Bottoms Up!

The Tales from the Riverbank are of a more serious nature and I hope thought-provoking this month. The Environment Agency and Defra have plans afoot that will radically alter wild fishing in our rivers and estuaries and they plan these changes with no regard to views and opinions of those most closely affected. I predict that within 10 years we shall see an end to wild sea trout and salmon fishing and it will no longer be possible to run eel restocking projects in the same way as we do today. Rod and line fishermen will not escape these restrictions either; catch and release will be mandatory on all rivers. As with most government bodies a reactive policy rather than a proactive one is always seen as the easiest path to travel.

Let me introduce Elinor Ostrom;
On the 12th June this year Elinor Ostrom died. Not a name I'm sure any of you are familiar with, but she won a Nobel Prize in economics - made all the more remarkable as she was not an economist at all but a political scientist. Her most important work was carried out in the ‘60s and ‘70s when the so called “Tragedy of the Commons” was exercising the minds of economists. This phrase, coined by ecologist Garrett Hardin, describes the situation where individuals, or bodies acting in their own self-interest, depleted a shared limited resource such as fishermen overfishing a river. In Hardin’s view the only way to address the problem was for either the government stepping in and regulating the resource or alternatively the resource being divided up or privatised. “The Tragedy of Commons” was used to justify governments increasing intervention into many aspects of resource allocation and governance. Hardin illustrated his theory by taking the example of a cow pasture open to everyone resulting in a situation where everyone would want to use it and consequently ruin the resource. Elinor Ostrom took a completely different view and argued that the restricted cattle pastures of the Alps controlled by the Swiss cheese producers had for centuries chosen the model of common ownership as a basis for locally negotiating grazing rules. Because of the vagaries of the mountains’ weather, the locations of the lushest pasture varied from year to year, so in the interests of all farmers, rules and regulations were introduced so as all could enjoy this shared resource. This was the basis of her book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, a work described as the intellectual field guide for conservationists. Elinor argued that the ‘tragedy’ as she saw it occurred when one or more ‘stakeholders’ who were outside the resources community or social economic system imposed their solutions and exerted political power to change the rules to gain advantage for themselves. She used her ideas extensively in projects all over the world, including Indonesian fishermen, Maine lobstermen, and farmers sharing scarce water resources in Nepal and Kenya where she drew up a set of design principles for stable local common resource management.

Unfortunately the UK’s fishing resources are managed by the government in the guise of Defra and the Environment Agency. As a result of the Marine Act, over a hundred Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) have been set up around our coastline. Charles Clover, chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation and author of The End of the Line and long time critic of the government for its failure to provide itself, and officials, with the powers to control and monitor these marine protected areas unveiled a new scheme that his foundation is championing. Lyme Bay, one of the UK’s largest SACs has formed an alliance with conservationists and local fishermen to manage England’s coral garden from overfishing. When this protected zone was initially declared a SAC in 2008 its prime objective was to stop scallop dredging but the unintended consequence was that fishermen vastly increased their number of static pots and nets. The scallop dredgers had simply been replaced with many more boats with static gear exploiting this already fragile eco system. Under an agreement with Blue Marine and the Devon and Dorset fishermen limits have been imposed on numbers of crab, lobster and whelk pots that a boat can carry, plus net size restrictions of 600 metres. Dave Sales of the Bridport Commercial Boatowners’ and Fishermen's Association described this as a blueprint to ensure that there will be fish and shellfish to catch for his grandchildren’s grandchildren. At the project launch at Fishmongers’ Hall in London he said that previous attempts to regulate the fishing by officials and conservationists had been a failure whereas this deal was “bottom up”. It’s all come from the fishermen as opposed to "top down". Alex Jones, representing fishermen from Lyme Regis said "The future has to be with fishermen and scientists working together towards a common goal of sustainability, protecting areas but still keeping local fishing communities going."

The River Severn and Bristol Channel in particular desperately needs a management programme in place that can help manage this amazing historical fish resource and take the necessary steps to ensure its sustainability and it needs to be “bottom up”.