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Bottom Trawling: Marine Protected Areas

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

[Steve McCabe in the Chair]

I probably do not need to do this for a former Leader of the House, but I should point out that I am going to call Chris Grayling and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity to wind up, as is the convention in a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. This may be unusual for a half-hour debate, but there are a number of colleagues here who may want to briefly join the discussion. The Minister knows that this is an issue of great concern to me. We have been here before, and I did a ten-minute rule Bill on this issue last year, but I want to keep it on the agenda. It commands concern across not just our House but the other place, where my noble Friend Lord Randall has taken my Bill from last year, improved it and tabled it again this year, and I wish him well with progress on it. I know that, without Government help, it will struggle to reach the statute book, but I hope that that is another indication to Ministers and officials of the strength of feeling about the issue.

Why does this issue command so much concern? The Government are rightly focused on improving our stewardship of the environment, and most people on both sides of the House share that view. Most of the public, who also share our concerns, would think that the presence of marine protected areas, covering around a third of our national waters, would play a big part in ensuring that we look after our own marine habitats. Whether we are talking about the smaller fish, the other creatures that live on reefs or the fish that live in broader areas around those marine protected areas—areas that we would hope would allow fish populations to recover and grow—the public would see those as central to our task of protecting the marine environment.

Sadly, as the Minister knows, the truth has been rather different. Our marine protected areas do not offer a lot of protection at all, particularly for our seabeds. The areas at the bottom of the sea are so important, because they are populated by the smallest creatures, which make up an important part of the natural food chains in our oceans. However, they remain open to large-scale trawlers dragging nets along the bottom, destroying much of what is in their path. The worst culprits are big international vessels that do enormous damage, as they use vast amounts of energy to scoop up everything as they go, and they have equipment that covers a vast area under water. That means, in reality, that those protected areas are subject to regular intensive fishing, which does huge damage to the ecology.

In total, less than 100th of 1% of our waters are covered by the highest level of protection, where all fishing is banned. Ninety-four per cent. of our MPAs permit bottom trawling; only 6% do not. That, in my view, means that they really are not properly marine protected areas at all. There is an urgency about the need for change. We cannot go on like this, because the more time passes, the more damage is done and the more ecology is lost. We have 372 marine protected areas, including coastal and offshore areas, which represent around 38% of UK waters. However, most are not in good condition and have suffered significant habitat degradation. Bottom trawling is a key part, if not the key part, of the problem, with that scalping of the sea floor destroying habitats all around our coastal waters.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it must be remembered that fishermen have the world’s greatest reason to be environmentalists? They know that if they get it wrong, they have done themselves and future generations out of a job. Consultation with long-standing fishermen must play a large part in any conversations regarding marine protected areas. Does he agree?

Yes, I do agree. Fishing communities need to be a part of the discussion, and local fishing communities in the United Kingdom are pretty good at looking after their coastal waters. The problem is the big guys who come in and hoover the ocean floor. It is necessary to get the right balance, but we have to do a much better job on protection.

I am grateful that my right hon. Friend is championing this matter, because it is so important, and I think there would be strong support on the Isle of Wight for a ban on bottom trawling in all MPAs. In a place such as the Island, a ban on bottom trawling in MPAs combined with, for example, a Reserve Seafood brand, as in Lyme Bay, would be very good news. In Lyme Bay, we see increased catches, increased job satisfaction and increased prices for the fish when fishing is done environmentally and sensitively. I am very supportive of that, and I look forward to helping my right hon. Friend in future.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes some very good points. This is about proper, careful stewardship of the ocean and the ocean floor. As he rightly says, if these things are done well, it can benefit everyone.

Of course, there is another issue, because this is not just about scalping the seabed; it is also about our ability to tackle climate change and absorb carbon. It is not just the fish and other creatures that suffer because of bottom trawling. Kelp and seagrass are enormously important as well, and are a crucial part of improving our absorption of carbon emissions. We know that bottom trawling can destroy them as well, so there is a variety of reasons why we need to deal with this issue.

