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‘Tendrils of hope’ for the ocean: Q&A with conservationist Charles Clover

Manta rays with reef fish.

Manta rays with reef fish. Image courtesy of Rory Moore.

  • The latest book by Charles Clover, “Rewilding the Sea,” published by Penguin Random House UK, tells stories of what can happen when governments, scientists, conservationists and fishers work together to protect and restore the ocean, generating hope for the future.
  • While the term “rewilding” usually refers to restoration efforts that take place on land, Clover argues that the sea can also be rewilded through the reinstatement of ecosystems as well as by simply allowing nature to repair itself.
  • He further argues that rewilding can be achieved through new approaches to fisheries management, the creation of marine protected areas, and the protection of parts of the ocean known to sequester carbon.
  • While the book acknowledges that the oceans are facing a tremendous number of pressures due to human activities, Clover calls the destruction of ocean life the “world’s largest solvable problem.”

In 2004, Charles Clover published a book called The End of the Line that painted a dismal view of our oceans due to rampant overfishing. The book, as well as the subsequent film by the same name, describes how wealthy fishing nations have been pushing global fisheries toward the point of collapse at the expense of ecosystems and coastal communities.

But now, 18 years later, Clover has published a very different kind of book. This one, titled Rewilding the Sea, looks at the efforts to protect and restore the ocean to its former wild state. While oceans are still very much in peril, Clover shows how governments, scientists, conservationists and members of the fishing community can work together to generate positive change at a time when such change is sorely needed.

“This book tells the story of how I journeyed from despair to hope about the state of our common oceans,” Clover writes in the introduction. “It is a tale of beginnings, of extraordinary changes achieved around the world by small bands of dedicated people. Here, you will find an account of how things once thought impossible have happened and which have led, in one way or another, to what I call rewilding the sea.”

While the word “rewilding” generally refers to restoration efforts that take place on land, Clover uses the term to refer to similar activities taking place in the sea. He says his use of the word doesn’t just refer to efforts to restore damaged ecosystems through the reintroduction of species, but also to “standing back and letting nature repair the damage that we’ve already caused.”

Author and conservationist Charles Clover in the Pelagos whale sanctuary, Mediterranean. Image courtesy of Mattias Klum / National Geographic.

:What I mean by rewilding — it’s quite a massive concept — is reviewing fisheries management, marine protected area creation, and carbon sequestration all in one,” Clover told Mongabay. “And we’re doing all of those things quite badly at the moment, but rewilding is putting them all together and getting it right. And there are some cases where that is happening and they’re very exciting.”

Clover, who previously worked as the environment editor for U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph and went on to co-found the Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE), focuses much of his book on rewilding efforts in the ocean surrounding the U.K. and its overseas territories. For instance, one chapter tells the story of Lyme Bay, a region of water in the English Channel that once hosted an impressive array of rocky reefs, but was turned into what’s been described as a “building site” due to scallop dredging. Frustrated with the trawlers, local fishermen worked with conservationists and politicians to impose protective measures that ultimately helped transform Lyme Bay back into a thriving part of the ocean.

The book also tells stories of restoring native oysters back to the Solent Region in the Isle of Wight, installing a sprawling marine protected area (MPA) in the waters surrounding Ascension Island, a British territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, and depositing large granite boulders in a part of the North Sea called Dogger Bank to prevent trawlers from fishing in a protected area.

Cover of Rewilding the Sea, published by Penguin Random House UK, on June 8, 2022.

Efforts to rewild the oceans are happening around the globe, Clover said, as evidenced in the recent expansion of the MPA around the Galápagos Islands, and the Maldives’ efforts to improve fisheries management.

“[I]t is about tendrils of hope,” Clover said. “It’s about very rational and properly described examples of hope.”

