Marine Protected Areas

UK government set to permit continued bottom trawling in MPAs

Written by Oceanographic Staff

The UK Government is about to issue over 1,000 fishing licences for EU and UK fishing vessels for 2022, permitting them to bottom trawl in UK Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

The fishing licences for UK and EU vessels allowing bottom-trawling and dredging activities inside Marine Protected Areas might have severe consequences, warns the conservation group Oceana. Bottom trawling and dredging involve the towing of very heavy gear along the seabed, which often destroys the habitats and the species that live there from biogenic and rocky reefs to deep mud habitats. A recent study also found that fishing boats that trawl the ocean floor release as much carbon back into the water column as the global aviation industry sends into the atmosphere annually, and that UK waters are the fourth largest global carbon emitter from trawling.

As reported by the Guardian, Oceana recently sent a letter to George Eustice, secretary of state for the environment, arguing that the fishing licences “expected to be granted this month could contravene UK law”. According to Oceana, the fishing licences are in contravention of the Habitats Regulations and Marine Acts and could make them illegal under UK law.

Bottom trawling and dredging are currently still permitted in over 97% – 62 out of a total of 64 – of the UK’s offshore MPAs. In April 2021, the government committed to adopting fisheries management for all its MPAs by 2024. However, at the current rate of progress – only four MPAs in two years – the most destructive and unselective fishing method could continue to be licensed in British protected areas until 2050. 

Melissa Moore, Head of UK Policy at Oceana in Europe, said: “We need an immediate ban on trawling and dredging in all offshore Marine Protected Areas as well as the inshore zone. To continue to license this destructive activity, when we know the damage it causes and that it is illegal under various environmental laws, beggars belief. A simple license condition should prohibit fishing in MPAs. We need to protect our marine habitats and in return many will also help protect us from climate change by sequestering and storing carbon.”  

Oceana analysis found that of the 68,000 hours of fishing with damaging bottom-towed gear that took place in UK offshore benthic MPAs in 2020, 39% was by UK vessels, especially off Scotland, 35% by French, and the rest by other EU states. 

A new film released by Oceana demonstrates the positive impact that a trawling ban can deliver for the marine ecosystem. The film showcases Sussex, where the Government approved a bylaw introduced by Sussex Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (IFCA) in February this year, banning trawling in over 170 km2 nearshore area along the Sussex coast. 

Years of bottom trawling in Sussex had destroyed the underwater kelp forests, which provided the habitats needed for a range of species. Kelp acts both as a home for a multitude of animals from lobsters to seals, strengthening marine ecosystems, and as a vital defence against climate change by capturing and storing carbon dioxide. 

Freediver and ocean activist, Steve Allnutt, has been diving off the West Sussex coast since the 1990s and documenting changes to marine habitats and wildlife due to trawling and other environmental factors. Underwater footage captured by Steve off the coast, shows how kelp beds, marine life and fish species including bream, bass, pouting and wrasse have started to return and flourish now that the area is spared from trawling. 

Steve Allnutt, freediver and ocean activist, said: “I hope that Sussex is the beginning of a massive domino effect across the rest of the UK. I’ve seen for myself how quickly the kelp and other marine life can bounce back when it’s left alone by trawlers. While it’s really encouraging, it’s also devastating to think about the destruction that’s still happening to the rest of the UK’s oceans and marine life. The Government must follow Sussex’s lead and ban bottom trawling from 0 to 3 nautical miles off the rest of the coast and in all Marine Protected Areas.” 

Commercial fisher, Clive Mills, who has been fishing in the waters of Bognor Regis since 1976, was also emphatic in his support of the ban in Sussex’s inshore area. Clive, who primarily fishes with trammel or gill nets that do no, or minimal, damage to the seabed, reported on the dramatically improved availability of catch for him and other low-impact fishers since the bylaw came into force.  

Commenting on the threat posed by bottom trawling to the ocean, fish stocks and fishers’ livelihoods, Mills said: “We need to start looking after what we’ve got left, because if we don’t, there will be nothing left. If we keep using the gear that’s decimating everything, we won’t be able to do this. If we don’t do it now, when are we going to do it? In 10 years’ time? 20 years-time? Every day we leave it, or every year we leave it, we’re getting closer to the abyss.” 

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here.

Photography courtesy of Unsplash.

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