Sea sharing or sea sparing: How should we manage our oceans?

What with Brian Cox spending an hour explaining the importance of body size in ecological systems, and then prime time marine conservation courtesy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ongoing Fishfight, I feel that my research interests have been rather well covered by TV of late. But whereas I have nothing but praise so far for Cox’s Wonders of Life, I find myself somewhat more ambivalent in my views of Fishfight. On the one hand, it is fantastic to see the issue of marine conservation gain such prominence. Hugh F-W is an excellent and extremely savvy campaigner, and his energy and drive to reduce the wasteful practice of discards (subject of the first Fishfight series) has had a real, positive impact at the EU level. Of course, we need to make sure that the fish now landed instead of discarded at sea actually make it to market, rather than landfill – but that’s not to take away from what Fishfight achieved. And the focus of this second series, on marine protected areas, is also a really important issue – few would argue with the central tenet that we should take better care of the marine environment, and that protecting certain areas should be a part of this. Neither am I entirely averse to using shock tactics to elicit an emotional response in the audience – indeed, I attempt just this in my marine conservation lectures here in Sheffield, where I channel Jeremy Jackson in documenting the often calamitous history of human impacts on the ocean.

On the other hand, however – and notwithstanding the considered input of scientists whom I know, like and respect such as Alex Rodgers and Callum Roberts – we need to recognise that Fishfight is a campaign, and campaigning TV by its very nature is not especially fussed about issues of balance. This is the point made by SeaFish in their response to the series. SeaFish were derided on Twitter last night by George Monbiot as an industry quango whose interest is "minimum of conservation and maximum of exploitation", but actually they are a respected body who take science pretty seriously - although as an industry body of course they consider the social and economic as well as the ecological consequences of marine environmental policy. They have been making the point that MPAs in the UK ought to be established based only on sound scientific criteria – the reason rather few have so far been agreed is that often we lack these data.

Now, I used to be of a similar view to the Fishfight gang – that the priority ought to be just establishing  MPAs, on the assumption that even if they were suboptimally positioned, any protection of any area would be better than none. Then I started talking to people who study these things and was politely told that, actually, a poorly designed MPA can actually do more harm than good. So, my view now is that MPAs need to be carefully designed, set up with specific and explicit goals, and not simply placed willy-nilly.

More generally, and as always, the truth will usually lie somewhere between environmental campaigners and industry groups. Some scientists have been quite vocal regarding the oversimplification of complex issues that is inevitable in campaigning TV. Marine conservation biologist Mike Kaiser, for example, has been quite active on Twitter putting across a fisheries science view, and I agree with this blog post by Jess Woo, that framing this campaign in terms of a ‘fight’ is unfortunate – “the last thing marine conservation (and particularly fisheries management) needs is a ruckus”.

All of which has got me thinking: what does marine conservation need? Well, some kind of clear vision would be useful, regarding how we balance the needs of conservation with feeding 9 billion people. There have been studies looking at this from a fisheries perspective, but it struck me that there are real parallels here with the land sharing vs. land sparing debate in terrestrial conservation. Should we concentrate conservation effort into the preservation of wild areas, and exploit other areas for food production as intensively as we can? Or should we aim for a more balanced approach, seeking a way to allow human activities and nature to coexist? In farming terms, this is the difference between a mosaic of industrial farms interspersed with nature reserves, and a more extensive system of wildlife-friendly farms.

The obvious upshot of this terrestrial debate is that if you want a large network of fully protected nature reserves, you have to balance that with farming the fuck out of what’s left. Translating this to a marine context, a network of no-take MPAs requires fishing the fuck out of unprotected areas. There is no real incentive for more responsible fishing outside the MPAs: the focus should just be on productivity. So the depressing images of dredged and trawled habitats that Fishfight uses to tug the heartstrings would not disappear if MPAs were widely established. In this case, you’re pinning an awful lot on not only the (widely supported) in situ success of MPAs, but also in their (often positive, but more variable) spillover effects. Responsible fishing, by contrast, requires more extensive areas to be exploited, which may limit the extent of fully protected MPAs.

More generally, whilst we should be cautious extending the fisheries—agriculture analogy too far (fishing, remember, still largely targets wild, and often highly mobile organisms), I think it does provide some useful context. Ray Hilborn, a fisheries ecologist who also happens to be a farmer, has commented on this before: how farmers are praised for bringing the landscape under the plough in order to produce food, whereas fishermen are castigated for doing similar (often in far more hazardous circumstances). Let’s just remember that (to use Oxfam’s terminology) the social foundation of access to an adequate, healthy food supply is of equal importance to the environmental ceiling of preserving biodiversity. If we get marine management right, we should be able to do both. I’m not convinced that starting a fight with some of the most important and knowledgeable marine stakeholders is the best way to achieve this.