How often, over the past decade, have you heard the assertion that something needs to be ‘fit for the 21st century’? Two of the most recent candidates have been ‘a banking system’ and ‘a welfare state’, but there have been many others. It seems that, in all sorts of areas, we face challenges which we recognise as very different from what went before – the 20th century.
We can get a measure of the challenge we face by looking at the first decade of the 20th century – England under Edward VII, king from 1901 to 1910. If that decade had aspired to come up with a way of doing things ‘fit for the 20th century’, could they possibly have anticipated the demands which would be made on that system in the last decade of the century?
One thing is for sure – they weren’t agonising over putting in place an environmental management system fit for the 20th century. Their ambitions were for expansion and exploitation; in this they were remarkably successful. The concept of sustainability, an awareness of the limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity, even a concern for pollution did not shape their thinking. It took the whole of the century to catch up with those ideas.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the way we have managed our fisheries. Our seas are – or rather were – some of the most productive in the world. They have been fished for centuries, but the 20th century saw a change in capacity to exploit which could hardly have been dreamt of. From the introduction of the steam engine at the beginning to GIS at the end, fishing has become an increasingly sophisticated activity with an ever growing impact on the marine environment.
The litany of loss is a long one, from habitats damaged (there used to be a reef system at the mouth of the Exe, called the Exeters, for instance; there isn’t now) to species’ collapse (the North Sea herring) to near extinction (the common skate). It was no-one’s fault; the exploitation was urged on by and served the needs of society. During the same period of time, the land suffered a similar exploitation, with species rich natural habitats replaced by improved pasture, intensive arable and forestry plantation, monocultures all.
The challenge now is to put in place a fisheries management programme ‘fit for the 21st century’. And what a challenge it is! It is estimated that stocks of many species are one tenth of what they were 100 years ago. Then there are the problems of bycatch, of discards, of seabird declines for want of food, of damaging fishing methods. Not to mention attitudes to exploiting the sea which go back centuries and are hard to refashion.
So where to begin? As on land, the real need is to take the pressure off substantial areas so that wildlife can thrive as it once did. This won’t always mean excluding all activities; some fishing methods are not in themselves damaging (other than to populations of the target species, of course). But any effective network of marine protected areas will need some places where we take a hands off approach and let them be.
There is at last an emerging proposal to create such a network. It is being led in the South West by a project called ‘Finding Sanctuary’, which is getting close to making its recommendations. The fishermen are understandably nervous and have talked of fishing ‘ghost towns’ resulting if the ‘wrong’ decisions are made. They have also begun to distance themselves from Finding Sanctuary, even though they have been openly embraced by the project. Their anxiety reflects the gravity of the decisions which have to be made. This is a once in many lifetimes adjustment; it does not come without cost. Our generation stands to pay for the excesses of the past – what we are buying are Living Seas for future generations to fish sustainably.
Our use too must become more sustainable, which is why the newly formed Inshore Fishing and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) have such a vital role to play. The Devon and Severn IFCA has not got off to a very promising start. Its role has been expanded to take in the very important habitats to be found in the Severn Estuary Special Area for Conservation (SAC). This has meant the involvement of several local authorities not part of the old Sea Fisheries Committee. Despite the fact that they will receive additional funding for the first four years to cover their contribution, despite the fact that the Authority is now as much about conservation as fisheries and despite the presence of the Severn Estuary SAC, some councillors have vowed not to play their part in the new body.
No doubt it will all settle down. We all benefit from a healthy and sustainable natural environment; it’s not instead of human services, it’s part of them. If we really can set up an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas in the South West and the 4 IFCAs – Isles Of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon & Severn and Southern – oversee and legislate for sustainable use of resources, both inside and outside the network, then it is just possible they will look back in the 2190s and be grateful to this generation for setting up a marine management system ‘fit for the 21th century’.