Casting a net far into the future

Debates surrounding sustainable fishing are often framed in terms of how initiatives do or do not benefit the seafood industry, or fishermen themselves.

In this week’s BBC Green Room, Phil MacMullen argues that these distinctions are far less important than the goal of sustaining the ocean ecosystem and the bounties it provides.

Food security is now recognised as a key global issue and fish should be playing an important part in providing that security.

This challenge has now been acknowledged at all levels, from the UN to consumers.

Global seafood consumption doubled between 1970 and 2000. The global population grew but increasing affluence and awareness of the health benefits of seafood also resulted in an increase in per capita consumption.

Capture fisheries have produced around 85 million tonnes annually since the mid-1980s with the gap between wild supply and overall demand filled by aquaculture.

With farmed fish feed containing less and less fishmeal, we’re currently enjoying a period of stability in global seafood markets.

But it’s plain that more people mean more pressure on the planet. Our seas and oceans need a better legal framework for managing the marine environment.

This must work for our long-term benefit by balancing the need for conservation against our need for food and other services.

Marine Bills

In the UK, that framework will be provided by Marine Bills currently going through our parliaments.

These will introduce “marine spatial planning” in order to accommodate the demands of a wide variety of commercial activities along with the need to protect special habitats and the wider marine environment.

The UK seafood industry supports this approach because it depends on a healthy marine environment.

But making marine planning work fairly and effectively is going to be very challenging: we all have to agree what we need to achieve through an inclusive process and we must base our decisions on the best possible information.

A broad seafood industry perspective is that fishermen must be recognised as an essential part of building a sustainable future for the marine environment.

Fishing and conservation are natural bedfellows. There’s no reason why fishing shouldn’t continue indefinitely and play its part in providing food for the future.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a key part of the Marine Bills. Designation will result in management arrangements that should protect the conservation status of each MPA.

But two contrasting approaches to this are apparent; one seems to view MPAs as a panacea to all the problems we face providing that a given proportion of our sea areas is designated for protection.

The other recognises that, whilst the principle is sound, each site must be identified on the basis of good evidence – including its ecological and human characteristics – and managed in order to achieve clear and measurable objectives.

The panacea proponents frequently claim that an MPA will automatically benefit commercial fisheries. A more measured approach will tell us that there may be fisheries benefits but these must be considered a bonus.

This confusion arises because most experience of MPAs comes from tropical or semi-tropical areas, often based on complex, reef-type habitats.

Most commercially exploited species in these habitats tend to be territorial, so restricting fishing will result in an increase in their populations.

In UK waters, however, most commercial finfish species range fairly widely so relatively small-scale MPAs will have little or no impact upon their status.

On the other hand, many commercially important populations of shellfish in UK waters, such as lobsters and scallops, could benefit from carefully planned MPAs.

Spatial measures work well in fisheries management but are not the same as the conservation MPA approach.