The Bay of Napoli

*Horatio Morpurgo* looks at what lies beneath the grounding of a container ship off the south coast of Britain.

Obscurely lit by a sliver of new moon: the Devon countryside on a night in January. Constellations glitter in the bare branches overhead. Suddenly I can hear, then see, three or four figures approaching along the lane, running, joking.

‘I want one of them gear-boxes,’ says one voice.

‘I wanna f$%@in motor,’ comes the reply.

‘I want some of those nappies,’ says a third.

There was, briefly, something for everybody on Branscombe Beach. The _Napoli_, a container-ship out of Antwerp bound for Portugal and South Africa, had been crippled by a storm then deliberately run aground here, on the south-west coast of England, to prevent its sinking. A hundred containers were lost overboard and forty or so washed up on local beaches.

For several days BMW brake-pads rolled in the surf. The waves tinkled with fragments of sheet-metal. Packaging, sportswear, cosmetics, car-parts, maxi-packs of nappies, Bibles in many languages, lay strewn along the tide-line.


All this entitled this corner of the South West to more attention in a few days than it generally receives in a decade. In phone-ins on local radio stations pensioners berated the ‘organized gangs’ and other ‘non-Devon people’ who were responsible for the plundering, looting etc. A friend of mine bounced out of bed at daybreak to photograph the dozens of heart-shaped tins of chocolates that washed up, all coated in tar, 30 miles along the coast. Volunteers - presumably ‘strangers’ - helping with the clean-up offered them to each other with mock-Valentine’s Day sentiment.

If the salvagers of the _Napoli_ had been looking for a more wickedly ironical location to beach this ship, they’d have been hard-pressed to find one

Out in the bay, meanwhile, barges, tugs and coastguard boats manoeuvred around the stricken vessel, trying to get a fix on the nightmarish problem they had been set. The ship listed more at low tide, less at high tide. Every container removed would alter the delicate balance. Its decks were covered in oil. The diesel which could be seen leaking from the _Napoli_ on its arrival was the last of about 200 tonnes which escaped into the environment. About a thousand sea-birds were washed up covered in it. Oil from the ship also reached beaches in Brittany. Some 3,500 tonnes of fuel-oil were, however, successfully pumped onto a barge moored alongside.

The _Napoli_ was British-registered. Its owner, Zodiac Maritime, has a long-running dispute with the Seafarers Union over inadequate crewing and safety standards. In 2001 the same ship spent several weeks on a coral reef in the Malacca Straits, between Indonesia and Malaysia, after slamming into it at full speed. The ship went for repairs in Vietnam. The storm it had run into now was bad - Force 8 - but not exceptional for the North Atlantic in winter. Had the hull been properly tested after the last accident?

Marine reserves

Such questions must be raised. But anyone who has covered one of these incidents before knows how completely, how instantaneously they vanish from public consciousness once the oil disperses. Six weeks before anybody had ever heard of Branscombe or the Napoli the local wildlife trust here sent its members a magazine all about Lyme Bay. If the salvagers of the _Napoli_ had been looking for a more wickedly ironical location to beach this ship, they’d have been hard-pressed to find one.

Lyme Bay has been for two years now at the centre of a blazing row between the British Government and its own advisory body on the environment, English Nature. It has become ‘a national test-case for the environment’, according to Paul Gompertz, director of the Devon Wildlife Trust and a man not given to over-statement.

The case for creating more marine reserves around the world has been made eloquently by those best qualified to make it. English Nature has argued for several years the need for a statutory marine reserve covering 60 square miles, a mere 10 per cent of Lyme Bay. The floor of Lyme Bay is home to sponges, cold-water corals and sea fans which few would associate with the North Atlantic. Several of these species are rarities and protected – the pink sea fan enjoys the same status under British law as the golden eagle. A voluntary agreement made in 2001 to protect the bay’s most sensitive reefs from dredging ended in failure.

At a recent international conference Ben Bradshaw, Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare - an MP whose own constituency borders on Lyme Bay - said: ‘The particular issues I want to focus on are how we conserve sensitive eco-systems, such as sea-mounts and cold water corals, in the deep seas. I want to see the end of destructive deep-sea trawling.’

There comes the moment when you don’t talk about it any more, you legislate for it, in a small bay in your own coastal waters entirely under your own little country’s jurisdiction. Or rather, on balance, after due consideration of all aspects of the problem, and after ‘consultation with local fishing interests’, there comes the moment when you opt for no marine reserves at all.

Bleak trawl

Ben Bradshaw recently announced that the recommendations of English Nature will be ignored. A 12-square-mile ‘protection area’, to be run on a ‘voluntary basis’, is the Minister’s mature and considered verdict.

