Editorial: Turning the oceans green

The inadequate labelling of fish is more important than the scandal over horsemeat

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It is hard to be an environmentally conscious fish eater, as we report today. DNA tests carried out by researchers at the University of Salford reveal that skate and ray wings often come from the more vulnerable species. Stefano Marini, who carried out the research, says that rules, which already apply to cod, haddock, salmon and trout, should be extended so that skate and similar rays should be identified by species name at the point of sale. This would allow consumers to avoid "near-threatened" species such as blonde ray, thornback, small-eyed and shagreen.

The encouraging news is that the study failed to find skate from any prohibited species, in contrast with a study earlier this year that found 7 per cent of fish sold in Britain as cod and haddock was actually from cheaper species.

In some ways, the mislabelling and inadequate labelling of fish is more important than the scandal over horsemeat sold as beef. If consumers are ignorant of what fish they eat, the environmental consequences may be serious. After climate change, the declining biodiversity of the oceans is perhaps the greatest environmental challenge. As The Independent on Sunday reported last month, the Government is dragging its feet on designating Marine Conservation Zones around Britain. Richard Benyon, the Fisheries minister, has approved only 31 of the 127 sites recommended for protection, and, once again, the lack of urgency mocks David Cameron's ambition to lead the "greenest government ever".

This is mostly, however, a challenge for governments working together. That is why it is encouraging that the European Union has for the first time imposed sanctions in a dispute about overfishing – against the Faroe Islands, which, although part of Denmark, are not part of the EU. We should not allow sentimentality about small island countries to obstruct green objectives, any more than we should seek to defend British fishing jobs for their own sake.

There is so much more that needs to be done, however, at the EU and global levels. Here, we find ourselves applauding David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary who is now head of the Global Ocean Commission.

This is a commendable attempt to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and political clout. As foreign secretary, Miliband created the world's largest "no-take" ocean reserve in the Chagos archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory. In a recent speech he said: "I was able to find an outlet for my passion for the environment through the unexpected residual powers of the British Empire."

Mr Miliband identified 2014 as "a year of key decisions for the global ocean". It is the year in which UN members have to decide whether to begin negotiations for a new international agreement on the conservation of marine living resources. He said: "Either there will be a moment of reckoning and decision, or this vital agenda will get lost, as the worlds of ocean science and international politics drift further apart."

His is an organisation engaged in an important task of consciousness-raising and political lobbying that deserves the enthusiastic support of the British people and their government.

As a token of their sincerity, ministers should show strong leadership and designate Marine Conservation Zones without delay – and tighten up the rules on fish labelling. Then consumers too can play their part in moving the world towards sustainable fishing.

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