DDamage to the world’s oceans typically takes place behind closed doors, which means building momentum behind policy-making can be even more difficult than tackling other forms of damage. to wildlife. But shocking data collected by marine conservation NGOs, revealing that 90% of UK marine protected areas (MPAs) are still fished using the most destructive methods, should serve as a wake-up call. The UK government has officially committed to protecting 30% of our territorial waters by 2030. So far, actions have fallen far behind words.
With a desperately needed global ocean treaty due to be negotiated in August, the UK government should deliver on its promises. If nations are unwilling to protect the marine environment in their own waters, the chance of reaching agreement on international agreements could go away. The level of protection provided by the designation of MPAs was exposed as too small to be meaningful. Last year, only 10% was not fished using highly destructive bottom trawling or dredging gear – what Greenpeace likens to a “bulldozer” of the seabed.
Awareness of the importance of the oceans in regulating the climate, by storing so-called blue carbon, as well as the urgency of managing the world’s fisheries sustainably, has increased sharply. But so does the scale of destructive industrial fishing and the threat posed by deep-sea mining. The UK has held itself out as a role model in marine conservation – as it was for climate change laws. Protected areas are meant to help species and ecosystem recovery. In some cases, the creation of closed nursery areas has been shown to help fishers as well. A recent book by marine biologist Fiona Gell explains how the Isle of Man government has worked with the local fishing industry to develop its marine conservation plans.
The Fisheries Act 2020 gave UK ministers the power to ban bottom trawling in protected areas. But so far, bans have only been introduced in four countries – a tiny proportion of the total. The creation of five highly protected areas – effectively no-go areas where all fishing is prohibited – has recently been mooted for sites including one off Lindisfarne in Northumberland and another in the English Channel. In addition, Scotland has now committed to creating fully or highly protected areas on 10% of its waters. But the regulation of existing protected areas also needs to be strengthened.
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 schools of fish , in French Channel waters – a vote that must now be considered by the European Commission and Member States. This was particularly at the instigation of artisanal fishermen who are struggling to compete with industrial factory ships. Enforcement is key, as well as regulation. Rules are useless if there is no way to prevent them from being broken. NGOs continue to do essential work in exposing what is happening. Governments urgently need to catch up. Ending dredging licenses in existing UK protected areas is not a big ask.
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