Through August, Lewis Pugh is doing long distance swims in the Seven Seas of ancient maritime folklore - The Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Arabian and North. His mission is to highlight the need for Marine Protected Areas across the globe.
Lewis Pugh is most famous for having swum in the Arctic in 2007 to highlight the loss of Arctic sea ice as a result of climate change. The water temperature was minus 1.7 degrees and it took months for his body to fully recover. I need to steel myself before I plunge into the sea in Cornwall and that is in the summer, in a wetsuit, when the temperature is 14 degrees. He has also swum in a Himalayan glacial lake (the highest swim ever undertaken) to raise awareness of melting glaciers and repercussions for water supply across Asia, across the Maldives and around Robben Island in South Africa (a primary habitat for Great White Sharks).
His feats are truly inspirational. The message that he embodies is what is possible if you truly commit to overcoming a physical challenge. He has set himself these Herculean tasks to highlight the need for a global response to an environmental challenge-the fact that less than 3% of our seas are protected. How much more does a man need to do to show that he cares?
The response needs to come from Governments across the world; but the call needs to come from people. Across these ancient seas our demand for resources has outstripped their ability to regenerate and we now see populations of Common Skate and Monk Seal at the edge of extinction. We know that these seas are polluted and overfished, but the scale of the problem leaves us feeling paralysed and powerless.
We don’t all have to swim vast distances or take a dip in Arctic waters, but like Lewis we need to remind our politicians that we care. In one sense, it doesn’t really matter how the message is relayed - we can swim, hop or run, but ultimately it is important that politicians hear that the protection of the sea is important to us.
As he left South Africa to start this mission, Desmond Tutu wished Lewis Pugh well saying ‘when we damage the environment and don’t protect our resources we create the conditions necessary for conflict. However when we protect the environment we bring peace.’ The protection of our environment may feel a lesser priority than issues such as energy and the cost of living, but our economies are fundamentally rooted in the natural world and the resources and value it provides for us.
When he completed the swim in the Mediterranean this weekend he was met by Prince Albert of Monaco. I am not sure who will be meeting him when he swims up the Thames on the 29th August, but if you are in London then it would be great to ensure he gets a reception to show our gratitude for this feat to highlight the importance of protecting our seas.
I'm really pleased to bring you a guest post by Vicky Brown, who has been based at Filey Bay in Yorkshire this summer for the RSPB, getting to know and working with the local netsmen. Vicky shares some of her experiences so far.
Filey Bay is a small quaint fishing town off the East Coast of Yorkshire. The Bay is home to seven licensed gillnet fishermen, who fish for sea trout and salmon between May and August. Fishing in Filey is both an income and a way of life, but one that is slowly dying out. It is sad to think that in my lifetime, I will be able to look out into the bay and see no salmon and trout fishermen fishing.
I have been working closely with the netsmen in Filey since May this year. By having a presence in Filey, we are trying to build a strong and lasting relationship with them and use our knowledge from here to develop projects in other fisheries along the coast. I have learnt a great deal both from working alongside the netsmen and liaising with RSPB partners, discussing factors influencing seabird bycatch in gillnets and ideas to reduce it.
(photo: Vicky Brown)
Over the last few years the netsmen have done a lot to try and reduce seabird bycatch in the bay. Their nets have been changed to a corline material, which is thought to be much more visible to birds, and the netsmen attend their nets at all times in June under the terms of a byelaw for the fishery. They have also undertaken bird handling courses, which allows them to remove birds from the nets in a safe manner and release them back to the water.
The netsmen are also aware that bycatch numbers can change from year to year, and it is important to remember that environmental conditions can also affect levels of bycatch. For example, if sea conditions lead to higher numbers of sandeels in the bay, this attracts a higher number of birds to feed, which could potentially come into contact with the fishery.
I have been in close contact with Natural England, the Environment Agency and Wold Ecology (who are monitoring bycatch rates in the bay), and in the last three years Filey has had very few seabird bycatch issues. This is great news for the RSPB and partners, and does reflect the effort the netsmen and agencies are putting in to address the issue. Interestingly though, and perhaps worryingly, the last three years have seen a considerable drop of birds coming into the bay. The RSPB is keen to try and understand why in the future.
This project with the fishermen in Filey is both exciting and challenging. Seabird bycatch in gillnet fisheries is happening all over the world and the number of birds caught globally in these fisheries is estimated to be higher than for longline and trawl fisheries combined. Compared to longlining, though, very little research has been undertaken on ways in which to tackle this issue. It’s therefore exciting that a fishery so close to home could be a testing ground for mitigation techniques for seabird bycatch that can be applied elsewhere.
The fishermen of Filey have been a pleasure to work with; my only request would be that they spent longer in bed in the morning, as meeting them for 4.30 am starts is a real struggle for a 23 year old. It has been an honour to experience their art of fishing, something I had not realised was so labour intensive, often for such little reward.
So what is the future for Filey Bay, its netsmen and seabirds? Currently I am halfway through my role at Filey and many ideas are currently being explored. By the end of September there will be a short report suggesting costed proposals for mitigation as well as development research and best practice guidance.
A terrestrial and marine extension has also recently been consulted on for the Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs Special Protection Area (SPA) that would extend the protected area to encompass the cliffs north of Filey and a 2km extension in the waters along the length of the SPA.
Due to this recent proposed extension I have found a lot of scope to extend my work to other fisheries up and down the coast that have heard of our work in Filey and are keen to invite us into their fisheries.
Watch this space!
Filey Safe Seas for Seabirds Officer
The Environmental Audit Committee have just produced their report on Marine Protected Areas. The role of this Committee is to challenge Government’s progress across a number of environmental areas, and this report follows hot on the heels of a similar enquiry by the Science and Technology Committee in 2013.
In essence, the report is telling Government to just get on with the job of putting in place Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in England and making sure they are effectively managed. From my point of view their recommendations and conclusions are generally pretty sound and well justified.
Reading the report, you get a deeper sense of the polarity of opinion from the people that gave evidence and why Government might sometimes feel a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights. You can pretty much find a counterpoint to every point – the process is moving too fast/too slow; more evidence is needed/the evidence is sufficient; management should be voluntary/management should be regulatory...and so on.
I found it interesting that the report picked up on the need for Government to communicate the facts about MCZs. A vision for what MCZs are for, what they are going to protect and how people might be impacted all need to be much more clearly articulated. When faced with uncertainty, I think it is human nature to fear the worst and consequently many stakeholders have become unnecessarily opposed to MCZs. Government have already indicated that they plan to provide more clarity on what management is likely for our second tranche of MCZs, so I hope that this will lead to a more informed discussion.
The other strong theme in the report was the need to put management in place. Getting effective management in place has been a bit of a ‘whale in the swimming pool’. This is the point at which an MPA progresses from being a line on a map to becoming a true ‘protected’ area in which damaging human activities are restricted in some way. The Committee is certainly right to say that it is important that Agencies such as the Marine Management Organisation and our local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agencies need to have the resources to do this job effectively.
The recommendation that voluntary measures should be used to manage MCZs rather than stronger regulation is something that I don’t agree with. Looking back through the report, this could have come from a misunderstanding about how a voluntary code of conduct in Lyme Bay is being used very successfully to support and supplement existing regulation. Regulation gives you an important safety net upon which sea users can then build community management. Starting with voluntary agreements has a poor record of success and is very unlikely to protect sites from more nomadic users of the sea.
On the whole, the Committee have done well to reconcile the broad spectrum of opinion whilst highlighting how these new MPAs must do their job of protecting our marine wildlife.