Destructive and unlawful fishing is going on in UK offshore marine reserves and may continue to do so after Brexit, according to results of an investigation published during the committee stage of the Fisheries Bill.
The investigation found Dutch electric pulse trawlers and beam trawlers fishing in the Haisborough and North Norfolk marine protected areas, plus a couple of UK and (Dutch-owned) German-flagged vessels which have used pulse trawling techniques.
These vessels were fishing there despite the European Commission having launched an investigation into complaints by a coalition of environmental groups that they were required first to complete an “appropriate assessment” to prove they were causing no damage to rich bottom features such as sabellaria reefs.
Victoria Prentis, the Fisheries Minister, said last week that electric pulse trawling by foreign vessels would be banned in UK waters after Brexit and that England was removing licences from those entitled to fish by this method. But it remains possible that under devolution Scottish vessels could continue to trawl with electric methods and the president of the European Union has said that she aims to reopen the question of electric pulse trawling.
Beam trawling – which drags a heavy bar with “tickler” chains across the seabed – is not yet banned in marine protected areas and under government plans for the Marine Management Organisation to consult on byelaws, starting after Brexit, this destructive method of fishing could continue for years, judging by past performance in the six to twelve miles from the shore.
Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) has today expressed concerns that the Fisheries Bill Committee could allow harmful trawling to continue in UK marine reserves, after publishing findings that show frequent use of electric pulse trawling and beam trawling in protected UK waters over the past year.
The investigation, which compared the fishing location of Dutch pulse trawlers with auction data for the sale of pulse-trawled fish, has proven that destructive electric pulse trawling is still taking place in some of the UK’s most fragile marine environments, despite government commitments to put an end to the practice in UK waters.
Electric pulse fishing, which involves dragging electrodes over the seabed to shock the fish that live in the sediment and force them into the trawl net, is not permitted in the United States or China, but scientific derogations from the EU mean that a fleet of Dutch trawlers, along with a handful of vessels flagged to the UK and Germany, operate electric gear under license in the southern North Sea.
An EU ban on electric fishing is due to come into effect on 1 July 2021 and, in February 2019, then Fisheries Minister George Eustice stated that the government planned to stop EU vessels from fishing in UK waters with electric gear post-Brexit. However, last week the German Fisheries Minister, who currently chairs the Council of the European Union, expressed a willingness to reopen the debate. The Fisheries Bill, currently making its way through the House of Commons, categorises electric fishing as something to be regulated by the devolved administrations and not explicitly banning the gear.
Investigations carried out by BLUE in conjunction with the French marine NGO BLOOM, show that several of these electric pulse trawlers have been repeated visitors to UK waters in 2019 and 2020, with three of them regularly fishing in the North Norfolk Sandbanks and Saturn Reef marine protected area (MPA). Designated as a Special Area of Conservation and covering 3,603 km2, the North Norfolk Sandbanks are one of the best examples of open sea, tidal sandbanks in the UK, and are home to a plethora of fish and invertebrates living on the delicate reefs. The findings of the investigation can be found below.
Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation, Charles Clover said: “Pulse trawling is devastating for the environment and not fit to be used in any part of the ocean, so it is deeply alarming to discover that pulse vessels are fishing in the UK’s own marine protected areas. It’s time for the UK to step up after Brexit and fix the Fisheries Bill so that these pulse trawlers are banned for good, not just banned in some parts of the UK and not others. There is also the ongoing problem of beam trawling which really should not be going on in protected areas and which could go on for years if the government chooses the most long-winded and ineffective ways of getting rid of it.”
A recent study has shown that the diversity of marine species was almost halved in an area that had been fished with electric pulse trawls compared with areas where there was no electric fishing. Furthermore, fishers from the UK’s inshore fleet of smaller vessels operating on the East Coast have long complained of greatly decreased catches since the electric pulse trawlers began regularly appearing after 2006.
