Climate solutions must include ban on bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas, says Marine Conservation Society

Date posted: 7 January 2021

A new report from the Marine Conservation Society, Marine unProtected Areas, has found that bottom trawling is taking place in 98% of the UK’s offshore Marine Protected Areas intended to protect vital seabed habitats.

Curled octopus (Eledone cirrhosa) amongst a horse mussel bed (Modiolus modiolus) Shetland, Scotland, UK
© SCOTLAND: The Big Picture

The yearlong study by experts at the Marine Conservation Society assessed fishing activity in the UK’s offshore Marine Protected Areas. As a result of the report, the Marine Conservation Society is calling for a ban on bottom trawling in these protected areas.

Bottom trawling not only destroys vital underwater habitats but also churns up the seafloor and releases carbon into the ocean and, potentially, the atmosphere. 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.

Out of all the UK’s Marine Protected Areas, just 5% currently ban bottom trawling. Continuing to allow this fishing method in areas intended to protect the seabed is equivalent to bulldozing a national park on land.

The Marine Conservation Society’s research found that fishing activity inside protected areas continues unabated:

Much of the carbon stored in the UK’s seafloor (93%) is found in the muddy and sandy sediments mainly in offshore waters where there are no trawling restrictions. As the seabed is trawled, with fishing gear dragging along the sea floor, carbon stored there is released into the water, where it can make its way into the atmosphere and could ultimately contribute to climate change.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principal Specialist in Marine Protected Areas at the Marine Conservation Society said: “Our research shows that Marine Protected Areas aren’t protecting our marine habitats. While bottom trawling is still allowed we will continue to release more carbon from the seafloor and prevent complex carbon storing habitats from recovering. In order to battle the climate emergency there has to be limits on where fishing of this kind can take place.

“We’ve been calling for adequate protections for UK seas for more than a decade, to protect and recover our degraded marine life, with very few results. With the introduction of the new Fisheries Act, bottom trawling must be banned in Marine Protected Areas that are designed to protect the seabed. 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.”

A complete ban of bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas is proven to be effective; 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. When areas of sea around the world were fully protected, biodiversity was found to increase by an average of 21%. Alongside flora and fauna bouncing back, carbon stores are left undisturbed and are able to build back up, as new life emerges on the seabed.

To date, agreeing fisheries management measures for offshore Marine Protected Areas through an EU consultation and evidence gathering process has been complicated by changing dynamics between other EU member states and the UK. Now, with the powers provided by the Fisheries Act 2020, the UK Governments can act more independently to recover our seas and combat climate change.

Read the Marine Conservation Society’s summary report here. For more information on the charity’s Marine Protected Area work, visit the website here.

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