For my column this week I am including some recent comments from Dale Rodmell of the UK’s National Federation of Fishing Organizations (NFFO) who says we have become accustomed to offshore projects such as wind farms and aggregate dredging receiving planning consent based upon an official assessment that individual projects have minimal environmental impacts.
Even when a cumulative impact assessment is undertaken it usually only concerns the immediate region of the development.
Where the extent of an impact is unknown, license conditions are often applied to require a developer to monitor potential effects so that science can be better informed.
However, unlike the fishing industry, precautionary management in these cases is not applied to rule that the development cannot go ahead unless there is a clear evidence based threat to a biological community of interest – birds in the case of some offshore wind farms.
Yet the scale of marine installations, particularly for renewable energy, is set to grow massively over the coming years -- not just in UK waters, but also in the waters of neighboring marine states such as Germany, the Netherlands and France.
The same rules do not seem to apply to fishing. In contrast to marine developers, it is the entirety of fishing activity that is now the focus in driving policies that would potentially limit its extent.
It is commonly claimed by environmental campaigners and their supporters in the media that the fishing industry has free access to all sea areas, and moreover that as a minimum the vast majority of seabed is subject to regular disturbance by bottom trawling.
At its most extreme, bottom trawling is likened to felling rain forests annually by some of the more excitable campaigners, when fishing that goes on in the same grounds of operation from year to year can offer no comparison.
The campaign for marine protected areas (MPAs) has been thinly veiled surrogate for limiting the activities of the fishing industry.
Many people, when presented with ‘heat’ maps of fishing activity data graded from blue to an ‘alarming’ shade of red have automatically concluded there must be a problem.
Last year, NFFO members, and others in the UK industry, battled multiple stakeholders on the English marine conservation zones (MCZ) regional projects to prevent those who had drawn this conclusion from allowing the projects to make erroneous recommendations on MCZ site conservation objectives and management measures.
In the interests of participatory decision-making, broad stakeholder groups had been given the latitude to make such potentially influential recommendations.
As anyone in the fishing industry knows, you can’t gain a perspective of actual fishing pressures by simply viewing charts of fishing activity spanning huge areas; the scaling of data is completely out of context.
Even the vessel monitoring system (VMS) data is typically presented as data units categorized by the number of hours fished within a unit area, a necessary generalization due to the two hourly ping of data points that characterize the underlying raw data.
It can easily mislead the lazy and uninformed and form useful propaganda material for those unsympathetic to the fishing industry.
The truth of the matter is that we do not yet have a definitive scientific answer over the extent to which the seabed is subject to contact by bottom gears in terms of intensity and extent, let alone whether it is significant for wider ecosystem functioning.
One study that has attempted to apply science to the issue has estimated a "fishing footprint" of as little as 5 percent to 21 percent for English and Welsh waters - standing in stark contrast to environmental campaigners’ claims that the industry is scraping the barrel of an empty sea.
Whilst more work is needed to give more certainty to estimates, it is already clear that nowhere near the whole seabed is subject to fishing contact and the scientific consensus is that it is patchy at fine and large scales of analysis.
Systematic, evidence based, and clear headed approaches to policy making are a pre-requisite for sustainable development.
The UK government’s own sustainable development policy emphasizes the responsible application of sound science.
It is time that attention was refocused upon application of scientifically sound policy making, rather than bending to the alternative hysterical and evidence-free nonsense that emanates from environmental doomsayers.