The issue of overfishing has twitched to life in the public consciousness. Fresh from battling EU rules that make fishermen dump perfectly good catches, the campaigning British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has turned his attention and television cameras to the creation of ocean conservation zones (Hugh's Fish Fight: Save Our Seas). Former UK minister David Miliband is also leading the new Global Ocean Commission that aims to protect fisheries.
This increased interest has arguably been sparked by The End of the Line, a 2009 documentary film about the devastating effects of overfishing, made by two founding members of the Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE). The charity works with governments and NGOs to establish marine reserves, then runs regular patrols to ensure they are protected. By increasing the area of ocean protected by marine reserves from 2.3 to 10 per cent over the next 10 years, BLUE aims to prevent the barren seas that loom 40 years down the line and the starvation of a billion people who rely on fish as their primary food source.
BLUE successfully works with wealthy individuals, particularly superyacht owners, with an interest in keeping the oceans healthy. They have now been joined by high-end companies such as the luxury travel website Mr and Mrs Smith, Marks & Spencer and restaurant empire Hix. Swimwear brand Orlebar Brown is extending its line of BLUE trunks, which feature photographs of humpback whales taken by charity co-founder George Duffield, while Crème de La Mer produced a limited edition Blue Marine moisturiser in both cases proceeds go to the charity.
Whether the money is private or corporate, the purveyors and consumers of luxury have proved a powerful force creating the world's largest marine reserve, Chagos, in the Indian Ocean, in BLUE's first year. The charity's patrols funded by the Bertarelli Foundation protect the 247,000 square mile site and have already seized 25 illegal fishing vessels. 'The waters of Chagos Archipelago are eight to twenty times as abundant with life than in many other places in the same ocean,' notes Professor Charles Sheppard of Warwick University, in a report on his recent expedition.
Belize leads the way
The charity's second-largest reserve has just been created in Belize, a nation that has embraced BLUE's aims. 'As Belizeans we continue to be a people with a great appreciation for conservation and sound management of our marine resources,' says Lisel Alamilla, Belizean minister for forestry, fisheries and sustainable development. Belize is on track to meet its own target of protecting 20 per cent of its waters by 2020.
With guidance from BLUE and substantial funding from the Bertarelli Foundation, Belize has also designated the Turneffe Atoll, a marine protected area (MPA). The atoll is the most biologically diverse in the Caribbean, home to manatees, crocodiles, turtles and rare coral. 'It is the missing piece in a biological corridor of MPAs that extends over 3,866 square kilometres of Belize's waters,' says BLUE's George Duffield. 'If we can protect Turneffe it creates this enormous wildlife path scientists are looking at not just protecting little bits, but entire migration paths.'
Alamilla was acutely aware of its importance. 'As minister, one of the first things I committed to was to ensure this atoll was afforded legislative protection; it provides an opportunity for its sound management to safeguard the integrity of important ecosystems and biodiversity and to sustain the livelihoods of our artisanal coastal fishers who have depended on this atoll for generations
The inclusion of local people is a vital plank of the Turneffe project and all BLUE projects. 'It is a much more complex marine reserve than Chagos a gigantic, essentially unpopulated area,' says Duffield. 'Turneffe is a mixed-use area, there are fishermen whose needs need to be taken into consideration. As a working exemplar it's much more applicable elsewhere.'
A significant proportion of the budget for the project will be spent on communication and education to the local community. It's not a hard sell. 'Fishers should experience a more sustained production level, which will generate more income for their households,' says Alamilla.
Duffield agrees: 'They know fishing is collapsing, they're getting less every year and it's taking more effort. They're waiting for somebody to help them get to a more sustainable future.' And for help in protecting it. 'My ministry, with the assistance of donors like that of the Bertarelli Foundation, will continue to work with its stakeholders, in particular the co-managers of the reserve, to provide long term financing and management to the area and ensure its protection,' says Alamilla.
BLUE has also found local fishermen to be a driving force for its project on the other side of the world, in Lyme Bay, on the UK's Dorset coast. Ten years ago, the bay's rocky reefs, with their sunset corals and sea fans, were being smashed to bits by scallop dredges. A marine reserve set up by the Government failed to improve fish stocks and riled local fishermen.
BLUE entered the scene, working with fishermen in four ports, including Lyme Regis, to agree a voluntary code limiting the pots and nets they can use. In return, they are likely to retain access to the fishery and aid the recovery of the reefs. They also get a marketable fish caught sustainably in the Lyme Bay Fisheries and Conservation Reserve. The notable feature is it is voluntary. As BLUE puts it: 'One day we will back away, leaving a management system in place.'
Oliver Letwin, the Member of Parliament for West Dorset, calls it, 'A remarkable code, which offers a prospect of sustainable fishing off this wonderful part of Britain's coastline.'
Where tourism helps
It's not just communities and politicians making changes. On the Baa Atoll in the Maldives, BLUE has collaborated with another stakeholder in the marine environment: the tourism industry. Hotels agreed to donate a percentage of income to the management of the area. BLUE helped seed-fund the local managing body and will invest in the enforcement of the area. 'The leisure industry protecting its resources is a great model,' says Duffield.
Blue Marine Yacht Club
Yacht owners are still at the heart of BLUE's work. The charity's most recent yacht-related coup has been characteristically high-net-worth and low-key. Following a speech at the launch of the Blue Marine Yacht Club at the 2012 Monaco Yacht Show, HRH Prince Albert has become the Club's patron.
Members (who financially support the charity) fly a burgee designed by Ralph Lauren. The sight of them in glamorous ports is a public statement of support for BLUE and hopefully the beginning of a trend. It seems to be working, with four new members since we last reported on the Club including Olivier de Givenchy and Peter Dubens.
These people, like an increasing number of others across the world, understand that the oceans are the repository of much of Earth's natural wealth and they really are too big to fail.
Originally Published in Boat International April 2013