Profits, Privileges, Environmental Destruction

Mombiot blog on sea protection : Fishing boats near the beach at Flamborough head Yorkshire

Fishing boats near the beach at North Landing, Flamborough Head, on the Yorkshire coast. Falmborough Head is home to one of the UK’s three ‘no take’ zones – that in total cover just 5 sq km. Photograph: Paul Richardson/Alamy

The excellent Guardian editorialist, whom we have linked to more than once, strikes again:

Ripping up the sea floor on behalf of royal profits

George Monbiot: Even the pathetic laws protecting marine life in this country are instantly swept aside in response to lobbying by Prince Charles’s tenants

A few days ago, I visited the Flamborough Head “no take zone”, one of the UK’s three areas in which commercial fishing is prohibited.

Here marine life is allowed to proliferate, without being menaced by trawlers, scallop dredgers, drift nets, pots and all the other devices for rounding it up, some of which also rip the seabed to shreds. A reef of soft corals, mussels, razorfish and other species has begun to form, in which plaice and cod, crabs and lobsters can shelter, unmolested by exploitation. Fantastic, isn’t it?

Well curb your enthusiasm.

Here’s a map of the no take zone, from the display board above the beach. It’s the area in dark blue:

Mombiot blog on Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm,

A map of Flamborough Head’s ‘no take zone’, shown in blue. Photograph: Rebecca Wrigley

When I saw it, I thought of the scene from Blackadder Goes Forth, in which General Melchett explains to Lieutenant George how much ground the army has recaptured. Melchett shows him a three-dimensional representation of the land, on top of a table.

This reserve, dear reader, is one-fifth of the total area of the UK’s no take zones. Yes, we have managed so far to protect five square kilometres from commercial extraction, out of the 48,000 sq km of our territorial waters.

In the US, there’s a lively movement called Nature Needs Half. It campaigns for half the area of the land and sea to be set aside for the protection of wildlife: not very much to ask when you consider (as Alan Watson-Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life points out) that this means a single species gets 50%, while millions of others must make do with the rest.

But how about Nature Needs 0.01%? How does that sound? Well that’s what our government believes the correct allocation should be.

And this, it seems, is how it’s going to stay. It’s not just that the government, which was supposed to have designated 127 marine conservation zones four years ago, has so far managed to leave 100 of them off the list, it’s also that the small number which have been approved are pretty well useless. They are little more than paper parks, lines on the map which make almost no difference to the life of the sea.

You might have imagined that a marine conservation zone would be a zone in which marine life was, well, conserved. That was certainly the expectation of the 500,000 people who signed the Marine Conservation Society’s petition calling for 30% of our seas to be designated strict marine reserves in 2009.

Doh! How naïve can you get? Conservation in a conservation zone? You must be out of your mind. Conservation zones, obviously, are places that fishing boats can continue to smash to pieces through beam trawling, scallop dredging and other weapons of mass destruction.

In fact even special areas of conservation, which supposedly enjoy the strictest form of protection in the European Union, can still be treated as if the life they contain is worthless. Across most of these areas, trawling and dredging continue unhindered. But even where they have supposedly been stopped, the ban, it seems, can be overturned with a nod and a wink.

In August, the Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm applied to the government to annul a local law banning dredging in the Fal and Helford special area of conservation (SAC) in Cornwall. The bylaw had just been passed, to protect the fragile life of the seafloor. But the oyster farm, which hadn’t objected when the proposed law was put out for consultation, suddenly decided that it wanted to dredge for oysters there. Who owns the Duchy of Cornwall? Oh yes, that celebrated patron of conservation, Prince Charles.

The oyster farm leases the area in which it operates from the Duchy of Cornwall, and the income accrues to Prince Charles. I’m told that the rent the Duchy receives is based on the farm’s turnover, in other words that the more money it makes, the richer Prince Charles becomes. But the Duchy has not yet confirmed this to me.

The Duchy has sought in the past to prevent public access to information about the oyster farm and its environmental impacts, but this was overturned in court, which ruled that the Duchy should be classed as a public authority, which should be open to public scrutiny. The judge also concluded, astonishingly, that he believed the Duchy of Cornwall had carried out no assessment of the farm’s environmental impacts.

For years the government has offered Prince Charles a veto over legislation that might affect the Duchy of Cornwall.

Without consulting anyone, the government instructed the Cornwall Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority to rescind the ban on dredging. Then, before the authority had a chance to respond, Westminster decided that this was such an urgent case that it couldn’t wait for any boring decisions by the local authority. It immediately issued an order rescinding the ban throughout Cornwall, on the grounds that the bylaw was “unnecessary, inadequate and disproportionate”.

The order was made on 7 August … and came into force the same day. The man responsible was the environment minister Rupert Ponsonby, or the 7th Baron de Mauley, who, like Prince Charles, owes his authority to tell us what to do entirely to heredity.

The Duchy says that while it is “clearly interested in understanding the impact of all new legislation which impacts on activity on the Helford and liaises with the appropriate authorities accordingly”, in this case it has “not been involved in changes to these bylaws. Tenants are free to make their own representations …. dredging has been judged to be an acceptable activity on the Helford. On this basis the bylaw is being amended.”

It looks to me like a royal stitch-up by a boot-licking baron of the kind you might have expected in the 14th Century, but that appears to sit comfortably with political life in the 21st. It could scarcely be a better illustration of the way in which the pre-democratic past continues to cast a shadow over democracy.

In her new treatise, Conserving the Great Blue: overturning the dominant paradigm of the oceans, Deborah Wright proposes reversing our approach to marine conservation.

Instead of assuming that everywhere can be exploited except those areas (generally tiny ones) designated as marine reserves, the assumption should be that everywhere is protected. If the fishing industry wants to exploit parts of the sea, it would first need to demonstrate that it can do so without lasting harm, in which case it would obtain a licence to go ahead. Destructive and damaging practices, instead of being the norm as they are today, would become criminal acts.

But for this to happen, we need to confront not only the fishing industry but also certain conservation groups.

That map of the pathetic no take zone occupies one of a number of display boards, which together comprise the Flamborough Storyboard project. Another provides a folksy eulogy to the local fishing industry. It’s entertaining, but there are two minor problems. The first is that it says not a word about the destructive impacts of the industry. In fact commercial fishing is portrayed as so benign and heroic that you feel it would be churlish even to raise the question. The second is that the boards were erected by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Perhaps in future it should be known as the Yorkshire fishing industry’s marketing arm.

It gets worse. Here’s what another of its boards says about the local farming industry…

Read the whole editorial here.

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