Fishy Friday – The Good Fight

Last night was the first in the new series of Hugh’s Fish Fight, in which celebrity-chef-turned-environmentalist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall attempts to rally us all to “Save Our Seas”.

From what, exactly, do our seas need protection? Well, judging by last night’s content, the answer is “all fishing”. To be fair, the Charter on the Fish Fight website elaborates at least a little, and points out that some fishing methods (specifically static gear, such as potting) can be sustainable and are not universally damaging to the environment. I suspect this concession is due in part to HFW’s having actually met quite a few inshore potters, so that he understands the relative impact of that industry, and the ways in which it works to be sustainable. He’s spoken to some of those guys and has sympathy and respect for them. This is a good place from which to start – and from which to be critical of bad practices, where they do occur.

What a shame, then, that the many types of mobile gear and dredge fishing were lumped together and dismissed without any hint of an attempt to look at their impact in any context. How about the fact that some seabed types are more robust than others? What about the notion of a highly dynamic (estuarine, inshore) environment where vast volumes of sediment move around on a tidal basis, and within which the recoverability to disturbance by towed gears is high? And not to mention the myriad gear types and the range of impacts each of these has on a given seabed? Shrimp beam trawls, for example, are much lighter than many other types of bottom gear.

It’s great that fisheries management is being highlighted, and god knows politicians need a kick before change is pushed through. But the cost of this can’t be common sense and pragmatism, and the highest price of all would be the unravelling of the good work that has been done by many who slog away, forming working partnerships and collaborative management schemes involving not only conservationists but scientists, enforcement agencies, statutory authorities, NGOs and – most importantly of all – the fishing industry.

A lot of this vital work goes unnoticed, because those doing it are focussed on the results and are too busy trying to achieve them (often with chronic underfunding) to actively seek publicity. But the work is no state secret – and anyone involved would welcome being included in the discussion. This is what made me angry about Fish Fight – it was totally disengenous, seemingly preferring to go with some vision of what I call aquarium conservation* rather than take the opportunity to have a sensible discussion about “clean, healthy, productive seas”.

And then there’s the language of the thing: Fish Fight. Catchy, alliterative and a call to arms… This is only positive in that it evokes a jolly, Monty Pythonesque hijinks scene. Beyond that, it’s daft, and damaging. The last thing marine conservation (and particularly fisheries management) needs is a ruckus. Even the best-established collaborative schemes are fragile; each meeting of an IFCA* Committee or EMS* Advisory Group is on a knife edge between civility and a bun-fight. Fishermen are generally, by nature, fairly independent types and suspicious of each other – let alone representatives from statutory nature conservation bodies (SNCBs) such as Natural England. But local fishermen and local officers from all manner of agencies spend a great deal of time working together because it works, and is ultimately the only way anyone benefits in the long term.

I would hate to see a lot of relationship-building be scuppered by bad feeling and old wounds opened as a result of this programme. Fighting – even for “the right sort of thing” – is never particularly productive; you can force a message through, but what is it saying, and what state are relations when you’re done? Are you fighting the fishing industry? Government? Fisheries managers? To what end – and what are you saying that isn’t already known? Fighting for public awareness? Great. But tell the whole story, and don’t trample through the party with your size tens. Have a discussion, educate, communicate – highlight best practice: fight for all those things, none of which are currently in evidence on the show.

If you want a fight, be careful in case you get one, and keep in sight what is actually important.

At one point, Hugh asked a woman who had watched the destruction of the ecologically suspect sandcastle-reef: “would you feel better knowing our seas were protected?” “Well, yes I would” was the reply.

The response is fair enough (well, duh), but what a stupid question. Look,  I carry around a fair amount of guilt about things that I have no particular culpability for. I would “feel better” and rest easier if the world were a more comforting place in general. But really, what does that have to do with sensible marine management? The goal cannot be to allow ourselves a pat on the back, ffs. “Feeling better” is not a valid goal in this instance, unless perhaps you are an aquarium conservationist. The real goal, the good fight, should be to do it right.


Plenty more stuff to come on this, I think – this was my initial reaction to last night’s broadcast. I’m hoping to write a bit more coherently over the next few days, and of course as the “Fight” unfolds. In round one of Reason vs. FishFight, Reason lost. But there’s some good points and counterarguments by Prof Kaiser of Bangor (@micheljkaiser on Twitter), a vid from Seafish here, and of course you can follow the debate on Twitter: look for the hashtags #fishfight , #fishfacts and the HFF feed, @hughsfishfight.

*Aquarium conservation – the green agenda of those that are allergic to *any* form of activity (but especially fishing) taking place in the oceans. As if the only acceptable outcome to marine management is a “pristine” state (what ever that might be), or some perfect and unspoilt seascape, as in one of those fancy aquaria.

*IFCA = Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority

*EMS = European Marine Site (these are MPAs, or marine protected areas, designated under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives, also known as Natura 2000 sites).

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