Image Credit: Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped
For the past three and a half years, the UK has been trawled through the political benthic sludge that is Brexit. With a second general election in two years arriving this Thursday, some sort of resolution finally seems to be on the horizon. And while much of the public discourse has focussed on the potential implications for Brexit following the election, climate change and the environment have also featured heavily.
Less talked about have been the potential interactions between the two. The UK currently derives a great deal of its environmental policy from agreements with the EU. If Brexit does go ahead, huge chunks of environmental policy will need to be decided upon.
One of those chunks will have to deal with fisheries, and wider marine policy. How much, and how, will the UK fish once Brexit goes through? Current fishing policy is controversial enough, with last year already saw clashes between French and British boats in what was dubbed a “Scallop War”, a product of perceived overfishing by the British boats. Whether or not the British fish sustainably, and how that will affect Europe’s oceans, is very much up in the air right now.
The Current conservative government has already drafted fisheries and environmental bills to deal with the issue, but its unclear as to how sustainable they’ll be. To decipher exactly what the bills mean, and what the wider implications of Brexit are for European oceans, I spoke to Dr. Abigail McQuatters Gollop, Associate Professor at the University of Plymouth. Abigail, who runs the website Plankton Policy, was initially a plankton ecologist, but in recent years has moved more towards working at the science policy interface. She has already appeared twice in British parliament to testify on the potential implications of British fishing policy.
Sam Perrin (SP): Can you give us an overview of the effect that Brexit policies may have on the UK’s marine ecosystems?
Abigail McQuatters-Gollop (AM-G): Under this Conservative government we have a plan for how to manage our marine environment, based on the drafted fisheries and environment bills. There are some good things in those bills, but they all have caveats. The environment bill establishes an Office of Environmental Protection, which is important for enforcing environmental law. Because right now if we don’t meet environmental objectives the European Court of Justice can infract us, or sue us, for not meeting objectives. However, we will not have that oversight when we leave Europe. The environment bill sets up the Office of Environmental Protection, but that office is still part of the government, so it won’t be independent. That means if DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) or MMO (the Marine Management Organisation), for example, did not meet their environmental objectives, one part of the government would fine another part of the government for non-compliance. So we lose the independence of the oversight system we have now in Europe. That is a dangerous road to go down. Having independent oversight of how we manage our environmental resources is important for holding the government to account. I am worried not having that independence and accountability could allow standards and objectives to slip.
“…Brexit could have been an opportunity to integrate fisheries management into management of the wider marine environment. We will never have healthy fisheries if we don’t have a healthy marine environment.”
SP: Is the current Conservative government aiming to fish sustainably?
AM-G: They’re aiming to, but I feel like there are parts of the fisheries bill that just are not well defined. For example, the bill says that we are going to fish sustainably, but it does not talk about the concept of maximum sustainable yield, which is what we are using now under the EU Common Fisheries Policy to measure sustainability. I find the danger is we are just using the word sustainability without a clear plan of how we are going to achieve it. So I feel like there are good intentions in these bills, but there are caveats and pitfalls where they could go wrong depending on the ambition of the government. We say we want to be world leading in sustainable fishing but we do not describe clearly how we will do this in the fisheries bill.
SP: Is Brexit something of a missed opportunity for the UK marine environment then?
AM-G: For sure. I’m a huge Remainer, and I am certain that the best way to manage the UK’s marine environment is in partnership with our European neighbors, but Brexit could have been an opportunity to integrate fisheries management into management of the wider marine environment. We will never have healthy fisheries if we don’t have a healthy marine environment. What we could have done was use the new fisheries bill to put in more rigorous protection for the marine environment in the name of having healthy fish stocks. We missed that opportunity. Where we could have been really innovative and taken big steps as part of the fisheries bill, I think we kind of missed our chance.
SP: Let’s say that not the worst case scenario, but a bad case scenario, occurs and UK fisheries do get to the point when they are being fished unsustainably. What are some of the knock on effects for the local marine ecosystem going to be?
AM-G: First of all, it will disrupt the marine food web. A lot of the fish that we really like to eat are top predators or high up the food web. And by overfishing these stocks, grazing pressure is released on other parts of the food web. So if we overfish one level of the food web, no matter what that level is, we can expect to see changes in other levels of the food web.
