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February 27, 2024

Bottom trawling: Turning marine “protected areas” into graveyards

A terrifying truth troubles British waters. Marine sanctuaries, that should be off limits, are in fact relentlessly exploited by a uniquely destructive form of industrial fishing: Bottom trawling.

Astonishingly, it’s completely legal to bottom trawl and dredge in the vast majority of our marine protected areas. This government-sanctioned destruction means that most of the UK’s MPAs are little more than ‘paper parks’.

Bottom trawling is so destructive because it is utterly indiscriminate in what it kills. First, weighted nets come crushing down on these precious marine habitats. The nets can weigh many tonnes and once on the move will demolish everything in their path, from delicate deep-water sponges to ancient cold water corals. They cut huge swathes in the seafloor, and the scars they leave can take centuries to heal.

The sheer number of untargeted marine species caught up as accidental bycatch makes bottom trawling disproportionately wasteful. Sharks, dolphins, fish, crabs, and even whales – no creature is spared.

It’s marine deforestation – akin to clear felling an entire rainforest when you’re only looking to harvest one type of tree. Roughly 92% of all marine life that’s discarded and dumped back into European waters comes from bottom trawl fisheries.

Decimating delicate ocean habitats isn’t the only damage caused by bottom trawling and dredging, either. Ploughing the seabed into an ecological desert unleashes stored carbon, which places a huge burden on our climate. A vast 370 million tonnes of planet-heating CO2 is released by this type of fishing each year, recent studies estimate. These are numbers too big to ignore.

This is all happening all the time, in our waters, in areas that are deemed protected.

Defra did recently announce a bottom trawling ban on rock and reef habitats in 13 MPAs, but it’s not nearly enough. The UK’s most valuable and threatened wildlife use these entire sites as safe havens, not only a small fraction of them. That is why full site protection is so vital.

To highlight the shocking reality of bottom trawling in MPAs, we’ve launched a new film, created for us by award-winning nature filmmaker Tom Mustill alongside his team at Gripping Films, led by Fergus Dingle.

“Bottom trawling is a terrible scourge on our seas, but because it happens beneath the ocean’s waves it’s hard to recognise the full extent of the damage. By thinking about how the destruction of bottom trawling would feel on land, we can understand the fear and devastation it wreaks on our marine protected areas.

We wanted to make this film to help shine a light on how the government is greenlighting bottom trawling in the very places they’re meant to protect, causing irrevocable harm to the ocean in the process. Until the government announces the bans, these marine ‘protected’ areas remain merely lines drawn on a map.”

Tom Mustill
British film producer and director

We’re a far cry from the government’s commitment to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030. We have much work to do, and a good starting point would be to ensure bottom trawling is urgently banned in all our MPAs.

Damaging and degrading these havens undermines the resilience and health of our seas; to our own detriment, and that of our awe-inspiring ocean life.