Open letter: strengthening UK ocean protection

An open letter to Rebecca Pow MP and Victoria Prentis MP, Ministers for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs


Dear Ministers,

Thank you for your commitment to keep marine protection on the agenda during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are encouraged to see the Government’s growing focus on restricting destructive fishing from the UK’s most sensitive ecological areas. However, we wanted to write to express our jointly held concerns about both the level of ambition being proposed, and the process that is being followed to introduce new restrictions. Instead, as a major step towards protecting at least 30% of our oceans by 2030, we call on Government to introduce a new policy commitment to:

  1. Ban pelagic supertrawlers from all Marine Protected Areas.
  2. Ban bottom towed fishing gear from all Marine Protected Areas (especially MPAs designated to protect benthic habitats and associated fauna).

The Marine Management Organisation’s (MMO’s) recent call for evidence assessing fishing and non-licensable activity impacts in five Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is a welcome indication of the Government’s awareness of the need to tackle the problem of destructive fishing. However, it is our belief that the outcomes from this call for evidence and any subsequent consultations, likely drawn out over many years, will fall far short of the proper protection that is desperately needed for the most ecologically important parts of our sea, and will not aid the sites in achieving their conservation objectives.

In today’s ecological and climate emergency more urgent action is needed and that needs to be robustly directed by Ministers. Without a shift in policy Government will also continue to fail to meet its clear legal obligations under the Habitats Regulations: fishing licences should only be granted where an appropriate assessment unequivocally demonstrates no adverse effect on the integrity of any Natura 2000 sites impacted.

Destructive industrial fishing is commonplace across the UK’s MPA network. Greenpeace research shows that pelagic supertrawlers spent 2,963 hours fishing in offshore MPAs in 2019, threatening ecosystems through the removal of vast amounts of fish; while Oceana research demonstrates that vessels using bottom towed gears  spent 122,000 hours fishing in all 73 UK offshore MPAs in 2019, directly damaging the seabed (while analyses of the 64 offshore benthic sites found 60,818 hours). Both fishing methods degrade biodiversity, while the latter directly (and former indirectly) inhibit the oceans vital function as a carbon sink.

For example, Marine Conservation Society research has found that the organic carbon storage capacity of Dogger Bank is approximately  five million tonnes. Abrasion of the seabed from bottom trawls could result in a loss of £200 million worth of carbon storage habitat by 2040 (report coming out in January 2021 based on the findings in Luisetti et al 2019). Bottom-towed trawlers should not be given a free rein to limit the oceans capacity to draw down carbon, while elsewhere across the UK economy drastic emission reductions must be made to reach our net zero target by 2050.

A consultation covering just five MPAs barely begins to address these acute pressures for all our offshore MPAs.

The MMO’s call for evidence also falls short in terms of the extent of ambition surrounding potential restrictions for industrial fishing. Scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear that strong MPAs which ban destructive fishing activity, have greater ecological outcomes than MPAs with less stringent management measures. Stronger levels of protection and minimal human pressures can help boost species abundance, biomass and diversity. This, in turn, improves overall ecosystem health, as well as providing fishing benefits to coastal communities. Yet at present, all that is committed within the call for evidence documents is that limited restrictions should be introduced. Measures to only partially reduce or limit pressures from bottom trawl fishing – as opposed to entirely removing such pressures from the named MPAs – are still kept on the table, subject to future rounds of consultation.

The process surrounding the MMO’s call for evidence and subsequent consultations is also unnecessarily slow. Rather than following a cumbersome process of consultations to introduce restrictions on a site by site basis, from the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1st 2021 the Government should use the MMO’s renewed powers in the 2020 Fisheries Act to immediately restrict fishing licences to any destructive fishing boats – British or foreign flagged – that are operating in UK MPAs. By failing to use these new powers to full effect, the Government will fail to act with the urgency required to address the crisis for our oceans, and to deliver on its promise to be a world leader in ocean protection.

Given all of the issues outlined above, we are concerned that the current approach will result in lengthy delays and risk a low ambition outcome that favours industrial fishing over real ocean protection. This would be a betrayal of promises and a golden opportunity squandered. The Government has demonstrated bold ocean protection leadership with its Blue Belt of marine reserves around  some of the British Overseas Territories, for example the recent creation of a 687,000 sq km ‘no take’ MPA around Tristan da Cunha. Now is the time to extend the same ambition to UK waters, as part of delivering a green Brexit and making good on the Government’s commitments to improve the livelihoods of coastal communities.

We urge the Government to step up its ambition significantly, by excluding the most destructive fishing vessels – beginning with all supertrawlers and bottom trawlers (including dredgers & other bottom towed gear) – from UK MPAs, from 1st January 2021. This would be a major step towards achieving the UK’s aim of properly protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030. It would also be popular with the public, media, MPs and low impact coastal fishers alike, who have backed this call.

Your government deserves great credit for the leadership it has shown in protecting vast areas of the UK Overseas Territories as a part of the Blue Belt Programme, but our work in the UKOTs now needs to be matched by leadership here in our home waters, which remain chronically under-protected. We know that you both share this vision to see climate and nature prioritised, and livelihoods safeguarded, through similarly ambitious action in our domestic waters.