Bottom Trawling: What do Paloma Faith, Brexit and granite boulders have in common?

By Amie Williams | Rehabilitating Earth

Industrial bottom trawling is an extremely efficient method of fishing, yet it completely destroys the habitats that host a vast array of marine organisms. the poor protection of UK territorial waters has prompted environmental activist group Greenpeace to take an unusual approach. Is it careless and illegal? Or is it exactly what we need to incite change in the government’s approach?

Industrial bottom trawling is the most widespread source of physical disturbance to the seabed habitat, yet it is also the fishing method that produces the greatest global catch. If you are not entirely sure what bottom trawling is, it is the process of dragging heavily weighted nets along the seafloor, decimating any marine life and habitat in its path.

There are a host of issues with the process of trawling, as the heavy nets transform the topography. Trawling turns the seafloor from thriving ecosystem to vast barren area, comparable to a desert with no life. The heavy nets also scoop up unbelievable amounts of unwanted bycatch, including much-loved turtles and dolphins. Pieces of equipment sometimes break off to remain in the sea forever as ‘ghost gear’, contributing massively to global plastic pollution.

If the environment is not your ‘thing’, then there are many human impacts of the industrial fishing industry too, including forced labour and/or modern slavery. However, the majority of the research surrounding bottom trawling focuses on the environmental impacts. This is a perfect example of the constant conflict between humans and the environment. Fish is the staple diet of many communities and it would be impossible to completely ban all forms of fishing. Not all forms of fishing are as destructive as bottom trawling, and some forms are considered ‘sustainable’. Yet the destruction inflicted by bottom trawling calls for strict policies and regulation that we are yet to see in UK waters.

Is bottom trawling regulated?

Almost 25% of UK territorial waters are under some form of protection, the majority implemented to protect the seabed and marine organisms. However, there are currently no full bottom trawling bans, which appears to make the designation of Marine Protected Areas ‘paper parks’. On paper, the areas are protected, but in reality, they are still subject to mass environmental degradation.

Understandably, campaigning against bottom trawling is synonymous with conservationists. Greenpeace claims that they have observed bottom trawlers illegally fishing by switching off their automatic tracking systems. So in 2020 Greenpeace created a boulder barrier in the Dogger Bank Marine Protected Area in the North Sea. They dropped granite boulders in a 47 square mile area to stop trawlers from dragging their nets along the seabed. This influenced the UK government to propose a total ban on bottom trawling in the Dogger Bank area and new restrictions in three other areas.

The government’s previous argument for poor protection of UK surrounding waters was the restrictions on passing international laws imposed by the EU, as this would require agreement from other EU states. The proposal is a step in the right direction, but would still leave approximately 97% of UK waters partially, or fully open to destructive industrial fishing. This led to Greenpeace recently creating another boulder barrier in the Offshore Brighton Marine Protected Area. Famous people like Paloma Faith and Sir Mark Rylance signed the boulders in solidarity. The support from celebrities will undoubtedly have an effect on public approval. If Paloma Faith agrees with the actions, then surely it must be a good thing, right?

Criticisms of the project

However, the underwater boulder barriers have not been without criticism. The Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has disputed the claims. Defra state that the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) tracks the movement of all fishing vessels over 12m, in English waters, 24 hours a day, through satellite technology. So, Greenpeace’s statement about industrial trawlers turning off their automatic tracking systems do not matter as satellite technology will catch the vessels.

The fishermen do not agree with the move, accusing the action of being illegal, dangerous, and irresponsible. Part of the intention was to deter fishermen from damaging their boats and gear on the boulders. But there are concerns that the boulders may influence navigation technology. The boulders will impact the route that a trawler will take, increases the risk of capsizing due to sudden movements. However, Greenpeace did inform relevant marine authorities of the location of each boulder, which should ensure navigational safety for all seafarers.

There are also many complaints about the effect the boulders will have on the benthic habitat, surely dumping heavy granite will have a detrimental environmental impact in a Marine Protected Area? Of course, Greenpeace considered this and commissioned a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment. The assessment found that there was no significant impact on the area and allowed the activity to go ahead.

A ‘sledgehammer’ for the fishing industry?

Another criticism came from The National Federation of Fisherman’s Organisations (NFFO) who condemned the proposals to prevent trawling, calling it a ‘sledgehammer’ on the fishing industry, particularly in conjunction with export delays of resulting from Brexit. The economic value of trawling is undeniable, it provides the market with large quantities of seafood that would not be possible with other fishing methods.

They are considered one of the most sustainable forms of fishing as vessels are required to report their catch and only fish in designated areas. I use italics here as this is a common argument for trawling, yet studies have shown that the volume of fish taken from global waters has been underestimated by more than 50%, over the last 60 years. This is a result of underreported and illegal fishing as this study estimates that approximately 32 million tonnes of fish globally are unreported every year.

I have tried to include both sides of the argument, but it is clear whose side I am on. Undoubtedly, the actions of Greenpeace are undesirable and do have a somewhat negative impact. Yet desperate times call for drastic measures. It is important to emphasise how important protecting UK territorial waters is, as the ocean is an integral ecosystem that absorbs more than a third of annual carbon dioxide emissions. I haven’t even mentioned that bottom trawling releases as much carbon dioxide annually as the entire aviation industry.

That’s a whole other kettle of fish.

Graphic courtesy of Nahal Sheik