By Fish2Fork | August 20 2012
Scallop dredgers and trawlers could be forced out of more than 200 protected marine sites in UK waters as a result of a new legal ruling by the government.
The new interpretation of EU law on habitats and species, which has been forced on the government by environmental groups, could see scallop dredgers and trawlers from around Europe, including Spain, Belgium and France, banned from nearly a quarter of inshore waters in England.
A letter to fishermen and conservationists from a senior official at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – seen by Fish2fork – explains that the government is to bring commercial fishing in European marine protected areas in line with other activities, such as wind farms or oil and gas exploration, ensuring that before they be allowed to fish in an area they demonstrate they will not damage it.
The new legal ruling has been made for European marine sites in England, but it is understood that it will apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and to fishermen from other countries, such as Belgium and France, fishing in European protected marine sites in UK waters.
Places where fishermen will now have to prove that their operations do not destroy protected features such as reefs in protected sites in the Bristol Channel, the Scilly Isles, north Cornwall, and St Abbs Head and Flamborough Head in the North East.
There are 95 special areas of conservation in UK waters and 107 special protection areas for birds that have a marine component. Defra's letter says that where a fishing activity is proposed in a European marine site and is considered significant by the authorities it will now have to undergo an “appropriate assessment” to ensure that it is not harmful to the features of the site.
Until now, government officials have interpreted fishing as an existing activity which did not require an environmental assessment. Under pressure from the environmental groups ClientEarth and the Marine Conservation Society, who mounted a legal campaign, they have been forced to change that interpretation.
Nigel Gooding, deputy director of Marine Biodiversity at Defra, says in his letter the government will be adopting a “risk-prioritised, phased approach” to applying the new ruling.
“This will start with the most sensitive and vulnerable sites and features, and those fishing activities most likely to impact on them. Initial assessment work indicates that reef features and bottom towed gear should be a priority for action. Further assessment will determine the risk and therefore order of action for other sites and activities.”
He adds: “It is not our intention to introduce a blanket ban on all commercial activity in European marine sites through general fishing licences.”
The Government is setting up a group, including fishermen, environmentalists and enforcement bodies, such as the new Inshore Fishing and Conservation Authorities, by the end of October to discuss how the new ruling will be applied.
Melissa Moore from the Marine Conservation Society, said: "We hope that the proposals mean that at last damaging fisheries such as trawling and scallop dredging are halted in most European marine sites, starting with threatened reef habitats.
“This will be good for the inshore fleet that fish at sustainable levels using pots and static gear and need these reefs intact, as well for marine biodiversity. We will work with government bodies to ensure byelaws are introduced as swiftly as possible.
“I think most members of the public would be astounded that damaging fisheries are presently permitted in protected areas. Government’s new approach should mean that 46 sites around England should soon be better protected. We hope that the devolved nations will soon follow suite and similarly protect the other 49 sites around the UK."
Dr Stephen Lockwood, chairman of the industry body, the MPA [Marine Protected Area] Fishing Coalition, said: “It is disappointing that it has come to this. It heaps further restrictions on the choices fishermen can make about where they go fishing.
“Clearly it is the towed gear fishermen that are most at risk and the heavy towed gear fishermen – scallop dredgers and beam trawlers – that are at the greatest risk of having their activities curtailed.”
He said that the ruling had left it unclear who would pay for appropriate assessments to be carried out, as in the case of a shellfish farm or a wind farm the ownership was clear, but when it came to wild species that anyone could fish for, it was harder to pin down the responsibility.