The failure of local authorities in the UK to enforce protection zones today is threatening fish populations - including the very young, with no evidence of any benefit for fishing communities.
In 2012 the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and ClientEarth were at the point of challenging the UK government in court over its failure to protect Special Areas of Conservation or ‘SACs’ from fishing.
SACs have been designated under European laws - mainly written by the UK - since the 1990s. The MCS was likely to win, so the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) convened the marine regulators or Inshore fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) in order to establish clearer controls of our inshore waters.
By 2014, the IFCAs had brought in effective by-laws to protect reefs, seagrass beds and maerl habitats, the most obvious habitats to protect - but the story didn't end there.
These by-laws included the Northumberland SAC. With very limited commercial trawling interest in the site, it was all closed with no negative impact on the fishing industry. Set nets and pot-fishing for crab and lobster were to continue.
Northumberland SAC is a Marine Protected Area stretching along 60 miles of thinly populated coast between Amble to just across the Scottish border.
It has not been commercially trawled for more than 15 years – these inshore waters tend to shelter smaller, younger fish that move away into deeper waters as they grow and become more valuable to the fishing industry.
The IFCA promised that ‘non-reef parts of the site’ could be re-opened to trawling if evidence was forthcoming that the seabed was not all reef.
So even with little commercial trawling interest in the site, the IFCA and Natural England then paid to survey it. They found 3-4 areas of ‘sand’ interspersed within the reef areas.
Recent research in Lyme Bay, after the 2008 closure there, showed that what looks like ‘sand’ may cover reef that a storm can remove, allowing seabed biodiversity associated with reefs to recover.
This only tends to affirm the value of the ‘precautionary principle’. This states that where an activity is causing unacceptable harm, even if scientific understanding is still incomplete, the activity should be subject to restrictions.
Meanwhile, in January 2018, DEFRA committed to move away from a ‘feature-based’ approach to marine conservation to a ‘whole-site’ approach. In other words: wider ecosystems, processes and functions should be protected, not just single elements within them.
Recent findings from the South Arran MPA show that different species of fish measurably benefit from a ‘mosaic’ of habitats. The reef, mud, sand and seagrass which they need at different times should ideally be close to each other, and healthy.
As in Lyme Bay, it has been found that ecological communities, left to themselves, will ‘extend out’ beyond defined features, allowing recolonization, recruitment and growth in sandier habitat.
Protection from exploitation
These are all exciting developments, including DEFRA’s change of tack. Yet none of them mattered when, ignoring protests from the MCS, the Northumberland IFCA decided to re-open three sandy areas to trawling in Spring 2018.
A potential nursery area for fish has been jeopardised because a minority of the fishing fleet may at some point in the future want to come back if the fish recover. But if it’s mainly an area for younger fish why would it ever be worth trawling in the SAC?
The decision brings no significant economic benefit to fishermen. Added to this, the most recent ecological research, DEFRA’s new ‘whole-site’ approach to management, protection of fish nursery grounds, the precautionary principle, and a progressive interpretation of law have all been disregarded.
Granting access to three small areas - comprising less than 5 percent of the site - will complicate, and almost certainly compromise, protection and the ability to control trawling throughout the rest of the SAC.
The IFCAs are contractually obliged to balance the need to protect the marine environment from - or promote its recovery from - the effects of such exploitation against the social and economic benefits of exploiting fisheries.
The behaviour of the Northumberland IFCA is not unusual. Similar stories have emerged in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Kent and Essex.
Quietly, without attracting undue media attention, the ‘balance’ these bodies are legally and ecologically obliged to strike in protected areas is being ignored.
It is a measure of the insincerity with which Marine Protected Area management is applied that we still have no large areas closed to all types of fishing.
All good experiments have controls - where nothing happens - in order to compare the impact of an intervention - e.g. trawling. The reason we don’t have any large No Take Zones is that these would, in time, provide a baseline, an irrefutable means of comparing the impact of intervention to that of non-intervention.
The lack of these zones keeps matters and decisions usefully vague; the benefits of conservation can be dismissed as utopian or hypothetical as long as people have no way of seeing them for themselves.
The role of many regulators has been to regulate as little as possible whilst keeping themselves and the government out of the law courts and the newspapers. That is the only ‘balance’ they have really struck.
All this matters for the outlook beyond Brexit. The precautionary principle in the Habitats Regulations will be weakened. Don’t expect coherent, pro-active regulations that recover the seas from decades of trawling.
EU law helped some more progressive regulators, such as in Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, Sussex and Cornwall to future-proof their MPAs against potentially damaging activities – one fisheries regulator Chief Officer from Devon has said as much.
Our current arrangements, as they operate in practice, are already troubling enough.
In addition, we now have further uncertainty and a weakening of those bodies which were set up to benefit both ecosystems and fisheries. Under these circumstances it is far from clear that we will improve on European protections after next March.
Jean-Luc Solandt is a marine biologist and principle specialist in marine protected areas at the Marine Conservation Society. Horatio Morpurgo is a journalist and campaigner who was involved with the campaign to establish an MPA in Lyme Bay and has been writing about these issues for 10 years.