Government proposes better monitoring of fishing vessels

By: Erin O'Neill
Date posted: 30 October 2018

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Our marine wildlife is under threat – whether it’s climate change, habitat damage, overfishing or pollution, there’s danger around every corner for the species and habitats of the ocean. It seems these threats are only getting worse, something must be done, and quickly, before the effects of our damaging activities are deemed irreversible.

Fishing boat gear 2
© Natasha Ewins

A possible beacon of hope comes in the form of so-called ‘marine protected areas’ (MPAs). These areas are essentially nature reserves in the sea, intended to help conserve and protect important marine species and habitats. The problem is, they are rarely managed effectively – so while there are laws in place for protection, these laws aren’t enforced, and damaging practices like bottom trawling and dredging are allowed to carry on.

There is currently no capacity to ensure adequate protection – regulators in England have 10 small boats for enforcement and monitoring between Land’s End and Dover; and another 10 or so between the Thames and Northumberland. This means 2,000km of coast, with more than 100 marine protected areas, is the responsibility of only 20 vessels. This is an impossible task for enforcement officers, especially as some fishing boats could take measures to avoid detection.

Currently, in order to stop damaging and illegal fishing practices, enforcement officers must first see or hear about the fishing activity, leave the port, get to the restricted area, and witness the illegal fishing in person to prove it is taking place.

Surely there are measures that could be taken to streamline this process?

What can we do?

The government is asking the public about the introduction of vessel monitoring systems for vessels under 12m in length. This technology uses GPRS to monitor the location and movement of vessels. If introduced, these systems would have to be used by all British fishing boats under 12 meters in length operating in English waters. The majority of the British fishing fleet is made up of these type of vessels and VMS is already required for use by vessels over 12m in length.

Using these monitoring systems, enforcers would be able to determine whether boats are fishing or not by noting whether a vessel is moving in a zig-zag pattern (fishing) or a straight line. Fishers that use fishing gear prohibited in protected areas will be sent a warning when they are approaching the boundary of an MPA, and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCAs) -essentially the marine police- will be sent this message at the same time, allowing them to get to the area before illegal fishing takes place.

This monitoring will allow better protection of our MPAs, and give us the information we need to understand where people want to fish, and using what type of equipment.

Introducing vessel monitoring systems to all vessels will help ensure MPAs are given the protection they so desperately need from bottom trawling, scallop dredging and other harmful practices. However, it is just the first step in protecting our waters. This technology should have been implemented long ago, and further measure like adequate observer coverage and CCTV are now also needed to ensure that our fisheries are properly monitored and managed.

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