Dan Crockett is our man on the ground when it comes to sustainability and marine conservation. A regular presence on The Broadcast, avid readers will be familiar with Dan's work and the realness he brings to these issues.
In this latest piece he looks at the issues facing our oceans and more importantly, what can (and should) be done to prevent the environmental collapse that threatens to engulf our world.
Image by Rory Moore
As a surfer who spends every day working on solutions to the various problems faced by life in the ocean, it was interesting to read a recent article about overfishing by Paul Evans for Wavelength. “Is it pure fantasy,” Evans asks, “to imagine surfers getting together to oppose the industry that is routinely and systematically destroying the marine environment?” Aside from the world-leading work of Surfers Against Sewage to tackle the challenge of marine plastic pollution, as a community in the UK surfers don’t really get together to talk in detail about the ocean. And in all of the recent conversations about climate change, the simple fact that the ocean is our climate is overlooked.
About six years ago as summer turned into autumn, I was living on an outer Orkney island, spending the downtime between swells with a mask and snorkel on. There was good visibility in cathedrals of kelp, big pollack in the geos being stalked by seals. What struck me was how many large fish there were and how this contrasted with what I’d seen in Cornwall. This started me on a journey towards working in ocean conservation. Have a read of the recent IPCC special report on the ocean and cryosphere for the current litany of crises faced by the ocean. However, in relation to overfishing itself many solutions are at hand, if we just have the temerity to believe in them.
Image by Barbara Sanchez & Greenpeace
It’s worth remembering that our grandparents would have thought nothing of eating turtle soup. What I hear from ministers and civil servants alike right now is to be bold, to ask for rapid change and if we don’t get an answer, to insist. Extinction Rebellion has shown society the value of forcing an issue and that the time for business as usual is over. So here’s my quick list for stopping the clock on an ocean in crisis:
Protect 30% by 2030
Highly protected marine areas work. When you leave an area of ocean to recover it rapidly does. We need high ambition for marine protection and the world needs to align behind the global target of 30% by 2030. Our government is making good headway in protecting its Overseas Territories from overfishing and making the right noises, but in terms of full protection in domestic waters we are at just 7km2 of our 773,676km2 Exclusive Economic Zone – the area of ocean that is ours to control. This is slightly smaller than Richmond Park and should be a matter of international embarrassment.
Stop deep sea mining
Deep sea mining is the equivalent of cutting bits off the plane while in flight. We have no idea how the deep sea affects our ocean health and climate. Charismatic megafauna like whales and sharks might seem more important to the public than hydrothermal vents, but the deep sea is a true frontier. Mining concessions have already been carved up by the International Seabed Authority (who control the global seabed supposedly in the interests of us all). Louisa Casson, a Greenpeace campaigner, dispels industry myths in this article.
Image by Barbara Sanchez & Greenpeace
Stop fishing in the high seas
It is barely economic to fish in the high seas, meaning heavily-subsidised vessels with appalling human rights conditions serve the interests of the few nations that exploit this resource – that we all collectively own. That’s right, the high seas under international law are the common heritage of humankind. The high seas are 43% of earth’s surface, 67% of the ocean. The Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction negotiations at the United Nations conclude in April 2020, providing a chance for a “Paris Agreement for the Ocean,” that creates a global, legally-binding way to protect high seas biodiversity. This won’t stop fishing in the high seas, but it’s a strong start.
Stop hitting the bottom of the food chain
Having absolutely hammered global fish stocks (The World Economic Forum last year suggested 90% of global fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted). With large fish gone, we are targeting the bottom of the food chain.
Krill are a vital part of the Antarctic food chain, they provide food for whales, penguins and seals and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Krill populations have already slumped by 80% since the 1970s. Last year CCAMLR (Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) voted not to create MPAs in East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea, and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Mesopelagic fish live in the vast mid-water ocean and are another target for massive-scale industrial exploitation, largely to make fish feed for aquaculture. These fish provide an ocean “carbon pump,” transporting energy to the seabed. Destroying their populations before we even know what they do is incredibly short-sighted.
Image by Christian Loader/Scubazoo
Massively increase habitat restoration
Re-wilding the sea is entirely possible. There are fledgling restoration projects everywhere, from kelp to seagrass to mangroves to oysters to angel sharks. But this is just the start, restoring habitat and environmentally-important species to coastal waters could play a key role in bringing the ocean back to health.
If you take the humble native oyster, a species that has declined by over 90% from its historical level (oyster beds once ringed the British Isles), its ability to regenerate a healthy ecosystem is huge. The United Nations Decade of Ocean Restoration notwithstanding, re-wilding the sea needs a massive increase in profile and impact - its role in resilience to climate change cannot be overestimated.
Universally ban destructive fishing gear in MPAs
The fight against overfishing is lost as soon as particular gears are allowed to fish in sensitive areas. In many of the protected areas around our coastline, bottom trawling is still allowed. It’s hard to think of a land-equivalent analogy of this and it’s not just insane because it decimates the marine environment – stopping fishing pressure on an area has been shown to increase fish stocks in surrounding areas. Any talk of banning fishing is incendiary, but this is a conversation that needs to happen.
Image by Rory Moore
Force aquaculture to up its game
The elephant in the room. Aquaculture (farmed fish) has overtaken wild fish in terms of global consumption. But aquaculture doesn’t remove pressure on wild fish stocks, in fact it increases them. The global demand for fish meal is relentless and this generally means small, wild caught fish (like the sand eels we see in great abundance off the Cornish coast at this time of year). Aquaculture around the world means very different things but even close to home, you only need to watch the Panorama investigation in Scottish salmon farming to see how far behind the industry is in terms of welfare. Scrutiny and standards are needed now.
Create an Ocean Health Bank
Every country in the world has a development bank but the ocean, which supports all life on earth and particularly the three billion people who rely on seafood for their main form of protein, has none. Torsten Thiele of Global Ocean Trust has proposed innovative financing – an Ocean Sustainability Bank set up for sustainable development and climate finance could deploy the trillions of capital without a home to support a healthier ocean. Without the role of finance to support restoration and regeneration, things will be much slower.
The only limit to all of the above happening is public support for rapid change. The institutions that make these decisions are our public representatives, so if we want action we have to ask for it. Surfers need to stop seeing themselves as complacent, fringe representatives on ocean issues. If you have a public platform, learn about what is really happening in the ocean and speak out, it’s astonishing how powerful a community is once mobilised. As we go into a series of events that will shape the future of the ocean and indeed our planet in 2020, now is the time to take an interest and bring your voice to the debate. All that stands between us and a sustainable ocean is public interest and the pressure that this exerts.
Footnote; Astute observers will notice similarities between this list and that proposed by the IPSO report entitled: “Eight urgent, fundamental and simultaneous steps needed to restore ocean health, and the consequences for humanity and the planet of inaction or delay.” Although I wrote this article before it came out, the report is authored by numerous people that I admire greatly and is highly recommended as further reading.