Editor’s note: Leon Roskilly is national coordinator of the Sea Anglers’ Conservation Network (SACN), a UK-based organization committed to sustainable recreational fishing. He adapted the following essay from a longer article of his, “Marine Protected Areas and Angling – A Discussion Document”, posted on the SACN website in November 2006 (http://www.sacn.org.uk/Articles/Marine_Protected_Areas_and_Angling.html).

By Leon Roskilly

According to government reports, there are two- to three-million recreational sea anglers in the UK alone. Worldwide, there are likely tens of millions more. Most anglers are very conscious of marine conservation issues and have seen first-hand the degradation of fish stocks and the marine environment. They are anxious that action be taken to reverse the damage that has been done.

Because of this, anglers are instinctively in favor of creating protected areas. This includes MPAs that place restrictions on angling activity. However, such restrictions must be proportionate and necessary: restrictions proposed on the basis of dogma or politics, or on which anglers are not properly involved in the consultation process, will be opposed.

If the environmental NGO community is looking for public support for protection of the marine environment, the recreational sea angling community represents a powerful potential ally open to lending a hand and taking ownership for what happens in those waters. Below are two ways this alliance can be built.

Creating compensatory areas

Anglers are aware that the best places to fish often involve structure of some kind: an underwater reef or gully, a rocky area, a slightly raised gravel bank, etc. These areas can be particularly rich in biodiversity and are often the places that fish come to feed. They are also the places where MPAs are most likely to be established.

If it is necessary to take away a productive angling area – which threatens a backlash from anglers – then this situation can be turned into a “win-win” situation by involving sea anglers in creating a compensatory area for them nearby. In this compensatory area, a previously unproductive site will be enhanced artificially to create a new angling area. An example of this would be building a rocky outcrop off a beach, thus creating a near-inshore artificial reef or gravel bank.

Such a project – involving anglers and angling interests in planning and perhaps financing – will produce a double benefit for the marine environment. While the ecologically important area is protected inside an MPA (with which everybody would be onboard), there will be an “enhanced” area that anglers can enjoy. This enhanced area can also provide research opportunities and help address the overall aim of restoring the marine environment.

Restoring ecologically damaged areas

The reverse of the above is also an option. Nearly all proposals for protected areas involve protecting existing fishing sites and displacing existing fishing effort. It may be more productive, and more politically acceptable, to focus protection efforts instead on an area that has been damaged – by beam trawling, for example – and take physical action to restore its original characteristics.

Because the area will have been of little or no socioeconomic value due to its damaged state, there is unlikely to be any great problem with excluding activities during the recovery process and beyond. At the same time, there is likely to be interest in the additional productivity benefits accruing to the overall marine environment – and to stakeholders – from the site’s recovery.

It could be argued that such intervention in a “natural” environment is not in accordance with nature conservation. But what has to be realized is that there are no “natural” areas in the seas around the UK. Just as the modern countryside is the result of agricultural activity, so our underwater seascapes and communities have been totally transformed by human activity. Just as previously used land can be enhanced by planting hedges, and reintroducing plants known to improve biodiversity, there should be no reason not to consider similarly enhancing (or restoring) the structure of the underwater land.

Working together

Anglers have demonstrated that they can organize and successfully scupper plans for MPAs. In the UK, this has happened in at least two instances (Whitsand Bay and Skomer). The tragedy has been that in both cases, opposition arose because of a lack of consultation. Once planning was underway, it became impossible for government to engage objectively with the angling lobby, explore the benefits available, or explain the need to displace angling activity.

The greater tragedy is that now there are a number of people within the angling lobby who are firmly committed to opposing marine protected areas in principle, and who have experience in organizing opposition.

This has led to a damaging and unnecessary split between the otherwise environmentally aware angling lobby and the “green movement”, which then has to realign its own resources and energies to meet the opposition from the angling lobby. Both movements should be, and could easily have been, working together for the same ends.

For more information:

Leon Roskilly, Sea Anglers’ Conservation Network, 9 Iversgate Close, Rainham, Gillingham, Kent, ME8 7PA, UK. E-mail: leonrosk@aol.com