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NIAS Europe Studies
The UK bans bottom trawling for three reasons: It is not sufficient

  Alka Bala

On 22 March 2024,  the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) formalised a bye-law banning bottom-towed fishing gear in 13 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Introduced under the Marine Coastal Access Act of 2009, the ban extends protection to 4000 square kilometres around the English Coast, increasing the total area protected by the Marine Management Organisation to 18,000 square kilometres. The byelaw banning bottom trawling came into existence following a formal MMO consultation in January 2023, which formalised the bye-law for 1st February 2024. 

The bye-law is also included in the progress assessment of the UK Government’s Environment Improvement Plan of 2023. Until the end of 2022, the UK was subjected to the EU Common Fisheries Policy which limited its ability to implement measures protecting its MPAs. However, the powers granted by the UK Fisheries Bill allow MMO to regulate and monitor fishing activities in offshore Marine Protected Areas. 

The following three reasons elaborate on the considerations leading to the ban on bottom trawling.

1. To protect marine ecosystems from harmful fishing practices 
Bottom trawling uses heavy and harmful metal gear and nets for fishing which can prove detrimental to the marine ecosystems and marine life. Ecologically significant species such as pea urchins, cushion star (a kind of starfish), jewel anemones and corals would be protected. Marine fauna such as pink sea fans, fragile sponges, and anemones will be conserved through this ban. A permanent ban on industrial sandeels fishing is also scheduled to be implemented in April 2024. Sandeels act as an important food source for endangered sea birds and animals the ban will ensure the restoration of marine habitats.

2. To achieve the UK’s environmental goals
 On 22 March, Michelle Willis, CEO of Maritime Management Organisation stated that the byelaw “marks a significant milestone and brings us another step closer in our ambitious programme to protect all 54 English offshore MPAs from fishing activity by the end of 2024.” As part of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, the UK government has also subscribed to the 30x30 goal, which commits protection and management of 30 per cent of its land and sea by 2030.

3. To prevent carbon dioxide emissions arising from bottom trawling
The organic carbon repositories in the seabed get disturbed due to the use of heavy fishing gear in bottom trawling. Ploughing of seabed releases stored blue carbon. Based on a study estimate by Oceana, 370 million tonnes of CO2 emissions are released as a result of industrial bottom trawling. The aqueous - CO2 thus released also influences the PH balance of the water which would lead to further microbial degradation.

Is the ban little and late?
According to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there are 181 Marine Protected Areas in English waters. However, the ban on bottom trawling only extends to 13 out of these 181 MPAs. Earlier in June 2022, four byelaws were implemented in key MPAs such as Dogger Bank, Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge, South Dorset and The Canyons. Hugo Tagholm, Executive Director of Oceana UK, welcomed the ban on 13 MPAs but highlighted that “this ban is only for reef and rock only in 13 MPAs still leaves vast swathes of our so-called ‘protected’ areas open to this extremely harmful practice.” According to MMO, high compliance with the bye-laws in MPAs has been indicated, with only 17 infringements reported in 2022. However, data reported by Oceana UK reflected that in 2023,  bottom trawling practices were carried out more than 33,000 hours.

The government’s efforts in implementing a ban on harmful practices are slow and limited to prohibiting certain activities rather than introducing whole-site bans. It would require comprehensive efforts to ensure compliance and allow for the restoration of marine habitats in the long run. Presently, the UK government has a consultation forthcoming to expand the ban on bottom trawling practices to 21 Marine Protected Areas.

About the Author
Alka Bala is an undergraduate scholar at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy at St Joseph’s University, Bangalore. Her areas of interest include Europe, maritime, climate change and Southeast Asia.

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