Of Fish and Princes

When you are invited to a closed workshop with the future King of England, future head of the Commonwealth, Dad of William, Father-in-law of the lovely Kate… well, it’s hard to say no. That is called convening power.

Prince Charles has been a champion of environmental issues for many years. The estate he manages (been in the family since 1337) has championed sustainable communities and organic farming and has grown by 80 percent in value in the last six years. His International Sustainability Unit has probably been part of some of the most influential behind-the-scenes work in establishing REDD. But now he has turned his eyes to the sea, and specifically to fishing.

And so I found myself on a glorious mid-winter morning walking along the banks of the River Thames looking across a landscape that is both ancient (Tower of London, begun in 1078) and modern (ever seen the Gherkin building?) to the rather discreet building of the Fishmongers Company (established by Royal Charter in 1272).

Behind the scenes (but in broad consultation, including with several Conservancy staff), the Prince’s staff at the International Sustainability Unit had been working towards this day for nearly two years. They were launching a review, assessment and road-map providing evidence that sustainable fisheries can be economically successful.

His Royal Highness presented examples from  a very uplifting set of 50 case studies — interviews with fishers from around the world, from cases that have bucked the trend and shown how fisheries can be made to work. He also gave a powerful speech, emphasizing three key points:

  1. We all want the same thing: sustainable fish stocks. The supermarkets want it, the traders, the fishers, the conservation groups and the public.
  2. We can get there: we have the techniques, the tools, the gear, the management approaches and, critically, the examples.
  3. Sustainable fish stocks can be a positive economic step. There may be a critical period of reduced returns (and this needs to be planned for) but beyond that everyone, literally everyone, benefits.

This is not really news and there are several other groups already working toward these goals. But here comes the convening power bit: sitting in the room, listening and engaged, were fishers; fishers co-operatives; buyers and traders; major supermarkets; economists; certification organizations; government representatives; development agencies; consultancies. Conservation groups too, but we were a small minority.

Another speaker was Maria Damanaki, the embattled EU Commissioner who, rather single-handedly, is trying to reform the EU Common Fisheries Policy. Here in Europe, where we’re years behind the rest of the world and still managing our fisheries towards oblivion, she has been pushing a radical reform agenda, but her speech rang out just like a deep sigh of thanks. At last, she seemed to be saying, the cavalry!

So, where to next?

I couldn’t help but think that, 700 or so years into its history, something quite revolutionary was being talked about in the Fishermonger’s Company. This curious institution has witnessed tremendous changes — mostly a slow catalogue of losses from European waters—century after century. But a new change is afoot and quite suddenly, new audiences are talking with growing conviction of a need for change.

Artisanal fishers, mega fishing companies, the world’s biggest fish traders, and giant supermarkets are all facing the same problem — where will next year’s supplies come from?

The answer is tied up in stories of solutions and it’s great to know that The Nature Conservancy is part of the vanguard. We are out there on the ground, working with fishers, scientists, economists and traders. Our projects in the Bahamas, in Chile, in New England and in California are all in the Prince’s new publication.

These stories need to be aired and shared, and the Prince’s team has appointed 22 “ambassadors” to support the flow of ideas around the world. Wider talk is needed in policy circles. Economic planning is going to be critical, and particularly the need for transition funds as fisheries and businesses change their practices.

There was optimism in the air. Prince Charles cautioned us all not to fall into the “debilitating fatality that dogs debates on the future.” And more importantly, he gave us reason not to.

(Image: Prince Charles during a visit to the Common Good City Farm in LeDroit Park, Washington DC, on May 2, 2011. Source: Flickr user The Great Photographicon via a Creative Commons license.)

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