One irony is that, from time to time, I get messages from constituents who did not back Brexit asking me what benefits it has brought the country. I remember many people saying that Brexit would mean the destruction of all our environmental protections and that Britain would become a pariah nation, but the opposite is true. We can now do something that we could not do before. Bottom trawling was just a reality of the common fisheries policy, and the Minister would have struggled to take the steps that I have been pushing for. We would have had real difficulty overcoming either the vested interests in fishing fleets elsewhere or those countries that have no coast and that were not terribly interested in the issue in the first place. We are now free to act, and I thank the Minister for what she has done so far—the issue today is not a Minister who is saying no. I know she is sympathetic, for which I am grateful. I also know that she continues to face international pressures, and I encourage her to keep resisting those.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is absolutely right that we have to be mindful of the livelihoods of those who work on smaller fishing boats and in the ports around the UK. My Bill was not about getting rid of all of that. History shows that many ports are home to people who are good at managing their fisheries. It is the large boats that we need to deal with, and the Minister has made a good start with the initiation of a ban in four of the protected areas, including Dogger Bank. Well done to her for that step in the right direction.

I asked for this debate so that I could ask the Minister and her officials to move faster on their plans and so that I could share concerns about the approach taken so far. We really need to get on with this as rapidly as possible. There will be more and more pressure in this place to cover not just the first handful of MPAs but a whole raft of them. Although there has been a good start, I sense that progress so far is still much slower than most of us would wish. Of course, officials will want to take a careful and methodical approach, but there is not a lot of time to spare. The more time we take, the more damage is done, and the more damage is done, the longer the ecosystems will take to recover.

Not only is damage done, but the damage is increasing. In 2019, Greenpeace found that the amount of time supertrawlers spent fishing in marine protected areas had more than doubled, to 2,913 hours, in that year alone. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we have a real opportunity now to ban supertrawlers in every single MPA as a quick early win and then to help fishers move to different gear types to be more sustainable in their methods?

It is, as the hon. Gentleman says, the big vessels that are the problem. I am sure the Minister will take a careful note of those comments, with which I am extremely sympathetic.

There is another point of concern that I would like to put to the Minister. Not all of the protected areas are uniform in their underwater terrain. There are areas where there are reefs of great sensitivity surrounded by areas of sand on the seabed. That is just the reality of MPAs. The Marine Management Organisation, which is implementing the bans, seems not to be taking a uniform approach to all the protected areas. In some, it is deciding to ban bottom trawling in part of the MPA but not all of it. Effectively, it is saying, “You’ve got sandy seabeds, and they are not affected at all.” I can understand, in theory, the logic behind that. The argument has been made to me by some in the fishing community, but I ask the Minister to think carefully about this.

First, it is going to be incredibly difficult to police. Who will be monitoring the movements of a trawler to establish whether it has approached or gone over the top of a protected reef?

MPAs are monitored by the automatic identification system. In a recent incident on the Irish sea, not only did a fishing vessel swear at me over the radio and fail to display the correct lights, but it had also turned off its AIS, which meant that we could not monitor what those fishermen were doing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even though we have the international convention for the safety of life at sea, we need legislation to ensure that the AIS systems remain working on commercial fishing vessels?

I absolutely agree. Frankly, I think that any fishing vessel that comes into UK waters and turns off the tracking systems should be banned from UK waters. It is as simple as that.

Whatever we do, we have to police very carefully. Problems arise if we only proscribe bottom trawling in part of a marine protected area. How on earth do we check whether a vessel has really passed over a protected reef or not? Who is policing that, watching the vessel every inch of the way and coming up with sufficient evidence to make it legally watertight to prosecute if it does it? Although it may be possible to segregate in a small number of areas where it is clear that that is the obvious thing to do, my message to the Minister is to please make that a rare exception rather than the norm. I do not believe that we have the ability to track and police those areas properly.

