Saving the life aquatic

The effects of overfishing and climate change are taking a dire toll

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Overfishing is widely recognised as a major threat to our seas, damaging marine wildlife and habitats, as well as the livelihoods of those who depend on the sea. Many of our best known fish, such as cod, haddock, halibut and skate are now threatened species - cod is on the verge of commercial collapse and the common skate is virtually extinct. Though overfishing is certainly to blame, climate change is believed to be a factor, too.

Overfishing is widely recognised as a major threat to our seas, damaging marine wildlife and habitats, as well as the livelihoods of those who depend on the sea. Many of our best known fish, such as cod, haddock, halibut and skate are now threatened species - cod is on the verge of commercial collapse and the common skate is virtually extinct. Though overfishing is certainly to blame, climate change is believed to be a factor, too.

A recent report produced by the University of Aarhus, Denmark and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, indicates that human-produced carbon dioxide is increasing the level of acidity of the oceans; within less than a hundred years scientists predict that the world's seas could become acidic enough to trigger a mass extinction of marine organisms. To date, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), managed by the European Union, has not succeeded in achieving sustainable fishing. The Government, though remaining committed to the CFP, is working on a number of measures to maximise fishing opportunities, while minimising the impact on depleted fishing stocks. The question is, will these measures work or is it a case of too little too late?

A key element of fish conservation put into place under the CFP is Total Allowable Catches (TACs). TACs limit the overall weight of the fish which fishermen may land, based each year on advice by fisheries scientists in the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES). However, according to Dr Euan Dunn, the RSPB's Head of Marine Policy, there are well known problems with TACs as the system generates a high level of discarding, misreporting and "black fish" - fish that are landed illegally. Dunn says, "These problems tend to become more severe as the quota becomes more restricted." He advocates a greater emphasis on controlling fishing effort. TACs deal with how many fish are actually caught; fishing effort would control the number of fishing vessels and the amount of fishing they are allowed to carry out.

The EU has put into place stock recovery plans for both cod and northern hake. The measures include restrictions on cod fishing in the Irish sea, North Sea and East of Scotland during key spring spawning periods as well as cuts in the amount of cod that can be caught elsewhere. Since 2000, ICES has advised that the TAC for cod should be zero, but it remains at 27,300 tonnes, although fishermen are restricted in the mesh size of the nets they use. However, conservationists argue that cod fishing grounds should be closed entirely.

"There is a strong case for draconian measures to protect cod," says Dunn. The safe biological limit is the size of the spawning population of fish needed to sustain the stock. He says, "We are now grossly below safe biological limits. We don't know if North Sea cod will ever recover." Closing fishing zones could help other species. Dunn warns, "What is absolutely clear is that if you have a large closed area, you cannot have a fishing fleet around it working it as hard as it was before - you have to reduce fishing effort in other areas, too. There has been a lot of hype about closed areas and they are not a silver bullet for restoring the fortunes of the fishing industry. But they are a potentially key weapon in our armoury and it's high time that we made bolder, more imaginative use of them in our waters."

Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw says, "The UK has significantly reduced its pressure on cod and there are signs, albeit small, of recovery in cod stocks and to introduce such drastic measures at this stage, before seeing whether cuts in capacity have worked, would be premature."

Drs Malcolm MacGarvin and Sarah Jones from WWF seem to be guardedly optimistic. In their report, Choose Or Lose, which has become the basis for a new strategy, Invest In Fish, aimed at making UK fishing sustainable, they say, "The practicality and time-scale for successful action are good. If favourable measures are taken, it is reasonable to expect to see a turn-around in the health of fish stocks and the fishing industry within five to 10 years. One study into the English Channel fishery showed that it could be over 1,500 per cent more profitable if fish stocks were restored." Bradshaw agrees: "Invest In Fish is an excellent example of what can be achieved when the government, fishing industry and NGOs get together and agree on a sustainable solution. Simply getting these organisations to talk to each other is an achievement and signals a new spirit of co-operation which wasn't there before."

For the consumer, it seems like a minefield. Farmed fish appear to be an option but in general there are a number of problems associated with them. For instance, it takes three tonnes of fish to obtain one tonne of farmed fish meat - such as salmon. This fish meal comes from fish, such as sandeel, that are at the bottom of the food chain and food for many species. Recently overfishing of sandeels has decimated seabird populations, such as puffins in the Shetland Isles. Bruce Sandison, the chair of the Salmon Protest Group, says that farmed salmon bred off our shores have been escaping at a rate of 400,000 per year during the last 10 years and due to the diseases they have spread and competition for food this has led to a 45 per cent decline in wild salmon over the past two decades.

"Consumers can make a real difference to the way our fish stocks are managed and help stop this decline," says Bernadette Clarke of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). Author of the Good Fish Guide, she suggests consumers choose to eat fish only from healthy, responsibly managed sources. This limits us to clams, cockles and mussels, Pacific salmon, oysters and Dublin Bay prawns. She advises everyone to avoid deep water fish which are slow growing, late to mature and therefore vulnerable to over-fishing.

The MCS recommends eating fish that have been certified as sustainably harvested. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) runs one such scheme. Often the benefits are almost immediate. The South Georgia Toothfish Fishery, for example, was responsible for high levels of seabird deaths as petrols and albatrosses, which were attracted to the boats, became entangled in the nets. Using simple measures, such as discarding fish waste parts on the other side of the boat from the net, bird deaths were reduced from 6,000 per year to zero within two years. Sainsbury's, the UK's largest wet fish retailer, aims to sell 100 per cent of its wild caught fish from MSC-certified sources by 2010.

Finally, the fishing industry, the environment and marine businesses (£69m is generated annually by the UK's coastal regions) will benefit from the proposed cross-party Marine Bill. A cornerstone of this bill is marine planning. Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's Director of Conservation says, "Just as farmland wildlife has been devastated by intensive farming practices, unplanned and intensive exploitation of our seas could destroy marine wildlife. Marine planning has been tested and we know it works. It helps industry to save money and develop sustainably while safeguarding the environment at the same time."

Further information

www.fishonline.org, www.msc.org, www.defra.gov.uk/fish/fishindx.htm, www.investinfish.org

Global wildlife protection: CITES

The humphead wrasse is an unattractive fish which invariably meets a rather ugly end at the hands of South East Asian fishermen. Stunned by the cyanide they pump into the reef where it lives, the humphead wrasse is transported live to the restaurants of Hong Kong where it fetches over $100 per kilo and is regarded as a great delicacy, particularly for its lips.

At the 13th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora last October, Britain was among the member nations who voted to add the humphead wrasse to Appendix 2 of the convention requiring importing and exporting countries to ensure that the future trade in this fish is sustainable and legal.

Better known as CITES, the convention was set up in 1973 as an international agreement between governments that aimed to ensure that trade in specimens of wild animals and plants did not threaten their survival.

CITES is an international agreement to which countries voluntarily sign up to. Although CITES is legally binding - in other words countries have to implement the Convention - it does not take the place of national laws. Rather it provides a framework to be respected by each country, which has to adopt its own domestic legislation to make sure that CITES is implemented at the national level. The CITES Party States have in the past taken collective action to suspend trade with those parties that fail to implement the Convention properly, although such action is usually very much a last resort.

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