The last wild hunt
Hugo Tagholm has previously led the ocean campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage and is the executive director and vice president of Oceana in the UK. In this column, he talks about the aftermath of COP15.
I am putting pen to paper just as the United Nations Biodiversity Summit, COP15, draws to a close. Every bit as crucial as the recent climate summit COP27, this nature summit has been called the make-or-break moment for wildlife and restoring our wild, blue planet. Yet it has only just edged into the fringes of public consciousness. Whilst the noises, commitments, and lack of commitments made by governments at COP15 reverberate around the environmental NGO echo chamber, the public have often been left in the dark.
The ocean covers 70% of our planet and contains most of the world’s biodiversity, yet concrete commitments and measures to restrict or curtail some of the biggest threats to our seas have been conspicuously absent from the conference at times. Over-industrialisation of our seas is already decimating fish populations and ripping apart ecosystems. Scientific guidance is all too often ignored by policymakers as they set fishing quotas and rubber stamp the industrial development of our seas, effectively legalising the destruction of biodiversity and pristine ecosystems. Governments consistently ignore legal obligations to restore fish populations and safeguard specific areas of the ocean. They collectively fail to provide the conditions needed to allow threatened and endangered species to come back from the brink.
Let us look at one glaring example here in Europe, the eel. This critically endangered fish species is already teetering on the edge of population collapse. So, you would think that every effort would be made to fully protect eels? Right? Yet this iconic fish is still subject to annual commercial fishing quotas that ignore scientific advice. An animal that plays a vital role in marine and freshwater ecosystems that may soon be wiped off Planet Ocean. This is just one glaring example of potentially catastrophic overfishing that not only poses a threat to biodiversity and ecosystems, but also the livelihoods of the fisher community. It’s simple, if we catch fish faster than they can grow and reproduce, you’ll end up with no fish.
Consider for a moment the public outcry there would be if commercial quotas set for their capture and consumption threatened and endangered land mammals and birds. The wild cat, water vole, puffin, hedgehog, dormouse, or red squirrel. Animals loved by the nation, surviving in only small pockets, hunted further towards collapse. People simply would not tolerate this. There would be a biodiversity rebellion calling for immediate action. So why not so for ocean life?
Whilst world leaders and diplomats set out biodiversity ambitions and commitments at COP15 in Montreal, it is important that they move faster to end destructive overfishing and follow the science to ensure that we do not empty our seas of life once and for all. Industrial fishing is the last major wild harvest of biodiversity on our planet. If governments do not enforce scientific limits, we may well see the end of other iconic species including cod.
Protecting sea life will in turn protect coastal communities and the livelihood of fishers from John O’Groats to Lands’ End. Whilst the UK has led strongly on the global call to protect 30% of our land and sea by 2030, a commitment that should be reinforced, ratified, and implemented through COP15, it is an increasingly contentious area of international discussions, when developed nations push for strong overseas protections whilst failing on their own shores. A recent report shows that the UK is alarmingly far off track of reaching the target of 30% of our seas protected by 2030. 92% of the UK’s so-called Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) do not have site-wide protection against the most destructive types of fishing including super trawling and bottom trawling.
Shockingly, over 60% of offshore MPAs are open to all fishing activity year-round with just five of the UK’s 76 offshore MPAs are protected against bottom towed gear that devastates the seabed and destroys marine life beyond the target fish species. An estimated 80% of seagrass, kelp forest, reefs, and saltmarsh habitats, which are critical for biodiversity, are nominally protected within MPAs, but just 22% are safeguarded from bottom towed gear.
Banning destructive industrial fishing vessels and techniques from these areas, inshore and offshore, would be one of the most beneficial measures for the recovery of fish populations and biodiversity in our seas. We have the power to do this in the UK, as demonstrated by the recent ban on bottom trawling in the Dogger Bank – a hard won campaign victory for Oceana, the Blue Marine Foundation, the Marine Conservation Society and Greenpeace. We now need to roll this out across our MPAs, alongside restoration efforts and other measures to protect and restore the ocean.
Protecting MPAs will help wildlife recover, support local low-impact fishers, and help strengthen coastal communities. All the evidence points towards this. Case studies from Mexico to Lundy Island, show where strong marine protection areas and measures are properly implemented, life bounces back, as do local economies. Politicians continue to call for more science and evidence, yet we already have all we need to act. The lighthouse of protection and restoration shines brightly. We know where we need to sail this ship, and we know the treacherous rocks we must avoid.
As I close this article, negotiators in Montreal have reached a deal – the historic Kunming-Montreal agreement to protect nature to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Some say it doesn’t go far enough. As a voluntary agreement, it will need governments adopting it into legally binding policy, legislation, and clear targets for it to be effective. We’re in a decade that needs action not words. A framework for protecting biodiversity is fantastic, but without full and ambitious implementation it won’t protect the paper it’s written on. Kudos to all the campaigners who got us this far.
It’s now time to redouble our efforts to shine the light on the blue pathway to thriving seas, to demand that words become action, and that governments worldwide are held to account on protecting this amazing Blue Planet.
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