Final chance to #FixOurFisheries

“If we can move from viewing nature as something that’s nice to have, to seeing it as the most fundamental factor in our civilization’s survival, we would make decisions very differently to the way we do today.”

This quote from David Attenborough’s new documentary A Life on Our Planet is a perfect summary of how attitudes towards achieving environmental sustainability need to change, highlighting a fundamental reason why previous management strategies have often fallen short of meeting their targets.

For far too long sustainability has been seen as something that needs to be achieved in the future and often competes (unsuccessfully) with the desire for short-term socio-economic gains. Attempts to ‘balance’ this relationship have led to long-term environmental targets being missed, time and time again.

When considering the management of marine ecosystems in the UK this is particularly noticeable. We have found ourselves in a position where UK waters are currently failing to meet 11 out of 15 indicators of good ocean health; commercial fishing is driving biodiversity loss within our oceans; and 30-40% of fish in UK waters (that we have data on) are being caught at unsustainable levels with many populations already critically low and in need of decisive and urgent action. To top it all off, less than 1% of fishing activity in the UK is currently fully and independently monitored meaning there are vast gaps in our knowledge regarding the full impact of fishing on marine ecosystems.

We can no longer afford to delay making the changes needed to recover nature, and the UK couldn’t be in a better position to make these changes than we are right now.

fishers post Brexit

The UK government are currently finalising new fishing laws that will determine how they aim to recover and manage our fish stocks and wider marine ecosystem. This is the first time in over 40 years they have had the opportunity to challenge the status quo and implement new and ambitious policies that could actually result in sustainable management.

However, it seems this opportunity is being wasted. When reading the latest version of the new Fisheries Bill I got an awful sense of déjà vu. Whilst many of the objectives relating to sustainability look good on paper, they mostly follow the same tone and offer the same commitments we have seen in the past, yet have not been fulfilled. Therefore, in their current form, the likelihood of them actually achieving the significant and urgent change that is needed is, sadly, minimal. You can’t expect the same approach to produce different results. To add further insult to injury, the government also chose to remove a clause that required fisheries management decisions to be environmentally sustainable in both the short and long term, and made sustainability the primary objective of the bill. Not only does this make me question their frequent promise to prioritize sustainability – such as in the 2018 fisheries white paper and 25 year Environment Plan - it once again provides the opportunity for the environment to lose out against competing priorities – we simply cannot afford to let this happen anymore.

Fishing boats

Change is needed more than ever and it’s needed NOW.

Prioritising sustainability with a legal commitment within the Fisheries Bill would be a brilliant first step, and there is still time for the government to reinstate this commitment. Not only would this be great for the environment, heathier seas could actually mean an increase in the amount of fish that could be sustainably caught which could lead to greater profits for the industry and benefits for coastal communities.

Focus also needs to be turned to the urgent recovery of fish populations that are most at risk, like West of Scotland cod and whiting, Irish Sea whiting, North Sea cod, Celtic Sea cod, and herring stocks in the Celtic Sea, southern Irish Sea and West of Scotland. All these stocks are below their lower biomass limit - meaning their populations are at critically low levels. Recovery plans for these fish need to be put in place as quickly as possible – the longer they stay depleted, the more likely it is that they might never recover. Given their severe situation, the government should also use Remote Electronic Monitoring with cameras (REM) on boats that may come into contact with any of these species. At the very least, this would give us a better understanding of how much they are being caught, and encourage better fishing practices that could start to lead to their recovery.

We can no longer treat environmental sustainability as an after-thought, it must be at the heart of the decisions we make individually and as a society. I urge the government to lead by example and demonstrate their commitment to environmental sustainability by actually putting that commitment in the new policies they are writing.

To end with another brilliant quote from David, “the recovery of nature could be at the heart of humanity’s mission in the 21st century. Because after all, we are a part of nature.”