Oceans account for 96 per cent of all habitable space on Earth. Scientists have mapped the surface of Mars and Venus more closely than they have the seafloor, with its as yet unnumbered trenches and seamounts. Yet many marine species that once teemed in their millions have been harried close to extinction by nets, longlines and harpoons. The scale of the loss is mind-boggling. For every three hundred green turtles that swam the Caribbean before industrialised fishing, just one is left. Ninety per cent of the world’s large fish and oyster beds have gone. Seagrass meadows are disappearing at a rate of 7 per cent per year. Only one in twenty blue whales remain.
This carnage required immense, dogged effort, and a blizzard of technology (from sonar to drones to so-called Fish Aggregating Devices), nets that could swallow a Boeing 747 and longlines that extend for a hundred kilometres, snagging everything in their path. These nets and lines have been dragged through the sea by vast fishing fleets dominated by a dozen or so large corporations. The operation has relied on an indulgent political class. The fleets have been fuelled by huge public subsidies, even as they destroy coastal livelihoods. They have largely avoided scrutiny over decarbonisation – an impressive feat, as Charles Clover observes in Rewilding the Sea, since bottom trawling alone releases as much carbon as the entire aviation industry.
Fish are resilient and hugely fertile. It took nearly a hundred years of industrialised fishing to dent their numbers. Global catches have been dropping since the 1980s, a fact the industry has gone to some lengths to conceal. The hunt goes on, reaping fewer and fewer rewards. A typical wooden fishing boat in 1900 could catch sixteen times more fish in an hour than its contemporary equivalent.
The industry has often presented itself as the custodian of marine life. In the 19th century, some fishermen argued that a regular trawl stimulated life on the seabed, just as a good plough increased the harvest back on land. Now that divers can film the seabed as trawlers pass by – and record the devastation left behind – such claims are insupportable. Nevertheless, the Marine Stewardship Council continues to award ‘sustainable’ certification to those who fish species such as the Atlantic bluefin tuna, whose numbers fell by 70-80 per cent between 1970 and 2009 and are still struggling to recover. It makes you wonder what unsustainable fishing looks like.
Clover argues that the oceans can still recover some of their lost plenitude. As executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, and a force behind many of the success stories recounted in the book, his enthusiasm carries some weight. His solution is to expand the planet’s network of Marine Protected Areas: zones in which fishing activities are limited or entirely forbidden. Given respite from the industrial onslaught, fish populations could return to health in surprisingly short order. If a decent slice of each MPA were designated as a marine reserve, in which no fishing at all is allowed, even better.
Clover’s good news stories begin in some far-flung places. MPAs surround a number of British Overseas Territories, including Ascension and the Pitcairn and Chagos island groups. The stories follow a pattern. A proposal to create an MPA is put to locals, who point out that they will lose their income if they are not allowed to fish or to sell fishing rights. Major conservation donors are asked to provide an endowment to support the local economy; the deal is made. The results are impressive: fish, turtles, whale sharks and dolphins start coming back.
In the Chagos archipelago, things are a little different. There are no locals to deal with, the UK government having illegally thrown them out decades ago. In 2010, during the very last days of New Labour, David Miliband declared a Chagos MPA – at the time the world’s largest. The proportion of the oceans which was highly protected went from less than 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent overnight, and local ecosystems began to recover. Clover played a significant role, identifying a Swiss billionaire prepared to underwrite the running costs. He doesn’t mention that in 2015 the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the Chagos MPA was an unlawful infringement on the sovereignty of Mauritius over the islands or that Foreign Office officials had advised Miliband against the initiative. But he does say that he supports the right of return of the Chagossian people. Once they go back home, the decision whether or not to maintain the MPA will be theirs.
In the waters off the UK, the process of declaring MPAs has been complicated in other ways. Clover has spent a lot of time trying to win over politicians who have other things on their minds. Frustrated with their foot-dragging, he eventually endorsed Greenpeace’s plan, carried out in September 2020, to drop granite boulders in the Dogger Bank, a once fertile sandbank in the North Sea. Trawlers now have to give the boulders a wide berth or risk damaging their equipment. One of the boulders has ‘Charles Clover’ painted on its side.