Paul Lines, chairman of the Lowestoft Fish Market Alliance, said: “Without immediate enforcement of offshore protected areas the rejuvenation of inshore fisheries will suffer. We had hoped removal of damaging beam trawling would lead to recruitment to inshore zones and within the reach of our vessels. The laws must be applied now, not in two or ten years’ time when it will be too late.”
More than 200,000 km2 of the UK’s waters are designated as marine protected areas, but the level of protection is often nominal and many of these MPAs continue to play host to industrial fishing. Electric pulse trawlers are licensed under EU laws to fish throughout the Southern North Sea beyond the UK’s 12 mile limit. However, the legality of their presence in British MPAs is questionable, since destructive fishing in MPAs has been the subject of a legal complaint brought by BLUE to the EU Commission.
Investigation reveals Dutch pulse trawling in UK marine protected areas
Proving that a vessel is using electric pulse gear requires a combination of data sources. The location of a fishing vessel is continuously monitored by the automatic identification system (AIS) that each boat is obliged to carry. Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a non-profit environmental organisation, analyses the AIS data from more than 300,000 vessels around the world and identifies when they are carrying out fishing activity and when they are steaming to and from port.
The details of which vessels are licensed by the UK’s Marine Management Organisation and other national licensing bodies are not made public on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Fortunately, there is a way around this: the Pan European Fish Auctions (PEFA) platform monitors fish auction data from the Dutch ports of Ijmuiden, Den Helder/Texel, Den Hoever, Scheveningen and Stellendam, and the data gathered by PEFA include information on the gear that was used on a fishing trip. So, when a vessel is recorded landing fish that was caught using electric pulse gear on a given date, the path of the vessel can be traced backwards using GFW to see where those fish came from.
Whistle-blowers provided BLOOM with access to the PEFA database and today BLOOM published landings data for all the pulse vessels that use the platform. This has allowed BLUE to check whether the vessels that operate in UK MPAs are using electric pulse gear.
For example: on 9 August 2019, the trawler TX-38 Branding IV is recorded by PEFA as having sold a catch of fish caught with pulse gear in the Den Helder/Texel auction. GFW shows that Branding IV entered port in the morning of 9 August. Tracing back its path before that date, it can be seen that it spent four days at sea, fishing in the North Norfolk Sandbanks MPA on two of them (shown in Figure 1).
Using this method, three Dutch vessels, TX-1 Klasina-J, TX-38 Branding IV and TX-68 Vertrouwen, along with H-225 Northern Joy, a UK-flagged vessel that regularly lands its catch in the Netherlands, can be seen to have fished using electric gear in the North Norfolk Sandbanks MPA between 1 January 2019 and 15 June 2020. A further four Dutch electric pulse trawlers regularly fish in the UK EEZ beyond the 12-mile limit.
With uncertainty surrounding the Brexit negotiations, the eradication of electric pulse fishing in the UK remains in doubt. As several issues of management and conservation of the UK’s domestic waters reach critical points over the coming months, the fate of electric fishing will be watched closely by NGOs and fishers, Leavers and Remainers, all of whom are keen to see if the government’s actions in the post-Brexit world match up to their stated ambitions.
Figure 1: Track of TX-38 Branding IV between 4th August and 9th August 2019, showing fishing in the North Norfolk Sandbanks MPA
|Vessel Name||Flag||Length (m)|
|TX-19 Elisabeth Christina||Netherlands||43|
|HD-4 Hendrik Petronella||Netherlands||43|
|OD-1 Maarten Jacob||Netherlands||42|
|TX-38 Branding IV||Netherlands||42|
|H-225 Northern Joy||UK||44|
Table 1: List of pulse vessels operating in UK waters 2019-20, as confirmed by data from Global Fishing Watch and PEFA data published by BLOOM
 EU vessels prevented from electric shock fishing post Brexit, Defra press release, 13/02/2019
 EU presidency willing to reopen debate on pulse fishing, Undercurrent News, 07/09/2020
Cover image credit: BLOOM Association