Trawler Net on commercial fishing boat Anney Lier

Marine Protected Areas at risk

7 minute read

Effective management of the UK's network of Marine Protected Areas is vital to allow our seas to recover. Unfortunately, some of our largest protected areas still permit damaging fishing practices, like bottom trawling.

Dogger Bank

  • Size: 12,331 km2 (five times the size of the Lake District National Park)
  • Depth: 24-40 m
  • Conservation objective: Recover all forms of the sandbank seabed ecosystem to allow fish numbers, size and diversity to increase
  • Stored carbon: 4.22 Mt (equivalent to carbon emissions from 2,538,777 return trips from London to Sydney)
  • Average annual fishing hours using bottom-towed gear: 2,444
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Why is it protected?

Dogger Bank is a vast sandbank, located in the North Sea about 120 km east of Hull. The shallow waters are home to a wealth of species which live both on and within the sandy sediment, including polychaete worms, shrimp-like amphipods, clams, oysters, hermit crabs, flatfish, starfish and sandeels.

In turn, these animals support populations of seabirds, seals, whales, dolphins, harbour porpoise and larger fish, such as cod and herring.

Why is it at risk?

Dogger Bank has been an important fishing area for centuries, with plaice, cod, haddock, turbot, dabs and herring caught in large numbers. Industrial-scale fishing by UK, Dutch, German and Danish vessels has put the area at risk, with bottom trawlers churning up the seabed and fish populations now a fraction of what they once were.

A byelaw to protect Dogger Bank, and three smaller offshore MPAs, was proposed on 1 February 2021. Since then, over 5,000 hours of bottom-towed fishing has taken place within Dogger Bank

The strength of the fishing lobby and the fact that the area stretches into German and Dutch waters makes agreeing management challenging, but there is so much to gain. We must continue to pressure the UK Government to bring fisheries management measures into law.

If the byelaw is implemented, it would be the largest offshore Marine Protected Area in English waters where bottom trawling is banned.

What does recovery look like?

  • Breathing space to help once-abundant species like halibut, cod, ling, common skate, and angelshark to increase in numbers and size.
  • Robust populations of sand eels, a food source enjoyed by kittiwakes, puffins and harbour porpoises.
  • Healthier populations of existing species including mussels, oyster, fish, whales, dolphins and seals.
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Many once-rich seabeds now comprise bare sands, shell and gravel. But they can recover.

Credit: Howard Wood / COAST

Want to know more about fishing methods?

Fishing methods explained

South West Approaches to the Bristol Channel

  • Size: 1,128 km2 (10 times the size of Bristol)
  • Depth: 50-100 m
  • Conservation objective: Recover the biodiversity associated with subtidal coarse sediment and subtidal sand
  • Stored carbon: 0.38 Mt (equivalent to carbon emissions from 227,571 return flights from London to Sydney)
  • Average annual fishing hours using bottom-towed gear: 8,005
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Why is it protected?

Located off the northern coast of Cornwall, the seabed in the South West Approaches to the Bristol Channel is made up of a range of fine sediments, coarser sediments, shell fragments, gravels, shingles and cobbles. These habitats provide a home for diverse species that bury into the seabed, including worms, razor clams, anemones, sea cucumbers and sea urchins.

Why is it at risk?

Bottom trawling in this area has occurred for years and has impacted seabed life. Filter feeding organisms that keep the water clean, such as sponges and bivalves, are reduced by the dragging of fishing gear across the seabed. Churning up the sediment also releases stored carbon back into the water.

What does recovery look like?

  • Increasing numbers of mussels (blue mussels, horse mussels and fan mussels) and sponges that are important as filter feeders (e.g. Cliona).
  • Delicate biodiversity such as pink seafans would also be allowed to grow (they reach maximum size at about 30 years of age).
  • The important colonial Pentapora foliosa would also be allowed to grow, providing a habitat for many small lifeforms.
  • The richness of the seabed would become a more favourable ground for juvenile fish.
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Damaged reef

Credit: Colin Munro Photography

West of Walney

  • Size: 388 km2 (similar to the Isle of Wight)
  • Depth: 15-33 m
  • Conservation objective: Allow the flat muddy grounds to become a more biodiverse ecosystem, supporting greater fish populations
  • Stored carbon: 0.37 Mt (equivalent to carbon emissions from 86,179 return flights from London to Sydney)
  • Average annual fishing hours using bottom-towed gear: 493
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Why is it important?

