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.

Ineffective regulation
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.”

By contrast, fishery managers, such as those involved with the EU’s benighted Common Fisheries Policy, are “fixated” with one species, he says, and work with “cartoons of reality”. He notes that the administrators will blame politicians for ignoring the science, and yet he believes the science is also “flawed”, in failing to “acknowledge the importance of healthy, intact ecosystems to fish production”.

Intact ecosystems, and the rapid loss of them, are the focus of his second book, Ocean of Life, in which he applies decades of experience to make a compelling case for rescuing "the most mysterious places on Earth". The seas from which we emerged as species have never been under more threat, he says, due to pollution and to the impacts of fossil fuels on climate change, and the "biological pollution" caused by the movement of animals and plants transported on ship's hulls, or those deliberately introduced to new territories.

“So we have seaweeds moving in that we haven’t had before, and as the world warms we have invasive stinging jellyfish, such as those that moved up the Irish coast and caused problems for salmon farmers,” he says. “We know the jellyfish are reacting to increased sea temperatures, but other movements caused by human intervention are also a wild card in terms of impact.

"We have to reverse these negative trends and give the seas more resilience to cope with increasing populations and consequent energy demands," he says. "We, as a society, have to step back and recognise where we are now, and deliver a high-quality marine environment for future generations."

Essential part
Marine reserves, such as that high-seas network recently created in the north Atlantic, are an essential part of this, he believes. Currently the British ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature, Roberts was a consultant on the BBC series Blue Planet. Not surprisingly, the David Attenborough approach to climate change – engaging the viewer rather than beating them over the head – is one that is reflected in his writing, much of which reads like a love letter to the oceans.

In 1987, Roberts persuaded his partner, Julie, to trade a honeymoon for two months of fieldwork studying fish behaviour on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Just 11 years later, the oceans had heated so dramatically that a quarter of the Earth’s coral died, taking countless creatures with it. “[If a large portion] of our forests had withered and died that year, people would have demanded to know why,” he says. But beyond the world of marine science, “a global catastrophe” had “passed largely unseen”.

Ocean of Life: How our Seas are Changing (Allen Lane, Viking, 2012) by Prof Callum Roberts won the Mountbatten Award for Best Maritime Literary Contribution of 2012. Roberts will speak at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, Co Cork, on Tuesday at 6.30pm, admission €18, see westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival/