Threat to the coastal fisheries of Wales

Colin Evans provides a sea-level view on the Welsh Government’s proposals for Marine Conservation Zones

For some months the Welsh Government has been consulting on the creation of Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones off the Welsh coast. Ten potential sites have been earmarked with the intention of selecting three or four eventually. The suggestion has sparked a fierce response, especially in Llŷn, where there is a long tradition of inshore fishing – work that would be prohibited under the new rules.

The main criticism has been that there has been no consultation with those who would lose their livelihood, and that the whole process has been driven by ‘experts’ who have no experience of, or interest in, the communities that would be affected.

I am a fisherman of Bardsey Island, my family having longstanding connections with that place. We have been fishing lobsters and crabs there for generations, maintaining an old-fashioned fishery which could also be considered a very progressive, conservation minded one. In truth though, it hasn’t substantially changed in more than a century, apart from technical changes in gear and vessels. Bardsey has been designated a potential Zone, because of its diversity of marine habitats and species.

Wales has chosen to take the most extreme approach possible to Marine Conservation Zones, opting to designate Highly Protected sites which prohibit much human activity.  Not a statutory requirement, Highly Protected sites are used around the world to protect very fragile features such as coral reef habitats, to promote recovery in damaged areas, and for research purposes. They differ from ordinary Marine Protected Areas in that they exclude all extractive and depositional activities, in addition to those deemed disturbing or damaging.  They are valuable tools for marine conservation, when used in the right way. However, there is good reason to believe that they are inappropriate for Wales.

We have a well-distributed coastal population, many of whom still depend on fishing in inshore waters for their living or wellbeing. The vast majority of these activities, for instance static pot fisheries and angling, are shown to have no significant deleterious effect on marine biodiversity, and many have an importance far beyond mere economics.

Welsh advocates of the Highly Protected approach often refer to examples of increases in biomass within No-Take-Zones, which often occur in a very short time after designation. There is no arguing with this dramatic effect, but the context needs to be understood. The species concerned have almost always been subject to considerable, often unsustainable fishing pressure prior to designation and are largely resident (non-migratory) species. It should be remembered that increases in the size of species previously commercially fished are not necessarily indicators of an improving ecosystem; they may eventually prove to be quite the reverse.

Generally, the areas have either no indigenous community dependent on that zone, or they have support, and thus compliance, from local communities which have often been instrumental in their establishment.  It seems that local community support is a prerequisite for a zone’s success.

Whilst other devolved governments are also pursuing Marine Conservation Zones, Wales alone has used the factor of heterogeneity to select the sites. A site is said to have high heterogeneity if there is a large number of or habitats in a relatively small area. This means that the selection process has had only accidental regard for protecting rare species or habitats, and none for allowing damaged areas to recover.

The way the proposed sites have been chosen means that because all the sites are in ‘good’ condition, having high levels of biodiversity, by definition this means that the human activities affected are precisely those low-impact fisheries which have been historically practiced in those areas without damaging effect. Elsewhere, areas which are presently being damaged or threatened with development will continue to be lost. So this chance to protect them will have been thrown away.

Where areas are already well functioning ecosystems, it’s entirely possible that there will be no improvement in biodiversity from the imposition of a Highly Protected site, and all that will be achieved is the loss of a traditional way of life.

Heterogeneity has been used because Wales is already ahead of England and Scotland. Our Government’s European commitments to preserve individual species and habitats are satisfied by our existing designated marine sites which already cover 75 per cent of the Welsh coastline. However, from where I stand those designations don’t seem particularly robust. In common with many other fishermen, I would prefer to see the government’s energies going to strengthen and extend the Marine Preservation Areas we already have.

There is doubt about the quality of data used in selecting the proposed sites, and the way it has been processed. Much of the data on habitats is predictive, using computer modelling to apply point survey data to unsurveyed areas. Other data derives from surveys by volunteers who receive some training in species identification. Seasearch, a division of pro-Marine Conservation Zone campaigners the Marine Conservation Society, has been instrumental in this project. The sites have been selected by analysis of the collected data by the Marxan computer program, which has known limitations.

Fishing in the traditional way with static gear, and with their inherited ‘territories’, Llŷn fishermen will have a difficult choice to make if their particular areas are closed. Some may choose to leave the business, but many more will be forced to impose their gear on someone else’s territory outside the Marine Conservation Zone. I envisage that greater competition will cause damaging pressure on the larger environment and /or diversification out of static gear into drift netting or dredging, as boats struggle to stay viable.

Those who promote Highly Protected Zones as being beneficial to fisheries make much of the so-called ‘spillover’ effect. However, at present there is little direct evidence of this effect in conditions relevant to the zones proposed for Wales. In fact there is a growing body of scientific work which questions the benefits No-Take-Zones in general have for fisheries. In any case, if a significant spillover effect was eventually discovered it would have to be substantial enough to offset the effects of displacement.

In local communities, resentment has been brought about by the prescriptive nature of the Zones. To many they seem to be a done-deal, being imposed from on high without understanding or sympathy, driven on by remote and aggressive lobbyists. Particularly in north Wales, local communities have objected vociferously to Marine Conservation Zones. The Welsh Government’s  previous consultation on the suitability of the Highly Protected approach seems not to have been brought to their attention. Many are unaware that such a consultation ever took place.

Rightly or wrongly, the Countryside Council for Wales are seen as the originators of the concept, and their recent cordial relationship with local fishers is damaged. The consultation document and others issued by Welsh Government and the Countryside Council are contradictory and there is confusion as to what will constitute disturbance within the zones. Rumour of what will and will not be prohibited is giving rise to mistrust of the legislation and those promoting it.

In future, projects like this should be led more from grass-roots, and the knowledge of fishers used both to form ideas in marine conservation, and to help in maintaining successful measures. All around, we can see new alliances being made between environmental NGOs and sustainable communities; Witness Greenpeace’s project with the National Under Ten Fishermen’s Association. Whatever happens next in the Highly Protected Zone arena, I think it essential that future projects have a high degree of local community co-management – with conservation scientists, government policymakers and other interest groups.

In future, local stakeholders should be engaged much earlier in planning projects. We need to secure the future of our shared marine environment, but we need to do this by an involving, not an excluding, process. And as with our fishery in Bardsey, sustainable new ways have to be informed by those long-term historical practices which were sustainable by definition, evidenced by their continued existence.

Colin Evans is a Bardsey Island fisherman

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