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Jellyfish Rule


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Courtesy: Marc Roberts

Have I just witnessed the beginning of the end of vertebrate ecology?

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

Last year I began to wonder, this year doubt is seeping away, to be replaced with a rising fear. Could they really have done it? Could the fishing industry have achieved the remarkable feat of destroying the last great stock?

Until 2010, mackerel were the one reliable catch in Cardigan Bay in west Wales. Though I took to the water dozens of times, there wasn’t a day in 2008 or 2009 when I failed to take ten or more. Once every three or four trips I would hit a major shoal, and bring in 100 or 200 fish: enough, across the season, to fill the freezer and supply much of our protein for the year. Those were thrilling moments: pulling up strings of fish amidst whirling flocks of shearwaters, gannets pluming into the water beside my kayak, dolphins breaching and blowing. It was, or so it seemed, the most sustainable of all the easy means of harvesting animal protein.

Even those days were nothing by comparison to what the older residents remembered: weeks on end when the sea was so thick with fish that you could fill a bucket with mackerel just by picking them off the sand, as they flung themselves through and beyond the breaking waves while pursuing their prey.

Last year it all changed. From the end of May to the end of October I scoured the bay, on one occasion paddling six or seven miles from land – the furthest I’ve ever been – to try to find the fish. With the exception of a day on which I caught 20, I brought them back in ones or twos, if at all. There were many days on which I caught nothing at all.

There were as many explanations as there were fishermen: the dolphins had driven them away, the north-westerlies had broken up the shoals, a monstrous fishmeal ship was stationed in the Irish Sea, hoovering up 500 tonnes a day with a fiendish new vacuum device. (Despite a wealth of detail on this story I soon discovered that no such ship existed. But that’s fishermen for you). I spoke to a number of fisheries officials and scientists, and was shocked to discover that not only did they have no explanation, they had no data either.

So I hoped for the best – that the dearth could be explained by a fluctuation of weather or ecology. When the fish failed to arrive at the end of May I told myself they must be on their way. They had, after all, been showing off the south-west of England – it could be only a matter of time. I held off until last weekend.

The conditions were perfect. There was no wind, no swell, and the best water visibility I’ve ever seen here. I looked at the sea and thought “today’s the day when it all comes right.”

I pushed my kayak off the beach and felt that delightful sensation of gliding away from land almost effortlessly – I’m so used to fighting the westerlies and the waves they whip up in these shallow seas that on this occasion I seemed almost to be drifting towards the horizon. Far below me I could see the luminous feathers I used as bait tripping over the seabed.

But I could also see something else. Jellyfish. Unimaginable numbers of them. Not the transparent cocktail umbrellas I was used to, but solid white rubbery creatures the size of footballs. They roiled in the surface or loomed, vast and pale, in the depths. There was scarcely a cubic metre of water without one.

Apart from that – nothing. It wasn’t until I reached a buoy three miles from the shore that I felt the urgent tap of a fish, and brought up a single, juvenile mackerel. Otherwise, though I paddled to all the likely spots, I detected nothing but the jellyfish rubbing against the line. As I returned to shore I hooked a greater weever – which thrashed around the boat, trying to impale me on its poisonous spines. But that was all.

Is this the moment? Have I just witnessed the beginning of the end of vertebrate ecology here? If so, the shift might not be confined to Cardigan Bay. In a perfect conjunction of two of my recent interests, last week a monstrous swarm of jellyfish succeeded where Greenpeace has failed, and shut down both reactors at the Torness nuclear power station in Scotland.

The Israeli branch of Jellyfish Action pulled off a similar feat at the nuclear power station in Hadera this week.

A combination of overfishing and ocean acidification (caused by rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) has creating the perfect conditions for this shift from a system dominated by fish to a system dominated by jellyfish.

If this is indeed what we’re seeing, the end of vertebrate ecology is a direct result of the end of vertebrate politics: the utter spinelessness of the people charged with protecting the life of the seas. In 2009 the Spanish fleet, for example, vastly exceeded its quota, netting twice the allowable catch of mackerel in the Cantabrian Sea, and no one stopped them until it was too late.

Last week, the European Commission again failed to take action against the unilateral decision by Iceland and the Faroes to award themselves a mackerel quota several times larger than the one they agreed to, under their trilateral agreement with the EU and Norway. Iceland and the Faroes have given two fingers to the other nations, and we appear to be incapable of responding.

The mackerel haven’t yet disappeared from everywhere, but my guess is that the shoals which, since time immemorial, came into Cardigan Bay, were a spillover from the mass movements up the Irish Sea. As the population falls, there’s less competitive pressure pushing them towards the margins. Without data, guesswork is all we’ve got.

I desperately hope it’s not the case, but it could be that the fish that travelled to this coast in such numbers that it seemed they could never collapse have gone.

14 Comments

  1. Fish killer!
    He just wants to eat more fish, that’s why Mr Monbiot is concerned about fish stocks.
    What’s this got to do with permaculture?
    I note with great interest how he manages to slither a little bit of nuclear in there somewhere in the middle.
    Having just read the superb interview with Bill Mollison, to read this is a total bummer man.
    I’ve been criticized on another thread for being zealous, but Bill Mollison does say quite clearly that there is no place in permaculture for politicians.
    They have too many tricks and too many agendas that simply do not match the ethics of permaculture.

