Bottom-trawling, dredging and other harmful activities are to be banned in four of the UK’s offshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from 13 June, in what the government claims is a victory for “Brexit freedoms” that allow it to protect rare habitats and wildlife.
The seabed-damaging practices will no longer be permitted under new Marine Management Organisation byelaws that the MMO says mark a “significant step” towards ambitious plans for nature recovery in UK seas.
The four MPAs consist of the largest shallow sandbank in British waters, the Dogger Bank; Inner Dowsing, Race Bank & North Ridge off Lincolnshire (like the Dogger Bank, a Special Area of Conservation); and the Marine Conservation Zones South Dorset and, to the south-west, the Canyons, where rare deepwater corals can be found.
The byelaws, which follow what the MMO says was extensive consultation with industry and other stakeholders, harness new powers under the Fisheries Act, the UK’s first major domestic fisheries legislation in nearly 40 years. They cover fishing activities in MPAs “where there is evidence that they harm wildlife or damage habitats”.
‘Nature recovery journey’
All bottom-towed gear, which covers trawls, dredges, demersal seines and semi-pelagic trawls, is included in the ban, with additional restrictions on static gear such as pots, nets or lines in especially sensitive parts of two of the areas.
“Many of our inshore MPAs are already protected through MMO and Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority byelaws,” said MMO CEO Tom McCormack. “The Fisheries Act includes new powers allowing us to better manage and control fishing in our offshore MPAs. These new byelaws represent the next step in our nature recovery journey, ensuring our marine life can recover and thrive.”
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has been a leading voice in criticising existing “paper parks”, pointing out that 98% of the UK's offshore seabed MPAs experienced fishing activity, and that in 2021-22 more than 5,000 hours of fishing, including bottom-trawling, had taken place in the Dogger Bank MPA alone.
The MCS welcomed the bans but pointed out that the move should be seen as only “the start of a series of laws that ban damaging fishing in 36 more English offshore MPAs by the end of 2024”.
“The first four have taken a year to go through, but now that the process has been established, the rest should follow quickly,” said the MCS.
“For us, that’s when we can really call these areas ‘protected’. Banning damaging fishing like bottom-trawling from these sites will be a real game-changer for our seas, as long as it’s done properly.
“Keeping, implementing and enforcing strong laws around this will be ground-breaking and will show real international leadership,” said the society, while insisting that it was “keeping up the pressure”, and seeking more signatures for its “Marine UnProtected Areas” petition.
Steve has been a scuba diver for 30 years and became editor of Diver magazine in 1996, following 10 years with BBC World Service and the 10 before that in motoring journalism.