Yet Rewilding the Sea doesn’t underestimate the seriousness of the ocean’s problems. It describes how trawling and dredging relentlessly diminish fish stocks while destroying coral reefs and other seabed ecosystems, and, as a recent study has suggested, emitting a similar amount of carbon as the aviation industry. It also devotes a whole chapter to discuss how China and the European Union are “forces of de-wilding” with their gargantuan fishing efforts, not only within their own waters, but in those of other nations. On top of everything else, the oceans are warming, acidifying and coming under tremendous pressure from various forms of pollution. Yet Clover presents clear evidence that humanity can engender positive change for the oceans.

“[A]s I say in the book, the destruction of life in the oceans is the world’s largest solvable problem,” he said. “And there are lots of examples of people solving it.”

Rewilding the Sea looks at the global efforts to protect and restore the ocean to its former wild state. Image courtesy of Rory Moore / Blue Marine Foundation.

Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts spoke to Clover two days before the launch of his book on June 8, which is also World Oceans Day. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: You say your book is about how you journeyed from despair to hope about the state of our oceans. Was there a particular moment when this shift occurred, or was it gradual?

Charles Clover: I suppose it was gradual because it was about the recovery that came about in various places that I witnessed myself. One was the recovery of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, which has come back and is now present in the English Channel, in the west of Ireland, and the west of Scotland, and even as far north as Norway, for the first time in decades. So that is a big pulse of hope and optimism. And that really came out of a campaign we ran with WWF at the time we made the film of my last book, The End of the Line, which was about as gloomy an eco-book as you could have, because it was about all the things going wrong that possibly could go wrong in the oceans in terms of overfishing — and it was written at exactly the time when everything was bad. The poster boy of the film was the bluefin tuna. And we used that film to campaign in ICCAT [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas], which is the Atlantic regional fisheries management organization, and amazingly, we got somewhere. While they were very defensive about putting the bluefin on the CITES list of endangered species — and the Japanese were particularly insistent that that didn’t happen — we did get the management measures that we wanted. They slashed the fishing season in Europe, in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, by three quarters, and there’s been this tremendous revival of the bluefin. But it took a few years for that to happen. So these tendrils of hope had been slowly growing.

There is another great tendrils of hope story in the book as well, which is the Lyme Bay trawling and scallop dredging ban in 2008. And I suppose that has come back, starting about four or five years after that ban. And then it just came back in spades. And it’s now fantastic. And after 12 years, there are four times the number of commercially caught fish. There are four times the number of species in the area around these reefs that we call England’s coral garden, because they have lots of corals and sea fans on them.

Clover describes “rewilding” as allowing nature to repair the damage that humans have caused, or replenishing the ecosystems in places that are damaged beyond repair. Image by Rory Moore / Blue Marine Foundation.

Mongabay: Why did you choose to use the term “rewilding,” which tends to be used more in the terrestrial realm?  

Charles Clover: I think I use the term rewilding, because I felt that the sea was missing out on all this excitement about rewilding. The sea is such a big place, and in many ways in such a desperate plight, that it needed some of the excitement and dynamism that the rewilders have brought into the terrestrial space.

What I mean by rewilding — it’s quite a massive concept — is reviewing fisheries management, marine protected area creation, and carbon sequestration all in one. And we’re doing all of those things quite badly at the moment, but rewilding is putting them all together and getting it right. And there are some cases where that is happening and they’re very exciting.

The book defines rewilding the sea as standing back and letting nature repair the damage that we’ve already caused, or where the damage is so bad that you go in and replenish the ecosystem.

Bill Ballantine, a New Zealander who I think started one of the very first MPAs in Goat Island reserve near Auckland in 1975, said that if you just protect an area, nature will come back. Just take your hands off, and nature will do something amazing. And it happened around Goat Island, where they just protected it from fishing. It turned into a kelp forest because the fish got big enough to eat the sea urchins that ate the kelp. And the kelp just came back. Now there are fish the size of small pigs swimming around in an absolutely dense forest — and it’s amazing. But it was very similar to what these modern rewilders have done on land. And I thought, well, we can’t let the marine conservation movement not have its own rewilding revolution. I better write a book about it.

