NFFO warns of damage to businesses and displacement

MPs have introduced a new bill to restrict bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), reports Tim Oliver.

Introducing the private members’ bill, which will ‘regulate and limit the practice of bottom trawling in marine protected areas’, Chris Grayling, supported by six other MPs, said: “There are no circumstances in which any fishing boat should be dragging a net along the bottom of the most environmentally important areas.”

A ban or restrictions would only apply to English waters, as management of MPAs is a devolved matter.

The NFFO said that the bill was ‘opportunist’ and ‘irresponsible’, would damage fishing businesses, create a huge effort displacement problem and have other unintended consequences (see below).

Chris Grayling, the Conservative MP for Epsom and Ewell, said MPAs currently do not offer a lot of protection for marine habitats, particularly seabeds.

“The area at the bottom of our seas, often populated by the smallest creatures that make up an important part of the natural food chains in our oceans, remains open to large-scale trawlers that drag nets along the bottom and destroy much of what is in their path,” he told MPs.

“Some of the largest international vessels that do this are spectacularly damaging in the approach that they take, as they use enormous power to scoop up everything as they go, and they have equipment that covers a vast area underwater.

“Less than one-hundredth of 1% of our waters is covered by the highest level of protection where all fishing is banned. Ninety-four percent of our MPAs permit this bottom trawling – only 6% do not.

“That, in my view, does not make these proper MPAs, and I think the practice should stop, as indeed do a whole range of conservation groups.”

He added: “We have 372 MPAs, including coastal and offshore areas, making up a total of 38% of UK waters. We know that a significant number of those are far from being in good shape. Among the most important, around two-thirds have significant habitat degradation, and bottom trawling is a key part of the problem, with the scalping of the seafloor leaving habitats with big challenges to recover.”

He said the failure to protect marine habitats puts pressure on ‘a vast range of creatures’ and damages one of the most important carbon sinks, and the underwater plants that absorb carbon.

“I know the government shares my concern about the condition of our ocean floors. All too often a large-scale net not only scoops up all of the wildlife on the bottom, but churns up and destroys the reefs and the sediment, which is an important carbon absorber, and actually releases carbon from the seafloor. All of this is why the government has a commitment to properly protect 30% of our land and seas by 2030.”

He said the UK is free to improve environmental standards now that we are outside the EU but ‘we need to get on with it, and this bill is designed to do that’.

The bill will ‘place a duty’ on the secretary of state to ban bottom trawling in MPAs, but will allow ‘some very limited and careful exemptions’.

These will be permitted ‘only where they are necessary to support small-scale local fisheries and the smaller boats from our local ports, and then only when the evidence of the nature of the habitats in a particular area makes that possible’.

“It cannot be in the interests of any of the fishing industry if the fish themselves have no protected place in which to grow and develop. If they cannot do that in our protected areas, then where on earth can they do so?” asked Chris Grayling.

“We know that restrictions, where they have been introduced on a limited scale, can make a genuine difference. A year ago, a local ban was introduced off the coast of Sussex because of particularly extreme damage to the kelp forests there which had had a serious impact on the local ecosystems.

“Evidence now from those people who are monitoring the outcome of that ban shows that those ecosystems have started to recover, and that surely must give us a signpost as to what needs to be done in our broader MPAs.”

Closing his statement, Chris Grayling said MPAs ‘should actually protect marine life’ and that most people would be ‘horrified to discover that that is not the case’.

He said he knew that the government is keen to rectify the situation, and he hoped the bill would ‘provide a degree of stimulus to get that job done quickly’.

“This is a major environmental challenge for our coastal waters. It is one that we need to face up to, and it is one that we need to deal with. We must make sure that our MPAs are genuinely, absolutely and unreservedly Marine Protected Areas, which is what they are supposed to be.”

The bill was due to receive a second reading on Friday, 18 March.

MMO assesses sites

Defra minister Rebecca Pow said that 372 MPAs cover 38% of UK waters, and that the MMO ‘is developing an ambitious three-year programme for assessing sites and implementing byelaws, where necessary, to manage fishing activity in all English offshore MPAs’.

The government is also to pilot a number of highly protected marine areas ‘for biodiversity recovery, which will have the highest levels of protection in our seas’.

Answering a parliamentary question, the minister said that the government has set ‘a world- leading target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030’.

She said: “Our forthcoming Nature Recovery Green Paper will set out proposals to better enable us to recover nature and achieve our goal to protect 30% of our land and sea for nature by 2030.”

NFFO: Bill is ‘opportunist and deeply irresponsible’

The NFFO slammed the bill as a move by ‘opportunist politicians seeking to burnish their environmental credentials by creating a moral panic’ and ‘deeply irresponsible’.

Chief executive Barrie Deas told Fishing News: “Every method of fishing, indeed every form of food production, has an environmental footprint. Our responsibility is to minimise that footprint whilst still contributing significantly to the food security of the nation. This involves trade-offs.

“If this bill, and way of thinking, was to prevail, like the landings obligation it would lead to a huge number of unintended – but not necessarily unforeseen – consequences. It would trash the government’s commitment (and legal obligation in the Fisheries Act) to take an evidence- based approach to managing our fisheries.

“This is a deeply irresponsible and superficial intervention by someone who has never shown any previous interest in the welfare of the fishing industry – or indeed the resources or ecosystem on which our industry is based. There are enough challenges involved in developing and applying sustainable fishing plans without this sort of distraction.”

He pointed out that 50% of landings into the UK are from bottom-contact mobile gear of one sort or another, and that if bottom trawling was to be prohibited within MPAs, it would create ‘a very significant displacement problem’.

“The designation of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in English waters was undertaken
on the understanding that proportionate, evidence-based, management measures would follow, with scope for engagement with those potentially impacted by proposed measures,” said Barrie Deas.

“The rush to establish highly protected MPAs, and the contents of this private member’s bill, cuts across and undermines the commitments made to the fishing industry during the MCZ consultation process.”

He said that while governments can change their minds, legislators should recognise that a ban on bottom trawling in MPAs would directly hit fishing businesses, especially those which operate vessels of limited range, and would create large-scale fleet displacement on top of that created by offshore wind and cables.

There would also be unintended consequences for fisheries management.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here


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