Here are some figures that should be highly disruptive to the way that governments make decisions about how they treat our seas.
Total value of landings by commercial fishing fleets in the UK as a whole: £770m.
Total spending by sea anglers (recreational rod and line fishers) in England alone: £831m.
Yes, surprising as it seems, fishing for a hobby appears to generate more value than fishing commercially.
The same report, produced for the Westminster government last year, found that sea angling in England directly generates 10,400 jobs: in charter boats, tackle shops, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and the rest.
Commercial fishing directly employs 12,450 people across the UK.
The report on angling doesn’t provide figures for the whole of the UK, but if the jobs generated are proportional to the number of anglers, then the total for England, Scotland and Wales is 12,690. (There must also be a few hundred in Northern Ireland, for which I don’t have any figures). So, in terms of direct employment, rod and line fishing appears to generate more jobs than net and pot fishing.
This is complicated by the issue of indirect employment: jobs for people further along the supply chains. It’s a slippery measure, which changes dramatically according to where you draw the line: there are lies, damn lies, statistics and indirect employment statistics. In 2008 I asked a researcher to investigate the claims made in the newspapers about jobs being generated by major industries. We discovered that if the claims were correct and representative, there should be 218 million people employed in the UK: three and a half times the total population.
But, taking the figures provided in different reports at face value, commercial fishing generates more indirect employment than angling: it has a “multiplier” (the ratio of direct to indirect jobs) of 3.5, as opposed to 2.3 for sport fishing.
Broadly speaking, we’re looking at two industries of roughly comparable size, which exist in direct competition with each other. One – commercial fishing – constrains the income and employment generated by the other. The government survey found that the factor above all others that would encourage participation is “better fish stocks”. The anglers it questioned reported sharply diminished catches over the past 20 or 30 years; which is unsurprising in view of the depletion caused by commercial overfishing and the habitat destruction inflicted by trawlers and scallop dredgers.
It’s hard to see how employment in the commercial sector could rise very much, even with higher fish stocks, as a few very large and efficient boats now take the majority of the catch. 69% of the tonnage of fish landed in the UK is taken by just 4% of the boats: vessels of over 24 metres.
This concentration, alongside technological change, is largely responsible for the rapid decline in employment in commercial fishing. Between 1938 and 1980 the number of jobs halved (48,000 to 23,000). Between 1980 and 2012 they halved again.
But if there were more fish, there would be more anglers: thousands of people who now go abroad to fish or who have given up altogether after days spent catching nothing but weed would turn up on our coasts and start spending money in some of the poorest parts of the country. Could it be that, as a result of their tendency to support extractive industries against the alternatives, whether or not this makes economic sense (a phenomenom I call resource testeria), governments have been backing the wrong sector?
It might seem strange for a lover of the natural world to come out in favour of a hobby that involves catching and killing wild animals. But anyone who has come to know a few anglers cannot help but make a couple of observations. The first is that many of the most effective campaigns to protect both marine and freshwater ecosystems have been launched or propelled by sport fishers. They have campaigned fiercely against pollution, dredging, dumping and overfishing. You cannot have healthy fish stocks without a healthy aquatic environment, and few anglers are unaware of that. I wonder how many of the 500,000 people who petitoned the government for effective marine reserves and the 700,000 people who joined the campaign against discarding edible fish at sea were among the million in Britain who fish in the sea.
Few people spend as much time outdoors watching and waiting. It is hard under these circumstances not to develop some interest in and love for the natural world. Perhaps as a result, many environmental campaigners were keen anglers when they were children: I count myself among them.
Their catches are mostly tiny by comparison to those of the commercial fishing industry, and the majority of the fish they take (75% by shore anglers and 50% by boat anglers) are returned alive, rather than discarded dead.
There’s no doubt that sport fishing has some impacts on the natural world, but these are mostly minor ones; much smaller, for example, than the impacts of shooting. Overall, I think we should see anglers as our allies.
There is an obvious way in which their luck can be enhanced without damaging employment in the commercial sector: the creation of real marine reserves, by which I mean “no-take zones”, in which commercial extraction cannot take place. Wherever these have been established, they have resulted in a massive increase in fish stocks.
A survey of 124 strict marine reserves found that – even though many of them are only a few years old – the total weight of animals and plants they contain has on average quadrupled since they were established. The size and diversity of the fish and other animals they contain have also sharply increased.
There’s a strong spillover effect: because fish and shellfish can spawn and grow in safety inside the reserves, far greater numbers than before then move into the surrounding seas, increasing the total catch without knackering the population. As a result, as we’ve seen in the Philippines, Japan, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Kenya, the fishing industry tends to resist marine reserves before they are created, then to support them once they have been established. But all the governments of England and Wales have managed to do is to alienate everyone while protecting nothing.
In England, after a massive consultation and years of negotaiations between the different groups who use the sea, the last government produced a list of 127 marine conservation zones, all of which had broad social support. This government has now cut that list down to just 27.
Amazingly, not a single square metre of these “strictly protected areas” will be a no-take zone. Trawlers will be allowed to keep ripping the seabed and its lifeforms to pieces. These are paper parks, little more than lines on a map, ecologically meaningless.
In Wales the government went the other way. It announced that it would create 24 new reserves in which almost all activity – commercial or non-commercial – would be prohibited. This seems to have been a major strategic mistake. Sea anglers, who were initially supportive, switched to outright antagonism. They joined the commercial fishers with whom they have long been at odds in opposing these reserves.
It would surely have made more sense to have allowed kinds of sport fishing that cause little damage inside the conservation zones. The anglers would doubtless have been prepared to accept catch limits and other restrictions, in return for much higher populations of fish.
As the strength of opposition became clear, the 24 proposed zones were reduced to 10, then to four, and then dropped altogether. The proposal and the consultation were spectacularly mishandled, turning natural allies into enemies.
As a result, rather than 30% of our seas designated as no-take zones – as the royal commission on environmental pollution advised in 2004, and as 500,000 people demanded in 2009 – the UK has still managed to protect only 0.01% of our territorial waters: 5 sq km out of 48,000.
The income and employment figures the government has produced surely demand a reassessment of its priorities, and should highlight the folly of its current policies. Anyone who loves the life of the sea should make use of them: they provide another powerful argument against allowing commercial fishing fleets to dominate the public debate.
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