West of Walney is an area 8 km off the Cumbrian coast of northwest England. It includes a particular type of mud habitat, characterised by the presence of sea-pens (feather-like soft corals) and burrowing animals such as mud shrimp, prawns and the Norway lobster. The presence of prawns and lobster makes it an area of high commercial fishing interest.

The area is also the site of the world's largest operational offshore wind farm, generating clean electricity for nearly 600,000 homes.

Why is it at risk?

Areas of mud are targeted by trawls in order to catch prawns. This method of fishing flattens the mud, releases carbon from the seabed sediment and reduces the type and number of organisms living there.

The small mesh size required to catch prawns can lead to massive bycatch of other species, with up to 70% of the catch discarded. This is not an acceptable way of fishing within a Marine Protected Area.

Virtually all offshore mud habitats in northern UK waters have been targeted by prawn trawling fleets. Recovery of these muds is urgently needed to support balanced ecosystems and healthy fish stocks.

What does recovery look like?

  • Skates and rays are prevalent on mud habitats. These would be supported by greater protection from bottom towed fishing gears.
  • The population of prawns could increase, with greater numbers of larger shellfish.
  • More delicate forms of burrowing species such as seapens would change the habitat from a flat featureless plain, to something resembling a forest.
  • Richer habitats support more life, so the density of juvenile fish could increase.
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Credit: Zoltan Tasi / Unsplash

North Norfolk Sandbanks and Saturn Reef

  • Size: 3,603 km2 (more than half the size of Norfolk)
  • Depth: 3-60 m
  • Conservation objective: Recover the living reef and rich sandbank ecosystems
  • Stored carbon: 1.16 Mt (equivalent to carbon emissions from 700,173 return flights from London to Sydney)
  • Average annual fishing hours using bottom-towed gear: 2,504
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Why is it important?

About 40 km off the coast of Norfolk, the North Norfolk Sandbanks are the most extensive example of offshore linear ridge sandbanks in the UK. The banks support communities of invertebrates typical of sandy sediments, such as polychaete worms, isopods, crabs and starfish.

Areas of Sabellaria spinulosa biogenic (living) reef are present here, consisting of thousands of fragile sand-tubes made by ross worms (polychaetes) which together create solid structures rising above the seabed.

The area overlaps with the Southern North Sea Special Area of Conservation, which has also been identified for the protection of harbour porpoise.

Why is it at risk?

The area has been subjected to substantial levels of harmful fishing, including electric pulse trawling, beam trawling and otter trawling.

Electric pulse trawling involves applying an electric current to the water, causing fish to involuntarily swim towards it. This method of fishing – banned in the UK since leaving the EU, but still continuing in EU waters – has damaged all parts of the ecosystem. The voltage doesn’t just harm the fish, but other parts of the food chain too.

The site currently allows unlimited beam trawling, using industrial nets weighted down by heavy beams dragged across the seafloor. Otter trawling can also impact fish numbers if juveniles are caught, as this means species are collected before they have a chance to breed.

Tearing up the seabed also affects the food chain, as reefs of mussels and rich communities of filter-feeding sponges and corals are destroyed, leaving only worms and buried bivalves behind.

What does recovery look like?

  • Prevention of trawling will allow the ‘troughs’ between the sandbanks to accumulate life, such as small coral, hydroid, bryozoan and sponge communities.
  • The seabed will then be allowed to grow rich Sabllearia worm reefs that can grow up to 60 cm above the seabed.
  • This complexity of life will attract greater numbers of flatfish for feeding.
  • The area could support large species such as angelshark, common skate and halibut. These fish have been effectively wiped out from UK seas by industrial fishing. When caught, they are so rare that they make the papers.
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Harbour porpoise

Credit: Richard Shucksmith / scotlandbigpicture.com

South-West Deeps (East)

  • Size: 4,655 km2 (bigger than Cornwall)
  • Depth: 150-750 m
  • Conservation objective: Maintain and recover the sandy seabed to support bivalves, corals, sponges, rich bryozoan forests
  • Stored carbon: 1.67 Mt (equivalent to carbon emissions from 1,007,058 return flights from London to Sydney)
  • Average annual fishing hours using bottom-towed gear: 5,130
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Why is it important?

