The UK government has proposed “feeble” new restrictions on harmful bottom trawling within 13 marine parks in England that would only actually ban it in three, campaigners say.
Under the proposals put forward by Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, three out of the 13 marine protected areas (MPAs) would introduce whole-site bans on the environmentally destructive practice of bottom trawling. The other 10 would introduce partial bans in certain areas, mostly reefs and rocks where trawling is unlikely to occur anyway. England has 40 offshore marine protected areas in total.
The measures follow a ban last June on bottom 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 bylaws to restrict or ban bottom-towed gear in a further third of England’s marine parks – are part of the government’s wider consultation on the impact of fishing in MPAs.
“Today’s plans will deliver more crucial safeguards for vital biodiversity and help restore England’s marine ecosystems,” Coffey said. “We will listen carefully to the responses so that we can help habitats and species recover while ensuring we have a sustainable and successful fishing industry for years to come.”
Ocean campaigners, who want bottom trawling and other destructive fishing banned in all the UK’s MPAs, described the proposals as “too slow and piecemeal” to match the urgency of the ocean crisis. Trawling and dredging is currently permitted in the majority of these protected area, leading them to be dubbed “paper parks”.
Charles Clover of Blue Marine Foundation said: “This announcement is feeble and depressing. A protected area should at the very least be protected from damaging activity.”
Ariana Densham, head of oceans at Greenpeace, said: “This is a step forward for UK marine protection but progress remains way too slow in the face of the industrial fishing frenzy. This is all too piecemeal to meet the scale of the threat to our oceans. If the UK government wants to keep calling itself a global leader in marine protection, it needs to start by delivering 30x30 at home,” referring to the goal of protecting 30% of the land and ocean by 2030.
In December, a report by Greenpeace showed more than 90% of the UK’s MPAs do not have site-wide protection against the most destructive fishing, and that just five out of 76 offshore sites are protected against bottom-towed gear. It concluded the UK was “an alarmingly long way” from realising its stated commitment of 30x30.
Greenpeace and Oceana want to see bottom trawling and other destructive fishing banned as a condition of a fishing vessel’s licence.
In December, the government issued more than 1,500 fishing licenses for EU vessels, allowing them to bottom trawl in most MPAs, Oceana said.
Hugo Tagholm, executive director of Oceana UK, said: “Shockingly, in the wake of the UN biodiversity conference commitments to protect 30% of land and sea, the UK Government has just issued over 1,500 fishing licenses for EU vessels for 2023, which would permit them to bottom trawl in most offshore UK marine protected areas.”
Tagholm, who headed campaign group Surfers against Sewage until last year, welcomed the proposed bylaws to restrict damaging fishing but expressed concern that most failed to protect the entire MPA.
Oceana has warned the government that issuing licences permitting bottom trawling could be unlawful, contravene the Marine Act, Fisheries Act and habitats regulations, and go against government commitments to restore the seas.
Jean-Luc Solandt, principal specialist in MPAs at the Marine Conservation Society, said the measures were “important progress” for some biodiversity but that “it is not enough”.
The 13 locations proposed for protection include Cape Bank, home to ecologically important species such as cushion star starfish; Haig Fras, a site supporting corals and jewel anemones; and Goodwin Sands, which supports commercially important shellfish and fish.