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New study highlights remarkable seabed recovery from bottom trawling

January 22, 2024

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A new paper published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science draws together 15 years of research in the Lyme Bay Marine Protected Area (MPA), highlighting a remarkable seabed recovery from bottom trawling, and the vital contribution of collaborative management.

Led by researchers from the University of Plymouth and Blue Marine Foundation, in collaboration with local communities in Lyme Bay, the study shows how the introduction and implementation of marine conservation measures was achieved through mutual partnerships between scientists, fishing communities, NGOs and policy makers. The Lyme Bay MPA was first designated in 2008, with a statutory instrument implemented to protect around 206 sq km of the seabed from bottom towed fishing gear.

Ongoing annual monitoring over a 15-year period has shown that the whole-site management of MPAs can lead to a 95% increase in reef species, and enhance the abundance of fishes – both in terms of overall numbers and diversity – by almost 400%, while also making the seabed more resilient to extreme storms.

The paper shines a fresh light on how people and nature are intricately linked when it comes to understanding and managing coastal ecosystems, outlining how collaborative management between scientists, fishing communities, NGOs and policy makers, and support for small-scale fishermen operating within the MPA, resulted in the co-design of conservation practices and built long-term trust across sectors.

As well as highlighting these findings, the new study sketches out a path from the research to ambitious changes in marine policy, with the approaches applied in Lyme Bay being referenced in UK Government policies including the 25-Year Environment Plan.

Charles Clover, Blue Marine co-founder and senior advisor, said: “The Lyme Bay Reserve, at its best, brought significantly greater agreement between conservationists and fishermen than exists elsewhere and put the fishermen in the driving seat in deciding conservation methods. They are the experts on what works with the grain of fishing. The goodwill involved, unusual between fishermen and conservationists, brought about a significant recovery that would probably not have happened otherwise. There are many things still to tackle but Lyme Bay is an example of getting things right, most of the time, provided that a protected area which encompasses fishing is fished in a small-scale and sustainable way.”

Sam Fanshawe, Senior UK Projects Manager at Blue Marine and one of the new study’s co-authors, said: “By harnessing the knowledge and experience of local community stakeholders including fishermen, regulators and conservation groups, combined with long-term monitoring by scientists, the Lyme Bay Reserve has proven the success of adopting a “whole site” approach to protection of a marine ecosystem. Used as a best practice model around the UK and further afield to support sustainable inshore fisheries that are compatible with marine conservation and recovery, the Reserve will continue to play a leading role in influencing more effective management of inshore MPAs and proving the case for banning bottom towed gear within MPAs.”

Chloe Renn, a PhD student at the University of Plymouth and the new study’s lead author, said: “Lyme Bay is a brilliant example of what can be achieved through a local community committed to defending their local environment. The movement to protect Lyme Bay’s ‘coral garden’ began with local divers and conservationists who banded together after witnessing the destruction of the seabed first-hand. From there the project has snowballed into a huge collaborative effort between NGOs, fishers, scientists and regulators. This new study goes some way to showing how they are all reaping the social and environmental benefits.”

Dr Emma Sheehan, Associate Professor of Marine Ecology, leads the ongoing monitoring in Lyme Bay as well as other initiatives aimed at better understanding the marine environment. She added: “It’s not often we come across positive environmental stories, but the Lyme Bay MPA is definitely one of them. Witnessing the effort that goes into such a project has been really inspiring from the tireless work involved in managing and maintaining a huge ecological dataset, to the skill and local knowledge required by local fishers to guide our annual field surveys. It has been a real privilege to be involved, and is a great example of the collaboration needed to achieve real and positive change for our environment and the communities that rely on them.”

The full study – Renn, Sheehan et al: Lessons from Lyme Bay (UK) to inform policy, management, and monitoring of Marine Protected Areas – is published in ICES Journal of Marine Science, DOI: 10.1093/icesjms/fsad204.

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