Destructive bottom trawling happens in 98% of the UK’s Marine Protected Areas

A bottom trawl on the seabed as seen underwater

All but one of Britain’s Marine Protected Areas suffer damaging bottom trawling and dredging

A new report reveals that bottom trawling is taking place in almost all of the UK’s offshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The study, from the Marine Conservation Society, found that bottom trawl and dredge vessels spend tens thousands of hours in MPAs each year.

traler nets going inot the water

What’s bottom trawling?

Bottom trawling is a destructive fishing method that involves dragging weighted nets across the sea floor, damaging the seabed. It is also an indiscriminate fishing practice with many non-target species being killed in the process as so-called ‘by-catch’.

A bottom trawling infographic

As bottom trawling destroys vital underwater habitats for marine life it also churns up the seafloor, which releases carbon into the ocean. It’s estimated that carbon emissions released by bottom trawling across the UK continental shelf between 2016 and 2040 could cost up to £9 billion to mitigate in other areas of the economy.

The same area of seafloor before and after a bottom trawl, looking ruined with missing corals and life
The same site two days after a bottom trawl | Image: Howard Wood/COAST/MCS

Dogger Bank

The Dogger Bank Marine Protected Area, off the east coast of Yorkshire, is the largest sandbank in UK waters and underpins the North Sea’s ecosystem. It provides a vital habitat for a wide range of species, including ones we depend on. It also has the capacity to store the most carbon of all UK Marine Protected Areas. However, the site is not patrolled and hugely over-fished.

Simple outline of the Dogger Bank Marine Protected Area

Greenpeace recently dropped concrete blocks within the protected area to deter bottom trawling. Another group, Blue Marine, took legal action to try to safeguard the sea bed. The Government appeared to take notice of the growing clamour for action because on the 1st February 2021 the Marine Management Organisation announced plans to safeguard fishing areas in Dogger Bank and South Dorset by completely banning bottom trawling.

Greenpeace dumping three-tonne boulders in the Dogger Bank Marine Protected Area
Greenpeace dumping three-tonne boulders in the Dogger Bank Marine Protected Area
Image: Greenpeace

The UK government has also proposed to partially stop bottom trawling at two other theoretically protected sites – one off the coast of Land’s End and the other off Lincolnshire. The consultation runs to 28 March 2021.

What is left on the Dogger Bank today is a ghost of what was once there. In the 1830s, small sailing vessels con the Dogger could catch a tonne of halibut per day. Today, the entire fishing fleet catches less than two tonnes a year. New protection could lead to the beginnings of a recovery of a megafauna that used to thrive on the bank in astonishing densities.

Prof Callum Roberts, Exeter University

What does the future hold?

By completely banning bottom trawling in all Marine Protected Areas designed to protect the seabed, it is possible for our seas to recover.

Lyme Bay after scallop dredging - a ruined seafloor habitat
Lyme Bay after scallop dredging | Image: Colin Munro / MSC

Within five years of protection from bottom trawling, animals in three UK and Isle of Man Marine Protected Areas were found to be larger and more diverse. And, when areas of sea around the world were fully protected, biodiversity was found to increase by an average of 21%.

A healthy seafloor ecosystem with an octopus amongst the starfish
A healthy seafloor ecosystem| Image: MSC

Bottom trawling has been banned in places like Indonesia, the Mediterranean, New Zealand, and the Canary Islands. Many U.S. states, such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii have also created laws that prohibit bottom trawling.

With the powers provided by the new Fisheries Act 2020, the UK Governments can act more independently to recover our seas and combat climate change – starting with the banning of bottom trawling in these vulnerable areas of our seas.

Without a ban on this form of fishing, these areas of our seas simply aren’t recovering and we’re missing a crucial opportunity to combat climate change and ensure there are, indeed, plenty more fish in the sea

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist in Marine Protected Areas

MCS report: Marine unProtected Areas

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