Tuesday, 29 March 2011

"Talking Ocean" or "Communicating Marine Sustainability"

Fred the monkey calls marine education "talking ocean" (- see soaronhirschi.blogspot.com for details on Fred) I like this - it's simple, it's to the point and you know what I mean, hopefully!

Sometime ago I was asked by the Devon Maritime Forum group to present at their biannual conference. I was asked to talk on, "Communicating marine sustainability."

Whilst I was nervous about talking with Chris Packham and Kate Humble on live TV in front of 3 million people this put the fear of God into me. Crazy really, I know, but somehow it was so much more daunting. Devon Maritime Forum's project officer sits in my old seat at Devon County Council. I used to work there for nearly 3 years back in 2003 - 2005 ish. It was an interesting experience. It was part of a European project on water catchment issues - I loved the transnational learning and being able to use my french and I loved the content of the project but..there's always a but! I am going to be honest here as that is the only way that I can be now. I was less keen working for local government. I felt like a black sheep - I used to walk into my office smile and say, "Good morning". The staff would look at me nervously as they broke from their aggressive typing to smile questioningly. I'm not suggesting they weren't friendly or kind but just the atmosphere dry.

I would go to meetings and the hour (or more) sessions were full of terms and slogans that were wrapped around different content but to me said very little - " we must be transparent" , "we mustn't reinvent the wheel" but it would have been nice if they reinvented the way they communicated if I am brutally honest. People would leave not sure what they were supposed to have learned, done or digested. I am sure things have changed and I am not casting aspersions on all local councils but this was my experience back in the early "naughties".

So the way I talk now - isn't perfect, it's grammatically incorrect, I make typos I'm not very good at saying what I need to say at times but I try and say what I say simply. I had ongoing arguments at university with my lecturers on simplifying scientific papers so we could all learn from them - whether we are scientists or not. So I felt very nervous of what I have become (in conversation) and what felt I had to be when I worked in teh council walls and so too now in front of this audience of councillors and others. Sometimes we throw long words in to make us feel smart to make sure people know we are intelligent and to boost our confidence. I'm not afraid of long words I love to throw in the odd biggy - for dramatic effect, maybe even to prove I can but generally I like to keep it simple.

So I did my talk about the importance of marine education. I spoke about why, in modern society we need to ensure we all have an understanding and love of our oceanic world. We need to understand that it is important to us, to our society and for global health. We all worked in the marine industry because at some time we had formed a relationship with the sea. We all loved the sea. Therefore, we wanted to protect it, look after it and manage it so that we could share those experiences with children and grandchildren.

I introduced Fred the Monkey to the crowd. Fred was an example of how storytelling is so valuable in communicating about the sea. Fred tells his story of his trip to Midway Atoll, his experience of litter and albatross and how he wants to inspire children to conserve the sea. He's so valuable for my workshops - everybody loves Fred (including Tim Maddams - Hugh's right hand chef man from Big Fish Fight, who made us some amazing mackerel buns for lunch)...

He adds a bit of fun, he tells a story - people love stories they love emotions and sentiments that they can relate to. So when I ended up in Midway and had my own story to tell along with Fred of how I peeled back the ribcage of a dead albatross chick to find a lighter with the ironic inscription, "Freedom and Innocence" it was so much more powerful. I was able to translate my very real feelings that are still as powerful today as they were then. I resolved at that point to never give up on my mission to talk about the sea and tell my story of Midway and the rubbish and to help share my knowledge of the sea however I can. You will find people listen to that so much more than regurgitated statistics which do little more than the litter sitting in the stomachs of the albatross chicks. We need to inspire change if we want our seas and oceans protected - legislation and conservation designation are great. They are set up by people who care with great intentions. We need to make sure that everyone else cares and the only way to do this is to avoid ignorance. The answer is and always will be, for me -  marine education.

