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Strategic defence of the sea itself

Maritime spatial planning ushers in a new approach to ocean policy

A shoal of bluefin tuna

Julian Parker OBE, Chairman of the Maritime Media Awards committee, heralds a new paradigm for the wise use and conservation of marine resources.

Photo: The End of the Line

As an island nation the United Kingdom, perhaps more than any other, has championed the freedom of the seas. Over the centuries this has opened up trade and provided access to continuous energy supplies, but along with freedom came unbridled exploitation, including the unleashing of such powerful fishing capability that fish stocks are rapidly becoming depleted. But times are changing, both in the fishing industry and in international ocean policy more generally. There is now a growing awareness that protection of the marine environment and conservation need a higher priority if optimum sustainable yields are to be secured. In the future, it is likely that defending protected sea areas to enrich the maritime ecosystem will be as strategically significant as protecting trade is today.

Old and new business models

The enforcement of an ocean policy requires a fair legal regime which can be used to impartially judge a claim or dispute, irrespective of the sovereignty of the parties involved. As long ago as 1640 Grotius recognised the need for a pragmatic approach, arguing that the high seas belonged to nobody but that all states were entitled to combat the evils of robbery and piracy which afflicted their ships and the cargoes they were carrying. Sea power, exercised through a declaration of war, sanctioned engagement and control of sea areas for strategic purposes.

Today each country has to draw up its own balance sheet. Competitive habits reinforced and augmented by every business school across the globe ensure that economic returns are seen as the difference between profit and loss for each organisation or national administration. Trade further facilitates the interaction of economic dependency between states, so that exports and imports are included in the equation. In this economic model, ocean resources are simply to be appropriated.

But now there is a new natural ordinance, not written on any fine parchment but etched into our common heritage. The demise of the bluefin tuna, amid a rising tide of unyielding plastic debris and toxic pollutants, points to an outcome where there are no victors, only a decline that affects us all.

The realisation that resources are finite, and the energy to exploit them limited, is something of a global paradox. On land some protection is afforded by systems of ownership, enclosure and entitlement – but at sea no such system safeguards the environment or guarantees sustainability.

Continuity is achieved through husbandry of the sea, and a way has to be found to channel constructive energy into a new business model of ocean policy.

A new awareness

Charles Clover raised the alarm in his well- researched book The End of the Line (2004), now also a documentary film. The message is stark: if we do not take action, wild fish stocks will be exhausted by 2050. Similarly, in The Unnatural History of the Sea (2007), Professor Callum Roberts states that ‘Disregarding the ecosystems in which target fish species live is perhaps the most egregious failure of fisheries management.’ Roberts goes on to point out that a lack of fundamental knowledge has led to the ‘crashing’ of fish- stock species, with no long-term viable future for their recovery.

There is a feeling that society is hell-bent on its own self-destruction. Individuals find it hard to put their faith in reconstruction, knowing that exploitation is leading to the extinction of stocks – but if Greece was the cradle of civilisation and Western culture, the sea will become its school. On calm days the surface reflects the image of the calculating hunter, but as the light changes the barren seascape is seen below. When the hurricane rips the caps off the wave tops nature exerts its primacy.

Political opposition to the Common Fisheries Policy is mounting around the Baltic Sea, a sensitive area fed from rivers in the north, intensively used and bounded by countries that depend on that sea for their livelihood. If rapacious policies rendered the Baltic sterile it would poison the very soul of the living area. The North Sea, perhaps more open to tidal sink, swirl and lift, is more resilient, but nonetheless sensitive to over- catching – and the effects are felt in every European market town, where the price of fish glinting on the stallholders’ slabs goes ever higher like a process driven by a ratchet.

Malcolm Gladwell may well call this time a ‘tipping point’, but with new challenges new leaders emerge, and new ways are found to address such problems. The difficulty facing the maritime environment is that it has no constituency and no direct political representation for individuals to express their unease or conserve marine life, let alone come up with alternatives. Until now, that is.

A new model: maritime spatial planning

‘Maritime’ never was a truly international concept. The seas and the catches of the oceans have been appropriated by national interests. Even the multinational companies and the global financial arrangements which support them are controlled at some point by a registering authority, for the simple reason that the backers need legal redress to protect their investment. The maritime ecosystem by contrast has not been valued, and there has been little conservation outside areas of special interest. Indeed, how would an investment in a supporting environment be rewarded if others are to profit from the catch?

The European Commission has made an auspicious start in linking sea life with habitat, and economic activity with sustainability. It has produced the first framework in which the balanced needs of users and the natural environment can coexist. It points to a different way of working, where the energy from the sun, which supports the ecosystem and the abundance of life, leads to a steady state of regeneration and not the unlimited potential imagined by those competing for the largest catches. There is now an awareness that it has been almost impossible to enforce the Common Fisheries Policy, and a shift towards individual transferable quotas is being considered.

To achieve this, a new concept, and a new vocabulary, are needed – and the EU has decided on maritime spatial planning. Mariners more used to terms like sea room might find this new designation a little clinical, but it has the advantage of being abstract and adaptable, which is so critical in this time of change. It is a concept that embraces shipping, ports, energy, fisheries, aquaculture, leisure, tourism, the ecosystem and habitats. The EU estimates that European waters support industries with a turnover in the order of 200 billion Euros and about five million jobs – a key sector which needs a corporate memory based on sound research and accurate forecasts.

An EU roadmap

Maritime Spatial Planning is a framework that enables different member states to adopt similar work practices when contemplating maritime policy. It is an inclusive process, not defensive in its approach. The EU is not telling member states what they must or must not do. Instead, it has produced ten commandments to articulate the principles (Commission of the European Communities, 2008: Roadmap for Maritime Spatial Planning, COM(2008)791). The guiding principle is that ‘sustainable management of marine regions depends upon the ecosystem.’ It is hard to disagree with that.

The advice is straightforward:

  1. Prepare realistic and comprehensive plans
  2. Set clear objectives based on the above principle
  3. Encourage all stakeholders to contribute to the planning process to ensure transparency
  4. Involve all users to enable them to adjust to new directions
  5. Coordinate between member states to simplify legal frameworks
  6. Ensure any new frameworks have legal authority
  7. Use cross-border cooperation to develop common standards
  8. Monitor and evaluate new initiatives
  9. Provide a coherent interface between land and sea
  10. Research the marine environment to generate a level of knowledge consistent with the way the seas are used

UK initiatives

A planning process means nothing without commitment, and the programme for last year’s Maritime Media Awards Dinner contained a feature by Jonathan Shaw MP, the Minister responsible for producing the new Marine Bill that has just had its second reading in the House of Lords. There is no doubt that the UK has taken the lead in Maritime Spatial Planning. The success of the programme owes much to the attentive consultation process that preceded it.

The Greenwich Forum, a unique group concerned with maritime policy, recently debated the issues of ‘securing the marine and coastal environment’. The story of how the United Kingdom faced the sea and decided to act to conserve stocks, enrich the ecosystem and manage its maritime resources will be as exciting and as complex as any World War II thriller. The policy makers have recognised that freedom of the seas can lead to a sterile ocean, and they have found a new way forward. Nearly all major government departments are now working towards a common objective in a field that has been riven with sectional interests. If the UK can cooperate with other European countries, there is still a chance that we might once again find North Sea cod in our fish and chips.