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Marine Protected Areas (Bottom Trawling)

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2022

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate and limit the practice of bottom trawling in marine protected areas, and for connected purposes.

This is a significant change in tone and issue from the serious matters that we have just been discussing, but the process of our democracy must continue as well.

There is a growing consensus in this country that we need to do much more to protect our natural habitats, to ease the pressure on our wildlife and to play a part in reversing the catastrophic loss of biodiversity worldwide. As some hon. Members will know, I am passionate about reversing the deforestation that is destroying some of the world’s most important ecosystems, but we must not and should not forget the importance of marine habitats here and internationally. The failure to protect the habitats beneath our seas not only puts even more pressure on a vast range of creatures but damages one of our most important carbon sinks.

I suspect that most hon. Members would think that the presence of marine protected areas covering about a third of our national waters plays a big part in ensuring that we look after our marine habitats. Sadly, the truth is rather different, because our marine protected areas do not offer a lot of protection at all, particularly for our seabeds. The area at the bottom of our seas, often populated by the smallest creatures that make up an important part of the natural food chains in our oceans, remains open to large-scale trawlers that drag nets along the bottom and destroy much of what is in their path. Some of the largest international vessels that do this are spectacularly damaging in the approach that they take, as they use enormous power to scoop up everything as they go and they have equipment that covers a vast area underwater.

Less than one hundredth of 1% of our waters is covered by the highest level of protection where all fishing is banned. Ninety-four per cent. of our MPAs permit this bottom trawling; only 6% do not. That in my view does not make these proper marine protected areas and I think the practice should stop, as indeed do a whole range of conservation groups. Right now, the Marine Conservation Society has a campaign to achieve this goal. I know the Minister is committed to the kind of improvements that we need, but we must make a difference.

In total, we have 372 MPAs, including coastal and offshore areas, making up a total of 38% of UK waters. We know that a significant number of those are far from being in good shape. Among the most important, around two thirds have significant habitat degradation, and bottom trawling is a key part of the problem, with the scalping of the seafloor leaving habitats with big challenges to recover.

It is not just fish and other marine species that suffer when bottom trawling takes place. Plants such as kelp and seagrass are important habitats in their own right, but they are also important absorbers of carbon, and planting new areas with both is, and should be, an important part of tackling carbon emissions. However, there is no point doing that if bottom trawling destroys underwater plants such as kelp, and in our marine protected areas that simply should not happen.

I know the Government share my concern about the condition of our ocean floors. All too often a large scale net not only scoops up all of the wildlife on the bottom, but churns up and destroys the reefs and the sediment, which is an important carbon absorber, and actually releases carbon from the seafloor. All of this is why the Government have a commitment to properly protect 30% of our land and seas by 2030. The Fisheries Act 2020 paved the way for things to be done to deal with this issue at sea. It was a welcome recognition of how we need to improve things and a good step by the Government. This is one of the benefits that we have now that we are not tied down by the common fisheries policy. We can set new rules and regulations for our waters, which, during this decade, will enable us to totally transform the stewardship of the seas, without being subject to the diktat of Brussels. Outside the European Union, we are freer to improve our environmental standards in a way that we could not always do before, but we need to get on with it, and this Bill is designed to do that.

The Bill will have the effect of placing a duty on the Secretary of State, within 12 months of it receiving Royal Assent, to lay before Parliament regulations that ban bottom trawling in our marine protected areas. It will allow the Secretary of State and the Minister to make some very limited and careful exemptions, but only where they are necessary to support small-scale local fisheries and the smaller boats from our local ports, and then only when the evidence of the nature of the habitats in a particular area makes that possible. There are no circumstances in which any fishing boat should be dragging a net along the bottom of the most environmentally important areas.

I know that the fishing industry faces challenges. The growth of offshore wind energy, for example, has made fishing in other areas of the ocean more difficult than it has been in the past. I know, too, that the bottom of some parts of the existing protected areas is of little ecological value—the value is higher up in the water—and the Government may choose to look at that issue when shaping detailed plans. None the less, it cannot be in the interests of any of the fishing industry if the fish themselves have no protected place in which to grow and develop. If they cannot do that in our protected areas, then where on earth can they do so?

We know that restrictions, where they have been introduced on a limited scale, can make a genuine difference. A year ago, a local ban was introduced off the coast of Sussex because of particularly extreme damage to the kelp forests there which had had a serious impact on the local ecosystems. Evidence now from those people who are monitoring the outcome of that ban shows that those ecosystems have started to recover, and that surely must give us a signpost as to what needs to be done in our broader marine protected areas.

This Bill is based on a simple premise, which is that our marine protected areas should actually protect marine life. I think that that was the intention behind having marine protected areas. I think it is what most people would imagine is actually already the case, and I suspect that they would be horrified to discover that that is not the case. It is time to rectify the situation. I know the Minister is keen to try to achieve the same. I hope the Bill will provide a degree of stimulus to get that job done quickly. This is a major environmental challenge for our coastal waters. It is one that we need to face up to, and it is one that we need to deal with. We must make sure that our marine protected areas are genuinely, absolutely and unreservedly marine protected areas, which is what they are supposed to be. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Chris Grayling, Bob Seely, Sir Oliver Heald, Barry Gardiner, Andrew Selous, Neil Parish and Kerry McCarthy present the Bill.

Chris Grayling accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March, and to be printed (Bill 263).

Business of the House


That, at this day’s sitting, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16(1) (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), proceedings on the motions in the name of Secretary Elizabeth Truss relating to the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022 (SI, 2022, No. 194) and the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2022 (SI, 2022, No. 195) shall be brought to a conclusion not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this Order; the Deputy Speaker shall then put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on those Motions forthwith; such Questions, though opposed, may be put after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Mark Spencer.)