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Why we're calling on France to accept bottom trawling restrictions in UK MPAs

4 minute read

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Marine Recovery Programme Manager

2 May 2024

Lately, there's been a surge of news on bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), ranging from Greece's decision to become the first country in Europe to halt trawling within their MPAs and marine parks by 2030 to France's resistance against England's proposal to do the same by restricting bottom trawling in 13 offshore MPAs.

Here at the Marine Conservation Society, we're calling for French vessels to desist from bottom trawling immediately – both in regulated UK and French MPAs – as a vital step towards protecting and conserving marine life in our conjoined seas.

In light of all this, we chat with Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, our Marine Recovery Programme Manager, to answer some questions you might have, and delve into the implications of these developments.

Why has bottom trawling been in the news recently?

The UK has just closed some of our protected areas to all forms of bottom trawling. We're confident there will be more of these closures to come in late 2024/2025. The UK, French, and other EU boats previously had access to these areas until our authorities decided it was reasonable (in science and law) to close them as of March 22nd this year.

Some French politicians and media have been particularly vocal about this “afront to their 'liberty”, with French Fisheries Minister calling these decisions “arbitrary”. That is not at all fair. They've been long-negotiated, and well-considered in terms of evidence for designation and management, thoroughly consulted on, and are at last achieving the minimum legal requirements.

What are MPAs and why are they important for marine conservation?

MPAs are important areas for biodiversity. They've been established in UK seas for over three decades under both EU and domestic laws. The French have their own MPAs too. The particular areas being discussed here are protected for the life they contain on the seabed, and the associated life that visits those sites, and feeds or settles on the seabed. There are other sites for seabird and cetaceans that will require different sorts of measures.

Why is bottom trawling allowed in MPAs?

When the MPAs were set up, they did not automatically stop trawling and other forms of ongoing potentially damaging activities that pre-existed before the sites were designated. Restrictions are at last being systematically being implemented throughout England’s offshore seas. It’s worth noting that all other forms of fishing are permitted in these sites.

The process for getting the necessary fishing restrictions in place takes time, effort and leads to consternation from some in the fishing industry. They don't mind the MPAs per se, but most trawler fishers and owners don't like being prevented from trawling through them.

We call MPAs that have damaging activities, like trawling, through them 'paper parks' - i.e. they're protected on paper, but not in reality.

Why are French vessels bottom trawling in English offshore MPAs?

For the above reasons - when MPAs were set up they didn't initially ban trawling, these restrictions came later. On a matter of 'access', the Brexit agreement that came into force in January 2021 didn't make our seas exclusive to UK fishers alone - to the great dismay of many small-scale coastal fishers who voted in favour of Brexit purely to have sole access to 0-12nm seas. But the Brexit deal does allow the UK to restrict access and use of areas of sea (such as MPAs) for nature conservation reasons.

That's why the French fishers are not happy. UK fishers don’t appear so bothered, because they do not fish in some of these areas as much as the French.

Earlier this month, Greece announced a ban on bottom trawling in its MPAs and national parks, so should the rest of Europe, including France, do the same?

Indeed, they should! We need to see bottom towed gear removed from our offshore MPAs as it damages the very features these MPAs are designed to protect. This should be done in an urgent but managed transition that would help to avoid these disputes that are delaying progress and getting in the way of meaningful conservation. There is a general call from the EU Commission to ban bottom trawl fishing in Europe's MPAs by 2030. And EU member states were meant to announce their plans to strategically implement this ban by the end of March this year.

Greece has moved while France has not. There are many member states throughout Europe that reject the Commission’s call for a ban. It's very unfortunate. Many member state parliaments (such as in France, Netherlands and Spain) have strong heavy bottom trawl fishing lobbyists that skew the narrative on “real” protection in their MPAs, to the detriment of society as a whole.

That makes the vast majority of EU MPAs meaningless - see this report we've just completed in collaboration with our European partners.

What has changed with fishing rights post-Brexit that has encouraged this debate?

Only that we can use conservation reasons (in law and science) to restrict certain fishing, but that those restrictions must legally apply equally to both UK and EU vessels. i.e. it is non-discriminatory. That's what is happening now. It’s almost as if MPAs are now becoming ‘real’.

Why are the French trying to prevent the UK from restricting bottom trawling in UK waters, and why do they get a say?

From the outset, French fishing representatives had a say in the development of the MPAs, where they were located. I was even in the room with them back in 2011-2016 when these discussions took place in London and Bristol. French fishing representatives were invited and responded to consultations on the new fisheries management measures last year. So, they have been allowed to comment. But as long as UK decisions are non-discriminatory, and there is a genuine conservation reason (such as the need for species or habitat protection founded on science).

The UK can use its own logic to start managing the seas effectively and restrict fishing in important areas it believes would be damaged or prevented from recovering properly.

What can the public do to support further restrictions on bottom trawling in MPAs?

The public can support the Manifesto for our Seas, which calls on the next UK Government to recognise the value of the ocean for biodiversity, for climate and for our economy, and to lead the urgent recovery of our ocean.

We're urging politicians to prioritise the ocean

Will you join us?

You can help safeguard our ocean by getting involved with the Marine Conservation Society’s work through attending a beach clean, making a one-off donation, or becoming a member.