UK Marine Protected Areas and overfishing in the oceans

Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill.
How can we protect the Inshore Waters and their communities?
30X30: A Blueprint for Ocean Protection

By Sally Campbell

This Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 17 June 2020. Sadly however, the vote to support the Wildlife Crime Bill Amendment 61 as proposed by Claudia Beamish, which would have made it illegal and a wildlife crime to damage MPAs was defeated by 59 votes to 21. This was an important Amendment to improve and maintain the ecosystems in our Scottish MPAs, some of which are being damaged through incursions by bottom dredgers hunting scallops, and by bottom trawling. Marine Scotland Compliance appears to be without teeth in these situations. We must all insist the Scottish Government shows political will to stop the damage to our MPAs and to have it treated as a wildlife crime.

But there are other big issues about MPAs and large trawlers around the UK.

The world’s second largest factory fishing trawler, the Lithuanian FV Margiris, was among 25 supertrawlers fishing in protected UK waters. Supertrawlers spent almost 3,000 hours fishing in UK marine protected areas in 2019, making “a mockery of the word ‘protected’,” according to campaigners. “Just paper parks” is a phrase commonly used to describe the lack of law and compliance. Supertrawlers are those over 100 metres in length and can catch hundreds of tonnes of fish every day, using nets up to a mile long. A Greenpeace investigation revealed that the 25 supertrawlers included the four biggest in the world and these fished in 39 different marine protected areas (MPAs). The Southern North Sea MPA was one of those fished and it was created to safeguard porpoises, which are especially threatened by supertrawlers. More than 1,000 porpoises died in fishing nets around the UK in 2019. The most heavily fished MPA was the Wyville Thomson Ridge, off Shetland, which was intended to protect reefs. Forty per cent of England’s seas are designated as MPAs, but these only ban some of the most damaging activities in some locations. An independent review commissioned by the UK government urged the establishment of highly protected marine areas (HPMAs), where all harmful activities including fishing, dredging and construction are banned. The government’s own assessment in 2019 showed the marine environment is not in a healthy state.

“Our government allowing destructive supertrawlers to fish for thousands of hours every year in MPAs makes a mockery of the word ‘protected’,” said Chris Thorne of Greenpeace UK. “For our government to be taken seriously as a leader in marine protection, it must ban this practice.” Prof Callum Roberts of the University of York, a member of the HPMA review panel, said: “The Greenpeace analysis is timely and important. It highlights the yawning gulf between what people imagine an MPA is there for, to protect nature and wildlife, and the reality of continued industrial exploitation with little evidence of restraint or oversight. “A high level of protection is necessary for a high level of benefit,” he said. “We cannot be surprised if MPAs that are open to some of the most voracious and destructive fishing methods in the world have no measurable benefit at all. “That is why the [HPMA] review is important. If we are to rescue British waters from two centuries of overfishing and destructive fishing, we will need to roll out HPMAs widely and fast.”

Greenpeace used tracking data from the Lloyd’s List to show that trawlers over 100 metres spent 2,963 hours fishing in UK MPAs in 2019. None of the 25 supertrawlers were British-owned, with 15 Russian-owned, nine Dutch-owned and one Polish-owned.
A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK is a global leader in the fight to protect our seas with our ‘blue belt’ of protected waters nearly twice the size of England. The common fisheries policy currently restricts our ability to implement tougher protection, but leaving the EU and taking back control of our waters means we can introduce stronger measures.”

Jean-Luc Solandt of the Marine Conservation Society said: “The government had an opportunity to designate 65 HPMA sites in English waters back in 2013, but failed to do so, citing a ‘lack of evidence’ and bowing to pressure from industry and fishing lobbyists. The HPMA report is promising, but means nothing if the government – after decades of delay – does not get them in place with urgency.” Joan Edwards, the director of marine conservation at the Wildlife Trusts and another member of the HPMA review panel, said: “Our seas are in an impoverished state. Cod were once as long as humans are tall, and whales, dolphins and basking sharks were many times more common. We want the government to commit to an HPMA delivery plan within 12 months.”

