UK fishing licences could be unlawful, says Oceana

Permits for UK and EU vessels will hinder efforts to protect marine life and may break habitats directive, conservation group warns

The British government’s granting of fishing licences to more than 1,000 UK and EU vessels for 2022, which will permit bottom-trawling and dredging in marine protected areas, could be unlawful unless conditions to safeguard ocean habitats are imposed, the conservation group Oceana says.

In a letter to George Eustice, secretary of state for the environment, parts of which have been seen by the Guardian, the group warned that licences expected to be granted this month could contravene UK law. This includes the habitats directive, aimed at protecting vital marine ecosystems.

Bottom-trawling and dredging, which are highly damaging to the seabed, are still permitted in 97% of marine protected areas (MPAs). Nearly a quarter of the UK’s territorial waters are protected areas, set up to safeguard vital habitats and species including harbour porpoises and dolphins. The MPAs are the most prominent feature of the government’s pledge to protect 30% of ocean biodiversity by 2030.

Melissa Moore, head of UK policy at Oceana in Europe, said she expected the licences to be issued this month. “These licences could be massive supertrawlers or scallop vessels. Whether it is scooping up dolphins or dredging the seabed, this legislation is precautionary.

“The habitat directive is saying before you license you must prove that the licence won’t have an impact on the site,” she said. “The government has not done that.”

Oceana’s analysis found that of the 68,000 hours of fishing with damaging bottom-towed gear that took place along the seabed of protected areas off the UK shore last year, 39% was by British vessels, especially off Scotland, 35% by French and the rest by other EU states.

Under so-called benthic MPAs – to protect species that live on the seabed – the government has so far banned bottom-trawling and dredging in only two of its offshore MPAs and plans to bring in a ban for four more, including in the Dogger Bank. At the current rate of progress, Oceana estimates it would take the UK until 2050 to properly protect all such vulnerable marine areas.

Moore 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 licence condition should prohibit fishing in MPAs.”

Protecting marine habitats would help protect us from the climate crisis by sequestering and storing carbon, she said.

In its letter, Oceana said the government had failed to conduct an appropriate assessment of any significant effect of the impending licences on special areas of conservation as required under regulation 28 of the offshore habitats regulations. Oceana also warned that the government could be failing to comply with marine strategy regulations requiring it to maintain “good ecological” status by December 2020 and could breach its duty to conserve the marine environment under the Fisheries Act, if the licences were granted without the necessary conditions.

A recent study estimated that fishing boats trawling along the seabed release as much carbon as the aviation industry puts into the atmosphere annually, and that carbon emissions in UK waters were the fourth largest globally from trawling.

In April, the government committed to adopting fisheries management for all its MPAs by 2024, after legal issues were raised by Oceana.

Greenpeace described bottom-trawling in marine protected areas as “bulldozing national parks”. Greenpeace UK’s head of oceans, Will McCallum, said: “It turns the seafloor into a disaster zone while also releasing planet-heating carbon in the process. It should be banned.

“So far, this destructive fishing method has been restricted in just two MPAs out of 64 – it’s a joke. If the government means a single word it said about being a global oceans champion, then the very least they can do is ban bottom-trawling and dredging from some of our most precious marine environments.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “To protect our vital fish stocks, all EU vessels granted access to fish in UK waters must comply with UK rules and regulations, including those on sustainability.

“We have already stopped pulse-trawling by EU and English-registered vessels in UK waters, and are working closely with industry to address their concerns surrounding bottom-trawling. Now we have left the EU, the MMO [Marine Management Organisation] has also consulted on additional safeguards for several of our offshore marine protected areas.”

The Scottish government said it would exclude all fishing from 10% of its seas by 2026. A spokesperson said: “As set out in the programme for government, we will deliver fisheries management measures for existing marine protected areas where these are not already in place, as well as key coastal biodiversity locations outside these sites, by March 2024 at the latest.

“We will also designate highly protected marine areas, which will exclude all fishing activities, covering at least 10% of our seas by 2026.”


Karen McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

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