  2. Keith,

    sorry, but that’s just paranoid. In particular, it’s outright weird to call Monbiot a “Fish Killer”, while praising the interview with Bill Mollison a few sentences further down.

    I’m quite sure Bill is the bigger “Fish Killer” here.

  3. No fish for Monbiot and nuclear power stations being forced to shut down, go the jellyfish, sounds like poetic justice to me! :>)

  4. All we ever get from Monbiot is evidence, evidence and more evidence!

    The great temptation, and one in which the academic
    takes total refuge, is to gather more evidence. I mean, do we
    need any more evidence? Or is it time to cease taking evidence
    and to start remedial action on the evidence already in? In
    1950, it was time to stop taking evidence and start remedial
    action. But the temptation is always to gather more evidence.
    Too many people waste their lives gathering evidence. Moreo-
    ver, as we get more evidence, we see that things are worse
    than they had appeared to be.

    Bill Mollison 1981

  5. I think by now we all know that you have a personal issue with Geroge Monbiot, Harry. Thanks for keeping up the good work of persistently reminding everybody of that fact.

  6. I don’t have a personal issue with Monbiot, the issue is with his pro-nuclear propaganda. I think it to be worthy of remembrance.

    However the point here is evidence, evidence and more evidence from Monbiot, same old, same old.

    How about publishing some of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s articles, there’s a man who’s focussing on the solutions not the problems.

    https://www.rivercottage.net/about/

    https://www.landshare.net/

  7. One thing to note Harry, is that if you offer solutions to people who don’t see the problems, then they don’t thirst after them or utilise them. Yes, you’ll say you see the problems, but believe me, not everyone does. If they truly did, things would be changing much faster than they are, and the ‘poorer’ two-thirds world would not still be chasing an American dream that has already evaporated.

    As such, this is why we run both articles showing problems, and articles giving solutions. Call it the carrot and the stick. The stick alone is bad, and the carrot alone also. George happens to be good with ‘stick’ articles. But don’t think his work stops there. Much of his work is offering solutions also (his book ‘Heat’ is an example). I don’t agree with all his solutions, but he is trying.

  8. I completely understand what you’re saying Craig, I was once myself one of those people who, like many others, did not see the problems, the wood from the trees.

    I agree that perhaps some of the visitors to this site, may like most need a little bit of that stick you referred to. However as a large number of visitors here are seasoned practitioners, a little carrot once in a while doesn’t go a miss.

    Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been around for a decade plus and is a tireless advocate of right living and yet there is not a single article about Hugh that comes up in a search on this site.

    Why is it that you continue to hit us with the stick (George) and ignore the carrot (Hugh)?

  9. Hi Harry – I share as many carrots as I can find. I’ve never heard of Hugh. If he has articles that I have permission to run, I’d be very happy to see them.

  10. Oh mate, you’ve been missing out, HFW is more permaculture than most permaculture, solutions, solutions, solutions.

  11. Craig, you may remember we discussed in another thread some of the challenges the UK faces in relation to renewable energy production. Here’s a link to another of HFW’s pages outlining some of the solutions he’s working on; https://www.rivercottage.net/campaigns/energyshare/

    In my experience the most successful model is the one which leads by example, HFW does just that. It’s permaculture minus the almost intolerable amount of baggage that comes with the name tag.

  12. Thanks Harry. I’ve written HFW to see if he has material to submit or if I can at least interview him for the site. Note that he doesn’t show any articles or videos that I could seek permission to run.

    Just be aware, there are many people doing stuff on the ground who don’t bother, unfortunately, to write about it. I encourage all permies to share what they’re doing, as we can use all the knowledge- and inspiration-sharing we can get. Some understand this need, but many don’t. You and many others here are a case-in-point – it sounds like you’re doing good stuff on the ground, but you don’t tell us about it, and at the same time you complain about content. I hate to nag… but it’s not fair to complain if you don’t contribute. I trust you must understand this.

    I created the WPN to encourage sharing and to get a better idea of who is doing what and where.

    We need to shine a big light into this disillusioned world. You could help here I think, as you seem to have the keyboard and the time. Just a thought.

  13. Good on ya Craig, I hope he replies, it would be a great interview, I’ve never heard HFW mention permaculture, although I’m sure he must know about it.

    I know what you mean about there not being a huge amount of article like content on the River Cottage website(s), perhaps a good direction to take would be to promote some of his causes, such as “Hugh’s Fish Fight”, particularly as that is an effort towards real solutions in relation to the topic of this article.

    Whilst I agree it is important that we all share our knowledge and experience, after all sharing is the basis of the third ethic, we all have different ways of expressing that. I think the WPN is a great thing, the more the merrier I say, however I’m not and likely never will be a member, I’m not on Facebook either, which may give you a clue as to my views on social media.

    However please don’t think that despite highly valuing the sanctuary of private life, that we do not share the love and the fruits of our knowledge. I am myself intimately involved with the local community, rarely a day passes when I do not plant food or encourage another to do likewise.

    That being said, you should perhaps be aware that the gathering of evidence of success is still the gathering of evidence, the difference between, this is what we can do, instead of this is why we need to do it. We don’t need more evidence of successes or reasons for trying, we just need action! For those who’d care to know, all of the knowledge and all of the examples are already there.

    Ha the keyboard and the time, I wish! :>)

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