The Fisheries Bill is at risk of harming the UK’s marine environment

This post is by Oliver Tanqueray, co-ordinator of the Sustainable Seafood Coalition in the UK.

Responsible businesses buy responsibly sourced seafood, but many UK fisheries don’t meet the sourcing standards of the country’s biggest buyers. That’s why the members of the Sustainable Seafood Coalition are desperate to see change. In a letter to government, leading supermarkets, brands and processors recently highlighted the importance of sustainable fishing limits, remote electronic monitoring of vessels and responsible management of shared stocks.

However, the government has just voted to remove vital amendments to the Fisheries Bill, passed in the House of Lords, which would have helped achieve the government’s aim of “sustainable fisheries enshrined in law.”

We export the fish we catch and import the fish we eat
We currently import most of the fish we eat and export most of what we catch. A major barrier to selling domestically caught seafood has been a failure of UK fisheries to meet the environmental standards of UK buyers.

Many stocks in British waters are data-deficient, meaning we don’t know enough about stock health to establish scientifically-informed management plans.

The Fisheries Bill, which will establish the principles for the UK to manage its fisheries from the end of the transition period onwards, is currently passing through parliament and is a golden opportunity to improve the situation.

Indeed, replacing the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has been heralded throughout Brexit discussions as a chance to become a “world leader in managing our resources while protecting the marine environment”. It would also force foreign vessels to meet the UK’s “high sustainability standards” if they wanted access to British waters, according to then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove in 2018.

Most recently, George Eustice, the current environment secretary, stressed that the UK would be “a world leader in promoting sustainable fisheries”, which would “follow the science” to deliver an “enhanced marine environment.”

Given these aspirations, businesses and NGOs were disappointed to see the government reverse the vital environmental protections for fisheries management passed in the Lords. In particular, there are two areas where the bill has been weakened: setting sustainable fishing limits and remote electronic monitoring (REM).

Fisheries protections have been rejected by MPs
An amendment was passed in the Lords that would make sustainability the prime objective of the bill. This would have gone a long way towards preventing overfishing, but it was reversed at committee stage.

As a result, the bill currently constitutes a regression in environmental standards from existing EU commitments. It does not include the existing EU legal commitment that all stocks must be fished in line with sustainable levels by 2020. Instead, it relies on aspirational objectives and vague fisheries management plans that have yet to be drafted.

This would give authorities complete discretion as to whether they want to put in place a management plan for a particular stock. In addition, the plans can be disregarded if they are deemed to have a negative economic impact on the fishing industry.

There is, therefore, a real danger that authorities will be able to avoid following scientific advice and risk overfishing, if the alternative – like cutting catch limits – would harm the industry.

Retailers want sustainability at the heart of the Fisheries Bill
But the Sustainable Seafood Coalition is not on board with this approach. In a recent letter to government, its members, who are leading retailers, called for fishing limits to be set at or below sustainable levels, in line with international best practice. As Melissa Tillotson, Aquaculture & Fisheries Manager at Waitrose & Partners, said: “The opportunity to manage shared stocks – that represent such an important element of UK fisheries – based on international law, robust sustainability and scientific evidence should be at the heart of the bill.”

To prevent illegal fishing in UK waters, it is important that the UK is able to fully document and verify catches, including catch certificates. We need accurate scientific data and a true picture of what is being removed from the sea.

UK business signatories to our letter support an amendment passed by the Lords which required electronic monitoring to be rolled out on certain vessels fishing in the UK exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and UK vessels fishing outside this zone.

Helena Delgado Nordmann, Responsible Sourcing Manager – Marine at Tesco says: “The implementation of fully documented fisheries by Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) will bring the evolution on transparency and traceability that we need. We are very keen to see this reflected in the new legislation.”

In particular, the amendment required the introduction of cameras on boats longer than 10 metres within three years and a phased introduction on vessels under-10 metres, according to environmental and social criteria and subject to public consultation.

This would have been a big step towards enhancing accountability, assisting with collecting data on removal rates and bycatch of all marine life, and improving enforcement. Again, however, a government amendment was passed at committee stage that reversed these changes.

There is still time to make sure fishing is sustainable
As the Fisheries Bill returns to the debate stage in the House of Commons, there is still time to reinstate the important sustainability provisions that were included in the Lords.

Putting in place legislation that can deliver sustainable fisheries management would make our seas more resilient, reduce our reliance on imports, support coastal communities and allow for sustainable UK-caught seafood to line the shelves of supermarkets.

There is unprecedented alignment on this issue, including between the country’s biggest seafood businesses and retailers and NGOs. It is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. We are calling on parliamentarians to push for stronger commitments to protect our seas and support our seafood industry.

Read the letter sent by Sustainable Seafood Coalition members to the Environment Secretary George Eustice.

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