My dad grew up fishing off the beach and left our village as a teenager to sail around the world for fifteen years. Fishermen and sailors alike are drawn to isolation, they turn their backs on the land. Surfing is a little different, but the call is the same and it is in my blood. Even as a child, before I knew what surfing was, my parents had to bribe and drag me out of the ocean every day. I was irresistibly drawn to the water and that feeling is just as powerful as it was thirty years ago. It has become a constant source of reassurance and affirmation. Without any plan, my love for surfing is what brought me to a life working in marine conservation.
I grew up on the east coast of England where the waves were cold, empty and occasionally perfect. Being a surfer was all about imagination and unmet desire. The line between dreaming of swell and swell arriving was blurred. By the mid 90s, I was obsessed, and, in those years, remote coastlines were almost devoid of other surfers. Even then, I felt something different when surfing alone. The raw and unmediated edges of surfing made it possible to slow down enough to notice everything else.
Watching salmon breach in a Scottish river mouth, then on a drive west that same day, seeing the salmon pens in the sea lochs. Harlequin ducks at a point in the Westfjords of Iceland, their plumage brilliant, and later on the trip being offered whale meat at a farmer’s house. An otter hunting for hours at a Sligo reef, seemingly unbothered by my clumsy attempts to get closer and the understanding that such creatures were functionally invisible at home. A long, svelte blue shark up close to check us out at a boulder point in Cornwall and a few days later a newspaper cutting showed a huge one landed. Bit by bit, by osmosis, these experiences opened me up. Surfing became a vehicle to connect with the marine environment. It felt like being half seal, half bird, immersed but flying. A strong connection with this concert of living things is a constant source of wonder. They are like brittle stars – fragile, precious and worth protecting.
The peak of this journey came when I spent a few months living on a Scottish island. It was remote and isolated, requiring several ferries from the mainland to reach. My dwelling was a ruined longhouse with a solid roof but no doors or windows. As soon as dark fell, the mice were everywhere in the light of the headtorch. During the frequent storms, birds would huddle at the doorway to shelter. It wouldn’t be right to talk about the waves in any detail publicly, but some of the memories are among the most special of my surfing life. It was also inconsistent and we had a lot of time to hang out, read books and freedive. On the north shore I saw abundant kelp forests, full of large fish, sometimes sharing the water with a dozen or more seals at a time. The kelp itself was beautiful, I could only liken the way the light fell through it to the stained glass of a cathedral. One seal was more curious and playful than the others, biting my fins and bringing its whiskers up to my mask. I didn’t know we had such abundance and biodiversity so close to home. It struck me that what I was used to seeing further south were marine ecosystems completely stripped of life.
I took time to explore the bay in front of the longhouse. What I found was in stark contrast to the north. The seabed was empty. No features, no habitat, no living things apart from a vast, barren expanse of sand. There was no way of knowing if this was once a seagrass meadow that provided a nursery habitat for millions of juvenile fish (as other bays nearby do). It could also have been covered in maerl, reddish calcified seaweed beds that swarm with life. This could have been a breeding site for the flapper skate, huge fish that can reach over three metres long. Once called the common skate, flapper skate are now incredibly rare. My local friend told me that the bay had recently been dredged for scallops. It was the first time that I understood that fishing is not simply one practice.
When my father left home on his boat Shireen in 1960, the sea was still considered a vast and endless resource. Industrial fishing hadn’t reached a global scale. However, since 1970, populations of mammals, fish, birds and reptiles have slumped by around 70% due to an array of human-induced pressures including climate change, habitat loss, invasive species and extractive activities. Even amid this confusing, opaque list one thing is certainly true — mobile bottom contact fishing has been a key driver of destruction. This has changed the health of our ocean. Even twenty years ago, scientists had already concluded that 90% of large predatory fish were gone. This includes tuna and marlin, but also common eating fish like cod and halibut. Migratory freshwater fish have declined by 76% and one third face extinction. Water quality in our country is a national disgrace and that impacts blue carbon habitats and fish species alike.
In 1995, seminal fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined the term “Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” Because abundance and environmental resilience is constantly declining, which is something we cannot see or understand, we consider our own experience as normal. With each passing generation, the baseline shifts downward. Human standards for what constitutes a healthy marine environment shifts ever lower. So many of the pressures on the ocean such as acidification, eutrophication, ocean noise, exploratory deep-sea mining, marine light, microplastic pollution are invisible to human beings. As humanity loses the concept of abundance, resilience slips away.
Oliver Goldsmith, in the 18th Century, wrote about a shoal of herring: “When the main body is arrived, its breadth and depth is such as to alter the very appearance of the ocean. It is divided into distinct columns, of five or six miles in length, and three or four broad; while the water before them curls up, as if forced out of its bed.” These are spectacles that we no longer see. The ocean I fell in love with as a child was radically different to the one that my father sailed out into. In my lifetime it has been emptied of living things. The herring are almost completely gone now, it is hard for present-day humans to understand a sea so rich in small living things. It is hard even for the people who work in conservation to link the fate of kelp, seagrass, maerl and herring with that of flapper skates, minke whales and orcas. So much of the life below water is little understood. It is this appreciation of connectivity that we deliberately overlook when we permit the most destructive forms of industrial fishing to continue unabated.
