Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are areas of the sea where activities like fishing are supposed to be highly limited or illegal. However, a recent Greenpeace investigation has shown that this is far from the reality of the situation. The organisation found that 25 Supertrawlers, huge highly controversial fishing boats, were routinely ignoring the UK’s MPAs in 2019.
These supertrawlers, which are often over 100m in length, can catch and process hundreds of tonnes of fish each day. Since they use nets that can be up to a mile long, these fishing vessels catch anything from fish to porpoises and even the occasional seal. As they are able to catch a huge range of species as by-catch, these floating fish factories are deadly for the environment. They are a key cause of overfishing and are also a major factor in the deaths of key protected species like dolphins and sharks. To combat overfishing and protect endangered marine life, MPAs were set up by the government through the 2005 Marine Bill.
MPAs in the UK
22% of the UK’s offshore seas are designated as MPAs as per the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). These MPAs are further subdivided, allowing for activities like fishing and dredging in some areas, but not in others based on marine life and ecology.
In 2019, an independent review commissioned by the British government urged the setting up of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs). The Benyon review found that the UK’s current MPA system was inadequate, stating that “many activities, although the majority are already regulated, still occur in these MPAs. This leaves a gap in the government’s approach to recovery, conservation and protection of the seas.”
To combat this, the review chaired by former fisheries minister Richard Benyon said that the government should set up HPMAs where all damaging activity like dredging, fishing and construction should be banned. Only then would biodiversity “recover to a higher level”. The Greenpeace investigation seemed to back up the findings of this review.
The Greenpeace investigation, published in June 2020, found that “super trawlers spent 2963 hours fishing in UK Marine Protected Areas in 2019”. That is equal to 123 days, or about a quarter of the year. The data was gathered using Automatic Identification System (AIS) data from the Lloyd’s List Maritime Intelligence for all fishing boats over 100m.
All 25 trawlers that fished in the protected areas were not of British origin. Fifteen of them were Russian, nine Dutch and one of Polish origin. They were, however, fishing legally, due to the European Union’s (EU’s) common fisheries policy (CFP).
Under the policy, any EU member can fish in another member’s waters, but they are still subject to licence conditions, quota allocation and relevant fishing restrictions, i.e. MPAs and other regulated zones. With the UK now set to leave the EU, that policy is up for review, and Greenpeace has been fighting hard for a change. Chris Throne, Greenpeace UK’s oceans campaigner said: “For our government to be taken seriously as a leader in marine protection, it must ban this (supertrawlers) practice.”
According to the investigation, one of the most heavily fished areas was the Southern North Sea, off the East coast, where an MPA was set up to preserve porpoises. In June 2020, Whale and Dolphin Conservation found that around 1,105 harbour porpoises die in UK fishing gear each year, mostly in supertrawlers. To make matters worse, Greenpeace found that the four largest supertrawlers on Earth – Willem van der Zwan, Maartje Theodora, Annelies Ilena and the Margiris – all fished in protected zones where commercial fishing is highly regulated and can only be done after clearance from the government.
Speaking to The Guardian, Prof Callum Roberts of the University of York, a member of the Highly Protected Marine Areas review panel, said: “The Greenpeace analysis is timely and important. It highlights the yawning gulf between what people imagine an MPA is there for, to protect nature and wildlife, and the reality of continued industrial exploitation with little evidence of restraint or oversight.”
Brexit Could Bring a Change
Responding to the investigation, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The common fisheries policy currently restricts our ability to implement tougher protection, but leaving the EU and taking back control of our waters means we can introduce stronger measures.” At the end of the year, when the transition agreement between the EU and the UK ends, all the water 200 nautical miles of the British coast will no longer be part of the EU’s CFP, but rather be governed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
This means that the EU will no longer get automatic access to fish in the UK’s waters. Since these waters are some of the most productive for fish, negotiations around fishing rights are a key point in the Brexit debate. So far, the UK has refused to accept the EU’s request to keep the current arrangement, and it is likely talks could fail if a deal on fishing access isn’t reached soon. As Nigel Farage put it, fishing will be the “acid test” for Brexit. Greenpeace however, sees it as a good opportunity to reset Britain’s priorities.
Greenpeace wants a complete ban on all super trawlers in the UK’s waters, and see 30% of all UK waters be designated as protected zones. There is a petition now live on Greenpeace’s website calling for the ban. The government has made no promises, especially as fishing is so central to the negotiations between the UK and EU, however environment secretary, George Eustice, said: “we will carefully consider the recommendations set out in the (Benyon) review.”
While there is no concrete data on the overall number of voyages made by super trawlers each year globally, their effects on marine life are devastatingly visible. Across the channel, the French have also blamed trawlers for the increasing number of dead dolphins that have washed up on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. With Brexit negotiations getting increasingly contentious, the fate of super trawlers, and marine life now rests in the hands of politicians who are so far more concerned about the politics.