An Irish Anglers World

Marine Protection Areas

Commercial fishing reached a new level after the Second World War. Advances in technology spawned by the conflict were taken up by the fishing industry, and a new age of what could be termed industrial fishing was born. Sonar devices, GPS, advances in gear and boat design, improvements in weather forecasting, more or less meant that anywhere on the continental shelf, and even into the deep ocean was now accessible to the worlds commercial fishing fleets. Fishermen as a result of seabed mapping and satellite navigation could now reach the parts that were inaccessible before, and go back for more, knowing that they were able to land on the productive spot time and again. Backed up by inept management systems, such as the European Unions Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the Worlds seas and oceans have been subject to 50 plus years of exploitation, and are now in a pretty poor state.

A healthy ocean is necessary on so many levels. As a food source, one sixth of the earth’s population rely directly on fish and shellfish as their primary source of protein. As a protector from natural ecological disasters and man made pollution, a healthy sea has the ability to filter and purify. Recreationally and aesthetically it is far nicer to swim in, surf on, sail across, and wonder at, a clean, rich, diverse environment, than one which is denuded and degraded.

All of mankind has a primary stake in the richness and biodiversity of the world’s oceans. Protein derived from the sea helped make us what we are today. We choose to eat fish and the world has provided for us. Fishermen for centuries have tapped into this resource at a subsistence level to feed themselves. As communities developed the process became more organised and sophisticated. Around the eleventh century commercial fishing ventures began to appear for the first time. For some people to choose to make their living from the sea is not a bad thing, as we cannot all go fishing. But to assume thereafter that the fish and the sea are yours, as human nature dictates, ultimately leads us to where we are today.

Man has treated a finite resource as an infinite one. Investors want returns on their capital. Fishermen believe that they have traditional rights to particular areas and the fish there under. Politicians turn a blind eye to the former and bow to the latter. The assumption being, that only people who make their living from the sea have a right to comment, and dictate how the resource is utilised. Only when decision makers accept that, everybody is a stakeholder in the marine environment, will progress be made in managing the resource in a proper and sustainable manner.

Man caught up with the, “inexhaustible sea”, sometime after 1950. Scientists give 1989 as the tipping point year, when world wide, fish stocks went into decline after WWII. If we do not radically change our approach regarding marine exploitation, all commercial fish stocks will have gone beyond there biological limit for recovery by 2050. What that situation will do to the ecology of the oceans, and the wider world does not bear thinking about. For marine biodiversity is not just about fish, it is about all the organisms that interact with each other within the marine ecosystem. Upset that balance and phenomena such as, dead zones and jelly fish swarms might just become the norm.

Real progress towards marine rehabilitation will only occur when those that manage our fisheries move from a single species approach to an ecosystem modal. To date systems have been based on individual quotas, i.e. fish landed, as against the physical stock. Quotas lead to practises such as discarding (small and or unwanted fish), and high grading where only prime fish of a certain size are kept, the rest being discarded. Ultimately though quota systems fail due to one glaring fact that nets and lines are not selective, and most fisheries are mixed. If Plaice are being fished for, but the Cod quota has been fulfilled, it will not stop Cod from swimming into the net. Under E.U. law those Cod go back dead, and are not included in the figures.

Fishing methods too play their part in degrading the marine environment. Beam trawling breaks up the seabed, rendering it unfit for shellfish habitation. Shellfish play an important role in filtering and cleaning sea water. Trawling on ocean seamounts break up deep water coral reefs that have taken hundreds of years to grow, and act as habitats for the species that live at these depths. Unwanted species such as Sharks, Turtles, Dolphins, Manta Rays, Whales, and prime fish, end up being attached to lines or in nets.  So over time due to a single system approach, allied to a blind eye turned to the reality of our exploitation methods, the degradation continues.

Cue Marine Protection Areas (MPA). Combine these with eco friendly fishing methods, and regulate the commercial sector so that marine species are targeted primarily as a food item only. Presently fish species are exploited directly to provide the base raw material for the manufacture of fertilizer, oils, even fish food for the aquaculture industry. To date only 0.6% of the world’s oceans are protected, these areas are primarily nature reserves. But their very existence has proven that left alone the marine environment can recover with spectacular results.

It has been estimated that a network of strategically located, well managed MPA’s, covering between 10% – 20% of the worlds sea/ocean area would allow our marine environment to recover. Whether recovery world wide would reach the pristine levels of a few hundred years ago is debatable. But certainly within the protected areas this would be the case. The overspill out of these areas in conjunction with a reduced commercial fleet (up to 40%), using more artisinal and selective fishing methods, would guarantee fish and shellfish supply into the future.

It is not rocket science, but the only way to not catch a fish, especially in a mixed fishery, is not to fish. Given that most fishing methods are non selective, protection areas make sense, if mankind ultimately wants to safeguard the marine environment. Strategically locate MPA’s around spawning and nursery areas, coral reefs and mangroves, sensitive sea areas, and migratory routes. By applying an inter-connective management plan the overspill from these areas will provide an on going sustainable seafood resource, while at the same time guaranteeing marine diversity and ecosystems into the future.

See also: The Cawley Report on the Irish Seafood Industry.