Turn the tide on seas under threat
Economics and ecology have a lot in common
Here’s a heartening tale. In 1995, a group of islanders on Arran, known as the “sleeping warrior” on Scotland’s Firth of Clyde, became fed up of the continued damage to the local seabed habitat. Within a few decades, a short stretch of coast in Lamlash Bay had been destroyed by heavy dredging for scallops.
The group was ignored, rebuffed even, by Scotland’s own nature-conservation agency, but it refused to give up. A small campaign grew into the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast), representing half of the island’s population. Through what Prof Callum Roberts describes as “dogged persistence”, they achieved their target in 2008 when Lamlash became Scotland’s first marine protected area.
Roberts has found other communities around the world that have pursued parallel paths to that of Arran, in Belize, Mexico, Egypt, the Bahamas and South Africa. In Fiji, for example, local chiefs kept coral reefs off-limits for fishing.
There are hundreds of community-managed marine-protected areas in the Philippines, he notes, for “even though the fishers involved were desperately poor, they realised that if they didn’t make some short-term sacrifices, they would have no fish to eat in the future”.
Here, continued exploitation of Europe’s second-largest sea area, which is off this coastline, has inspired a new campaign known as Fishing for Justice, led by a retired west Cork skipper, Donal O’Driscoll, and Tom Hassett, a former industry spokesman. They cite data from the Marine Institute to the effect that 88 per cent of all fish taken in the Irish zone of Europe’s “blue pond” is caught by EU partners. This confirms that Ireland “gifts” €1.18 billion a year to EU member states through the Common Fisheries Policy, while Ireland’s share of that sum is €0.19 billion, the campaign states.
Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York, is a committed environmentalist, but one who has a certain sympathy for the catching sector at a time when it is under increasing pressure from various quarters. “Nobody sets out to to trash the Irish Sea or the Atlantic or other places, but that’s what’s happened,” he says. “It’s the ineffectiveness of regulation, coupled with our own ingenuity. For every new invention, every new piece of technology sets us on a path of fewer fish due to extraction beyond the rate at which stocks can replenish,” he says.
The current financial crisis has resonances with our inability to manage the planet sustainably, he believes, and ecology and economics have a lot in common. Both areas involve “highly complex systems whose behaviour is affected by countless different forces,” he wrote in his first book, The Unnatural History of the Sea (2007), which charted the impact on the marine environment of 1,000 years of hunting and commercial catching.
“This is why economists are no better at predicting the future than fisheries managers,” he says, whereas fund managers usually understand the limitations of the models they are working with.
“A few inspirational, or brave, managers usually trust their intuition. Some win handsomely, while others lose their shirts. Most develop portfolios that spread risk widely, so that they never place too much faith in one economic sector or company.”