Last June, the UK government finally banned bottom trawling on sections of the Dogger Bank. There have been other successes. Tens of thousands of oysters have been transported to the Solent and now spawn larvae in their billions. Those that make it to adulthood will help clean up coastal waters. Kelp beds along the Sussex shore have been nurtured back to health; locals have spotted seahorses clinging to the kelp fronds. In Lyme Bay, thanks to a conservation project initiated in 2012, the numbers of lobster and flatfish have quadrupled. Jobs in small-scale fishing have been created. Carbon is being locked away as coastal vegetation begins to recover.
Such efforts, however, have to contend with the industrial fishing lobby and its political facilitators. Many governments lack the resources as well as the inclination to protect their coastal waters. Persuading them to act requires slow advocacy. In the parts of the oceans that aren’t governed by any state – what international lawyers call the High Seas – this approach won’t work. The High Seas comprise 64 per cent of the oceans by surface area and more than 90 per cent of their volume. Fishing in these areas is a free for all. Countries can, if they choose, come together to create ‘regional fisheries management organisations’, and negotiate catch limits for particular species in particular places. There are eighteen such organisations, and their performance has ranged from the moderately effective to the deplorable. They suffer from a major structural problem: a country can threaten to leave the organisation and fish as much as it likes. As a result, catch limits are often set absurdly high. The governance of the giant bluefin tuna, for instance, has been described by Jennifer Telesca, an environmental researcher in the Netherlands, as a policy of ‘managed extinction’.
Even if a state joins a fisheries management organisation and agrees to stick by its rules, any of its fishing vessels can opt to sail under the flag of a different country instead. Switching flag is quick and easy, and there is no shortage of options – from Barbados to Sri Lanka to the Cook Islands to Faroe. Flag of convenience countries – there are currently 42 of them, with Panama the most popular – are uninterested in promoting marine conservation. Boats sailing under their colours need observe no constraint. Around a thousand Chinese industrial fishing vessels sail under flags of convenience, many of them on the High Seas.
The permissive nature of High Seas fishing has been deeply damaging. As yet unexplored seamounts have been dredged beyond repair in places where fishing looks less like farming and more like one-hit mining. BASF, a German chemical production company, has patented tens of thousands of pieces of marine genetic information – holding, perhaps, the secret to medicines or chemicals of the future – and paid no one for the privilege. The dream is extraction without responsibility, and state subsidies thrown in wherever possible. Anyone wondering what the future of space exploration might look like should pay attention to the governance of the High Seas.
There are many obstacles to reform. In 2006, an attempt to ban bottom trawling on the High Seas was blocked by Iceland. In 2018, a bid to create a large MPA in the Weddell Sea off the Antarctic coast was stymied by Russia, Norway and China. On 4 March this year, a new High Seas Treaty was agreed at the UN. Without it, the goal of protecting 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030 – a commitment central to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – wouldn’t stand a chance. The treaty provides a framework for establishing MPAs on the High Seas. But whether they can be agreed on a meaningful scale remains to be seen. Clover’s suggestion that governments be forced to withdraw fuel subsidies (travelling two hundred nautical miles out to sea wouldn’t make sense without artificially cheap fuel) might be more effective.
Some marine scientists are beginning to think bigger. For all the money thrown at it, only 1 or 2 per cent of total seafood ‘production’ comes from the High Seas. Nobody is nutritionally dependent on High Seas fish – which isn’t surprising, since the poor can’t afford the fuel to get there in the first place. If there were no fishing on the High Seas at all, we would barely miss it. The fisheries economist Christopher Costello has suggested that the fishing industry would actually catch more fish, and make more profit, if fish had the High Seas as a safe space in which to spawn. What if the expensive, irrational, state-sponsored destruction of the world’s largest ecosystem simply came to a halt? Such a policy could be supplemented by a network of protected areas within each country’s marine territory. The Kunming-Montreal framework aims to protect less than a third of the oceans; if the entirety of the High Seas, and half of everything else, were free from fishing, that would take us closer to 80 per cent.
Of course, designating the whole of the High Seas an enormous marine reserve wouldn’t address all marine problems. Seabed mining would still need to be banned. Pollution from agricultural run-off and our throwaway relationship to plastic are major challenges. Carbon emissions on land are causing the oceans to acidify ten times faster than at any point in the last 65 million years. As the oceans get warmer, heat stress causes coral polyps to expel the algae they depend on for nutrition. Mass coral die-offs are becoming more common. Protecting the High Seas from fishing and other extractive activities wouldn’t undo the damage. But it would be a start.
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