The government has admitted that destructive and unlawful fishing practices, such as electric pulse fishing and beam trawling and the presence of supertrawlers will continue in the UK’s vast offshore marine protected areas after the UK’s Brexit transition period on Jan 1 next year.
Victoria Prentis, the fisheries minister, told the Commons committee on the Fisheries Bill that the government proposed to begin consulting on the rules that would affect marine protected areas only after the end of the transition period on December 31.
Luke Pollard, Labour’s front bench environment spokesman, pointed to a recent investigation by the Blue Marine Foundation which showed that Dutch electric pulse and beam trawlers had been found fishing in the Haisborough and North Norfolk marine protected areas this year – plus a couple of UK and (Dutch-owned) German-flagged vessels which have used pulse trawling techniques – despite the presence of pulse vessels being the subject of a legal complaint to the European Commission and the British government.
Vessels fishing in the UK’s offshore marine protected areas – which cover an area the size of England and Wales put together – require an “appropriate assessment” under EU Habitats Regulations, which are to become part of UK law, before they can fish there, according to the complaint by a coalition of environmental groups.
Mr Pollard said: “There is no excuse for foreign fishing boats being in British waters using cruel fishing methods like electro-pulse beam trawling. Labour wants this method of fishing banned. Electrocuting fish is cruel and kills younger fish that might otherwise swim free of nets designed to protect young fish. Beam trawlers and other bottom towed gears cause significant problems for our marine life too. There’s a lot of soundbites on fishing from Ministers but often precious little action using the powers they already have. Enforcing a ban on electro pulse fishing has to be a priority not just after 1 January but right now.”
Mr Pollard asked why the government could not announce a consultation now that would mean rules could come into force over protected areas including the Dogger Bank on Jan 1. Ms Prentis said he was “very impatient.”
Mr Pollard pointed to what had happened when the MMO had been responsible for creating byelaws within UK territorial waters within 12 miles. In the parts of the Haisborough Hammond and Winterton MPA which were within 12 miles of the shore a consultation took three years and resulted in 0.26 of the 1500 sq kilometres designated for protection to exclude damaging fishing techniques. Mr Pollard said this was “derisory in terms of protection” and inshore fishermen had been excluded from the consultation.
Mr Pollard said Peter Aldous, the Conservative MP for Waveney, had written to the minister on behalf of the alliance Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries (REAF) urging her to enforce the rules in marine protected areas immediately from January.
Paul Lines, chairman of the Lowestoft Fish Market Alliance and a member of REAF, 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.”
Charles Clover, Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation, said: “We have been told continually by the government that Brexit will allow us to take back control over our own waters and to improve the management of the offshore marine protected areas which has been so defective under the EU. It’s beggars belief that the government has chosen to do this in the most convoluted and bureaucratic way which will not come on on Jan 1 and which could lead to such iconic areas as the Dogger Bank and the Norfolk Sandbanks still being damaged, to the detriment of inshore fishermen, for several years after the transition period.”
Beam trawling – which drags a heavy bar with “tickler” chains across the seabed – is, like most forms of trawling, regarded by environmentalists and inshore fishermen on the East Coast as incompatible with marine protected areas.
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 and to stop currently held licences by English vessels. However, some of the electric pulse trawlers operate from Scotland, which has not made any such commitment.
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 does not explicitly ban 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.
The exchange took place in the Commons Fisheries Bill Committee, recorded by Parliament TV, at around 10.10 today.
The investigation on pulse trawling in offshore marine protected areas can be found here.