If we do not understand our seas we will not protect them. If our seas are not protected we have little chance of life on land. But that's not what will inspire you. What will inspire you, I think, is to go to the coast - breathe the salty air, rockpool, surf, walk the coastal paths and with every step and every rock you turn over to be so incredibly humbled by the fact that we owe everything to the sea. That is what makes the sea so magical. That is why marine education is so important. Kate Humble is advocating more countryside visits - I hope this includes the marine environment too for all children.

I love Sylvia Earle's statement that I often repeat,

"No water, no life, no blue, no green."

If the majority of society truly understood this statement perhaps we would not need this legislation.  But I am veering into what my lecturers called, "Maya's World" and what somebody at the conference called, "Maya's version of reality". I am a dreamer and I have aspirations that are at times a little lofty but it's what got me here today. My careers advisor told me, "you live in a dream world, Maya. There are few careers is marine biology. I fear you think you will swim with dolphins - you should consider a career in translation or in personnel management."

Luckily, I do live in a dream world , I've swum with dolphins off Devon and I encourage anyone interested in a career in marine biology - DO IT!

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Tri this...

For the past few years now my life has become led by the tides, the daily tidal cycle of highs and lows & the opportunities they offer; the lunar tidal cycles of springs and neaps (next blog will explain all) full and new moons and the annual cycles of the seasons. When you become more aware of the seasonal changes around you, you become those changes and seasons. You learn to take the highs with the lows, the ups with the downs because it is just part of the smaller and larger cycles of life.

In Winter life is slow the veggie patch lies dormant, the chucks keep turning the soil for us - so we might forgive them for the lack of eggs (!), there is little we can do to encourage growth we just path the way for the warmer months and wait for the next season enjoying the calm, the peace and the long dark evenings (until about February!). When March hits it often feels like a frustrating time when you're ready to burst out and recommence a new season of growth but the temperatures and day length isn't quite on your wavelength yet...you have to wait some more. There are tantalising glimpses of Spring and we eagerly anticipate the time to plant the tatties, onions & broad beans.

I have to admit I do hibernate a bit in the Winter, I like to find a little nest (preferably filled with sheepskin) and curl up for a few months, rearing my head on the sunny days or to reach out for a new book and to snuggle down with the family.

But it IS SPRING! Honestly, it is. Today was beach clean on a  glorious sunny day we cooked sausages (locally reared naturally!) on a driftwood fire and I went for an early morning coastal path run. My friend came along with me who is a harsh but brilliant "coach" there's no giving up with her...we run along the coast and she allows a very brief stop on the beach before the return up the coast path, stop at the bench over looking the sea for some press ups & dips..ugh.. for a final 300m sprint at the end...exhilarating but painful in a promising way.

So, I have signed up for my second triathlon. As a lover of the sea it seems only right to make the most of the coastal location and the warmer seasons - running the coast path, swimming in the sea and cycling wherever long, narrow and quite frankly cycle unfriendly Devonshire lanes will take me. As gruelling as it is and demanding of your time to train up it is just so lovely to feel yourself growing stronger as the sun's rays get warmer. When September hits and the Surf triathlon is complete - no doubt I will vow to keep up the training but chances are that I will snuggle down again to enjoy the quieter, cooler seasons and eat cake! :)
Incidentally, in 2009 when I did this tri I won a prize of a holiday in Cornwall as a wooden spoon for coming (proudly) last. I am hoping not to do better :).

Monday, 7 March 2011

My thoughts on fishing...

Our fisheries have been under threat for some time now. Here's a little history for you taken from the Marine Biological Association's website...

"In 1866 a Royal Commission on Sea Fisheries, which included Professor Thomas Huxley as one of its members recommended doing away with existing regulations relating to sea fishing as fears relating to over-exploitation of fish were thought to be unfounded. In one of his most famous comments Huxley, in his inaugural address to the International Fisheries Exhibition in London 1883 stated that "I believe that it may be affirmed with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of the most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible".

