Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Channel 4 TV show Fish Fight has begun a new series. In a stroke of good timing, the European parliament voted last week to phase out the wasteful discarding of fish at sea, the main target of the first series. So you could be forgiven for wondering what there is left to fight for. A great deal, it turns out.
The reckless waste of throwing away prime fish after they have been caught is a symptom of the mismanagement of our seas. But it is not the biggest problem they face. That was revealed in shocking footage from the Irish Sea in last night’s programme. I joined Hugh to dive two places in the waters of the Isle of Man, one that had been protected from industrial trawling and dredging for over 20 years, the other regularly worked by scallop dredges and trawls from the local fleet.
As we descended to the seabed in the protected site, it was immediately apparent that every pebble and rock was home to some animal or plant. A meadow of delicately branched sea nettles stretched into the distance, swaying gently with the current. At first glance, it wasn’t spectacular like the gaudy magnificence of a coral reef, but the understated nature of its inhabitants invited a closer look. Virtually everywhere was carpeted with life: peacock worms and anemones studded the bottom, while gobies and hairy crabs gave themselves away with slight movements. The sand was pockmarked with depressions the size of dinner plates, each of which, it turned out, was occupied by a huge scallop. Their shells each supported a world in miniature: tiny glades of sea moss, cratered sponges and glassy sea squirts.
I marvelled at the exquisite delicacy of this living bottom and shuddered at the thought of what a single dredge or trawl would do to it. I found out on the second dive in the scallop fishing grounds. A boat was there when we arrived, dragging 10 heavy steel dredges to and fro across the bottom. The dredges resemble the harrows that farmers use to break up clods of earth, and their vertical steel teeth do much the same thing to the seabed as they kick scallops into heavy-duty chainmail bags.
I have been researching the impacts of fishing in the sea for 30 years, so I was prepared for a big difference from the protected area. But the contrast stunned me. Beneath us the bottom was scored with parallel furrows wide as a motorway. It was almost completely devoid of visible life, barren, a desert. In the whole dive I saw just four living things and one dying: two undersized scallops, two urchins and a clam punctured by a dredge tooth, its body spilling from the fracture. The seabed was so bare it seemed polished. The sand was clean and the pebbles smooth and black, having been rolled over and over by dredge and trawl, so unlike the life-encrusted stones of the protected area.
Before the spread of trawling and dredging, these grounds were very different. In 1836 a visitor wrote: “The southern coast of Man yields much seaweed which supplies the Island with good manure. It may be seen waving to and fro at great depth, so extraordinary is the clearness of the water; a perfect submarine forest.” And the fish that once thronged in these forests are gone too. An 18th-century traveller said that Peel Bay, a little further up the coast, “… is spacious and abounds with a variety of fish, particularly with the red cod, which is an exquisite delicacy. It is of a bright vermilion colour and feeds among rocks covered with weeds and mosses of a crimson tinge.” In the last 30 years, scallop dredgers together with prawn trawlers, which use fine mesh nets to snag scampi, have stripped the Irish Sea of its once abundant fish and turned the seabed to a wasteland.
Why should we care about this transformation if there are still scallops and prawns to be had? After all, huge areas of land have been turned over to crops. This agricultural comparison is often made but it is flawed. We plant crops and nurture them, but we take from the sea only what nature provides. When we simplify terrestrial ecosystems, as we do in agriculture, we render them vulnerable to outbreaks of pests, weeds and diseases, which we control with chemicals. Simplifying the oceans carries the same risks but we have no control over the problems we create there. Those problems are multiplying around our shores today in the form of declining water quality, jellyfish outbreaks, toxic plankton blooms and dead zones. For our seas and the fisheries they sustain to thrive, we must radically change the way they are managed. Put simply, that means fishing less, using less destructive methods, and protecting more.
The government has proposed to create just 31 of 127 marine conservation zones recommended to it for English waters in an £8m consultation that took over two years and involved tens of thousands of people. We need far more. If the network were implemented in full and protected from dredging and trawling, it would help turn around the state of our seas and recover lost fisheries productivity. This is a historic opportunity that we must grasp today. If we drag our heels much longer, there will be little left to protect.