More than 90% of marine protected areas off Britain are still trawled and dredged, two years after analysis of the extent of destructive fishing revealed them as ‘paper parks’, data shows shared with the Guardian.
The UK network of marine parks, set up to protect vulnerable areas of the seabed and marine life, is a cornerstone of the government’s goal to protect 30% of ocean biodiversity by 2030.
But analysis of fishing vessel tracking data from Global Fishing Watch (GFW) and conservation NGO Oceana found that fishing with bottom-towed gear took place last year in 58 of the 64 “benthic” MPAs offshore, which aim to protect species that live on the seabed. A total of 1,604 vessels, including industrial boats, spent 132,267 hours fishing in these MPAs in the UK, it found.
Vessels with bottom-towed gear – the most destructive type of fishing, involving the dragging of weighted nets over seafloor habitats – spent at least 31,854 hours in MPAs in 2021. This is likely an underestimate, Oceana said, because he could only identify the gear. type for 837 boats, just over half of those detected, due to a lack of publicly available data. The vast majority were industrial vessels, he said.
When vessels equipped with towed gears fish in marine parks, it prevents the recovery of ecosystems already lost after decades of exploitation and limits the ability of the seabed to store carbon and combat the effects of the climate crisis. . Greenpeace has described this type of fishing in MPAs as a “national park bulldozer”.
Bottom trawling is prohibited in only two MPAs so far, and four more will be protected in June.
Melissa Moore, Oceana’s head of UK policy in Europe, said Oceana’s analysis “is further evidence that this damaging activity is ubiquitous. Yet the UK and devolved governments have allowed this to happen throughout 2022 as well, in breach of nature laws. They destroy habitats for the future.
After Brexit, the UK licensed thousands of vessels to fish in all UK waters, including all but two offshore MPAs. “No other activity, not homes, roads or harbors, is allowed first and assessed later,” Moore said. “Yet that’s what happens with fishing, although the law is clear that you shouldn’t allow activities until it’s proven to be harmless. negative effect on the site.”
The Offshore Habitat Regulations state that no activities can be permitted in Special Areas of Conservation unless an assessment confirms that they will not affect the “integrity” of the site. In April, after Oceana and other groups raised legal concerns, the government pledged to adopt fisheries management for all of its MPAs by 2024.
The UK has had the power to ban bottom trawling in MPAs since Brexit, via the Fisheries Act 2020. Two years later, no ban is in place, although on June 13, new laws prohibiting the practice in four MPAs come into effect.
These include Dogger Bank, a vital North Sea breeding ground for commercial species such as cod and whiting, as well as sandeels – eaten by kittiwakes, puffins and porpoises. It is also an important site for blue carbon, CO2 sequestered and stored in coastal and marine ecosystems.
The four MPAs represent a tenth of offshore MPAs, leaving 90% unprotected. Last month, the government announced that 13 more were under review, as part of its “post-Brexit freedoms to protect rare and valuable marine habitats and species”.
But NGOs have called the government’s plans “too slow”, “unambitious” and unlikely to meet its 2030 target of protecting 30% of the oceans. They say introducing license conditions for all industrial vessels, prohibiting them from fishing in MPAs, would allow faster and better protection.
Charles Clover, Executive Director of the Blue Marine Foundation, said: “The government was under an obligation to protect these areas from day one of Brexit. They’re so behind on compliance [with] their own laws, it’s mystifying. And that makes them vulnerable to legal challenges.
Will McCallum of Greenpeace said: “It took the government two years to introduce trawling bans in four MPAs. This all takes too long and in the end you have a ban on only one type of gear – the bottom towed gear. But, in theory, a super trawler could pass straight through.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “It is wrong to say that little has changed. We passed our landmark Fisheries Act 2020, we are consulting on the Joint Fisheries Statement, we are stopping harmful trawling and dredging in four marine protected areas, and we have called for evidence to support the management of 13 others MPA sites. Our £100m UK Seafood Fund supports innovation and sustainability, to ensure our fishing industry is the most sustainable in the world.
Defra is expected to consult soon on highly protected marine areas – defined as areas that enable the protection and recovery of marine habitats by prohibiting destructive fishing methods.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is committed to designating Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) covering at least 10% of Scotland’s coastal and offshore waters by 2026 – before the end of the current Scottish legislature. This is a world-leading commitment – it achieves the EU’s 10% target but in a shorter timeframe.
“The HPMAs will prohibit all mining, destruction and repository activities and only allow other activities at non-damaging levels. We are committed to providing fisheries management measures for existing MPAs, where they are not already in place, by March 2024 at the latest.