March 29, 2022
CEO Note: Oceana protects habitats and small-scale fishers by campaigning against industrial bottom trawling
BY: Andy Sharpless
Oceana recently announced that we are expanding our campaigns in the United Kingdom, thanks to the generous support of the Becht Family Charitable Trust.
We have had a presence in the UK since 2018, but in light of Brexit – and the negotiation of new fisheries management terms – we are renewing our commitment to protect and restore UK waters. In addition to recovering fisheries throughout the UK (of which only 36% are considered healthy), Oceana will campaign to protect important ecosystems and species from the devastating impacts of bottom trawls.
More than 38% of UK waters are “protected” on paper, but while inshore sites are mostly managed, most of the offshore marine protected areas (MPAs) remain under serious threat. Of the 64 offshore benthic MPAs in the UK, only two restrict fishing with bottom-towed gear to date. This means that bottom-trawling – one of the most destructive and carbon-intensive forms of fishing – is allowed to damage and even destroy habitats in the remaining 62 places.
These enormous, weighted nets are dragged across the ocean floor, crushing biogenic reefs, sponges, and other seabed-dwelling species that lie in their path. Their destruction is swift and indiscriminate. To borrow an analogy from Charles Clover’s eye-opening book The End of the Line:
“Imagine what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa. This fantastical assemblage, like something from a Mad Max movie, would scoop up everything in its way: predators such as lions and cheetahs, lumbering endangered herbivores such as rhinos and elephants, herds of impala and wildebeest, family groups of warthogs and wild dogs. … The effect of dragging a huge iron bar across the savannah is to break off every outcrop and uproot every tree, bush, and flowering plant, stirring columns of birds into the air. … This efficient but highly unselective way of killing animals is known as trawling.”
This is the reality of bottom trawling throughout Europe, as well as many other places around the world. The good news is that the UK government has made public commitments to ocean conservation. It was the first country to call for 30% of global oceans to be protected by 2030 and has inspired other nations to follow suit. Following campaigning by Oceana, it also agreed to protect its MPAs from bottom-towed fishing gear by 2024. We must hold them to this commitment and ensure they follow through. Oceana is campaigning to protect 20% of UK seas from bottom trawling by 2026 and 30% by 2030.
We have a proven record of halting harmful bottom trawling in its tracks. Oceana and our allies stopped bottom trawling in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil, in 2018. Before the ban, industrial fishers from the neighboring state of Santa Catarina were coming to Rio Grande do Sul and using bottom trawls. In doing so, they destroyed habitats and left few fish behind for local artisanal fishers to catch.
The commercial fishing industry has been fighting these protections ever since, but Oceana and our allies, including artisanal fishers, continue to defend them. In an encouraging development, Brazilian politician Carlos Gomes submitted a bill that would prohibit bottom-towed gear in all of Brazil’s waters. For exceptions to be considered, the industry must demonstrate – with scientific evidence – that it can trawl sustainably.
By putting the burden of proof on the industry, we can prevent the devastating destruction of our oceans. This approach echoes one of Oceana’s largest and earliest habitat victories in Alaska. In 2005, Oceana and our allies protected cold-water corals and seamounts off the Aleutian Islands by limiting bottom trawling to areas where it had already occurred (also known as “freezing the footprint”). We then identified sensitive habitats within that footprint that should be protected.
It sounds simple, but this precautionary approach is not how bottom trawling is managed in much of the world. As Oceana scientist Jon Warrenchuk, who helped us win this campaign, put it: “This approach completely shifted the industry standard of ‘trawl anywhere unless someone can prove you are doing harm’ to ‘only trawl where you have trawled before unless you can prove you won’t do harm.’”
Our victory protected 370,000 square miles of seafloor habitat in the Aleutian Islands and all of the seamounts off Alaska. Brazil is now being offered a similar opportunity to protect marine life, fragile habitats, and the nearly 1 million artisanal fishers in Brazil who rely on healthy oceans. Brazil should seize that opportunity.
In addition to our work in Brazil and the UK, Oceana campaigns to protect critical habitats around the world from bottom trawling. With help from our allies, we prohibited bottom trawling in all of Belize’s waters, all of the Philippines’ municipal waters, all of the waters surrounding Chile’s seamounts, and vast areas off Europe, the United States, and Canada. In total, we have protected nearly 4 million square miles of ocean habitat, which includes MPAs and areas closed to bottom trawling.
At a time when sustainable alternatives to bottom trawling exist, we don’t need to choose between protecting the ocean and protecting livelihoods. By preserving marine resources for small-scale fishers, we can help save the oceans and feed the world.