Marine protection or government deception?

UPDATE: a few hours before the release of this the government announced that they are actually going to actually ban bottom trawling in 14,000sqkm of U.K. waters, including Dogger Bank which is referred to in this piece. This is an excellent step forward and a lot of work has gone into making that happen but please now read this with that in mind! I only found this information after publishing the post but my points still stand. Furthermore, a large amount of the U.K. MPA network will continue to experience bottom trawling but I feel it is important to acknowledge the steps around the time of this release.


Our oceans are being brutally exploited beyond their limits and the measures in place to protect them are failing. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were introduced as a way to remove the pressures of fishing and other human activity from an area to allow the community to recover. MPAs have become a cornerstone of marine conservation, with targets to implement them being raised from 10% to 30% in various parts of the world. Their wide-spread use is, naturally, thought of as a precursor to rejuvenation of biodiversity in our seas. This is not exactly the case. Across the world the effects of poor implementation are evident. Often the problems with MPAs are, among other things, due to a lack of protection which means too many destructive activities persist and the area cannot recover. This was exceptionally evidenced last month when research found that 98% of UK MPAs still experience bottom trawling, the most destructive form of fishing. How has such destructive activity come to be disguised as conservation and what are the consequences for our oceans?

An MPA is an area of ocean off-limits to certain activities, determined by its protection level. Protection can range from minimal, where destructive activities and extraction is still permitted, to fully protected, no-take protection where the environment is exposed to no stressors at all, left to recuperate naturally. Stressors are anything that puts the environment under stress and includes the intense fishing we expose our fishing grounds to every day, noise from ships constantly ferrying around our imports and exports or, in the future, the drilling and scraping associated with mining of the seabed. The success of an MPA, i.e. the recovery of an area, is directly correlated with the level of protection it receives. This is linked to a theory known by conservationists as ‘fishing down the food web’. It means that the largest, most sensitive species, such as sharks and rays, will succumb to fishing pressure first. These are followed by fish species, particularly commercial fish as they are heavily targeted, then smaller fish until only hardy species like prawns and scallops are left to exploit whilst they face the struggle to survive in a dying habitat. 

Recovery acts in reverse of fishing. Minimal protection will mean the habitat remains as it is or deteriorate further. Intermediate protection will allow for the recovery of some fish species but for full recovery of large, predatory fish, full protection with minimal fishing pressure is necessary. Full protection, in reality, though, is rare due to major flaws in how MPAs are implemented worldwide, making it a global problem. The extent of these problems is still being unearthed but it’s certainly clear that MPAs are not being used and implemented by governments to their full potential for ocean conservation.  

Trawling is one and a half times more intense inside protected areas than outside.

A 2018 study of Europe’s marine reserves by Duriel et al. published in Science found that, surprisingly, trawling was more intense in protected areas than unprotected and the abundance of sensitive species decreased by 69% in response to this activity. Trawling is when a large net is dropped to the seabed, often weighed down by a heavy, rolling pole. The entire contraption is dragged along the seabed wiping out anything and everything that lies in its path. Seabed-dwelling (benthic) organisms form an integral part of marine food chains so the effects on these species will affect the lives and recovery of the entire ecosystem.  These organisms also play a key role in connecting the seabed to the water allowing for the exchange of energy, carbon and other nutrients as these organisms interact with swimming organisms, filter the water to keep it clean and rotate the layers of the seabed in an essential a process called bioturbation. All of these have impacts on our climate as these organisms keep our seas healthy and functioning as well as increasing the amount of carbon stored in the sediment which reduces the warming effects of our emissions. Indeed, the ocean is a valuable resource, particularly in terms of food. However this is not fishing for sustenance but for economic gain and our destruction of these habitats limits the benefits that the seabed can offer and will eventually bring us our own demise if we don’t protect it.

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Bottom trawling occurs in 98% of the UK’s Marine Protected Area network.

It’s easy to think that these problems are far from home, in countries lacking the resources, but the UK is in fact an exceptional example of failing marine protection. The waters around the UK are some of the most abundantly productive in the world because they hold a vast amount of nutrients to support large, biodiverse communities of fish. However, we are destroying them, fast. A report released a few weeks ago by the Marine Conservation Society explored the effectiveness of the UK’s MPA network which covers a deceptively impressive 36% of UK waters. However, bottom trawling occurs in 98% of these areas labelled as protected! Such destructive activity renders them next to useless and begs the question- can we really call them ‘protected’ areas when they offer next to no protection at all? It seems to me that this is the product of the health of our plant coming second to meeting government targets.

It seems to me that this is the product of the health of our plant coming second to meeting government targets.

The real danger with MPAs as they stand today is that we are lulled into a false sense of security. On the surface many countries are successful at implementing MPAs. The UK, for example, with 36% of waters protected are hailed as forerunners of marine conservation but when you dive deeper, these areas are not fulfilling their primary goal- to conserve and restore. The meeting of the global area targets delays further action in the belief that problems are being dealt with when in fact they are being left to worsen. It is comparable to putting a broken arm in a cast without first resetting the bone; the problems in the long term will be far greater than the effort of doing things properly the first time.

The reality around MPAs is being increasingly exposed and various organisations and public figures are calling for change. The Dogger Bank in the North Sea off the East coast of England, for example, was designated a protected area in 2017 to protect the seabed. The area is highly productive and acts as a nursery, breeding and feeding ground for various species. However, this makes it a fishing hotspot, and, despite protection, extensive trawling still occurs there. Between 2015 and 2018 this amounted to over 2,500 hours according to the Marine Conservation Society report. Greenpeace, an environmental activism group, exposed much of this to be illegal as boats switch off their positioning systems, but the government failed respond to their calls. Greenpeace took matters into their own hands and in September 2020 they created a barrier of boulders along the seabed to prevent trawlers from trawling the area in a bid to force the government to listen. The legislation around the Dogger Bank is yet to change but with the boulders still in place, trawling activity is greatly reduced and hopefully steps will be taken to protect this vital habitat better. 

The power of protest is not something to be underestimated. Though the dropping of these boulders may not entirely solve the problems of all MPAs and it will take time for suitable protection to come into effect, it’s a start. They have got people talking and demonstrated to government and policy makers that it’s time to listen and protect the environment properly. But perhaps even more powerful than this, they have generated inspiration. Greenpeace have shown what we can do when we care and fight for our environment. Our planet is worth fighting for. Go and drop boulders on what you believe in.

Sources I have used

Dureuil, M., Boerder, K., Burnett, K.A., Froese, R. and Worm, B., 2018. Elevated trawling inside protected areas undermines conservation outcomes in a global fishing hot spot. Science362(6421), pp.1403-1407.

Marine Unprotected Areas, Marine Conservation Society, 2021, https://www.mcsuk.org/news/marine-unprotected-areas

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