Supertrawlers vastly stepped up their fishing in the UK’s protected waters during the coronavirus lockdown earlier this year, while most of the UK’s smaller vessels were confined to port.
The amount of time supertrawlers spent fishing in marine protected areas in the first half of this year was nearly double that spent in the waters in the whole of last year, according to a Greenpeace investigation. There were 23 supertrawlers catching fish in UK protected areas in the period, none of them UK-owned.
The vessels – more than 100-metres long and each capable of catching and carrying thousands of tonnes of fish – spent 5,590 hours in 19 of the UK’s marine protected areas in the first six months of 2020, compared with 2,963 hours in 39 protected areas in the whole of last year. The Greenpeace data shows a massive increase in supertrawler activity since 2017, when they spent 475 hours in total fishing in the UK’s protected areas.
Supertrawlers are legal in UK waters, including in many of the marine protected areas that make up about 25% of the UK’s coastal waters. Fishing activities are limited in the protected areas but only outlawed in a few.
Chris Thorne, the oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, called for large-scale fishing to be banned in the areas designated as protected. After Brexit, when the UK leaves the EU common fisheries policy, it will be possible to ban supertrawlers.
“Our government cannot continue to allow supertrawlers to fish with ever increasing intensity in parts of our waters that are supposed to be protected,” said Thorne. “At least 30% of the UK’s waters should be off limits to all industrial fishing activity, in a network of fully or highly protected marine areas.”
When the lockdown was at its most strict this spring, few of the UK’s smaller fishing vessels were even leaving port. Their market collapsed when lockdown was imposed, as demand from other countries – which take a large proportion of the UK’s catch – dried up, and restaurants and catering outlets closed down. Thousands of fishermen faced hardship, and the government offered a GBP10m rescue package including help for new ways to get fish to consumers.
However, the supertrawlers were likely to be after different catch, said Dale Rodmell, the assistant chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations.
“Greenpeace regard supertrawlers as an easy target, but their arguments about fishing in MPAs are a red herring,” he said. “The majority of MPAs exist to protect seabed habitats and these trawlers fish mid-water and so do not affect the seabed. Most of our fish stocks range well beyond the boundaries of MPAs so controls on how much fish can be caught are far more relevant to the sustainability of stocks than limiting access to catches within MPAs.”
He added that the UK’s fishing fleets faced ongoing difficulties from the lockdown. “The industry remains fragile and vulnerable to a second wave, and it will be a long slog to recovery for many parts of the fleet. We have some of the best fish and shellfish in the world and consumers can lend their support by seeking out British fish.”
Greenpeace used vessel-tracking data from the automatic identification system satellites, which are tracked by the shipping experts Lloyd’s List, and overlaid this data on maps of the UK’s marine protected areas to find all instances when a fishing vessel over 100 metres in length was inside a protected area. The investigators assessed the speeds at which the vessels were moving, to assess when they were fishing, and cross-referenced their findings with data provided by the vessels.
Last week a group of 58 MPs, including the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, signed an open letter to the environment secretary, George Eustice, calling for a ban on supertrawlers in the UK’s marine protected areas.
Labour is also calling on the government to ban supertrawlers from protected seas. Luke Pollard, shadow environment secretary, said: “The government needs to step up to properly protect the most sensitive areas of British waters from this industrial scale plunder which is destroying precious biodiversity. Labour wants to prevent supertrawlers fishing in UK protected areas, and we’re campaigning for more jobs in our fishing communities, by pushing for more of the fish caught in British waters to be landed in UK ports.”
A spokesperson for the Department for 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 as an independent coastal state means we can introduce stronger measures.”