Marine life is reeling from overfishing, but the oceans — and some of those who depend on them — are fighting back
elcome to Caubian Island, one vision of Paradise Future. The white sand beaches have been overrun by plywood huts that spill out to the sea on stilts. The few remaining palm fronds wave forlornly from among their roofs. Onshore, the narrow sand lanes are crowded by chaotic constructions of cans, bottles and rusting piping that attempt to catch every last drop of rainwater.
Caubian lies in the Philippines on the Danajon Bank, a rare double barrier reef in the Coral Triangle, the heart of the ocean’s biodiversity. Yet all that can be squeezed from the surrounding sea — short lines of yellow reef fish, each no bigger than a credit card — lie drying on the hot, corrugated iron roofs.
As the Philippine population exploded in the second half of the 20th century, the reef turned from subsistence supplier to cashpoint. Stockpiles of dynamite left over from the Second World War found a new purpose as a quick and brutal new fishing technique. Other hunters took to squirting cyanide into the water around coral heads, killing it and any fish sheltering in their folds.
On a reef near Caubian, I float above a lifeless circle of shattered coral skeletons the radius of my arm. Six years after a single blast the scar has not healed at all.
Beyond the Philippines and across the world’s oceans loom threats able to outdo even the destructive power of dynamite and cyanide. The impacts of pollution, invasive species, coastal development, warming waters, ocean acidification and overfishing are combining with such ferocity that 80 per cent of Caribbean reefs are gone, and even the relatively well-defended Great Barrier Reef has lost around half of its coral cover. Many coral scientists now say that coral reefs, the world’s largest living structures, are unlikely to survive much beyond 2050.
The loss of these fragile, spectacular jewels may only be the start. The ecosystems of more temperate seas are also under siege from the same storm of adversity. If they fall, our grandchildren’s oceans will be dominated by jellyfish and slime. The decline appears relentless.
But there is one ray of hope. In the Philippines, fishermen have begun banding together to create reserves where all fishing is banned, and around the world similar movements are gaining momentum. Wherever it’s given a chance the ocean shows enormous power to bounce back, and fast. Recently, vast areas of ocean surrounding distant, sparsely populated islands have been declared sanctuaries. The race is on. Can adequate protection be put in place fast enough to prevent the complex weave of ocean ecosystems from unravelling?
The 1960s were another era for the ocean. This was Jacques Cousteau’s heyday, and while his dive team sailed the globe finding marine life flourishing, the British government decided to loan Diego Garcia, a remote coral island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, to the US military. To ensure the military’s privacy, the 2,000 inhabitants of this and the other islands in the Chagos archipelago were relocated. The move remains controversial in terms of human rights, but for the ocean it was one enormous win.
Since then, the seas around Chagos have remained all but frozen in time. The Diego Garcia military base is the main transit point for US operations in the Gulf, but it is kept scrupulously clean and is ranked as the least polluted inhabited coral atoll in the world. What’s more, even though ships arrive from all over the world with stowaway species attached to their hulls and riding in their ballast water, the waters of Diego Garcia harbour are the only place in the world where not a single invasive marine species has been found.
The remainder of the archipelago has been entirely free of people for almost 50 years. The only human impacts have been from Sri Lankan shark-fin hunters and an offshore tuna fishery. Without sediment from construction, pollution or exploitation of near-shore fish, the coral ecosystem is in spectacular condition.
“I was completely blown away for the first two or three weeks,” says Nick Graham, an ecologist at James Cook University in Australia who has spent his career studying reefs and recently returned from a scientific expedition to Chagos. “It felt like going back in time. I hadn’t been to any coral reef before that which came anywhere close. The big difference with Chagos is the sheer abundance of large fish. I had a school of two to three hundred giant trevallies swim around me for a while, each more than a metre long. I’ve not experienced it anywhere else.”
The clear waters and profusion of life have made Chagos resistant to the threats that loom over the world’s coral reefs. In 1998 an El Niño event saw surface-water temperatures across the Indian and Pacific oceans rise by almost three degrees and reefs across the region bleached to sheet white as the coral polyps ejected their colourful algal tenants.
The reefs of Chagos were not immune to this heatwave, but while almost all other reefs in the region have remained barren, after ten years those in Chagos have recovered. Fish grazed the coral in sufficient numbers to prevent it being taken over by algae and, thanks to the gin-clear water, species that usually only thrive in the shallows survived in the cooler depths. These re-seeded the areas above, and Chagos now contains 25%-50% of the Indian Ocean’s best-preserved reefs, as well as the world’s largest contiguous undamaged reef area.
In 2010, the British Government declared 545,000sq km surrounding the islands a reserve off-limits to fishing — an area the size of France and the biggest such reserve in the world. At a stroke there was hope that an entire ecosystem could be preserved in this near-miraculous state. What’s more, thanks to the central position of the archipelago and the two major currents that pass through it, there is hope that the reefs may replenish the rest of the Indian Ocean seaboard.
