Saturday, 30 March 2013

Marine Wildlife Deserves Better Than This

One tries to be topical but it isn’t everyday that one of my blogs gets an immediate response from a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.  Only yesterday I discussed government plans to act on only 31 out of 127 recommended sites for Marine Conservation Zones, and this morning the Fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, is reported by the BBC explaining that he just doesn’t have the dosh.

My own hubris does not extend to believing that the dozen or so page views my piece has received overnight might include the erstwhile minister.  That would put me on a par with the editor of the Skibbereen Eagle who told Kaiser Bill that his illustrious newspaper ‘had his eye on’ the German emperor.  As I reported yesterday plenty of more significant voices than my own have been raised in support of this cause including: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Marine Conservation Society.

What is significant however is the shift in the government’s position.  Until now their argument has been that in the 96 sites not selected the science was unclear.  Heaven forbid that they might accidentally protect something that is not actually critically endangered.  However, in the report by the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, Mr Benyon admits that he would like to go further but cuts to the DEFRA budget mean that he simply doesn’t have the money needed to assess sites and put in place the necessary conservation measures.

The one concession he does make is to say that his department will release proposals for a second set of MCZs along with his decision on the first tranche.  Previously there had been no clear commitment to doing anything beyond the original 31 sites.

So the government’s argument comes down to saying, times are hard, we are all having to tighten our belts and Britain’s sea creatures will have to shoulder their share of the problem.  We’ll look at it again when resources are more plentiful.

The trouble with that argument is that for many endangered species or habitats this is literally a matter of life and death.  Failure to act now could have dire consequences for decades to come, and for some species it might be terminal.  The government has ring-fenced from cuts the Overseas Aid budget, currently running at about £12 billion per year.  Implementing the full list of proposed MCZs would cost less than a thousandth part of that amount.

But then out of sight is out of mind.  The bottom of the ocean is about as far out of sight as you can get.  Plus it's difficult to get sentimental for a sea slug or a sponge.  And yet we have seen time and again that it is often the smallest and least cuddly organisms that underpin the entire ecological model.

Richard Benyon is the fisheries minister who was unable to identify more than two common fish from a selection of 12 popular varieties eaten in the UK.  As minister responsible for wildlife he came under criticism last year for felling 218 acres of woodland on his family estate to allow extraction of aggregates, and of course he works for Owen Paterson, the environment secretary who believes Europe needs agrochemical companies more than it needs bees.  Is it just me or is the claim to be the ‘greenest government ever’, wearing just a little thin? 

Friday, 29 March 2013

Bumping Along The Bottom

This Sunday, March 31st marks the end of the UK government’s consultation period on proposals to create Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) in English and Welsh offshore waters.  It concludes a four year process set up by The Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Natural England to look at ways of protecting the marine environment.

From the outset the project was designed to be as comprehensive as possible, recognising the complex and varied relationship we have with the seas around our shores.  We treat the sea as a larder, a playground, a factory, a dustbin, a transport superhighway, a source of energy, a carbon sink and much more.  Accordingly the list of groups invited to consult was also long and varied (see below).

In September 2011, the project delivered a list of 127 recommended sites, each one specially selected to protect significant species or individual habitats.  The smallest may cover a single reef or tidal estuary, while the largest protects a large swathe of the biologically important Dogger Bank.  Together these 127 sites account for roughly 15% of the total sea area managed by DEFRA (The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). (Separate proposals are in place for Scotland and inshore waters in Wales.)

It is important to understand that these MCZs are not exclusion zones.  Their purpose is to protect the sea bed, including the huge range of fish, plants and invertebrates that live and breed there.  Destructive forms of fishing such as scallop dredging or beam trawling are prohibited, but low impact forms of fishing are allowed to continue.

They are not an attack on fishermen or the communities who live by fishing.  Half of Britain’s fisheries are currently being fished out to unsustainable levels, according to government figures.  These MCZs will protect the long term future of fishing in British waters.

Last year the government announced that after spending £8 million and taking three years to review, it intended to protect only 31 of the 127 sites recommend, a list which the government’s own scientists said was needed to secure the health of our oceans.

So much for the ‘Greenest Government Ever’!  Of course the government needs to balance the competing interests of the environment with the need to secure jobs and growth, but even the deepest recessions come to an end within a few years.  Compare that to the ocean quahog which takes 400 years to reach full size and is now endangered by unrestricted trawling. 31 conservation zones represents the minimum that the department could do for the environment.  Right now it is not only the trawl doors that are bumping along the bottom!

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has been lobbying to get the government to follow through on its own recommendations, and the TV chef and campaigner, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall took up the cause in his programme Hugh’s Fish Fight.

