Bitter fight looms

Bitter fight looms just off the beaches A new marine bill means fishermen, anglers, ecologists, dredgers and wind farms are all vying for more of the spoils just off the British coast

Paul Brown and Michael Wigan
Monday May 23, 2005
The Guardian

A battle is brewing between the fishing industry, wind farms, and sand and gravel dredgers over the future of Britain’s inshore waters.
The government wants a vast expansion of wind farms within inshore seas – defined as six miles from the UK coast – to help meet its target of generating more electricity by sea-based wind turbines, and is drafting a new marine bill to assess which industry and interest gains priority.

These waters, often overlooked, are the only part of the sea that is wholly under British jurisdiction, and make up the densest and richest biological zone, where most fish species breed.
Critics say the wind farms threaten the livelihoods of inshore fishermen who sell directly to seaside restaurants, and may deter sports anglers.

The government may step in, although matters are complicated further because several departments oversee different activities. The Crown Estates, for example, oversees sand and gravel extraction.

The marine and fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, told the Guardian: “The marine bill is in the early stages, but my aim is to introduce a better framework for the sustainable use of our marine resources.

“It will allow us to identify and manage potential conflicts, so that all users of the sea – including wildlife protection, offshore wind and other industries – can develop and coexist sustainably and harmoniously.”

The most valuable of inshore activities – sports sea angling – is also the least controlled. In a hint of future priorities, the government said before the election that it wanted to encourage anglers because they spent lots of money with seaside businesses, while catching relatively few fish. Its Net Benefits report puts sea angling’s annual worth at £1bn.

In comparison, said Malcolm Gilbert of the National Federation of Sea Anglers, the first-sale value of British fish from inland waters sold by commercial fishermen is £50m.

Anglers complain that commercial fishing interests have always triumphed over their rights. Mr Gilbert said: “For too long fish resources have been the province of the commercial fishermen. They are not; they belong to everybody.

“Sea anglers do not want commercial fishing stopped; they want a slice of the action.”

Barry Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, calls the dispute “a turf war”. He says smaller fishermen are under threat. In the past 10 years, the 5,113-strong fleet of small fishing boats has fallen by 2,000, with traditional fishing grounds endangered further by government wind energy targets, which demand that 7% of British electricity be generated by sea wind.

The government has its eyes on three wind farm development regions – the Wash, the Thames Estuary and the Irish Sea, all of which support good commercial fisheries.

Mr Deas said wind farms were as intrusive an activity as offshore oil drilling, and there was no rapport with renewable energy companies. “Wind boffins say, ‘We are saving the planet’; long ago the oil-men said they were saving the British economy.”

Alison Hill of The British Wind Energy Association said shewas happy to talk to fishermen, but that wind farms only obstructed fishermen when they were being built. Turbines rotate at 27 metres (90ft) above the waves, and stand 350 metres apart. “Go around them,” she said.

Ms Hill pointed to Denmark, where offshore turbines led to bigger fish stocks because the structure provided useful reef habitat. She also cited the Kentish Flats wind farm which changed sites to accommodate local oyster-bed fishermen.

Conservationist fear the effects of dredging aggregates and sand. WWF’s Marine Health Check claimed that in one scoop, dredging removed the gravel and sandbars that sheltered millions of fish larvae. WWF has identified a more general over-exploitation of inshore areas since its last five-yearly report in 2000.

WWF’s Jan Brown said things had got much worse in the past five years. For example, a search of UK inland waters failed to find one specimen of skate.

The valuable nursery habitat found in horse mussel beds was declining, deepwater mud in estuaries was over-trawled and polluted with chemicals which cause fish to change sex, maerl beds of calcified seaweed have been damaged by scallop dredging, and dolphins and porpoises were accumulating chemicals in their body tissues more rapidly. Disappearing species included leatherback turtles, pink sea fans, seagrass beds, native oysters and salt-marshes.

Proper strategic planning is needed in the marine bill, the WWF says, including protected areas and no-fishing zones. The present free-for-all between interests has to stop.

The government is also looking at licensing to stop overfishing. Freshwater fishermen require licences, but sea anglers do not. Marine rod licences have been mooted in the past, but the government is aware it needs to create conditions where anglers have something to catch.

Mr Gilbert is downbeat: “The freedom to fish will not last”.

Guardian Unlimited – UK

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