Education for Sustainability – the work of the Marine Conservation Society and protecting marine places

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist, Marine Protected Areas.

The first thing we say to educate the public about our seas is that they are big – about 650,000km2 bigger than the UK land area that is a measly 250,000km2.

Secondly, managing, or enforcing regulations to protect that space has been costly and difficult. We are land animals. Going out of my front door – I can use the power of my feet, eyes, ears and other senses to observe wildlife, record human activity. It’s also relatively close and accessible to many ecologists.

At sea we need remote sensing equipment to ‘track’ boats. We need sensors on the seabed (deployed by boats – often in difficult weather), to record aspects of environmental conditions, or indeed to ‘listen’ to passing dolphins and fish. We need to ‘tag’ certain numbers of marine animals to see where they go (often a subset of a population size that we can only guess at). As such, our science at sea will only offer a glimpse as to a snapshot of any population. Will it be truly representative of how all the fish in the shoal behave? If indeed we try and estimate the numbers of fish in the sea from catch rates, that provides something like an assessment of how species, and their biomass is changing in the seas.

But fishers can and do dump fish at sea; although there are now laws to stop that. But the temptation is there, as we don’t have remote cameras aboard vessels that would curtail this because of weak political will. So there are problems with evidence assessments of recording marine populations. Uncertainty is more part of marine conservation than terrestrial conservation, but the historical patterns of what has happened to the sea essentially mirror that of on land. And sadly, I believe we’ve totally altered the marine ecosystem in a way that is unimaginable since the dawn of the industrial revolution over 120 years ago (read ‘The Unnatural History of the Sea’ by Professor Calum Roberts if you can get a copy off ebay).

Can we shift this ecological story back? Yes we can!

I work predominantly in trying to recover the health of the seafloor. Much like on land we have seabed habitats and species that do important things for us. Such as provide water filtration, lock in carbon and act as nursery and feeding grounds for fish.

Much of the above would suggest protection, conservation, and provide the logic of enforcement wouldn’t it? But the value associated with preserving and recovering these habitats – has until now at least – been lost on governments, regulators and the treasury. We haven’t really had effective application of biodiversity laws that could’ve started recovering these aspects of biodiversity since the mid 1990s, but governments and their regulators have been weak in the face of industry pressure.

Recently the climate emergency has started to change the tone of this ‘debate’. Ministers are starting to – quite rightly – ask of the civil service why nothing is being done to effectively protect and recover our seas. It’s not complicated. We simply need to leave (parts of) them alone.  For decades we’ve tried to suggest to governments and regulators that our current marine laws are enough to allow marine biodiversity to start helping us combat climate change and provide other services – if only we were brave enough to leave large parts alone to recover by itself. These could be our Marine Protected Areas that cover an astonishing 338,000km2 of our seas, but they continue to be dredged, trawled, built on and dumped over. This has to change in the next decade.

So how are things changing? Is the message getting across? What is the message? How is it being framed, by whom and to who?

Communication about marine environmental sustainability really IS the job of the Marine Conservation Society. We do it by working, on the ground, where the land meets the sea, to enable a deeper understanding of the inextricable connection between people and the sea.

Nice words, but what does this look like on the ground? Our annual beach clean and litter surveys give coastal communities an accessible opportunity to connect with the coast and act on their sense of responsibility for their ‘bit’ of the sea (https://www.mcsuk.org/what-you-can-do/join-a-beach-clean/). With that connection established, communities are more engaged and more likely to engage on other coastal and marine issues. So when a local MPA is under consultation for ‘protection’ – they are more likely to come out in favour of marine conservation. Perhaps they’ll be more likely to use the ‘good fish guide’ (https://www.mcsuk.org/goodfishguide/), now wholly online,  when doing their shopping. They’ll understand that mussels are better than salmon. That oysters outweigh cod, that ling is more laudable than parrotfish.  

But it’s not just one way communication – it’s also about listening.

Using innovative methods, like the film-based Community Voice Method (https://www.mcsuk.org/ocean-emergency/people-and-the-sea/community-voice-method/) to find out what really matters to communities when it comes to the coast and sea.

This reciprocal relationship gives the Marine Conservation Society its mandate. We go after failing water companies because good water quality for people also happens to be good water quality to sustain life (https://www.mcsuk.org/ocean-emergency/ocean-pollution/water-quality/)! We call out unsustainable fishing and ensure that the information is there when fish stocks are in decline to inform seafood buyers (restaurants, supermarkets and individuals) of when to say no.

Figure 1. A small-scale inshore fishing boat. This is the majority of fishing vessels at sea, but the voices of these smaller scale and more benign fishing methods are underplayed. (JL Solandt).

But what of the wider sea – the stuff ‘out there’ beyond the shores, and how the Anthropocene has and still affects the very chemistry and biology of natural ecosystems – how on earth to we tackle these huge issues at such vast scales? How do we educate for sustainability for these outer areas?

Here we inform and mobilise the public to encourage/force our governments (after all there are 4 that deal with UK nature conservation) to make the right decisions – for them. We have network of (currently pretty useless) 372 Marine Protected Areas. 372! Covering a whopping 338,000km2 of our seas (that’s 35% more ‘MPA’ area in the UK than the total UK land area).