On February 25th, around 1500 people braved a biting Easterly wind to march across Westminster Bridge and petition Parliament.  I know because I was one of them.  Since then, over 24,000 have used the site to send emails to DEFRA demanding 127 MCZs.

It will be interesting to see what impact this demonstration of people power has.  It is yet another test for the man who is rapidly becoming something of a regular feature on this blog, Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson.  But whatever the outcome of the consultation, we now know what needs to be done to protect our seas.  I hope and expect that the fight will go on beyond Sunday until the full list of MCZs in in place.

The following list is taken from the DEFRA website:

List of Consultees
Academic / research organisations
Angling organisations
Aquaculture organisations
Coastal development organisations
Coastal managers
Coastal MPs
Commercial Fishermen’s organisations
Consumer organisations
Environmental NGOs
Government agencies
Inshore fisheries and conservation authorities
Local Government
Marine aggregates industry sector organisations
Marine dredging industry sector organisations
Marine industry sector groups/organisations
Marine leisure & recreational organisations
Oil & gas industry sector organisations
Ports and Harbours authorities
Producer organisations
Recreational boating sector organisations
Regional advisory councils
Renewable energy sector organisations
Shipping industry sector organisations

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

You Could Start From Here...

30 Must-have food items for your pantry

Somebody asked me once for advice on stocking their larder.  “What are the basic foodstuffs that any kitchen should have?”  I did what anyone would do and looked on Google.  To my frustration, the first four sites I looked at all contained perfectly reasonable lists of common ingredients that a decent cook might use in the course of a year.  There was nothing I didn’t agree with except that these lists ran to dozens, even hundreds of items, which was not I thought the point of the question.  A basic list should be just that, the basics.

After a little thought I came up with the following list.  It includes mainly things which any busy bachelor is likely to have at home already: bread, milk, eggs etc. plus a shortlist of dried or canned ingredients which can sit in your larder for months without doing any harm.

Thirty seemed like a nice round number, though I have cheated slightly by the inclusion of the general terms ‘herbs’ and ‘stock (bouillon) cubes’.  Ideally you would have different bouillon cubes or powder to make chicken, beef and vegetable stocks.  As for herbs, I listed the top ten most useful culinary herbs on this blog some time ago.  It really is worth growing your own and can be done in pots or a small window box and they require only minimal attention.

Don’t get too hung up on different types of pasta, rice or sugar.  Obviously it’s fun to experiment with different ingredients and sometimes authenticity demands a particular variety, but in an emergency they are more or less interchangeable.

Clearly there is a big cultural influence here.  I wonder what the list would look like in Italy or Russia or Brazil.  Perhaps someone will write and tell me.  There is also a large slice of personal preference involved. I seriously considered lemons, capsicums and chilies, all of which I use extensively.  I rejected them because they don't keep and are better bought fresh.

I list ‘cheese’ as a single ingredient.  In reality my fridge is almost never without several different cheeses including: cheddar, parmesan and mozzarella.  Similarly I list ‘butter’.  You need something in this space and frankly I think nothing compares with good old fashioned butter. But I myself have flip-flopped several times in my life depending on whether I was more worried by saturated fats in butter, or trans fats and the long list of E numbers found in most emulsified vegetable spreads.

Plain Flour
Black Pepper
Corn Flour (Starch)
Ground Almonds
Baking Powder
Stock (bouillon) cubes
Dried Yeast
Olive Oil
White Wine Vinegar
Jam (raspberry)
Tinned Tomatoes
Frozen Peas

With only a few moments of pondering I have come up with a fairly long list of snacks, meals and desserts which could be created with nothing more than my list of basics.  Although visitors are often impressed by an apparent ability to conjure up something from what appears to be an empty kitchen, my main point is to demonstrate that these genuinely are the basics.

Fried eggs
Cheese and Potato Pie
Scrambled eggs
Bacon, Cheese, Potato Bake
Poached eggs
Cheese Soufflé
Tattie Scones
Boiled eggs
Cheese Pudding
Egg Mayonnaise
Quiche Lorraine
Victoria Sponge
Savory Pancakes
Scotch Pancakes (Drop Scones)
Pizza Margarita
French Toast
Pasta Sauces
Garlic Bread
-          Tomato
Rice Pudding
Sandwiches (egg, cheese, bacon)
-          Carbonara
Chips (French fries)
-          Cheese
Bread and Butter Pudding
Crisps (potato chips)
-          Baked (al forno)
Queen of Puddings
Baked Potatoes with various fillings
Fried Rice
Crème Brulee
Hollandaise Sauce

Crème Caramel

Bakewell Tart

Steamed Jam Sponge

Realistically, in order to turn out an interesting, varied and healthy range of recipes, most people would want to add fish, meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and any number of those hundred other items which I have rejected as not being basic enough.  And by that stage you are cooking!