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January 31, 2024

Bottom trawling restricted in 13 protected areas: Good, but not enough

New byelaws to protect the reef and rock habitats from bottom trawling and dredging in 13 marine protected areas (MPAs) were announced by the UK government today. While this is a positive move for these limited areas it still leaves the vast majority of the UK’s ‘protected’ areas vulnerable to these destructive fishing practices.

Bottom trawling and dredging mean dragging heavy metal gear and nets, which can be as large as a football field and weigh several tonnes, across the seafloor. Seabed habitats that are destroyed provide vital food and shelter for a wide variety of marine life; capture and store ‘blue carbon’; and form the infrastructure of sustainable, low-impact fisheries that many coastal people rely on.

The new byelaws do prevent this destruction but only for a very small proportion of the area covered by the UK’s MPAs.

“Defra’s new ban on bottom trawling on reef and rock habitat in 13 marine protected areas is a welcome step forward in the race to properly protect 30% of our seas by 2030. This highly destructive practice bulldozes marine habitats, and can destroy them in minutes, often never to recover.

But the fact that this ban is only for reef and rock only in 13 MPAs still leaves vast swathes of our so-called ‘protected’ areas open to this extremely harmful practice.

Targeting reef and rock habitat alone doesn’t account for the habitats and wildlife beyond those boundaries and does not support the full recovery of marine ecosystems. Allowing destructive bottom-trawling to continue anywhere in any marine protected area is completely incompatible with allowing ocean life to recover and flourish.”  

Hugo Tagholm, executive director, Oceana UK

These protected areas should be safe havens for the UK’s most valuable and threatened wildlife and habitats, but despite today’s apparent win for conservation, the vast majority of offshore MPAs remain unprotected from bottom-trawling and dredging. In 2022, our protected areas endured over 136,000 hours of industrial fishing with at least 6000 hours, and probably more, using bottom-towed gear, Oceana analysis indicated. In short, our MPAs are little more than ‘paper parks’.

In line with legal pressure from Oceana in 2021, the UK and Scottish governments agreed to “manage” bottom trawling in all offshore MPAs by the end of 2024. The Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Mark Spencer also stated – in slightly clearer terms – that the government is “aiming to have all MPAs in English waters protected from damaging fishing activity” by this time.

While byelaws are gradually being developed, and today’s announcement marks progress in that process, swifter and more comprehensive action is needed to ensure that these sites, and the awe-inspiring marine life they preserve, are protected in full. Until that time, the UK’s marine regulators remain in breach of several laws and obligations and continue to damage and degrade ocean wildlife and habitats and resilience of our seas.

Under extreme pressure from overfishing, pollution and global heating, our seas are under enormous strain. Government has committed to protecting all offshore MPAs from damaging bottom-towed fishing gear by 2024. As an independent coastal state, we could use our new-found freedom to move quickly to introduce further byelaws to outlaw it once and for all across the whole of all marine protected areas.

Our marine wildlife is in urgent need of safe havens that are not at risk from this wholesale destruction.”

Hugo Tagholm