Consultation Launched on Four of England’s Marine Protected Areas

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Trawler nets do a huge amount of damage to the sea bed (Photo: Shutterstock)

The UK government is considering banning bottom trawling in four key marine protection zones covering a total of 14,000 sq km.

Bottom trawling is considered one of the most destructive fishing process. Weighted nets are dragged across the seabed destroying everything in their path. Allowing it to go on in our Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is one of the reasons conservationists dismiss the MPAs as 'paper parks'.

The proposal is the next phase of the government's 'Blue Belt' initiative for the preservation of marine protected areas in the UK's seas, and centre around new powers introduced under the Fisheries Act following the UK's departure from the European Union.

Along with a total prohibition of bottom-towed fishing gear across all four sites, the new bylaws, should they be implemented, will prohibit all fishing activities in MPAs 'where there is evidence that they harm wildlife or damage habitats', plus additional restrictions imposed on 'static fishing gears over sensitive features' at two of the sites.

The four marine protected areas include the Dogger Bank Special Area of Conservation off the east coast of England, the largest of the protected areas at some 12,300sq km. Dogger Bank has the largest shallow sandbank in British waters and supports commercial fish species such as cod and plaice, and is an important habitat for sand eels which provide a food source for kittiwakes, puffins and porpoises. Dogger Bank's MPA has repeatedly been highlighted as an area of concern for the severe damage caused by bottom trawling in the zone. In September 2020, Greenpeace dropped boulders across the zone to prevent bottom trawling from taking place. 

Other MPAs included in the proposal are the Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge Special Area of Conservation off the Lincolnshire and North Norfolk coasts; and The Canyons and South Dorset Marine Conservation Zones off the southwest coast. 

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UK MPAs provide a wide range of habitats and food sources for a number of species, including puffins (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, said: 'Now that we have left the common fisheries policy, we are able to deliver on our commitment to achieve a healthy, thriving and sustainable marine environment. The UK has already established an impressive ‘blue belt’ covering 38 per cent of our waters and our Fisheries Act has provided us with additional powers to go further to protect our seas around England. This proposal to introduce bylaws to safeguard four of our precious offshore marine protected areas shows how we are putting these powers into action.'

Tom McCormack, Chief Executive Officer of MMO, said: 'This consultation is a big step forward in agreeing measures that will help protect and revive important marine habitats, vital to the unique and vibrant marine life that lives within them. We are ambitious for England’s seas and want to hear as many views as possible in order to create benefits for people and the economy, while protecting our precious marine environment for future generations.'

The announcement has been broadly welcomed by environmental campaigners, but some have warned that the new proposals, while significant, do not go far enough. 'It is a really big day for Britain’s seas, where bottom trawling has degraded the environment for 100 years,' said Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist in Marine Protected Areas for the Marine Conservation Society. 'Dogger Bank is the size of south Wales, so what’s very exciting is that, at last, we have a conservation measure that will recover something. It’s good for the recovery of biodiversity and for resilience.'

Chris Thorne of Greenpeace UK said that the announcement 'shows that the government is prepared to use its new Brexit powers to properly protect our seas,' but warned that the new proposals are 'only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scale needed to solve the crisis facing our oceans.'

'If the government chooses to follow this consultation approach for a handful of marine protected areas at a time,' said Thorne, 'it will be many years before the entire network is properly protected. Our oceans can’t wait that long.'

The consultation runs from 1 February 2021 to 28 March 2021 and is open to members of the public at www.consult.defra.gov.uk/mmo/formal-consultation-mmo-mpa-assessments

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