This is a large conservation area in UK deep continental shelf waters, about 190 km southwest of the Land’s End peninsula. The area experiences a great summer plankton bloom which enriches the waters, leading to concentrations of plankton. These support groups of whales, seabirds, basking sharks, anchovies, sardines and other species.

On the seafloor, life ranges from sponge and coral beds, to large bivalves called ‘fan mussels’ as large as a dinner plate.

Why is it at risk?

The natural balance of the habitat and the species that live there have been gravely affected by decades of industrial fishing.

The dominant fishing is from pelagic fishing fleets and long-liners that target large fish near the surface. However, the beam trawling that takes place here erodes, uproots and crashes into species that are damaged by physical contact.

For thousands of years, these species have evolved to grow slowly in a relatively stable environment and cannot withstand the destructive effect of seabed trawls.

What does recovery look like?

  • Beds of corals, sponges, delicate hydroids and bryozoans will accumulate.
  • This garden of richness will support other forms of life such as rarely encountered sharks (e.g. sixgill shark), molluscs such as strange octopus and squid.
  • The number of deep-water fish species could recover and grow to larger sizes.
  • Species that were once abundant, such as angel shark and North Atlantic halibut, would be properly protected in a large area.
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Fan mussels, which can grow up to 48cm, were once ubiquitous on the South-West Deeps seabed

Credit: first atrina / Sally Sharrock

Offshore Brighton

  • Size: 862 km2 (10 times the size of Brighton)
  • Depth: 40-80 m
  • Conservation objective: Recover the damaged communities of species associated with subtidal coarse sediment, subtidal mixed sediments and high energy circlalittoral rock
  • Stored carbon: 0.3 Mt (equivalent to carbon emissions from 181,819 return flights from London to Sydney)
  • Average annual fishing hours using bottom-towed gear: 1,765
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Why is it important?

Offshore Brighton is in the deep waters of the English Channel, approximately 45 km south of Selsey Bill, West Sussex. The seabed is predominantly coarse sands and gravel with areas of exposed bedrock and mixed sediments.

Diverse species live here including burying animals such as worms, sea anemones and bivalves. Hydroids, bryozoans and sponges colonise the boulders and cobbles, where hermit crabs and starfish thrive. During the spring and summer months, large numbers of bass and black sea bream migrate and feed in shallower waters. Many of these species are targeted by bottom trawls.

Healthy gravel beds are also used by herring to lay eggs. Trawling these fish and eggs up from the seabed doesn’t allow our seas to reach their potential.

Why is it at risk?

Bordering French waters, Offshore Brighton experiences the highest industrial fishing density of any Marine Protected Area.

UK, French and Belgian fleets use demersal seining, a method of fishing that uses vast ropes and nets to herd in huge schools of fish on the seabed. The ropes are weighted with metal to drag along the seabed and can be up to 4 km in length. They are slowly winched towards a net that then is tightened around the fish.

In February 2021, Greenpeace dropped boulders here to create an underwater barrier in protest of the lack of restrictions on bottom towed fishing. They have also stopped certain types of fishing activity (e.g. demersal seining) by approaching the vessels in a small boat.

What does recovery look like?

  • Recovery could see rich collections of sand-associated species such as flatfish (sole is a very profitable catch), gurnard, red mullet, skates and rays and sharks.
  • An impressive array of marine life, such as corals, sponges, bryozoans and hydroids, would also be allowed to grow and breed, leading to richer, more complex forests of life.
  • Protecting these rich sediment areas will mean looking after important staging grounds for small and juvenile fish, such as herring.
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Common starfish

Credit: Paul Naylor