In 2019, the UK expressed its intentions to be a pioneer in the protection of all UK marine environments, starting with the extension of the Blue Belt Scheme, a program launched in 2016 which aims to protect marine life. The government underscored the importance of marine conservation, pushing other countries to adopt strict policies, and reaffirming its status as a global leader on issues related to marine environments. Additionally, the UK called for the creation of a Global Ocean Alliance, which aims to protect 30 percent of global oceans by 2030.
The UK is moving towards more accountability, striving to protect the oceans with better policies and practices.
However, recent studies have shown that 97 percent of UK protected areas are regularly bottom trawled. Bottom trawling is considered one of the most destructive fishing practices. It consists of dragging weighted fishnets across the ocean floor, damaging the entire marine ecosystem. Beside disrupting marine life, damaging coral reefs and kelp forests, bottom trawling also has an incredibly high bycatch impact, further threatening marine biodiversity.
The UK has 73 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and it is estimated that at least 71 MPAs experienced bottom trawling in 2019 alone. Currently, only 5 percent of UK MPAs ban bottom trawling, and general fishing restrictions are not common in protected areas. Recently, the Dogger Bank - located in North East England and comparable to South Wales in size - was added to the list of protected marine areas, leading to increased fishing restrictions and the banning of bottom trawling. The addition of the Dogger Bank to the list of bottom trawling-free areas comes after Greenpeace dropped a number of boulders into Northeastern waters to stop trawlers. Although news of increased restrictions in this particular area were received with enthusiasm, the reality of bottom trawling being ordinary in the majority of UK protected areas leaves specialists with a lot of questions.
The UK claims that, as a consequence of Brexit, the government will have more power over UK waters, gaining the ability to better protect its ecosystems. The EU banned bottom trawling below 800m in the North East area in 2016, but the agreement took several years to be reached, showing the reluctance of many countries to discuss issues related to commercial fishing. Other states are taking individual initiatives in response to this pressing issue. For instance, Spain banned bottom trawling in the Balearic Islands, covering 1400 km2 of protected waters. Similarly, The US has permanently banned bottom trawlers in the 150,000 square miles surrounding the west coast, with the intention of protecting vulnerable ocean habitats and fauna.
Although bottom trawling is recognized as one of the most harmful practices in the fishing industry, countries are relatively slow to take action. Its consequences go beyond its negative environmental impact. Bottom trawling is damaging to local communities and small fishermen, who are not able to compete with commercial vessels, and ocean-based tourism, which is threatened by the loss of marine habitats. While the international community is cautiously taking action against this damaging practice, the British population is calling for the UK government to act as the leader in ocean conservation and drive the fight against bottom trawling.