Bite-Back July 2007

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has declared the Angel Shark to be extinct in the North Sea. In 2001 the government had promised to give protection to this rapidly disappearing shark, yet in the intervening six years has done absolutely nothing towards it. The Common Skate, which can grow to over 3 meters long, is in a similar position. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee, a scientific body whose role is to advise the government, has for years urged Defra to protect this skate under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. A survey conducted a couple of years ago to assess the status of the Common Skate failed to find a single one, making the ‘common’ part of its name somewhat ironic. The government’s plan appears to be to continue this policy of doing absolutely nothing.

These are critical species and yet they are being allowed to slide towards extinction. Somehow the government has got it stuck firmly in its head that if something is a fish then it isn’t wildlife, and if a decline is caused by commercial fishing then they can wash their hands of it and blame the Common Fisheries Policy. Yet, in reality, it is much easier to control the fishing industry than to try and stop pollution, habitat loss or a thousand and one other causes of species decline. Protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act would make it illegal to target, land or disturb such species and is a vital first step to beginning their recovery.

The Common Skate is still targeted in its last few refuges in Scotland, but thankfully local fishermen are responding positively to efforts to introduce voluntary limits. The angel shark, on the other hand, has no commercial value but merely falls victim, like many other bottom dwelling species, to the destructive effects of bottom trawls. Inclusion of such species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act is needed immediately and our Fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw can be reminded just how urgent this is at www.benbradshaw.co.uk/contact/contact.php.

But we must also be aware that the random nature of by-catch and the devastating effect of bottom trawlers on the seabed means that much wider protection is going to be needed, in conjunction with individual species protection, if we are going to keep animals like the Angel Shark and Common Skate. And that is where the proposed Marine Bill comes in and the need for proper marine reserves. The government has recently suggested that there should be around 100 ‘marine conservation zones’ but also stated that it wouldn’t be until 2020 that such a network would be established and that commercial fishing may well be allowed within them. If you designated a bird sanctuary, and then permitted shooting there, it would be considered absurd, so why is that OK underwater? Add your name to the petition campaigning for proper marine reserves at www.marinereservesnow.org.uk and tell Mr Bradshaw that endangered species such as the angel shark and common skate need proper protection now, not a thirteen year wait for a conservation zone full of trawlers.

John Nightingale