James Hamilton-Paterson

Early one morning two Februaries ago, I stood in shirtsleeves in the tiny bay of Crinan in the extreme west of Argyll. The sun was brilliant in a rinsed blue sky. On a nearby islet an unmoving white heron might have been a plaster model. Behind it shores and islands widened to the horizon. Everything was still. Before long the first clouds had appeared, and within fifteen minutes the islands had vanished. Last to disappear behind the grey squalls hissing across the beach was the heron.

I have since thought of these successive versions of a North Atlantic seascape as representing more than just the contingency of weather. For this sea is not the same as the one I swam in as a child, changeable yet essentially unchanged, its resources pristine and infinite. In my lifetime, two-thirds of its high-trophic-level fishes (those at the top of the marine food chain, largely the carnivorous species) have disappeared as a result of relentless industrial fishing. This raises ‘serious concern for the future of the North Atlantic as a diverse, healthy ecosystem’, a recent survey tells us. ‘We may soon be left with only low-trophic-level species in the sea.’[*] In other words, if things continue as they are, North Atlantic fishes will be largely reduced to those species living on plants and phytoplankton.

Even these may have a hard time surviving. Damage to the seabed caused by indiscriminate and unpoliced trawling is widespread, to judge by what marine biologists’ remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have been recording for years, and given what we already know of the desertification of great stretches of the North Sea’s bed. The power of modern trawlers is awesome. Even middling-sized boats can tow a wall of net 120 metres wide and 15 metres high across a seabed a kilometre down, scraping swathes the size of motorways, erasing communities of bottom-dwelling biota (such as worms, sponges and crustaceans) which are essential to the sea’s health but of no commercial value whatever. ‘Fishing with bulldozers,’ a member of the US Marine Conservation Biology Institute recently described it to a BBC reporter. The nets, hoppers, shackles and steel doors crunch into outcrops of Lophelia pertusa, a deep-water coral which provides a habitat for various forms of marine life. Chunks of the coral are dragged up, along with hitherto unknown species of fish and other creatures that go unrecognised and are simply tipped back dead by the tonne as ‘bycatch’. This goes on night and day all year round. Now vessels are increasingly fishing outside national boundaries and far down the continental shelf, driven there by their own success in shallower inshore waters where popular species have already been reduced to commercial extinction. They now prey on deeper, unexploited stocks of less familiar fish such as black scabbard, aided by electronic fish-finders that can spot a lone sardine through a mile of water. No one really knows what is down there, or how it all fits together as an ecosystem, so politicians can hide behind the comparative lack of scientific certainty about the environmental consequences of targeting these deep-water species.

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[*] Christensen et al. in Fish and Fisheries (Vol. IV, Issue 1, March 2003).

[†] Trawler: A Journey through the North Atlantic (Penguin, 339 pp., £7.99, June, 0 14 027668 8).