Blue Marine is working to remove destructive bottom-towed fishing practices from all marine protected areas, helping to effectively protect 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030. Within the remaining 70 per cent of the oceans we are advocating a just transition to low-impact fishing methods to enable communities and livelihoods to thrive alongside restored seas.
Most methods of industrial fishing began centuries ago and pre-date the development of any form of environmental impact assessment, which is now routinely applied to almost all other activities that take place in the sea. The lack of close scrutiny that destructive fishing methods such as trawling and dredging have enjoyed until recently has come to look increasingly indefensible, particularly in marine protected areas, places which have been established by law to rectify the adverse impacts of human activities. Some 72 per cent of marine protected areas in UK domestic waters are still subject to bottom trawling and dredging. Damaging activities are taking place out of sight, and thus out of mind, which would be seen as unreasonable if they took place on land in full view.
We know that dredging and trawling, in its many forms, impact fauna on the sea floor, stir up stored carbon, as well as “forever chemicals” and other pollutants damaging to human and animal health. We know that industrial methods are indiscriminate, catching more species than those targeted, and have continued to become ever more destructive thanks to powerful diesel engines and fuel subsidies, even as fish stocks have declined. Within territorial waters, the seabed and all plant and animal life attached to it belong to the public, so whether fishing in one way rather than another is in the public interest is therefore a legitimate question. Opinion polls already overwhelmingly support the need to remove bottom-towed fishing methods from marine protected areas. This, we believe, became an unquestionable obligation when nearly every country in the world voted to protect 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030 in Montreal last year.
Many countries, particularly older industrial countries such as the UK and members of the EU which have been trawling and dredging longest, still struggle to find ways of implementing a ban on bottom-towed fishing practices in existing protected areas. Only eight per cent of UK domestic waters are under some form of protection from bottom-towed fishing practices. This is a far cry from the officially-listed 28 per cent coverage of UK domestic waters by marine protected areas, prompting accusations of the creation of ‘paper parks’. It is high time, the Blue Marine Foundation believes, along with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and a formidable amount of independent scientific opinion, for the removal of destructive bottom-towed fishing gear from protected areas to be enforced. We would point out that in both the UK and the EU, which share similar laws, this is backed by legal obligations.
Removing damaging fishing and other activities from marine protected areas is the minimum we believe is now required to address the joint crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. But their removal also raises the question of how we should exploit the other 70 per cent of the ocean. Should we not, in line with the way we regulate, say, the car industry, the oil and gas industry, or other polluting industries, seek to ensure that the activities that do take place in the ocean are those which have the least environmental impact? Should not we seek to maximise the public benefit of these public resources? How do bottom-towed fishing gears square with those desirable outcomes? There are many areas of contention as to what constitute low-impact fishing methods: this is undoubtedly a work in progress. But some of the highest impact methods are obvious and well documented – we could start with the removal of those and the promotion of alternative methods.
Is it really too much to hope for national strategies to set the direction of travel, in stages, away from the most damaging fishing methods? There is so much to gain. There are evident gains for biodiversity, for the number of fish to be caught, and for surrounding communities that come from restricting bottom-towed fishing practices. The benefits are there for all to see in “win, win, win” projects where Blue Marine has worked, in Lyme Bay in the South of England and elsewhere. There is also solid evidence from all over the world that protected areas with no fishing in them at all can increase biodiversity the most and ensure, and increase, the profitability of local fisheries. The acceptability of no-take areas is often controversial locally, but there is good evidence of fisheries, ecosystem and societal benefits internationally and we believe it is a duty of public policy to have a significant coverage of unfished areas both for nature’s sake and for comparison with fished areas.
How, then, to decide what fishing methods should be allowed and where? Facing these questions is a challenge for society as a whole; industry’s views are relevant, but so are others, and conflicts of interest in weighing choices need to be properly managed. So the concept of a “just transition” that people have used in the context of carbon-emitting industries is helpful. We don’t have all the answers, but we would like to find them and we would like to work with members of industry, who recognise the problems we are trying to solve, to reduce the pressure on our oceans. The debate about what low impact fishing methods are, and how we can transition to them, cannot just apply to the 30 per cent of the ocean that the world wants protected by 2030, it needs to consider the whole vastness of the fragile ocean on which all life depends.