Despite new government powers to recover the oceans, still nothing is guaranteed

This post is by Helen McLachlan, WWF-UK’s fisheries programme manager and chair of Greener UK’s work on fisheries.

As the Fisheries Act receives Royal Assent, it is important to reflect where we have got to, four years after the Brexit referendum. From the outset of the legislative process, Greener UK urged the UK and devolved governments to take this once in a generation opportunity to establish the UK as world leaders in sustainable fisheries management.

We set out the key elements that would be vital to achieve this. Critical was the need for fisheries management to be holistic, ie managed as an integral part of a healthy ocean ecosystem, no longer siloed off from other marine decision making. Also important was the setting of sustainable catches, based on the best science to restore fish stocks and maintain them at healthy levels. Accountability, in the form of remote electronic monitoring with cameras (REM) on vessels, was another feature that we argued should underpin sustainable management.

What the act does and doesn’t do
Today the Fisheries Act officially becomes law. In summary, it falls short of being world-leading or guaranteeing ocean recovery. It does not, for example, contain, as the government promised, a legal requirement for all fish stocks to be fished at sustainable levels. 

However, some improvements were secured. The new act includes an objective to use an ecosystem-based approach to ensure that negative impacts on marine ecosystems are minimised and, where possible, reversed. This is important given the degraded nature of many marine habitats and species. There are also other very positive elements, such as mechanisms to recover stocks and the setting of a climate change objective. We were particularly pleased that this looks at not just adapting to, but also minimising, any climate adverse impacts fisheries may have. This could be a world first and we hope that the UK and devolved administrations can develop a climate change strategy for fisheries that can help to meet government net zero targets.

However, whilst these commitments on recovering stocks, holistic management and tackling climate change are mentioned in the legislation, there is no timeframe for when healthy stocks should be achieved. This is a retrograde step when compared to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. The onus is now on government to determine to what extent environmental objectives are met and stocks are recovered.

Fully documented, sustainable catches are within reach
The bill started in the House of Lords. REM and a commitment to set sustainable fishing limits were the two issues driven forward by peers. Retailers, due to increasing consumer interest in making sustainable choices, explicitly supported amendments made in this vein. So much so that 22 of the UK’s biggest retailers and seafood businesses put their name to a letter asking the secretary of state to retain the sustainability and REM amendments proposed by the Lords. They are right in thinking their customers want responsibly sourced seafood.

Despite this, when the bill passed through the Commons, the government removed both of these amendments. The REM amendment was removed even though the Scottish government – which is responsible for the largest fisheries by volume and value in the UK – said that it was willing to accept it. Defra have now issued a call for evidence on REM which is welcome but needs to be followed by the swift and comprehensive adoption of REM across fleets to underpin sustainable management.

What was sometimes forgotten during the legislative process is that the UK is failing to achieve 11 of the 15 government indicators for ocean health, and overfishing is the biggest threat to marine biodiversity. There isn’t much time to reverse course and prevent the collapse of marine ecosystems.

The next 12 to 18 months are critical
Ocean recovery should be at the heart of the UK’s international offerings as, next year, the UK hosts COP26 and we enter the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and Ecosystem Restoration. We hope the UK, as an independent coastal state, will now harness its new powers in the act, to  turn around the fortunes of our marine environment and the many businesses and communities dependent on its health.  

With an established framework for the future of fisheries management, the UK government and devolved administrations must now make progress in recovering marine ecosystems, ending overfishing and introducing REM. But it remains to be seen whether this will happen. The next stage is implementation through a four nation policy formation process. The next 12-18 months are critical for bringing about the real changes needed. We hope the four nations rise to the occasion. We stand ready to support them in their efforts. 

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