How to stop trawling from trashing the North Sea

How to stop trawlers from trashing the North Sea

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

Recently Greenpeace dropped a boatload of granite boulders on to Dogger Bank, a permanent threat to any boat that attempts to drag a trawl net across the sandy sea-bottom. One of the biggest boulders had my name painted on it, because Greenpeace asked and I said yes. And in saying yes, I crossed a line that I have never crossed before in 40 years of writing about the environment. I joined the activists, in I hope a measured way, because it’s so very important to give the North Sea a chance to revive itself.

Dogger Bank is the ecological heart of the North Sea and it played a large part in the growth of civilisation in northern Europe. It is also the perfect example of the failure of the European Union to obey its own environmental laws; and, unless drastic action is taken and amendments are made to the Fisheries Bill, it will also become a symbol of Brexit as a lost opportunity.

The Dogger was home to humans before sea levels rose, when the land bridge connected Britain to the continent. As every schoolchild used to know, a few hundred years ago it had huge oyster and mussel beds, and of course was a nursery and a breeding ground for fish. The North Sea fishery, made rich by the Dogger, was the engine which created the European banking sector, and settling disputes over its fishery formed the basis of international law that’s still in use.

Dogger Bank today hosts a wide variety of marine life ranging from soft corals to sharks and rays; it is a breeding ground for whiting cod and sand eels, and a foraging area for seabirds and marine mammals such as seals, harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins and minke whales. But the marine life of the Dogger is thought to be degrading fast as a result of centuries of being battered and scooped away with increasingly efficient bottom gears — including, controversially and almost certainly illegally, electric pulse trawls. It is no longer the habitat of the marine equivalent of rhinos or pandas, but it is one of the places where protection would be most likely to bring them back.

As long ago as 2007 the first steps were taken to protect the Dogger under the European Habitats Directive — written by our present Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson — followed by the Netherlands and then the UK in its sector of the bank in 2012. Then absolutely nothing happened. Europe’s leaders simply celebrated the lines on the map they had drawn, taking them as evidence that they had met their international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The reason nothing happened is because the fishing industry is the only one in Europe which can bypass environmental law. Oil and gas, aggregates and wind farms all have to get consents running to many pages to do anything, or they end up in court. Not fishing. Though some forms of fishing are arguably the most damaging thing you can do to the sea, environmental law is imposed by the member states and its rules are trumped by the Common Fisheries Policy, the sole competence of the EU, which allows fishing nations to prevaricate indefinitely about enforcing environmental legislation.

The reason this has been allowed to go on so long is that, unlike in America or the UK, citizens in Europe frequently cannot sue the government for breaking its own laws because the courts say they have no standing to do so. It is one of the fundamental reasons why the EU does not work properly, why auditors will not sign off its budgets and why its voluminous environmental laws on things from pollution to shooting honey buzzards are never enforced against recalcitrant countries unless there is enough political will. The failure of the EU to allow citizens to sue the government is, I believe, one of the fundamental reasons for our rift with Europe.

Though Europe now has good laws on fishing which say that ministers cannot allocate more fishing opportunities than scientists say resources can stand, these are not enforced. Some 46 per cent of stocks are still being overfished this year, when rules against overfishing which Britain campaigned for were finally supposed to be in force. But the question of interest to us on this side of the North Sea is what happens with our own Fisheries Bill.

To my disgust, and that of most international experts on fisheries, the government has done its best to prevent what all common law jurisdictions allow in some way — the review of government policy in the courts. It has rejected a Lords amendment to the Bill that would have made sustainability the ‘prime objective’ of the Fisheries Bill, even though this objective is enshrined in the UN Law of the Sea.

This must be fixed when the Bill comes back to parliament this week. And we must ensure that environmental law is enforced. The offshore marine-protected areas (MPAs) in the UK alone run to the size of England and Wales and the enforcement of environmental regulations against the fishing industry there is virtually nil. The other Brexit dividend — how much fish our industry can catch when it gets the right to fish our own waters — is currently a matter for negotiation and, since we need access to European markets for 60 per cent of what we catch, there are bound to be concessions to grant access to foreign fleets.

But we can say how and where they fish. That is what we get back. And so it makes absolutely no sense to allow foreign fleets — or our own, for 55 per cent of the English quota is foreign-owned — to go on trashing the Dogger Bank and the other offshore MPAs after the Brexit transition period ends. That is not ‘taking back control’.

Under present plans the government will begin a ‘consultation’ on how environmental law should be enforced in the 73 offshore MPAs starting after the transition period. This will go on for years, maybe a decade, if past experience is anything to go by and result in actual protection of less than 1 per cent of the areas in question. It is a disgrace and sloppy too. MPs must vote to remove supertrawlers, beam trawlers and electric pulse trawlers from protected waters such as the Dogger Bank from 1 January.

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