Last week saw the publication of a new UK Fisheries Bill, one of the government’s flagship pieces of post-Brexit legislation. This is the second time that the UK government has tried to pilot a fisheries bill through the Houses of Parliament. The temptation to bring back a carbon copy of the 2018 Bill must have been high, but it was clear to many that big changes were needed if government were to match its stated ambition of becoming world leaders in managing our marine resources.

In the time since the 2018 Bill was introduced, global assessments have documented the severe loss of nature on land and sea and outlined the dire consequences for us all if we do not embrace transformative change. The state of UK seas has been laid bare as government assessments showed that we are not on track to meet targets for healthy seas by 2020. In addition, governments and parliaments have declared climate emergencies and legislated for targets to meet net zero emissions.

As the UK government challenges the global community to increase protection to 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 (with a video narrated by Sting) it cannot be found wanting when the light is shone on home waters. Proclamations of world leading fisheries management must stand up to scrutiny and success should be measured by nature’s recovery.

So, is this Bill an appropriately robust response to the state of nature that charts a new course towards recovery of our oceans?

Danish trawler fishing for sandeels with and kittiwakes by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

It’s fair to say there have been some improvements since the previous Bill but there is one very big loophole which could seriously undermine the stated aim of healthy seas and sustainable fisheries.

Whilst the Bill will have implications across the UK, management of fisheries is devolved so we wait to see what proposals Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland bring forward to manage fisheries in their waters. Co-ordination of fisheries policy across UK seas will be captured in the aptly named “Joint Fisheries Statement” – a new mechanism that aims to bring administrations together to work towards shared objectives. Perhaps easier said than done in these constitutionally fractious times.   

New additions include an ‘ecosystems objective’ that includes a commitment that minimises and, where possible, eliminates incidental catches of sensitive species, a welcome measure for species on the brink like seabirds and dolphins. Provisions that give prominence to the protection of threatened seabird species should be warmly welcomed, and we look forward to seeing the interaction of this Bill with Defra’s planned Seabird Conservation Strategy.

The Bill also includes a new climate change objective. This is welcome: warming seas, reduced oxygen, ocean acidification and sea-level rise are already affecting UK coasts and seas. Fishing cannot be exempt from efforts to end our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Low carbon technology is one thing but the protection of natural carbon habitats, including ‘Blue Carbon’ will be critical to meeting the net zero targets. Recovering fish populations and restoring marine habitats, such as kelp forests, deep sediments and coastal seagrass meadows, are effective natural solutions to tackling the climate emergency.

New powers for the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) will, for example, allow issues of fishing pressure on Marine Protected Areas within English offshore waters to be addressed. In theory, this would allow Ministers to limit fishing for sandeels on the Dogger Bank – a vital food source for UK seabirds, cetaceans and commercial fish.  This is something that could be very important to consider especially as we improve our understanding of the cumulative impact of offshore wind farms on seabirds and cetaceans especially.

So, the good thing is that the new Bill provides some continuity and reflects accepted standards of fisheries management, but in one significant way it falls short of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) it replaces. The CFP contained legal obligations, ensuring that governments who failed to implement key elements such as ending overfishing and enforcing the discards ban could be held to account.  This is lacking in the new Bill.  Without any such sanction, the Bill lacks the legal teeth to deliver the ambition proclaimed in the widely reported press announcements or the promises of the Conservative Party 2019 general election manifesto.

In the end, the law needs to be backed up by the political will to challenge the status quo to make a meaningful difference. So, is there the political will to lift fisheries out of its regulatory silo and apply systemic changes in spatial management, monitoring and distribution of quota? The RSPB and our partners in Greener UK have been pressing for an integrated approach, to free fisheries from the silo which the industry has frankly guarded for too long. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be working to ensure that improvements can be made to allow wildlife to thrive alongside sustainable fishing communities.

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