Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Something A Bit Fishy

The last person I ever thought I’d meet on Bird Island was celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but way back in February he rocked up with a film crew to record some footage for the latest series of his ‘Fish Fight’ TV show. I say ‘rocked up’, but obviously we had known about this visit for months in advance. Nevertheless, Hugh and Co. took us somewhat by surprise on the day they arrived. Usually when a ship says it will be with us at 9am that means it will be manoeuvring its way into the bay at about 9.30, but on the day they were due I got out of bed to discover Hugh and his entourage already sitting around our dining room table. I barely had time to swig some coffee before we were off out to do some filming of the macaroni penguins at Little Mac colony.

That's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall! In our kitchen!

Fish Fight originally aired in January 2011, and was the beginning of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign to end the practice of discards in European fisheries. This hugely wasteful practice is a direct result of fishery policies set by the EU. Fishing boats have quotas dictating the weight of any particular species that they are allowed to catch, and it is illegal for them to bring more than the quota limit onto land. However, if a boat is targeting more than one species of fish it may reach the quota for one species before reaching the quota for another. In this case boats often continue to fish, and any over-quota fish that are caught are thrown back into the sea, usually dead. The original four Fish Fight episodes which explore this phenomenon are both compelling and horrifying, and I would thoroughly recommend that you watch them if you have not already. If you are anything like me you will be tearing your hair out at the insane laws that have led to this situation, and the appalling waste it creates. At least Hugh’s campaign seems to have caused the European Commission to sit up and take notice, and it appears that changes to the Common Fisheries Policy and a ban on discards will eventually come about. You can sign the Fish Fight petition yourself, and read more about the campaign, here: www.fishfight.net

Hugh gets to know the girls. Left to right: Cat, Jen, Hugh, me, Hannah.

First to be interviewed were myself and Cat Horswill (a PhD student who works on macaroni penguins) talking about penguins, and to make it a bit more interesting the interview was conducted at Little Mac so that we could have some actual penguins sauntering across the foreground. This was my first experience of being filmed for TV, so I was childishly excited when the sound recording guy concealed a radio mic in my scarf. There then followed a protracted session of filming Hugh, Cat and I walking up to the penguin colony whilst chatting about penguins. Every few minutes we had to stop and go back a bit and film the same thing again from a different angle, whilst having the same conversation over again. It was a little disconcerting – the magical continuity of TV unravelling before my eyes. Eventually we got to the penguin weighbridge and chatted about how it allows us to study penguins without disturbing them, as some obliging penguins demonstrated how it works. All fairly innocuous. However, as the interview progressed, Hugh’s line of questioning became more leading and emotive. Did we think the krill fishery was a good idea? Did we think that the expansion of the krill fishery would have a catastrophic effect on penguin populations? Do we care about the conservation of these animals and if so why are we not supporting the exclusion of all fisheries from around South Georgia? Hugh’s real agenda for South Georgia is to push for a 200 mile exclusion zone to all fisheries around the island, a policy which is not supported by the South Georgia Government, nor, as far as I can tell, by anyone at BAS. Cat and I tried gamely to deflect these questions by re-iterating that we don’t make those kind of decisions, we just gather the data and pass it on to the people who do, but Hugh and his director were not happy with this answer. It became clear that they just wanted us to say something damning and inflammatory about the krill fishery – ‘the krill fishery is going to KILL ALL PENGUINS!’, or something along those lines, and when we refused to they got rather irate and huffy. The director in particular seemed convinced that we were trying to hide something, and that there was a ‘conspiracy of silence’ within BAS to prevent us from answering their questions about the fishery. It did not seem to occur to him that if everyone in BAS was saying the same thing (i.e. that the South Georgia krill fishery is extremely well managed, and there is no evidence of any impact on the native wildlife), that perhaps this is the truth, rather than that a group of conservation scientists who have dedicated much of their lives to studying and protecting the wildlife of South Georgia have formed an alliance to protect a highly damaging fishery from which they derive no benefit whatsoever.

The weighbridge in action.

After the interview was over everyone was feeling a bit disgruntled – the Fish Fight people because they did not get the sound-bite they wanted, and us because we felt like we had been tricked into saying things we did not really believe and were not qualified to comment on in the first place. But in the afternoon the film crew went off to do some filming at Big Mac, and Hugh came back to base and made us a cake, which was delicious, and everyone was a lot more chatty and relaxed, and the disgruntlement began to fade. Sustainable fishing is a subject very close to my heart, and I applaud the efforts of the Fish Fight team in bringing it to the attention of the nation, and battling for real change with the European Commission. But I also feel that attacking one of the best managed fisheries in the world is perhaps a waste of their time and energy.

A few weeks after Hugh’s visit the South Georgia government announced the establishment of a Marine Protected Area covering 1 million square km of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands maritime zone, and including 20,000 square km of no-take zones around the coastlines of the islands. The creation of this MPA has taken years of planning and negotiation, and is not simply a response to attention from TV crusaders. “This is a great step forward, but it’s not enough!” shrieked Hugh in a press release, “we want a no-take Marine Reserve for the entire 200 mile zone surrounding these islands!” But one cannot help feeling that this development might have taken the wind out of his sails somewhat. It will be interesting to see what the outcome is when the new Fish Fight series finally airs. At the moment I do not know when this will be, but look out for it later in 2012. There should definitely be some footage of Bird Island and the wonderful animals that live here, and possibly also some footage of yours truly, in the role of Chief Spokesperson for Macaroni Penguins.

Group photo with cake. It was delicious.

The real stars of the show.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, & yes, still reading your interesting (but irregular) blog. & don't worry as we at home realise there are other things to do besides sitting down writing up the blog:-)

    As to H-F-W, it always seems TV people have an agenda, & I guess it is all planned out well in advance. But what you guys are doing in SG is great, & I look forward to seeing a bit of BI in TV even if we will need a pinch of salt too!