However, Professor Edwin Ray Lankester put forward the views of many who disagreed with Huxley's statement by arguing that man could have a significant impact on fish stocks so that "the natural balance is upset". Lankester went on to propose the formation of a society to answer such questions and Huxley became the first president of the society when it was established in 1884. The main source of funding came from the UK Government who wanted to support the association's activities towards the ends of "conducting research, collecting statistics and advising on legislation". Much support in setting up the MBA was given by the then minister for the Board of Trade (which was then responsible for fisheries) Joseph Chamberlain."

So you see the debate on overfishing has been raging since 1866 and I expect well before that time. If you look at Prof. Callum Roberts' book, it illustrates very different seas. They were, at one time, teeming, rich and I imagine, intimidating places for the proliferation of some of our larger megafauna around our shores. Today tells a different story. Many of our stocks are depleted, many of our species have no baseline to tell us what healthy stocks were. But today we do have so much more knowledge, information and data than we ever had. We are in a progressive position where we have the technological potential and, I think, enough statistical information to make informed decisions and progress into the 21st century with confidence. But something is missing we are not yet achieving sustainability.

Fisheries is such a complex issue which like any other industry supplies economy, jobs and nutrition to our society but has an impact on our environment. We are fortunate on this small island that we are not reliant on fish as a source of protein we have rich soils and pasture for agriculture both arable and dairy. But we are still an island. We have coastal roots - we are aquatic apes - in my opinion. We love seafood - it supplies us with omega oils, nutrients and minerals that keep us healthy and happy memories of coastal holidays that satisfies our souls.

I consider myself so very lucky to live by the coast - it was my dream as a kid (from roots in inland Kent) to have a cottage by the sea, with chickens, a path to the sea and a life of coastal sports and food. I'm here - surprised I got here and not sure how I made it but I have.We catch mackerel, we snorkle for spider crab, we fish for bass, we collect mussels, we net for shrimp - the whole experience makes seafood an incredible luxury - that costs nothing. We have bad seasons where the rain, wind and weather stop us from catching much but we have a veggie patch and chucks that keeps on providing for us - if we put the work in. It's not always an easy option but it feels right. All the energy and effort that goes into providing our food makes us thankful and respectful and committed to conserving land and seas. It is life. Without it we would have nothing. We want our daughter to know why land and seas our important not "stuff".
So I look back at the me of 15 years ago - eating cod fishfingers, not knowing how to gut a fish, buying seafood from the supermarket, pre marine biology studies and knowledge - not considering or knowing the journey of my fish finger to my plate. Did I care? If I had understood - yes I hope I would. I just didn't know or appreciate what got that breadcrumbed fish to my plate. It is this lack of connection to the journey of our food that has got us into this position. We have discards - we now know about this thanks to the programme. We are doing something about it.

Hugh and the crew did an amazing job to tell the story of the fisherman, the industry and the waste that happens before our fish hits our plate. It made us think, it made us ask questions and it made people demand solutions. The solutions are hard to find and hard to reach - the politics, economy and demand is such a long chain of middle men that effective communication is really difficult. Fishermen want to be understood, scientists want to be heard, politicians want an effective economy (apparently). We have to think long term - way out into the future that is hard for our short living species. We didn't realise back in the 19th Century our population would have the potential of consumption that it does today. We have to moderate.

Banning discards is a great solution. We stop wasting bycatch and chucking dead fish back. But what about the methods of fishing - we are of an age where we can put thousands of musicians onto a tiny little metal box stick little plastic pieces in our ears and listen to these musicians play at any time of the day or night. That's pretty astonishing - we have amazing potential. We can and do change the world. We need to invest in research into methods of selectivity.

Now we're looking to sea and starting to think about the journey of the fish to our plate. What about the journey of the fish to the hook/net etc? Well, fish eat and start their lives off as plankton. The sea is rich with plankton - especially in temperate zones. We have phytoplankton and zooplankton the phytoplankton using chlorophyll to capture sunlight - the zooplankton have methods of capture and chase that makes for a really diverse and crazy looking bunch of creatures. They are the primary source of food within our seas and oceans. They are liable to change from the impacts of warming seas, shifting currents and climate change. The cod larva are selective to a type of plankton that helps turn them into the beautiful golden adult fish with flesh so white and juicy. However, global surface sea temperatures are 1C warmer than 150 years ago. Life is changing.