Think about that! There will be one near you! You probably didn’t know that! Did you ever ‘visit’ your local MPA? Why would you? Is it a featureless seascape? Is it cold? Muddy? Wet? Probably. And for many (well over 60), are way way offshore – and these are the real big ones, some in excess of 50,000km2 in size! These are meant to be our ‘crown jewels’ for marine conservation for animals and plants in the water column and on the seabed, but the vast majority have no noteworthy regulations, monitoring or enforcement (https://map.mpa-reality-check.org/).

Figure 2. The UK Marine Protected Area ‘network’. Largely useless.

Here we use education in the widest sense: To our MPA practitioners that MPAs are limited when considered for ‘biodiversity’ alone; or when the targets for their ‘protection’ are to have them ‘maintained’ in their current status.

This will not stand. We cannot tolerate the status quo for our seas that have been dumped on, dredged up and fished out for over 120 years.

The power of our industry figureheads (rather than the businesses themselves in many cases) has led to the benefits of MPA’s being ignored – and only the ‘costs’ to the exclusion of business being accounted for. Utter nonsense. Unfair. (This of course mirrors most business vs environment decisions).

But we’ve started to ask ‘what does enhanced ‘biodiversity’ do for wider society’? You’ll have heard of ecosystem services and ‘natural capital’. Well these are greatly enhanced by allowing the seabed to recover.

That’s my job at MCS. It is to have seabed richness growing, more diverse and dense. Increased oyster beds mean greater water filtration (cleaner waters), habitat for more complex lifeforms (like bryozoans, corals and sponges) that also filter and clean water. A more complex seafloor is more beneficial to juvenile fish species such as juvenile cod. Increased seafloor complexity, with animals who root into sediments or rocks beneath sediments slows down water movement, therefore stopping waves eroding our coasts.

This is a vital role of seagrass beds that pepper our very sheltered coastal bays – but they have historically declined due to contamination and port infrastructure over the past 100 years. Seagrass beds has been recorded as being 30x more powerful than rainforests at ‘locking down’ carbon.

So the learning and the shouting about this stuff is more and more important. We’ve been working successfully with yachting and boating communities in Plymouth to pay for and encourage the replacement of moorings (that scrape the seabed at low tide) with ‘Advanced Mooring Systems’ whereby the whole device is raised off the seabed by submerged buoys, reducing contact with the seabed.

Figure 3. A rich seabed of large (20cm) ‘horse mussels’. Dredging the seabed destroys this rich matrix of life, leaving shell gravel and mud. (picture, Rohan Holt).

UK seas comprise 78% of the UK, but only about 5% of the sea area bans trawling (and mostly in areas where the trawlers can’t get to anyway). So we need to enhance the seabed to enhance our lives. Calculations from the IPCC and Ocean experts have it that natural solutions at sea can do 20% of the necessary job of reducing carbon in the atmosphere to 1.5 degree rise by 2100. That starts by ensuring that MPAs stop industrial activity – at least industrial activity that damages the seafloor.

Of course that’s easier said than done. And this is where listening and taking a solutions-based approach comes in. We’ve used the ‘Community Voice Method’ with Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCA’s) in  England to engage coastal communities, in all their diversity, with coastal marine resource management issues. These are conversations that some people would never have dreamed of getting involved in before. But by making the effort to deepen and broaden engagement it has actually become possible for the local regulators to move beyond the usual suspects and situate marine conservation where it belongs – in the interests of society as a whole.

I believe our work to enable listening and dialogue has contributed to more progressive approaches and accelerated progress to meaningful seabed protection by developing local understanding of decades of scientific research and giving communities the chance to think about what is in the interests of people and nature now and in the future. The logic of this confluence has seen some of the most progressive seabed protection measures emerging.

For example, in Sussex,  the most damaging forms of bottom towed fishing have been banned  in large areas of its district. Of course this has had a negative impact on those who used to fish in these ways – but in the broader context – it is in the best interests of wider society, wildlife, habitat, and the future of the inshore fishing industry. It’s an amazing story of commitment, persistence and long term thinking that we think deserves to be told.  We’ll be working with the Sussex IFCA to capture and share this decade-long story over the next few months. Looking backwards to move forwards is how it could be put. We hope others will be inspired by what they have achieved on their stretch of the south coast.

Figure 4. Collaboration is key to getting anything done at sea. Here, funders, regulators, academics and NGOs work together to record seabed life in areas restricted from bottom trawls. (JL Solandt)

Perhaps we can move others to progress as Sussex has done for our wider seas and by other regulators. But we need the tools to ensure that the majority win from ensuing conservation measures, whilst the minority feel it ‘not worth’ the risk of transgressing ensuing new ‘rules’ and ‘limitations’ to their historical access to these areas. That means better investment in enforcement tools, and money for court cases. But the initial progress has been made. The culture of how we manage our seas has changed in the last decade. That is a good thing. We need the next decade to move from a new accepted conservation ‘culture’ to action and wider understanding. I hope we can continue to be at the coalface of that change.