Industry Should Not Under-estimate new MPA Threat: NFFO


The fishing industry should not underestimate the threat from a new celebrity-led threat to fast-track marine protected areas, devoid of evidence, says the NFFO.

Chief Executive Barrie Deas said that a recent stakeholder round table meeting with Michael Gove, showed that there was a concerted campaign, led by celebrities like Hugh Fearnely-Whitingstall, to ditch the current evidence-based approach that permits human activities, like fishing, to continue within MPAs, if it can be shown that these activities are consistent with protecting the conservation status of the features for which the MPA was designated.

“The way that the landing obligation came into existence shows the danger posed by an emotive campaign based on distortions and lies and a contempt for solid evidence and science.”

“It is clear that Michael Gove is predisposed to listen to the siren calls of the more extreme wing of the eco-lobby. We have fought for and largely achieved a process based on evidence and dialogue at site and national levels. There is now a real danger that this will now be abandoned in favour of an approach which simply expels fishing and other human activities from MPAs whether the activity has an adverse impact or not.”

“People like Calum Roberts, who are at the forefront of the campaign, are openly contemptuous of the impact that displacement will have on individual fishing businesses. But those impacts are real and can also have serious knock-on effects for other fisheries. This well-funded and well-connected lobby paints a desperate picture of decline and destruction in the marine environment completely at odds with the evidence, using selective examples and exaggeration as the currency to whip up another moral panic. We are still trying to deal with the fall-out from the misconceived landings obligation and the problem of chokes in mixed fisheries. It the Government goes down this road it will be another hammer-blow for our industry.”

“It is worth pointing out that there is no equivalent to this campaign in the terrestrial world. No one is seriously suggesting that we should return out countryside to before the iron age. But that is exactly the objective being voiced for the marine environment. It is extreme, and it is insidious because the pressure is going on behind closed doors.”

“Best-practice world-wide for establishing successful marine protected areas involves a steady, evidence-based approach, based on a continuing dialogue and mutual respect. In fact, this is at the heart of an ecosystem approach, where different objectives require carefully calibrated trade-offs. It will be a serious matter if the UK now walks away from this approach by pressure from eco-extremists.”

“Different fishing gears have had various impacts on the seabed and marine environment over the years. It is important that those impacts are measured and managed now and in the future. But fishing has also fed many millions of people and is the basis of an industry that supports many thousands of jobs. It is important to keep a sense of proportion and balance in working out how to continue to feed people whilst minimising adverse environmental impacts. The fear has to be that another celebrity-led campaign will destroy that balance and commitment to evidence, using emotion and half-digested nonsense to achieve it.”

The NFFO has written in strong terms to the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, to underline the industry’s concerns:

Dear Secretary of State

The Future of the UK Network of Marine Protected Areas

It was unfortunate that you were called away to attend urgent Cabinet business and could not participate in the last part of the round table discussion on Defra’s future programme for protecting the marine environment.

At the beginning of the meeting you posed three questions:

1. What progress has been made in establishing an ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones?

2. Are the processes involved in establishing the network, rigorous?

3. Is the scale of our ambition at the right level?

Those questions are relevant to a shift, advocated by the environmental lobby to a whole site approach, meaning, as I understand it, abandoning the concept of zoning marine protected areas to permit human activities considered not to be harmful to the features for which the MPA was established to protect.

For our part, the answers to the questions are:

1. Quite a lot.

2. Within the confines of the network design principles established at the outset in 2010, the processes have been, in our estimate, more or less rigorous. However, it is absolutely essential that the process of establishing MPAs is evidence-based and intellectually coherent. In this respect, the process has yet to fully take on board scientific principles on how to best accommodate human use of the marine environment within the design of a network in the most synergistic way.

3. Ambition is good but so is realism. Unlike the marine environment, no one is seriously suggesting that we go back before the age of agricultural improvement, much less the Iron Age, when our terrestrial environment was transformed into what we currently experience as the countryside.

Different forms of fishing have doubtless had their impact on the seabed and marine environment over the years and it is essential that those impacts are managed properly now and in the future. The trade-off for these impacts is that, over that period, fish has contributed to feeding many millions of people; and we have a fishing and fish processing industry that sustains the livelihoods of many thousands of people.

Not unnaturally, fishers have been, and continue to be concerned that the establishment of a network of MPAs will mean that they will be displaced from their customary fishing grounds. This is, of course, of profound significance for the people and fishing businesses concerned. But displacement, as an issue, is equally significant for the achievement of overall good environmental status in the marine environment. It makes no sense to have a pristine area on one side of a line and a degraded marine environment on the other side.

Without disputing for one second that healthy marine habitats are vital for sustaining commercial and non-commercial marine species, the idea that a network of MPAs could be a primary tool for rebuilding and managing commercial fish stocks has, frankly, been over-sold. There are better more precise and more effective tools for managing fish stocks, namely total allowable catches, fishing vessel licensing and technical measures. On the basis of those pillars the scientists tell us that:

“Over the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen a general decline in fishing mortality in the Northeast Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. The stocks have reacted positively to the reduced exploitation and we’re observing growing trends in stock sizes for most of the commercially important stocks. For the majority of stocks, it has been observed that fishing mortality has decreased to a level consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – meaning levels that are not only sustainable but will also deliver high long term yields.” (Our emphasis)

Eskild Kirkegaard,

Chair of the Advisory Committee,

International Council for Exploration of the Seas

During the meeting, it was clear that there are two narratives competing for your ear. One, the conservation lobby, paints a desperate picture of destruction, decline and government inertia. The other, the fishing lobby, expresses concern over displacement and points to the dramatic reduction in fishing pressure since the crisis of the 1990s, the spectacular success of some of our fish stocks, and the positive trajectory that we are on.

You and your ministerial colleagues are placed in the difficult position of arbitrating between these competing visions. The conservation lobby is powerful, well-funded and supported by celebrities. The fishing industry feeds us.

It is our view that the only way to arrive at a rational judgement against these competing pressures is:

1. To rely on a rigorous, evidence-based approach, using the best available science

2. To encourage and facilitate a genuine dialogue and analysis at site level as well as the national level, that identifies both the synergies in marine use with conservation outcomes as well as those compromises that provide protection for vulnerable marine features and habitats, whilst minimising harmful displacement effects

Much work has already gone into designing management approaches for MPAs which measure the impacts of different fishing gears using objective criteria. Through this means it is possible to design measures that minimise potential displacement effects from the outset, whilst protecting the features concerned. We should build on that good work.

It is important, throughout, to distinguish between advocacy and science.

The key words that we believe should be central to government policy towards MPAs should be: evidence, objectivity, rigour, coherence, dialogue, balance and proportionality.

I hope that you find our views helpful.

Yours sincerely

Barrie Deas

Chief Executive