Environmental lawyers from WWF and ClientEarth, supported by other NGO’s including MCS, have today lodged an official complaint with the European Commission over illegal management of protected North Sea nature reserves, which have already declined due to decades of unrestricted fishing practices.
It’s sad that the collaborative process set up by the Commission is failing. Other options are clearly required – such as the Commission itself making measures that are pursuant to the law.
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt,
MCS, Principle Specialist, Marine Protected Areas
They are calling on the Commission to challenge the Netherlands, the UK and Germany over a recently submitted proposed management plan for the Dogger Bank – a unique undersea conservation site, and home to sharks, porpoises and other iconic species – that contains multiple breaches of EU law. The proposal will mean that only 5% of the site will be protected from bottom fishing – a method that removes species from the seabed – not just target fish but also seabed plants and animals
Despite the site’s status as a ‘Special Area of Conservation’ (a type of Marine Protected Area designated under EU laws), the proposed management plan, will allow the highly destructive practice of bottom trawling across two-thirds of Dogger Bank seabeds and purse seine fishing, using large nets, across 95% of its area.
These fishing techniques are not only harmful to the seabed, as the ropes and nets destroy the surfaces they pass through, but also cause bycatch of sharks, cold water corals and other sea animals.
The Dogger Bank is a large shallow sandbank in the North Sea, stretching across the Exclusive Economic Zone of Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. It is a unique area home to a wealth of flora and fauna, including skates, rays, plaice, whiting, cod and quahogs – a shellfish species which can live for hundreds of years. Because of its rich underwater seabed and water column, the area offers food for many bird species, as well as for other marine life like sharks, white-beaked dolphins, seals, and harbour porpoises.
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, MCS Principal Specialist MPAs, says: “In recent months we’ve been pleased to support the work of ClientEarth and WWF who’ve led on this complaint to the European Commission over such fishing being permitted to continue in the Dogger Bank ‘Special Area of Conservation’. Such fishing is clearly incompatible with the law. If the Commission were to endorse plans by the UK and Netherlands for fishing over 90%+ of the area with such bottom towed gears, it would be acting against its own laws. It’s ridiculous that discussions have taken so long to get to such a bad place. That’s why such a complaint is so important, as it relates to this and proposals for many other nonsensical offshore UK Marine Protected Areas where such fishing is permitted. They’ll never recover if ‘managed’ in this way. It’s also been a huge waste of tax-payers money”
The NGO’s say the nations have systematically failed to protect areas within the Dogger Bank, which is shared between the three countries, from damaging fishing practices, despite those areas being designated as conservation sites for more than a decade.
They proposed that the Dogger Bank be a protected area in the early 2000s. Since then, failure to effectively implement protection and manage activities has left biodiversity in decline, affecting the ecosystem’s ability to support breeding grounds for many species.
Kirsten Schuijt, CEO, WWF Netherlands said: “It’s incomprehensible that the Netherlands, the UK and Germany propose to open this unique conservation area, part of the European Natura 2000 network, to fishing techniques that will continue to damage its precious seabed structure.
ClientEarth wildlife lawyer Tatiana Lujan said: “The fishing practices allowed in the proposed management plan are the equivalent of cutting swathes through a rainforest, using the excuse that it will grow back again. Each time the seabed is razed by fishing practices like bottom trawling, the recovery of the ecosystem is reduced dramatically, until it stops being able to support apex species like sharks and porpoises.
“The proposal put forward by the Netherlands, the UK and Germany is illegal under EU law on three counts and ignores the scientific advice that supports the restoration of these conservation areas.”
Dr Solandt added: “Would leaving the EU make this problem ‘go away’ – maybe, but it would involve negotiations, and other member states may put restrictions on us if we were to restrict them from coming into our MPAs. It’s sad that the collaborative process set up by the Commission is failing. Other options are clearly required – such as the Commission itself making measures that are pursuant to the law.”
The environmental organisations supporting this complaint to the Commission are: WWF, ClientEarth, Seas At Risk, Oceana Europe, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Marine Conservation Society, North Sea Foundation, Vogelbescherming Nederland, Dutch Elasmobraches Society.
A recent publication in the leading journal ‘science’ has shown how ineffective EU MPAs are in protecting vulnerable species such as sharks and rays. Dr Solandt added: “No wonder given the approach above. Strikingly – there are less sharks, skates and rays inside MPAs than outside them in EU waters. This makes a mockery of these areas that should be protecting all the biodiversity. Because the managing UK MPAs is not in an ideal situation, MCS has published the MPA reality check. An explanation of UK MPAs and how we can’t manage our offshore sites.”