Government proposals to ban damaging fishing in Dogger Bank could be a first step to the recovery of a rich array of wildlife, conservationists have said.
Under proposed bye-laws put out for consultation by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) on Monday, bottom trawling would be prohibited in four English offshore marine protected areas, including Dogger Bank.
Campaigners said the move to properly protect the conservation areas would help preserve important habitats such as sandbanks, coral gardens and reefs and the wildlife they support, and boost fish stocks.
But they warned that properly conserving four marine protected areas was just the “tip of the iceberg” in the scale of the challenge to reverse declines in marine wildlife, and called for more urgent action.
They have warned that failing to prevent harmful activity such as bottom trawling – in which weighted nets are dragged over the seabed, ploughing it up to catch fish – in protected areas such as Dogger Bank is in breach of legal obligations.
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 sea to create a barrier to fishing gear.
Launching the consultation, 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 bye-laws to safeguard four of our precious offshore marine protected areas shows how we are putting these powers into action,” he said.
Chris Thorne, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said ministers had 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.
Sandy Luk, chief executive of the Marine Conservation Society, said action rather than consultation was needed.
“By banning bottom towed fishing gear in these areas carbon emissions will be reduced, the habitats themselves will be able to recover and fishers will see a slow but steady increase in fish stocks in these areas.
“Rather than a consultation this should be the first step in phasing out bottom towed fishing gear in marine protected areas meant to safeguard our fragile seabed habitats,” she said.
Charles Clover, executive director of conservation charity Blue Marine Foundation, which mounted a legal challenge to illegal fishing on the Dogger Bank, welcomed the “first step” towards protecting offshore marine protected areas.
He said the Dogger Bank was “a huge and ecologically important area which has been hammered by trawls and dredges for too long”.
It set a precedent for all 73 offshore marine protected areas around the UK, and for the devolved administrations and for the EU, which have the same law on protecting these areas in place, he said.
Prof Callum Roberts, of Exeter University and a trustee of Blue, said that the wildlife on the Dogger Bank was a “ghost” of what was once there, and new protection could lead to the beginnings of a recovery of species including halibut, flapper skate, blue skate, longnose skate, angel sharks, turbot, brill, wolf fish, conger eels and cod.
“Many of these species have declined so far that they are on the endangered species list but so far marine conservation efforts in the UK have completely neglected doing anything to bring about their recovery.
“Protection of the Dogger Bank would be a first tangible step to address their needs at a meaningful scale,” he said.
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 bye-laws 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.