BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for October 2010

The global issues affecting the world's fisheries

Susan Watts | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010

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The warnings from the scientific community about the state of the world's fisheries are becoming increasingly apocalyptic.

As ministers arrive in Japan this week for the closing stage of the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity, they're being urged to place a monetary value on the world's resources, in the hope that this might spur more action.

Over exploitation of global fisheries apparently equates to an annual loss to the world of $50 billion, according to a new analysis released at the Japan meeting by the UN Environment Programme, among others.

Sustainable fishing is what the UN auditors prefer, but what does that mean? How much do we really know about the numbers of fish out there, and the ability of the oceans to keep replenishing that stock?

And in practical terms, how can governments balance the needs of consumers, the fishing industry and those who want to protect biodiversity and conserve fish stocks?

There are two places where delegates hope to make a start. One is in dealing with illegal fishing, which one expert told me represents about 20 per cent of the global catch. This week there will be a call for a radical new approach to policing the seas.

And the second place where talks are focused is on making sure that those agreements on managing fisheries that have already been signed, actually happen.

Dr Alex Rogers, a scientist from Oxford University and London's Institute of Zoology, campaigns to help draw attention to the state of the oceans. He told me about a recent study of his on fishing on the "High Seas" - waters outside of territorial claims.

He found that surprisingly few fish stocks are actually managed at all, and that in some cases, even those covered by international agreements are being fished as if they weren't.

In many cases, he says, fish stocks have been decimated - reduced to ten per cent or less of their original stock levels - so we are fishing only the remnants of these fisheries.

Here's what he said when he released that report in the Spring.

"There's evidence of systematic misreporting of catches in many cases, and in many other cases we simply do not know what is being taken in these fisheries. These fisheries have to be brought into a situation where they are managed sustainably or they have to be closed. If you can't manage a fishery then it should not be taking place."

He was also surprised to find that in the main area in the world for deep water fishing, the north Atlantic, most of the vessels are European.

"So it's us here in Europe that are responsible for these unsustainable fisheries on the High Seas... Despite the fact that Europe has signed up to many of these international agreements on fishing they are failing to meet their commitments. It's a real shock that this kind of free-for-all is still going on on the High Seas with respect to deep water fish resources, and I just find it appalling that this can be allowed to go on."

His point is that despite the fact that many of the states and the regional fisheries management organisations involved took part in negotiated agreements, they simply aren't implementing those rules.

Dr Rogers is at the Japan biodiversity meeting. He says talks over extending marine protected zones have already run into trouble, with moves to try to divert attention to coastal regions, and not to deal with the high seas at all - even though these represent about half of the world's oceans.

Fishing groups don't quite see things Dr Rogers' way.

Newsnight spoke to Dale Redmell, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.

He thinks Marine Protected Areas have been brought in in a state of moral panic.

"They think fish stocks are on a fast trajectory to destruction, we don't agree with that at all. We're beginning to see an upturn of low stocks - we've seen that since the early part of the century, which shows were going in the right direction."

He says that MPAs are based on a set of untested scientific principles, defined too narrowly.

"They haven't accounted at all for the inter-relation between human use of marine resources and their protection. It has potential economic, social impacts that we need to consider too."

And on policing, he thinks that from the UK perspective at least, regulation has improved and our fleet is performing well.

"Whether there is a broader, global issue that may be the case. It's about getting the right governance arrangements in place. That applies in Europe and elsewhere. It's not just about enforcement, it's about getting governance to work properly. We'd like to see management responsibilities devolved to countries, as opposed to from Brussels. They need to listen to industry better, also."

In Vancouver in British Columbia, a micro version of the bigger global fisheries debate is currently underway. We went to hear more about the fierce discussions taking place over how best to ensure the returning Sockeye Salmon run each year. Click here to read more about that and to see our interactive map with video which illustrates the salmon life cycle.

Watch my film from British Columbia on Newsnight on Tuesday 26 October 2010 at 2230 BST on BBC Two and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.

Spending Review offers relief for scientists, but pain remains

Susan Watts | 16:23 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Scientists were obviously relieved after Chancellor George Osborne's announcement in the Spending Review that the science budget is not going to be slashed, but frozen in cash terms for the next four years.

Rumours had suggested cuts of around 20%, which leading figures had said would mean "game over", not just for science in this country, but for future growth of the economy as well.

And at face value, it's a powerful vote of confidence in the contribution that science can make.

"Astonishing" was how particle physicist and television science presenter, Professor Brian Cox, described the outcome today, as he received an OBE for services to science.

He said the success was a clear signal for scientists like him that it is vital they stand up and speak out for their subject:

"For the first time I think we've made the political point as well as the economic point that supporting science is invaluable," he said.

He added that science is clearly part of the future of the country: "So it needs to be seen as something that kids want to do, it needs to be seen as a career that you can attain...you don't have to be a Hawking or an Einstein or a Newton to make a contribution.

"But for me, the main thing to say to school kids is, if you want to be a scientist, it doesn't matter if it's medical research, or chemistry or whatever it is, then you can choose to do it."

Without wishing to spoil the fun, the freeze in the annual science budget (of £4.6bn billion) still means that, in real terms, science faces a cut - and a significant one - of just under 10% over the next four years. And that is a huge challenge.

Most importantly, the freeze must be seen in an international context in which countries from Asia to Europe to the US are pumping extra money into science.

Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat Science spokesman, conceded the point:

"The science community will be relieved by this settlement, but we know that even 10% real terms cuts will be painful, (and) will need reversing as soon as the fiscal position improves."

But Mr Osborne does seem to have listened to what scientists have been saying in recent weeks.

In his speech today he said: "Britain is a world leader in scientific research, and that is vital to our economic success."

Addressing the Commons he said that he will protect the £220m UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation at St Pancras, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright and the Diamond Synchrotron facility in Oxford.

Questions remain then over the UK's continued role in international projects in fields such as particle physics and astronomy, as well as the impact of cuts in university funding and R&D budgets across Government departments, which could still have a damaging effect on overall science spend in the UK.

More will be asked of the charities which currently support science. Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said "even at about 10% down, we'll be playing catch-up in an international field which could see UK science left behind".

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, again cited the international context: "The government has recognised the importance of sustaining the international standing of UK science in a context where other nations are forging ahead."

And that's the point, science in the UK may be breathing more than a sigh of relief today, but elsewhere they're investing, fast and furious, not just keeping funding level.

The doctor who preyed on the vulnerable

Susan Watts | 11:46 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010

A doctor who carried out controversial stem cell treatments has been struck off by the General Medical Council. Click here to read my full report and watch the film about the case.

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