Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Echoes of Atlantis?

In Europe, ‘Atlantic ‘ usually conveys  the notion of a cold and hostile sea typified by the stories of the wartime Atlantic Convoys with their unsung heroes and tragic deaths. This was not in my mind though when I plunged into the 7°C waters at Hallsands last Saturday clad in a dry suit for a brief but exhilarating scuba dive: I was chilling out (literally) after a busy week that had taken me to Cork in Ireland and onwards to London. And all of this on business related to the future development of the Atlantic region.

But let me begin by telling you something about Hallsands because it is a parable for the kind of short-sighted thinking that we often witness today. Hallsands is a little hamlet of a few well maintained houses perched on a Devon cliff in a hinterland of rolling hills dotted with sheep and expensive holiday homes. But it didn’t used to be like that. The 1891 census showed it to be a bustling little fishing village of 159 people with 37 houses and a pub. But in a fateful storm on 26 January 1917, the entire village tumbled into the sea just after the residents had scrambled to safety. Villages that have existed for centuries don’t simply vanish without reason; the storm was a harsh but not unusual one. What precipitated the disaster was the dredging and removal of huge quantities of gravel from the underwater banks off Hallsands in the 1890s for construction material to be used for expanding the port of Plymouth. Local people had protested and the dredging was halted in 1902 … but it was too late, the natural resilience of the coastline had been fatally weakened.

Modern coasts and seas are also losing resilience and this too is largely a result of decisions made in the past. It could be argued that the destruction of a major part of Atlantic City, New Jersey, by Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 was partly a product of short-termist energy policies - that trade off their longer term consequences - and excessive risk-taking during construction. We already know, for example, that sea level rise will be continuing by at least half a centimetre a year – and faster still with projected fossil fuel consumption – so we are willingly trading off future coastal habitats (human and non-human) against immediate needs. ‘Discounting’ is not a word solely reserved for supermarkets. When exploiting the environment, we discount future benefits of sustainable use against more attractive short term gains: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

This brings me back to my travel to the lovely city of Cork in Ireland. It’s the turn of the Irish Government to be President of the European Union and they organised a workshop - the last of five - to design an Atlantic Strategy. This is part of a wider maritime strategy by the EU’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG-MARE). My part in the meeting was a five minute slot (argh yes, just five minutes!) to discuss the Ecosystem Approach and the grand research challenges it presents.

The Director General of DG-MARE, Lowri Evans, was bullish about the future of the Atlantic region. The strategy is clearly about growth and jobs. There are currently about 5.4 million marine and maritime related jobs in the Atlantic region of Spain, Portugal, France, the UK and Ireland, and the Commission is setting a target for this to grow to 7 million by 2020 and a GVA (gross value added) rising from the current €500bn to a massive €600bn over the same period. This is a big ask from a region strapped for cash for investment. Ms Evans has also made it clear that "a safeguard for future generations is non-negotiable" (her words).

So where will the growth come from? According to the Commission, there are five areas for investment being pursued in the proposed strategy:
  1. ‘Blue Energy’ (marine renewable energy), with emphasis on wave and tidal energy and a focus on reduction of technology costs and improvement in transmission capacity
  2. Aquaculture, focusing on reducing the current dependency on imported fish meal to feed farmed fish and on resolving planning issues
  3. Tourism, with investment in new skills and capacity in cruise and adventure tourism, recreational fishing and ‘cultural tourism'
  4. Marine mineral resources, finding ways to extract minerals from the deep sea while minimising impacts
  5. Marine biotechnology, described as a ‘wildcard’ to future prosperity, requiring a major investment in new research
Ms Evans was careful to qualify these ambitions. More scientific effort will be needed on ocean observations, mapping and forecasting and there is a clear transatlantic dimension to this work with huge benefits to be gained from cooperation between Europe and North America. Cooperation and greater use of technology are seen as a way of achieving better outcomes for lower costs. There will be improved synergy between the development and research agendas too. Hopefully the new EU ‘Horizons 2020’ research programme (see link below) will allow sufficient headroom for the research that can provide checks and balances against unexpected consequences of the dash for growth.

And that takes me back to the Ecosystem Approach. Our KnowSeas project has defined it as “a resource planning and management approach that integrates the connections between land, air and water and all living things, including people, their activities and institutions.” In other words, it is insufficient to consider human activities in isolation from the limits of natural systems and, in the words of the American ecologist Eugene Odum, we need to see the world through a macroscope as well as a microscope.

Following the short hop across the Irish Sea to London, on Wednesday I joined a meeting with the British Minister of the Environment, Richard Benyon.  He is clearly proud of the UK’s role in the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (see my last blog) but also emphasises the urgency of creating jobs, promoting exports and increasing prosperity. Just like most political leaders in Atlantic seaboard countries he is clearly a politician under pressure to produce economic growth. It is times like this where there is a huge temptation to look for easy wins and leave the long-term consequences to someone else in the future. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen with the Atlantic strategy and that our politicians will take the longer view by carefully balancing measures for conservation with use.

Perhaps this was still on my mind as I cast my eyes over the cold but unusually limpid sea at Hallsands looking for traces of the ruined village.  If we do not improve our understanding of the resilience of marine systems and the thresholds beyond which their integrity cannot be maintained, it will be difficult to manage their exploitation properly.  We need to look after our natural capital if we want to make the best use of it.

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