Damaging fishing activities prohibited to protect threatened habitats

Brittlestar © Paul Naylor

A sea change has come for Marine Conservation Zones, as threatened habitats are protected in the Irish Sea – proving that even complex marine protected areas can be more than just ‘paper parks’. Damaging fishing activities are now prohibited, paving the way for recovery.

On the 4 July 2019 a byelaw is introduced by the Marine Management Organisation to prohibit damaging fishing activities West of Walney Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), 3 years after the site was first created.

It is important not to lose sight of the progress made and the wins for conservation – whether big or small.

The creation and management of MCZs is something that we have been fighting for, for over a decade, and there is still a lot of work to do. It is something that I feel passionately about but it can feel like an overwhelming task at times!

It is important however, not to lose sight of the progress made and the wins for conservation – whether big or small. Just over a month ago the Government created 41 new MCZs which will go a long way towards completing a network of marine protected areas throughout our seas.

Recently, more and more of the 50 MCZs created over the past six years have seen management measures enforced. This is no mean feat. And this is why today is one of those moments for us to reflect and celebrate how far we have come.

Bottlenose dolphins

Bottlenose dolphins ©John MacPherson/2020VISION

What is a Marine Conservation Zone?

Marine Conservation Zones have been specifically designed to protect nationally important, rare or threatened undersea landscapes and marine life found in our seas. Together with other types of marine protected areas (like European Marine Sites), MCZs form part of a network of protection throughout UK seas.

Where is West of Walney MCZ and why is it such an important site for wildlife?

Location: Irish Sea, off the coast of Cumbria
Size: Similar to the Isle of Wight
Depth: 15-33 metres
Designation: In 2016

This site has been created to protect the muddy seabed, which covers most of the site, and the communities of sea pens and burrowing creatures that live there. It also includes a small patch of sandy seabed to the northeast corner.

Puffin with sand eels

Puffin with sand eels ©Richard Steel/2020VISION

A world of volcano builders and quill pens

The muddy plains in West of Walney MCZ provide an important habitat a vast diversity of marine life from strange-looking spoon worms that build volcano-like mounds on the seabed, to burrowing sea urchins. There are other mud-lovers here too, such as sea cucumbers, mud shrimps and angular crabs which burrow into the soft seabed. Fish such as plaice, whiting and even pipefish (the long slender relatives of the seahorse) can be found within this site, along with slender sea pens – elegant and luminous type of soft corals that get their name because they look like quill pens.

The patch of sandy seabed within West of Walney also provides an important home for marine life. Although you may think it would be desert-like, there are vast numbers of brittlestars wriggling on the seabed, stretching out their fine and delicate arms to catch their food from the water as the water flows over them. There are also flat fish, sand eels and worms using this busy area of sand.

However, this site is also home to a commercially important mud-dweller, the Dublin Bay prawn (also known as scampi, langoustines or simply prawns).

The commercial fishery for prawns in the Irish Sea is one of the most valuable fisheries there. Decades of over-exploitation of cod, whiting and sole mean that this fishery became increasingly important between the 1950s and 2017.

What effect has trawling for prawns had in the Irish Sea?

All of the special features of this MCZ (mud, sand and communities of burrowing animals) are sensitive to the impacts of ‘bottom towed fishing gear’ – i.e. trawling, where large, heavy nets (sometimes up to four nets rigged together) are towed across vast areas of the seabed.

Burrowed mud habitats are now considered to be a threatened and declining habitat in the north east Atlantic, and specifically in the Irish Sea.

Over the past few decades, bottom trawling has damaged the muddy seabed in this site, destroying and fragmenting the communities of marine life that live there. Continued trawling has hindered their ability to recover from the damage.

Trawling for prawns in this MCZ and the wider the Irish Sea has had a devastating impact on sensitive mud habitats and the marine life that lives there:

  • leaving visible and long-lasting scars on the mud;
  • removing the top 20-50 cm of the seabed surface;
  • causing significant declines in the abundance and distribution of fragile marine creatures like sea pens and urchins;
  • exacerbating the over-exploitation of other fish that are caught as by-catch;
  • and causing some fish to become skinnier as the quality of their prey and foraging areas has been reduced.
Dublin bay prawn and sea pens

Dublin bay prawn and sea pens (c) Paul Naylor

Now it’s time for recovery

West of Walney MCZ is located towards the southerly limit of one of the major prawn fishing grounds in the eastern Irish Sea. When the MCZ was designated back in January 2016, it was noted that this site was in need of ‘recovery’ to a better ecological condition. Now we hope to see communities of delicate sea pens and other vulnerable species spreading out from the fringes of the trawled areas, and thriving once again in areas where they have been lost.