Separately, more than 50 scientists have signed a letter to the European Commission, European Parliament and member states calling for an end to overfishing. Under reforms to the common fisheries policy, fishing quotas in 2020 were supposed to be in line with the maximum sustainable yield, determined by scientific advice. However, overfishing beyond what scientists regard as safe levels has continued and looks set to carry on into future years, as the UK and the EU wrangle over fishing as part of the Brexit negotiations. The scientists warned that further overfishing would harm fish populations and stop them from recovering. Rainer Froese, of the Helmholtz centre for ocean research in Kiel, Germany, said: “Overfishing means taking more fish out the water than can grow back – that is pretty stupid. The stocks shrink, and small stocks can only support small catches. It does not help the fishermen, it does not help the fish, it does not help anyone.” Overfishing also harmed the climate, he added: “If the ecosystem does not function properly, it cannot breathe properly and cannot absorb carbon dioxide properly.”

A petition to ban supertrawlers from MPAs launched by Greenpeace has gathered more than 130,000 signatures. Philip Evans, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “This polling makes absolutely clear that the public is united behind our call for a ban on supertrawlers fishing in protected areas. After a decade of political division, our call cutting across the political divide should send a firm message to the Government that enough is enough. Supertrawlers must be banned from our protected areas.”

What of further afield?

Overfishing is still happening in many parts of the world, and sadly tragedy looms for the artisanal fishermen of West Africa whose birth-right is being sold to China (Charles Clover 2020). Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of distant water fishing, though, is that it competes with the interests of local people in developing countries. The impact of the Chinese fleet upon Africa is severe. The largest registry of Chinese vessels outside China is in Ghana, with 137 ships according to the UK Based Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Virtually all the trawlers in Ghana are Chinese and the trawler agents – the people who profit from arranging the sale of licences to fish – are MPs. Yet in Ghana, over two million local people depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries for income or employment. The incomes of artisanal fishermen have fallen by 40 per cent since the turn of this century, according to the ODI report. There is a growing tide of criticism on social media of the damage Ghana’s politicians are doing to their own country. Tragedy looms for fish stocks and fishing communities unless African politicians learn to say no to foreign trawlers.

It is a similar story in the nine countries of West Africa, where according to World Bank figures, there were 602 foreign trawlers in 2018, 78 per cent of them Chinese. It should be said that the EU and Russia were there before the Chinese came, behaved badly first and nourished the system of trawler agents who do deals with ministers behind the backs of their ministries and scientific advisors. Russia has a fleet of seven factory ships working in Guinea Bissau; this is thought to be taking more sardinella than has been allocated to the country’s local fleets by the regional fisheries science body. Sardinella is one of the small pelagic fish that people depend on for protein in West Africa. The greatest impact on the world’s supplies of fish is now exerted – not very responsibly – by a Chinese fleet of 12,490 vessels, compared to the European Union’s distant water fleet of around 300 vessels and the United States with around 230. The latest figures show just how much of a challenge China faces in limiting its fleet to 3,000 vessels, as it promised to do by 2020 at world trade talks in 2017.

The most recent Chinese move was in Senegal, where local fishing interests wrote an open letter to the President protesting against proposals to grant licences to more than 50 Chinese trawlers to fish under the Senegalese flag. Some 600,000 people depend on the dwindling resources of Senegal’s continental shelf. The 50 Chinese vessels, the letter pointed out, would be fishing the same over-exploited resources such as sardinella, horse mackerel and bottom-living species such as hake. The most recent scientific assessment recommends catches of 3,000 tonnes of hake, of which 1,750 tonnes have already been granted to the European Union under a controversial ‘partnership agreement’. The Senegalese fisheries minister turned down all 50 trawler licences recently in a move that conservationists hope will start a regional trend. Partnerships between states, scientists and communities must be a way forward.