In the Pacific, the South Atlantic and the Southern Ocean, other giant reserves are being created around sparsely populated far-off fragments of empire. Big is best, but, where space has been won for smaller reserves, they still show themselves remarkably effective at restoring ecosystems, fish and the communities that rely on them. The concept of banning fishing in an area to allow marine life to recover is not new. Hawaiian rulers would declare certain zones to be kapu, or off limits, with violators punishable by death, while in Polynesia reserves were also tabu or tapu (one origin of the English “taboo”). Both protected an area for a certain period of time, then allowed fishers to return.
Temporary closures of some areas are a staple of traditional fisheries management, but the concept of making a fixed area permanently off-limits is part of a newer, ecosystem-based approach. Professor Callum Roberts, a marine scientist at the University of York and long-time advocate of the power of marine reserves, studies how permanent protection from destructive fishing techniques helps sea life to thrive.
“If you could fast forward through the years after a reserve was created, you would see kelp forests rise from the seabed, sea grasses thicken and spread and sediments disappear under crusts of invertebrates, such as oysters and sponges, which elbow their way above the bottom. The gradual rebuilding of these underwater metropolises increases the capacity of the sea to sustain life. There are more ways to make a living and more places to hide,” he writes in his new book, Ocean of Life.
As the habitat becomes richer, the ecosystem becomes both more resilient and productive. According to one 2009 analysis of reserves, full protection from fishing typically results in life being bigger (by a third), more plentiful (by 466 per cent) and diverse (by 21 per cent) within the reserve.
Species that thrive inside often spill out beyond the reserve, providing reliably rich fishing along its borders. Three quarters of the US supply of haddock is now caught within 5km of the edges of the areas off Newfoundland, which were closed to fishing in the wake of the great cod crash of the late 20th century. The benefits to the wider surrounding sea reach far further.
“If you think of a marine reserve as a fountain of microscopic eggs and larvae pouring into the sea you won’t be far off,” professor Roberts writes. “As populations recover and individual inhabitants grow larger, the flow increases from a trickle, to a stream, to a gush. Like dandelion seeds caught in the wind, currents carry offspring away from their parents for distances of metres to hundreds of kilometres, depending on the species.”
While most fisheries’ scientists base their expectations of the sea on their earliest systematic data (those recorded from the 1950s onwards), Professor Roberts and other scientists have peered further back, using historical records and archaeology, to the days before trawlers. What they found was extraordinary — the seas off Britain, for example, were once 20 times more productive than they are now. But in such busy seas, sweeping, blanket protection is impossible. Here, the ocean is under pressure to pay its way with protein (and increasingly, electrical power), not simply the harder-to-grasp, long-term services of recycling nutrients, cleaning pollutants, consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, which are often taken for granted.
Fishing is hunting, not harvesting. Because they are wild, fish and other marine life require a complicated ecosystem to allow them to flourish. But in the seas around Europe and elsewhere, powerful bottom-trawlers and dredgers scrape the seabed as though ploughing fields. As a result many of England’s fishing grounds are now effectively barren. Scotland’s have survived longer but are now dwindling. The Firth of Clyde, once a wondrous producer of herring, halibut and cod, now yields only filter-feeding scallops and prawn-like langoustine.
The objections of small-scale local fishermen to trawlers have been recorded since bottom-trawlers first appeared. At first the destruction was so obvious (thanks to the clear, life-filtered water) that in the 16th century men were executed for destructive trawling. As the years went by the seas around Britain became murky enough that the damage was no longer visible from the surface and the practice became entrenched. The slow slide to today’s situation had begun. Nowadays, only the areas that are too rocky to drag gear through are spared.
Traditional fishermen who use lower-impact methods are left on these rocky margins. With little remaining for small operators to catch, remote fishing villages are dying out. Bottom trawlers and dredgers often burn more money on fuel than they make from the catch, and are only kept at sea by subsidies from taxpayers.
The British Government is consulting on the creation of 127 protected areas around English waters, called Marine Conservation Zones. But despite the glaring need for restoration, pressure from the fishing industry (and other sea users) have seen the proposals watered down so far that many now fear that they will end up stripped of all power to regenerate sea life.
The solution may not even have to be as unpalatable as banning all fishing. When just towed fishing gear is banned the results can be almost as effective. In 1932 trawlers were banned from the Öresund, a narrow strait that separates the North Sea from the Baltic, to prevent them being a hazard to shipping. In the 1970s trawlers caught an average of 15,000-20,000 tonnes a year from the nearby Kattegat region, compared to 2,000 tonnes brought up in fixed gillnets from the Öresund, which is less than a tenth of the size. Come 2008, many previously important species had disappeared from the Kattegat and the area was yielding just 450 tonnes of cod, while catches from the Öresund remained the same as 30 years before. Research also showed that the cod were much bigger where trawlers had been excluded, and between 15 and 40 times more abundant.
Guy Grieve, a scallop fisherman and founder of the Ethical Shellfish Company, dives Scottish seas three or four times a day, and sees the damage that trawlers and dredgers cause. “If you had a competition to design equipment to destroy life on the seabed you couldn’t do much better than dredge gear,” he says. “Areas of seabed are being repeatedly raked clean or rubble-ised, and, as a result, there is zero complexity of sea life allowed to develop.”
