The skies returned to blue as the jet trails faded into memory. Our seas, a sparkling mixture of azures, indigos and cyans, delivered a lockdown snapshot of what less pollution looks like for our natural environment. Sheep roamed villages, pollinators revelled in unkempt verges and hedges and wildlife spread their range and flourished in the peaceful habitat created by our absence. But that’s over now. As our worlds begin to turn again, I suspect we will not find the appetite to pollute less or to stick to our lockdown resolutions, and that we will continue to tackle the issues of climate change poorly and far too slowly. Right now, what we can do is focus on the positive changes that made life better, the things we learned and the reignition of our love for things we had perhaps forgotten.
It turns out working from home is not only possible, but desirable. Notwithstanding the downfalls of Zoom, Skype and Teams, photobombing by children, pets and the odd fire alarm in the background, many of us have learned that working from home makes us more productive and helps us to achieve a better work-life balance. While I desperately missed friends and family during lockdown, the two-and-a-half-hour round trip commute to the office was not missed at all. I didn’t miss the panic of finding myself in a quiet carriage with an incoming call I had to take, nor the stony stares that the dull tones of a vibrating phone provokes from fellow passengers in those situations. Only the most masochistic of travellers can have missed the agony of trying to maintain internet connectivity while trundling through tunnels and blackspots on the commute.
I have been writing about the environment for decades, but even I missed the opportunity of the work-from-home revolution facilitated by technology and the benefits it can deliver. My commute footprint is relatively small – 4.1 miles by car to the station and 59 miles on the train to London. The Map my Emissions carbon calculator suggests I have saved at least 800 pounds of CO2 by working from home for four months. We have to take our wins where we find them.
For eight years, our charity Blue Marine Foundation has been working with fishermen in the four fishing harbours of England’s Coral Garden, Lyme Bay. Lockdown came particularly swift and hard for these fishermen. After a long winter that saw them on greatly reduced fishing days, there was little financial resilience left in the fleet to cope with collapsing prices and closing markets. At the other end of the country, those associated with our Berwickshire project faced a similar story with sales disappearing overnight. The shellfishermen in Jersey were similarly left isolated as their French markets shut.
Friends Mark Hix and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall have been telling us all for years about the amazing fish we have on offer in our waters, and the benefit of including fish in our diets has long been known. But who knew a silver lining of lockdown – as bright, shiny and silver as a haul of sardines coming to the surface – was that we were all about to get the chance to reconnect with the amazing seafood in our waters.
Our project teams were reporting the fears from the coast even before lockdown was announced. The markets were already weakening and regular logistics and routes to market disappearing without warning. We set about doing what we could to support and promote local sales. Coastal communities of fishing villages have a deep connection with their fleets, and they turned out, turned up and went home laden with local fish. But it was obvious that the UK could not sell the totality of its catch one box at a time to a population within walking distance of a fishing harbour, despite most of the government interventions from the Marine Management Organisation and Seafish being based on that premise.
What a welcome intervention, therefore, www.Call4Fish.com was. Alison and David Pessell, stalwarts of the fishing industry and operators of Plymouth Trawler Agents, knew rapid and innovative action was needed as prices collapsed in an unprecedented way. They enlisted the help of former Defra Director of Fisheries and Marine Rodney Anderson to lead a small team and, over a long weekend at the end of March, the website and social media accounts were set up. Within a week, it had branched out from Plymouth and was helping fishermen and fish outlets across the country. No matter where you live, you can now have fresh fish arrive at your door the very next day. Our projects joined in and saw massive increases in demand for fish boxes with a simple message of #StayHome and #Call4Fish.
I have been utterly amazed at our newfound appetite for lesser-known species. As we were forced out of restaurants and into our own kitchens, it turns out most of us can whack a few fillets in a pan and channel our inner Keith Floyd to produce remarkable versions of eat-out dishes.
Throughout my career, most of my fishy columns have been about the wild-west fisheries that catch and land, often in dubious circumstances and using unsustainable methods, many of the species that we eat here in the UK. For far too long we have imported what we consume and exported what we catch. But the lockdown has changed that trend. Supermarkets have yet to catch up and start accessing the wonderful UK fish we have been enjoying at home, but they should or they will risk being left behind.
So for now: can the tuna, tuck into some turbot instead; steer clear of the swordfish, spider crabs are sweeter; pass on the pangasius, the humble pout will serve you better and all with fewer food miles while supporting our coastal communities and healthier oceans at the same time.