Fish school around Roca Partida, a rocky pinnacle in the Revillagigedo National Park, Mexico, one of the largest marine reserves in North America. Image by Rory Moore / Blue Marine Foundation.

Mongabay: Is it possible to restore the ocean to what it used to be?

 Charles Clover: The pristine is not necessarily a historical concept. It is a thing you can regrow. There’s a bit in my book where I asked how wild is the sea? How much of a wilderness is the sea? Well, the only scientific paper I could find on this says the answer is about 13%, which is kind of a ridiculous figure really because it’s over-precise. And when you looked at where they said it was pristine, you found that those were areas that had formerly been fished, either in Antarctica, where it was fished very heavily by the former Soviet Union … or around the Chagos Archipelago where there was a very large MPA created by the British government, but as I exposed in The Sunday Times, there was a fantastic amount of tuna fishing going on, taking out vast numbers of large animals, sharks and so on until 10 years ago. It wasn’t what we historically call “pristine.” It had rewilded itself because it wasn’t being fished. So you can recreate the pristine is the message of the book.

Mongabay: I know that your organization, the Blue Marine Foundation, is currently involved in helping to restore the Solent region of the U.K. with oyster beds, but also seagrass and salt marsh as well. How is the project going so far? And what is the ultimate goal of this restoration work?

Charles Clover: I think we’re in the very early stages of looking at places where the seagrass and the salt marsh and the oyster could be restored all at the same time because I’m told that if you do all three together, it’s massively more productive. We really started with the oyster itself, because they have been overfished since the ’70s. But in the ’70s, the oyster fishery in the Solent used to employ 700 people, so it’s really recent that it was actually very productive, which astonished me.

The ultimate goal is to bring back the native oyster population of the Solent. Will we manage it? Will we not? I don’t know. We certainly made a massive start in Langstone Harbour, where we put down hundreds of tons of “cultch,” which is what we need to put oysters on so their spat has something to stick to. The thing that has made this possible is that a lot of the shoreline is now a marine protected area, so you’re not putting something in that is going to be taken out again — you’re putting something in that is going to be protected, and therefore, it has a chance. I suppose what you would want to know is, how long would it be before anybody is going to be able to harvest any oysters? Well, I think a very long time — probably about 20 years for it to get back to full productivity. We will obviously have to work on regulations to prevent the tragedy of the commons happening again. But it seems positive at the moment and even the fishermen who helped fish it out think we’ll succeed in Langston Harbour, which would be an achievement in itself.

Clover says that rewilding can be achieved through new approaches to fisheries management, the creation of marine protected areas, and the protection of parts of the ocean known to sequester carbon. Image by Rory Moore / Blue Marine Foundation.

Mongabay: Your book shines a light on the destructive fishing practices of trawling and dredging. Do you think enough is being done to address these practices, not just in the U.K., but globally?

Charles Clover: Well, it won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t think enough is being done about trawling and dredging globally. Clearly, there is a difference between one kind of trawling and dredging and another, and we haven’t really begun to quantify what we really need to feed ourselves and what we don’t need and what’s just purely wanton destructiveness in terms of overfishing. The most recent thing is the impact upon the seabed, which has been said to be the same as the global aviation industry. So we really have got to start thinking about trawling and dredging in those terms, too. And I don’t see anybody doing too much of that yet.

Britain has managed rather slowly to get around to actually protecting some marine protected areas after Brexit … from June 13, it will be protecting the Dogger Bank, a very large area of about 12,000 square kilometers [4,600 square miles], from trawling and dredging — and that will have concomitant benefits for all the benthic organisms. We’re hoping to get someone to study that, to watch what comes back. I believe that that is also the way to manage the fish stocks in the North Sea, because there are just too many fishermen, too many trawlers, and you’ve just got to have places where they can’t go. If we can get the other 70 marine protected areas offshore, in what were European waters, to be protected from trawling and dredging, then that will be an enormous benefit for badly overused coastal waters.

