A recent teleconference organised by Defra, was held to discuss the contents of the Benyon Report, by ex-Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, on Highly Protected Marine Areas. The meeting revealed the strength of feeling across the fishing industry against an attempt to shoehorn No Take Zones into the already established process for designating and managing marine protected areas.
Comments from across the industry spectrum emphasised that there is much in the report to concern the fishing industry, both in the content of the report and the way it came about.
Questions were raised about the independence of the Chairman, the balance within the panel, and why organisations representing the fishing industry had been excluded. The Chairman’s past judgement as a leading proponent of the EU landing obligation, and in his subsequent action in joining the Blue Marine Foundation were also highlighted.
The confusion at the heart of the report about what Highly Protected Marine Areas would be for was commented on. Was the purpose of HPMAs to:
Provide a scientific control area? In which case, no rigorous case had been made that would stand up to scientific scrutiny
Or were HPMAs being pushed as part of a wider advocacy campaign for No Take Zones? - a back-door way of managing fisheries - or more extreme - a romantic project for rewilding the seas.
The meeting confirmed that there is a lot for the fishing industry to be fearful about in this report – especially for small-scale inshore fisheries - where the operating range of the vessel is limited and impacts on livelihoods would be severe.
Other comments were that:
Environmental zealots seem to be in the driving seat and there is an insouciant attitude throughout the report to real people and their lives and livelihoods
If the report recommendations are accepted by the Government, they would drive a horse and coaches through any idea of co-management, as the scene would be set for endless local and national conflicts as fishermen are displaced from their customary fishing grounds
The report talks about an evidence-based approach and dialogue with those impacted: But it makes sure:
to include and emphasize the precautionary override
and to assume that whatever legislative route is chosen, NTZs will be bulldozed in
The report references to spill-over effects and overexploitation suggests that:
the authors of the report haven’t noticed that the stock trends in ICES advice have been strongly positive for two decades – there are other and better tools available to manage our fisheries
evidence from tropical reef fisheries may have limited relevance to more widely distributed fish stocks found in temperate waters like ours
There is bad faith in setting up a parallel process to that which, as an industry, we have been engaged collaboratively in for over a decade in designating MPAs and deciding proportionate management measures; fishermen who had been involved in the Lyme Bay MPA, felt that they had now been duped and betrayed
Without trust, there could be no assurance that whatever NTZs are established wouldn’t be expanded in future years; in fact, it would be a reasonable presumption that they would be expanded
This report has been helicoptered in after pressure from the powerful and well-connected environmental lobby; that is in itself a disturbing development
It needs to be recalled that human use is part of any ecosystem approach
Above all, the report glosses over the displacement of fishing activity
the havoc that displacement would bring to those ejected from their customary fishing grounds
the knock on-effects and unintended consequences in other fisheries: have no lessons been learnt from past experience?
During the course of the meeting, the NFFO made clear that:
We are not and never have been against marine protected areas or doing what is necessary to protect vulnerable conservation features and sensitive marine habitats.
The fishing industry recognises that we have a responsibility to ensure that our ecological footprint is as small as possible
We have been jointly working with government on the best way to achieve that protection, using an evidence-based, measured and proportionate approach
Fishing contributes to feeding the nation and provides incomes and livelihoods for many
Providing adequate protection for marine ecosystems and fishing livelihoods and communities is therefore a question of:
Knowledge about what we are doing
A sense of proportion
The establishment of MPAs deserves a calm, thorough, and respectful relationship between the fishing industry and the Government – that’s what we thought we had
But if the recommendations of this report are accepted, and implemented, we will be on course for years of conflict - when we could be doing something much more constructive
Leaving the EU provides an opportunity to do things better. Replicating the EU’s top-down, centralised, and blunt approach would not be a good start – especially if it caused irreparable harm to what many inside and outside Parliament consider to be an iconic industry
The Federation paid tribute to Nathan de Rozarieux’s efforts on the panel to bring some sense of rigour, balance and sense of proportion to this report.
Fisheries Minister, Victoria Prentis MP, who participated in part of the call, emphasised that the Benyon Report, was not government policy. A process was now underway, to develop a government response to the report. That would be published in due course and would inform future policy. In the meantime, Defra would be engaging with the fishing industry to understand its concerns and perspectives.
There was nothing independent about this “independent” review. From the outset it has been driven by politically well-connected, socially privileged, environmental zealots, with an agenda that bulldozes aside the fears and legitimate concerns of those who depend on fishing for their livelihood. It seeks to bypass the established process for designating marine protected areas and designing appropriate management measures to protect vulnerable habitats in a careful and proportionate way. One would have to be extremely naïve to believe that it is anything other than a trojan horse for large-scale no take zones – despite scanty evidence that NTZs are relevant for the sustainable management of our fisheries, or the best way to protect marine habitats.
In the weighting of the panel, its terms of reference, the derisory access given to the views of the fishing industry – all give reason for alarm across the fishing industry. There is an acknowledgement within the report that the fishing industry, and especially small-scale vessels with limited range would be displaced from their fishing grounds. A truly independent and balanced group might have explored a bit deeper into what displacement would mean. Instead that task it has been left to Government.
The Benyon Report has managed to unite the fishing industry in opposition to a badly-timed, ill-judged, initiative of dubious provenance and confused purpose.