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Chris Thorne: The perfect green Brexit dividend – properly protected seas

Chris Thorne

Chris Thorne is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK. This is a sponsored post by Greenpeace UK.

Brexit is done, and the UK is now stepping out into the world on its own two feet. Brexit has divided opinions, no doubt, but the UK has left the European Union so we need to seize the opportunities presented to us to make Brexit a success.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity presented to us by Brexit is the chance to become a true world leader in protecting our seas.

For too long now, we have allowed the waters which surround our islands to be degraded by industrial fishing. This in large part was down to our membership of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which made it challenging for the UK to implement stronger restrictions on industrial fishing in our seas, whether vessels hailed from the UK or the EU.

Supertrawlers, vast floating fish factories, regularly stalk our seas, hoovering up unimaginably vast quantities of fish with nets up to a mile long. No supertrawlers are UK owned. Bottom trawlers from the UK and EU rip up protected seabed habitats, undermining the entire marine ecosystem and indiscriminately killing marine life.

Bottom trawling also releases significant quantities of carbon that had been stored in seabed sediments, with a recent study in Nature finding that annually, emissions from bottom trawling are equivalent to emissions from the entire aviation industry. The UK has the fourth highest emissions from bottom trawling globally.

This degradation of our oceans by industrial fishing has serious consequences, not only for the marine environment, but also for our climate and, perhaps most importantly, for our fishing communities.

Simply put, if we allow high intensity industrial fishing to continue throughout our seas unchecked, it will become ever more difficult for our fishers to make a living from fishing. This isn’t Greenpeace sensationalism, this is the scientific consensus.

UK fishers today have to work 17 times as hard for the same size catches as 120 years ago because of industrial overfishing. Two thirds of the UK’s key fish stocks are overfished and severely depletedNorth Sea cod has lost its MSC certification because of dangerous stock declinesBritish mackerel lost its sustainable status in 2019 after overfishing pushed stocks to the brink of collapse. The list could go on and on.

This will have serious repercussions for our already struggling coastal communities. More and more fishing jobs will be lost, our fishing communities will be gutted, and for many of these communities, there will be no coming back.

Thankfully, there is a ready-made solution to hand, and one which this Conservative government has been instrumental in setting up – the UK’s network of Marine Protected Areas.

Set up over the last decade, the network covers more than 30 per cent of waters around the UK including many of our most sensitive and important marine areas such as reefs, seagrass meadows and kelp forests.

This sounds great, but there’s a catch…

The vast majority of these so-called protected areas at sea, particularly those in offshore waters, have no protections in place against the worst forms of industrial fishing. Supertrawlers and bottom trawlers are allowed to operate in these supposedly protected places with impunity, devastating fish stocks and damaging sensitive seabed habitats which underpin the marine ecosystem, releasing vast quantities of carbon from the seabed.

For example, 97 per cent of the offshore UK protected areas set up specifically to protect the seabed are still subject to bottom trawling. This method of fishing, which involves dragging heavy fishing gear along the seabed, is no different to a bulldozer ploughing through a protected forest on land. It degrades habitats, results in large quantities of bycatch and perhaps most concerningly, disturbs vital blue carbon stores on the seabed.

Supertrawlers can also be found in our protected areas. These high intensity fishing vessels are the largest on earth. They have freezer processor facilities on board, allowing them to stay at sea for weeks or months at a time, catching and processing hundreds of tonnes of fish in a day until their holds are filled with thousands of tonnes of fish. This harms the long-term health of fish stocks and has wider impacts on the marine ecosystem.

Most people would agree that these forms of destructive fishing have no place in areas that are supposed to be protected. However, our investigations have revealed that supertrawlers have doubled their fishing time in UK protected areas year on year since 2016, when the UK voted for Brexit, and earlier in 2021 it was revealed that in 2019 bottom trawlers spent hundreds of thousands of hours fishing in UK protected areas.

It seems that the Government agrees that bottom trawling is not compatible with our Marine Protected Areas, judging by its proposals to close the entire Dogger Bank Special Area of Conservation to bottom trawling, along with one other protected area. This signals that it recognises the problem, and we hope this is the Government’s first step towards turning our network of Marine Protected Areas into a genuinely world-leading conservation programme. However, there’s still a long way to go.

In many ways, the hard bit is already done. The UK has already designated over 30 per cent of our seas as protected, now all it needs to do is step up and properly look after each protected area, beginning with restricting the most destructive fishing operations inside them.

This will protect habitats, boost fish populations and revive coastal communities as fish populations become larger and more healthy, leading to bigger catches for our fishers. It will help keep carbon stored away safely in deep sea blue carbon stores, and it can provide the UK with an almost immediate Brexit win which will deliver real environmental protection.

In a year when the UK is hosting the G7 and the vital Glasgow climate summit, we should be presenting to the world a positive vision of global Britain as a world leader in environmental protection. What better way of doing this than properly protecting our seas?

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