Will this happen for every Marine Conservation Zone?

The Government’s expectation is that management measures should be identified for commercial fisheries for all MCZs within two years of designation. After this, the regulator has to go through several stages of consultation with the fishing industry and all stakeholders with an interest in the site. Clearly this can take some time and it doesn’t help when there are other key issues on the agenda…such as Brexit!  

Minke whale breaching

Minke whale off Rathlin Island ©Tom McDonnell

Our final thoughts

Over the past three years, we have been strongly advocating for the need to implement management measures to prohibit bottom trawling throughout West of Walney MCZ. So the long-awaited byelaw that came into force today is warmly welcomed to say the least! It is a significant step in the right direction for the recovery of the Irish Sea and a signal of hope for the appropriate management of the whole of our marine protected area network.

What might seem like a small success achieved today, the protection of a patch of mud somewhere in the Irish Sea, is a reminder for us all to keep working to find a way back to Living Seas, for the benefit people and wildlife.

The protection of vital habitats within West of Walney MCZ will promote the recovery of the diversity of marine life here. It will also hopefully allow fish populations (flatfish, cod and whiting) to start to re-build within the MCZ and flow into the surrounding areas. This will then allow food webs to stabilise, rather than being fished down to lower and lower levels.

All of these are all critical steps that need to be taken towards achieving the UK’s national and European commitments to ‘Good Environmental Status’ throughout UK seas. Together with other measures – such as tackling pollution, invasive non-native species and sustainable developments – the management of fisheries in marine protected areas will help us work towards a common vision of “clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas”.

We all need healthy seas. What might seem like a small success achieved today, the protection of a patch of mud somewhere in the Irish Sea, is a reminder for us all to keep working to find a way back to Living Seas, for the benefit people and wildlife.

Red sea fingers

Red sea fingers ©Rebecca Harris

Emily Baxter is the Senior Marine Conservation Officer for the North West Wildlife Trusts.

More information on the byelaw can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/west-of-walney-marine-conservation-zone-specified-area-bottom-towed-fishing-byelaw

* Note on Maritime Boundaries

West of Walney MCZ is arguably one of the most unique and complex of all the UK's MCZs. Not only does it span three difference management boundaries but a large proportion of the site is also co-located with offshore windfarms - five of them to be precise!

West of Walney MCZ extends from approximately 4 to 15 nautical miles (nm) from the coast, meaning that the site crosses two important jurisdictional boundaries, the 6 nm and 12 nm limit (from the coast). There are therefore three different regulators of fishing activity that are responsible for each section of the site

Within 6 nm of the coast, the North Western Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (NWIFCA) are the lead regulator for fishing activities in marine protected areas. The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) are the lead regulator for fishing activities between 6 nm and 12nm from the coast, but they can introduce byelaws to further the conservation objectives of an MCZ anywhere in England and the adjacent territorial seas (within 12 nm of the coast).

The management of fishing beyond 12 nm is subject to a different regulatory regime altogether. In waters beyond 12 nm, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) take the lead, but any management measures must be developed jointly by all European Union member states with a direct management interest as set out in Article 11 of the Common Fisheries Policy (Regulation (EU) 1380/20133).

To ensure a consistent approach to management of fishing activities within the West of Walney MCZ, the MMO and the NWIFCA agreed that MMO will lead on management of bottom towed fishing activities in all of the site that lies within 12 nm of the coast. Unfortunately, management measures for the part of the site that lies 12 nm will be developed as part of a separate process, which is likely to be held up by Brexit. However, much of this area is part of one of the offshore windfarms where trawling is less feasible due to the risk of snagging fishing nets on cables and other infrastructure. However, we will be keeping a watching brief on the development of management measure here, and urge steps to be taken to ensure a consistent approach and protection of the entire site as soon as possible.