Was it just me or was the first edition of Hugh's new Fish Fight series slightly … weird? A demonstration that we need more marine reserves by using a tractor to knock over some sand castles? Sand castles which had been spiked with ice cream cones and draped in bunches of grapes? A detailed demonstration of how to go dynamite fishing, including how to make your own explosives?
There was a serious point lost behind all the gimmicks which was Hugh's push for more marine protected areas. The figures much in evidence in the press are that the government promised to make 127 marine protected areas (MPAs) but so far they are only planning on establishing 31 by the end of this year. The real question though is "why?" Why would government go to the trouble of assessing so many areas and then only implement so few?
The answer involves two things that campaigners don't ever deal well with: science and detail. Government rejected or, rather, postponed establishing more MPAs simply because the review of the scientific basis for the areas - what was being protected, why it was important, what would be the benefit - simply wasn't adequate. Not my opinion, but the opinion of the government's Scientific Advisory Panel, a group of eminent marine biologists. Correct selection of areas is important because badly selected areas may simply move fishing effort out into more sensitive habitats, a displacement of effort causing an increase in environmental pressure elsewhere. The 31 selected sites are not the end of the story; the evidence for site selection needs strengthening but there will be more well defined sites coming along in future years. And remember, the figures quoted are only for England. Scotland, Wales and Ireland all have their own MPA networks.
Hugh also made great play of the idea that very little of the UK's seas have any kind of protection. Or at least that was the implication; what he actually said was "reserves with no commercial exploitation at all". The answer, unsurprisingly, was very small. Make the comparison with land and you can soon see that Hugh is setting up a very unusual criterion. National Parks are out, being largely farmland, as is most of our countryside. Perhaps a few nature reserves could be counted, although most of them have an element of charging for visitors or membership structures. The reality is that much of our waters, already have some sort of protection.
For example, European marine sites, designated to protect marine wildlife and habitats of European significance, such as eelgrass and reefs cover 24% of English territorial waters and Defra has begun a review of all fishing gear used in all sites and those deemed incompatible will be either banned or restricted. In addition to MPAs, there are many fishery closed areas in UK coastal waters to protect juvenile commercial species, such as cod and plaice as part of local fisheries management.
So where is this campaign going? The cynic might suggest that Hugh is well aware that more MPAs will come along once the evidence is robust and is lining himself up to take credit for them when they arrive. Whether or not that is true, this series does not seem to have the simple and powerful message of Hugh's fight against discards. .
Paul Williams, Chief Executive Seafish