The diesel from the Napoli was still there, and the oiled birds were still being picked up, when a large refrigerated lorry, familiar to local residents, made its first appearance of the year in West Bay. This is a fishing village east of Branscombe. The lorry arrived after dark and sat on the east pier with its engines running.

Lyme Bay is home to many marine creatures, about fifty of them edible. As fish stocks decline, so quotas for what can be caught are being tightened. Fuel prices have risen, making longer trips less viable. Trawlers facing bleak prospects have in the last two years turned increasingly to Lyme Bay and its scallops, for which there are as yet no quota and for which the market-price is currently very high. Scallops are harvested by ‘dredging’ - dragging a set of steel spikes over the sea-bed. This dislodges the shellfish, produces $5 million per annum for the fishing-boats and reduces the sea-bed – sponges, corals, sea-fans and all – to barren rubble. During a recent survey, 328 sea fan skeletons were found washed up on Chesil Beach in a single day. Divers have reported, and photographed, whole colonies lying dead on scallop-dredged areas of the sea-floor.

It there were a reserve, scallops could be dived for in the summer and potting and recreational angling would be allowed, but it would otherwise function as a wildlife sanctuary and fish nursery. Dave Sales, chairman of the West Bay Fisherman’s Association and a fisher himself for 51 years, argues that it could easily be policed. ‘There’s a closed area off the Isle of Man and there are satellite trackers these days to keep it that way. Off the coast of Newfoundland they have a thousand square miles of ocean from which scallopers are excluded. And it works. The technology is all there. What needs to change now is the way we think. For thousands of years we’ve fished as if it was hunting. But our ability now to catch them has over-taken their ability to reproduce. So we have to start thinking of it as a kind of agriculture. We have to start looking after the fish and their habitat the way farmers look after their animals and land.’

Emblem of life

Jean-Luc Solandt, biodiversity policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society agrees. ‘But it isn’t just about satellite trackers. What you also need is someone with local credibility who can talk to the fishermen about just how well this works.’ Off the Isle of Man, for example, a survey conducted over 14 years (1989-2003) showed numbers of scallops above the legal size for landing rose by a factor of seven inside the reserve. ‘So what’s happened there is that the abundance and increased diversity inside the reserve has started spilling out into the areas where the boats can go. It’s called “fishing the line” – fish are so much more plentiful just outside the boundary of the reserve that the boats go trawling up and down at the edges of it. Marine reserves aren’t “environmentalism” – they’re just good management. They’re already setting up a second reserve off the Isle of Man. Traditional fisheries around the world often had a “cropping system” where everyone agreed to leave certain areas alone so habitat and fish-stocks could re-generate. What we’re saying isn’t really new.’

We are consumers – therefore scallops are valued, or not, primarily as consumables. I like them, you like them, he, she, it – we all like them. So we will have as many as we can get, and have them now. Lyme Bay must, on this logic, be ransacked.

Scallops weren’t always just a consumable, let alone the logo of Europe’s largest oil company. They were, for a thousand years and more, a religious emblem, associated with St James and worn by pilgrims to his shrine at Compostela in Spain. How scallop-shells became associated with pilgrimage is not known. Some say they were the spoons which pilgrims dipped into the stews cooked at communal hostels along the way. Perhaps they were just plentiful along the shore where the route to Compostela passes. They might be plentiful again, if the likes of Ben Bradshaw could be brought to see beyond the ends of their noses - and if you or I stopped eating them unless we knew for sure they’ve been dived for, not dredged.

Grab, gawp, scribble, walk up and down, eat – anything rather than fall to thinking about what that great silhouette slumped on its side out in the bay might mean

They can swim, actually. Rather comically. They swim the way a pair of castanets might swim, if it tried. Each scallop possesses about 100 small but clearly visible blue eyes, positioned rather unevenly along the opening between the two halves of the shell. If one of these eyes is damaged or broken off in a storm, say, the scallop simply grows a new one.

It will take from six months to a year, they estimate, to remove the _Napoli’s_ cargo and either re-float the ship or cut it up for scrap. That will give us a good long while to reflect on that scene in Lyme Bay.

By the second weekend after the ship’s appearance, people were strolling along the sea-front at Sidmouth with their binoculars. The pubs were crammed for Sunday lunch – in January! Scallops in lime and lemon butter $20! Grab, gawp, scribble, walk up and down, eat – anything rather than fall to thinking about what that giant silhouette slumped on its side out in the bay might mean. The sea-bed that now supports its cracked hull is inhabited. It’s alive. Its future depends on whether you or I can look at the world and see something other than stuff; on whether, after the storm, we too can grow new eyes to see with.

Meanwhile, the scallop lorry comes and goes under cover of darkness.

*Horatio Morpurgo* is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.