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Fisheries: Environment Protection

Volume 475: debated on Monday 12 May 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what capacity his Department has to assess what fishing takes place in the proposed offshore special areas of conservation sites at (a) Braemar Pockmarks, (b) Scanner Pockmark, (c) North Norfolk Sandbanks and Saturn Reef, (d) Haig Frais, (e) Stanton Banks, (f) Darwin Mounds and (g) Wyville Thomson Ridge. (203965)

The Marine Fisheries Agency (MFA) assesses fishing that takes place in the proposed offshore special areas of conservation and has access to sightings data collected from both aerial and surface surveillance units (namely fishery protection aircraft and the Royal Navy vessels within the Fishery Protection Squadron). The MFA also has access to satellite monitoring data but this is only in relation to vessels over 15 m in length, transmitting their positions every two hours.

The MFA can also access fisheries statistics in relation to species caught and landed from a particular area via the Fisheries Statistical Unit to the level of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) statistical rectangles.

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what assessment his Department has made of the (a) actual and (b) potential environmental damage or risk of environmental damage from fishing and related activities within the proposed offshore special areas of conservation sites at (i) Braemar Pockmarks, (ii) Scanner Pockmark, (iii) North Norfolk Sandbanks and Saturn Reef, (iv) Haig Frais, (v) Stanton Banks, (vi) Darwin Mounds and (vii) Wyville Thomson Ridge. (203966)

The Joint Nature Conservation Council made the following assessments of the impacts of fishing on the condition of the proposed offshore special areas of conservation (SAC) sites as part of the Offshore Marine Natura consultation process, which took place in 2007.

Braemar Pockmarks

The biological and physical structure of the interest feature at the Braemar pockmarks site are known to have been partially impacted by bottom trawling. This has dispersed, fragmented and possibly buried some of the carbonate formations, and may also have modified the structure of the encircling pockmarks (John Hartley, pers. comm., 2005). However, much of the interest feature is still intact.

The prospects of this feature in terms of maintaining its structure in the future (taking into account unfavourable influences and reasonable conservation effort) are good. A mechanism is available through the European Commission’s common fisheries policy regulations to modify fishing activity in the area if this is deemed to be necessary.

Scanner Pockmark

The biological and physical structure of the habitat at the Scanner pockmark site is intact on the available evidence but may have been impacted by bottom trawling for Norway lobster (Nephrops norvegicus) (the main commercial demersal stock in the Witch Ground). Bottom trawling could have modified the structure of the pockmark, causing burial of some of the submarine structures, as well as breaking and displacement of carbonate pieces. Some fishing nets were observed caught on the structures. However, the feature appears to be largely undamaged.

The prospects of this feature to maintain its structure in the future, taking into account unfavourable influences and reasonable conservation effort, are good. A mechanism is available through the European Commission’s common fisheries policy regulations to modify fishing activity in the area if this is deemed to be necessary.

North Norfolk Sandbanks and Saturn Reef

The biological and physical structure of the North Norfolk Sandbanks have been impacted locally by some gas extraction infrastructure and aggregate extraction. It is also possible that the fauna of the banks have been impacted by bottom trawling, which may have reduced the number of long-lived or fragile organisms associated with the interest feature. The physical structure of the banks is intact, if not pristine, and the biology is representative of the habitat.

The prospects of this feature to maintain its structure in the future, taking into account unfavourable influences and reasonable conservation effort, are good. Regulations are in place to control oil and gas activity in and around SACs in the UK continental shelf designated area and developments are subject to appropriate assessment if they are likely to affect the features of a SAC. A mechanism is available through the European Commission’s common fisheries policy regulations to modify fishing activity in the area if this is deemed to be necessary. The aggregates industries’ operations are currently subject to environmental assessment, and would be subject to appropriate assessment if likely to affect SAC interest features.

Haig Fras

Available evidence indicates that the biological and physical structure of the reef interest feature at Haig Fras are intact (Rees, 2000).

