The UK government has proposed new “weak” restrictions on bottom trawling within 13 marine parks in England, which would effectively ban it in only three, campaigners say.
Under proposals put forward by Therese Coffey, Minister of the Environment, three out of 13 marine protected areas (MPAs) would introduce blanket bans on the environmentally destructive practice of seabed trawling. The other 10 will impose partial bans in certain areas, mostly reefs and rocks where trawling is unlikely to happen anyway. England has 40 marine protected areas in total.
The measures follow a ban last June on trawling at Dogger Bank, the UK’s largest sandbank and an important site for many marine species, as well as three other marine parks. The latest proposals – to introduce regulations to restrict or ban bottom trawling gear for another third of England’s marine parks – are part of wider government consultations about the impact of fishing in marine protected areas.
“Today’s plans will provide more crucial safeguards for vital biodiversity and help restore England’s marine ecosystems,” Covey said. “We will listen carefully to the feedback so that we can help habitats and species recover while ensuring a sustainable and successful fishing industry for years to come.”
Ocean activists, who want bottom trawling and other destructive fishing in all of the UK’s marine protected areas, have called the proposals “too slow and piecemeal” to match the urgency of the ocean crisis. Trawling and dredging are currently permitted in the majority of these protected areas, leading to their being called “leaf gardens”.
Charles Clover of the Blue Marine Foundation said: “This declaration is weak and depressing. The protected area should at least be protected from any malicious activity.”
Arianna Densham, Head of Oceans at Greenpeace, said: “This is a step forward to protect the UK marine, but progress is still very slow in the face of the industrial fishing frenzy. This is all very piecemeal to face the scale of the threat to our oceans. Calling itself a global leader in marine protection, it should start by offering 30 by 30 at home,” referring to the goal of protecting 30% of the land and oceans by 2030.
In December, a report by Greenpeace showed that more than 90% of marine protected areas in the UK have no site-wide protection against even more destructive fishing, and that only five of the 76 marine sites are protected against bottom traction gear. It concluded that the UK was “an alarmingly long way” from achieving its stated 30×30 commitment.
Greenpeace and Oceania want to see bottom trawling and other destructive fishing banned as a condition of obtaining a fishing vessel licence.
In December, the government issued more than 1,500 fishing licenses to EU vessels, allowing them to fish on the bottom of most marine protected areas, Oceana said.
Hugo Tagolme, CEO of Oceana UK, said: “Shockingly, following commitments by the UN Conference on Biological Diversity to protect 30% of land and sea, the UK government has just issued more than 1,500 fishing licenses to EU vessels for 2023, which would Allowing them to trawl in most of the UK’s marine protected marine areas.”
Tagoulem, who chaired the Surfers Against Sanitation campaign group until last year, welcomed the proposed regulations to restrict harmful fishing but expressed concern that most fail to protect the entire marine protected area.
Oceana has warned the government that issuing licenses that allow bottom trawling may be illegal, contravene marine law, fisheries law and habitat regulations, and conflict with government obligations to restore the seas.
Jean-Luc Soland, lead MPA specialist at the Marine Conservation Society, said the measures represent “important progress” for some biodiversity, but they are “not enough”.
The 13 sites proposed for protection include the Cape Bank, home to ecologically important species such as the pillow starfish; Haig Fras, a site that supports corals and anemones; and Goodwin Sands, which supports commercially important shellfish and fish.