The other point about sandy seabeds is that they are not always areas of non-ecological importance. The opposite is often the case. These are areas with seagrass or kelp, and there are fish that live there as well. We cannot just say that it is fine to bottom trawl sandy seabeds but not if there is a reef there. Segmenting an area should be the exception, not the rule. The whole MPA should mean the whole MPA, and only very rarely should we take a different approach. The default position should be that the ban covers the whole area, and it is only in exceptional circumstances that we should we accept that bottom trawling can continue.

I stress that, whether we are talking about segregation of MPAs or a wholesale ban, this needs to be properly policed. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made a very good point. We have to have mechanisms in place, and we have to be tough. If somebody comes into our waters, breaks the rules and damages the ecology, I do not see why they should be allowed in our waters again—or, if they are a UK boat, why they should be allowed out to sea again. We want tough enforcement. In looking at what the Government are doing, I urge the Minister to act in this area.

This issue commands concern across the House. Concerns are held widely among people around the country—in fishing communities and elsewhere. We have to be careful about protecting the livelihood of people in the small boats that go out into coastal waters. They are, and have been for years, an essential part of the livelihoods of people in our smaller fishing ports. We cannot say to the fishing community, “No more. Away you go. Do something else.” That is absolutely not what this is about. This is about stopping industrial trawling in marine protected areas and getting rid of the equipment that scalps the seabed. It is about having proper protections for areas of great ecological importance and looking after our oceans better than we have in the past.

I thank the Minister for making a good start in this area. I know that she has had to fight battles to get the first four areas. It is a good start, but this cannot go step by step. I know that civil servants like to take things methodically sometimes, and I completely understand why—we will come back to the issue of due diligence following the Environment Act 2021 before too long—but we need to move as fast as possible. Otherwise, we are leaving our seabeds to be damaged and damaged again by trawlers that are getting bigger and bigger, and it will take our seabeds, reefs and marine species far too long to recover.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. It is also a great pleasure to be here with my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and other colleagues with interests in fish. We meet relatively regularly in this Chamber to discuss various fishy issues.

I am particularly interested in this issue and I think that this has been a really useful contribution to the debate on MPAs. Our network of MPAs is one of our most important tools for protecting the wide range of precious and sensitive habitats and species that our water contains. We have established a comprehensive network of MPAs in the UK; we have 178 in England, covering 40% of English waters. In fact—perhaps I have not explained this sufficiently widely before—bottom trawling is already banned in 102 of those 178 MPAs.

MPAs protect specific features within the designated site to allow those features to recover to a favourable condition, meaning that they are in a good and healthy state. One example is the Solent and Dorset coast special protection area, which protects internationally important terns. Birds and other species can also be a critical part of the MPA network. The SPA is very important to the terns, as much of the sea around their breeding colonies is the ideal habitat for their plunge feeding.

We know that designating the MPAs is only part of the story. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, it is essential that they are properly protected; otherwise, they can do no good at all. We also recognise that there are growing spatial tensions between industries such as fishing, dredging, oil and gas and the renewable energies sector, alongside the very real need to conserve and enhance our marine environment.

Bottom trawling is a broad term used to describe methods of pulling fishing gear along the seabed to catch both fish and shellfish. Bottom-towed gears fall broadly into three groups—trawls, dredges and seines—with multiple types of gears within those groups. Bottom trawls are used by all parts of the fishing fleet, from small day boats to large offshore vessels. It is fair to say that all types of vessels can cause real damage if the wrong type of gear is used in the wrong way. The main effects of bottom trawling are linked to the scraping of the seabed by the fishing gear.

We need to be aware that approximately 45% of the value of the fish landed in the UK comes from bottom trawling, which includes cod, plaice and scallops. It is therefore important that we work with the fishing sector as we begin progressively to reduce the adverse effects of these types of fishing methods.