From Richard Kirby's book Ocean Drifters he explains,

"across the whole Northern Atlantic, the abundance of the Arctic copepod Calanus hyperboreus is affected by year-to-year changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)...the NAO effects winds and storms across the North Atlantic, thereby altering air temperature, sea surface temperature, and precipitation....this effects the year-to-year abundance of C.hyperboreus...most abundant copepod in the northern North Atlantic, is a critical food source for fish, birds and whales...In the North Sea the overfishing of cod during the 1980s coincided with a sustained increase in sea temperature...This change..appears to have affected synergistically with overfishing to bring about an abrupt change in the whole ecosystem...surveys have shown that the numbers of decapod [crabs etc] and echinoderm [starfish etc] larvae have increased for the 1980s...while number of phytoplankton have declined to their lowest level since records began."

We must continue to fund, promote and encourage marine knowledge, surveys and education. I am concerned for our fish stocks, I am concerned for our seas. It appears that we fail to recognise or promote the understanding that climate change is effecting our seas (not to mention ocean acidification) and we need to do something about it. I believe we are on the road... but I still think marine ecosystem understanding is not on the public agenda enough - it's not in our schools education system and as a result we may lose our ability to connect and understand the beautiful complexity that is our oceans.

So next time you turn your lights off, recycle and do your bit - give yourself a pat on the back for doing your bit for trees, bees and our seas...

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Spring is here, nutrient upwelling, mackerel and marshmallows.

So Spring is finally making a glorious appearance on our woodland floor, our hedgerows and we are starting to feel the warmth of the sun's rays on our needy skin! It is a time of growth by the coast too. The Spring sees an exciting time for our coast around the UK. We are fully aware of what is happening to the land - but what about the sea? Well, finally the waters start warming in April / May time. Already, for surfers, gloves are starting to be peeled off for a bit of freedom for paddling. Although the driving cold on the peripheries is enough to make you think to put them back on again.

Nutrient upwelling is when dense, cool, nutrient rich waters are brought to the surface by wind driven currents driven by the Coriolis effect. This essentially means food! So on the coast as these nutrients make their way to surface waters - the smallest and in my opinion, most beautiful of all creatures start reproducing - plankton! Phytoplankton to be specific. Phyto derives from the Latin for light and so you'd be right to guess that the phytoplankton, like plants, use light and chlorophyll to make energy. They are the source of life in the sea. They are an often overlooked and under appreciated marine group. If there was no plankton there would be no life in the sea, or land - there would be less oxygen - they supply half of our atmospheric oxygen - another reason to love the sea.

So we have these phytoplankton blooms like the one witnessed recently off New Zealand by satellites. Great swathes of misty green water flood our coastline. As a result the zooplankton have, excuse the pun, a whale of a time gobbling up the phytoplankton and so the chain goes on. Which inevitably brings some of our more recognised majestic giants of the sea - the basking sharks and also mackerel and other schooling fish start coming closer to shore.

Then it will be time to get the kayak out - tie some new feathers on to my fishing line, aimlessly drift on the sea and wait for that exciting tug of the line by a mackerel or 2 or even 5 if you're lucky. Once a couple have been caught enough for hubby, me and daughter it will be time to drift back up the estuary on the incoming tide. Maybe, they'll meet me on "The Other Side" as we affectionately call it - gather some driftwood and light a fire. As the sun drops in the night sky we will taste the season's first mackerel - oily, rich and delicious. We don't bother with bread rolls, preferring to put the fish on a flat slate and pick at the flesh with our fingers. Occasionally, my daughter might perform a little dissection and pop an eye ball out. We might end with a marshmallow session - dropping them in the fire occasionally. But we all aim for that moment of perfection when the skin is crisp , brown and bubbly which when broken into reveals a gooey, runny centre.

It's time for Spring - I'm ready.