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Ocean Conservation? It's as British as Fish and Chips

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Britain once ruled the waves; now the people of the United Kingdom are determined to save the ocean environment. That was the take-away message from a function held at the iconic Selfridges department store on Oxford Street last night.

Over the last decade there has been a revolution in attitudes to the ocean that has seen the UK emerge at the global forefront of marine conservation. Today, standing up for ocean life is as British as fish and chips. And anyone who views the situation differently risks not only being out of tune with community sentiment, but transgressing national values.

From the ground breaking journalism of Charles Clover (whose book and film The End of the Line did so much to make people aware of the scale of the ecological crisis of over-fishing); to celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's multi-award winning Fish Fight (which managed to make both the tinned tuna industry and Europe's Common Fisheries Policy ('the CFP') not only compelling viewing but the subjects of popular outrage); to the magisterial work of Professor Callum Roberts of York University and the Marine Programme of Prince Charles, the UK has led the way in spreading the message about the plight of the marine environment and the widespread collapse of fish stocks.

Fishermen themselves have got in on the act. Ultimately, there should be no better guardian of the marine environment than a local fisherman who uses low impact gear, because his livelihood and way of life depends on healthy fish stocks. Doing it tough in the UK under rules currently loaded against them, these guys combine greater sustainability with higher levels of employment and community embeddedness, to provide top quality fresh-caught local fish for seaside towns. It's the kind of fishing we need - and it is a world away from the corporate money and high impact destructive gear down at the big end of the wharf

Seeking to keep the trust and faith of their customer base, UK retailers have led the world over the last decade in cleaning up supply chains and improving the sustainability of fish for sale. Iconic stores like M&S, Waitrose and Sainsburys have been out in front - but while there is still work to be done, the whole UK retail sector now takes seafood sustainability seriously. It is the cultural shift that is the key: in the United Kingdom being committed to best practice in seafood sustainability is now widely understood as a fundamental test of corporate values.

Then in 2011, in what the Independent called 'one of the most successful environmental campaigns in years', the entire tinned tuna sector in the UK (the second largest in the world, after the USA) was transformed to become the most sustainable on earth.

And it was in May last year - and under the personal leadership of Alannah Weston - Selfridges embarked on an extraordinarily ambitious promotion of ocean conservation in a six week blue blitzkrieg known as 'Project Ocean'. Apart from raising money directly for marine conservation projects, Selfridges' Project Ocean led to the establishment of the UK Marine Reserve Coalition, a powerful alliance of leading NGOs dedicated to campaigning for large scale marine reserves.

The event at Selfridges last night was to mark the one-year anniversary of the launch of Project Ocean, and it fell to Professor Jonathan Baillie, the Director of Conservation at ZSL, to tell the story of the United Kingdom's emergence as a (soft) great power of marine conservation.

'The United Kingdom owes everything to the seas that surround us; it is no wonder that this country is emerging as a champion of marine conservation.'

Progress is indeed being made and even the politicians are getting in on the act. Although the issue remains justly controversial, there is no doubting the sheer statistical reality that in April 2011, the UK Government created the largest marine reserve on earth, followed recently by the creation of new marine protected areas (a lesser form of protection than a true no-take marine reserve) around the UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands.

Of course there is still an enormous amount of work to do. Endangered species are still being served in some London restaurants. Grievously unsustainable seafood products do still appear in some UK stores. Far less than 1% of the UK's coastal waters are protected as no-take marine reserves. Europe's fisheries remain in a state of stark decline. Under pressure from climate change, deep-water petroleum extraction and the bloated global fishing industry among other threats, the fate of the world's oceans has never hung more grimly in the balance. But in the United Kingdom at least, there is now real determination to do something about it.

Another speaker at Selfridges last night, my colleague Willie Mackenzie, talked of the forceful advocacy that is needed from the UK's current fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, in relation to the CFP, which is undergoing a once in a decade reform process.

Courtesy of Hugh's Fish Fight, Benyon is in the spotlight like no fisheries minister ever before and he knows that his political success or failure will be judged on his ability to deliver effective reform of the CFP.

But so long as he is striving for a radically reformed CFP that puts sustainability first, Minister Benyon should rest assured in knowing that he has his country behind him.