The Minister is making a sound case of stating where we are up to. However, does she note that the supertrawlers, of which the UK has none and which so plunder many of our MPAs, land their fish in foreign ports? Many of our bottom trawlers already fish outside MPAs and land in UK ports. However, the trawlers over which there is real concern have no economic benefit to the UK because they land their fish abroad.

The hon. Gentleman touches on a very important point, and I will be coming to supertrawlers later. As ever, we have to find the balance between actions that we know are not great for the environment and the economic benefit to and protection of coastal communities and the processing that is so valuable to so many of those communities. That is the point I am trying to make: this is an important and delicate balance. It is important that we recognise the scale of the challenge. Some 45% of the value of fish landed in the UK comes from this type of gear. We must continue to work with rather than against the fishing industry in getting that balance right.

A blanket ban on bottom trawling has all the appeal of simplicity, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell makes the case in his typically persuasive manner. However, it is fair to say that not all MPAs are designated to protect features that are affected by bottom trawling. The MMO and IFCAs have embarked on a programme of detailed site-by-site analysis of each MPA. As I have said, they have done 102 bans of bottom trawling, so more than half—57%, I think—have already been dealt with in this way. Each assessment is informed by scientific advice, then byelaws are designed for each area. I do hear, however, what my right hon. Friend has said about making those byelaws sufficiently simple for fishermen to follow without difficulty. I recognise that that detailed approach takes more time than a blanket ban, but I think it is worth it to avoid unnecessary impacts on our fishing industry.

We have made the most progress in our inshore waters. There are 98 MPAs with byelaws in place to protect sensitive habitats and species from bottom trawling. The management measures have been brought in by engaging with the fishing industry, and also by engagement through the IFCA network, which has been very valuable in some cases.

My right hon. Friend was also seeking Brexit benefits. It is definitely true to say that in the offshore MPAs there is a benefit that we would not have been able to achieve without the benefit of Brexit. Before the end of the transition period, we really were restrained in implementing management measures in offshore MPAs because of vetoes imposed by other EU states that fished there. Now we are pressing on with protecting those areas too, and I am pleased to say that on 13 June we put in place byelaws to protect four of our most sensitive offshore areas, including Dogger Bank.

We are definitely not going to stop there, and last month we published a call for evidence on the next 13 offshore sites. We have developed a programme to bring in management for the other 23 offshore sites in English waters by 2024. That is a workstream with which I am determined to press ahead, ensuring that we keep this moving.

The MMO has fully engaged with the fishing industry in developing those plans, and will continue to do so, to ensure that they provide robust protection and that they do not restrict fishing any more than they need to. We will also continue to work with our international partners, and we will—while not allowing them to veto our plans —aim to include them in our consultation process.

Supertrawlers have been mentioned by several Members. Those vessels are usually pelagic trawlers. They fish in the water column. As such, they are not likely to come into contact with the seabed habitats and species, which is what most of our MPAs are designed to protect. They do, of course, have a significant effect on the stock that they are coming to target. They are extremely efficient at fishing and can fish a stock extraordinarily quickly, but, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has said, do not always land the catch in this country. There are many reasons for continuing to look at whether supertrawlers bring us real benefit. I am not sure that the most persuasive of those is the MPA network, but that does not stop us continuing to assess them.

Site-based protection does not mitigate the impacts from those vessels that target migratory stocks, which many of them do, but we are looking closely at what our policies for those vessels should be, and it is important that those decisions should be based on the evidence.

Following the work of my dear friend Lord Benyon, we are ready to launch the next set of work on highly protected marine areas—those areas of the sea that allow for the protection and complete recovery of green ecosystems. We have shortlisted five pilot sites for consultation, which will start shortly. For HPMAs to be successful, we will need to work very closely with the local fishing industry, other marine industries and other sea users in designating, managing and monitoring what goes on in those areas. There is a great deal to be gained from those areas, both environmentally and scientifically, if we are able to get this work right, but it has to be done sensitively and relatively slowly.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell for introducing an interesting debate. Progress has been made, but he is right to keep pressing us on what we can do further to protect our precious marine environment.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.