If the UK government won’t stop industrial fishing from destroying our oceans, activists will | Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

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Our oceans are in crisis. I saw it for myself while I was making my television series Hugh’s Fish Fight for Channel 4 over a decade ago. I saw the most destructive fishing practices first-hand, as I dived over the sea floor within minutes of fishing boats dragging their metal-toothed gear along the bottom and scraping everything in their path. And I witnessed the desert they created.

I have also dived in one of the few tiny areas where these methods are not allowed, and seen how they teem with life, and with fish, that could and should be multiplying to rebuild the health of our marine environment and replenish the stocks of fish that our fishing industry relies on.

I’ve also interviewed government ministers who promised to protect the waters which surround our islands, with a “world-leading” network of marine protected areas (MPAs), which would safeguard some of the most sensitive and ecologically diverse parts of our seas. They have not kept this promise. They might claim otherwise, pointing out that more than 300 MPAs have been designated in UK waters and that they do indeed cover some of our most precious, diverse and productive marine habitats.

Unfortunately, the reality is that in these so-called protected areas next to nothing is being protected. They are left open to all sorts of destructive human activities, the most significant of which is industrial fishing. Investigations by Greenpeace and others have revealed over the last year that some of the most destructive fishing boats spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours fishing inside places that are meant to be protected. Bottom trawlers and scallop dredgers regularly stalk our protected areas, ripping up protected seabeds with impunity.

The government does nothing to stop it, because despite its claims to have created protected areas, ministers have not made it illegal to destroy the seabeds. How can we let this happen? When you hear the word “protected”, it conjures up images of pristine natural environments, free from human activity and extraction. Or at the very least, the promise to restore habitats to such a state with meaningful intervention and enforcement. Yet the government stands by and allows the fishing industry to destroy our most sensitive marine areas, and endanger the health and productivity of our oceans for generations to come. But we are not all going to stand by.

That’s why I’ve been out at sea with Greenpeace this week, supporting their action to put giant boulders into the Channel. Activists are building their second “underwater boulder barrier” in a protected area off the coast of Brighton. This area, known as Offshore Brighton, is one of the UK’s most heavily bottom-trawled MPAs, despite it being set up to protect the seabed.

Boulder placements will stop bottom trawlers from ploughing up this valuable seabed habitat with their heavy fishing gear. This action should put almost one-fifth of Offshore Brighton off-limits to these destructive vessels. I support this action precisely because it is action – to protect our marine life in a pragmatic and effective way – as opposed to the woeful inaction we have seen from our government so far.

Our hope is that the government finally turns words into action and protects our oceans, by properly banning destructive fishing from our most precious marine environments. If they do so, they can ensure healthy oceans, full of fish, for every generation to come. And they can safeguard our fishing communities long into the future. They can – and should – do both these things. If they don’t, their “world-leading” plan will mean nothing and their promise to protect our seas will be a lie.

  • Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a food and cookery writer, broadcaster and campaigner


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