The great west African upwelling, which brings nutrients up from the depths along a wide continental shelf, still produces catches of 440,000 tons a year for foreign fishing vessels, which at the quayside is worth $1.2 billion (£950 million). The traceable revenue that foreign vessels bring to the nine countries is less than 4 per cent of this value. Payments for fishing licences may boost the income of recently wealthy trawler agents in west African capitals, but they bring little or no benefit to local people. The impact upon local fishing communities of this fishing from foreign fleets drives migration across the Mediterranean to Europe. This is a whole area where international co-operation and treaties must be harnessed to safeguard income to states and coastal communities. Pressure from NGOs such as Greenpeace, providing the data on the ground, and through shipping research, logging of ship movements, on the sea observations and use of media highlighting the reality is starting to raise awareness and action from governments and environmentalists.

Yet this foreign fleet, which takes the best fish, gets through $280 million (£220 million) a year’s worth of fuel – according to one fisheries expert’s calculations – which is likely to mean it is heavily subsidised. The refuelling of Chinese trawlers is done by offshore vessels – a sure sign – which also keeps that money out of local economies. Tragedy looms for fish stocks and fishing communities unless African politicians learn to say no to foreign trawlers. A hundred million people depend on the protein from small pelagic fish such as sardinella, fished by 330,000 local fishermen. But the amount of small pelagics in the catches of the foreign trawlers has risen to 75 per cent because they have caught nearly all the bottom fish.

Throughout the world, the communities which depend on local catches have suffered through overfishing, now resulting in the loss of pelagic fish. Fishing “down the food chain” has a huge impact on ecosystems and the ability to restore stocks. Small distantly isolated communities around the west of Scotland lose the ability to be self-sustaining. An ocean sanctuaries scientific study has mapped out how to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, a target that scientists say is crucial in order to safeguard wildlife and to help mitigate the impacts of climate change (Greenpeace et al. 2019). From climate change to ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution, our oceans are under threat like never before. We urgently need to protect at least a third of our oceans by 2030. The science is clear: our oceans are in crisis. Now all we need is the political will to protect them.

A Brighter Future?

It is premature to expect anything to come out of fishing in UK waters and MPA’s until the fishing issue around Brexit is discussed further with some more indicators about access by other nations etc. The West Africa and Indian Ocean stories of coastal communities being deprived of substantial seafood resources by large international companies and powerful countries are becoming headline issues gaining attention and perhaps in some cases solution. The Senegalese fisheries minister turning down all 50 trawler licences recently is a hopeful sign to start a regional trend. Perhaps pirate action such as was seen off the coast of Somalia is the only solution to saving fish stocks in an ever increasing hungry world population and profit driven fishing methods.

There has been progress in some areas, so again the pressure on governments, political will and the recognition of the rights of coastal communities will be increasingly important in discussions at parliaments of nations, and with international treaties in the times ahead. This is a whole area where international co-operation must be harnessed to safeguard sustainability of fishery stocks with income to states and coastal communities. Pressure from NGOs such as Greenpeace, providing the data on the ground, and through shipping research, logging of ship movements, on the sea observations such as through their pole to pole expeditions in 2019-20 and the use of media highlighting the reality, is raising awareness across the world leading to action from governments and environmentalists. Catching the fleets at illegality must also be a way forward so the push to have 30% of the seas protected by 2030 must be a major goal. There has been some success in protection of Antarctic waters in recent years, but not enough yet, so we must lobby for a good outcome for the world’s seas, sustainable fisheries and so importantly sustainable communities around every coast.

Clover, Charles (2020) How China’s fishermen are impoverishing Africa. The Spectator
Greenpeace, University of York and University of Oxford (2019) 30×30: A Blueprint for Ocean Protection. Greenpeace International to sign the petition

Sally Campbell
June 2020