August 8, 2008

We Will All Benefit From Trawling Ban

Ne in four mammals, one in eight birds and one in three amphibians on this planet are threatened with extinction.

This is something which is of profound significance to us all. Mammals, birds and amphibians belong in complex living systems which were once found all over this planet and which humankind is systematically dismantling to put to its own uses. We are now nearing the point at which half the land mass on Earth is in some way subjugated to human need. We are stripping the skin off the planet to keep ourselves alive knowing that, if the planet dies, we will go with it.

When you are suffering death by a thousand cuts, how do you make one cut worth preventing? It is easy to see how losing all the rainforests will result in disaster; it is rather more difficult to make the case for say the Culm grasslands of North Devon. And this is on the visible part of the planet. How do you make the case for the sea?

On land we now have the makings of a system for taking decisions about the uses of natural resources. It may be far from perfect, but it does involve designating sites of national importance, creating a system for evaluating between conserving and exploiting, putting in place laws preventing some damaging activities.

We have none of this for the marine environment. We have been using and abusing it for centuries. We may have become agrarians on land, tending and nurturing it and (at least in theory) putting back some of what we take out. At sea we are still hunter-gatherers, taking what we can get where we can get it and oblivious to the impact of what we do on the living systems of the seas.

No-one gets to see it, of course. The very people who would kick and scream about the idea of planting a windfarm on land make no fuss at all about reducing a reef system to rubble, which is what has already happened to the Exeters, off the mouth of the river Exe.

A recent book by Callum Roberts entitled An Unnatural History of the Sea vividly illustrates the centuries of damage. "In our pursuit of fish, we have transformed the leafy glades and rolling forests of the sea into endless muddy plains," he writes. Little wonder, then, that there is a real urgency about saving any worthwhile bits which might be left - such as the Lyme Bay Reefs.

The decision to close the 60 square nautical miles of Lyme Bay which contain those parts of the reef system which are undamaged or still capable of substantial recovery has inevitably impacted on some of the current fishing practices in the bay. The piece in the Western Morning News on Saturday made clear the hurt and anger of these men. That hurt and anger doesn't make the decision wrong, however. It makes it brave.

Moreover, since the decision was taken on behalf of all of us, the impact on them should not be taken lightly. Their livelihoods are potentially at stake; the Government which introduced the ban should also be mindful of their need.

Under the headline in the local press "Fishing Rights snatched away", one fishermen's representative was reported as saying that "the feeling is, now that environmentalists can smell victory, they will keep pushing... I have absolutely no doubt some fishermen will flout the ban in due course".

I would be the first to argue that society has a responsibility to address any genuine hardship resulting from the ban; threatening lawlessness does not advance that cause.

We should also not lose sight of the fact that the livelihoods of others have been secured. Had the scalloping continued, the day would have come when the potters, for instance, would have been put out of business - as they were some years ago on the Exeters. There are sustainable uses of the resource. In future, we will all benefit from the reef's life-support systems, keeping our oceans healthy, while some can still make a living from it. A win-win to replace the previous dead end.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the UN published a document called Living beyond our Means. It began: "At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."

Despite this, the decision in Lyme Bay has been portrayed as a victory for environmentalists, defeat for the fishermen - as if only organisations such as Devon Wildlife Trust stood to benefit from it.

Humankind has a very short time in which to change its relationship with the natural world from one of plunder to one of nurture if human life is to have a viable future. This will take a cultural shift in understanding of that relationship in which the media could play a key role. Presenting the drive for change as confrontational and something which is only of importance to environmentalists is irresponsible.

The decision in Lyme Bay is one very small, very tentative, step towards the recognition that some natural assets are of more value to us intact than exploited for economic gain, when that exploitation will eventually further erode the very life support systems on which we depend.

It's a counter to a world which will still fly 50,000 English football supporters half way round the world to watch their teams play in Moscow, despite climate change. It's a counter to an advertising industry still lauding conspicuous consumption in a world of finite and diminishing resources.

If there is a winner, then it is the planet and the living functions which help keep us all alive - fishermen and so-called "environmentalists" alike.

(c) 2008 Western Morning News, The Plymouth (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.