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Marine protections will fail until bottom trawling is banned

This post is by Cherilyn Mackrory, MP for Truro and Falmouth.

Countless industries, communities and individuals across the globe depend on the ocean for their livelihoods and sustenance. The preservation and improvement of the ocean’s health is as vital for the economy as it is for protecting our environment and tackling climate change. That’s why, on World Ocean Day, I’m calling on the government to protect its ambitious ban on bottom trawling and roll out its plans for Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).

Healthy oceans are essential to thriving coastal communities. The UK’s seaside tourism sector and £989 million fishing industry employs thousands of people in coastal communities.

I should know. In my constituency of Truro and Falmouth, we are blessed with a beautiful stretch of coastline, upon which our local economy depends for fishing and tourism alike. I want to make certain that local people can depend on these sources of income for generations to come.

Carbon sequestered in the sea is worth more than oil and gas
Our ocean will become even more valuable as we transition to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The financial value of the carbon sequestered by our coastal and marine habitats is higher than what’s earned from exploiting our oceans for oil and gas. However, our carbon accounts – the measurements we use to determine our domestic carbon emissions – do not currently incorporate the contribution of these habitats.

We must record these important contributions in our carbon accounts, as the Climate Change Committee has now recommended to the government, following campaigning by my colleagues in the Conservative Environment Network and from environmental NGOs.

Fortunately, outside the EU, our government has been able to take decisive action to protect the seas. The Fisheries Act 2020 will help by prioritising sustainable practices, encouraging collaboration across the UK through a Joint Fisheries Statement and putting an end to the automatic right for EU vessels to fish in UK waters.

But there is still more that can and must be done. I am calling for the government to deliver on its commitment to ban bottom trawling in all the UK’s offshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2024 and be ambitious in its plans for HMPAs.

Bottom trawling rips up whole ecosystems
Bottom trawling involves heavy fishing nets dragged across the seafloor, leading to overfishing and substantial bycatch and seabed damage. Doing so rips up the very ecosystems upon which fish depend and releases carbon into the ocean, contributing to ocean acidification.

Given the destruction it causes, you may be surprised to hear that bottom trawling is taking place in 98 per cent of the UK’s offshore seabed MPAs. In a supposedly protected marine area, bottom trawling is far from being the exception and much closer to being the rule. This needs to change.

A ban on bottom trawling allows fish stocks to recover. There are substantial spillover benefits for local fishers, with fish travelling beyond the invisible boundaries of the MPA and into unprotected waters where they can be caught. Rejuvenating fish stocks is crucial for a productive fisheries sector. We must support our local fisheries to adopt sustainable practices and champion those that already do.

Back in 2020, Fal and Helford, my local inshore MPA, benefited from a share of £2.5 million funding to restore critically endangered seagrass meadows. The project creates jobs and captures carbon. I want to ensure that other recovery efforts for offshore MPAs are not made in vain by limiting the harmful practices that can take place within them.

Rapid extension of harmful fishing bans is needed
Defra recently announced that damaging fishing activities will now be prohibited in four of the UK’s offshore MPAs. A rapid extension of these bye laws to all offshore MPAs is a necessary step towards reaching the government’s ambitious commitment to protect 30 per cent of our seas by 2030.

Of course, our ambition works on the assumption that policies are being upheld in our waters. In 2020 alone, over 60 per cent of bottom trawling was done by EU fishing vessels, 35 per cent by French boats. We must now be assertive and exclude European trawlers from designated MPAs.

And we need not stop there. Having last year considered the creation of HPMAs to allow certain areas to recover to a more natural state, Defra has since fallen quiet. I have asked the government to press on with the five HPMA pilot sites they initially promised, in another step towards healthier and better protected oceans.

A healthy ocean is an economic asset, and we must not understate its value. There must be substance to a marine area being ‘protected’, not just for the health of our seas and the future of our fishing sector, but for the integrity of post-Brexit policies. An ambitious ban on bottom trawling, combined with the introduction of HPMAs, will achieve this.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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