The seabed is critically important to a healthy and resilient marine ecosystem. Seabed habitats are nursery grounds, where commercially-important fish species grow and thrive. Tragically, Shifting Baseline Syndrome also affects policymakers. Commercial sea fishing goes back centuries, industrial fishing was already active sixty years ago. But so many of our global laws, policies and management measures for fishing are based on data that is only 20 or 40 years old. To be clear, I am not against fishing. I understand that over one billion people rely on fish for their primary source of protein and food security is a pressing global issue. I also understand the key role that fishermen play in communities the world over, but there are many types of fishermen. Making a livelihood and feeding a community is a completely different thing to industrial exploitation for profit. Currently, an industry dictates what happens to a global commons because of the opacity and lack of public understanding of what’s happening to our oceans.
At a UK domestic level, bottom trawling and dredging remains allowed in over 95% of Marine Protected Areas. Furthermore, analysis of fishing vessel tracking data by Oceana and Global Fishing Watch found that bottom trawling and dredging happens in 71 out of 73 offshore marine protected areas around the UK. At a European level, a study found that bottom trawling is taking place in 59% of European Union MPAs. People outside our small community of conservationists may find this surprising. Most of my friends in the surfing community have no idea that this is happening in a place where we spend such a significant part of our lives.
This is not about taking livelihoods away, it is about ensuring their resilience and permanent survival. I live in a coastal community and I care deeply about its permanence and ongoing health. Triple wins — for biodiversity, climate and people — are entirely possible. Where they are not, the transition away from destructive fishing methods must be just and socially equitable. Removing fishing effort from marine protected areas and not simply displacing it to other parts of the ocean will affect livelihoods and the economy. People will lose their jobs. But to genuinely see recovery, substantial parts of the sea should be closed to fishing and we are nowhere near that point yet. The world agrees, there is global ambition for at least 30 per cent of the ocean to be declared as marine protected areas by 2030 (agreed at CBD COP15 in Montreal in December 2022). Some countries are going further already and protecting 50 or more per cent of their exclusive economic zones (the water under each country’s control). Countries are also coming together and creating transboundary protected areas that go beyond our notional ideas of country borders. The high seas treaty potentially opens the door to vast protected areas in 45% of earth’s surface. But fish have no respect for the arbitrary lines drawn by humans and protection should be ecologically intelligent. These are our life support systems after all. We need to have these conversations and not be put off by the complexity of the problem or the fierce rebuttal that the industrial fishing industry will inevitably respond with.
There are many global, existential challenges faced by the ocean. Some of them, such as eutrophication and acidification, look currently unsolvable and intractable. Others such as plastic and pollution are largely land based problems that need solutions far up the supply chain. Still more are only just emerging, such as deep sea mining. But destructive forms of fishing and the subsidies that often prop them up are solvable problems. If we return for a second to that island off Scotland, from 1889-1984 Scotland imposed a ‘three mile limit’ that banned bottom-trawling. This was created due to the decline of herring industry and the gradual disappearance of spectacles like the one that Oliver Goldsmith wrote about in the 1700s. This limit banned bottom trawling from 36% of Scotland’s inshore waters. Due to industry pressure, this limit was removed in 1984, a few years after I was born. Fish stocks offshore had collapsed and the abundant fishing grounds close to shore became a target. The result has been the rapid destruction of fish spawning grounds and nursery habitats and, predictably, a total collapse in many inshore fisheries.
But all of this could come back. Rewilding the sea is a matter of simply leaving bits of it alone. Valuing ocean life should be a priority in curriculums, policies and corporations. “We can get by on land only by carrying a huge amount of salt water around with us,” Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote in Other Minds, “And many of the evolutionary moves made at these early stages – those giving birth to sensing, behaviour, and coordination – would have depended on the sea’s free movement of chemicals.” The ocean is in our blood and our origins. Until we can truly value this, it is hard for us to make sensible decisions about it. We get lost in our own story so easily, drawn to the polarity of defending our side of the fight. Which is why obvious solutions such as protecting the high seas, protecting Antarctica, banning subsidies and getting destructive forms of fishing out of marine protected areas get overlooked.
I can only imagine how those Scottish islands once looked. How the sheltered bays would have boiled with fish, the sea cliffs thick with birds. I have been to places where the ocean is still like this and the affect that it has on the human brain is powerful. It is like coming home to something that you know is right. The potential to fix some of the problems we have created (and maintain through inaction) is right here. The exploitation of marine ecosystems will not change unless we change ourselves. I see a future when our inshore waters and marine protected areas are thriving and abundant once again, which in turn supports our own survival and resilience, including that of fishermen seeking a living rather than profit. Profiting from the destruction of a global commons must end. Perhaps my own daughter and twin boys can sail out into an ocean full of life and feel part of it and at home on this earth. As a surfer whose life has been shaped by the ocean, that is a sincere wish and a source of constant, daily hope.