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Stop the [EU fishing] boats!

Brexit is good for the environment, or at least it should be. Free from the shackles of the European Union, we are able to set our own laws and policies on sectors from agriculture to trade, and the government has taken welcome steps on these over recent years.

John Flesher, Deputy Director at CEN

But one area where there is still so much more to be done in the next parliament is on fishing and marine protection. It is estimated that over 90% of fishermen voted to leave the EU, with the sector often decrying the destructive impact that the Common Fisheries Policy had on British businesses and our coastal communities. Our marine environment suffered the impact too, with harmful practices like electric pulse fishing and bottom trawling permitted throughout our waters despite the devastation they can wreak on fish stocks and habitats.

The government has made some good use of our Brexit freedoms, uniting an unlikely coalition of nature NGOs, fishermen and Leave voters behind a ban on sand eel fishing to protect a vital food source for puffins and other seabirds. Ministers have also announced a ban on bottom trawling, but only in a handful of marine protected areas. Even this relatively modest progress is by no means guaranteed - the EU is threatening to take the UK to court for potential breaches of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

It’s time to be more ambitious. The UK, which can legitimately claim to be a world leader in marine conservation, should face down these legal challenges and go further still. The public rightly expects that bottom trawling should be banned in all marine protected areas, not just a select few. It’s time for the UK to meet this expectation.

With just 6% of this activity being carried out by British vessels, the impact on our domestic fishing industry would be minimal. Just ten EU vessels account for over a quarter of all bottom trawling in UK waters. Taking action to strengthen marine protections would be good for UK fishing and it would help stocks to recover and ensure that we are not overfishing beyond natural capacity. A rejuvenated fishing industry depends on a healthy marine environment.

Action to protect our marine habitats is good for tackling climate change too. Bottom trawling releases carbon stored in the seabed - the same amount of emissions as is released by the global aviation sector, in fact. We should instead be locking more of this ‘blue carbon’ up through restoration projects for key habitats like seagrass meadows, funded by selling carbon credits including as part of a new biodiversity net gain requirement for offshore energy infrastructure.

Our seas are a key part of our economic and environmental inheritance. Done well, those twin aspects of our heritage do not need to be in conflict. The next government should use more of our Brexit freedoms to restore our marine habitats alongside a thriving fishing sector.


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