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Huge "No-Fishing" Zones Only Hope for Ocean Marine Life

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Published on Wednesday, December 8, 2004 by the Independent/UK

Huge No-Fishing Zones 'Offer Only Hope' of Saving Marine Ecosystem From

by Michael McCarthy

It has been invisible, so it has gone largely unheeded, but the wrecking of
the seas is now the world's gravest environmental problem after climate
change, British scientists said yesterday.

Such destruction has been caused by over-fishing in the marine environment
and only massive protected zones, where all fishing is banned, will allow
the sea's damaged areas to recover, members of the Royal Commission on
Environmental Pollution said.

These non-fishing reserves should cover fully 30 per cent of UK territorial
waters, the commission suggested, in the most drastic call ever made to
scale back fishing in Britain or Europe. The proposals were welcomed by
environmentalists, but attacked by some fishing industry groups, who said
they would threaten yet more livelihoods, and that recovery measures have
already been taken.

But the commission, representing some of the country's most senior
environmental scientists, was insistent. It is not just the question of
plunging fish stocks, critical though many of these are, it said in a new
report; rather, the concern is for the whole marine ecosystem, with
seabirds, dolphins and porpoises killed in their thousands, smaller marine
organisms wiped out and the seabed comprehensively destroyed by trawling
over vast distances.

The report, Turning The Tide, calls on people and policymakers everywhere
to recognise for the first time the real scale and true nature of the
problem: that decades of competitive fishing have put the whole marine
ecosystem under siege. The central point is that it is the ecosystem, and
not just threatened individual fish stocks, such as cod or haddock, that
needs looking after.

The commission's members call for a simple but profound policy change: the
"presumption in favour of fishing" should be reversed. Until now, fishing
has been allowed anywhere unless the regulating authorities can demonstrate
that harm is being done to ecosystems or habitats.

But this has not prevented severe ecosystem damage, the commission reports,
saying that it should be for fishing interests to demonstrate that their
activities will not cause harm. There should be spatial planning in the sea
just as there is on land, it says.

Sir Tom Blundell, the commission's chairman and a professor of chemistry at
Cambridge University, said: "It is hard to imagine that we would tolerate a
similar scale of destruction on land, but because it happens at sea, the
damage is largely hidden. On land, we have had a planning system for over 50
years to ... set aside areas for protection. Unless similar steps are taken
at sea to allow recovery from decades of intensive fishing, species may
disappear and the ecosystem itself be put in danger."

The report concludes that fishing is a threat to our seas, not only around
the UK, but globally, and sets out a litany of the destruction that has been
caused. Populations of more than 40 per cent of commercial fish species in
the north-east Atlantic and neighbouring seas are below sustainable limits.
Large quantities of unmarketable fish - in some cases up to 50 per cent of
the catch - are discarded at sea.

Thousands of seabirds and marine mammals such as dolphins and porpoises are
killed, getting tangled and drowning, in nets or caught on the hooks of
"long-line" fishing gear.

The seabed has been destroyed over vast areas in the North Sea and other
seas, and the myriad organisms that live there wiped out by beam-trawling,
in which heavy gear is dragged along the bottom. Substantial marine nature
reserves, off-limits to fishing boats, must now be the way out, the
commission says. Britain is committed to setting up marine reserves over the
next decade, but the call for 30 per cent of UK waters to be so dedicated is
the first time anyone has put a precise number on the project.

Euan Dunn, the head of marine policy at the RSPB, said: "What the Royal
Commission has done is to sharpen the debate by suggesting what size this
network should be."

Sir Tom said that around the world there was evidence that creating marine
reserves led to a several-fold increase in the size of fish, shellfish and
other animals in a relatively few years. Commission members said
implementing their recommendations would clearly lead to a further shrinkage
of activity in UK fishing communities.

George McRae, the secretary of the Scottish White Fish Producers
Association, said: "There are 20,000 kilometres of oil pipelines in the
North Sea and on top of that there are oil platforms and rigs and all sorts
of legitimate industrial activity, which have had a huge impact on the
environment. I haven't heard any suggestion that these should be curtailed
in any way."

Commission members accept that their recommendations are one thing, but
getting them agreed by the European Commission in Brussels, where they would
have to be implemented, is quite another. Commission member Professor Paul
Ekins said: "We hope that it will not be necessary for there to be a
complete collapse of fish stocks for someone to recognise that something
radical needs to be done."

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd