Toby Roxburgh/2020VISION

Restoring our seas and fish stocks

Unsustainable fishing can destroy marine habitats and drive species to extinction. The Wildlife Trusts work towards a sustainable fishing industry that protects the future of marine life as well as our food supply. If we fish sustainably stocks will thrive and reach their maximum potential. Ecosystem-based fisheries and marine conservation management need to be integrated, and the impacts of fishing need to be assessed at ecosystem level to achieve this. We also need an improved market for local, sustainably caught fish. This means having good trade conditions for fish and fish products as well as support and promotion of low impact, sustainable fishing methods.

Healthy ecosystems - healthy fisheries

Despite the progress of recent years, commercial fishing remains a threat to the health of our seas. Whether through overfishing, the disruption of marine food webs or damage to seabed habitats, fishing activities continue to put pressure on marine ecosystems. Their negative effects need to be managed if we are to reverse decades of decline and rebuild healthy and productive seas. This is key to helping fisheries to achieve long-term sustainability. A profitable industry can only be based on plentiful fish stocks, which, in turn, are part of thriving marine ecosystems. We share a common cause with the fishing industry. 

What The Wildlife Trusts are doing for the sea

For decades fishing in UK waters has been guided by the Common Fisheries Policy. The fact that the UK will soon be leaving the European Union will lead to change in how we manage our seas and our fisheries. We believe that this change presents opportunities for taking the best of the Common Fisheries Policy and improving it to make UK fisheries management world-leading. This means making sure that all fishing activity is sustainable; not just in terms of fish stocks but also reducing impacts of fishing on the wider marine environment. We are working hard to make sure that wildlife and the environment are at the heart of future fisheries management and future legislation.

Three examples of our work

Offshore Marine Protected Areas – conservation not compromise

It is vital that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are well-managed, with activities that are likely to cause damage to protected habitats or species excluded from these special areas. Under current rules, fishing activities in offshore areas (beyond 12 nm) are controlled through the Common Fisheries Policy. If the UK wants to impose controls on fisheries to protect offshore MPAs it must seek the agreement of all Member States whose vessels regularly fish in those areas. In many offshore sites this is leading to compromise rather than conservation, with areas of habitat being left open to damaging fishing activities fishing to placate fishing interests.

This must change. So, we are working hard, talking to Government to persuade them that after the UK leaves the EU that offshore MPAs will be fully protected. First, this means that that any non-UK vessels must abide by the same rule as UK boats. Second, while there will be discussion with other countries the UK government must have the final say and this must mean that all damaging activities are excluded from offshore MPAs.

So far, the signs from Defra are encouraging. But we will continue to press them on this matter, to make sure that conservation, not compromise, wins the day.

Marine Protected Areas – protection not experiments

Much hard work has been carried out over the past few years to make sure that all Marine Protected Areas are well-managed and that damaging activities are excluded. Because of pressure from The Wildlife Trusts, the Government finally admitted that this must include management of fishing activities. Now a programme to assess and manage the impact of fishing on all MPAs is being carried out.

However we are seeing a disturbing trend in what happens if there is doubt over the impacts of fishing activity. We believe that in the case of doubt, a precautionary stance should be taken, and fishing activity excluded. Instead, in many cases where there are conflicting views over the damage that fishing may cause, fishing can continue under a programme of ‘adaptive risk management’.  This, in effect, is using MPAs as a test bed to measure impacts of fishing. While we agree that experiments do need to be carried out to gather data, we do not agree that protected areas are suitable areas for this work to be carried out.

We continue to press hard on this matter, arguing first that this approach is illegal as it allows potentially damaging activities to continue and second that it is expensive -the public purse is picking up the tab for all the monitoring that is required.

Fisheries – planning for a sustainable future

One thing missing from current fisheries management is a proactive plan for development of the activity, and for its integration with marine conservation and other activities at sea.

The Marine Management Organisation is responsible for preparing marine plans in England. While these plans have made a good start, they do not go far enough. Aside from not taking a truly spatial and forward-thinking approach, they don’t adequately incorporate all the activities in the sea. Most notably, fisheries management is dealt with separately. We believe that a new approach, based on the development of Regional Sea Plans will help us meet the needs of people and wildlife and live within environmental limits.

Regional Sea Plans will help deliver ecosystem-based management. They will help deliver a marine environment that can support the fishing industry into the future. With a network of MPAs as their foundation, they will have social, economic and environmental goals, protect important fish habitats and identify ‘go-fish’ areas. Fishing methods which maximise social and economic gain while minimising environmental impacts (such as creeling for Nephrops, rather than trawling) will be prioritised.

A new planning process in the marine environment, based on Regional Seas and setting biodiversity values at its heart will deliver a restored marine environment that will underpin human economy and welfare