Rather than a patchwork quilt of protected areas that is hard to enforce, he would like to see dredging kept out of the shallow waters where photosynthetic seabed life is most important. As an example of how different things could be, he points to just the other side of the North Sea, home of one of the world’s best fisheries. Their secret? Dredging is banned, leaving the seabed able to produce a profusion of life.
“Scallop divers I know there say that it’s like a jewel box,” Grieve concludes. “Our shallows need to be protected so that they can not only replenish the deep ocean but also provide remote coastal and island communities with a real chance of making a truly sustainable living.”
On the Danajon Bank in the Philippines, I drift away from the skeletal rubble of the dynamite blast zone. Beyond its sharp border my eyes are soon struggling to take in an entirely different sight. Corals twist upwards in impossible, undreamt forms, while below them lie rumpled carpets of astonishing, colourful complexity. Given the area’s history the best I’d expected to see was wearied, ashen reef, but this coral is sparkling brighter than any that I’ve seen in more than 15 years. Initially, fish seem scarce, but occasionally I glimpse fleeing fins in the distance. It seems they have yet to trust the protection afforded to them.
Above us a faded plywood hut perches on stilts above the coral. This guardhouse is, I’m told, key to the survival of the staggering habitat that I’ve just witnessed. As early as the 1970s, some fishermen in the Philippines were persuaded to try setting aside some areas of the reef as reserves that could act as seed banks for the surrounding sea. Guardhouses were erected to give the reserves a physical presence on the otherwise featureless sea, as well as giving shelter to the villagers on lookout each night. The effects have been powerful. The first, near Apo Island, now harbours 11 times more fish than before.
“Enforcement may not be a challenge at first, but when a protected area becomes known as being good for fish it can become a victim of its own success,” says Dr Heather Koldewey of the Zoological Society of London, who has worked in the Philippines throughout her career and advised fishermen on where best to place the 34 reserves created so far on the Danajon Bank.
As more and more villages declare certain areas off-limits, scientific expertise and funding for guardhouses has been provided by foreign NGOs. The latest protected area was paid for by a campaign called Project Ocean run by the London department store Selfridges. Fishermen are usually the last to be persuaded that their livelihood can be improved by a reserve, but not here.
“Fish need a place to breed,” says Jelson Inoc, a 31-year-old fisherman from Caubian Island. “Almost everyone agrees that we need to close these areas to allow fish to come back.”
Most of the Philippine reserves are small — 90 per cent cover less than one square kilometre — and they vary widely in how well defended they are. Sometimes no beneficial effect is discernible in the scientific data, but often the locals say that they’ve seen a difference nonetheless. At first Dr Koldewey suspected some kind of village-wide placebo effect, perhaps natural in a fishing community that has peered over the edge and recoiled. But the bi-annual scientific surveys are fairly basic, and the selected fishermen that gather the data see the area in much more detail.
“These are people who are in the water almost every day of the year. It may be a real effect that we’re not capturing in the data,” she says.
Dr Koldewey knows that there’s still a mountain to climb. “The protected areas need to be bigger. If the Philippines were to set aside ten per cent of its waters as Marine Protected Areas [as is its stated goal] and they are all the present size of around one hectare, it would need 500 million of them. But it’s happening. Our first MPA was just 50m by 50m. It’s now 50 hectares.”
For those living on the Danajon Bank protecting the areas of ocean does more than just produce more fish. Caubian, like countless other coral islands, is only a metre or so above sea level. Its only defence against storms is the natural breakwater formed by the crest of the reef. As Caribbean islands have already been experiencing, when reefs die this barrier is rapidly eroded away, leaving islands exposed to gradual erosion, storm floods and permanent displacement from rising sea levels.
Temperate seas also have much to lose beyond seafood if their ecosystems are not nurtured. Poisonous seaweeds have choked beaches on France’s Atlantic coast killing dogs and wildlife with its fumes while decomposing. Toxic algae regularly wreak havoc in New England. Jellyfish swarms have wiped out entire fish farms, closed beaches and shut down nuclear reactors by clogging their cooling systems. All of these can be attributable to degenerating marine ecosystems. But there is also much to gain. Europe could produce 60 per cent more fish if its seas were managed properly. Worldwide, supplies from wild fisheries in the open sea could be increased by a third to a half.
As more areas of the ocean are protected both in national and international waters the seed of a solution begins to grow roots. Currently little more than one per cent of the planet’s seas are defended in any way, and most of these 6,000 or so Marine Protected Areas are woefully under-enforced. To create a network able to support the ocean as a whole and guarantee productivity and resilience, expert opinion suggests that around a third of the sea must be set aside.
It’s an ambitious target, and efforts to reach towards it have so far made only slow progress. Adequately protecting such a huge chunk of the planet’s surface will be costly, but remote-sensing technology is allowing cheaper and more sophisticated enforcement, and some believe the expense could be more than offset by cancelling the harmful subsidies paid out to global fishing fleets.
In the Philippines, guardhouses remain the best solution for keeping looters out of the reserves. After one villager described a long-distance chase by moonlight, I tell a local outreach officer from Project Ocean that I’m impressed by their dedication to the task.
She smiles. “What other choice do they have?” she says. Indeed.