Impressions of the North Sea Days 2017

This year’s North Sea Days had the motto “Time to set a different course”. I realised the motto also applied to my own research. After years of building bioeconomic models I have recently decided to focus on the normative questions of marine economics: how do we analyse tradeoffs between different uses, can we use the lessons learned from cost-benefit analysis in management strategy evaluations, and is CBA the right tool for problems as complicated and multifaceted as marine policy?

Anyway, here are my impressions of the North Sea Days, in no particular order.

Not everybody was ready to admit it, but the development of wind energy is now a key driver for Dutch North Sea policy. The current generative capacity is about 1 GW, to which the Dutch government plans to add another 10.5 GW between now and 2030. Eventually the North Sea should have about 35-75 GW worth of wind turbines. That is an incredible amount that also makes conservation NGOs uneasy.

I was shocked by the adamant refusal of conservationists (from whatever organisation) to even consider human interests when talking about protecting and restoring biodiversity. In a session on nature conservation I seemed to be the only participant answering “people” when asked which species I specialised in. When another participant had the tenacity to ask the question why we want to conserve nature the rest fell over him like a ton of bricks. I have heard suggestions like “increase fish biomass to 10-100 times current levels” (is that even physically possible?) and “ban the beam trawl” like nobody depends on fishing for a living. Ironically the conservation NGOs came across as the most reasonable voice, understanding that different objectives, including fishing, energy production, and conservation, need to coexist. Dirk Kraak, a Dutch fisher present at the North Sea Days, had a similar impression at another session (in Dutch).

It was therefore, again, quite clear that fishers are in a very difficult position. The world is changing, and so are the seas. Fishers need to share more and more of the sea with other uses and demands, where they used to have the entire area for themselves. Putting your foot down, as some are trying to do, is not going to stop this juggernaut. As difficult as it is, they will have to accommodate and try to make the best of a bad situation.

The session on cumulative ecological analysis demonstrated that like in any marine system, the web of activities, ecosystem components, and impacts on human well-being in the North Sea is incredibly complex. This is a huge complication for any form of policy appraisal (like CBA), which depends heavily on the delineation of the problem. This is difficult enough on land, but at sea, where everything hangs together with everything else, it seems near impossible.

Uncertainty is another key issue, and therefore so is adaptability of policies and institutions. How fast will sea levels rise? How will marine currents and ecosystems respond to big hard structures such as wind turbines? What will be the energy source of the future – wind, solar, tidal, biomass? Time may tell, but only at different temporal scale levels. We cannot wait for all uncertainties to be resolved, but we can develop institutions and policies that are able to adapt to new information.

All in all two incredibly inspiring days.

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