A whale shark feeds on plankton in Hanifaru Bay, a marine protected area (MPA) in Baa Atoll, Maldives. Clover talks about the importance of MPAs in his book. Image by Rory Moore / Blue Marine Foundation.

Mongabay: In one chapter, you talk about participating in an action with Greenpeace to place granite boulders on Dogger Bank to prevent trawlers from going into an MPA. Do you think it’s becoming increasingly important for conservationists to take matters into their own hands, particularly when the government takes a long time to implement important decisions?

Charles Clover: I’ve had a lot of criticism from the fishing industry for backing Greenpeace dropping boulders on the Dogger bank. But I think what was not understood by other people at the time was that we and Greenpeace decided to campaign together because the government was breaking its own laws. We decided to point out to the government that after Brexit, when the Common Fisheries Policy fell away, these habitats regulations, which we have transcribed into UK law, are the law. And the UK government should actually have protected all MPAs on the day Brexit took place. So we pushed them legally, and we supported Greenpeace in pushing them by dropping those boulders and the fishermen should never have been there in the first place. Greenpeace got a lot of criticism from the marine management organization for doing it, but a judge entertainingly said that he thought that what Greenpeace were doing was exactly what the Marine Management Organization [MMO] was supposed to do, which is protecting the sea. He seemed to imply that Greenpeace were doing it rather more effectively than the Marine Management Organization. So the MMO, who were taking Greenpeace to court were told by the judge they didn’t have a cat’s chance in hell of winning their case, so they dropped it. That’s rather satisfactory. But you know, after all these years, frankly, marine protected areas should have been protected, and not just be paper parks.

Mongabay: Your book also talks a lot about the importance of marine protected areas — yet only about 7.4% of the oceans is protected in MPAs and only about 2.4% is fully protected. Why do you think it’s been so hard for the world to commit to protecting the ocean?

Charles Clover: It’s about the public right to fish, isn’t it? It’s about this law that has been the same, frankly, since the Romans, that what you can’t control, you can’t own, so anyone can go out there and try to catch it. Well, that’s been modified over the years, but vested interests are particularly good at defending the right to go fishing. I think that they should have a right to go fishing, but they shouldn’t have a right to go fishing any way they choose. I think that we’re rapidly discovering that there are ways of fishing that are better than others, and that there is a social benefit from fishing in certain ways, and that others should frankly fall away like the coal mines and smokestack industries — they’re just obsolete, they’re not fulfilling a social purpose, they’re ecologically destructive, and we should just stop doing them.

I think it’s very important to think about that 7.4%. Ten years ago, when we made The End of the Line, the movie, it was 0.6%. So it’s moving along in the right direction, and the benefits of protecting the sea are coming through, too. These are things I call tendrils of hope.

A manta ray feeding on plankton in the Maldives, a country that Clover says is working to improve fisheries management. Image by Rory Moore / Blue Marine Foundation.

Mongabay: Your book focuses a lot on different efforts that are being made in the U.K. and its overseas territories, and there does seem to be a lot of momentum with rewilding the seas. Is there a similar momentum happening in other parts of the world?

Charles Clover: Yes, that’s what’s so wonderful. It’s not just one jurisdiction that seems to be doing this. The British Overseas Territories just happened to be an easy target, as it were, for us NGOs as a coalition to campaign for because they have vast marine realms, and the populations of the overseas territories were very bothered by foreign fishing fleets plundering their waters. So it was a very easy sell: would you like some money to help create an MPA? Their MPAs are all various different kinds, but the result is the largest collection of marine protected areas on Earth. In total, it’s larger than what the U.S. has in its waters, though the Hawaiian Islands’ Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is larger as a single entity.

So the U.S. seems to be doing good things. I’m impressed that Mexico has already protected this huge area around the Revillagigedo Archipelago — it’s got most of the large extant marine animals swimming around in it that you’ve got in that side of the Pacific, and it’s just pretty amazing. You’ve got Ecuador  extending the Galápagos reserve — by not enough, but a bit — and Colombia creating, I believe, due to be announced this month, an enormous protected area, as has Costa Rica. Then in the Indian Ocean, which is in many ways, one of the most plundered of the oceans at the moment, there’s still some very enlightened nations such as the Maldives. The Maldives have been creating marine protected areas with proper protection, and they’re trying to improve their fisheries management. This book is about my own personal experiences, but there’s enough of a movement there within 10 years for the world to be changing really quite rapidly.

