Sardines were once extraordinarily abundant in waters off the southwest England coast, leading one 19th-century guidebook to say: “Pursued by predaceous hordes of dogfish, hake and cod, and greedy flocks of seabirds, they advance towards the land in such amazing numbers as actually to impede the passage of vessels and to discolour the sea as far as the eye can reach.
“Of a sudden they will vanish from view and then again approach the coast in such compact order and overwhelming force that numbers will be pushed ashore by the moving hosts in the rear. In 1836 a shoal extended in a compact body from Fowey to the Land’s End, a distance of at least 100 miles [161km], if we take into consideration the windings of the shore,” the Handbook for Travellers in Devon and Cornwall by John Murray and Thomas Clifton Paris says.
Today, people travel thousands of kilometers to dive and film such scenes, not realizing they were once commonplace off the UK’s own coasts.
Illustration: Mountain People
Last week, the WWF and the Zoological Society of London issued their most comprehensive look at the state of life in the sea. The report makes uncomfortable reading. Taking in more than 1,000 species worldwide and 5,000 populations of fish, turtles, marine mammals and a host of others, it draws the bleak conclusion that there is only half the amount of wildlife in the sea today as in 1970.
Although 1970 is their baseline year and seems long ago, life in the sea has been in decline for much longer. In short, that means the picture is worse than the report suggests. The waters around Britain demonstrate the same patterns that are slashing fish stocks around the world.
The first well-documented herring fishery collapse around the UK was off East Anglia in the mid-1950s, followed by one in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde in the 1960s. An abundance of small fish attracted the attention of larger creatures. Fishermen found the great herring shoals by following the “signs” of those better able to search for them — seabirds raining attacks from the sky, blowing whales, leaping dolphins, the thrashing of thresher shark tails. There was always a frenzy somewhere along the coast. The seas of the early 19th century and before had an exuberance of life that is hard to comprehend today.
Huge fish also prowled the seabed. Common skate and halibut meters long and weighing 50kg or more were present in enormous numbers. Early photographs of fish markets across the UK show these fish covering the floor like great paving stones. Pictures of seaside towns show cod, ling and hake each more than a meter long laid out for sale after being caught from small boats within a few kilometers of the shore.
There was a much greater diversity of large creatures in catches then. Animals such as wolffish, with their striped and spotted flanks, lurked in caves and rock piles. Conger eels were abundant. A cartoon view of the conger eel is of a toothsome beast whose eyes twinkle from the portholes of sunken ships. The reason that wreck fishing is one of the most popular forms of sea angling is that these places are avoided by bottom trawlers, giving them de facto protection. Where trawling occurs, congers are scarce.
It was bottom trawling that led to decline. Trawlers catch fish by dragging their nets over the seabed. It is not hard to imagine the damage this did to the great fields of invertebrates that lived on the bottom, including corals, sponges, seafans, sea nettles, oysters and hundreds of others.
While big fish were the mainstay of net and hook-and-line fisheries from the middle ages to the early 19th century, they declined rapidly with the spread of trawling, especially when steam power was added in the 1880s and 1890s. A recent analysis of catch records shows that the amount of fish caught by trawlers for every unit of power expended has declined 25 times from the 1860s to present. The simple reason is because there is less life in the sea.
Studies list climate change high among the threats that afflict ocean life. However, the primary driver of decline to date is overfishing. To get a true picture of fishing’s impact, a long view is required. To ask an EU official for the latest stock estimate of common skate would draw a puzzled look. Species such as common skate are no longer fished commercially because there are hardly any left, so they are no longer counted and their disappearance goes unremarked. However, fishing carried on long after the skates, halibut, wolffish, angel sharks, bluefin tuna, thresher sharks, porbeagle, sturgeon and wild salmon dwindled to irrelevance.
What is not widely known among those outside the fishing industry is that managers deliberately aim to reduce stock sizes of the fish that is eaten. Cutting the amount of fish in a stock frees up resources for the others, so they grow faster. This theory says that maximum productivity is reached when you reduce a stock by half, a point called the maximum sustainable yield. Fishing at maximum sustainable yield was embedded in the reformed European fisheries policy, which should have been a good thing given that stocks have been so depleted. However, behind the scenes, fisheries scientists have gradually eroded target stock levels, arguing that for many stocks, maximum sustainable yield is reached when they have been reduced by 70 percent or 80 percent. These low levels are dangerous.
When stocks are brought low, there are unwanted and unanticipated knock-on effects. Predators like tuna, sharks and whales are not mere embellishments, nice to have, but not critical if lost. They once regulated the abundance of their prey and weeded out diseased and parasite-laden creatures before populations became seriously affected. They were important in cycling nutrients through ocean ecosystems, shuttling them from the depths to the surface, where sunshine and plants could turn them into the energy that feeds all life in the sea. Seabed life, those waving fields of invertebrates swept aside by trawls, captured carbon and sequestered it into sediments. They kept the water clean, boosting photosynthesis, and removed pathogens and pollutants in the sea.
To the question of whether it matters that life in the sea has gone down, the answer is: Yes. In the long term, it is a matter of life and death. The oceans are vast. Once people thought the seas were too big to suffer anything other than minor damage at the hands of people. That is no longer considered true. Human influence reaches every part of the ocean, from the distant high seas to the deepest abyss. What is just starting to be understood is that they are too big to be allowed to fail. The oceans have colossal importance in keeping the planet habitable. If they fail, so does the human race.
Fortunately, there is still time to do something about the situation. The great majority of species that have declined are still present somewhere. With the right kind of protection, they could be brought back. Many marine protected areas are springing up around the UK. Scotland established 30 last year and England has 27, with more on the way. Unfortunately, there is still little appetite to introduce the high level of protection the seas need. Experience from other parts of the world shows that life rebounds when people stop catching or killing it, and the best way to do this is to create protected areas closed to all fishing.
The British government created more than half a million square kilometers of such protection around the Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean and has promised another around Pitcairn. However, only 7.5km2 of the 750,000km2 around the UK receives the same treatment.
For life to thrive again, people must learn to treasure the waters highly.
Callum Roberts is professor of marine conservation at the University of York.
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