiently mortality of the species it is supposed to manage – in a very comfortable hotel in Bali in June.  But guess what?  I hear that this meeting may not now take place, or just occur online without any decisions being made.  Decisions to prevent overfishing – a statutory obligation under EU law – will have to be postponed for another year, a splendid breather for the Spanish tuna fleet which is already under pressure to explain multiple irregularities around the reporting of its catches.


We cannot go on like this. Governments have obligations to their people, but they also have obligations under international law and to the planet.  On climate and oceans, years of slow progress may just stop because a bunch of officials cannot enjoy their usual perk of foreign travel to an exotic destination to discuss it.  Common-sense management of fisheries is crashing to a halt for exactly the same reasons.   Isn’t it now time to question, once and for all, the ridiculous tradition of people flying in from all over the world, burning tonnes of CO2, to make decisions about the health of the planet?  Might this not be one of the consequences of the present crisis?  We are all discovering that stuff can perfectly well be done online.  Governments and international bodies – especially environmental ones for goodness sake – need to find climate- and health-friendly ways of working that don’t involve hundreds of people flying across the world and mixing in convention centres.  And there should be absolutely no question of abandoning the high-tech fleets of the sea to do their worst because their regulators aren’t accustomed to online discussions.  If the managers of the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean cannot meet to discuss essential measures to control overfishing, then fishing should not take place.  With crisis comes opportunity – to save the planet in ways that don’t harm it in the process.

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