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Fish is the Dish



'1 of your 5 a DAY', 'Back British Farmers', 'Chicken Out!', 'Healthy school dinners'. As a nation, the UK excels when it comes to being besotted with national food campaigns, often aided by the endorsements of a celebrity chef or TV personality, and don't they work? Changes to food packaging, labelling, shelf position, content etc are lobbied for off the back of such campaigns, armed with the support of the converted general public. So much so that large scale manufacturers and suppliers quickly realise that conforming to these new, often healthier or more ethical, approaches can bring with it a swath of economic gains and a reputable moral image.


Currently the flavour of the month seems to have migrated away from our farms to under our oceans, but to what extent are we really aware of whats going on? Globally, the marine environment is a vast resource that for centuries we have looked to exploit and provide us all with indefinite food security. Fuelled off the back of Thomas Huxley's exclamations at the inaugural Fisheries Exhibition address in 1883 that '…probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible: that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish', fishing industries were hooked. The subsequent industrial revolution became enveloped in an arms race against a booming human population as the 20th century witnessed exploitation of our marine resources and habitats to a fatal degree. Species of large fish superpowers including the likes of tuna and cod have been hit hard as increasingly efficient commercial fishing methods have been developed to help sustain high enough catches in order to meet our growing pescatarial demands, so much so that populations and subpopulations of these species have been driven to near extinction. As the extent and severity of fishing the high seas became increasingly documented, in most instances it was all a bit too late.


Cut to now, where our global marine environment is sitting at its worst state in history, with the FAO declaring that around 90% of all fish stocks are believed to be either 'over' or 'fully' exploited, and its not just the fish. Habitat loss/damage resulting from dated fishing methods such as seabed dredging or trawling mainly used to supply our fish and chip dinner, through the unregulated removal of vast mangrove forest to make way for 1000 hectare shrimp farms that stock our big supermarkets, or as a consequence of extensive pollution to many of the deep fjords and lochs attributed to salmon aquaculture on an unprecedented scale. There comes with it a vast unarguable mass of ecological and economic evidence from fisheries all over the globe, enough to comfortably fill the 7000 tonne hull of the Dutch supertrawler Annelies Ilena that was previously kicked out of Australian waters after protests yet has been granted to fish the rich deep waters off West Ireland, that our marine resources are, in fact, very much exhaustible.


But be honest, we kind of knew that didn't we? The problem now is we cant continue to simply switch our efforts to exploit another fish species, or find more space to farm another tasty swimmer that we can skewer onto our bbq. It started with driving many of our largest mammalian relatives in the form of whales to near extinction, to now quite literally hoovering the Antarctic seafloor for krill, a small oil rich crustacean that used to sustain some of those giants of our oceans which we now use in pharmaceuticals and miracle medicines. A process referred to as 'fishing down the food web' there is now nowhere left to turn, no room for manoeuvre, nothing left.


As a result, attempts to restore areas of our seas back to an improved state, both in an ecological and economical sense, have recently been gathering momentum. In a bid to follow the footsteps of terrestrial conservation, the use of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)/ marine reserves/ marine parks have increased as marine conservation has been forced higher on political agendas. You can't mention marine conservation without honouring Bill Ballantine who sadly passed away late last year. A lifelong advocate and a strong voice behind The Marine Reserves Act 1971 of New Zealand which paved the way for a network of reserves to be introduced in New Zealand's inshore waters. Some 40 years on, Bill's work continues to shed light on the benefits that marine reserves which prohibit exploitation, be that fishing or otherwise, can help increase the number, quality and size of both the flora and fauna that live or use areas inside the reserve boundaries; as well as helping to improve the overall condition of that protected marine environment. However the uptake of MPAs into other global marine ecosystems has been painfully slow due to social and political barriers. For there to be an eventual winner, there has to be an immediate loser(s) and in many cases those losers are those which hold social and economic stature, such as the commercial fisheries.


Like allowing a patch of farmland to become reclaimed by natural processes to once again resemble primitive woodland, marine habitats require the value commodity of time (as well as monetary investment and sacrifice). The only problem is, despite best guesses, the amount of time required to restore a habitat is a great unknown and almost always case specific. Yet there is one thing we can be fairly certain of, MPA timeframes will outdate inter electoral political timelines which makes the decision making process easy - no immediate benefit, no designation. Which goes some of the way to explaining why currently, only around 4% of the worlds oceans are considered protected.


All doom and gloom right? Actually wrong, being a marine scientist forces you to channel your inner grand optimist and show resolute resilience helpfully inspired by the last few individual cod in the North Sea, where the direst of situations has U-turned thanks to a seemly successful moratorium. Given the right circumstances coupled with reliable science, sufficient investment and political clout MPAs can work - and they need our support.


While studying for my PhD I make a conscious effort to put time and effort into public engagement, be that as little as sending out an informative tweet or giving a talk at an event. As I know public support can be as effective as the most impressive looking, highly significant and informative graph I can possibly submit to publication. When talking to a general audience here in the UK I am continually inspired by the amount of people who know something to do with the sustainability of seafood, suitably informed about the ongoing 'Fish Fight', are opposed to the discarding of valuable fish at sea, or show passion for the 127 Marine Conservation Zone designation process, and I could continue.


Issues over food traceability and sustainability are now confronted more readily with none more apparent than off the back of scandals such as the Findus horse meat exposé or the truth behind dolphin unfriendly tins of tuna; over which people stood up and made their feelings known. So here lies my optimism, national campaigns do work and I remain confident that when suitably informed the general public will always support what is right and not what is easiest or most cost effective.


So go forth and 'Eat More Fish', no wait thats not it… eat less fish, hang on thats not it either… oh I don't know its all so confusing. This whole issue remains a mismanaged ill-informed debate but we don't have many more chances to get it wrong. So do your best to just stay up to date, take pride in what you eat and where it comes from, find out about and go visit your local MCZ and if you feel suite follow or even push forward a campaign you believe in.


A little knowledge goes a long way, and you can keep yours topped up from these resources. Follow this to find out about some of mine, and others, work in this field. Click this to inform yourself where to eat next time you chose fish. And download this to stay informed.

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