Is the UK's chief scientist off base?

Published on
March 16, 2010

In what seems like a remarkable case of double standards, the UK government’s chief scientist, who has warned of the dangers of overfishing, and his wife made GBP 500,000 (EUR 552,000, USD 757,000) last year from a company managing commercial fisheries where threatened species were allegedly caught.

According to a report in London’s The Sunday Times newspaper, conservationists claim that blue sharks and rays were harvested as bycatch by tuna fishermen in British territorial waters in the Indian Ocean. The fishery is managed by Marine Resources Assessment Group (MRAG), a consultancy in which the chief scientist, professor John Beddington, and his wife are sole shareholders.

While Beddington’s spokesman claims that he has never taken a dividend or salary from MRAG, the company is a very profitable venture; shareholder funds, which can be shared by Beddington and his wife, increased by more than GBP 523,000 (USD 803,000, EUR 585,000) in 2009. And presumably these funds will duly be paid out at some point in time.

Not that there is anything wrong with the company making money, but it does seem strange that Beddington urges restraint in fishing as a government adviser on the one hand, and then, as part-owner of a commercial company, apparently turns a blind eye to the catching of threatened species on the other.

Even more disturbing is the fact that MRAG has been awarded at least three contracts from the British government during the past two years, said The Sunday Times. Again, the spokesman points out that Beddington declared his interest in MRAG when he was appointed chief scientist and has remained detached from it during his time in office.

MRAG, which has offices in America and Australia, manages fisheries around the world. One of these fisheries is in the Chagos Archipelago situated south of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. It is here that vessels fishing for yellowfin tuna, which itself should be banned according to some scientists, are also allegedly catching “tens of thousands” of rays and sharks.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has published a consultation document proposing that the waters around the Chagos Islands be made a marine reserve to protect the species that live there. Not surprisingly, environmental groups heartily endorse this proposal.

So, what is MRAG doing there when Beddington is joint owner of the company? According to The Sunday Times, MRAG’s development director argues that commercial fishing should not be banned in the Chagos Archipelago because that could lead to an increase in unregulated fishing elsewhere and the amount of bycatch would rise.

The situation defies belief. Beddington cannot have it both ways. Either he and his wife should completely sever all connections with MRAG, or he should resign from his GBP 165,000 (USD 250,000, EUR 182,000) a year post as the UK government’s chief scientist. However, the likelihood of either course of action being taken is remote.

MRAG claims to have introduced new measures to ensure that more fish landed as bycatch in the area survive, and that will probably be the end of the matter. The days when senior officials acted on principles have long gone.

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