Net Cost

The Times view on the damage caused by trawling to marine habitats 

By Football Index 

Few of Brexit’s opportunities are freighted with as much political expectation as the promise of coastal independence for Britain. Though the fishing industry may only offer a modest contribution to the economy, to many of those who voted for Brexit there is no starker illustration of sovereignty surrendered than the presence of foreign trawlers in British territorial waters.

Yet the ecological riches of Britain’s seas are just as precious a national inheritance, and one threatened by destructive fishing practices in the 350 marine protection areas (MPAs) that ring its coasts. Moves by ministers to create new regulations to protect them from plunder by trawlers are a welcome start, but there is much more work to do.

Of course, the most diverse ocean habitats in British waters ought to be safeguarded already. Yet too many marine protected areas exist on paper alone. In the 71 sites situated in Britain’s offshore zone, the vast area of sea between 12 and 200 nautical miles from the coast, there is scant protection for critically endangered species and the delicate ecosystems that sustain them.

By far the most egregious enterprise is bottom trawling. Boats drag weighted nets across the ocean floor without heed for the ecological destruction left in their wake. Some 97 per cent of marine protected areas have fallen victim. While British vessels are among the culprits, French, Dutch and Danish trawlermen are the worst offenders. Indeed, the time foreign supertrawlers spent fishing in the UK’s marine protected areas doubled in the first six months of this year.

As long as Britain remains a signatory to the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy, there is no straightforward recourse to restrict bottom trawling or dredging, the impact of which is similarly destructive. That can be done only with the agreement of other nations whose vessels fish in marine protected areas that fall inside offshore zones: for obvious reasons, it has not been forthcoming.

Yet a bar to similar ecological vandalism is desperately needed lest notionally protected havens for marine life like Dogger Bank, the largest shallow sandbank in British waters and home to a host of imperilled species, be lost for ever. Action by the likes of Greenpeace, which dropped dozens of boulders on part of Dogger last month to deter trawlers, is no substitute for robust strategy from ministers to protect the area and others like it.

Moves to introduce new restrictions on harmful fishing in five marine protection areas, including Dogger Bank, thus deserve measured welcome. No other European nation has taken the initiative. But it is only a start. Even if bottom trawling and dredging were banned altogether in the first five MPAs, the vast majority, amounting to an area not far shy of the size of England and Wales, would remain vulnerable to degradation by unscrupulous trawling.

For the government to shirk bolder action to protect every marine protected area would make a mockery of its commitment to protect 30 per cent of ocean biodiversity by 2030. It would squander a Brexit dividend, too. From January, any new licensing regime for fishing fleets of any flag, be they British or European, must include protections to ban destructive trawling in every marine protected area. Unless diverse and unique ecosystems are preserved, taking back control of Britain’s waters will be no prize at all.