Mongabay: What global actions do you think are necessary right now to truly give the oceans a fighting chance, particularly with the accelerating pressures due to climate change?

Charles Clover: The oceans are our friend when it comes to climate change. There are so many processes going on within them that sequester carbon. How much carbon they sequester is still a big question, so one of the things we need to do is find out how much it is, and we need to stop those things that are preventing the oceans sequestering carbon. And I’m afraid trawling is one of them, but also catching too many fish because fish can embody carbon. There are a lot of other things that perform important climate functions like seaweeds, including kelp. You can spend an awful lot of time studying this problem without actually doing anything. But it’s blindingly obvious to me that all these things that are sequestering carbon should be protected.

While Rewilding the Sea doesn’t underestimate the seriousness of the ocean’s problems, Clover presents clear evidence that humanity can generate positive change for the oceans.Image by Rory Moore / Blue Marine Foundation.

Mongabay: Do you face any difficulties maintaining your sense of hope, particularly when you consider all the overfishing that is being done by countries like China and, of course, the European Union?

Charles Clover: The Chinese distant-water fleet is one of the world’s biggest problems in the ocean because it’s catching too many fishes. It’s eventually going to go bust because it will have caught all the fish, they can’t afford to go back to China, and trawling is a very destructive activity. They’re doing it on the west coast of Africa and stealing other people’s fish. A lot of the activity is illegal. So it’s a big problem, as I discussed in this chapter called “Enemies of Progress.” And the EU’s distant-water fleet is a fraction of the size of the Chinese fleet, and while it’s mainly focused on tuna, it’s still having some very bad effects. So getting rid of harmful subsidies is a good thing for all those distant water fleets. You can do something that way, and I believe that the Chinese have decided to stop giving fuel subsidies for fishing vessels. So I do maintain hope, if the Chinese … can take action like that, then we should all be hopeful that the right actions can be taken. Because as I say in the book, the destruction of life in the oceans is the world’s largest solvable problem. And there are lots of examples of people solving it.

Mongabay: Do you think the world needs more messages of ocean optimism?

Charles Clover: Maybe this is an optimistic book, and it is about tendrils of hope. It’s about very rational and properly described examples of hope, but I think that wandering around saying we’re being optimistic about the oceans with a silly grin on your face isn’t really very helpful to anyone. It’s about, why don’t you do this because it’s worked here? Or, why didn’t you do this somewhere else? Why, if we’ve managed to save the bluefin tuna from commercial extinction, can’t we, for goodness sake, save the two-thirds of fish species in U.K. and EU waters that are currently fished at higher rates than scientists recommend? We should be rewilding our fisheries management. If we believe that a percentage of nature, call it 30%, because that’s what a lot of people are going for, why doesn’t it say so in fisheries management? They should be leaving 30% of the fish in the sea for carbon and for nature’s sake. Nobody has done this yet. But there are a lot of things that need unpicking that have had disruptive impacts, that we should be rethinking. This is why I think it was important to inject this concept of the rewilding of the sea into the marine debate.

Banner image: Manta rays and fusiliers surface feeding on plankton in the Maldives. Image by Rory Moore / Blue Marine Foundation.

Citations:

Jones, K. R., Klein, C. J., Halpern, B. S., Venter, O., Grantham, H., Kuempel, C. D., … Watson, J. E. (2018). The location and protection status of Earth’s diminishing marine wilderness. Current Biology, 28(15), 2506-2512.e3. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.06.010

Sala, E., Mayorga, J., Bradley, D., Cabral, R. B., Atwood, T. B., Auber, A., … Lubchenco, J. (2021). Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03371-z

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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