Damage to the world’s oceans generally takes place out of sight, meaning it can be even harder to build momentum behind policymaking than it is to tackle other forms of harm to wildlife. But shocking data gathered by marine conservation NGOs, revealing that 90% of Britain’s marine protected areas (MPAs) are still being fished using the most destructive methods, should serve as a wake-up call. The UK government is officially signed up to a target of protecting 30% of our territorial waters by 2030. So far, action is lagging a long way behind words.
With a desperately needed global oceans treaty due to be negotiated in August , the UK government should live up to its pledges. If nations are unwilling to protect the marine environment in their own waters, the chance of reaching agreement over international ones could slip away. The level of protection provided by the designation of MPAs has been exposed as too minimal to be meaningful. Last year, just 10% were not fished using highly destructive dredging or bottom-trawling equipment – which Greenpeace likens to “bulldozing” the seabed.
Awareness of the importance of the oceans in regulating the climate, by storing what is known as blue carbon, as well as the urgency of managing the world’s fisheries sustainably, has risen sharply. But so has the scale of destructive industrial fishing, and the threat posed by deep-sea mining. The UK has presented itself as a model to follow on marine conservation – as it was on climate change laws. Protected zones are meant to aid species and ecosystem recovery. In some cases, the creation of off-limits nursery areas has been shown to help fishers too. A recent book by the marine biologist Fiona Gell explains how the Isle of Man government worked with the local fishing industry in developing its marine conservation plans.
The 2020 Fisheries Act gave UK ministers powers to ban bottom-trawling in protected areas. But so far bans have been introduced in only four – a minuscule proportion of the total. The creation of five highly protected areas – effectively no-take zones where all fishing is banned – was recently mooted for sites including one off the coast of Lindisfarne in Northumberland and another in the Channel. Separately, Scotland is now committed to fully or highly protected areas across 10% of its waters. But the regulation of the existing protected areas must also be toughened up.
Already, the EU has stolen a march on the UK with a vote in its parliament to ban a technique known as “fly shooting”, which uses lead-weighted ropes to capture entire shoals of fish, from French waters in the Channel – a vote that must now be considered by the European Commission and member states. Notably, this was at the instigation of small-scale fishers who struggle to compete with industrial factory ships. Enforcement is essential, as well as regulation. Rules are no use if there is no means of stopping them from being broken. NGOs continue to do essential work in exposing what is going on. Governments urgently need to catch up. An end to dredging licences in the UK’s existing protected areas is not a big ask.