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A Better Future for Fish?

Next year could herald the beginning of a momentous change to the way the sea is managed around Britain, my home country. Members of Parliament (MPs) are holding hearings into the draft of a "Marine Bill" that will be debated in Parliament later this year. If the Bill gets through in anything like its current form, it will provide the means to establish a national network of marine protected areas, some of which could be highly protected from exploitation and other sources of human impact. It would also establish a Marine Management Organisation to unify governance roles that are now splintered among countless entities. These are worthy aims and the Bill has cross-party support. So why am I worried? Last week I briefed the opposition party on the state of Britain's seas. I began by posing a question that I put to my freshman students this year. How much fish do you think we land today into England compared with the amount caught in 1920? I could see some MPs mentally calculating the change in fishing power: steam to diesel engines; small to large vessels; hemp twine to monofilament nets; and the late 20th century's breathtaking technological advances in fish finding gear. A straw poll among my students returned estimates of catches two to ten times greater today than 1920, and the MPs drew similar conclusions. The real answer is that we land less than one tenth of the fish caught in 1920 using bottom trawl gears. Catches have nose-dived. These figures paint a more arresting picture of change than any that emerge from government fishery establishments because they go back much farther in time. Most of the statistics offered up for ministerial consumption extend back only to the early 1980s at best, so the full sweep of decline is never seen. Make no mistake, industrial fishing has laid waste to Britain's seas. If fish are to remain part of the British diet we must reduce fishing and place conservation at the heart of marine policy. So the Marine Bill is a welcome opportunity for change. I worry though, because even faced with such compelling evidence, politicians find it hard to stomach the cure. When I suggested putting a third of Britain's seas off limits to fishing as part of a package of reforms to the way we manage the sea, the response from MPs was "We couldn't possibly do that! People would never accept it." (Skeptical readers might substitute "the fishing industry wont buy it.") The ability to resist change is a human foible most of us share. We hate to abandon cherished ideas, no matter how compelling the evidence against them. Institutions, especially government ones, develop over time into Byzantine bureaucracies whose methods are hard to understand, let alone alter. But if politicians really want a future for the fishing industry, they must first rethink the future for fish. We can't return the seas to their primordial state and nor should we. But we have to raise the level of our ambitions to restore the diversity, vitality, productivity and beauty of marine life. Policies that once seemed unthinkable - like protecting a third of our seas - must now be contemplated. ---------- Callum Roberts is Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York in England and the author of The Unnatural History of the Sea. Click here to visit his website.