Damaging fishing practices could be banned in wildlife-rich Dogger Bank and three other protected areas of sea under plans being put out for consultation.
Under new byelaws, harmful bottom trawling would be prohibited in four of England’s offshore marine protected areas, and the use of static fishing gear such as pots or nets would be prevented in sensitive parts of two of them.
Campaigners have been calling for greater protection of the UK’s marine protected areas, which are designated for their important habitats such as sandbanks, coral gardens and reefs, and the wildlife they support.
Conservationists warn that the network of protected areas in the seas consists largely of “paper parks”, where harmful activity such as bottom trawling – in which weighted nets are dragged over the seabed, ploughing it up to catch fish – continues.
Last year, Greenpeace took matters into its own hands to stop bottom trawling in Dogger Bank, which is designated to protect its seabed habitat, by dropping boulders into the marine reserve to create a barrier to fishing gear.
Officials say the consultation marks the next phase in the Government’s ambitious plans for a “blue belt” of marine protected areas around the UK’s seas which it can implement under new laws following Brexit.
The areas where protections could be increased are:
– Dogger Bank, a shallow sandbank in the North Sea, which is home to species such as sand eels, that are food for puffins and porpoises;
– The Canyons, a deep sea habitat off the coast of Cornwall which harbours cold water coral reef and coral gardens;
– Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge Special Area of Conservation, off the Lincolnshire and North Norfolk coasts, whose sandbanks and reefs are home to wildlife including lobster, crabs and pink shrimp.
– South Dorset Marine Conservation Zone, off the coast of Dorset, which is home to sea squirts, crabs, sponges, scallops and starfish.
The proposed byelaws would prohibit bottom towed fishing gear in all four sites and additional restrictions for static gears over sensitive features for Inner Dowsing and the Canyons.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said that now the UK had left the EU-wide Common Fisheries Policy, “we are able to deliver on our commitment to achieve a healthy, thriving and sustainable marine environment”.
“The UK has already established an impressive ‘blue belt’ covering 38% of our waters and our Fisheries Act has provided us with additional powers to go further to protect our seas around England.
“This proposal to introduce byelaws to safeguard four of our precious offshore marine protected areas shows how we are putting these powers into action,” he said.
Tom McCormack, chief executive of the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), said: “This consultation is a big step forward in agreeing measures that will help protect and revive important marine habitats, vital to the unique and vibrant marine life that live within them.
“We are ambitious for England’s seas and want to hear as many views as possible in order to create benefits for people and the economy, while protecting our precious marine environment for future generations.”
Greenpeace said it is “good news” if the Government is considering a total ban on bottom trawling in the four areas, but that all sensitive marine areas need to be properly protected.
Chris Thorne, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “Months after we created a 50 square mile bottom trawler exclusion zone in the Dogger Bank by building an underwater boulder barrier, ministers have finally woken up to their responsibilities.
“Yet there are still hundreds of other equally important marine areas still open to all forms of destructive industrial fishing.
“Action in these four sites is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scale needed to solve the crisis facing our oceans.”
He said the consultation shows the Government is prepared to use its new Brexit powers to properly protect the seas, but must do so as a matter of urgency, or – if it consults on a handful of marine protected areas at a time – it will be many years before the network is fully conserved.