The prospects of this feature to maintain its structure in the future (taking into account unfavourable influences and reasonable conservation effort) are good, since the basic physical structure is resilient to mechanical impacts and the reef is isolated from terrestrial sources of pollution. Due to the shape of the feature, it is likely to be avoided by bottom trawlers which could damage the reef fauna. However, a mechanism is available through the European Commission’s common fisheries policy regulations to modify fishing activity in the area if this is deemed to be necessary.

Stanton Banks

The biological and physical structure of the reef habitat at Stanton Banks is intact to the best of our knowledge.

The prospects of this feature in terms of maintaining its structure in the future (taking into account unfavourable influences and reasonable conservation effort) are excellent. A mechanism is available through the European Commission’s common fisheries policy regulations to modify fishing activity in the area if this is deemed to be necessary.

Darwin Mounds

The biological and physical structure of the biogenic reef in this area is mainly intact although some areas have been damaged by bottom trawling. Evidence of damage was provided from sidescan sonar images in 1999 (Bett, 1999). New damage (smashed coral strewn on the sea bed) was also visible over about a half of the Darwin Mounds East during summer 2000 (Bett, 2001). A trawler was operating nearby during the surveys. Reef damage means a loss of not only the habitat itself, but the species assemblages it supports.

The prospects of this feature to maintain its structure in the future, taking into account unfavourable influences and reasonable conservation effort, are moderate. The European Commission, at the request of the UK, has adopted common fisheries policy measures which prohibit the use of bottom trawling gear within the SAC boundary. However, it is possible that some further bottom trawling may have occurred in the months before these common fisheries policy measures were in place. Equally, it is possible that illegal fishing activities take place on this site. Therefore, this feature could be degraded by fisheries in spite of reasonable conservation effort.

Wyville Thomson Ridge

The biological and physical structure of habitats on Wyville Thomson Ridge is intact on the basis of available evidence, although some scarring from bottom trawling has been observed.

The prospects of this feature to maintain its structure in the future, taking into account unfavourable influences and reasonable conservation effort, are good. A mechanism is available through the European Commission’s common fisheries policy regulations to modify fishing activity in the area, if this is deemed to be necessary.

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what ongoing monitoring of potential damage from fishing and related activities he plans to undertake in the proposed offshore special areas of conservation sites at (a) Braemar Pockmarks, (b) Scanner Pockmark, (c) North Norfolk Sandbanks and Saturn Reef, (d) Haig Frais, (e) Stanton Banks, (f) Darwin Mounds and (g) Wyville Thomson Ridge. (203968)

Monitoring of fishing activities in the proposed Special Areas of Conservation (pSACs) sites is undertaken on the basis of a risk-based programme of monitoring and enforcement, including the use of inspections on land and at sea. This will often be in conjunction with enforcement in respect of fishing activity, though not exclusively, because other marine activities are also required to comply with the Offshore Marine Conservation Regulations 2007.

The enforcement programme will seek to identify those areas where there is the highest probability of offences occurring and to prioritise resources to those areas to ensure compliance. Intelligence information will also be used when it becomes available from any reliable source.

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what steps he plans to take to prevent fishing activity if the Joint Nature Conservation Committee advises that fishing damages or has the potential to damage the proposed offshore special areas of conservation sites at (a) Braemar Pockmarks, (b) Scanner Pockmark, (c) North Norfolk Sandbanks and Saturn Reef, (d) Haig Frais, (e) Stanton Banks, (f) Darwin Mounds and (g) Wyville Thomson Ridge; and how he plans to prevent environmental damage from fishing and related activities at each site. (203969)

The Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 2007 ensure that certain activities that have an effect on important species and habitats in the offshore marine environment can be controlled. The regulations apply in the “offshore area” beyond 12 nautical miles from the UK coast. They protect marine habitats, species and wild birds, through a number of offences.

The regulations take account of the fact that the regulation of commercial fishing activities is conducted in the framework of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) (as the European Community has exclusive competence). Where measures are necessary to control commercial fishing activities to meet the conservation objectives of an offshore Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) the UK will work with the European Commission to deliver proportionate and effective measures through CFP regulation.