Another danger is that our fisheries are already under pressure from climate change, and this could put pressure on fisheries in a lot of different ways. There’s physiological pressure, where fish are suited to one type of temperature, but now the sea is getting warmer. There’s bottom up pressures where they see a change in prey, plankton for example. In the North East Atlantic we’re already seeing plankton becoming tropicalised. We’re seeing warmer water species replace the cold water species while the cold water species move poleward which means the predators that are accustomed to being supported by these prey species are also shifting, and we have evidence that they are not shifting at the same rate.
It’s a real risk to be putting so much pressure on one part of our ecosystem, commercial fisheries, without considering all the other pressures from climate change and bottom up changes to the food web.
There are many different pressures that we’re putting on the our marien ecosystem, which means we need to be even more careful about how we fish, because our understanding isn’t 100% on any of this. We’ve got lots of data, and science is progressing, but with climate change we’re seeing changes in the marine environment now that humanity has never seen. We don’t know if these changes are going to be linear, or whether we’ll see sudden shifts in entire ecosystems. It’s a real risk to be putting so much pressure on one part of our ecosystem, commercial fisheries, without considering all the other pressures from climate change and bottom up changes to the food web.
We’re also changing habitats more directly. When we trawl the marine environment, we’re basically scraping the sea bed, and that profoundly changes benthic ecosystems, because we just don’t let those sea-floor communities recover, and we end up with kind of a sandy or muddy ecosystem, which is really different from the ecosystem we would have if we didn’t trawl. Unsustainable fishing can occur in lots of different forms – from how we fish to how much fish we take.
SP: You’ve talked before about how we need long-term studies to monitor the effects of Brexit policies, but those long term studies are currently being defunded.
To recognise any change in the ecosystem we have to have data, and it’s really important that we have data over a number of years in a consistent manner. I’m involved in lots of ecology work with plankton in the UK, and we’re finding that funding is being cut, and resources are being taken away from these projects. In some cases we have to monitor less frequently, but some survey routes have had to be cut completely as funding has decreased. This means we are decreasing our ability to detect and recognise change. With plankton that’s really dangerous, because plankton are a key part of the marine environment. We might see a change in plankton before we see a change in fisheries, which could give us a change to adapt how we fish in time to prevent collapses. But if we don’t have the data we won’t recognise these changes.
It goes the other way, too. We are putting in place measures to protect the marine environment, for example Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), restrictions on loading nutrients into marine ecosystems, and how we regulate fishing. However, we won’t be able to recognise the effects of these management measures if we don’t have long term-monitoring data. We want to know that these management techniques that we’re putting in place are working, but we can’t tell that if we don’t have data about all parts of our marine ecosystem.
SP: Do you think the environment has been mentioned enough in the context of Brexit?
AM-G: I think it’s certainly in the public discourse. Last week there was a televised climate change debate, and the Conservative Party and the Brexit Party didn’t show up. So instead Channel 4 had these giant ice sculptures representing those party leaders that slowly melted while the other parties debated climate issues. And that lasted an hour on prime time television.
I don’t know how many people watched it though. And that’s the tricky thing, we’re in such an echo chamber of people who care about the environment, so I don’t have a good feeling as to whether or not it’s in the public conversation enough. I see the parties tweeting about it, but I don’t think I’m a very good judge as to whether the public is talking about it.
What I do think is that it cannot be high enough up on the political agenda. And I feel like the work that Greta Thurnberg has done has been great, because everybody knows who she is. Lots of people have opinions on her, but they know who she is. And because of the work she’s been doing, people are starting to think about the environment more.
Whether it’s in the context of the election or Brexit, I’m not sure. I do know that my nephew is 9, and my told me recently not to use bar soap, because it has palm oil in it. And he wrote a letter to Costa Coffee about palm oil and they wrote him back. So it’s definitely out there, and moving up the agenda, but I don’t feel like it can be moved up high enough or fast enough.
SP: Do you think that the oceans are being mentioned enough?
AM-G: It was quite a while into the climate debate – at least halfway – before anybody said the word ocean. The ocean is so important to helping us with our climate commitment. In the UK, the Conservative party has committed us to reaching net zero carbon by 2050, which is awesome. And I know the government and the civil service are working hard to make it happen, and that was brought up a lot during the climate debate. I think it’s the first time members of the public might have engaged with this concept of zero carbon. But the oceans will play a key role in this, and they weren’t mentioned until halfway through. So I think raising the profile of the oceans as part of our solution to mitigating climate change is important. In the lead-up to the election, we are hearing almost nothing about the oceans which is incredibly concerning.
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.