Developing a participatory approach to the management of fishing activity in UK offshore Marine Protected Areas
Successfully involving the fishing sector and stakeholders in decision-making over the…
The inevitable and understandable fear in the fishing industry at present is that the establishment of an “ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas” will result in the displacement of fishing vessels from their customary fishing grounds
This fear is not lessened by the rushed and confused process, overseen by Natural England, through which regional groups of stake-holders have been asked to contribute to the process of designating candidate marine conservation zones, and to suggest appropriate management measures to protect those seabed features regarded as requiring protection.
It has not helped that European special areas of conservation are being applied by the UK authorities at the same time, using a different set of criteria to that used for the domestic MCZs; or that there have been serious misunderstandings over which body has jurisdiction over what part of the process: Natural England, Defra, MMO, SFCs/IFCAs are all involved. Additional jurisdictional complexities arise from devolved administration.
These, along with other important issues, have been raised by the MPA Fishing Coalition, a broad based industry body formed to ensure a fair deal for fishermen in the establishment of MPAs in UK waters, of which the NFFO is a leading member.
Against this background, a recent meeting between Defra officials and the NFFO began serious consideration of the displacement issue.
During the course of the meeting the Federation drew attention to two key aspects of the displacement issue. Displacement can have:
The experience of the 2001 area closure of the North Sea cod spawning grounds were highlighted as salutary example where good intentions led to adverse results through a series of unintended consequences. The pressure on the Commission to “be seen to be doing something”, against the background of a decline in the cod stocks led to the closure. However, the scientific post-mortem undertaken by ICES, concluded that the closure had done nothing for cod but that the demersal fleet had been given no alternative but to fish in the juvenile haddock areas and the beam trawlers had been forced to fish in pristine areas in which they had never fished before. The overall result of the closure was massive discarding of immature haddock and serious damage to benthic features, with minimal, if any protection for cod.
The Lyme Bay closure was also raised as a flawed approach to habitat protection that had cast a long shadow in terms of displaced effort and unintended consequences.
Displacement and Mitigation
Defra’s central point was that the whole thrust of the current process establishing marine conservation zones in UK waters, is to involve stakeholders, and to as far as possible, identify areas in which management measures will achieve conservation objectives without disturbing economic activities like fishing.
It was emphasised that there is an important difference between the approach required for the European MPAs where designation of MPAs must be exclusively based on scientific (biological and ecological) criteria and that adopted in the UK for its domestic MCZs, where minimising the socio-economic impact whilst providing adequate protection for valuable or scarce features is at the heart of the process.
It was also made clear that ministers and the UK Government as a whole, would want to avoid an adverse impact on the fishing industry as far as possible, and also, again so far as possible, to avoid adverse unintended consequences. It was for these reasons that the impact assessments currently being prepared will be critically important.
Confusions between the respective roles of Defra, Natural England and MMO and the SFCs/ICFAS had recently been resolved. The stakeholder process overseen by Natural England, as well as making recommendations on MCZ designations, will be asked to suggest management measures to protect scarce or valuable features.
Fly in the Ointment
The NFFO emphasised that notwithstanding the Government’s good intentions in seeking to establish a network of MPAs, with stakeholder involvement and a good evidence base, the fly in the ointment is the unrealistic timeframe that precludes the possibility of realising those ambitions.
The NFFO is committed to balanced and proportionate steps to prevent loss of biodiversity. However, a classic and largely artificial moral panic about the supposed imminent demise of hundreds of thousands of marine species, and the widespread collapse of commercial fish stocks, floated the Marine and Coastal Access Act through Parliament. It also led the Government into a rushed and deeply flawed process of establishing a network of MPAs through a big bang process. Instead of an incremental, steady, approach where one MPA would be trialled and necessary lessons learned before going on to the next MPA, armed with that experience, we are in the middle of a headlong rush on all fronts at once. The Federation and others in the MPA Fishing Coalition are genuinely and heavily involved in the four regional projects, but not without serious misgivings about where the industry is being led.
Both Defra and the NFFO are agreed that the process of establishing MPAs can be done well or done badly. Approached badly, extensive economic, social and ecological damage is likely to result. Approached through a process of close engagement with the industry, particularly on the question of management measures within MPAs where these are required, the disruption can be kept to a minimum. Fishermen’s information is critical to this process, as is the framework established to allow for the industry to be genuinely engaged in the process. The regional projects, so far as we can judge, have only been partially successful in persuading fishermen to hand over data on where they fish, when and with what. The fixed timetable means that flawed system or not, inadequate data or not, Natural England will be making recommendations to ministers next summer on a network of marine protected areas. Some of these may overlap with the European special areas of conservation. Decisions will then be made on initial management measures required to halt any perceived degradation of the features for which the sites have been designated.
This was an important and useful meeting at a critical juncture. The Coalition’s repeated emphasis that the issue of displacement of fishing vessels was being ignored has borne fruit. There is now recognition that this is a critical issue that cannot, and should not be, tagged on as an afterthought.
The Federation and the MPA Fishing Coalition will remain closely engaged as the process unfolds.